Korean War vet breaks 60-year silence on service

Leonard Adreon served as a Marine combat corpsman during the Korean War. He recalls his experiences in his memoir, ‘Hilltop Doc.’ Photo: Bill Motchan

By Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

Imagine living through a horrific experience, then bottling up the memory for more than 60 years.

Leonard Adreon did just that.

Adreon, 90, served in the Korean War and bore witness to the gruesome, primal nature of ground combat. Afterward, he made a decision to put those memories far back on a shelf.

“I didn’t say a word to anybody,” Adreon said. “A lot of us decided that the smartest thing to do was to go on with our lives and put it behind us. What we experienced and endured was horrendous. It was better forgotten.”

Things worked out just fine for Adreon. He raised a family and helped build a successful real estate management and development company, the Siteman Organization. 

Then a funny thing happened. In 2013, a teacher at Washington University’s Lifelong Learning Institute asked Adreon to speak to a class studying Korea. He agreed, and his stories were so compelling and vivid that he was asked back for an encore — three times.

Subsequently, Adreon taught a class in memoir writing in the same program. He reopened the vault of war memories.

“I wrote some vignettes, and the class was fascinated by them,” he said. “I didn’t think anybody would give a damn about something that happened so many years ago in a war that very few people paid attention to. I wrote a number of these pieces, and Ruby Lapin, my co-facilitator, said, ‘You’ve got to put it together in the form of a book.’ ”

Lapin remembers that Adreon rarely spoke about his experiences in Korea, but that changed when she and others heard him in unguarded moments.

“Leonard never even told his wife anything about it, and we began encouraging him to write it,” Lapin said. “Then, he began organizing it so it could become a book, and we insisted he do it. We said, ‘It doesn’t matter whether it sells or not, it will make you happier to get it down on paper.’ ”

And so he did. The result is “Hilltop Doc,” a compelling firsthand account of the Korean War. The book is a vivid look at the atrocities of war from the perspective of a Marine combat corpsman.For Adreon, this was more than a writing exercise. It also exorcised some demons.

“I actually think it was a cathartic experience,” he said. “It was bottled up inside of me. I never forgot it. What surprised me was that my memory of everything that happened was very crisp.”

Leonard Adreon is a natural, gifted storyteller. He told me about his first full-time job, as an office boy at the age of 9. His dad told him he needed a summer job. He immediately had an idea.

“I said, ‘Dad, I need two dimes.’

“It was for the streetcar to get to Grand and Dodier and back. I walked up a narrow flight of stairs, and I saw the birds on the bat and I thought, ‘This is where I want to be!’ A Mrs. Murphy came out and asked why I wanted to work for the Cardinals, and I said, ‘I love baseball and I love the Cardinals.’ She said, ‘Follow me.’ 

“I walked through a great big wooden door to a grand office and there, in a black leather chair, sat a gray-haired man, and Mrs. Murphy said, ‘This is the young man I told you about.’ The man behind the desk said, ‘I’m Sam Breaden, what’s your name?’ ” 

Adreon scored an unscheduled, plum interview with the Cardinals owner. Young Leonard had confidence and moxie. And he got a job.

“I rushed home and ran up to our apartment, and said, ‘Dad, I got a full-time job! With the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team!’ Dad asked how much was I going to get paid. I meekly replied, ‘I don’t know, I didn’t ask!’ ”

Adreon graduated from Soldan High School in the middle of World War II. He was drafted into the Navy but never saw combat, concluding his service stationed at Northwestern University. The war ended and he was released from service, with an option to join the U.S. Naval Reserves.

“I’d get paid if I attended reserve meetings,” he said. “I grew up during the depression, and my dad always said never give up the opportunity to make a buck.”

That decision would prove fateful. Adreon enrolled in college at Washington University on the G.I. Bill, graduated in 1950 with honors and earned a degree in business. One month later, the Korean War broke out, and all reservists were recalled. In a flash, Adreon found himself at Camp Pendleton, Calif., on his way to the 38th parallel and intense fighting.

For the next 13 months, he patched up the wounded on the hillsides, hilltops and valleys of the rugged terrain of Korea. Although his job was to treat the wounded, he was an active participant in assaulting a hill and holding the high ground against a relentless Chinese army.  He carried a 30-round M-1 carbine, a .45-caliber pistol and grenades essential to the success of an assault. 

“Hilltop Doc” offers a graphic description of firefights and carnage. There were welcome periods of rest and downtime away from the front, but danger, often in the form of snipers, was never far away.

After serving his time as a grunt, Adreon was offered an opportunity to enter Naval Officer Candidate School. But military life was never in his long-term plans. He’d had enough, so he went home in 1952. He subsequently met Audrey Siteman; their first date was at Ruggieri’s on the Hill. They married and he went into business with Audrey’s brother. The Adreons have three daughters and six grandchildren.

“I didn’t give any thought to Korea,” he said. “I very much lived my life. We devoted ourselves to our family, and I worked very hard for many years. We built subdivisions, office buildings, apartments and shopping centers.”

Adreon retired as executive vice president of the Siteman Organization. On his watch, the company developed nine office buildings in downtown Clayton, a major building in the Westport area, the 23-story Park Tower apartment building in Clayton and the 16-story Lindell Terrace apartment building in St. Louis. The company also developed properties in Texas and Colorado. 

Adreon’s introduction to Judaism is as unusual as his student-to-soldier transformation. His mother’s family was Jewish. His dad’s family was mostly Episcopalian. Growing up in the Depression years, the family practiced no religion. His Navy dog tags had a P (for Protestant) as a default because his family had joined the Church of the Ascension on Goodfellow Avenue so Adreon could play basketball on the church team.

It never sat well with Adreon that he didn’t have a true religious experience. When he and Audrey Siteman got married, that changed. He came to embrace Judaismand the Adreons joined Temple Israel. 

Years later, his knowledge of construction and design came in very handy for the temple. Its building had chronically leaky skylights, but TI couldn’t find a contractor who would attempt to fix them. The TI leadership asked Adreon if there was anything he could do. He immediately called the building’s designer, noted architect Gyo Obata, who was the designer of Siteman’s Lindell Terrace.

“I said, ‘Gyo, the skylights are leaking and nobody will touch them, and now they’re talking about taking out the skylights and putting in a flat roof, which will destroy your design. Are you going to allow that to happen?’ And he said, ‘Leave it to me, it’ll be taken care of.’ The people who originally installed them came down from Milwaukee and got them fixed. That made me a hero, and I was invited to be a member of the board.”

Eventually, Adreon became president of Temple Israel, a position he accepted with some trepidation. He lacked the formal religious school education and experiences of most of his peers. A conversation with Rabbi Emeritus Mark Shook alleviated his concerns.

“Rabbi Shook told me that since my mother was Jewish, I was Jewish. Simple as that,” Adreon said. “He also added that he thought I would be successful in my role as president of Temple Israel.”

And with that, Leonard Adreon added one more accomplishment to a lifetime full of them: student, soldier, builder, businessman, champion of children’s charities and much more.

Leonard Adreon continues to co-facilitate writing classes at the Lifelong Learning Institute. More information on his book  “Hilltop Doc” is available at hilltopdoc.com.