CATTARAUGUS - In a brief ceremony at the beginning of Cattaraugus-Little Valley Central School's 2014 Commencement ceremony, 80-year-old Eugene Kennison was awarded an honorary high school diploma by Superintendent Jon Peterson.
There were painful and very personal reasons for the long delay.
"My dad worked in the Pennsylvania oil fields," Kennison said. "He had to move around a lot, so we lived in a lot of different places, and I went to a lot of different schools.
Eugene Kennison shares a treasured photograph of his artillery crew manning the 40 mm. anti-aircraft gun with which they protected a Japanese airport during the final stage of his Korean tour of duty. Beside Kennison, is a shadow box, crowded with military memorabilia. Included are his three Korean service medals, as well as patches representing the three forts in which he was stationed.
Photo by Arvilla Pritchard
"When I was 14, my mother died in a bad car crash. I didn't handle it too well, I guess," Kennison continued. "I got 'kinda' wild and ended up getting kicked out of school when I was in the eighth grade. I was going to Little Valley High School at the time."
By the time the Korean War erupted in 1950, the 16-year-old "bad boy," was working steadily, often holding down two jobs at once. He'd delivered papers while still in school, then gotten himself hired at the newly opened Dairyland in Little Valley, and even went to work for Haley Construction. He quickly earned a reputation as a hard-working, reliable employee.
"But I still felt like I was at loose ends," Kennison explained, "and when the war started, I couldn't wait to join up. My mother wasn't there to say 'no,' and my dad didn't really much care what I did."
To Kennison's way of thinking, he was exactly the kind of guy the army needed to help South Korea beat back those tough Communist invaders.
The recruitment center didn't see it that way.
"Once they figured out my age, they turned me around and sent me straight back home," he said.
The restless youngster hung around Little Valley another few months, waiting to turn a year older. Then, off he went, to try again. This time, he was successful, and in no time at all, the now-17-year-old became a proud private in the U.S. Army.
"It was January 1951," he recalled. "I went to basic training at Fort Dix and, from there, down to Fort Bliss in Texas to get some extra background in heavy artillery."
That would become his specialty.
After six months of training, Kennison headed for South Korea, where he and his shipmates landed at the hotly contested port of Inchon. This was shortly after General Douglas MacArthur had led his band of hand-picked Marines into Inchon in a controversial but highly successful counter-offensive against the invading North Koreans.
From Inchon, the U.N. forces had fought back across the 38th Parallel, and, at the time Kennison joined the fray, they continued to move north.
"Word was," Kennison said, "MacArthur was hell-bent on chasing 'em all the way to Manchuria."
Kennison and the other members of his heavy artillery crew immediately became part of that offensive push.
"Our job was to move our big guns up to the front lines to support the infantry. We threw up covering fire for them, and we tried to shoot down every enemy plane we could get our sights on. It was also up to us to guard our guns against the enemy. They'd have loved to destroy them ... or better yet, capture them, so they could turn around and use 'em on us."
By that time, more and more Chinese troops were pouring in to shore up the retreating North Koreans, according to Kennison, and gradually the U.N. forces lost momentum. The front began to shift, first south a mile or so, then north again. The same bare, shell-pocked hill could change hands a dozen times.
"If the enemy gained ground, we'd have to move everything south; and then of course, we'd move it back again when our side regained some ground," Kennison said.
Whenever the big guns needed major repairs or an overhaul, Kennison and his crew dragged them out of enemy range to get the maintenance issues resolved.
"It was pretty intense," Kennison said, of his six-month tour in Korea. "The enemy were constantly trying to put our artillery out of commission. They were keyed in on that - so we were prime targets. We came under fire so much that we got (to the point) we could tell the caliber of every shell that came over - just by the whistle it made."
"But the guys in the infantry had it the worst," he added thoughtfully. "They lived in the trenches, in the mud, and went out on patrols almost every day. A lot of them never came back."
One dangerous, nearly fatal incident still stands out in the old soldier's mind. He said his lieutenant ordered him and his gun crew up a shelled-out road to "recon" a ridge with a potentially advantageous view of enemy lines.
"I was walking up the road, when the guy behind me yelled, 'Hold it! Don't move,'" Kennison said. Glancing down, he saw the toe of his boot, partially under a trip-wire stretched low across the road. Easing his toe back, he gingerly followed the wire to a booby-trap of three live grenades, nestled against a ragged tree stump.
"I came this close to being blown straight to hell," he said, grinning as he held his thumb and index finger a quarter-inch apart. "But you know what ... you don't worry about stuff like that when you're as young as I was. You just figure it wasn't your time."
When his Korean tour of duty ended, Kennison was withdrawn to Japan for some "de-stressing," before being shipped back to the U.S.
"Oh, but we weren't completely off the hook," he said, adding that his crew was assigned to man a 40 mm. anti-aircraft gun guarding a northerly Japanese airport against air-raids. "Most of the planes supplying our fellows in Korea flew in and out of that base," he said. "We needed to keep it secure."
Once back in the states, and stationed this time at Fort Benning, Georgia, Kennison took care of some unfinished personal business. He married Mae Ann Frentz ("the love of his life" and the mother of his 6-month-old daughter). He also advanced to the rank of staff sergeant before his honorable discharge in September 1952, at the ripe old age of 18.
Upon leaving the army, Kennison lost no time in taking up the responsibilities of husband and father. The young couple set up housekeeping briefly with Sue Anne's family, while he looked for work and a house. He was quickly hired by the tannery in Gowanda, but handling hides didn't agree with his health, so he kept looking, and a few months later, found the job he'd eventually retire from.
"I started at Jamestown Metal as a shear helper, cutting sheet metal," he said. "From there, I moved up to become a spot-welder, and later an arc welder. The last 20 years with J-M, I did their sheet metal layout work. I liked everything about that job."
Kennison enjoyed working at Jamestown Metal so much, in fact, that he spent 42 years and eight months there before retiring.
Eugene and Mae Ann still live in the first house they moved into, not far up the road from where she grew up. On Sept. 6, 1952, they'll celebrate 62 years of married life.
"We met at the Little Valley Fair," confided Mae, "and I knew right off, he was the one."
The cozy interior of their house reflects an abiding love of family. Each wall and tabletop boasts its own mini-gallery, and together, they represent every stage of the Kennisons' lives.
Their own wedding photo holds a place of honor, and then there are their two daughters, Joyce and Barbara, growing up marrying and starting their own families. From that point the pictures proliferate, six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren (so far). And gazing down from lovely old formal frames, Sue Ann's own grandparents bestow their fond approval of lives well-lived.
Eugene's memorabilia of Korea is mostly stored in a shadow box made for him by a friend. Touching the familiar ribbons and badges, he reflected, "I was offered a chance to 're-up' in Fort Benning."
Although he decided not to, he said he never did regret enlisting.
"If I had to do it over, I'd do it again," he said.