Remembering the ‘Forgotten War’
George Tiedeman had just finished prying two bullets from his torso and one from his left knee after his plane got shot down when he assisted fellow survivors.
Then, the 20-year-old medic had to make sure he could continue his duty. Behind enemy lines in North Korea, he had to kill so the survivors could regroup and continue to fight.
It was a damning moment for Tiedeman. While he saw his role as a medic simply as a matter of doing his duty, saving men’s lives was an act of redemption to him.
To this day, the 88-year-old remembers having to take a man’s life. He remembers being part of a war that historically has been overshadowed by World War II and Vietnam. He was in “The Forgotten War” or what is commonly known as the Korean War.
“It’s a terrible thing to have to take a human life,” said Tiedeman, who now resides in the Illinois Veterans Home in Manteno. “No matter if it’s an enemy or not — no matter if he’s trying to kill you — he’s still human. That’s the way I feel about war. Many men feel differently. ‘The dirty, rotten Japs or the stinkin’ Germans.’ Well, the dirty, rotten Japs and the stinkin’ Germans were just as human as me.
“I feel I did my duty. I don’t have anything to be ashamed of, and I certainly don’t feel I did anything against mankind. I just feel I was one of those unfortunates who were caught in a situation where they had to go to war. And if you have to do it, you have to do it right. You can’t do it halfway. There is no halfway in war. I was lucky I was a medic. I got to save more than I killed.”
A book and knives
Growing up in Brookfield, Tiedeman spent his young days sneaking under fences at Brookfield Zoo and collecting peacock feathers to sell to tourists.
At 18 years old, he enlisted in the Navy, feeling an obligation to serve his county just a few years after the conclusion of World War II.
Despite not having any medical background, the Navy handed Tiedeman a set of scalpels and a book on how to perform surgeries. It made him a medic.
“That wasn’t my choice. They made that for me,” Tiedeman recalled. “But I liked it. I liked helping people.”
Then, he was sent overseas to the frontlines of the Korean War, where he removed bullets from soldiers, amputated limbs and cared for the dying as a 20-year-old.
“I serviced a lot of men,” he said. “Some I had to take bullets out of, which was a major surgery that I wasn’t supposed to do. But, where’s the doctor? Two hundred miles away. And the bullet has to come out. So, I get out the book, read on body removement and go to work. What the hell are you going to do? You do what you have to.”
While saving men gave Tiedeman a “God-like” feeling, the fear of making a mistake that could cost a man his life weighed on him.
“It was scary. I always figured, ‘What if I made the wrong scalpel move? What if I did the wrong thing? What if I did that? What if I did this?’ Luckily, the guys I knew could survive did, and the ones that didn’t I kind of suspected they wouldn’t. But they had a right to treatment even though you knew damn well that they’re not going to make it. They had a right to treatment.”
Tiedeman embraced that sense of righteousness as a medic. He once got court martialed after performing an emergency appendectomy on a soldier with the soldier’s permission. He beat the charges after the surgery proved to save the man’s life.
“It’s hard to get by the fact that the man’s life depends on what you are doing,” Tiedeman said. “You pray to God that you do the right thing and make the right move. And if you don’t, you pray to God to forgive you. That’s all you can do. It all depends on God in the end.
“My hands, when they did what they did, weren’t moved by me. They were moved by a higher power than me. I never knew how to do an appendectomy. How the hell did I do it? You can’t just pick up a book and do a major surgery. That’s stupid, but I did it.”
Tiedeman downplayed the three gunshot wounds he sustained during the first time he was shot down in a plane while pointing to the scar on his left knee.
“They were relatively minor to the ones I treated,” he said. “If you live, [your wounds] are relatively minor.”
But the ensuing skirmish with the enemy after that crash consumed him. Having to kill a man to survive took away the “God-like” feeling of being a medic. It tainted him. It scarred him deeper than a bullet could.
“Doing my duty, I took lives,” he said. “[That man] would have killed me, and that would have interrupted my duty. I see that man’s face still. It wasn’t easy for me to kill a person. For some men, maybe it was. But I knew that was an actual human life, and I took it.
“Whether the man was good or bad is all beside the point. He was human, and I took his life. And I pray that he’ll forgive me… That’s just the way I feel about war. You do it because you have to. But, God, you sure don’t want to.”
Tiedeman could have returned home because of the injuries he sustained. However, he wanted to redeem himself by saving more lives. He signed on for another year-long tour.
“I felt I wasn’t ready to go home because I hadn’t done what I came there to do, and that was [to] save the world,” he said. “I don’t know when to quit.”
His plane got shot down again during his second tour, causing him to break his leg. But he remained in the war to treat more soldiers.
“That’s what I was born for,” he said. “Yeah, I was shot down,and it’s scary as hell. But the good Lord kept me alive for one reason or another.”
Tiedeman received three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star for Heroism and a Bronze Star for his service.
Remembering a Forgotten War
Tiedeman struggled after returning home from war. He thought about the men who died, wondering if he could have done anything to save them.
The stillness and safety of civilian life also challenged the uncertainty he carried home with him from war.
“It was difficult for me to wake up in the morning and knowing somebody wasn’t going to have a gun to my head,” Tiedeman recalled. “My parents helped me as much as they could.”
The war even followed Tiedeman into employment offices. He said several potential employers turned him away because of his involvement in the war. He eventually got into the insurance businesses, got married and started a family.
“Everyone who went [to Korea] had a stain on them,” Tiedeman said. “We came back from a war people didn’t like. If I had to mention what war I was in, I said one of the smaller ones. I tried not to say the Korean War because it was a small war that nobody gave a damn about expect the men who fought in it.”
To this day, Tiedeman still runs into men who fought in “The Forgotten War.” A few years ago, a veteran who came into the Illinois Veterans Home recognized Tiedeman. “Hey, Doc, how’ve you been?” the veteran asked.
“I cried, and I’m not ashamed of it,” Tiedeman recalled while wiping tears from his eyes. “I actually cried that that guy could remember me after all these years.”
And with all those memories he still has of the Korean War, the man who saved countless lives as a medic is still seeking redemption through faith.
“A human life is a sacred thing, and if you can save one or make one easier, it just makes things a little easier for you on judgment day,” Tiedeman said. “We’re all going to have a judgment day one time. And I just pray to God that he allows me to have the liberty to say, ‘I’m sorry I had to kill those persons, but I had to,’ and mean it. And agree that’s how it was.”