By Beth Williams, Current Staff
The crackle of gunfire, the smell of blood, two enemies rushing to meet one another—these are images that might come to mind when one envisions warfare. Local veteran John Zink, however, had quite a different experience with war.
“I was in the engineers,” he said. “If the troops need a bridge, that’s what the engineers do.”
Zink, who was born in 1933, is a veteran of the Korean War. The Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953, involved a conflict between North and South Korea and was the first military engagement of the Cold War. The U.S. assisted the South, while the Soviet Union aided the North.
“Korea was a funny war. We didn’t expect it, because we had just fought the ‘war to end all wars’,” Zink said.
Zink was drafted into the Army when he was 20 years old. Many of his friends and classmates also went, and he personally knew some men who fought on the front lines. As an engineer, Zink’s job was to build bridges and roads, and do any special projects that the Army deemed necessary.
One of these special projects included testing atomic bombs in the Nevada desert.
“We were on a special assignment down in Yucca Flats. In 1955, after the atomic bomb was dropped, the United States was testing mostly between January and March. It was a site 60 to 70 miles from Las Vegas, out in the desert somewhere. I spent three months out there. We set up a tent city in the desert, and our job was to set up a site so they could bring in an atomic bomb and test it,” Zink said.
At that time, much of the testing was done to see if the technology could be used for purposes beyond combat.
“Generally, an atomic bomb was detonated in the air. Normally, to simulate that, they put [the bombs] up in a tower. But somebody got the brainstorm, ‘Could we use atomic bombs for building canals and ditches?’ So that was our job: We had to bury a bomb so they could see if it would work. I think that they got rid of that idea [really] quickly, because of all the radiation. When [a bomb] goes off, it obliterates everything,” Zink said.
“We set up a tent city in the desert, and our job was to set up a site so they could bring in an atomic bomb and test it.”
– John Zink, local veteran
While not on special assignments, Zink was stationed in Fort Lewis, Washington. If needed in Korea, Zink’s squad could have been on a boat and shipped out within a week.
“It was an excellent place to be stationed,” Zink said. “I developed friendships. People from town would take me on boat trips.”
Zink also enjoyed the camaraderie of the military while he was stationed at Fort Lewis. He slept in close quarters with his fellow soldiers, and learned the importance of discipline in the military.
“When you were gone, somebody came in to see if our beds were all looking good and that our clothes were hung up right. Mama wasn’t there to do it. All our beds had to be made the right way, and all our sheets had to be tucked in. If one person in the squad messed up, you might find all of the beds tipped over, to make a point,” Zink said.
After he finished his service in the Army, Zink went back to school. He studied at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, where it took him eight years to earn his diploma.
Now Zink is very involved in veterans’ activities. He is the First Vice Commander of the West Bend American Legion Post, where he is second in charge after the Commander and also serves as membership chairperson. Additionally, he attends numerous events in the area that honor veterans and thank them for their service, such as the Veterans Day observance ceremony that was presented at Kettle Moraine High School this year.
When reflecting upon his years of service, Zink feels honored to have served his country.
“People treated us very well. It was not at all like the Vietnam War, where people were spit on. We were held in very high respect. The military was very respected, and I believe it is again,” Zink said.
(Photograph by Beth Williams, Current Staff. Edited to clarify the reasons for the Korean War.)