Joseph P. Barilec learned the trade of machining at Lackawanna High School and then learned a hard economic lesson when he graduated in 1948.
There were no jobs.
All of the veterans returning from World War II were receiving preference and, to Barilec’s way of thinking, rightfully so.
“So me and 10 other friends, including my brother Stephen, all joined the Army and took our basic training in Camp Pickett, Va.,” he recalled. “It was something new for me, and I was making a couple dollars.”
He would soon find out that the price of employment was war.
“After basic training, we all went in different directions. I went to Japan as part of the World War II occupational forces. Then on June 25, 1950, the Korean War started. I was in Kyoto, Japan, and within a week we were on a train south to Fukuoka and on a landing craft crossing the Sea of Japan to the Korean peninsula.”
In a matter days, he said, he went from a “fun-loving, ball-playing” soldier to someone tossed into war and charged with keeping tanks rolling and guns shooting.
“We often saw the action at a distance, except when we had to go to front lines and transport back tanks, artillery pieces, you name it, and we fixed it.”
Retrieving the broken equipment could be hazardous.
“I know what it sounds like to have bullets go over your head. It’s like ‘zing’ and when they hit the ground or a building, it’s like a thud.”
He also knows what it’s like to lose a friend.
“My very close friend Teddy Szweda was in the 2nd Division Artillery, and he got captured up in North Korea. He died a POW, and Teddy had lost a brother in World War II. My other friend Raymond Westphal was an MP in the 2nd Division Infantry and was wounded in the buttocks and chin. He spent three months in a hospital in Japan and then returned back to combat.”
Korea, Barilec said, exposed him to not only emotional extremes, but weather in the extreme.
During his first summer, he said, the temperature rose to an unmerciful 112 degrees. Then, the opposite extreme occurred during the winter of 1950-51.
“It got down to 30 degrees below zero. We had nothing but leftover junk from the Second World War that came from Okinawa. To give you an example, we didn’t have any radiator fluid for our vehicles and had to drain the water from them at night because it got so cold.
“If you needed to go out in your vehicle, you’d take a five-gallon bucket of water from a tank we kept heated in our tent. This was a different war. We were short of everything over there.”
On the other hand, there was plenty of horror.
“We would go from one village to the next and see civilians who had been mutilated and murdered. We would see American, North and South Korean and Chinese soldiers. They were dead, and some were swollen up, blistered and frozen.”
Barilec says he saw enough to never forget the sacrifices so many had made, and he has traveled near and far to honor them.
Ten years ago, he visited China and Korea, stopping at memorials and museums, though he says the Chinese “promoted propaganda showing photographs of dead soldiers and places they took in the war.”
He also traveled to Ankara, Turkey, where on a vacation to visit a relative he managed to take in the Turkish Korean War Memorial.
And of course he has paid his respects at the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“I’ve been there probably 10 times. It means an awful lot to me.”
And always, he remembers his dear friend Teddy.
But it doesn’t take a trip to Washington for that to happen.
“Every time I go to church I remember Teddy. He was nice young boy, 18 years old.”
In his life beyond the military, Barilec said, he worked at Bethlehem Steel’s machine shop, but layoffs “and the bread line” prompted him to switch to General Motors, then Ford, where he eventually moved up in seniority and retired as the superintendent of skilled trades.
He and his wife, the former Maria Grajeda, raised four children.
His family, he says, has helped over the years to carry him through the sorrowful memories of war.