Korean War veteran continues serving up music
December 15, 2011
FORT STEWART, Ga. - When Korean War veteran Paul Rivers strikes the black and white keys on his electric pianos, there exists the possibility of being transported in time.
You may be conveyed to a dimly lit lounge of yesteryear where Frank Sinatra melodies marry the fog of cigar smoke and the taste of the scotch on the rocks from your glass. Or, you may be carried away to a fleeting, beautiful memory from your youth.
Wherever or whenever his music takes you, each of Rivers' compositions serve as a window into the man's heart and soul, and they demonstrate what a 74-year-long passion for music can reap when sewn.
On Nov. 23, Rivers established himself as the newest, oldest Family Member of the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Third Infantry Division, by performing for Soldiers and their Families during the brigade's Thanksgiving meal at the 'Vanguard' dining facility on Fort Stewart, Ga.
Rivers said his performance met with such success that he decided to accept the offer of Col. Kimo C. Gallahue, commander of 4IBCT, to perform for Soldiers daily at the dining facility and at future brigade events.
Only in his second week of lunchtime performances, Rivers has demonstrated a singular grasp on regenerating the music of the great artists of the past eight decades. And, by displaying a Disabled American Veterans hat near his keyboards, the musician has hinted at being a living treasure trove of anecdotes.
After completing a set, Nov. 29, Rivers sat and spoke at length about his past as an infantryman serving in the Korean War, as a military musician assigned to Army bands in locations that spanned the globe, and as a professional musician touring night clubs from the Gold Coast of Florida, to Bangor, Maine. Akin to his name, music wove in and out of Rivers' tales. The veteran exhibited an equal passion for his military and civilian careers and spoke often of his sense of duty. Rivers said that when he raised his right hand he made a commitment to the Army--and he believes he fulfills that commitment to this day.
Rivers' story begins with music. The veteran said he began playing the trumpet at age 6 and was an immediate success. His music teacher at the time, Rivers said, called him a child prodigy because he was performing recitals after only two weeks of professional instruction.
Rivers said he continued playing throughout his youth, and often performed with Army bands touring through New York between Madison Barracks, a military installation built at Sackets Harbor a few years after the start of the War of 1812, and Plain Camp, which is now known as Fort Drum. At the age of 17, Rivers said he was able to enlist in the Army thanks to his father's signature and the advice of the recruiter who told him to drink a six-pack of beer the night before his enlistment so he would weigh enough to be admitted.
The veteran said he raised his right hand on Sept. 15, 1949, and was shipped off to Fort Knox, Ky., for basic training. After only one week of band training--in which he served as the drill instructor for the Soldiers who played brass instruments--Rivers said he was transferred to a new duty station and assigned to serve with the 327th Army Band--an all black band.
"My orders were signed by Harry Truman because it was the first integration in the band for them," Rivers said. The veteran said he enjoyed the time with the band but was constantly frustrated by the gulf that segregation put between himself and his fellow Soldiers. "I soldiered with them, I went on tours with them, [but] I always had to go and stay in a white hotel and they put them up in the colored," Rivers said.
The veteran said his requests to his commander to stay in hotels with his fellow Soldiers were denied.
Amidst Rivers' disillusionment the Korean War broke out. Rivers said the Monday after the start of the war in June of 1950 he approached his commander and requested to be reassigned to a combat arms unit so he could join the fight.
"The following Wednesday I was on a troop train heading across the United States, and we [were] picking up cars all the way across," Rivers said. "When we got to the 2nd [Infantry] Division we had a whole lot of guys, but, when we got to Fort Lewis, two to three men a squad was all we had. Truman had cut the Army back that far, you see."
Rivers said he and 38 men were deployed shortly thereafter to Busan, South Korea. The veteran said he and his men were immediately pushed to the line along the Nakdong River to fight beside Soldiers in other regiments with the 2nd Inf. Div., and with elements of the 24th and 25th Infantry Divisions and the 1st Cavalry Division. Rivers said he and fellow troops were hit hard because the ranks were so thin.
"My first night on the line, you know what I felt like," Rivers asked. "It was the Fourth of July. All that stuff in the air and I could hear the darn bullets zinging by me, and I stood up like a darn fool." That first taste of combat was not Rivers' last time experiencing strong emotions--uplifting or disheartening--during the war.
The veteran said he is one of few men who hold six battle stars for the Korean War--his combat service extended from July of 1950 to June of 1951. In that year's time Rivers said he confronted the horrors of seeing the North Korean army use human bodies as bridges, and learned the pain of losing a best friend to enemy fire.
And, Rivers learned he almost lost his life as well. The veteran said he was hit the first time, Sept. 1, by three bursts of machine gun fire. Rivers said he was busy knocking out enemy machine gun positions with hand grenades when the bullets struck, one of which pierced his steel helmet. The veteran said he didn't know he was hit and continued clearing the enemy positions; then he felt disorientated and fell to the ground.
After being transported to the battalion aid station, the veteran said he was stitched up and told he was going to be shipped away from the battlefield. "I said, 'like heck you are,'" Rivers said. "I'm going to stay with my guys." Before being wounded, the veteran said he was serving as a squad leader of three to four men. When he returned to the fight he said he received a temporary battlefield promotion from corporal to sergeant first class so he could lead a platoon.
The veteran said he was hit again--almost fatally this time--on Sept. 21. "I got hit by two bursts of machine gun fire, and [I] laid on a hand grenade to keep it from blowing up my platoon [command post] and killing all my guys," Rivers said. "I threw my helmet over the grenade and laid on it."
The veteran said he woke up six weeks later at Osaka General Hospital with the Silver Star Medal, the Bronze Star Medal, and two Purple Heart Medals pinned on his pillow.
Rivers said it was there that the story surrounding his survival was recounted to him.
Rivers said that he was told that when his body was carried to the aid station after the grenade detonation he was bleeding profusely from the back of the head and from the neck. The veteran said his wounds were so severe that his commander considered him to be killed in action.
"So they took me down and put me in a body bag," Rivers said. "One of the medics came out there where they had laid us out--that's the story I got after--they said my little finger was moving inside the bag."
The veteran said the medic and other medical personnel saved his life by unzipping the body bag and placing a mirror up to his mouth to see that he still respired.
Rivers said despite the injuries he sustained, and the more than 100 pieces of shrapnel that are still lodged in his spinal column from the grenade blast, that the medical care he has received in the Army has kept him healthy and functioning.
I'm a walking example of Army medicine," Rivers said. "I brag on that." Besides leaving the Korean War with his life, Rivers said he had other great experiences during the war. For one, he said, he got to experience the integration of the Soldiers from the 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Inf. Div.--an all black regiment--into his own regiment, the 23rd Inf. Regt., and the 38th Inf. Regt., 2nd Inf. Div. Rivers also said he got to fight alongside the 15th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division--and, at one time, he helped the regiment secure its colors from the battlefield.
"The way we felt about the 3rd [Infantry Division] was they were the only ones we could trust to stand beside us," Rivers said. "They always put a [South Korean] division between us and another American division--and they ran every time. "If they put the 3rd [Infantry Division] there [they] would hold the line with us," Rivers continued. Rivers said he was discharged from the Army in 1952, and spent two years and four months recuperating from his wartime wounds--which still bled--in a Veterans Affairs hospital in New York.
After driving taxi cabs and working odd jobs for a bit after the time he spent in the hospital, Rivers said his desire to serve again in the Army grew strong. With his veteran disability status, however, Rivers said it was a hard feat to pull off. The veteran said recruiters refused to work with him. But, in 1956, with the help of a four-star general, the veteran said he was able to reenter the service in the band field--and the rest of his story is musical history.
Rivers' eyes lit up as he talked about touring the world with Army bands. The veteran said he served through a period of time when the Army band field changed and grew; he was part of the field when women's and men's Army bands integrated. And then there were his experiences with the rich and famous. Rivers said he had the pleasure of playing for Gen. Douglas MacArthur and for the foreign heads of states of many of America's allies. The musician also said he had the opportunity to perform with greats like Frank Sinatra, Teresa Brewer, Brenda Lee and Charlie Rich.
The veteran said he was stationed at Fort Stewart twice in his military career--from 1956 to 1959, when it was known as Camp Stewart, and from 1962 to 1966. When he retired in 1973, Rivers said he decided to hang his hat in Hinesville, Ga. Rivers' working years were not over once he retired from the service. The musician said he secured an agent who booked him gigs up and down the East Coast. After a few years on the road and with the prospect of having a lounge named for him in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, Rivers said it was time to head home to Georgia to focus on his Family.
The veteran said he returned to Georgia and became active in the community by continuing to perform professionally, and privately at the church he and his wife still belong to. And, Rivers said he joined Chapter 46 of the Disabled American Veterans and Post 6602 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars--organizations in which he is still participates. The veteran said performing at the "Vanguard" dining facility is one more avenue through which he can provide music to the world. And, Rivers said, he enjoys performing for Soldiers.
"They're my guys," Rivers said. "What do you do with your guys? You can't throw them by the side of the road. You've got to take them under your wing [and] help those that need a little help [and] brag on the ones that are outstanding."
Rivers said he intends on performing in 20 years on his hundredth birthday, and said in the meantime he's going to try to keep up with his wife. "She just got two new knees in the last two years," Rivers said. "I've got to get a pair of roller skates to keep up with her."