SALTILLO – The passage of 60 years hasn’t dulled Don Wilber’s memories of the men who labored beside him in basic combat training for the U.S. Army.
They spent eight weeks together at Camp Cook in California, training for service in the Korean War.
Although Wilber never made it to Korea, he knows that many of the men he trained with never made it home.
“Memorial Day to me is a very painful thing,” Wilber said. “It is an important day for all of us GIs.”
Wilber will be among those Americans taking time today to remember the lives of the country’s fallen soldiers. For him, many of those memories will be personal.
“I can still see the faces of those guys who were killed,” Wilber said before a long pause. “Some things you never forget.”
Wilber, 76, now lives in Saltillo with his wife, Doris Joelle Wilber, 70.
The sixth of eight children, Wilber was 16 when he joined the National Guard along with three of his older brothers. Jim, Bill, Joe and Don Wilber were all in the 40th Infantry Division of the National Guard.
On Sept. 1, 1950, President Harry Truman activated their unit into the regular army, the 23rd Regiment Armored Division. All four brothers were sent to Camp Cook to prepare for the Korean War.
When Wilber’s mother realized four of her sons were soon to be deployed to Korea, she called the commanding officer and told him that Joe, 17, and Don were too young to fight.
Don Wilber tried to tell the officer he was really 18, but it didn’t work, and he was soon given an honorable discharge.
Meanwhile, Jim and Bill both shipped out to Korea where they served in the supply division. When they returned, they informed their brothers that much of their unit had been killed.
Joe, who was trained to carry a BNR rifle, and Don, who was handling a .30-caliber machine gun, knew they each would have been on the front lines.
“I consider myself a very lucky person,” Don Wilber said. “I know that if I went with my brothers I wouldn’t be there today. I thank the Lord every day.”
All eight Wilber siblings are still alive.
Wilber, who grew up in North Hollywood, Calif., returned to high school where he suddenly had a new status.
“Everyone said, ‘This guy has been in basic training. Don’t mess with him,’ ” Wilber recalls.
When he turned 18, he joined the Air Force and was stationed in Everett, Wash., and then in Panama, where he spent three years as a fire inspector. When he was discharged, he returned to California.
It was in California that Wilber met Doris Joelle, who had grown up in Saltillo and graduated from Saltillo High School. They got married and lived in Ventura County, Calif. Don worked for the postal service and his wife worked for a company that made oil filters for airplanes.
The couple regularly visited Doris Joelle’s family in Saltillo. Then in 2003, after they had retired, they decided to move there.
“We had never thought about moving back here when we retired,” Doris Joelle said. “We came here for a three-week vacation, and Don said, ‘I love it here.’ We started looking for homes.
“That is how we ended up here. We love California, but we were ready to make a change.”
Much of Doris Joelle Wilber’s family still lives in Saltillo, including two brothers, two sisters and three half-sisters. The couple’s daughter and son-in-law recently moved from Oklahoma to Guntown with their three children.
“What I really love about this place is that everything is so green here,” Don Wilber said. “In California, it doesn’t get much rain. The weather in California is boring. When you look at this, it is unbelievable how everything is so green.”
Today, the couple plans to commemorate Memorial Day by attending the ceremony at Veteran’s Park. Don Wilber said he’ll probably put some flags in front of his house.
And though he’s separated by miles and years from his days at Camp Cook, he’ll think about the men who never made it home.
Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal