Parade honors of Korean War veterans (w/video, gallery)
Feb. 1, 2014 at 7 p.m.
Updated Jan. 31, 2014 at 8:01 p.m.
Charles Maples said he was blessed to have made it home from the war.
The now 85-year-old Marine veteran was one of the few to make it out of Korea. More than 36,000 soldiers died in that war, almost all of them in combat.
Saturday morning, Maples and more than 100 other Korean War veterans were honored with a parade sponsored by Warrior's Weekend.
Organization president Ron Kocian estimated about 1,000 people lined Main Street in downtown Victoria to watch the parade. Participants included Victoria and local fire departments, staff and puppies from Dorothy H. O'Connor Pet Adoption Center and Nazareth Academy marching band, just to name a few entries.
Kocian said this is the first year for the parade, and it will be the last. He said organizers put it on to remember those who served in Korea. Afterward, veterans and their families were treated to a steak luncheon at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall.
Many floats and cars in the parade donned signs stating they'd always remember.
The war is commonly called "The Forgotten War" because it started in the wake of World War II and right before the Vietnam War.
Maples and the many men who fought believe their stories of anguish and triumph should never lapse.
"We lost men out there," Maples said, closing his eyes as if he were picturing the days he spent lost at a reservoir at the Sup'ung Dam.
"So many men."
Maples enlisted in the Marine Corps. in 1948. He had received a draft notice from the Army, and his brother - also a Marine - told him that he had better enlist with the Marines instead.
Two years later, Maples arrived at the Chosin Reservoir, near North Korea.
He said the Army landed in South Korea and planned to attack the Korean Army by hitting them from both sides.
They didn't know that Chinese troops had infiltrated the area, Maples said, to protect the Chosin Reservoir, a cheap source of electricity for the Chinese.
"They hid in the smoke.
"In the fires.
"In the trees," he said.
It was freezing that time of year, Maples said. He graphically recalled how Marines' feet would freeze inside their rubber boots and how the bottom of their feet would fall off when they took their boots off.
"We lost a lot of men to frostbite," he said.
While the men were able to fight their way out of being surrounded, Maples said the troops almost did not make it home when the Chinese blew up a bridge between Koto-ri and Hungnam.
Maples said one of the Marine lieutenants recalled seeing a Bailey bridge - a portable, prefabricated, truss bridge - in Japan. The bridge was parachuted in, and the troop was able to evacuate, Maples said.
"I was one of the fortunate ones that made it out," he said. "Had it not been for that bridge, we would have never got out of Korea."
Maples returned to the states after suffering a spinal injury when his tank drove over a land mine and blew up. The injury, he said, still bothers him today.
Maples, who was a demolition man in combat, said when he returned to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, he "didn't have to do that anymore."
Instead, he worked in a fire department for the next nine months - he only fought one fire - and went home to Tennessee when his term ended. He spent four years, nine months and 17 days in the Marines.
Steak - of all things - brought him to Texas in 1983, he said.
"A friend of mine owned a steakhouse, and when he told me how much money that he made, I knew I wanted to do that," Maples said.
He opened Western Sizzlin steak houses in Longview, Victoria and Corpus Christi, and for 12 years, he flipped steaks in the Crossroads.
"Then, one day, I sold it," he said. "I got on my motorcycle and toured the country."
Eventually, he landed in Las Vegas, where he met his wife, Michele, his junior by about 34 years. The two met while country western dancing.
"He would only dance with the younger girls," Michele said, laughing at the memory. "Then, one night, we went out, and it was instant."
They ate breakfast at 4 a.m., she said, and just talked into the morning.
The two married in 2005.
"He is a young soul," she said, "I'm an old soul, and it just works."
The couple moved back to Victoria about four years ago to be closer to their children and grandchildren.
Two years ago, Maples had a heart attack, fell and broke his back. His wife said she didn't think he was going to survive.
"I said goodbye to him," she said. "There was nothing (the doctors) could do for him; we just put it in God's hands."
Maples was not able to attend a similar parade for the Vietnam War veterans last year, also sponsored by Warrior's Weekend, because of his back problems. This year, however, with a cane and a smile, he proudly waved to people in the street as he rode in the parade.
"We lost thousands of men," Maples said. "But, we freed South Korea, and it's free today because we were there.