A Veterans Day interview: Korean War vet Norman Babbitt

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Thompson - posted Tue., Nov. 15, 2011
Norman Babbitt holds a plaque commemorating his service in the Korean War. Photos by D. Coffey.
Norman Babbitt holds a plaque commemorating his service in the Korean War. Photos by D. Coffey.

Sixty years ago this month, Thompson resident Norman Babbitt found himself on the U.S.S. Gen. George M. Randall, heading to Japan. Three months earlier, he'd signed up for military service in Worcester. He had called his parents after the swearing-in ceremony.
“I don't know where I'm going to go,” he said. He went to Fort Dix, New Jersey.

“I'm a full-time soldier now, Mom,” he said during a 20-minute phone call he was allowed on weekends. His voice cracked when he recalled that she told him she was proud of him.

After basic training, his company headed to Korea. He was a corporal with the 25th Infantry division. After a month at sea, including a rough three days when they sailed through a typhoon, the ship reached Tokyo. Babbitt's unit received its orders on Dec. 26, and by Jan. 4, they were in Pusan, Korea, where North Korean forces had pushed back South Korean and UN forces. They saw action soon after arriving.

A close friend was killed in action within the first few minutes of fighting. Babbitt jumped down from the half-track he'd been driving to say a prayer over his friend's body, then got back into his vehicle and drove into war.

Babbitt was in Korea from January through Nov. 15, 1951, going through portions of two winters when it was so cold that he slept in full uniform inside his sleeping bag. They were surrounded by snow. Heavy frosts occurred as early as September in the mountains.

“The cold weather was the worst,” he said. “It got down to 45 below [zero] on some nights. It snowed almost every day.” He called the Korean fighters “crafty.” “They wore slipper sandals,” he said. “You wonder how the hell their feet didn't freeze.”

Then the Chinese came in, with their reversible uniforms. “You had to watch for them infiltrating the lines with their white uniforms,” he said. The Chinese took no prisoners, he said. “They've been at war for centuries. Some of us had never been to war. They were well experienced. They came by the thousands.”

The first time he saw POWs was in Pusan. One morning at a military compound, he saw a line of people going up into the mountains and coming back carrying cobblestones. There were three to four thousand POWs with about 500 armed U.S. soldiers guarding them. “They wanted to keep them busy so they wouldn't riot,” Babbitt said. “They treated them good.”

On slow days, Babbitt would get a chance to leave the front lines to get showered. “You wouldn't have to worry about getting shot,” he said. And the USO shows were great. “They always brought lovely ladies with them,” he added. Four thousand fully-armed soldiers watched the performances, while troops stood guard on surrounding hills. 

Babbitt saw atrocities that he won't discuss with anyone.

He is proud of his service, but it didn't come without its costs. There were friends and comrades who died. Some of his buddies who survived the war suffered mightily after it. One eventually committed suicide.

At 82, Babbitt still serves. He is the Adjutant for VFW Post 10088 in Thompson. He has missed only about four meetings since 1996, when he joined the Thompson VFW. He has organized a flag program in Thompson, garnering enough donations to hang more than 80 flags from the telephone poles along Route 12. He is part of an active group of service members that he calls the “faithful five:” VFW Post 10088 Commander Elmer Preston, Senior Vice Commander Fred Hryzan, Chaplain Roland Fafard and Quartermaster Larry Spann. They have been instrumental in creating memorials in the Oscar Swanson Park in North Grosvenordale which bear the names of those Thompson residents who have served in the military.

“I'll continue helping others till I can't help anymore,” Babbitt said.

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