ACG interviews a decorated veteran of the wars in Korea and Vietnam.
Colonel Warren Wiedhahn spent 33 years in the U.S. Marines, fighting in two wars against two enemies in some of the worst weather extremes imaginable. He received multiple medals and by any standard served a full military life. Yet that became a prelude to his second outstanding career as the founder of Military Historical Tours a quarter-century ago.
What is your strongest memory from your 33- year military career?
WIEDHAHN: I served in two wars, Korea and Vietnam, and of course they were different. The Chosin Reservoir in Korea where the temperature was 30 to 35 degrees below zero is vividly locked in my brain, and the reason is because the weather was just so cold. I was discussing the temperature with some of my friends who belong to a group who served there called “The Chosin Few,” and some said it was 30 below zero, and others said it was 35 below zero, and I said, “What the hell is the difference?”
What do you recall of that famous battleground?
WIEDHAHN: It was just cold, and once the Chinese hit in November 1950, we just barely got out of the Chosin Reservoir because there were 200,000 Chinese opposing us, trying to wipe out the 1st Marine Division. But what strikes me about that was that once the Chinese hit and started wounding people, unless they were walking wounded, they froze to death because there was no way to get them out. We didn’t have helicopters, so the road was blocked, and even if you put them on a truck, they froze to death almost instantly at 30 below zero. So those memories haunt you. And of course, Vietnam was an entirely different war, just hotter than hell–and humid. We lost a lot of Marines to heat. So the two wars were just entirely different, even though both of them were in Asia. However, I have a lot of fond memories about the men that I served with.
What do your military awards mean to you?
WIEDHAHN: We feel that we earned them, and they were not just for me, but for other men as well. I didn’t expect to get anything, but my superiors felt that I should, so I was awarded these. As an 18-year-old private first class in Korea, I was just doing what I was told to do. But then I became a major, lieutenant colonel in Vietnam, and of course I was writing up people for awards for heroism. And then my bosses felt that whatever I did was worthy of a Silver Star, and I was awarded it. I also received the Purple Heart after I was wounded in Korea. But I don’t think any Soldier starts out saying, “I want to get a medal.” Instead, you just do your duty.
What stands out about your Silver Star action in Vietnam?
WIEDHAHN: In Vietnam’s [Operation] Dewey Canyon in 1969, it was hand-to-hand combat. The Vietnamese were right there in the wire, with a lot of hand-to-hand back and forth, and my superiors felt that I should be awarded the Silver Star. At the same time, I was a battalion commander writing up other people for the same awards, not realizing that my superiors were writing me up for one – the irony of combat! But I never felt that I was a hero and don’t feel that I’m a hero now, and I believe there are a lot of others who have done many more things than I have.
Can you share more about your Korean War experience?
WIEDHAHN: Within 24 hours after arriving in Korea, we were in combat. After Pusan, we went back around and made the Inchon landing and liberated Seoul. Then we made another landing in North Korea and went up into the Chosin Reservoir, when the Chinese entered the war, and it was one hell of a battle. Soldiers do what you’re trained to do. The country says go fight and kill, and you go fight and kill.
What did you do after leaving the military?
WIEDHAHN: When I first got out of the Marine Corps in 1982, I went to work for the American Trucking Association (ATA). That’s kind of funny because I came home and told my wife that I got the job at ATA, and she said, “What do you know about trucks?” I said, “I don’t know anything about trucks. They didn’t hire me for that; they hired me for finance and administration.” So I was the executive director of a group in ATA for about five years.
How was your military tours company founded?
WIEDHAHN: While at ATA, I was president of the 3d Marine Division Association, [a unit] which I had been in combat with in Vietnam – the same division that liberated Guam in 1944. They wanted to go back to Guam to commemorate an anniversary, and as president I made it happen through our ATA travel agency. It was so successful that they wanted to do it again the next year. So my wife said I should either go into the military historical tours full time or get out of it. As a result, I left ATA and founded Military Historical Tours (miltours.com) in 1987, and now we do tours all over the world. Our mission primarily is to take veterans back to the battlefields of World Wars I and II in Europe and the Pacific, Korea and Vietnam. Soldiers are still buried in cemeteries over there and the battlefields are still preserved, so we take children, grandchildren, military historians, military educators, and even current Soldiers. We just had General Pete Pace, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, go back with his old platoon to Vietnam.
What historical leaders do you most admire?
WIEDHAHN: All kinds, such as General [Dwight] Eisenhower, who pops into mind as a great World War II leader. Also the combat leaders I served with, like General Ray Davis, who was awarded the Medal of Honor in the Chosin Reservoir, and General Lou Wilson, who received the Medal of Honor in Guam. Another one is General Jim Maddis, one of the finest combat leaders the Marine Corps has ever had, and also General Al Gray, former Commandant of the Marine Corps, who’s also a Korean and Vietnam war veteran. All of these great men were my role models, and I just tried to emulate them and do the best job I could taking care of my troops, and they in turn took care of me.
What are the main traits of outstanding leaders?
WIEDHAHN: Honesty, integrity, character and responsibility, as well as being more interested in taking care of their people than they were in taking care of themselves. Those are the traits of a great leader, but the primary one is to take care of the men and women working for them because you ain’t nothing if you’re not taking care of your people.
What aspects of military history most interest you?
WIEDHAHN: I am a creature of World War II, and as I get older I wonder, “Why the hell did we get involved with this in the first place, and what could we have done differently?” I think that’s what a military man does. We’re trained to be fighters, but certainly nobody wanted to be in Korea, and I can assure you that those young Koreans and Chinese didn’t want to be there either. Their leaders sent them there.
John Ingoldsby conducted this interview. He is a leading writer on the intersection of sports and the military and is president of IIR Sports & Entertainment Inc. (IIRsports.com), a public relations and media firm in Boston.
Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Armchair General.