The farm boy from Merrimac snaked along the valley in Korea, knowing only what he needed to in order to stay alive.
"It's surprising how brave you become. Many times I thought, this isn't the farm boy from Merrimac," Don Koepp said.
At 19, Koepp arrived in Okinawa on a merchant marine ship. More soldiers boarded it after they reached mainland Japan. Six soldiers high and packed in like sardines, he said, they only knew what they were told about the war.
"On the troop ship and when we went into Korea we were in the dark, we didn't know where we were going. It's frustrating in a way, but at the same time it's better if you don't know anything because you're in contact with the enemy," he said.
Koepp's unit was swift on their feet, ready for combat and they were needed.
"They had a big push on the 38th, and we filled in because of so many lost troops," he said.
After landing in Pusan, Korea, the infantrymen had six days of intense physical training before they were sent to the line. With a combination of hills and mountains, the soldiers learned how to capture areas and stay together.
"We went on a lot of patrols on the MLR, the main line of resistance, the 38th. You know you're there when you get there," Koepp said.
The Americans and allied troops from the United Nations held one portion of a valley, the Chinese and North Koreans held the other, and in between was no man's land where most of the combat happened, Koepp said.
"You're up on these hills and mountains, and that's where you had these bunkers built in and it was mostly a holding position (for the line). The guys were picked for patrol at night and went into the valley because it was exposed. They took us in these trucks with the canvas over the top and they drove so fast with no lights because sometimes the enemy was higher than you. But, I never did see an accident, and I never did find out the name of that valley," he said.
Koepp went on patrol about twice a week with two seven-soldier units that kept in contact by radio. During one patrol, Koepp's unit drew close to the enemy line, and a sniper shot a soldier in the forehead. He died instantly.
"We went out at night and didn't get back in time because it was daylight and they opened up on us. We were closer to their line than ours to tell the truth, and that's why they got us," he said.
The two units could see each other. Koepp's was ordered to move back to its line, and the platoon leader called for fire in so that artillery could be thrown in and the men could get out.
"It's overhead fire, like you threw a baseball into center field, and they would duck for cover and we could move in an organized retreat," Koepp said.
They didn't leave behind the squad member who had been killed.
"There was snow on the ground, it was winter time. We never left any of our troops there wounded or dead. We even risked our selves to bring a dead person back because it's kind of a morale thing," he said.
Koepp went on patrols about twice a week, and in between the soldiers kept their equipment clean, had long conversations and stayed ready to be called to the main line again.
At one point, Koepp was called up to an area where Edward R. Murrow, a famous broadcast journalist, was interviewing the soldiers. Koepp was photographed leaning on a rock next to Murrow.
"I don't think they wanted him to ask a lot of questions because we weren't supposed to know much. He was a nice guy, exactly how you saw him on TV, and he smoked all the time. It didn't really dawn on me thinking about it being in the news," Koepp said. "My mother and dad wrote me a letter and told me it was in Look Magazine."
Because Koepp had earned so many points for his active combat, he earned the title of platoon sergeant after seven months on the line. He was in charge of about 50 soldiers, including four South Korean detachments.
"I think the South Koreans were just as good (soldiers) as we were, maybe better because they were fighting for their country. We ran it by the (Army) manual," he said. I got along good with them, you'd be surprised at how we'd communicate, it was a little Japanese, Korean and a little American, a jumble of languages. It's just unbelievable how you could talk and get along, sometimes it was just hand motions."
As a platoon sergeant, Koepp enjoyed relating to his soldiers and promoting them as they earned it. Many soldiers were promoted under Koepp, including an African-American promoted from a private to a corporal.
"It's a judgement call about who will make a good leader, and to me it didn't matter if he was black or white. And, I think that's the way it should've been but I don't think it was always that way. I was never taught prejudice growing up," he said.
The remainder of what Koepp saw, smelled and heard are kept inside.
"I'd tell you more but sometimes it brings back memories that aren't the best and you don't care to bring them back," he said.
After the war, Koepp was "a pretty shaken up guy," especially at night, he said. There were nightmares about explosions and combat that lasted about a decade after the war.
In 2000, Koepp returned to South Korea to mark the 50th anniversary of their independence. As a member of the Korean War Veterans Association, he applied to attend the re-visitation hosted by the South Korean Veterans Association. There were 33 American veterans that were chosen to go, including Koepp.
The soldiers visited the "beautiful country" around Seoul, were honored in several parades and had a dinner with then-President Kim dae-Jung. Koepp also received medals from the South Korean Veterans Association in gratitude for their service during the war.
"It felt real good. I guess it would kind of be like the reverse of the World War II homecoming. They were so happy we helped them. Sometimes we tend to pat ourselves on the back, but there were many people (from many countries) there (during the war)," Koepp said.
It used to bother Koepp that the Korean War is sometimes referred to as the forgotten war, but with time that has mellowed and you can't dwell on it, he said.
"I think it was time well spent. I know it changed me, you grow up really, really fast. And, it changed them because they got their country and I believe they are forever grateful," Koepp said.