AVERY DIETTER LIKES TO SAY that he is older than the place where he was born, because in 1927 it was still called Ancram Lead Mines. It didn’t become Ancramdale until 1930. The house in which he was born is just down the road from where he lives now. He was one of 16 children. His father worked at the Borden plants in Ancramdale, Pine Plains and Chatham.
Mr. Dietter attended school in Pine Plains. In high school his friends gave him the nickname “Prope” because of a girlfriend he had and the name stuck, so he says that some of his acquaintances don’t know that his first name is Avery. He quit after his junior year and worked at the Barton and Hoysradt general store in the hamlet center, an establishment which is now a locally sourced catering business and storefront eatery called The Farmer’s Wife.
He was 22 when the “police action” in Korea started. The North Korean Army attacked south of the 38th Parallel on June 25, 1950. Immediately, the newly formed United Nations condemned the invasion and two days later President Truman dispatched the 7th fleet. On July 2, General Douglas MacArthur mustered American troops stationed in Japan, along with soldiers from member nations, and by the fall of that year had reclaimed the South Korean capital, Seoul, and pushed the North Korean army back beyond the 38th Parallel.
Gen. MacArthur was convinced that the United Nations forces would be home by Christmas, 1950, but he did not account for Mao Zedong and People’s Volunteer Army of China, which, by mid-October, entered the conflict. The result was a series of legendary defeats for the United Nations forces, including battles at Unsan and the Chosin Reservoir. The Korean War would continue in a war of attrition for the next 18 months and conclude pretty much where it started, with the 38th Parallel being the border between North and South Korea.
Mr. Dietter was drafted on September 22, 1950. “As soon as I was sworn in, I was sent to Fort Deven in Massachusetts for boot camp—I remember it was very cold,” he said.
He was assigned to Company D of the 7th Infantry on a 81mm mortar squad. After basic training he was sent to Camp Stoneman in California and from there to Japan.
“We went on a Japanese ship to Korea, and arrived at Pusan on Easter Sunday, March 25, 1951. From there we went by train directly to the front,” he said. There the 7th Division became part of the spring counteroffensive. He remembers how he was wounded seven weeks later.
“We were getting incoming mortar or artillery—I’m not sure which, but this boy got his fingers blown off by shrapnel. I went to help him. I had a t-shirt on, and I realized that it was covered with blood. I thought it might be his, but then I realized it was mine. One piece of shrapnel got me under the chin and another through my boot, but I didn’t feel it. It was probably from the same round that hit the boy.”
That happened on June 11, 1951. Mr. Dietter holds up the telegram that his parents received from the Army which gives little more information than the date. His injuries were not serious and he soon returned to active duty. In the mortar squad, he had an aptitude for using the plotting board that the fire direction officer uses to determine the coordinates of targets. He was awarded the rank of sergeant and became a fire direction officer.
“We could get promotions pretty quick in those days because soldiers were rotated out more often,” he said.
“The way it worked was that the forward observer would call in the coordinates and I would put them on the plotting board—I was pretty accurate too. I remember a time when I was told that an infantry officer wanted to talk to ‘Sergeant Dietter.’
“He said, ‘Thanks for saving our asses on that hill!’” he recalls.
He remembers the cold, which made his job difficult when he had to work with his hands on a plotting board. “We would make a little hooch where we could set up, and we might have a little stove for heat.”
About the promotion, Mr. Dietter remembers, “We were in reserve— a colonel wanted to see a firing demonstration and he gave us the coordinates. I said, ‘No sir, I can’t,’ because he was calling down fire on his own position. We went to verify and we were one hundred percent right. I was promoted about the same time.”
‘We could get promotions pretty quick in those days because soldiers were rotated out more often.’
Former Sgt., U.S. Army
According to Koreanwaronline.com the 81mm M1 mortar came into service in 1935. It consisted of a 45 lb. tube, a 46 lb. mount and a 45 lb. base plate, and various sorts of ammunition; high explosive white phosphorous and smoke. A sustained rate of fire of 18 rounds per minute was average and 30-35 rounds per minute was possible. Mr. Dietter remembers 5,096 rounds being launched in one 5-day period, and a news article from that period cites his company for establishing a new firing record of 1,800 mortar rounds in one four-hour period.
“With an 81mm mortar, if the tube gets hot, you could have short rounds. That’s very dangerous. So we cooled the tubes with water from our canteens and sometimes with cold coffee left over from the evening meal. A lot of the mortar shells we used were left over from WWII. Boxes had notes in them saying they were ‘packed by Rosie.’”
Mr. Dietter holds up his medals case. In it are his dog tag, his combat infantry badge, his Korean War service medal with two battle stars, the Good Conduct medal, the National Defense Service Medal and the Presidential unit Citation badge, and the Purple Heart, which he finally received in 1955.
In the army at that time, a combat soldier earned four points per month and you needed 36 points before you could rotate out. Mr. Dietter shipped out of Inchon, Korea in late December 1951, and returned stateside to Fort Stoneman near San Francisco. After a 30-day furlough, he was stationed at Ft. Dix in New Jersey where his wife’s brother was the Master Sergeant for the HQ Company. He got Mr. Dietter an assignment training new recruits in the firing of mortars.
“We fired for dawn attack, then I had the rest of the day off,” he said.
“They let me out in 21 months. It’s supposed to be two years, but then I was in reserve for five years. They could have called me up any minute, but I never got any credit for that.”
He was honorably discharged on August 28, 1956. When he came home, he worked for a time on the railroad and then got a job in the post office from which he retired in 1986. And how does he feel about the war now?
“We won—we won the south—they got their freedom. They got their democracy. We had a young girl in our church who came from South Korea, and she worked here at Camp Ann. When she saw me, she couldn’t thank me enough. She was raised by her family to be grateful for what we did for South Korea. She knew what it was like in North Korea.”
“I get visions of the war sometimes. One thing I remember, we were on the move and came to a place where the Air Force had strafed a column on a narrow road where they couldn’t go anywhere to get away. I remember other stuff too.”
These past two years have been significant for Korean War veterans in Columbia County; 2020 marked the 70th anniversary of the start of the war and in 2021 the remains of Corporal Clifford S. Johnson of Philmont, who was listed as missing and presumed killed in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in December, 1950, were returned, with great ceremony. Mr. Dietter attended the memorial service in Philmont and the burial at the Saratoga National Cemetery.
Avery “Prope” Dietter and his wife, Irene, live in Ancramdale. They have two daughters, three grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren. Their granddaughter Monica Cleveland said the Dietters also had a son, Avery Jr., who had Down’s syndrome and died several years ago after 40 years of being, as Ms. Cleveland described it, “the light of their lives.”