A Korean War Veteran’s Amazing Story and a Medal that Arrives 50 Years Late
By Judie Holcomb-Pack
James Garner’s career as a soldier lasted less than two years, almost as long as “The Forgotten War,” as the Korean War has been called. But in that length of time, he saved the lives of two soldiers in his unit from drowning, and lost his leg in a battle, forever changing his destiny.
James “Bunkadee” Garner was born in 1933 and grew up poor in East Winston-Salem, the only boy in a family with seven girls. As a teenager, he enjoyed swimming at the 14th Street pool and eventually became a junior lifeguard, training which proved to be part of a pivotal moment as a soldier in Korea.
When “Bunk” was just seven years old, he started earning 25 cents a game as a caddy at Reynolds Park Golf Course. At that time, only whites could play there. Bunk fell in love with the game and would often borrow some clubs and sneak out on the course to play. His dream was to become a professional golfer.
But because his family was poor, Bunk decided to join the Army after graduation from Atkins High School. He remembers that day in September 1951 when he got on the bus for boot camp and his high school sweetheart, Dorothy, waved goodbye to him as the bus pulled away. He arranged for his military pay to be sent home to his mother – $93 a month. By April 1952, he was in Korea, fighting a war against the aggression of North Korea.
His unit was all black and they learned early on that they needed to stick together. After spending time on the front lines, they were ordered to the back for some much needed rest. On the way, as they walked near the Kumnwha River in Kupyongo, North Korea, they decided to jump into the river to wash off the dirt that covered them from days on the battle field. Soon it was apparent that two of the guys couldn’t swim and the current overwhelmed them. Bunk jumped in the river and brought one man to safety and, again risking his life, went back and brought the second man to the bank. He remembered his lifeguard training and used artificial respiration to revive one of his comrades. Even though he had saved two lives, he heard the MP say, “You’ll never get credit for that because you’re black.”
Getting a medal for saving a life wasn’t on his mind, however. Bunk was more concerned with saving his own life. The fighting was intense and as a machine gunner, Bunk was on the front lines. Just a month after saving his buddies’ lives, Bunk was hit with a mortar round. It killed almost everyone in his squad and blew off his leg; the hand grenade that followed opened up his stomach. The medic who reached him did what he could to bandage his wounds, but Bunk heard him tell another soldier that he didn’t expect him to live through the night.
Bunk did live, however, and eventually was transported to a hospital in California, then to Kentucky, and finally to Walter Reed Hospital in D.C. It took him two years to recover and in September 1953, just after the Armistice was signed officially ending the Korean War, he was given an honorable discharge and 100% disability.
The saying “You can’t keep a good man down” could apply to Bunk Garner. Bunk believes that despite his serious wounds, his mother’s faithful prayer took care of him. He had grown up at Mt. Zion, where he still attends today, and has always believed that God was watching over him, even when he was wounded in Korea.
Bunk’s dreams of being a professional golfer would be difficult with a prosthetic leg. When he recovered enough to look for a job, he found a position with the Parks and Recreation Department and in 1974 he became the supervisor at Reynolds Park Recreation Center, which had been closed for some time. Bunk went out into the community to meet the kids and invite them to come to the center. He built up the center to where over 1,500 children were taking part in activities, playing baseball, basketball, swimming and boxing. He later became the assistant golf pro at Winston Lake Golf Course – not exactly his dream, but close enough. In 1977 Bunk was named Employee of the Year by the Parks and Recreation Department. In 1978 he became the director of the Winston-Salem Recreation Centers, and in 1980 he was named Mt. Zion’s Father of the Year. On July 30, 1994, Bunk was honored at the James A. Garner Sr. Day at Reynolds Park Recreation Center.
All during his career, Bunk played in amputee golf tournaments. He started the first golf tournament to raise money for Hospice, which had cared for his mother during her last illness. Bunk served his community well, was honored for his volunteerism by Hospice, but could never quite forget that time back in Korea when he saved the life of his two friends. He started researching how to get the medal he had been denied and after months of searching military records, including finding a copy of the story about his rescue that was mentioned in Military Times, submitting paperwork and documents, in May 2000 he was finally awarded the Soldier’s Medal.
Bunk still loves the game of golf, although he mostly watches it on the Golf channel these days. He is still active in his home church, Mt. Zion. And that girl who waved goodbye to him when he got on the bus for boot camp? She has been his wife for over 50 years and they have three children, a son and two daughters, and grandchildren.
Korea may be “The Forgotten War” for some, but for James “Bunkadee” Garner, he will never forget his experience there and especially the friends who never came back.
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