NORWAY — Bitterly cold temperatures have been the norm this winter, bringing in the new year with record setting subzero temperatures in Portland and Bangor, -17 and -24 respectively.
A brief respite last weekend of highs in the 40s notwithstanding, Mainers will continue to look for warm, comforting thoughts through the winter; warm homes, family and hot food.
The men and women who served in the Armed Forces during the Korean War (1950-1953) have another thought to add to that list.
Ed Lyons, who served in the Navy during the war, lets the Advertiser Democrat in on the term used by Lyons and his fellow sailors for the harsh conditions.
“We called that brass monkey cold. Because it was cold enough to freeze the testicles off a brass monkey,” he said.
Temperatures of -30 or lower set the stage for many of the Korean War’s battles, when the soldiers’ sweat was freezing them to the ground.
Frostbite was such a consequential issue that first winter, that the military set up, “Osaka Army Hospital as a center for the treatment of cold injures, arising from the Korean Conflict … to afford the best professional and nursing care for frostbite and similar conditions,” according to the Army Medical Research Laboratory’s paper on cold injuries in Korea for 1950-1951.
Lyons was certainly grateful not to be one of the men fighting in the ice and snow against the North Koreans, not to mention the 300,000 soldiers of the Chinese Red Army when U.S. and UN forces approached the Yalu River that marked the border from North Korea to China.
“Fortunately, I was on board an aircraft carrier, I had very luxurious accommodation compared to them,” said Lyons. The Navy however, had its own challenge concerning oceanic ice. Lyons recalls maneuvering near the hemisphere’s dominant communist power.
“One time we sailed out of Japan, come up by Vladivostok, Russia, and we had to break the ice off the ship when we were three miles out to sea in international water, but could see the Russian coast.”
The Army’s exhaustive research shaped the next generation of extreme-weather gear used by the military as well as furthered an understanding of what variables exacerbate or retard the effects of frostbite.
The researchers differentiated their patients by which temperature ranges were typical to their geographical origin to determine if a soldier from the North would have a greater tolerance to the weather than one who’d been born and raised in a warmer climate.
Because the various styles of footwear were ineffective at keeping soldiers dry and free of frostbite, laboratory tests were done to determine the tolerances that human cells have against cold injury and what can be done to treat damaged ones.
Given the available technology at the time, the report postulates, “It is doubtful if practical clothing for ground troops can be designed which will protect all men immobilized at low temperatures,” according to the Army’s report.
Improved clothing and treatments were eventually designed and implemented because of hardships the Korean War veterans endured.
Overall, 40,099 Mainers served in the Korean War, 241 of whom did not return home. Eighteen servicemen from Oxford County gave their lives there. Those that came back are reminders of the strength that Maine has instilled in its people; a grit that can tolerate the winds and snows until warmer weather breaks.
After all, Mainers may have had to tolerate temperatures this year that are nearly as cold as what our veterans experienced overseas in the 50s.