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Korean War corpsman and Soldier reunited after 66 years

A unique twist of fate on a Fargo radio station has helped bring two Korean War veterans from North Dakota closer together.

11/01/18 (Thu)

A unique twist of fate on a Fargo radio station has helped bring two Korean War veterans from North Dakota closer together.

Kenmare Navy corpsman Gerald Rasmusson and Wyndmere Soldier Duane Lillestol were on a ship together in 1953 but lost contact with each other until Oct. 24.

KFGO-AM 790 talk show host Joel Heitkamp brought his program to Kenmare and was broadcasting live during the 30th annual GooseFest.

Lillestol, a frequent caller to KFGO, talked to Heitkamp about remembering a “medic” from Kenmare who helped him get over sea sickness during rough sailing in the Pacific Ocean.

“I talked to him last night,” Rasmusson said. “He seems to think it was me.”

Rasmusson doesn’t specifically remember Lillestol because, as he said, he was treating 800 to 1,000 men on that ship and it could have been anybody.

“You don’t pay attention to one guy when you have that many people,” Rasmusson said. “I treated a lot of people.”

Using a process of elimination, however, Rasmusson is the only known Navy corpsman from Kenmare, actually Coulee is where he is from, to have been on a troop ship in 1953 taking troops home from the Korean War.

“We were aboard ship and everybody got sea sick and I passed out pills,” Rasmusson said. “When you get 800 to 1,000 men sick on a boat, you got a problem.”

Not only was there heavy chop on the water, a typhoon was nearby which caused huge waves and many of the men feared they would go overboard.

“It was a storm and it was rough seas,” he said. “I just shut all that out for 66 years.”

Lillestol was on his way back to North Dakota, but Rasmusson had an additional four months to serve before his hitch was up.

“The ship was going home from Korea,” he said. “I went to Midway Island, then flew back to Japan to finish my enlistment.”

Rasmusson went to Korea in 1951 and came home in 1953. Lillestol told him they were on the ship in 1952, which would be consistent with a ship headed toward the United States, although Rasmusson doesn’t remember a lot of the details from that moment in time.

He was in the Navy and by all accounts was a corpsman, a person who helps the sick and wounded.

However, because the Marines didn’t have a medical corps, they selected corpsmen off ships, that’s how he came to be on the same boat as Lillestol in 1952.

Rasmusson took his medical training at Great Lakes, Ill., near Chicago, and sometime later went to the Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland, Calif., a place he called “Eleanor Roosevelt’s hospital.”

 The Marines “drafted” him and he was sent to a Marine facility at Santa Anna, Calif.

Following that, it was on to Korea for Rasmusson, who is now 87.

“The Navy gave a test and I guess I qualified for that work,” he said of being a corpsman. “There were quite a few amputations. I got in on a few amputations.”

For the men on the troop ship, it may have seemed like something as dramatic as losing a limb. For Rasmusson, it meant distributing as much as a duffle bag full of Dramamine to keep as many as possible from getting seasick and the ship from falling into chaos.

He also witnessed what was happening on the Puson Perimeter, a small area of Korea where Americans were pinned down for a time.

“So it was four years and out,” he said. “I came home in 1953.”

Lillestol, who is also known as “Dewey,” was a radio operator in an Army artillery unit. He spent the better part of a year in Korea.

But, Rasmusson, who carried a .45 caliber pistol added, it didn’t matter what branch of service someone may have been in, they were treated all the same.

“I didn’t fire a weapon,” he said. “But I saved a lot of lives.”

On Friday afternoon, Rasmusson still wasn’t certain that he and Dewey were at the same place at the same time.

“We’re going to get together again on the phone,” he said. “If it was me, great. If it wasn’t, then I don’t know.”

Lillestol is certain it was Rasmusson. Also 87, he wanted to use Heitkamp’s Kenmare broadcast to find Rasmusson, or find someone who may have known him.

“I thought, here’s your chance buddy boy,” Lillestol said. “So I got on KFGO, then got a call from Gerald’s son on Thursday.”

When he got to Korea, the radio section didn’t need anybody so he wound up making regular trips to Seoul in a jeep.

Seoul was so bombed out,” he said. “We did it so we could take it from the enemy.”

Lillestol was one of seven from North Dakota who left Seattle for Korea. They lost track of each other when they got in country.

Four years after Rasmusson got home, he was part of another traumatic event. He witnessed the Fargo tornado on June 20, 1957 in which 12 people were killed and more than 1,000 homes were either destroyed or damaged in a 100-block section on the north side of Fargo that included damage to Hector Field, Fargo’s airport.

“As we drove away from it, I was driving my father-in-law’s car and I could feel it fishtailing,” Rasmusson said. “When we got back, my car was gone and the house was gone and there was water shooting up from the ground.

He later found his Naval medical school entry photograph on the lawn, but lost all others from his time in the military.

Rasmusson admits 66 years is a long time, but it’s a blessing the two Korean War service members have been able to reconnect and it’s all thanks to a Fargo radio station. Otherwise, neither would have known each other’s whereabouts after more than six decades.

“He pinpointed it when he said Kenmare,” Rasmusson said. “He wanted to find the guy in Kenmare.”

Lillestol got married before he left for Korea and upon getting back home, settled into the farm life in Richland County.

These days it’s hard to travel so Lillestol isn’t sure he and Rasmusson will be reunited. His wife has some health issues and he said they need to stay close to home.

It is his intent, however, to occasionally talk to Rasmusson by phone.

“Two things I wanted from Korea,” Lillestol said. “It was to get out safe and not get a disease. I think I accomplished both.”

Now, Lillestol has another reason for coming home unscathed... Read EVERY WORD on EVERY PAGE of The Kenmare News by subscribing--online or in print!