By Lee Minnix
Troutville Sunshine Girls
Walter E. Sellers Jr. celebrated his 90th birthday on April 8 with a special visit from the Troutville Sunshine Girls. The Sunshine Girls found him sitting on his porch and enjoyed their visit, all wearing masks, of course! He shared with us some of his stories from experiences in Korea.
Walter had our interest right at the start when he told us that, at 12 years old, he worked with German POWs in Botetourt County picking apples! At 16, he wanted to join the Air Force when in junior college he heard of the invasion of Korea. He graduated with a pre-law degree in June 1951, joined the Army National Guard Medical Corps, then joined the Air Force in January 1952 at 21 years of age, just after the air corps was separated from the Army and became a separate military service.
He was at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas for basic training and finished at Shepherd Air Force Base. Walter then transferred to Kessler AFB in Biloxi, Miss., to attend classes in the communications school. He was assigned to the 3383rd Training Squadron and soon became the squadron mail clerk since he had worked at the Roanoke Post Office.
One story we learned of Walter’s time in Biloxi was that the airmen were given a Class A Pass which meant they could go about anywhere as long as they did not have duty. He tells us that after classes on Saturdays, they would leave and go 87 miles to New Orleans on the weekends. Some of the airmen had their own cars and he would catch a ride. They would stay in a large house owned by a dentist who charged them each $1.75 rent for a room for the weekend.
Some weekends he went on the paddle wheel ship and rode it up the Mississippi River for hours. He enjoyed the restaurants and big bands on board the ship. He loved to dance and did that every Saturday night on the paddle wheel until he had to depart Biloxi for overseas.
On February 6, 1953, he boarded the USS Randall and arrived in Yokohama, then to finally end up in Taegue, Korea. The air base was outside Yong Dung Po, across the river from Seoul, the capitol of Korea. Walter’s headquarters unit was at Kimpo (K-14) but was assigned to K-16 about 10 land miles from there. The air base was located on an island in the middle of Han River. Military sites were called K Sites. Both K-16 and K-14 were just an air mile apart. When enemy planes came over the area, the K-14 base would fire quad 4- caliber machine guns at them and the bullets would land on his base. He remembers the 90 millimeter anti-aircraft guns shaking the earth every time they were fired.
One day, he said, when he was walking under a bridge over the Han River he noticed that the steel structure was fabricated at the Virginia Iron and Steel works in Roanoke – his hometown 12,000 miles away!
After his eight months of basic and school training he was assigned to the 1993rd Airways and Air Communications Service, which was a component of the Military Air Transport Service. While he was at K-16 on his first tour in Korea, he said they helped bring in the 82nd Airborne Division. He said he was never attached to any large military units, his units were guests on many bases which they served, operating the control towers, weather stations and both ground-to-ground and ground-to-air communications.
Walter had several stories for us and we were even shown a diary he kept of his time in the service. It was fascinating reading of all his experiences and hope to have a copy of it in our collection of stories from other veterans we’ve visited over the years.
It was surprising to learn that much of the “ground control approach equipment” was pretty shoddy he said. The radios were left over from WWII. It was a war with old Navy planes and other planes. He said there were some jets, but very few. He mentioned that one night when the Chinese planes came over, they sent up a couple jets and one of them ran over the slow plane while he was getting his sights lined up. They usually used old C-46s with machine guns setting in the doorway to shoot down the slow planes. He said there was actually one Ace who shot down five Chinese planes while flying a propeller-driven fighter plane. He said they had a few Navy Hell Cats stationed at his base.
He also said they had some “left over derelicts from WWII who had some real social problems.” Lots of alcohol was consumed and even heard a story of a drunken sergeant. He was later made shift leader until he departed for another base on the East Coast of Korea. On the midnight shift they had to copy very fast Japanese and Russian upper air data. Data came in around 4 a.m. they were typing Morse Code on old miniature portable typewriters.
Shortly after the U.N. Truce was signed he was sent to a Korean air base outside a town called Kang Nung at the coast of the Sea of Japan. While there he had a lot of free time to look around the area. He met a lot of the Kang Nung Village population and visited the tea houses and theaters. He said some of their plays were just like “off Broadway.” Another memory of fun was in the Japanese theater where he saw the movie “Gone with the Wind” where he was a few days waiting to board a troop ship in Yokohoma to head back to the states.
He ended at another outpost in Northern California where he was assigned to the 776th Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron. At Point Arena, Calif., the set up was to alert the air base in case of an air attack on the US from the north. One could sit in the barracks and see freighters going up and down the Pacific Ocean coast. To most of the locals the installation was a weather station. It was a small town below the mountain called Point Arena. The sign approaching the town said 374 population, down a steep hill then up another and that was it! We laughed when we saw Walter wrote in his diary the deputy sheriff said, “You guys have only three places to go… a country and western rowdy bar at the bottom of the hill; a more civilized bar in the middle, and a first class club at the top.”
While at Point Arena, Walter volunteered to go to Vietnam as a radio communications operator with the French forces, setting up communications in Vietnam. He was accepted for the position in November 1954. But the French forces soon surrendered to the North Vietnamese in May 1955. He had only six months of military remaining and he signed up to go back overseas, spending a year in Korea. This time he landed in Seoul and was assigned to K-55 at Osan, which was originally a Marine base south of the capitol by quite a few miles. Then transferred to Chejuda Islands, 60 miles off the coast of Pusan, South Korea, in the cross currents of the Yellow Sea and the Straits of Korea. He saw the largest mountain in South Korea, Mt. Hanra, that covered much of the island. During WWII the Japanese occupied the Island before and during the war. They had large caves where they had communication sites. The townspeople learned that Walter could read, write and speak Korean “Hankul,” so he taught English at the school in the evenings.
Walter’s last assignment was to a Korean Officer Training School. The war had ended but he was the highest-ranking NCO. Walter was honorably discharged on October 23, 1959.
Walter worked 33 years at the Labor Department and Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. He wrote lots of books on stats of government studies. After retiring in Fredericksburg, he got his real estate license and became a broker, also offering tax services and classes. His business was called Sellers Realty. He met his wife at a square dance class where he was a teacher and on May 20, they will celebrate their 31st wedding anniversary.
When we asked Walter about what he thought of the past year with the pandemic, his comment was, “I’ll be glad when this is over so we can travel again.”