DOVER — Korean War veteran Raymond Brunelle sits on a rocking chair outside Watson Fields assisted living home, recounting his days as a prisoner of war and his recovery from life-threatening injuries to those who will listen.
After he tearfully and meticulously tells his story, he leans back, sets his cane aside and reaches into his pocket to pull out a parting gift from his days as a Pease Greeter, a local group known for welcoming troops who land at the local Air National Guard Base. Brunelle, 88, holds out a tiny plastic bag with a single faded white star on tattered fabric inside, hand cut from retired American flags. A simple poem is also enclosed, as a reminder to remember the fallen and the sacrifices made by those who serve.
"Here, so you never forget," he explains, as he holds out his hand to give the bag to a younger pair of hands untouched by the scars of war his bear.
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Memorial Day is a day to remember those who did not come home. Brunelle remembers many men lost at war, but most of all he thinks of his best friend and fellow soldier Larry Rodgers from Cambridge, Massachusetts, who died beside him in Korea in 1952.
“He was my best friend, and I watched him step on a mine and get blown to hell,” Brunelle says, his voice cracking, during an interview Tuesday, May 24, less than a week before Memorial Day 2022.
When Rodgers stepped off a path he set off a ground mine, according to Brunelle. Brunelle was a stone’s throw away from his friend that day, in mid-conversation when the mine exploded. One minute they are walking and the next Brunelle and others were thrown back at least 20 feet.
“He stepped on the mine and then boom,” Brunelle says. “I get up and see nobody else is moving, so I had to get down the mountain and across the valley to get help. I fell down at least 25 to 30 times along the way, and I'd get up and say, ‘I’ve got to keep going, otherwise I'm gonna die. My buddies are gonna die.'”
He was badly burned and had shrapnel embedded under his skin across his entire left side. He lost his hearing, and nearly lost his left limbs, his ear and his life. When he finally reached a Corpsman, he remembers collapsing. They took turns carrying him up the mountain to the first aid station, where he would get the first of many operations.
“The chaplain came and read me my last rites,” Brunelle recalls, noting that was when the seriousness of his injuries sunk in. “I remember being unsure if I wanted to live at that point. I knew I was hurt and burned badly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to come home as disfigured as I thought I was.”
That day changed his life. It’s the closest he has been to death, he says, adding few doctors thought he would make it. He had gangrene in his leg and arm. In fact, Brunelle recalls, he was so close to death, he was set aside in the pile of deceased soldiers assumed dead for a short time.
"I woke up and the nurse said, 'Oh my God, you're alive!' I thought 'Yeah, of course I am alive' and I'll never forgot when she said, 'You're supposed to be dead,'" Brunelle says. "They thought the shrapnel in my chest nicked my heart."
Brunelle says he spent two years and 25 days in hospitals across the country recovering from his injuries. He underwent dozens of surgeries in that time. Those initial surgeries helped save his reconstructed ear, his sight and his left limbs. His watch took on shrapnel, saving his wrist.
Due to the extent of his injuries, he was honorably discharged as a disabled veteran at age 20.
A prisoner of war
Two months before the land mine explosion, Brunelle was briefly captured by the Chinese in North Korea in March 1952.
When he arrived in Korea, it was snowing heavily in the hilly terrain with temperatures well below zero. He was separated from his unit, when he was taken captive. He was taken to bunkers hidden in a mountain. He resisted for much of the journey, until he was told to “cut it out before you get shot” by a Chinese soldier. He complied, opting to wait for the right moment to strike.
“All I could think was, 'Thank God it was the Chinese that got me,' because the Koreans weren’t taking prisoners at the time,” Brunelle says. “It was so cold, it was just awful.”
Despite being in the crosshairs of a shootout between the Chinese on the mountain and the forces in the valley, Brunelle knew it was his chance to get away.
“There were two soldiers, each restraining one of my wrists,” Brunelle says. “We’re heading up the mountain and it’s slippery. The soldier in charge was in front of us, he wasn’t paying attention. I gave a quick jerk backwards. They went flying by me and lost their rifles. I turned around and dove, rolling down that mountain. By the time they would get up, get their rifles and shoot at me, I made it to the bottom of the mountain. I was so shaken up, but ran as fast as I could.”
He managed to escape, and while he was met with a lot of gunfire in the process, he made it back to his infantry safely.
For most of his life, Brunelle’s service records were incomplete. It wasn’t until a family member found a 59-year-old newspaper clipping from an April 1952 Foster's Daily Democrat edition in an old scrapbook in 2011 that he was formally recognized as a prisoner of war. It remains the only documented proof of his capture at the hands of the Chinese.
After the article came to light, Brunelle was honored in a ceremony at Pease Tradeport for the 2011 National POW/MIA Recognition Day.
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‘Remembering the good things’
Born in 1933, Brunelle grew up in Somersworth and Rollinsford in New Hampshire, and South Berwick, Maine. He was 17 when he joined the Army. He wasn’t old enough to sign up himself, so his mother had to come to sign and show her blessing. He was enlisted as a private first class. He was excited to join, but he had no idea of the harsh reality he was walking into overseas after training ended.
“I was only 17, the youngest in my outfit,” Brunelle said.
Some of the worst days of his life made way for some of the best. While home in between hospital stays, he met his wife Barbara, who also now lives at Watson Fields.
They met through a mutual friend. His high school buddy introduced them, stopping by where she worked to ask if she’d like to go to the school dance. She couldn’t go, but later that night Brunelle slipped away from the dance to knock on her door to ask her on a proper date. They met a few times during his week of leave, and they became pen pals when he was sent away for more surgeries and recovery. This led to a life together.
Brunelle remains as involved in the veteran community as he can. For years, he led support groups for POW veterans and attended numerous ceremonies commemorating Memorial Day and Veterans Day tributes. He was a longtime Pease Greeter and was a recipient of an Honor Flight of New England, which takes veterans to the war memorials in Washington D.C. He says despite all the terrible things he witnessed and all the horrific stories he’s heard from fellow POWs, he tries to focus on positive memories. He thinks about how lucky he is to have survived through those traumatic years.
After his time in the service, he spent some time working in a shoe shop on Central Avenue in Dover, and he later worked at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard before becoming an electrician. The couple raised two daughters and lived a quiet life, he says.
“I try to think of good stuff so I don’t get all upset because it used to bother the hell out of me,” Brunelle says. “I’ve gotten better about it and can talk about it. I’ve lost a couple of real good buddies along the way. Medals don't matter to me. I don’t consider myself a hero. I can say I’ve had a good life though.”
Brunelle's daughter Deborah Melitus grew up being proud of her father's service, but it took many years until he was able to open up about his experiences overseas. She says his involvement as a Pease Greeter was the turning point in him finally telling his story.
"He went through hell," Melitus said. "He never talked about his time in the service when we were kids, but I grew up patriotic and very proud of of him. I was a member of the junior auxiliary at the American Legion my dad was involved in. We marched alongside my father in Memorial Day parades. It gave me an entirely different perspective and a deep respect for men like my dad."
This article originally appeared on Fosters Daily Democrat: Korean War vet and POW Raymond Brunelle urges 'never forget'