By Brett Nachtigall
HOT SPRINGS – Verne Ellston, age 85, originally from Gregory County and now a resident of the South Dakota State Veterans Home in Hot Springs, was presented the Korean Ambassador Peace Medal during a ceremony held at the home last Friday, Oct. 26.
“We have all heard the Korean War referred to as the Forgotten War, so it is wonderful when we have opportunities to remember these heroes and express our gratitude and appreciation,” said Tyler Rouselle, the State Home’s Veterans Service Officer. “The Ambassador for Peace Medal is a commemorative medal that expresses appreciation from the Korean government to American service men and women who served in the Korean War. Veterans eligible to receive the Ambassador of Peace Medal must have served during the Korean War from June 25, 1950, to July 27, 1953.”
Ellston served as a deck engineer on the USS Zelima. Her task was to carry stores, refrigerated items and equipment to ships in the fleet, and to remote stations and staging areas. According to Rouselle, the USS Zelima saw constant duty in the combat zone carrying thousands of tons of food and other supplies to the ships in the U.S. 7th Fleet operating off the Korean coast, as well as to U.S. Army and United States Marine Corps units ashore and to Air Force squadrons flying daily sorties from the islands surrounding the Korean peninsula.
Earlier this year, while a resident of Pine Hills Retirement Community in Hot Springs, Ellston, sat down for an interview with Pine Hills’ Activities Director Gail Saxonis, who wrote a summary of their conversation as part of a collection entitled “Tales from Pine Hills.”
In her writing, Saxonis said, “Some days he recollects the times when he followed the rodeo circuits, traveling to Wyoming, riding saddle broncs and roping bulls. He straightens up as he begins stories about raising quarter horses and running cattle. He smiles as he tells me that he never met a horse that he didn’t like and that the only rodeo injuries were caused by bulls. His eyes soften as he tells me about his wife Carol, ‘she was purdy,’ kept the books for his horse business, and did a fine job.”
Ellston was born on Jan. 1, 1933, into a large family in Dallas, S.D. He grew up farming and ranching and would eventually take over the family ranch. He joined the U.S. Army directly out of high school and fought in the Korean War. After the war, he attended college for a couple of years, married, had six children, and operated an auto body shop for six years before spending the next 30 years as a plant manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, before coming back to ranching later in life.
During Saxonis’ conversation with Ellston, she asked him about his experience during the Korean War.
“To my surprise, Verne began sobbing,” Saxonis wrote.
“I was just a kid, I lost a lot of buddies,” Ellston told Saxonis. “War is terrible and we sat in the middle of it. We caught hell but we gave them hell too ... You never stop dreaming about it.”
Stationed on the Marshall Islands and the Solomon Islands, Ellston said he was part of a small group that witnessed an atomic bomb explosion. “We were hit with hot waves of heat, felt like my hair was burned off, intense winds and everything was gray and then came days of torrential rain,” he said.
In the presentation last week to Ellston, VSO Rouselle read, on behalf of the South Korean government, “It is great honor and pleasure to express the everlasting gratitude of the Republic of Korea and our people for the service you and your countrymen have performed in restoring and preserving our freedom and democracy. We cherish in our hearts the memory of your boundless sacrifices in helping us reestablish our free nation. In grateful recognition of your dedicated contributions, it is our privilege to proclaim you an Ambassador of Peace. With every good wish of the people of the Republic of Korea, let each of us reaffirm our mutual respect and friendship.”
Photo by: Brett Nachtigall/FRC Herald
Clark Mola, standing, places the medal around the neck of his friend Verne Ellston during a ceremony at the State Home last Friday morning.