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A Profile in Courage: Phoenix army vet took knocks before opportunity came knocking

(AP Photo)
LISTEN: Korean War Vet

All this week, KTAR will be bringing you the lives and stories of the 2015 Phoenix Veterans Day Parade grand marshals in a series entitled A Profile in Courage.

Army Corporal and Korean War Veteran Nelson Ladd is among the thousands marching in the 2015 Phoenix Veterans Day Parade.  He helped build the float on which his fellow Korean Vets will ride.

Nelson Ladd (KTAR Photo)

Nelson Ladd (KTAR Photo)

They represent the estimated 5.72 million U.S. men and women who served during the Korean Conflict between 1950 and 1953. The Veterans Administration reports less than half of those who served are living today.

Ladd, 84, still remembers entering the service 63 years ago. Two years earlier, in 1950, Communist troops in North Korea marched into NATO-protected South Korea and President Harry Truman sent in a force of 300,000 Americans to its defense.

Ladd had graduated high school early and enrolled at the University of Wichita in Kansas. But his expectations for a career in science began to slip.

“The second semester, they put me on academic restriction, and then they suspended me,” he said. “What’s sad about it is I majored in physics.”

Ordered to report to the U.S. Army, he turned in his book bags for dog tags.

“I was drafted in 1952, when I was 20 years old,” he said. “I couldn’t buy a drink in Kansas City.”

He was small, too, barely fitting into his uniform.

“At that time I was 5-foot-6 and 130 pounds,” he said.

Ladd was assigned to the U.S. Army’s 84th Engineering Construction Battalion as a corporal.

After 12 weeks of training, “They asked me if I wanted to go to OCS (Officer Candidate School),” but he didn’t bite.  “I was told they had to run with their rifles,” he laughed. “So I wasn’t interested.”

But, he said he kept scoring well on the aptitude tests.

“They put me in the surveying section and all the guys had college degrees, and I didn’t,” he said. He may not have had the formal schooling, but he had an engineer’s mind.

The team of young Army engineers set out to the village of Jang Pa-ri.

“We were a half a mile behind the front line, across the Imjin River.”

Their mission: Build a 1,000-foot long permanent bridge strong enough to withstand heavy traffic and military strikes.

“It’s named after George Libby, a combat engineer and the first Medal of Honor winner down at Taegu,” Ladd said.

Libby died while protecting fellow soldiers during a bloody attack by the North Korean People’s Army three years before Ladd arrived in South Korea.

Ladd and the team of engineers built the massive steel and concrete bridge in the middle of the ongoing conflict. His efforts earned him the Korean Presidential Unit Citation.

When they finished, “We went up to Panmunjom, where we had to clear all the mine fields.”

Picture wide swaths of land, littered with cardboard boxes and stuffed with twitchy grenades.

“About 10 (grenades) wired together and the pins are all pulled.”

To keep from blowing each other up, Ladd said it took total synchronicity.

“You get 10 guys to cut the wire and throw that in the pit.”

One time, Ladd was the one off cue.

“I didn’t get one where it was supposed to be. Just my fault! That lieutenant really let me have it. He said, ‘Ladd!  I’m going to throw you into that pit!’”

Ladd can laugh now, because the kid who flunked physics was turning into a man

“I grew up!  I went over there as a snot-nosed kid, knew everything and when we came back I saw how the world was.”

He was motivated to see it from another perspective.

“When I came home I used the GI Bill to go back to college for a master’s degree in physics.”

That landed him a long career as a physicist working for NASA on the Apollo spacecraft, the SR-71 Blackbird and other aerospace projects.

“I’m really not a dummy,” Ladd said — as if the kid who flunked physics, built bridges to freedom and became a rocket scientist really needed to explain.

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