Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Veteran Ralph Tate poses in his room at Garden Plaza of Greenbriar Cove on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020 in Collegedale, Tenn.

Note: This story was updated at 12:21 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 6 to remove a reference to Desmond Doss, whose Medal of Honor exploits during World War II did not occur along Heartbreak Ridge.

When the time came for Ralph Tate to enlist for military service, there was no question of his destination.

"I had an older cousin, William Head, in the Marine Corps," said Tate, 89. "He fought at Iwo Jima. I looked up to him."

Tate grew up in Chattanooga, graduating from Central High in 1949. He went to work, but signed up for reserve duty in early 1950.

"That's what 18-year-old men did," he said.

The Korean Conflict broke out in June of that year, and Tate's unit was called up in September. He was joined on his trip to California by his cousin, who'd been discharged after World War II but re-enlisted in the reserves immediately thereafter.

"We went through boot camp in San Diego, then combat training at Camp Pendleton," Tate said, adding that when he shipped out for Korea, his cousin stayed in California.

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Veteran Ralph Tate poses in his room at Garden Plaza of Greenbriar Cove on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020 in Collegedale, Tenn.

Before he left, Tate used a 10-day leave to come home and take care of some personal business; he got married, and soon his new wife, Betty, joined him on the West Coast.

Tate left for Korea in February 1951. He was in the country for 13 months, serving in the storied First Marine Division and fighting in the Punchbowl, the inactive volcano near Heartbreak Ridge.

Tate recalled that his unit spent one stretch of 65 days on the front lines.

"What sticks out in your memory," he said, "is seeing your fellow Marines, your buddies, get wounded and killed in firefights.

"When a bullet passes close enough," he said, "you can hear it whiz by."

Tate said he was once "knocked flat on my back" by a too-close enemy shell, but didn't recall sustaining a specific injury of real severity. So, after he came home, he was surprised by a question from the doctor set to operate on his knee.

"He asked me, 'What's this metal in your knee?'" Tate said. "My knee had hurt for a while, and that must have been what caused it. I don't know how it got in there, other than it had to have been shrapnel."

Tate was a corporal and company commander when his unit got word that it was rotating out of Korea. He came home in 1952 and was discharged from the reserves the next year.


Name: Ralph Tate

Age: 89

Branch of military: U.S. Marine Corps

Years of service: 1950-53

(Read about other local veterans in our "21-Veteran Salute" series here)

Tate spent 34 years with Kroger Co. He and Betty had three children, six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren before her death in 2017.

Tate has stayed in touch with his fellow Marines through the years. A member of the Marine Corps League, he's attended reunions around the country.

He and several of his comrades also returned in 2000 to South Korea. Tate said the group didn't get back to where they'd actually fought, but he was stunned nonetheless by Seoul.

"Seoul had been leveled twice," he said, "but 50 years later it was a metropolis."

Seven decades on from the fight of – and for – his life, Tate hesitated not at all when asked whether he'd do it all again.

"Sure," he said. "Anyone who enlists understands that anything could happen when you're called to duty.

"And my cousin painted a picture of what the Marines stood for," he added, "so I had my eyes on the Corps."

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