Veteran recalls bitter cold during Korean War

Bob Olsen was a machine gunner for the United States Marine Corps.


In the 1970s film and sitcom “M*A*S*H,” the denizens of the 4077 spent a large portion of their service in Korea sipping cocktails and snuggling with pretty nurses.

Bob Olsen remembers his own experience of the Korean War slightly differently. 

“It was cold as hell,” he said.

Olsen knows about cold climes, since he was born in Plymouth, Massachusetts, never famous for balmy weather. Compared to Korea, however, Plymouth was a tropical paradise

“It was below zero, and our rations would freeze like a rock,” said Olsen, a machine gunner for the United States Marine Corps’ George Company, nicknamed the “Bloody George Company” for its involvement in some of the war’s deadliest battles.

The cold was indeed as lethal as the enemy in the Korean War. American soldiers engaged in heated combat in cold, mountainous areas where temperatures often fell to 25 degrees below zero. Feet froze inside boots. Bullet wounds froze. The bodies of the fallen froze.

“I lost a lot of friends,” Olsen said.

Accommodations were also vastly different from those portrayed on the “M*A*S*H” version. No cozy tents with built-in distilleries were to be found. 

“You built a hole and that is where you lived,” Olsen said.

Olsen didn’t mind that his gunner job always put him in the thick of the action.

“It was a way to keep warm,” he joked.

After high school graduation and a stint in construction, Olsen enlisted in the Marines in 1949, following the lead of an older brother who served in the Corps during World War II. When infantry training in California finished, Olsen was shipped to Korea, where he completed his tour of duty.

Although he sometimes regrets not making a career of the military, Olsen finished his military service and returned to the Bay State to start his own painting company, a business he ran until he retired to Florida, where he had friends. One of his two daughters, Kathy Barbieri, still lives in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Laurie, his other daughter, lives with him in Indialantic. His son, Robert Olsen Jr., lives in Satellite Beach.

Olsen has heard about “M*A*S*H,” but has never seen the film or television series. For him, the true depiction of the Korean War can be found in the pages of military writer Patrick O’Donnell’s book, “Give Me Tomorrow: The Korean War’s Greatest Untold Story.”  

The book vividly describes the herculean struggle of modern-day Spartans against an enemy that greatly outnumbered them at the brutal Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, which claimed more than 10,000 United Nations casualties. Olsen’s George Company was highly decorated for its valor, yet it remains a largely unrecognized part of the Forgotten War.

“People have no idea how bad the war was,” Olsen said.