How an American bluegrass legend was nearly killed in the Korean War
Even if you don’t listen to Bluegrass music regularly, chances are good you’ve heard the song “Rocky Top” and probably sang along (even if you didn’t know all the words). The somewhat magical voice singing those words belongs to Bobby Osborne of the Bluegrass group The Osborne Brothers.
Osborne was a lot of things over the course of his lifetime. He was a fiddler at nine years old, before he became a Bluegrass pioneer. But before he and his brother Sonny could put out their first album, Bobby took a break from music to join the Marine Corps and fight in the Korean War. His return home was nothing short of a miracle: he was shot in the head while on a nighttime patrol.
Bobby Osborne was born on December 7, 1931, in Leslie County, Kentucky. He spent most of his youth helping his granddad run a general store, but he would drop out of high school to pursue his passion: Music. He grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio and knew he wanted to make that kind of music, too.
So he did. By then, his family had moved to Ohio, but he and his brother left home for West Virginia, where they founded the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. The same year the Osborne brothers headed east, something was happening very far away from the mountains of West Virginia. North Korea invaded South Korea.
In June 1950, North Korea launched a full-scale invasion of its southern neighbor. President Harry S. Truman decided the United States would head the resistance to the global spread of Communism and was determined that Korea would be the line in the sand. As American forces were fighting for their lives against the Communists, Americans were drafted to train and fight. Bobby Osborne was drafted.
He had a choice between the Army and the Marine Corps. Since the Army trained in Maryland and the Marines trained in California, he decided to join the Corps, hoping to avoid the cold. It was the cold that would later save his life during the war. In 1951, he joined the Marines and shipped out to Korea.
By the winter of 1951, the war had devolved into a stalemate. Both sides jockeyed for any advantage they could get in the face of the enemy, both strategically and tactically. Jockeying for an advantage is what led Pvt. Bobby Osborne to be sent out on a night mission. He was sent out to no man’s land to capture a North Korean or Chinese prisoner.
In the dead black of night, he and some fellow Marines left the safety of their own lines and began silently infiltrating an enemy-held hill. They made it all the way to the top of the hill before the shooting started. With bullets and mortars coming at them, the jumped into the enemy’s trenches and cleared it of defenders. But they still needed to either get a prisoner or get back to their own lines.
Osborne began climbing out of the trench and was hit almost immediately, later describing it as someone pouring warm water down his face. He’d been hit in the head and soon passed out. But the cold he hated so much must have kept the bleeding from being too bad because he woke up to complete silence. The fight was over and daylight was on the horizon.
He helped a fellow Marine who had survived get up, and together, the two men did a quick hobble back to where they thought they’d be safe. A spotlight from a nearby tank guided them back. That was how his Korean War experience ended. He returned home to the U.S. and finished his tour before going home to West Virginia and resuming his music career.
Bobby Osborne died on June 27, 2023, at age 91, outliving his brother by two years. Bobby played the Grand Ole Opry until he died.