By Justin Reedy
When an artillery shell flew over Joe Burns' head during Army infantry training, he was so scared he thought he'd never be able to handle real combat in Korea.
But Burns overcame that fear and went on to be one of 75,000 Georgians to serve in the Korean War, which ended 50 years ago this month.
Burns, 72, was in his early 20s when he left home and entered the Army in 1952. He was breezing through basic training when, for the first time, it struck him that he had a dangerous job.
His unit was engaged in a simulated attack on an enemy position, and was being supported by white phosphorus artillery rounds to simulate real artillery. When one of the shells exploded, showering the area in sparks and creating a large cloud of smoke, Burns didn't know what to do.
"I just pure out froze," recalled the longtime Jonesboro resident. "I got to thinking afterwards that, if I freeze during a simulated attack, how am I going to feel during real combat?"
There was a good chance Burns could have been injured or killed in the Korean conflict n nearly 55,000 American soldiers were killed and 92,000 injured during the war, while about 740 Georgians were killed and more than 1,000 wounded.
The young soldier struggled with the dangers of combat for weeks leading up to his departure for the Pacific, but then something changed while he was on a troop carrier ship en route to Japan.
"I don't know when exactly the moment came, but a peace, calm or whatever you want to call it came over me," said Burns. "I knew I was going to go over there and come back without a scratch on me."
Despite serving as a wire communications specialist in a front-line infantry unit n the 3rd Battalion of the 40th Infantry Division n Burns' premonition was accurate. But there would still plenty of what he calls "close calls," which other people might call brushes with death.
There was the time that he slipped off an embankment while patrolling a phone line, falling down a 75-foot drop lined with sharp rocks. His field telephone n a toaster-sized piece of communications gear n hung up on his cartridge belt and kept him from scraping along the embankment on his way down.
"I walked away from that with a pretty bad sprained ankle," Burns said with a chuckle.
Or the time he had to march up a mountain to lay new phone line while dodging occasional sniper fire. The heat of that day was enough to give him heat stroke, but Burns didn't dare stop to rest for fear of giving an easy target to the snipers.
"By the time I got to the top, I was on all fours from the heat stroke," said Burns, who then caught a ride back to the base from a fellow GI with a Jeep.
Then there was the time a soldier fresh from training mistook Burns n who was mending a broken phone line and had his back turned n for an enemy soldier and fired about 30 rounds at him without warning.
"Luckily, not a round hit me," he said. "I let the man know, in no uncertain terms, that you challenge someone before opening fire."
Burns' closest call may have been the scrape with danger he had only hours before the war ended the night of July 27, 1953.
An armistice had been signed between North and South Korea at 10 a.m. that morning, and a cease fire was set to begin at 10 p.m. But before the fighting stopped, Burns remembered, a massive artillery barrage began about 11 a.m. on the 3rd Battalion's position in the Mundung-Ni Valley between Christmas Hill and Heartbreak Ridge. The area of the headquarters company n Burns' unit n was struck by 110 artillery rounds in only 10 minutes.
The enemy shelling cut some of the division's phone lines, and Burns was ordered out to repair the communications for the unit. He and a driver braved the artillery attack in a Jeep loaded with replacement phone wire, and as they headed along a road in the near darkness a shell landed near their vehicle, just short of the road. The driver shifted gears and gunned the engine, hoping to dodge the next round.
"To this day, you can't tell me you can't do a wheelie in a Jeep," Burns said with a laugh.
The high-speed maneuver worked, and Burns and his driver lived to see the cease fire start just before 10 p.m. that night, marking the end of the three-year-long conflict.
Though the Korean War is often called the "Forgotten War" because it is lost between World War II and the Vietnam War, memorial ceremonies were held around the country recently to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the war's end.
Retired Marine Gen. Ray Davis, recipient of the Medal of Honor for his Korean War service, took part in a recent ceremony honoring Korean War veterans at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Anthony Principi, secretary of veterans affairs, spoke at the ceremony of the sacrifices made by current and former members of the country's military, especially those who served in Korea.
"The Korean war stands out as a lesson in endurance, bravery and devotion," Principi said.
About 1.8 million Americans served in Korea during the three-year-long hostilities, according to the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. Of the 23,500 veterans in Clayton County, several thousand are likely veterans of the Korean conflict, according to the state Department of Veterans Services.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.