More than 50 years after being honorably discharged from the military, Richard Grenier of Old Town watched Tuesday as a Purple Heart was pinned to his gray blazer for wounds he received during the Korean War.
Grenier, now 74, entered the military at age 17 on March 23, 1950, unaware he would be sent to fight in Korea immediately after basic training. His intent was to go to Fort Belvoir in Virginia for school, Grenier said.
He certainly never expected to be wounded three times during the conflict and then taken prisoner by the Chinese. He was held as a prisoner of war for 33 months in North Korea.
During the war, Grenier was shot in the head, the bullet penetrating his helmet and forcing the liner into his skull. He also suffered shrapnel wounds in his left leg and hand, he said.
Those wounds eventually earned him the Purple Heart, the medal presented to U.S. military personnel wounded in combat.
Soldiers don’t automatically receive their Purple Heart and must request the medal, state Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono, explained Tuesday.
“[Grenier] finally stood up and said, ‘I’d like to have my Purple Heart,'” she said.
Grenier participated in the defense of the Pusan Perimeter, where he was captured.
“We ended the war in Korea, then the Chinese came in and hit us,” he said, sipping a glass of brandy Tuesday. “We ran into pretty near a million Chinese, and we had no chance.”
He and numerous others were captured and took part in what he referred to as a death march to camps where they were held.
“If the people didn’t make it … I heard that if we couldn’t carry them, they’d be shot,” Grenier said.
He marched along the Yalu River to Pyoktong, North Korea, near the Chinese border. There he slept on the ground on a straw mat with no blanket and was fed oatmeal-like millet mush three times a day for nearly three years.
About a year before his release, he and other prisoners were treated to rice and vegetables.
“You wouldn’t believe it,” he said, declining to go into further detail of his time in captivity. “I was 185 pounds when I went in, 118 when I came out.
“We just lay around in dirt and lice and everything else there,” Grenier said, noting that a few men would go on wood detail sometimes to keep the furnace going.
To this day, conflict between North Korea and South Korea continues.
Although Grenier’s wife of 33 years, Rita, said her husband doesn’t talk much about his service, he said he still “definitely” pays attention to today’s conflicts.
In his opinion, the United States “should have been looking at Korea, not Iraq.”
At Grenier’s request, Schneider had the honor of presenting the soldier with his Purple Heart.
“The only thing I want to say to everyone here is I love you and thanks for everything,” Grenier said, wiping his eyes after receiving the medal.
About 30 people, including close friends and family members, attended the ceremony.
Grenier’s grandson, Capt. Nick Chaisson of Old Town, called the VFW Hall from where he’s stationed in the Army at Fort Riley in Kansas.
“It really sent shivers down my spine when he told me of his experiences,” Schneider said. “Being able to pin on a Purple Heart, I can’t tell you what an honor it is to be involved in this ceremony.”
While held captive, Grenier was able to write letters to family in the United States to let them know that he was OK.
In 1953, when the United States, North Korea and China held truce talks, Grenier was released.
Asked what was the first thing he did when he returned to the States, Grenier said: “A nurse came over in my face and says, ‘How are you, soldier?’ and I said, ‘I want you,’ and then I said, ‘I want ice cream.'”