LUBBOCK, TX — If you ask 90-year-old Lee Pennington how he survived the Korean War and made it to nearly a century of life, he’ll tell you one thing: “luck.”
“Everybody I served with is dead. I’m the last one,” Pennington said.
While the conflict in Korea may be called “the forgotten war,” often eclipsed by World War II and the war in Vietnam, it’s three years of his life he’ll never forget.
Right after he turned 19, Pennington didn’t hesitate to enlist when the war broke out in 1950. He said a big reason why he signed up is because he actually wanted to see combat.
“All of [my family was] in World War II, and they had been in combat and they had lots of stories to tell … I wanted my own stories, so I joined the Marine Corps because I knew I could get some stories pretty quick,” Pennington said.
Eighteen members of his family, including his father, served in World War II, but Pennington was too young to enlist and so waited.
After boot camp and training, he shipped out across the world. He served as a Buck Sergeant in the Marine Corps, and he specialized in demolition. He would go ahead of his fellow soldiers looking for enemy mines and destroying them before his comrades accidentally set them off.
While he was excited to see military action, that quickly changed, he said, after months of snow and temperatures below 0 degrees.
“I was what you would call ‘gung ho,’ and I was really ready to go get them. But after a month or two, I wasn’t nearly excited,” Pennington laughed.
Once, he shared that during a skirmish, he was trapped in a trench and came face to face with a large snake as enemy bullets whizzed above him. He couldn’t even reach for his weapon to defend himself
“I was laying in a little bitty trench … I looked up, and a snake was coming towards me,” Pennington said.
Nearly 70 years later, he still lives with scars from his days in the service. Due to a lack of ear protection from the exploding mines, Pennington returned home from his service with a 40 percent hearing loss. He also still suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which went undiagnosed for most of his life .
“Our kids learned early on, you don’t touch him when he’s asleep because he comes up fighting,” Beth, Pennington’s wife of 60 years, said.
“I can’t get over [my PTSD]. It’s just part of who I am. I still sometimes can be sitting in my chair and the door slams hard, and it shakes me up,” Pennington said.
As he fought in the battles, he added that he never felt fear until after the conflict was over.
“I thought about what could have happened, and when you saw people that had been killed and hurt and you realize that you could have been one,” Pennington said holding back tears.
“I think he had an angel on his shoulder,” Beth said.
He risked his life for his county, but he won’t let anyone call him a hero.
“I served in the Marine Corps, but I’m not a hero … It seems to me that I’ve been very lucky,” Pennington said with emotion in his voice.