John Conrad Hernstrom was born July 15, 1927, in Lynn Center, Illinois, to George Conrad Hernstrom and Helen Marie Carlson Hernstrom. His father was born in Sweden,1 spoke Swedish, and was a farmer.2 He immigrated to the U.S. in 1907 at the age of nine months. In 1940, George was a molder at a tractor manufacturing company,3 and later worked at John Deere. John had one brother and two sisters. He graduated from Rock Island High School in June 1945, along with 354 other students.4 He participated on the wrestling team there.5
In 1943, John participated in 4-H Club and entered livestock and poultry shows in Taylor Ridge, Illinois. On August 26, he entered the poultry show with a group of one cockerel and two pullets and received an A rating and a B rating, the equivalent of Blue Ribbon and Red Ribbon. In the individual pullets show, he received two A ratings. He also entered the swine show with his club, the Black Hawk Braves. For individual gilts he received a C rating.
After high school graduation, John worked at Container Corporation of America6 for a short time before entering the Marine Corps in June at the age of 17. In July 1945, he was with the First Recruit Battalion, Recruit Depot, Marine Barrack, Parris Island, North Carolina.7 He also trained at Camp Pendleton in California. In February 1946, he arrived in China and was stationed near Guam, where he had been for the two weeks prior to going to China.8
John spent five years in the Marine Corps before being sent to Korea as a Marine Reservist. He landed at Inchon on South Korea’s west coast on September 15, 1950, where General Douglas McArthur landed forces behind the Chinese lines. John was a gunnery sergeant at the time. “It was combat the whole time,” he said of the Korean War, where he was with the 7th Marine Infantry Regiment, First Marine Division.9 He fought at the Chosin Reservoir in November and December. Two hundred thousand Chinese troops surrounded 15,000 ground troops, mostly made up of the 1st Marine Division and regimental combat teams from the Army’s 7th Infantry Division. The Chinese forces were ordered to annihilate the 1st Marine Division.10
John’s job was to call in military strikes on enemy positions as a forward observer. Temperatures were near 30 degrees below zero – so cold that blood plasma froze and was unusable. Medical supplies were in short supply. They had to carry their dead and wounded, along with all their equipment. “What it amounted to was a battle to survive,“ John told a reporter in 2013. “The first parachute drop they made to us, we needed ammo and medical supplies. And they dropped Tootsie Rolls and barbed wire.”
The battle was savage with 3,000 Allies dead, 6,000 wounded, and thousands with severe frostbite. As they were fighting and withdrawing, nearly 100,000 North Korean civilians were able to flee along with the Allied troops. It has been called one of the greatest rescues in the history of mankind. John was wounded during the battle on December 5, earning a Purple Heart.11 He was also wounded on May 30, 1951. He was hit in both legs by an enemy sniper.12 He was sent to the hospital ship Haven. John earned a Bronze Star Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, Purple Heart with two Oak Leaf Clusters, Korean Service Medal with three stars, and the Presidential Unit Citation with one star. John retired from the Marine Corps Reserves at the rank of sergeant major in 1975.
John married Bonnie Jean Greenwalt on May 8, 1950, and they had three children. She died in June 1978 at the age of 47. He married Betty Popp Mikelson in 1979. Betty had three children of her own. They were married for 33 years.
John was an excavator in 1959 and lived in Rock Island.13 John owned and operated Hernstrom Excavating. He was an active member and board member of the Union Congregational Church in Moline, Illinois. He also was active in the Marine Corps League and raised funds for Arrowhead Ranch. He founded the Toys for Tots program and remained active in it for several years. He was an avid gardener and sports fan, particularly of the Chicago Bears and NASCAR. John was a former Master of Ceremony at National Cemetery Memorial Day Services and a co-founder of Bi-County Memorial Day Association at the National Cemetery.
He died at Trinity Rock Island May 21, 2013.
821 Feb 1946, 10 – The Rock Island Argus at Newspapers.com Arrives in China