Theodosia veteran wonders if his letter from Korea inspired a ‘beautiful song’
The day Elmer Roberson had to leave his wife, Betty, and their young daughter to go to the Korean Conflict “was the hardest day, one of the toughest you can imagine,” he said.
Elmer, then living in Bible Grove, Illinois, had been drafted. “I went for the physical, and then I only had two days’ notice before I shipped out,” he said.
He was one of the five children born to Elmer and Clara Roberson, who lived in Granite City, Illinois, while the senior Elmer worked for Granite City Steel. “But then Dad got crippled when I was 13, and I was the only son left at home, so I bounced out of school to support my family,” he said. “When I was 16, Dad got a little settlement and bought a farm near Bible Grove. By golly, the whole world changed. I went from city boy to country boy – and that’s when I learned what good living really is!”
In 1948, he married Betty Louise Koop – now his wife of 70 years.
He was drafted in September 1950. “They needed heavy equipment operators, so I was a dozer operator. I went through training and processing in Fort Leonard Wood for the infantry and then the engineer training, and then we shipped over.”
40 below zero
He was gone 11 months and 27 days, serving with the 13th Combat Engineers in the Army’s 7th Division, building airstrips and heliports in the Punch Bowl area of what is now South Korea.
“It was 40 below zero a few times. Oh, my goodness! Was we ever cold! When it was 40 below, you never turned your equipment off. I had a D-8 Cat with a 12-foot angle blade, and when it got that cold, we never turned it off,” he said.
“We were constantly on the move because the Army was on the move,” he said.
His time in Korea “was and wasn’t an awful time,” he said. “I have a lot of memories of those days, and I have a beautiful song.”
The beautiful song
The story of Elmer’s “beautiful song” grew from his letters from Korea to a radio station in Effingham, Illinois, where Betty and their daughter were living at the time. He wrote to the station to ask them to play music he knew Betty liked.
“I saw a lot of things over there in Korea. A letter came back to me from a different radio station asking me to tell them what Korea was like,” he said. “Well, I had seen a lot of monsoon rains, and a lot of the soil was volcanic ash, and I said in my letter back to the radio station that the rains didn’t seem to hurt the soil because after the rain a lot of flowers would pop out. I also said they had very little electricity in Korea, so candles were normal for people. I commented how, in World War II a lot of guys got hooked on alcohol and dope. That wasn’t good.”
He told, in his letter to the radio station, how he’d been coming down a mountain in Korea after working “up high building a road. I was walking down a trail and heard something.... I slowed down, moved another 40 or 50 feet, and there was a young mother, bathing her soiled child in an icy stream. She was cooing to that baby while she bathed it. She had to crack the ice to give that little guy a good cleaning off!”
Elmer wrote all those things in his letter to the radio people. He never heard back from them.
But then, 30 years ago, he heard the song “I Believe,” with the lyrics, “I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows. I believe that somewhere in the darkest night, a candle glows.”
The song goes on to mention “everyone who goes astray” and the belief that “above the storm the smallest prayer will still be heard.”
It concludes, “Every time I hear a newborn baby cry ... then I know why I believe.”
“I listened to that song, and thought, ‘My goodness. That’s my letter to the radio station,’” he said.
He has always wondered if his letter was the inspiration for the song that, according to online sources, was written by Ervin Drake, Irvin Graham, Jimmy Shirl and Al Stillman in 1953.
Happy homecoming, happy life
As hard as his departure had been nearly a year earlier, Elmer’s homecoming from Korea was “very, very happy,” he said. “And I came home as Sgt. Elmer Roberson.”
He earned his GED and used the GI Bill to get a degree in business from Indiana State University. After a year of teaching high school, he went to work for Marathon Oil Company in Terre Haute, Indiana.
In 1981, Elmer was flying in one of Marathon’s business airplanes to Midland, Texas, from Finley, Ohio, where he and Betty and their five children lived at the time.
“We were flying over this area, and I happened to look out the window and saw these beautiful lakes below me – two of them,” Elmer said. “The fellow sitting across from me in the plane said, ‘You really like that, don’t you? Well, you see that shiny little Airstream parked down in the woods there? That’s mine.’”
Elmer’s co-worker offered to let him stay in the Airstream for a vacation. It was parked at Ocie near Noland’s Point on Bull Shoals Lake. A little later, he and Betty came down and stayed in the Airstream. “We looked around and learned to love this countryside,” he said.
They came back a few months later and looked around some more, finally settling on a place on P Highway west of Theodosia. They bought the property in February 1982 and moved here permanently after Elmer retired in 1984.
Since then, he’s become active in the community and is known for his beautiful singing voice and his tendency to burst into song, sharing patriotic songs and birthday and anniversary greetings at community gatherings. For several years, it’s been his custom to sing “Happy Birthday” at the Theodosia Masons’ regular community breakfasts on the first Saturday of the month. Last Saturday, after Elmer rendered his usual serenade, Len Modlinski led the diners in surprising him by singing “Happy Birthday” back to him in celebration of his 90th birthday, which was on Oct. 27. (See the photo, page A9.)
Elmer couldn’t help it. He sang along with them. “You can’t just stop a habit like that,” he said. “An old horse just keeps going back to the barn.”
Members of his family gathered recently to celebrate his birthday in what Elmer calls “a love-in.” Their children are Cathy Clark and husband Michael of Kentucky, Marc Roberson and wife Denise, and Bruce Roberson, all of Wyoming, and daughters Dana Guerra and Lori Roberson, both of Ozark. He and Betty also have 10 grandchildren and five great-grands.
Last year, the whole family got together and had a grand time. “We have wonderful reunions,” Elmer said, his optimistic attitude obvious. “It has been a pretty wonderful life. I’m very, very happy.”