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'You are firing at others and they are firing at you ...'

Try as he might, Duane Rifenbark can't recall what happened on Christmas Day, 1950.

"I'm racking my brain but I can't remember that Christmas at all," he says.

Nothing. The date has been deleted from his memory banks.

But the Medford resident does know where he was and what he was doing that holiday season: He was a private first class in the U.S. Army, retreating with fellow soldiers and Marines from the frozen front of the Korean War. Hot on their heels were some 180,000 Chinese "volunteer" soldiers.

"We were on that retreat, that stinking retreat — I know that," he says. "How long we were on the retreat I can't tell you precisely.

"I'm going to tell you something but only my Creator knows whether it's the truth or not — I swear I walked in my sleep during the retreat," he adds later.

He figures Christmas 57 years ago was lost in the frozen fog of endless marching ahead of the Chinese counteroffensive.

He remembers slogging on and on through bitterly cold days and nights as the troops retreated past the 38th parallel. The city of Seoul fell.

"I walked in my sleep," he reiterates.

Rifenbark, 75, was wounded after the United Nations forces launched their counterattack early the following January, creating a front line the GI's dubbed the "meat grinder." But unlike many veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, Rifenbark says he had no major psychological problems following the war.

"To the best of my knowledge, it never really affected me," he says. "Sometimes, when I felt jittery, I liked to read or listen to music. I think I adjusted pretty good."

Yet delayed stress has been a problem for some veterans over the years, he observes, noting he recently read an article about a World War II pilot still suffering from nightmares.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's the most abnormal environment a man can get himself into," he says of war. "You are firing at others and they are firing at you ... it's just not normal."

But Rifenbark, who was 18 when he was wounded, took it all in stride.

"I've heard of young people freezing up — can't shoot," he adds. "I never had that trouble. . . I remember shooting at somebody, missing and chewing myself out for missing."

Rifenbark joined the Oregon Army National Guard in April 1950 from his hometown of Medford. A skinny kid standing 6 feet 2 inches, he was just 17.

Six months later found him in the regular Army.

His job was to serve as an ammunition bearer for a BAR — Browning automatic rifle.

"My job was to carry and feed ammunition," he explains. "If the BAR was out of commission, it was up to me to take over the BAR. But, basically, I was a rifleman."

He was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division, arriving at the front lines on Sept. 1, 1950. Though the front was quiet at first, the Chinese-led offensive swept into his area at the end of November. Combat became a daily ritual.

"I never had hand-to-hand combat but we were close enough to throw hand grenades," he says, noting the two sides lobbed grenades and traded shots with each other.

"And that weather was miserable," he says. "You hear all these reports how cold it got — 35 below. Some say it was one of the coldest winters in years."

Frostbite was as common as a cold.

"I had a toe or two turn black — not the whole toe just the toenail," he says. "I was very lucky, very lucky."

When U.N. forces pushed north toward the Yalu River into North Korea earlier that fall, civilians cheered them on along the roads, he says.

"But on the retreat there was no cheering," he says.

"I felt very sorry for the civilians."

After being pushed back into South Korea, the American-led forces regrouped with Lt. Gen. Matthew Ridgway in charge.

"He got us going again," Rifenbark says.

On Jan. 7, 1951, the allies again pushed north.

On Jan. 27, Rifenbark's unit prepared to take a hill occupied by the Chinese.

"Our company commander looked at the hill with his field glasses and said, 'That damned hill is moving,'" Rifenbark recalls, noting it was covered with Chinese soldiers.

Though the hill was strafed by Australian fighter pilots and bombed, small-arms fire continued.

"I'll never forget it," he says. "Melvin Babb was in back of me. When the bullet hit, it spun me and knocked me to my knees.

"Melvin said, 'What'd you do — slip?' I said, 'No, I think I'm hit,' " Rifenbark says. "I was too dumb to look down at my knee."

His left knee was split open by the bullet. The knee cap was shattered.

"No pain," he says. "When they hit you, you'd think there would be terrible pain. No pain. You just spun around and hit the ground."

The pain would come soon enough. His knee swelled to the size of a basketball. When doctors drained his knee with a long needle, Rifenbark nearly passed out.

"When they brought me back to the states, I wanted to go back to my unit in Korea," he says. "I wanted to stay in the Army."

But his parents back in Medford were ill, says their only son.

"And I had a 14-year-old sister," he says. "Mom asked me if I could get out of the Army to help them. I was needed at home.

"I was sending $60 home a month but they couldn't do it," he says of his parents. "They needed me."

He went to local American Red Cross officials and explained his family's dilemma. Upon their advice, he obtained three letters from people not related to him stating he was needed at home to care for his parents. Uncle Sam concurred.

Rifenbark, who would retire from the Boise Corp. mill in Medford, was 19 when he was discharged in August 1951.

He would buy a comfortable home where his parents lived until they passed away. He never married.

As for his knee, it bothers him some days.

"To this day, I have to watch it if I get a little bit off balance," he says. "But at least I got my leg. Some poor guys don't have any."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Duane Rifenbark of Medford holds a picture of himself taken when he was 18 years old, the year he was wounded in Korea. - Jim Craven