‘Shrapnel Down’: Korean War veteran’s footage of pilot rescue turned into documentary
DENVER, Iowa (Tribune News Service) — When Bill Rector, 91, recently screened the documentary “Shrapnel Down: My Korean War Story,” he was immediately transported back to his time as a young gunner’s mate aboard the USS Los Angeles. During the blockade of the port of Wonsan in North Korea, Rector watched and filmed the dramatic rescue of two downed American pilots.
“It brought back a lot of memories for me, especially the guys who were shot, who were rescued there, kissed the bridge. It was like I was still there. It’s a good memory to have. It always makes me cry,” the rector said.
Its never-before-seen footage was turned into a 27-minute documentary by Mark St. George of public television WSIU and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. The film is distributed by American Public Television.
The Grout Museum District will screen the documentary in the theater at the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum from 4-6 p.m. on June 14 on a loop. The rector will be present. The screening is free, but voluntary donations will be accepted to help support the Museum Quarter.
Additionally, the documentary will air as part of the free Veterans Cafe on Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to noon. The cafe is open to US military veterans. Rector will also be present.
“They did a good job on it,” Rector said of the documentary. “They picked the right things. That’s good. I actually have this big picture they gave me – a movie poster that’s about 3 feet tall and 2 1/2 feet wide, and my neighbor put it up for me in a picture frame. It’s sitting in my living room.”
Waterloo native and Vietnam veteran Jim Hamlyn, a neighbor of Rector, made the connection between Korean War veteran St. George and the Grout Museum. St. George had turned some of Hamlyn’s Vietnamese footage into a documentary, “A Bad Deal: My Vietnam Story” in 2019.
“It’s been about two years since we started all this. I shared a lot of my memories with them,” Rector recalls. St. George interviewed and filmed Rector at the Grout Museum and at his century-old rural farm near Denver.
Rector served in the United States Navy from April 1952 to December 1955. During those years aboard USS Los Angeles, the ship made three deployments to North Korea. On one such deployment, he had a birds-eye view from his 3-inch 50-caliber turret as an American aircraft was shot down by enemy fire. The pilots parachuted in and landed on the beach at Wonsan Port when the plane crashed into the sea.
Batteries of guns aboard the Los Angeles threw down devastating covering fire for the Americans as they sprinted down the beach, pursued by the enemy. The ship launched a helicopter from its quarterdeck to rescue the two airmen.
And Rector captured it all on 8mm film.
He can’t wait to watch the documentary surrounded by other veterans. “I don’t know exactly what I’m going to think. When you’re 91, it’s not like the thoughts of a young person,” he said.
Born November 21, 1930, Rector grew up on a farm near Denver and graduated from Denver High School. When he left the Navy in 1955, he returned home to start farming and married his wife, Deena, in 1956. They raised four children.
He still actively cultivates and breeds award-winning llamas, which he has bred for half a century. “I have my llamas, my swans and my ponds. I’m still moving around – better than 10 years ago. I’ve had two knees replaced and other little things fixed on me, but I’m good to go .”
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