A split-second decision Jack Tolbert made in 1953 would become the defining moment of his life.
With just a month left before his tour of duty in the Korean War was up, Tolbert spotted Chinese troops about to swarm his squad’s position near Kumhwa, South Korea. Under heavy shelling, he alerted his command post to the threat.
Moments later, one of the Chinese troops lobbed a grenade into Tolbert’s bunker. Sgt. 1st Class Tolbert didn’t hesitate to sacrifice himself to save the young men under his command.
He threw himself on the grenade. It cost him his legs.
Tolbert would survive his wounds, move to Redding, start a family and a business and become a passionate advocate for his fellow veterans. He died Nov. 1 at the age of 94.
His rich, full life could have ended that day in South Korea if not for some quick thinking on his part. Tolbert played dead to prevent the Chinese soldiers from bayoneting him.
“They hit him in the head with the butt of a rifle and left him for dead,” his daughter, Shelda Kralick, 66, told The Sacramento Bee in a phone interview Friday. “His boys snuck back. They were coming back for Sarge’s body. When he spoke to them, he scared the bejeebers out of them.”
It took them 14 hours to carry him to a field hospital. His family said he would spend most of the next two years in and out of hospitals in Korea and back in the U.S.
The grenade blast also nearly cost him one of his arms.
“He had to fight the U.S Army to keep them from taking his right arm off,” Kralick said.
Tolbert used a wheelchair for the rest of his life, but it didn’t slow him down. He married Gladys, his wife of 50 years, and he started a small engine repair shop in Redding. It stayed open for more than two decades.
He’s survived by Gladys, 92, eight children and a host of grandchildren, great-grandchildren and two great-great granddaughters.
Tolbert is best remembered in Redding for being a constant fixture at veterans events and for being a passionate advocate for their causes. He was a champion of the Northern California Veterans Cemetery in the community of Igo where his Nov. 20 services are being held. He also fought for years for the recently opened Veterans Home of California in Redding. The Redding chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart bears his name.
“He was not only a good friend to a lot of us up here … you would always find him with his wheelchair in support of everything we have done,” said Maurice Johannessen, a former Republican state senator and secretary of the California Department of Veterans Affairs who lives in Redding.
Johannessen was one of those who advocated to have Tolbert be awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for his sacrifice and bravery in Korea. Tolbert told the Record Searchlight in 2009 that while it “would have been nice” to have been awarded the military’s most prestigious honor, he wasn’t that disappointed. He joked he was fine with the much more routine Good Conduct Medal he received.
“I had a good time and the MPs never caught me,” he said.
Kralick said her father’s wry sense of humor was a big part of why he was able to thrive after what he lived through in the war.
“You just have to laugh at things, because if you don’t, what good is it?” Kralick said.
Tolbert told The Sacramento Bee in 1996 that the memories of the war haunted him for years, but he had since made his peace.
“I’m not the hero type,” Tolbert told the Record Searchlight. “I was just a regular GI who spent a little time in the front line. I did my job and came home.”
Kralick sees things differently about the man she calls “Pop.”
“He was a hero,” Kralick said. “He was a hero to everyone that he met or that ever met him. People loved him tremendously.”