They served on the land, on the sea, and in the air, but four veterans of the Korean War who were each involved in one of the bloodiest battles of the war met for the first time Wednesday at a restaurant in Bakersfield.
"I've never met any of these guys before, but it's an honor to meet with them now," said Bob Otto, 97, a veteran Air Force combat co-pilot and former high school teacher who is also known for playing his cornet at thousands of veteran funerals in Kern County since 1983.
Organized by Honor Flight Kern County, Wednesday's lunch at the Tower Craft Bar & Grill in downtown Bakersfield gave the four men a chance to share memories and compare notes about their experiences during the war.
"We were all in different outfits," Otto said of the foursome.
And yet, they were all involved to one degree or another in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, one of the bloodiest battles of "the forgotten war."
"It didn't wind up being what it was supposed to be," Art Gentry, who was serving as a U.S. Marine, said of the battle deep in North Korean territory.
Gentry said, as American troops approached the Chinese border, he thought they were there to mop up a few enemy units. The war had been going well, and the allies had enemy troops on the run.
But on Nov. 27, 1950, Communist China's entry into the war became painfully obvious when Chinese soldiers surprised U.S. troops in the Chosin Reservoir area, initiating a brutal battle in frigid, below-zero weather that would change the course of the war.
At about 10:30 p.m., Gentry recalled, many troops on the ground were caught sleeping, literally, when the attack came.
"We didn't have our boots on," Gentry said. "That's why so many got frostbite."
"Wave after wave were coming in," he remembered of the more than 120,000 Chinese who joined the North Koreans.
Over a period of weeks, United Nations forces were able to withdraw to the port of Hungnam, where American warships and hospital ships were waiting.
Gentry still remembers coming out of the mountains and seeing the harbor in the distance filled with friendly forces.
"That was a glorious sight," he remembered Wednesday.
"After 15 days and 78 miles, we'd made it," he said. "As we were coming down, somebody started singing the Marine Corps Hymn — and we all just began to march.
Bob Bovee was one of those waiting — on a hospital ship, the USS Repose.
Bovee, who entered the U.S. Navy as a seaman and left as a Lieutenant Senior Grade, was attached to the Marines during World War II and operated amphibious landing boats that carried troops onshore at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He served on ships during the Korean War and participated in five battles.
U.S. Marine veteran Jimmie Martin, another enlisted man who was promoted to the rank of captain, was sent to Korea in 1950 where he was assigned to a unit that needed scouts. He was part of a small special operations unit that went into the Chosin Reservoir area by helicopter on a mission.
He later took part in battles at the Punchbowl and Panmunjom.
Just last April, the 90-year-old married his sweetheart, the former Dolores "Dede" Taylor. The two live at Brookdale Retirement Community in Bakersfield.
Life at war is far behind Martin. And judging by his smile, he's loving being in love.
"It's been a grand year," he said.