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Rising above combat's cruel fate

Alfred M. Kalinowski has never regretted what he gave to his country in the Korean War.

One of five brothers who all served in the military, starting with World War II, Kalinowski was the only one wounded. He lost both legs and most of the movement in his right arm.

Stepping on a land mine will do that.

Originally, Kalinowski wanted to join the Coast Guard, thinking that it would be an interesting way to serve the country. When he showed up at the old post office in downtown Buffalo in January 1951, the Coast Guard recruiter was out to lunch.

However, a sharp-eyed Marine recruiter wasn't about to let the young prospect slip away.

"He sweet-talked me into enlisting in the Marines," Kalinowski says. "I had decided to enlist because I knew I was going to get drafted and wanted to pick out the branch to serve in."

Although he got "sidetracked" from his original intentions, he says, "I have no chip on my shoulder."

Kalinowski, in fact, takes selflessness a step further.

If it had not been him to have taken the brunt of the blast from the land mine, he says, some other Marine would have suffered the devastating wounds he did in the early morning of July 15, 1953.

But even before his legs were lost and his right arm was severely wounded, Kalinowski had earned his first Purple Heart in March of that year when he was struck by searing shrapnel from a mortar round.

That same month, he was also awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action during a battle at a place known as Vegas on the Korean peninsula.

But his greatest challenge occurred on the night of July 14, 1953, when the young sergeant led a patrol of 19 Marines and a Navy corpsman, a medic, to try to ambush Chinese troops assisting the North Koreans.

"We sat prepared to ambush the Chinese, but they never showed up that night," Kalinowski recalls. "About 4 in the morning, we were heading back, and I was the point man. We were on a trail in a rice paddy, and pretty soon, under me, I heard an explosion, and I flew into the air.

"At first, I thought we had walked into an ambush ourselves. I was trying to find my weapon. And, in the meantime, the Navy corpsman came up to me and said, 'Sergeant, lay still. You're hurt.' Everything was going through my mind — my family, what's going to happen, what if I get killed? But the corpsman gave me a big shot of morphine."

To make matters worse, the Chinese had heard the explosion and began shooting.

"They knew we were there, but it was still dark enough, and they couldn't see us," Kalinowski remembers. "They were shooting all over the place."

Under fire, the patrol made it back to the Marine trench line, about a quarter-mile away, carrying Kalinowski on a stretcher.

He was then loaded onto the side of a tank and transported to a first-aid unit, where he received emergency treatment before being flown to a Navy medical station and later transferred to the USS Repose.

Aboard the ship for only a day, he was flown to the 11th Army Evacuation Hospital in South Korea. There, his mangled legs were amputated above the knees. He was placed on dialysis because his kidneys had temporarily shut down.

To this day, he remains grateful, convinced that the swift action of military medical personnel saved his life.

Back in the United States, he was admitted to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland, Calif., where he spent the next 16 months, receiving intensive physical therapy.

The hospital turned into his proving ground that a relatively normal life was within reach.

While there, Kalinowski says, he managed to catch the eye of an attractive physical therapist, Navy Wave Phyllis E. McElfish, whom he married in 1955.

He supported his wife and daughter, Mariann, working as a repair technician at Moog. Kalinowski also ran for public office and served for 42 years as a town justice in Colden.

A couple of years after Phyllis passed away, Kalinowski began dating a former Moog co-worker, Martha Kwitowski, and they married in 2002.

If any other proof was needed that Kalinowski conquered his disabilities, consider this:

He served for 13 years on the Holland Central School Board and cut grass and plowed his own driveway with a specially rigged tractor.

When asked to offer advice to others who find themselves placed in trying circumstances, he readily suggested:

"Take life as it is, and then make the most of it."

As a postscript, he added, "You can always find somebody worse off then you are."


Alfred M. Kalinowski, 81

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Colden

Branch: Marine Corps

Rank: Sergeant

War zone: Korea

Years of service: February 1951 to May 1954

Most prominent honors: Silver Star, two Purple Hearts

Specialty: Squad leader

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