Eighty-seven-year-old Charles Zmitrovitch doesn’t have an unkind word for anyone. It’s been his modus operandi ever since his service in the U.S Air Force during the Korean War.
“I learned quickly that when the enemy’s out there, there’s no use quarrelling with those on your side. It’s something good I brought home with me and tried to instill in my children,” Zmitrovitch said.
Originally from Saranac, Zmitrovitch enlisted in the Air Force in September 1951. The Korean War had already begun when North Korea invaded South Korea the year prior. The conflict saw North Korea, aided by communist China, fighting against South Korea, aided by first the United States and then United Nations forces. It was one of the deadliest wars in modern history.
Zmitrovitch, at the age of 17, said he was fully aware what he was signing up for.
“My father had to sign for me to enlist. My family believes deeply in fighting for our country, ever since World War I. We have a long line of veterans that have served this country. I wanted to do my duty,” he said.
Zmitrovitch went to basic training at Sampson Air Force Base in Seneca Lake, in central New York, which closed at the end of the Korean War. Upon completion, Zmitrovitch attended college classes until he was deployed.
“I was sent to Korea in the spring of 1951 and came home in May of 1953. I was in the 43rd Troop Carrier Squadron, TCS, stationed at Brady Air Base in Japan,” he said.
Zmitrovitch explained that Japan served as an access point to Korea, so the base of operations was there. His squadron was tasked with aerial transportation for troops between Japan and North Korea.
“I worked in squadron operations and was in charge of 10 aircrafts and their crews. Making sure the right crew connected to the right aircraft. We would airdrop troops behind enemy lines,” he said.
“Our poor men. It really was the worst for the ones heading to rice paddies in North Korea. We’d bring back so many dead or wounded. They are the real heroes. I wish you could talk to them, instead,” Zmitrovitch said.
Zmitrovitch was awarded the Purple Heart medal for being wounded in the line of duty, when shrapnel injured his right leg.
“I don’t really remember exactly where we were. I just remember it hurt and I still have the scars,” he said.
Zmitrovitch also earned the rank of sergeant, serving as a non-commissioned officer until May 1953.
“I am very proud of the job I did and the men I worked with. I really thought that’d be the last war. It’s a shame it wasn’t,” he said.
When Zmitrovitch returned to his family’s home in Saranac, he was able to quickly resume civilian life.
“Some men had a real hard time coming home. I was lucky I didn’t. I fit right back in and I was ready to meet a nice girl and start a family,” Zmitrovitch said.
Zmitrovitch enrolled at Hudson Valley Community College to take industrial electronics classes, qualifying him for a job selling replacement parts for televisions. It was during a work stop that he first saw his wife, Mary.
“I knew I was going to marry her the first time I saw her. I remember telling my friend. She was a doll then, and she’s still a doll now. Smartest woman you’ll ever meet,” he said. “I asked her to a clam steam and we had a good time. We’ve been having a good time ever since.”
The couple married in 1958 and had three children. Zmitrovitch described his two daughters as “precious, kind and smart.”
When he spoke of his now deceased son, Joseph, he told of his pride. Zmitrovitch said Joseph committed suicide after his own service in the U.S. Air Force as a technical sergeant.
“It’s all too common, veterans taking their own lives. The statistics are getting better but there should never be any. I was so damn proud of him. He’ll be gone 11 years this August,” Zmitrovitch said.
Charles and Mary both reside at the Warren Center in Queensbury. The couple now has three grandchildren, and gets to visit with family often.
“I got to do a lot of living after the war. I’m thankful for that,” he said.