Korean War vet remembers his coldest winter

The coldest winter 92-year-old Petaluma resident Edward A. Donate remembers was in Korea, 70 years ago.

“The river froze,” he said. “The ice was so thick trucks were driving over it.”

In December 1950, Donate was thousands of miles from home and family, huddled with his comrades at below-freezing temperatures in a bunker they’d dug near the 38th parallel, a line drawn by the US military that divided North and South Korea after World War II. Donate -- pronounced “Doh-nah-tae”-- was the youngest of eight children born to Martina and Bernardo Donate, who came from Zacatecas, Mexico, in 1915. Ed Donate was born in 1928 in Santa Paula, just north of Los Angeles, where his parents worked at a lemon packing company.

This was during the Great Depression.

“We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had enough to eat. Some people had it worse,” Donate recalls. “My parents got divorced when I was young, so my mother raised my youngest brother and me by herself. We moved to Oxnard, the next town to Santa Paula,” he added. “She was always working.”

At the time, schools were segregated, Donate explained.

“The white kids were in separate classrooms,” he said. “They didn’t mix with the Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino children.” Donate shrugged. “That was normal back then.” Once he finished 8th grade, Donate was expected to work as an adult. “I had a job at a tomato farm. I also worked in landscaping.”

Donate met his wife Gloria at a dance hall in 1947 when he was 19. They married in 1948.

“She was so pretty, always dressed perfectly,” he recalls, showing me her studio portrait, taken when she was 16. Later that year, they had their first child, Richard. The following year, Donate enlisted in the Army National Guard.

“My friends were joining so I did the same,” he said.

On June 27, 1950, while Gloria was pregnant with their second child, President Truman declared war on North Korea, and Donate was deployed.

“I didn’t know where Korea was or why we were fighting,” he admits.

He wasn’t alone in this, as the US public paid little attention to the Korean War. Donate worked with 11 other men operating a Howitzer -- artillery described as a cross between a cannon and a mortar.

“My job was to prepare the ammunition,” he said.

At least 4 million people were killed in the war, including 50,000 US soldiers and millions of Korean civilians. Additionally, over 100,000 US soldiers were wounded.

“I used to dream of seeing myself in a coffin from above. But I wasn’t afraid. I was too young to be afraid,” Donate told me. “I missed my wife. It was tough for Gloria. She gave birth to our daughter, Lorraine, while I was at war.”

When Donate returned from Korea in 1952, Gloria and his mother came up from Oxnard to meet his ship at the Presidio in San Francisco. However, unlike at the end of World War II, Donate remembers little fanfare for returning vets, maybe because the war was not really over. There was a ceasefire in 1953, but to this day no peace treaty has been signed.

Donate left the army and was determined to find decent jobs to support his family. He attended night schools in Oxnard to obtain a wastewater certification and worked in the water treatment facility. Later, he trained as a pest control foreman.

“I didn’t stop learning,” he told me. In 1962, his job transferred him to work at Hamilton Army Airfield in Novato. “We moved to Petaluma and bought a house for $20,000. We’ve been living here for 58 years.”

Donate is proud of his accomplishments.

“I always had good jobs. We paid off our mortgage long ago,” he explained. He has always been self-reliant. “I’ve painted the house three times. I redid the roof three times, and also poured the concrete in the driveway by myself. I still do yard work.”

The Donates have flourished. They've been married for 72 years. They have four children, 13 grandchildren, and 30 great-grandchildren, most of them living in Oxnard. Donate doesn’t have many regrets but he admitted, “I am not sure I would have enlisted if I knew I’d have to leave my child and my pregnant wife on their own for two years.”

When I asked him what it feels like to be 92, he answered, “Age is just a number, right?”

But he’s lived through such eventful times, from the Great Depression, to the Korean War, the civil rights movement, the computer revolution — and now this pandemic.

Donate’s life is certainly more than just a number.

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