Sigurdsen: Memories of Korean War remain sharp for 91-year-old veteran

Leonard Sigurdsen, age 91, still lives on the farm of his childhood surrounded by his family.

Many family stories go untold solely due to the lack of asking. Such was not the case with Leonard Sigurdsen.

Memories of Sigurdsen’s tour of duty in Korea during the early 1950s receded into the past after he returned to life back in Minnesota. His sweetheart, Alberta, awaited his return with anticipation and they were soon married. The young couple bought the Sigurdsen dairy farm from his parents and raised six children there. Then time and life dulled his memories of the war – memories that lay forgotten in a dusty old scrapbook.

That is, until one of Sigurdsen’s grandchildren began asking questions about his service in the Korean War. Those youthful questions ignited Sigurdsen’s memories and inspired the interest of other family members.

Sigurdsen’s early life

Sigurdsen was born near Heron Lake, a small town in southwestern Minnesota. His parents were Norwegian immigrants, Ingvald and Anna (Hoff) Sigurdsen. When he was 13, his family moved to a farm near Grasston. He attended high school in Pine City. After graduating, he worked with his dad on the family farm, the same farm that is still his home today.

Sigurdsen was drafted into the army at age 21. He was about to experience life in a way that he could not imagine while growing up on a farm.

He was sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina where the focus of his training was calculating how far to shoot artillery based on temperature, wind velocity and humidity. There were no computers or calculators back then, a testimonial to his mathematical proficiency. This skill was destined to serve his unit of soldiers well in the heat of battle during his tour of duty in the Korean War.

The soldier goes to war

With his training completed, Sigurdsen was reassigned to Korea. Crossing the ocean proved to be a series of harrowing experiences because of storms. However, Sigurdsen never got seasick. It must have been because of his Norwegian sea legs.

Sigurdsen described the artillery or big guns, 155 MM cannons that were set up in bunkers on the high ground overlooking a valley. Sigurdsen and his compatriots were hunkered down under a big tent surrounded by sandbags. A South Korean Army unit was entrenched below using small artillery.

One day when there was a lull in the action, Sigurdsen asked his captain if he could visit his friend, Richard, in another unit not far away. But when he got there, Richard was involved in some sort of operation and couldn’t talk to him. Later, when he returned to his unit, Sigurdsen found out why his friend was so occupied.

Miraculously, the spy had somehow crossed no man’s land that separated the North and South Koreans. No man’s land was filled with land mines and booby traps making it exceedingly dangerous to cross over. The spy warned the Americans that the North Koreans were planning a huge offensive against them sometime during the next two days.

The American soldiers weren’t sure if they should believe the spy but decided to prepare just in case. Thankfully, the offensive didn’t happen the next day, which allowed them more time to acquire shells for the big guns. Intel indicated that there was the possibility of a 150,000-soldier force of North Koreans bearing down on them.

When the fighting began, it lasted for three days and nights. The big guns weren’t designed to tolerate repeated firing. The barrels would get very hot increasing in danger of misfiring and putting the gunners in great peril. The firing was so fierce – three times the rate that these guns were designed to tolerate with no chance to cool off. But, again, miraculously, there were no mishaps.

That’s when Sigurdsen’s training was put to critical use. Throughout the attack, he worked tirelessly, calculating where the rounds of the artillery would land. Of the three units engaged in this battle, his calculated coordinates were the only rounds that found their mark, likely saving many lives.

The Americans and South Koreans were able to hold off the enemy. At the conclusion of the attack, the commander personally thanked Sigurdsen and awarded him a citation for his meritorious service.

One event stands out as the saddest for Sigurdsen. His Captain’s tour of duty had ended and he was leaving for home. His replacement was already on duty. While he was talking to another officer outside the big tent, a shell fired by the enemy exploded off the cliff above the Captain. Shrapnel struck him and he was killed instantly. This Captain was the only casualty during the offensive.

“It was only by the grace of God that the spy made it safely across no man’s land and that we were able to withstand the attack!” Sigurdsen recalled with great emotion in his voice. “And if we hadn’t been warned, it’s very likely that none of us would have made it back alive.”

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