Tom Markle is on a mission. It is a selfless effort, but a very important one to this local resident.
“I am working to see that a 90-year-old Korean War veteran is awarded the Purple Heart he so richly deserves. As his advocate, I implore the bureaucracy he is trapped in to quickly review his situation and set the record straight. Award the Purple Heart to him,” Markle says of Ray Waelbrock, a Corning resident with an amazing story to tell, one which includes three traumatic experiences involving the destructive forces of fire.
Waelbrock was 18-years-old when he joined the National Guard in 1948. A high school graduate who loved dancing with his girl, Marylou.
The young couple married in 1950 and had set up house in a small apartment in the quaint Southern California town of Rosemead. That same year two important events took place – the first was the couple having their first child, a daughter. The second took Waelbrock on an experience that left a lifetime of scars, emotionally and physically.
“We were sitting in our apartment when we got the message that Ray (Waelbrock) was to immediately leave for military assignment,” Marylou said.
Waelbrock explains, “I was sent to Korea in September 1950, and assigned to the 40th Army Division, D company on the front lines. We were ordered to go to a position up front and launch mortar attacks. It was nighttime and freezing cold with a lot of snow on the ground.
“I had finished my assigned mortar attacks and had climbed into my sleeping bag inside a small bunker. I had layers of clothes on because of the cold and my partner was outside cleaning the gun, when all of sudden there was a diesel fuel explosion inside the bunker. Some of my clothes were blown off, others were burned off. I couldn't see anything and by instinct had covered my eyes with my arm as I felt my way crawling out of the bunker.”
When he finally got out, all that was left of his clothing was his long-johns. Covering his eyes with his arm saved his vision.
“I stood in snow, barefooted, in my long-johns. It was minus 30 degrees outside. I couldn't feel anything because it was so cold, which was probably a blessing due to the severe burns I had suffered.
“I don’t remember much after the explosion. I was probably in shock. I was burned about my hands, arms, face and head. A medic quickly got to me, and I was loaded and transported on a helicopter to Seoul Korea for treatment.”
He was moved two more times, the last at an Army hospital in Yokosuka, Japan undergoing extensive care for his burns and recovery. Waelbrock said the doctors and nurses did an amazing job caring for him and providing treatment.
Nearly four months later, Waelbrock said he was back in action, this time assigned as a training sergeant for the last seven months of his tour.
At the time, Waelbrock didn’t think about a Purple Heart, and for unknown reasons his commanding officer did not submit paperwork for a medal.
“Over 70 years have passed since that awful day and Waelbrock still does not have his Purple Heart,” Markle said.
Scarred for life through his military service, Waelbrock said his experience with fire didn't end there.
His life, along with recognition for his sacrifice, was impacted a second time when a government building housing his and other veteran’s documents went up in flames, loosing all official records.
This only exacerbated Waelbrock's efforts to prove he was injured during this tour on the front-lines of the Korean War.
Then in 2018, for a third time, Waelbrock and his wife were impacted by fire. At age 87, he lost his home in the Paradise Campfire, along with all the Army records he possessed.
“I can't even begin to explain how devastating that time ways” Marylou said. “We have gone back once to see what was left of our home where we had lived for more than 50 years. It was so emotional we haven't been able to go back.”
Waelbrock was in Chico picking up a travel trailer and Marylou was in the Feather River Hospital in Paradise when the fire started. Having undergone recent surgery, Marylou had to be evacuated to another hospital on that infamous day, and it was more than five hours before Waelbrock could locate his wife and the couple of 71 years were reunited.
They eventually relocated to Corning, where they now live at the Woodson Bridge Estates.
“This couple never gives up. Their friends liken them to being Energizer Bunnies that keep on going,” Markle adds.
He believes it is time for the Veterans Administration to review Waelbrock’s situation and see that his Purple Heart is awarded to him.
“Ray (Waelbrock) was given Veteran’s disability benefits due to his injuries in Korea. To be awarded such benefits by the VA, proof of injury was determined. Where are those records now?,” Markle asks. “For more than 70 years, Waelbrock has been told without documented proof of injury, no medal could be given to him.”
He adds, Waelbrock was informed the Federal Building fire destroying his records meant it is a dead-end pursuit for him.
“He fought for his country and was severely injured in Korea,” Markle said. “There is proof of injury documented by the VA, or he would not be receiving disability payments.”
Following the war, Waelbrock became a building contractor. When the scars on this hands became problematic in his work, he retired.
Waelbrock said a doctor at the Veterans Hospital in Redding was able to document his burn scars suffered in the war and that was when he began to receive a small disability monthly payment from the Veterans Administration.
Markle has reached out to area authorities, such as the office of U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa for help in his crusade.
“I am still waiting to hear back from them,” he said. “I just know there is someone, somewhere out there who can help this well deserving veteran who has gone through and given so much.”