SIOUX CITY | Jon Wagoner’s confidence as a young adult might’ve been a blessing.
Now 80, Wagoner reflects on his service in the Navy during the Korean War. On a trip on the USS Talladega to Incheon, South Korea, Wagoner observed the effects of the bloody conflict that divided the Asian nation and ended in an uneasy truce. War damage and an unswept mine channel stood out to the 21-year-old. Eye opening, sure, but the Adel native said at the time, it was just part of the war.
“When you’re 19, you think you’re still indestructible,” he said. “Usually, you have to get a little bit older to find out how mortal you really are.”
He said he’s thought several times since his service with the Navy about how close he was to combat and a life altering situation.
“When we first went into Yokosuka (Japan), we had aircraft carriers, cruisers, amphibious vehicles and we thought we could just do the job,” he said. “I think the older you get, you think, what if the other side had assets we didn’t know anything about?”
Yokosuka was where Wagoner and a crew of about 300 on the Talladega called home for most of six months.
The Talladega was an attack transport ship (APA), which was used for transporting Marine battalions and all equipment, excluding tanks. If needed, the ship could navigate waters and drop troops off right on shore.
A typical day aboard the Talladega for Wagoner consisted of watch duty, cleaning and scrubbing the ship and identifying foreign ships. Wagoner said he saw no combat, but the realities of war were apparent during training exercises.
On one “War Games” mission to Iwo Jima, Japan, Wagoner said the Navy acted as the aggressor, moving to take the island. A U.S. Army team played to defend. But to Wagoner, it seemed like anything but a game.
“It was very clear to me that all the Army had to do was reduce the range on the live fire and instead of being spectators, we’d have been targets,” he said. “They were firing over us, but you could see the splashes. That’s as real as I wanted.”
By the time Wagoner entered active duty in 1956, the fighting in Korea had died down. His ship went to Korea twice; once for rest and relaxation in Inchon – an idea that still makes Wagoner chuckle, and for a training exercise in Busan. The unswept mine channel and war damage in Inchon let Wagoner know that even after the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953, fights were still a real possibility.
“It was pretty eye opening for a 19-year-old,” he said. “You didn’t know what to expect.”
Part of that unexpected aura around the Korean War was due to the fact that no one who had been in combat really talked about what went on, he said.
“You hear some scuttlebutt, but by and large, they don’t talk much,” he said. “It was something they would rather not talk about.”
Wagoner spent six months overseas on the Talladega, coming back to the United States in November 1956. He stayed in the reserve after his eight years were up and was a member of the Navy Reserve for 41 years.
Wagoner is retired now after 43 years as a retail pharmacist. He enjoys volunteering at the Siouxland Center for Active Generations and the Sioux City Railroad Museum.
The Navy was a major part of Wagoner’s life before he served. His father, Frank, was a contract employee as a carpenter with the Navy. George, his twin brother, also served aboard a ship in the Navy.
He joined the Navy Reserve in February 1954 after his draft status was listed as 1A. He said he figured he would join the Navy at some point, but his draft status accelerated his decision.
“I always thought we would go to the Navy, but that hastened it,” he said.
Looking back, Wagoner said he’s pleased with his decision to join the Navy. He was able to see the world and was able to grow as a human being through his service.
“Overall the experience was pretty positive,” he said. “When you get out and you reminisce, you think, ‘That wasn’t so bad after all.’”