Squeezed between the Vietnam controversy and World War II, the harsh battles of Korea have faded from American memory like 1950s petticoats and crew-neck sweaters.

But for 87-year-old Mel Lubbers of Mitchell, reminders of lost comrades and Korea's icy bunkers pound like rounds from a 50-caliber machine gun.

"Why I got to this age, I don't know," Mel says.

On Tuesday, Mel will take a one-day Honor Flight to the Korean War Memorial and visit other Washington, D.C., attractions. Accompanied by his daughter Lori Heier, he and a buddy will make the trip and return to Sioux Falls by 8 p.m.

Mel left his parents' Alexandria farm in 1952 as a 21-year-old draftee and newlywed. He returned after 17 months a hardened combat infantryman.

There was no fanfare when his parents and young wife, Nancy, picked him up at the local bus stop 65 years ago.

Nancy had read all of his war letters, she says, "But he never told me anything." Frightened, she hadn't wanted to know.

Mel came home intending to walk away from war, and he mostly did until shortly before a return trip to Korea two years ago.

In 2016, Mel was on a mission to locate the grave of a close childhood friend killed in action in Korea's Iron Triangle. He and others had long pondered possible Korean locations, and Mel thought he knew where it was. In his heart, he knew he had to look.

"It didn't pan out," he says.

A half century earlier, he had left a land stripped naked by bullets, artillery and napalm.

"It looked like a gravel pit," Mel says. "A 50-caliber can cut a tree in half."

After 64 years, trees were growing even inside former trenches.

"You didn't know where you were at," Mel says. "You knew north and south, and that was about it."

The Korean government paid all expenses for the trip.

"They treated us like kings, put us up in a 5-star hotel," Mel says.

Before going, Mel decided he should share things with his family. Mel showed them his Bronze Star, awarded for meritorious achievement in ground operations.

"They still don't know everything," he says.

Mel doesn't talk about combat. Something awful occurred inside the bloodied Iron Triangle, maybe near Outpost Harry in the Cheorwon area, along the modern border with North Korea, or maybe near the Jackson Heights and Arrowhead outposts. Mel isn't saying.

It was cold and hard, and it's best left alone. There were times he didn't think he'd make it, and there's never been a time since he's forgotten about it.

Mel commanded what the Army called a quad-50, a set of four linked 50-caliber machine guns mounted on the back of a truck. Designed as an anti-aircraft weapon, it could be used to sweep hills crawling with Chinese human waves-unprotected frontal charges intended to overwhelm an enemy.

"Most people think we were fighting the North Koreans," Mel says, "but it was the Chinese."

Mel was never the same after, says Nancy. It wasn't post-traumatic stress. He was just touchy.

"He was kind of hard to deal with," she says.

Nancy was just 16 when they married three weeks before Mel left for boot camp at Camp Roberts, Calif.

"They said it wouldn't work," Mel recalls. They've raised five children together.

Mel still has his hard points, Nancy says, "But he's a teddy bear when you get down to it."

Responsibility may account for some of Mel's hardness. At age 21, "not dry behind the ears," he became the sergeant of a squad of 18-year-olds. The Army objective was to "Get it straightened out."

On his return trip to Korea, Mel visited the White Horse Mountain, site of a brutal back-and-forth battle in October 1952. The melee was as deadly to Chinese and South Korean troops as Sherman's march on Atlanta was to Americans during the Civil War.

"That hill was won and lost 12 times in 14 days," Mel says. Accounts differ, but Mel was there.

"I got in on the tail end of it," he says.

Americans served with United Nations forces, which by that point in the war provided superior artillery and air support mostly for South Korean troops. The Chinese would launch a series of deadly battles to take strategic hills, hoping to gain bargaining chips for peace talks.

At White Horse, fighting had turned the hill so threadbare it looked like a bald horse, hence the name.

In 1952, Mel wintered near there in a bunker without a roof. Korea's weather was identical to South Dakota's, Mel says, with the same bone-chilling winds.

The 30-35 members of the Eastern South Dakota Korean War Association still talk about it during reunions. Mel was president of the group for three years.

Memorial Day is coming up, and Mel's memories go to the soldiers whose war began on the eastern shores of the Pacific Ocean 68 years ago.

To him, "We're honoring the ones that gave it all."

God chose these people to be in a free country, he says. He also had a hand in who is going to be in the military.

Mel regards everyone who served during war as an equal contributor.

"Everybody pitched in," he says. "We all did our job.

"The men and women who did not make it are actually the true heroes.

"We protected our country. We came through it," he says.

"The true hero was the person who gave it all."