"A COLD THAT YOU JUST COULDN'T ESCAPE"
There’s cold, and then there’s a cold that settles deep in the body and won’t relent. A cold that is simply colder than one could imagine.
Canby’s Harvey Biggs knows all about that kind of cold, having lived through it during his tour of duty as a U.S. Marine from 1953-54 during the Korean War.
Biggs, 87, said it was something he’ll never forget.
“Oh, it was so cold,” Biggs said with a chuckle. “You could drive a tank across the rice paddies and not even sink in. It was a cold that you just couldn’t escape. We were all bundled up, and you couldn’t tell who was who most of the time.
“Twenty, 25 degrees really isn’t much,” Biggs added. “It was 45-50 below in Korea. You can’t imagine how that feels.”
And that was only one of many experiences Biggs had as an 18-year-old private in the Marine Corps. He joined when he was 17, and less than a year later, he was involved in the Korean War.
“I was in communications and my main job was patching through calls to different places,” he said.
He operated one of those old switchboards you see in classic movies, and while that may sound like a reasonably sedate duty, Biggs said there were more than a few moments when things heated up.
“I was pushing and pulling plugs for calls, and one day the darndest thing happened,” he said. “Evidently, a MiG, a North Korean fighter plane, flew over our compound and sprayed a few bullets around, and one went right over my head and through the wall and floor. I almost crapped my pants. I crawled out of there and sat next to a door, and smoked a cigarette while I thought about it for a while.
“They called it in, and the next thing we knew, the MiG had been shot down,” he added.
Biggs landed at Inchon, South Korea, went to Seoul with his unit, and then took a trip north to set up his communications area. There were signs of the war everywhere, and he admitted, even in his quieter area, you had to be on your toes.
A stray airplane bullet wasn’t his only brush with the enemy.
“Even a telephone operator like myself does not get out of guard duty,” he said. “This one occasion, I’m all bundled up like Santa Claus with my rifle, and I’m walking around on guard duty in our area. We had a motor pool, which had our fuel and ammunition stored in it, and it was surrounded by concertina wire. I’m walking around the edge of the motor pool and saw a spark of light in the rice paddy. It didn’t compute, and I watched and watched and then heard a motor drone coming right at me.
“It was a half-track, a U.S. half-track, and the people in it weren’t U.S. citizens. They were North Koreans, and they were coming right at the motor pool to get some gas,” he added. “They came through, and they were trying to shoot and kill me. I jumped into a foxhole, and they missed.
They tried to break through, and the concertina wire got wrapped around the tracks, and they were stuck in the fence. They started shooting at me, and our billeting area on top of a small hill, and all of our guys were running out in their long johns and helmets, and they started firing. We got all five of them. I couldn’t believe it, couldn’t believe they’d gotten one of our half-tracks to use.”
Biggs looks back on his time as a U.S. Marine — he would earn a corporal’s stripe during his time in Korea — as a huge influence on his life as he later transitioned back to the civilian world. He said he went in as a boy and certainly grew up in his short time in a war zone.
“You had to,” he said. “People were counting on you to do your job. So, you did your job.”
Now living in Canby, Biggs laments the strategy of President Harry Truman and his mistake in firing commanding Gen. Douglas MacArthur. He recalls the bitter cold and some of the better weather conditions, noting that during the summer, the countryside came alive and “was very nice.”
But there were signs of the war all around, sometimes in unexpected places.
“I was going pheasant hunting with a good friend of mine at the time,” he said. “You had to be careful where you went, of course, so we were out in these hills, and I saw a uniform lying in a ditch.
Turns out there was a skeleton in the uniform from the very earliest fighting. There wasn’t much left of him, but the Army uniform was still there. We turned that into our commanding officer.”
Despite the experiences, some of which he admitted were unsettling, his tour in Korea and as part of the Korean War eventually ended.
“One day, this lieutenant came up and slapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘You’re going home,’ and that was that,” Biggs said. “And here I am.”
Biggs enjoys a bit of small-town celebrity status around Canby these days. He’ll spend hours near his South Elm Street home on nice days and wave to cars that go by. It’s his simple way of trying to spread a little joy to his corner of the world.
“I think it’s important to try to bring some happiness to people, so it’s fun for me,” Biggs, who has lived in Canby since 1983, said. “Someone told me I’m on Facebook. I couldn’t believe it.”