San Luis Obispo native Dennis Perozzi Jr. arrived in Korea in January 1952 at the age of 25 on a bitterly cold winter day. The temperature was 32 degrees below zero, and he wore six layers of clothing.
Over the next 10 months, Perozzi served as an Army rifleman, fighting in a battle at Old Baldy Hill that cost 125 American lives (he was one of 60 in his company to survive). On another battle at Pork Chop Hill, 32 of his fellow soldiers were killed or wounded.
Today, the 92-year-old Perozzi rarely talks about his war experience, which included combat missions in what is now North Korea. But he does think about it occasionally.
As he observes Veterans Day this year, the tensions between the U.S. and North Korea carry shadows of the past and spark memories of Perozzi’s time at war.
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“It’s something that stays with you,” Perozzi said. “It’s there in the back of your mind.”
Memories of war
Perozzi said that he volunteered to serve in World War II after graduating from San Luis Obispo High School in 1943. But because of a farm labor shortage in the country, and his role on his family’s San Luis Obispo ranch, he stayed at home, among the “farm kids who were exempt.”
But when the Korean War began, he was drafted in 1951, first assigned to basic training at Ford Ord in Monterey County, and then sent to Japan. Later, he was sent to Korea, where the U.S. backed the South and the Soviet Union backed the North.
The North attacked the South on June 25, 1950, on the 38th parallel that divided the two sides in an effort to unify the country, thus launching the war.
Perozzi spent much of his time in Korea north of the demarcation line, describing the landscape as “all hills with little valleys and not too many trees, at least not tall trees like we have here.”
Because of his location in the North, he didn’t really get to know Korean people or develop a strong sense of the culture.
He acknowledged battling nerves, saying that’s understandable. During one battle, Perozzi’s flak jacket protected him from mortar fragments, blocking shell pieces from penetrating his body.
“You’re scared, but you do what you’re trained to do,” he said.
The fighting today would be completely different. It would be all missiles. If something happens, there’s going to be so many casualties on all sides, it’s unbelievable.
Dennis Perozzi Jr., Korean War veteran
After 10 months, he had accumulated a high number of points under the military’s tally system to determine discharges from a tour of duty. He returned to the U.S. and was eventually released from service while stationed in Fort Lewis, Washington.
Perozzi flew to San Francisco, and then took a bus home to resume life in San Luis Obispo, where his family raised cattle and swine. Within a year, in 1954, he married his wife, Pauline, and in 1955 they had their first of four children (one died in his late 30s due to health problems). After 57 years together, Pauline died in 2010.
He was never injured in Korea and considers himself lucky for that fortune. But he did lose friends, and he said some things from the war “you take to the grave with you.”
“It’s a different experience that you would never have otherwise,” Perozzi said. “It changes your view.”
The war was not a topic he spoke about much with his family, adding he “never talked much about it with anybody.”
While life went on for Perozzi, more than six decades later, the threat of a resumed conflict between the United States and North Korea lingers. A demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea remains heavily guarded by each side.
“No, it’s not simple,” he said of the delicate relations.
Perozzi said that he follows the news, but it’s hard for him to guess what will transpire between North Korea and its enemies (South Korea, the U.S. and to a lesser extent Japan).
For decades, the North Korean government has indoctrinated its people by blocking the free flow of information and spreading anti-American propaganda.
It’s something that stays with you. It’s there in the back of your mind.
Dennis Perozzi Jr., Korean War veteran
“The North Korean people are kept in the dark,” Perozzi said. “They’re told what their government wants them to hear.”
Perozzi believes that the Chinese government has a lot of influence over Kim and could ward off a military strike, whether it’s against South Korea or the U.S.
If a war ever were to happen, however, Perozzi was sure about one thing: It would result in heavy losses on all sides.
In addition, the possibility of a nuclear attack ominously looms.
“I don’t have any idea of how they can solve it,” Perozzi said. “The fighting today would be completely different. It would be all missiles and the troops wouldn’t come in on the ground until after the bombings. If something happens, there’s going to be so many casualties on all sides. It’s unbelievable.”
Perozzi still operates his beef cattle ranch with the help of his children, saying there’s “always something to do.”
He’s active in San Luis Obispo’s American Legion Post 66 and recently gave a talk to local children between the ages of about 8 and 10.
“They asked me what war I was in and I mentioned that I was in the Korean War.” They said, ‘What’s that?’ They had never heard of it,” Perozzi said. “The Korean War was called the Forgotten War because it just didn’t get the same attention as other wars.”