'The experience of a lifetime': Killdeer veteran recalls days of overseas service
KILLDEER, N.D. — Walter Kukla's home in Killdeer is walled with memories—photographs of children and grandchildren, relatives and relations.
"I built this house in 1970. The old house we lived in was just a shack, it was just built with a flat roof," Kukla said. "There was eight kids in our family."
Kukla is in his 90s now, still living and working on his farm just north of Manning. As a young man, fresh out of high school, Kukla volunteered for the draft and in the fall of 1955 he was shipped off to Korea as a uniformed member of the Army military police.
"That experience in Korea was an experience I'll never, ever forget," Kukla said. "We took pictures of everything. Every weekend when we were off we'd go someplace and take pictures. It was an experience of a lifetime."
Kukla encountered a world far different from the rural North Dakota he'd grown up in. Postwar Korea was an uncertain place, where poverty and instability kept him plenty busy in his capacity as police.
"They still had riots and on certain days they'd protest," Kukla recalled. "I forget what days it was, it was over a weekend, they sent us out with M1 rifles with a bayonet on the end and they said, 'If they don't clear the streets ... if they don't move, you use the bayonet.' We didn't have to, thank God."
Kukla said he was surprised to have been chosen for the MPs—he was an inch too short, and had to wear glasses, which ought to have disqualified him. He served in the role for 22 months overseas.
Kukla's love for photography blossomed in Korea.
"I had an Army buddy ... he had access to vehicles," Kukla said. "He was on a patrol thing, so every Sunday we'd go out and take pictures. In fact, I just had a bunch of them put on a CD."
Every weekend, Kukla would embark on trips to various landmarks and locations to take snapshots of them. On his sole R&R trip to Japan, he went all the way to Mt. Fuji to take photographs.
"We went to Mt. Fuji and visited Mt. Fuji and I took a bunch of pictures (on the first day)," Kukla said. "I stayed there three days, never got another picture because of the fog."
Living in Korea, Kukla saw first-hand people living in abject desperation. He'd recall moments when he'd have to pull kitchen duty, taking out the edible trash that was left over from the mess halls out to be discarded. Carts would separate the garbage and edible waste would be set upon by men with buckets, who would collect the trash and take it home to feed their families.
Kukla remembered fights breaking out over who would get the last portions. The experience affected him for the rest of his life.
"Now, I go out to eat with the kids and the grandkids and stuff. They order this and they order that and they don't want to eat it all," Kukla said. "I told them one time 'I don't care what you order or what it costs, but what you get you got to eat. You're not going to throw it out. There are people who are around the world who are starving.'"
Kukla met his future wife, Ardis, shortly before he deployed, having been persuaded by his cousin into taking her to a local football game. They corresponded while he was overseas, and dated off-and-on upon his return until they got married.
"I knew her for five years before we got married ... I don't know how come she picked me," he said with a laugh.
Ardis passed away in 2016—Kukla still has recent photos of her on the wall, the pair pictured together for a Christmas card.
Overall Kukla said his experiences overseas were positive ones.
"You really get to see a different culture. You get to see a different people. You get to see what people are going through that they aren't here," Kukla said. "We've just got to be really, really grateful for what we've got and what we have."