Korean War veteran Kennie Rohlk

Korean War veteran Kennie Rohlk talks about the state of American politics at his rural Aurelia, Iowa, farm as he combines corn in mid-October. 

Tim Hynds, Sioux City Journal

AURELIA, Iowa | During the Korean War, Kennie Rohlk was the youngest tank commander in the 23rd Infantry Regiment Tank Company and spent nearly a year on the front lines. 

"I went in with the attitude to do the best you can and give it 100 percent," he said. "That's just how simple it is. That's the way life is."

At the age of 84, Rohlk is still giving his work 100 percent. He maintains an active schedule managing 400 acres of farmland and working full-time at the construction company he has owned since 1960, Paul Park Co. 

"I like what I'm doing. I enjoy the work. I really do," he said. 

Rohlk was born in Holstein, where his father owned a farm. After his father lost his farm in the Great Depression, the family moved to Storm Lake, where he would graduate high school in 1950. 

The following year, Rohlk volunteered for the U.S. Army. He was deployed to Korea in 1952. 

Rohlk landed on the beach at Incheon during an invasion in 1952, his was one of the first tanks to roll off the watercraft that brought them there. He would be on the front lines for the next 10 months. 

"We went through Seoul twice. Just tore that city up," he said. "You grew up fast."

Rohlk remembers being struck by the thousands of women and children who lived in the refugee camps, displaced by the conflict.

"They came in droves, just like unloading a stadium for a football game," he said. 

He remembers how they would clean out the 55-gallon drums used for tank fuel, cut them down and then use them to cook rice and fish. He said the fish bones would dissolve during the cooking. 

"We should be very thankful for what we have," he said. "This is the greatest country ever. There is nothing like it."

One night on patrol in November 1952, Rohlk was shot three times by a Chinese patrol. He received medical care and eventually returned to the front.

For his sacrifice, Rohlk received a Purple Heart. Years later, he would give it to his granddaughter when she was 6 years old.

During the war, Rohlk was offered an opportunity to attend West Point and begin a career in the military. He opted not to. After leaving the full-time service in 1954, he moved back to Storm Lake and remained in the Army Reserves through 1966. 

In 1960, Rohlk bought Paul Park Co., a Storm Lake-based construction business. Fifty-six years later, Rohlk remains the owner and still works full-time. The company has built several schools, churches and other buildings in the area. 

Rohlk married his wife, Janice, in 1992. Their blended family includes seven children and 14 grandchildren.  

Looking back on Korea, he said he doesn't feel forgotten, but sometimes he feels it's an underestimated war. 

"The people don't understand what the value of Korea is," he said. "It stopped the communists. Otherwise, I'm serious, Japan would have been invaded."

Rohlk had the opportunity to visit the Korean War Memorial in Washington D.C. along with many other veterans during the first honor flight. 

"It's tremendous," he said. 

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City hall reporter

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