Alfred A. Runo, 84
Branch: Marine Corps
Rank: Staff sergeant
War zone: Korea
Years of service: 1948-52
Most prominent honor: Korean War Service Medal with three battle stars
By Lou Michel
News Staff Reporter
As a teenager, Alfred A. Runo decided that he no longer could be a financial burden to his mother, who served meals at the dining counter in Sattler’s Department Store during the day and cleaned offices at night.
His father had deserted them when he was a child, putting Runo and his mom in a financial bind.
“Let the government take care of me; then you won’t have to,” Runo said to his mother when telling her that he was going to enlist in the Marine Corps at age 17.
“She didn’t have an education because in sixth grade, she had to leave school to work and help her family,” Runo says. “It was hard times. So she signed the papers for me to enlist early.”
Runo says that from the moment he joined, he found a home in the Marines.
“It was rough at boot camp, but I was in with a good bunch of guys,” Runo says. “I enjoyed it. It was different.”
His first assignment took him to Guam in the western Pacific for a year.
“A typhoon hit the base and wrecked it,” Runo says. “We waited it out in a concrete bunker where they had stored bombs during World War II. Boy, could you hear that wind howling? When we came back out, my Quonset hut was blown about half a mile away. All of the Quonset huts had been held down by 1-inch steel cables, but the wind got them, anyway. We had to go looking for our footlockers to get our clothes. It was miserable.”
Military brass decided against rebuilding the base, and the Marines were ordered to Camp Pendleton, Calif.
“If they had rebuilt the base, we would have gone directly from there to the Korean War when that started,” Runo says.
As it turned out, he was back home in Buffalo on a month’s leave when war broke out in 1950.
“I was only two weeks into my leave when I was called back to Camp Pendleton,” Runo says. “By September 1950, I was in the Battle of Inchon. We surprised the enemy. They figured we would come in from Pusan. We marched to Seoul and fought. We went back and forth across that city so many times and captured it. Then, we moved north across the 38th parallel dividing North and South Korea.”
Runo says that after surviving the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, he detests cold weather to this day.
“I’ll tell you, it was so cold that I went to the aid station and took off my boots, and I had ice on all of my toes,” Runo says. “The doctor said I came in just in time. All the skin on top of my feet came off because it was dead. The doctor said if I had waited another day or two, I would have lost my toes.”
He became one of the troops known as “the Chosin Frozen.”
He also recalled another horrible incident.
“We were ordered to climb way up this hill where these five or so Marines had dug a foxhole,” Runo says. “The Chinese had attacked and killed them. We brought their frozen bodies down. I’ll tell you, they were frozen like concrete.”
Runo believes that if United Nation forces had been allowed to pursue the North Koreans into Manchuria, the war might have ended in success with a unified Korean Peninsula.
“We pushed the North Koreans as far as China’s Manchurian border,” Runo says. “We weren’t allowed to cross the border. Gen. Douglas MacArthur wanted to bomb Manchuria, but President Truman said no and relieved him of his duties. We learned that the Chinese had something like a million troops, and we had to get out of North Korea.”
The U.S. forces moved south to the harbor at Wonsan, where troop ships awaited them.
“They opened up the doors to these big landing crafts and hurried us into them, and we took off,” Runo says.
He continued to fight on the front lines until a day when an officer called him down from a hill post.
“I remember when the captain called me,” Runo says. “He asked me, ‘You want to go home?’ I thought he was kidding me. I said, ‘Sure, I want to go home.’ I left all my stuff on the hill and let everyone help themselves to it.”
He says that it was a joy to have hot meals at the staging area where troops boarded ships for the journey home to the United States.
Three years after he was honorably discharged in 1952, Runo married. He and his wife, the former Jeannette Kuczmanski, raised two daughters. For six years, he worked at Bell Aerospace in Wheatfield.
“After that, I worked at one job and then another,” Runo says. “I kept getting laid off, but I ended up for 20 years and six months at Blaw-Knox at Ferry Street and Fillmore Avenue. They made coffee roaster machines and other machines for food. I was downsized into retirement on Nov. 4, 1994. I threw my white hard hat into the garbage can and walked out at 10 a.m. I didn’t care if they docked me.”
When he arrived at his home on Kennedy Road in Cheektowaga, Runo and his wife headed for the Social Security Office and filed for early benefits because they were both 62½ years old.
“Where was I going to get a job at that age?” he asked.
Alfred and Jeannette Runo were married for 53 years. She died in 2008.
Runo says his time in the military is often on his mind because of all the casualties.
“I was so lucky I never got wounded,” Runo says. “No Purple Heart, and I didn’t want one. I think of my buddies – so many of them died over in Korea.”