Salute to veterans: Anzelmo saw war up close
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CHAMPAIGN — Carlo Anzelmo drives a Korean car.
To him, the Hyundai is a reminder of how South Korea was when he spent 16 months there — sometimes under mortar fire — and how it is now.
"Seoul is so prosperous now. It's so different from how it was in the war," he says.
During the Korean War, Anzelmo met homeless South Koreans and visited shacks made of crates, tin and cardboard. He shared peanut butter and Spam with refugees who hadn't seen food for days.
The Korean War is not an especially well-remembered world event, standing in the shadows cast by its older brother, the Second World War.
But Anzelmo, 81, doesn't doubt that United Nations forces led by the U.S. made a huge difference in Pacific Rim history. By preventing North Korean and Chinese forces from taking the south, he says, his peers saved lives, and an important world economy.
The Champaign man saw the war up-close, near enough to the DMZ — the demilitarized zone at the 38th Parallel — that he could watch Chinese soldiers in their green jackets through a lens.
He had grown up in an all-Italian neighborhood on Chicago's near north side, where most homes had homemade wine, salami and fruit to greet visitors with.
In what Anzelmo called "the hangover" of World War II enthusiasm and idealism, he and his friends pretended to shoot at each other with wooden rifles in front of Levin's Candy Store.
He'd never been farther than western Illinois when he was sent to boot camp in Camp Roberts, Calif.
Then he sailed from California to South Korea.
"What a dump," he says of the Merchant Marine ship. "I thought it was going to sink when we got into some storms."
A few queasy weeks later, he was climbing down a rope ladder from the ship to the dock, with the guy above him stepping on his fingers.
Before he could register it, he was steered to a truck, armed with an M1 rifle and no bullets. He'd used up the three bullets tendered to him in sighting his rifle.
"I was the last guy on the truck," Anzelmo recalls. "When the driver said we were going to the front lines, I said 'Wait a minute. I just got here!' That's how I got to the 963rd Field Artillery."
On the bright side, "the artillery gets a better deal than the infantry," with regular hot meals and a cot.
His formal duty was to train cooks for the forward units. At one point, a soldier shot an elk, and there was a feast.
He says he can't compare the elk in Korea to ours. "I never tasted an American elk," he explains.
On Thanksgiving, there was frozen turkey with all the trimmings.
For everyone on the line, the cold was terrible and there was constant danger for North Korean troops crossing the DMZ. "I fired my carbine a few times."
A unit on the flank of the 963rd was overrun by North Koreans and Chinese, and Anzelmo says there were frequent attempts by the enemy to cross the DMZ.
The U.S. artillery fired back with 155-mm rounds, creating a deafening din.
"They leveled a mountain once," he says. "But more than anything, the noise terrified the North Koreans."
Anzelmo was still stationed there when an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. No peace treaty has ever been signed.
The ceasefire was a relief, he says, but it was still terrible to see the conditions of the civilians who had lost all their belongings.
He returned home to a career as a salesman in the meat industry, something he'd wanted to do since he'd had an after-school job in a butcher's shop as a child.
While studying at Wright Junior College, he met his future wife Peg, who's six years younger than he. They have a son and a daughter.
They moved to Champaign when Carlo worked for the now-defunct Eisner grocery chain. He has taught cooking classes here and there's a following for Carlo's cuisine.
The couple was back in Korea for the 60th anniversary of the war's end. They visited Seoul, but not the obscure spot where the artillery unit had been stationed.
Veterans of the U.N. force from all over the world were feted by South Koreans, who gave them a "phenomenal" thanksgiving for their service.
"It was great to see how the country had built itself up, on its own merits, when other countries went looking for handouts," Anzelmo said.