U.S. Army - Sergeant First Class
3rd Division and 40th Infantry Division
Korean War (February 1952 – March 1954)
Ralph Webb’s military service during the Korean War is a prominent example of what qualities are exhibited by exemplary and unique soldiers alike; responsibility, empathy, leadership, and respect are all traits that he has exemplified undoubtedly both during the war and while living as a civilian in the United States of America today.
Webb was born on March 5th, 1931 in Buffalo, New York. After his birth, his family soon relocated to Charleston, West Virginia, where Webb grew up. Growing up during the era when the United States was at war with the Axis Powers in World War II, Webb saw his cousin and brother-in-laws go off to war at a time when the fate of the world seemed uncertain. War was not unusual for Webb’s family however; his family’s history with the military can be traced back to the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Mexican American War, and World War I. His great-grandfather ran away from home at the age of 15 during the 1840s and served in the Mexican War and was wounded, and then proceeded to serve in the American Civil War. Because of his family’s past, the military would not be as daunting for Webb as it would other soldiers when he would enlist less than a decade after the end of World War II.
When Soviet backed North Korea launched a surprise attack on South Korea along the 38th parallel line on June 25th, 1950, The United States knew it had to assist the South Korean people in the conflict to prevent the spread of communism. The Korean War was one of many proxy wars the United States became involved in during the era in the nation’s history known today as the Cold War; when the superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union battled each other untraditionally for political influence across the globe. Knowing he was going to have to serve, and knowing he couldn’t fly planes like he had once dreamed he could as a child due to being colorblind, Ralph Webb decided the best way he could serve his country would be to enlist in the United States Army.
With a couple years of college under his belt as well as some experience working in construction during some West Virginia summers growing up, Webb was sent in the spring of 1952 to Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania for Basic Training. His training there was strictly infantry. As Webb put it, “ Normally, when you join the Army, you go to an eight-week infantry – through basic. Everybody goes through eight weeks’ training. Then you go on to other branches. In this case, it was just straight 16 weeks of infantry basic. So it was nothing but infantry the whole time.” During his time at Indiantown Gap, the latest that Webb and his fellow soon-to-be soldiers would wake up each morning was between four thirty or five o’clock in the morning. And when they awoke, they often had to walk five, six, or even eight miles just to get to where the training was going to be held on that day. As Webb recalled,” I remember we were running ragged – they were running us ragged. We were just tired all the time, and I think I thought it was definitely very good training.” Not one of the soldiers wasn’t in good shape when the training at Indiantown Gap came to an end. They had done a lot of running, a lot of hiking, and had some men who lost up to 30 to 40 pounds. In referencing them, Webb stated, “They were overweight. I’d been pretty active, and I didn’t find it physically difficult, and a lot of it, I really enjoyed.” Once the sixteen weeks of basic training came to an end in Pennsylvania, Webb went to a two week school in Japan on the way to Korea and learned about the potential danger of chemical, biological, and radiological warfare. Thankfully, for Webb and the rest of the soldiers fighting in Korea, it was something he never had to encounter.
In October of 1952, Ralph Webb arrived in Korea. He was immediately sent to an online company and was assigned to a rifle squad, in a rifle platoon, in a rifle company, in an infantry regiment. He was stationed on a hill that would soon receive the nickname of “Sand Bag Castle” from the soldiers that were stationed there. Sand Bag Castle was unique in that it was on a ridge which had sides that were so steep that nobody couldn’t even walk on it in most places. It was so close to North Korean soldiers that hypothetically, Webb could angle himself in a certain way and throw hand grenades over into their positions. He was on Sand Bag Castle for ninety nine days, and as he said himself, “It wasn’t fun, it wasn’t fun.” When Webb arrived at the hill, he was surprised at how much at home he felt. He attributes this to potentially both playing war as a kid and to how thorough his training was. When Webb went up on the hill he was ranked Private, and when he down from the hill he had ascended to Sergeant. His unit didn’t necessarily have a specific objective; there were simply a number of bunkers and outpost that had to be manned twenty four hours a day, there were listening posts that they had to man as well, and sometimes they assisted in ambulance patrols. Webb’s duties during his time on the hill were to “stay alive, and keep everybody else alive.”At the time, all of the men were living underground in quickly- made bunkers. A bunker usually consisted of a hole dug in the ground with some sandbags around it with a few planks of wood across it and sandbags on top of that. As expected, the size of the bunker was small. The sleeping bunker for a squad was supposed to have nine men, however as Webb remembers, they usually only had about seven soldiers in each one. Webb and his squad had lived in such a sleeping bunker with no windows and no vents and a fire that smoked them out several times and gave them carbon monoxide poisoning simply to avoid the below zero temperatures of Korea. They didn’t have enough sleeping bags to go around, and so they always shared shared; either swapping off on sleeping bags or sleeping on the cold mud floor. But as Webb recalled, “It was better than being outside.”
Ralph Webb’s military career changed in a very interesting way in Korea when he became the platoon sergeant of a regiment in the Third Infantry Division that was all Puerto Rican. He was brought in a little out of the blue, and was given a platoon of about 40 men. Most of the soldiers were seventeen year olds and many were unable to speak English and thus poor communicators during a time when communication was crucial. Webb was also given about four other men that were his junior in rank that had a little bit less combat experience than he even had at that time. His job was essentially to whip those 40 kids out of basic training into shape, “to take them up in the line and keep them alive.” Webb completed his job impressively; not one of the soldiers under his jurisdiction were killed or severely injured, however, during his time as a platoon sergeant he was wounded by a hand grenade and spent three months in the hospital.
Intriguingly, while Webb was with the Third Infantry Division in Central Korea, he never knew exactly where he was. Nobody ever showed him, or any infantry soldiers for that matter, a labeled map. He remembers that if you saw a map, it was a little section map and you could never be able to precisely pinpoint your location on one. When he was wounded by the grenade and evacuated through a series of various places, he never knew exactly where he was going in Central Korea, and only knew precisely where he was once he was taken through Japan.While with the 40th Division in Korea, because of his exceptional service in the face of combat, Webb was awarded a Bronze Star with Valor. Having been exposed to more gruesome violence than most men in a lifetime compressed into two years, Webb was released from service in 19 with a strong sense of the importance of global peace.
When he arrived home, back in the States, Webb recalls initially feeling like a fish out of water. He had just finished his job in which his sole responsibility was keeping people alive every hour of every day, and all of a sudden, “you’re just an unemployed turkey on the street and you need a job.” He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do for work yet, and it didn’t help that people appeared not to even notice that the Korean veterans had even been gone. As Webb stated, “They didn’t know I’d been gone! The Korean War started five years after the end of World War II. Everybody had been in World War II, and the whole nation had been involved, and they were fighting this little dinky war over there in Korea and nobody even knew you were gone.” Although he wasn’t sure of what he wanted to do as a career yet, he was absolutely sure of something he did want to do. While Webb was in Korea, stationed to have long nights at listening and ambush patrols, he dreamt of restoring a Model A Ford he had back home. He’d have to go out at six o’clock at night,sit down or lie down without being able to get up, for 12 or 13 hours in often wet and below zero weather. On those terribly long nights in which Webb had even gotten his hands and feet frostbitten , he would pass the time by thinking of each and every way he would restore the Model A. So, when he finally had the opportunity after coming home, he locked himself up in his dad’s garage for a couple of months and was able to restore the Model A.
Despite not knowing exactly what he wanted to do for work, Ralph Webb was interested in agriculture, and in 1954 he got a good job at a dairy farm. As he recalled, “It was a lovely life when I was single. I was too crazy though, and I couldn’t live on a dairy farm as a single man.” From the dairy farm, Webb went to Chicago and had various jobs there, moving from job to job, relationship to relationship, and place to place. He recalled being very unsettled at the time and it was only when he met his wife of 49 years today, that he finally was able to settle down.
Today, Webb lives with his wife and two dogs in Novato, California. He has a beautiful Model A Ford in his garage which in a way stands as a testament to his resolve and character. Webb is a strong advocate for peaceful resolutions to global conflicts as well. A member of many anti-war veterans organizations, Webb actively endorses mutual respect and non-violent methods of resolving international conflicts via the Veterans for Peace Organization and the Veterans Speakers Alliance. He pays close attention to the veterans coming back from Afghanistan and the Middle East and is immensely empathetic to those who have sustained mental and physical trauma from combat. He hopes that over time, more and more soldiers will not have to experience the violence and hardships he and current returning veterans from war have; that violence can eventually be phased out from the way we as a global society resolve issues. His optimism, voice, and ideas go a long way, and would indefinitely make the world a better place.
Interview by Joshua Dov Epstein on November 28th, 2015