Local veteran recalls driving ambulance during Korean War
Franklin Park Wednesday 05.23.12. Korean War Veteran Bob Cutrara is shown outside of his Franklin Park home on Wednesday, May 23, 2012. Cutrara served with the United States Marines. | Buzz Orr~Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 3, 2012 9:57AM
The black and white photos of Korea in the scrapbook are a half-century old, as Robert Cutrara, 82, of Franklin Park flips through them rapidly.
There is a photo of Cutrara next to the back of a military truck that is loaded with barrels of fuel. Another shows Cutrara bare-chested and shaving near a fire. A third shows a tank near a trench line that encircled his encampment at Panmunjom.
One shows a young Cutrara kneeling by the rear axle of a military truck. “That truck ran over a landmine and broke the springs on it,” Cutrara said.
A fifth shows a Korean boy from a neighboring village sitting on the hood of an American military Jeep. “We’d take them and buy them candy,” Cutrara said.
He closes the scrapbook and exchanges it for a second. This one has a photo of a Jeep with two boxes that resembles two coffins, one on top of the other. For 14 months Cutrara drove that Jeep-ambulance along the front lines, picking up wounded soldiers.
He makes it sound simple.
“We’d be standing in the bunker with the Jeep parked there,” Cutrara said. “You found your way to pick them up. Bring them to the first aid bunker. They’d patch them up. We’d help put them on helicopters to take them to the ship.”
With questioning, he adds some details. The battles were at night. The Jeep-ambulance had shaded headlights so it couldn’t be seen from above. He and a corpsman were under fire most of the time.
“I had experiences,” Cutrara said. “I don’t want someone to read this and say he’s bragging.”
Cutrara grew up in Elmwood Park but attended Steinmetz High School in Chicago, where he met his future wife. After graduation he drove a truck for a produce market on Randolph Street, delivering produce to restaurants, groceries and fruit markets in Chicago.
“I had no plans at the time,” Cutrara said. “I was making a buck and planned to buy a car.”
The Korean War started and in 1951 Cutrara chose to enlist in the Marines. He went through basic training in California and drove military trucks at the Marine Air Station El Toro and at Camp Pendleton in San Diego County.
He was shipped to Korea and again drove a truck. After a few months of making deliveries he volunteered to drive a Jeep-ambulance.
“I thought that somebody had to do it,” Cutrara said. “I thought I wouldn’t have to be out in the field with a rifle.”
“It was frightening at times. I felt I was protected with the group I was with. We all watched out for each other. We were holding the line, stopping (North Koreans) from trying to come over. We were the main line of resistance.”
His scariest moment took place one night. His corpsman had just gotten a wounded man loaded onto the Jeep-ambulance.
“Something fell on my foot,” Cutrara said. “A helmet. I go to pick up the helmet and his head was in there.”
Cutrara was discharged in December 1953. He got married and had three children, who in turn gave him four grandchildren.
He went back to work driving a truck, this time for heavy construction. Cutrara pulls out a third scrapbook.
One photo shows a truck carrying a 110-foot steel beam used in the reconstruction of the Michigan Avenue Bridge in the 1960s. A second photo shows materials being hauled off ships and onto Navy Pier, including parts for the Ferris wheel. A third shows the steel eagles that adorn the Harold Washington Library in the Loop being moved by helicopter.
He’s active in the Franklin Park American Legion Post 974, particularly in visiting wounded veterans at Hines Hospital, helping out at bingo for paraplegic veterans and bringing blind veterans to the post for a meal and a couple drinks.
Though a supporter of veterans, Cutrara is critical of the U.S. military being in Afghanistan.
“I think we’re just wasting our time,” Cutrara said. “There’s nothing to accomplish. The president just got done talking and said we’re going to get out of there in two years. Why wait two years? We’re just going to lose more American lives.”
He closes the scrapbook.