For decades, Paul R. Garland didn't tell his family that he had shielded a mother and her two children from a shower of shrapnel when he served in the Korean War.
He says he never thought it merited mention. To him, he was just doing what was expected of him.
But as time passed and his four children grew up, his youngest, Mark, known as the “curious one,” finally succeeded in coaxing Garland into sharing his war experiences.
What Garland had done amazed his family. The Hamburg man who had retired from a desk job as the Buffalo office manager for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad had used his own body to protect three strangers in a war zone.
It happened at about 10 a.m. May 29, 1952, when Garland, a member of the Fifth Regimental Combat Team, was riding in a Jeep up to the front lines in an area of the Korean peninsula known as the “Punchbowl.”
Enemy artillery shells suddenly started exploding dangerously close to the Jeep.
“There was shrapnel flying all over the place,” Garland said. “One of the shells landed off to the right of the Jeep and trees were turned into stubs.”
As the shelling continued, he said he spotted a mother and her two children walking along the left side of the road.
“I jumped from the moving Jeep and ran up to the family and pushed them down into the ditch and covered them with my body,” Garland said. “They were scared and didn’t move.”
When he was certain the shelling had stopped, he stood up and noticed his right leg had been hit by shrapnel. Garland returned to the Jeep and the family went on their way.
“Back at headquarters, I went to the medical tent and they cleaned up the wound as best they could and then I returned to my unit.”
He says he has never forgotten that damp, rainy day.
“I’ve dreamed about it many times. It’s like a rerun in the movies. I can see myself jumping from the Jeep all over again."
Garland says he should have been awarded a Purple Heart for his wound and a Bronze Star his commander had promised him for actions in other combat missions. But the medals never arrived, he says, because "the documents were lost."
"I know the date that happened because I was there and I was scared to death," Garland said of that May morning 67 years ago.
Some 10 years ago when he shared that story with his son and other family members, they gave his act of bravery a name: “The Jeep Leap.”
Garland's other Korean War memories include the harsh cold of the winter and equipment that often failed to function.
“We were given equipment that was World War II rejects,” he said.
But it is the sight of roaming war orphans that seared his memory.
“We shared our food with the Korean kids. We even gave them our clothes to wear. It was just pitiful. The kids were just wandering because their parents were killed.”
When his 11 months of war duty ended in December 1952, Garland said he left the Korean peninsula with a sense of helplessness because “nothing seemed to be getting done.”
After his service, he returned to Buffalo and married the former Carol Hodges. And while he never discussed the war with his family for years, Garland said he could not stop thinking about the war orphans. The memory, he said, compelled him to somehow make a difference in the lives of young people.
“We worked with little ones and teenagers for 50 years at our churches trying to lead them to the Lord through biblical direction,” said Garland, a born-again Christian.
He said he still thinks about the mother and her two young children whom he shielded. He wonders whatever became of them.
"I still wonder what happened to those three people,” he said. “I’m sure the Lord will one day tell me when I ask him.”
Paul R. Garland, 89
War zone: Korean War
Years of service: Drafted April 1951 – January 1953
Most prominent honors: Combat Infantry Badge, Korean Service Medal, Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Medal, New York State Conspicuous Service Cross, Korean Presidential Unit Citation