Measures of Devotion: Korean War veteran recalls time on ship

SHERIDAN — Leonard Hurst is known as a great many things: a veteran, a fireman, a singer, a board member at the Sheridan Senior Center. While it may be easy to assume that spending three and a half tours in active duty on a battleship in the Korean War would be the way in which he defines himself, Hurst said the most important titles he has claimed in life were “father” and “husband.”

“That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “And now ‘grandpa;’ I really like grandpa. I have seven grandkids and three great-grandbabies.”

To him, the war was one more thing that showed him how wonderful his wife was.

“I was already in the service when we got married, and she understood my sense of duty,” he said as he stared at a wallet-sized black and white picture of his wife, taken when she was 19-years-old and housed permanently in his back pocket. “Those dimples got me, I think.”

Hurst said his favorite memory of the two of them is still their wedding day.

“I was just home on leave and we decided we would go up to Yellowstone Park for it, in May, and we got up there and it snowed and snowed,” he said. “So we stayed in Thermopolis and that was just as good as being in Yellowstone.

“She did me a disservice when she married me though,” he added with a laugh. “Her father, two brothers and my brother-in-law were all Marines and I was a white hat sailor. And I want you to know that family dinners were not a hell of a lot of fun for me.”

After the wedding, his wife moved onto the base while he was on ship, and back to the war he went.

Hurst was a radar man on the U.S.S. George K. Mackenzie, stationed in the 7th fleet — headquartered in Yokosuka, Japan. Among other things, Hurst’s ship was tasked with keeping a train bridge through a harbor just north of the 38th parallel blown out so the North Koreans could not receive supplies from the south.

“We’d be in there for about 90 days and then we’d go back for supplies and that sort of thing,” Hurst said. “You can’t believe it, but when it got dark the bridge was not there and when it got light again it was there. That many people went in there and built that bridge back over night once a day and then we’d take it out again. Every once in a while they would just lob these 6-inch shells at us. We did take heavy artillery fire from the beach.”

The other major job of the Mackenzie and other ships of her size was to act as a shield for the large battleships in her division.

“We were in Task Force 77 which was a task force of heavy battleships and cruisers and carriers,” Hurst said.“And the small ships like ours were in a screen around the battleships to take torpedoes and that sort of thing if an enemy submarine shot at those big ships. From there, we went on missions. With landings and evacuations of troops in various places, they needed help getting in and out, so we would lay cover fire for them from the ship.”

Though their ship was frequently under fire, no lives were lost while Hurst was on board. They did lose some men on a sister ship, though.

“Our sister ship the Hanson had her bough blown off by a mine so she had to back all the way into Yokosuka from Korea, and we lost eight sonar men,” he said, adding that he did once have a close call. “One day I was standing on deck, which I wasn’t supposed to be doing, smoking a cigarette between these two smokestacks when the GQ sounded and fire started. So I went to my general quarters station and when they secured general quarters I went back out there and exactly where I was standing there was a piece of shrapnel about 8 inches long.”

Hurst said living on a ship wasn’t always easy, and it was far from glamorous, but at least it was clean.

“Just throw away all the privacy you have, there was none of that,” he said. “Our bunks were three high and in our O-Division bunk space there were about 24 of us. That was radar and sonar people, the operations division.”

Radar was a relatively new technology at the time of the war. When Hurst first signed up to fight, he was a deckhand. But when they asked if anyone wanted to test for radar, he secured the position.

While Hurst enjoyed his position, there was one thing about being on the water he particularly disliked: the weather.

“The thing I remember about Korea itself is how blasted cold it was,” he said. “I really do believe that is the coldest place on the face of the planet in the wintertime. The mountains come right down to the coast and they would be solid coated with that wet heavy snow and the wind would come across there and then out across the water and when it hit you out on that ship it felt like someone was throwing ice chips at you. Those poor guys that were foot soldiers over there, I felt sorry for them thinking that they were colder than me. But I had to stand a watch outside, as we cruised back and forth, and I was just frozen.”

In the end, it wasn’t the weather or the war that lead to Hurst returning home; it was his wife.

“I enjoyed the war, but the administration at the time in Washington would not let your dependents on base go to the grocery stores and clothing stores on there,” he said. “You could get groceries at a much less expensive cost than going to the civilian stores, but Mr. Eisenhower decided that enlisted people didn’t need that, just officers, so I couldn’t afford to stay in with her living there. But I liked what I was doing and the cause I was serving.”

After returning home to Rawlins, a series of career changes and transfers landed him in Sheridan in the early 1960s. With one baby in tow and a suspected fourth location transfer from his position at Safeway looming, Hurst decided to test for a position with the city fire department and got the job.

During his life in Sheridan, he and his wife would welcome three more babies and build a tri-plex home on Huntington Road to house the family in one unit, his mother in another and rent out the third.

Hurst spent 30 years with the fire department, as a firefighter from 1961-1981 and for the last 10 years as the city’s first fire marshall. Once again, his career choices reaffirmed his life choices as his family stood by his side.

“I could not have done better for a wife,” he said. “The 30 years I was on the fire department, she was home alone with those kids for 24 hours on, 24 hours off. We were married in May of 1952 and my wife died July 17, 2006.”

His mother died just one month prior, June 7, 2006; and with four kids living in four different states Hurst found himself alone in Sheridan. This is what eventually led him to his newest title: board member.

“I’m on the board at the Senior Center and I spend a lot of time there,” he said. “It was kind of my salvation when my wife died and nobody was living here but me. I found that place and it seemed to fit.

“Sheridan is a great place to live,” he added. “I plan to stay here for as long as I can.”

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Copyright © 2015 The Sheridan Press or Sheridan Newspapers, Inc.

Copyright © 2015 The Sheridan Press or Sheridan Newspapers, Inc..