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Local veteran still lives with sacrifice for country

July 3, 2011

By STEVEN NALLEY
citybeat@bellsouth.net

John Albritton still lives with the injury he suffered in service to America.
Even after multiple surgeries to repair damage a hand grenade did to his stomach and right lung in the Korean War, complications from the injury kept him coming back to the hospital, even after his retirement.
“I still have some remnants left of it,” Albritton said. “I still have to watch pretty closely what I eat. About six years ago, I had a blood clot in my stomach.”
The injury, however, did not keep him from coming back to the Army.
“Well, I told them I was a slow learner,” Albritton said. “It’s one of those things. Somebody has to do it.”
Albritton is a veteran of three American wars: World War II, the Korean War, and, after his injury, the Vietnam War.
He retired in 1970 as a lieutenant general in the Army with more than a dozen medals, including the Purple Heart for his injury and the Silver Star, the third-highest military decoration in America.
“After three wars, I needed to get out,” Albritton said.
It was the end of 21 total years of service that began in 1945 with World War II. The start of Albritton’s military career was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, he said, he got in on the back end of World War II, joining American occupying forces in Germany after the Allies had already won on that front. On the other hand, he said, he was drafted less than a week after turning 18.
“I was 18 years old on Sunday, I registered on Monday, got my class card on Wednesday and my call on Friday. That’s how long it took them to draft me when I was 18 years old in World War II.”
Albritton’s service then continued for 18 months, after which he went to Mississippi State University for four and a half years. He joined MSU’s ROTC and was commissioned when he graduated as Second Lieutenant of the 32nd Infantry, First Battalion, A Company. He was between his junior and senior years when the Korean War broke out, he said, and it wasn’t long before he saw combat in Korea.
Albritton suffered his injury in Korea’s Iron Triangle, he said, fighting for patches of high ground nicknamed Jane Russell Hill and Sandy Top. Albritton said 365 American soldiers died and 1,100 were wounded in just a dozen days of combat there.
After A Company took Sandy Top, Albritton said, another lieutenant reported his C Company’s numbers had been reduced to nine soldiers. Albritton’s battalion commander asked A Company to take over C Company’s objective, Jane Russell Hill.
Albritton’s artillery officer offered to stay behind and provide support. Not long after Albritton left, an artillery round killed that officer, wounded the radio officers and ended any hope Albritton had for artillery support.
“I walked away, and I didn’t get more than 15-20 steps away from him until an artillery round came in,” Albritton said.
It wasn’t the last close call Albritton would have that day. On Jane Russell Hill, Albritton dug a trench to protect himself, he said, using a case of 10-in-one rations as a shield. When he was ordered to withdraw, he left the rations in the trench, which were immediately hit by an artillery round.
“It just spattered me all over with corned beef hash and pork and beans and the case of rations, but I didn’t get any wounds,” Albritton said. “Two sergeants were crossing a little further away than I; they both got hit with fragments of that mortar round and on down the hill just a little way.”
After withdrawing, A Company was ordered to take Sandy Top again under cover of darkness, Albritton said. At 11 p.m. that night, he saw an enemy throw a hand grenade into his trench.
“I had on an armored vest, but it exploded behind me,” Albritton said. “The armored vest buckled, and the fragments went through my lower back, through my stomach and into my right lung, and I got a fragment in my arm. I was lucky. If I didn’t have that armored vest, I don’t think I’d be here.”
Albritton was evacuated to a hospital in Jeju, South Korea, for his first operation.
“The doctor opened up my stomach, and he told me after the operation that I was recovering fine, that he just wiped me out, cleaned me out and sewed me up again,” Albritton said. “He sent me to Japan as soon as I was able to eat, so I spent about 10 days in the hospital in Jeju, and they flew me over to Japan, to the Osaka army hospital.”
Several days of X-rays later, he said, doctors found fragments in his right lung.
“They opened me up, took out a rib, cut two more loose, took out the fragments and sewed me up,” Albritton said. “Then I spent almost two months in the hospital in Japan, and I was evacuated back to the States.”
Albritton was stationed in present-day Fort Rucker in Dale County, Ala., when adhesions from the war injury blocked his stomach, he said, and he had to have surgery again. The adhesions returned again a year after the grenade hit him, when he was stationed at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala. This time and subsequent times, he said, doctors were able to help him without surgery.
“They pumped me out from above to relieve the pressure, and I was able to survive without an operation,” Albritton said. “Later on after I retired from the military, I had one here in the late 80s; I had another episode of it where adhesions closed my stomach and blocked my intestines. They pumped me out again, and I was able to make it without an operation.”
In the years after his injury, Albritton said he remained in the Army because of the health care they offered for his injury, and ultimately he decided to stay with them.
“After a while, my wife decided the Army wasn’t so bad after all,” he said. “She said, ‘If you want to stay in, stay in, and I’ll support it.’”
Albritton said his role in Vietnam kept him out of firefights, because he served as a lieutenant colonel in the Military Assistance Command headquarters for all U.S. armed forces in Vietnam. In addition to paperwork, he was a briefing officer for dignitaries visiting Vietnam. Even out of combat, however, he noticed how much war had changed.
“There was no front line,” Albritton said. “Combat was everywhere in Vietnam. Almost every night I could go on top of our living quarters and you could see fire fights going on in several different directions around Saigon.”
At home, there were changes too, he said.
“In World War II, everybody was behind the efforts of war back then,” Albritton said. “The feeling’s a lot different with different wars. The Korean war changed from what World War II was, and then Vietnam was completely different. People didn’t support the Vietnam War, and they didn’t treat the military very nicely when we returned home from Vietnam.”
In turn, Albritton said, modern wars have changed, with conventional firefights giving way to roadside bombs. One thing never changed for Albritton, he said, from World War II to Vietnam to the present day.
“Somebody’s got to do it,” Albritton said. “That’s the way I feel.”

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