Korean War brings Hellwinkel back to Navy
by Donna Hellwinkel
Special to The R-C
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series about Minden resident Don Hellwinkel’s experiences during the Korean War.
Lt. J.G. Donald Hellwinkel reported to the Commander of Military Sea Transportation Services in Yokohama, Japan, for active duty in the fall of 1951, This is where his “second” naval career, his Korean experience, began.
Initially, Hellwinkel was assigned to the staff of the admiral in charge of transportation in the Pacific. This was a very important posting, as the role of the U.S. Navy in the Korean War was to support United Nations Command. The Navy had to maintain both sea and air superiority. The Navy was very good at this, as neither Red China nor the Soviet Union used the sea or the sky to support communist forces in the Korean Peninsula.
Later in 1952, my dad was promoted to full lieutenant and transferred to a Tokyo station. He was assigned to the staff of Rear Adm. John C. Daniel, the third admiral he served under.
Daniel was born and raised in Philadelphia. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1924. As an ensign, Daniel spent his first years at sea aboard battleships. However, it was the destroyer that became his favorite vessel. He successfully commanded destroyers for over 13 years. During World War II Daniel organized the first U.S. Navy underwater demolition team and commanded this unit in the landings in Sicily. Later, he fought in every major sea battle in the Pacific Theater. According to his obituary in the Baltimore Sun in 1992, Daniel had the distinction of never losing a man or a ship to the enemy. He was awarded the Navy Cross in recognition of the outstanding work done by destroyers under his command in the Battle of Okinawa. His destroyers shot down 40 Kamikaze planes. He was also awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroic action in rescuing personnel from the sinking aircraft carrier USS Lexington in the Coral Sea and the Silver Star for rescuing survivors and contributing to saving a ship stricken by a Kamikaze during the Battle of Okinawa. In June 1952, Daniel was assigned to the United Nations Command delegation under Gen. Mark Clark for the purpose of armistice negotiations in the Korean War.
From all that my father told me, his jobs in post-war Yokohama and Tokyo were pretty cushy. He had a translator and some sort of exclusive V.I.P card that, according to him, granted entrance into any Tokyo golf course and geisha house, and gave front row seating at sumo wrestling matches and baseball games. He made some excellent home movies of sumo wrestlers on his small Bell and Howell 8 mm movie camera. He even drove American metal while in Japan. My grandfather shipped him a brand new 1951 Chevrolet coupe, green in color, and with Nevada license plates 63-780. It was shipped from the Oakland Naval Supply Center to Yokohama, Japan, in January 1952; it took 18 days. Of course, my dad filmed the unloading of this car from ship to dock. Before he left Japan in 1953 my father sold the car with 12,600 miles to a Johnnie J. Kawabe for $2,400. My father also told me that his Japan job was so important that he got to date Gen. McArthur’s daughter. I later learned that the general did not have a daughter.
The young naval officer also had a cloth-bound book “Japan in a Nutshell: Religion, Culture, Popular Practices.” Apparently it served as a handbook describing everyday affairs and practices in Japan for the foreigner. This was a must-read for all the American servicemen loose in Japan. The war had literally joined the “twain” between East and West.
Again, my dad met up with several of his old Carson Valley buddies while in Japan. A local newspaper article, headlined “It was Reunion in Tokyo for 3 Douglas Men” details a visit with Capt. Willie Etchemendy, U.S. Army, and trans-Pacific commercial airline pilot William Hussman, both boyhood friends. Also in 1952 he showed his future brother-in-law, Wilton Neddenriep, around Tokyo. Neddenriep was on R and R leave from the Army in Korea. Similarly he visited with other Nevada friends, James Miller and John Etchemendy (brother of Willie) both Army men en route to Korea. It was good times in Tokyo for these young men far from their home. There are photos and movies to prove it.
Starting in December 1952, Hellwinkel began making trips to Korea from Japan. At various times over the next few months he went to Seoul, Munsan, Inchon, and Pusan. According to his saved orders, he entered the Korean Combat area. These orders also showed that he was allowed 125 pounds of excess baggage weight for official courier matters. Once again, my dad made movies of many of these excursions. One black and white film gives aerial views of bomb craters and destroyed buildings and bridges. These trips were made in preparation for a future prisoner of war exchange and cease fire negotiations in Panmunjom, a small village in the middle of Korea.
The Korean War began in June 1950 and ended in July 1953. Basically, it was about who would rule the ancient nation of Korea after the occupying Imperial Japanese colonists had been defeated in World War II. Other than President’s Truman agreement with Soviet premier Josef Stalin, which temporarily divided Korea at the 38th parallel into two zones of military occupation by the Soviet Union and the United States, the U.S. did not have a post war “Marshall Plan” for Korea. This lack of American leadership probably led to the Communist North Koreans invading the South in the summer of 1950. Their goal was to unify Korea under communist rule. President Truman responded by calling in the United Nations. He thought that the collective action of the United Nations forces, especially with the might of the American military machine, would stand up to this Communist aggressor, unlike how European and North American democracies responded to the early threat of the Nazis. Together they would stop this adversary before it became another worldwide problem.
It was America’s first fight over ideology and under a United Nations banner. Capitalism and democracy versus communism. A limited collective action versus an all out effort to dominate Korea. First the North invaded the South, then the South, i.e. the United Nations and the Republic of Korea forces invaded the North in a counteroffensive, and, finally, China, determined to defend its borders, intervened by supplying “volunteers” to the North. This led to a stalemate of inconclusive fighting at the DMZ , the demilitarized zone. (It was during this chaos that Kim Il Sung solidified his power in the North.) Truce talks opened in the autumn of 1951, but were stalled over the ideological question of whether a prisoner of war should be repatriated to his original country or allowed to stay in his captor’s country. About one-third of the North Korean POW’s and a much larger percentage of Chinese prisoners did not want to return to Communist control. The war was prolonged for two years over this dilemma of repatriation.
In 1952 The United Nations proposed voluntary repatriations of all POWs but the Communists claimed that the U.N. had coerced their POWs into requesting asylum. That same year Gen. Mark Clark, the U.N. Commander who replaced the fired MacArthur, appointed Daniel as one of the top ranking UN officers at the truce negotiations. Seemingly, his job was to resolve this problem, so the war could end. Hellwinkel was there to help. He was the only lieutenant permitted at Panmunjom, the site at the 38th parallel chosen for truce talks beginning in March 1953. His job as public information officer for Daniel was to receive news reporters and arrange appointments for them with the admiral.
Two events occurred which may have spurred truce talks. One was the development and testing of an atomic cannon ball in 1953. This first atomic shell was tested at Frenchman Flat, Nevada. It had a 10-kiloton force, about half that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Another atom bomb was also exploded at the Nevada test sight. It was hailed as the “mightiest atom blast” ever made. (Possibly it was a hydrogen bomb.) President Eisenhower let it be known that his administration would stop at nothing to bring the war to a swift end.
Secondly, Joseph Stalin, the authoritative ruler of the Soviet Union who was pushing the Chinese to be obstinate in their dealing with the West died on March 5, 1953. Minus Stalin’s coercion, the Chinese were willing to make a deal.
Initially, both sides agreed to an exchange of injured and ill prisoners. This exchange was named Operation Little Switch and took place from April 20, 1953 through May 3, 1953. The Communists (North Korea and China) repatriated 684 UN troops (149 of them Americans) in exchange for 5,194 North Korean and 1,030 Chinese troops, as well as 446 civilian internees.