Friday, June 29, 2018

Col. Robert Martin Duels with a Tank

Col. Robert R. Martin. Photo courtesy of Lacy C. Barnett

It was early on July 6, 1950. Like so many other Eighth Army staff officers headquartered in Japan, Col. Robert Reinhold Martin (1902-1950) was cast headlong into the sudden melee of the Korean War’s opening days.  Col. Martin flew to Pusan from Japan, and subsequently made his way to 24th Infantry Division HQ in Taejon.

Col. Martin was hand-picked by General William F. Dean, commander of the 24th.  Martin served impressively as a regimental commander under Dean with the 44th Division in Europe during World War II.  Now with a new war in Korea, Dean fretted over the poor performance of his command.  Dean figured that Martin would bring a partial remedy in the form of effective leadership.  After 34th Regiment’s humiliation in combat on July 6, Dean had the pretense to sack its commander, Jay Lovless.  Col. Martin would take his place.

Bob Martin’s introduction to Korea was so fast that he had no time to pack combat gear.  He was still dressed in a class A (dress) uniform when he arrived at Lovless’s command post.

Emboldened by victories on July 5 and 6, the North Korean People’s Army bore down on Ch’onan, where the U.S. 34th Regiment was regrouping.  Tanks spearheaded their advance. In turn, American troops were making a hasty retreat from positions north of Ch’onan.  One of Col. Martin’s first tasks was to lead a headquarters patrol north to collect key weapons and other assets discarded by retreating troops. By the evening of the 7th, Ch’onan was under siege, with white phosphorous shells illuminating the night sky over the town. Battle flowed into the next morning, when Martin witnessed the beginning of a panicked rout of his troops.  The 1924 Purdue University graduate knew that effective leaders personally demonstrated the behavior that they expected from their subordinates; he would have to personally take up a weapon and lead from the front.

At 8:00 in the morning of July 8, there in the middle of Ch’onan, Col. Martin armed himself with a 2.36-inch rocket launcher.  This device was already known for its inferior performance against German armor during the last war; it fared no better against the North Korean’s Russian-built T-34 tanks.  But no matter, Martin needed to rally the men in his command. He collared Sgt. Jerry C. Christensen, a headquarters operations coordinator.  Christensen would serve as loader to assist Martin’s actions as gunner.

Neither man was adequately trained in using the weapon. As he fumbled with the launcher, an enemy tank began bearing down on Bob Martin’s position. The duel was over in an instant, as the tank fired its cannon directly at Martin, cutting him in two. The blast knocked one of Christensen’s eyes out of its socket; he struggled to replace it with his bare hands before retreating for cover.
On July 11, the U.S. Army’s Far East Command posthumously awarded Bob Martin the first Distinguished Service Cross of the Korean War.  His remains were not recovered.                

Friday, June 22, 2018

Lacy C. Barnett: History's Witness

The following was provided by Lacy C. Barnett, age 91 - alive, well, and corresponding via email.  Mr. Barnett was a 23-year-old U.S. Army corporal in July 1950 who, along with Pvt. Philip Hughes, was among the very first American soldiers sent to Korea. Photos courtesy of Mr. Barnett.

The U.S. Army’s ranks in the late 1940s contained a lot of teenagers, especially in post-war Japan. Too young to have served in World War II, many of these boys had older brothers or fathers who did.  These boys were often high school dropouts from humble circumstances worsened by the Great Depression. For many, the post-war Army offered structure and security that their families could not. I was one of those boys.

 “The Battle of Turkey Thicket,” by Christopher Russell, follows the story of another of these teenagers, Philip Thomas Hughes of Washington, D.C.  The reader does not get to know much about Philip, but instead gets to see what Philip sees as he uses the Army to escape a disintegrating family life.  By following Philip’s adventures in Japan and Korea, this true story effectively gives voice to the many boys who sacrificed their lives in a war that is now relegated to an obscure corner of American history.

Traditional history books provide the “big picture” story of conflict between nations and the choices made by their leaders.  “The Battle of Turkey Thicket” follows the opening phases of the Korean War from the view of an individual soldier. These pages reminded me of the chaos of those days: the first alert of our deployment from Sasebo at 0100 hours, 1 July 1950; steaming to Korea aboard the Takasago Maru on 2 July; the six-mile hike from the dock in Pusan to Camp Hialeah; and the train ride to front. We used equipment, uniforms, and even food left over from World War II. Unprecedented stress on the Army’s logistics created episodes where the only meals available to men in combat was baby food diverted from commissaries in Japan. 

We engaged not only enemy forces, but the discomforts of a swampy climate in an impoverished nation. We endured heat, insects, and water supplies tainted by human excrement used by the locals as fertilizer.  The countryside smelled foul, and within a matter of hours, so did we. As the North Koreans overran our positions one after another, our trucks weaved through masses of southbound refugees who travelled by foot. We shared unpaved roads that were maddeningly susceptible to either dust or mud. 

Our beloved 34th Regiment was deactivated on 1 Sep 1950 due to heavy losses. Both Philip Hughes and I were among the regiment’s 184 survivors (out of 1,981). We were then reassigned to the 3rd Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment. 

Philip was an infantryman with K Company of the 19th. That company took a lot of casualties between 8-12 September in engagements on Hill 300.  After surviving the fearsome days of July and August, Philip made the ultimate sacrifice on 12 September 1950.  At that time, I was a member of the medical platoon supporting Philip’s battalion.

Part of my duties were to identify the remains of our boys for subsequent handling by graves registration.  It is very possible that Philip Hughes was among the remains I handled.  Unfortunately, I don't have photographic memory, but I distinctly remember one man brought to our aid station there who was still gasping for breath. Our doctor worked on him, but to no avail. The doctor turned and ordered us to place his remains under a tree.  The man, clinically dead, continued to gasp every 30 seconds or so. For us young medics who had already seen so much, this was still alarming to watch.  Was this Philip Hughes?  We’ll never know for sure.

Devine intention so often distills good from the ills of life. It is my firm belief that without God in heaven looking over and caring for me, I would not be available to relate these thoughts in 2018. Had it not been for my deployment to Japan, I would not have met Alice in April 1949. By early 1950, we were engaged.  I was a 23-year-old kid form the Appalachian foothills of Alabama. She was a 24-year-old clerk-interpreter, the daughter of a Japanese mother and French father.  While not strictly forbidding such unions in those days, U.S. visa laws plus the Army’s deliberate bureaucracy imposed many hurdles intended largely to defeat all but the most determined of couples. Our relief came with U.S. Congressional action in 1951.

After raising two children who themselves are now entering retirement, Alice and I recently celebrated 68 years of marriage. 

Can anyone argue that God in heaven has not watched over me?

Friday, June 15, 2018

Once Upon a Time: Comrades Lost in Korea

May 1950. Sasebo, Southern Japan.  From left: Cpl. James R. Williams, age 23, Santo, TX; 
SFC. Daniel J. Cavanaugh, age 29, Groton CT; Cpl. Russell D. Talley, age 32, Mexia, TX; 
and Cpl. Lacy C. Barnett, age 23, Empire, AL.
Although they did not know it at the time, these four young American soldiers were just weeks away from life-altering events.  An early death awaited two of them.  But in June 2018, one of them is alive and well, busily compiling a written commentary on the U.S. Army’s involvement in the opening weeks of the Korean War. More about him will follow below.

Several hundred thousand soldiers of the U.S. Eighth Army were tasked with the post-World War II occupation of the Japanese home islands. Budget austerity ensured that Army resources were optimized either for occupation duties or for war.  It could not excel at both.  

This was an idyllic garrison for young Americans in early 1950. The impoverished Japanese population welcomed these soldiers – or more specifically – welcomed their disposable income.  As members of the U.S. Army’s 34th Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division, these four men were assigned to the regiment’s medical company. Based in the southern Japanese port of Sasebo, they were ten miles from the regiment’s home base at Camp Mower.

They served as medics, albeit with varying specialties such as “surgical technician” or “corpsman.” The medics’ duties included clinical support to doctors tending a litany of mundane peacetime ailments and injuries. Perhaps the most frequently encountered maladies were sexually transmitted diseases. These were sufficiently endemic to hamper the Army’s overall mission.

The sudden onset of the Korean War on June 25, 1950 would change everything for these men.  By July 5, these medics were among the 1,981 members of the 34th Infantry Regiment sent to the front lines of a “police action” to defend South Korea.  As a whole, the U.S. Eighth Army was understaffed and deficient in combat training, weaponry, and supplies. Many infantrymen entered combat with rifles that were tagged “combat unserviceable.”  

The Americans were shocked to discover that they were outmatched by the more numerous and aggressive North Korean People’s Army. The American combat strategy during the opening weeks of that war was to stall the invaders as best they could, trading land and lives for the time required to deliver additional troops and resources from the mainland U.S.

The role of a medical company was radically transformed by combat.  The corpsmen provided immediate treatment to wounded soldiers on the battlefield – and often under enemy fire. Others worked in aid stations just behind the lines, performing the initial triage of men awaiting medical remedy. Stated differently, the medical staff attended to the ghastly wounds of war, attempting to save lives, reduce potential disabilities, or shorten the wounded man’s rehabilitation times.  Per physicians’ direction, medical corpsmen carried out excruciating decisions about if, when, and how and they would treat each wounded soldier. A shortage of time, space, and supplies too often prevented or compromised the quality of care that wounded men deserved. 

The July 20 battle for the communications junction city of Taejon tragically exposed the weakness of American forces committed to the earliest days of the Korean War. After penetrating the Americans’ porous defense on the outskirts of Taejon, North Korean troops effectively infiltrated and surrounded the city. The better part of 5,000 Americans – mostly non-combatant, rear echelon troops such as medical company personnel – would have to fight their way out through Taejon’s gridwork of streets. The four medics pictured here had mixed success in escaping Taejon.  Cpl. Williams was killed in an ambush. Sgt. Talley died as the result of a truck crash after enemy marksmen killed his driver.

Both Dan Cavanaugh and Lacy Barnett survived the Korean War. They would go on to enjoy what their colleagues could not: careers, families, and time to reflect. Both men watched the American cultural landscape change over the following decades.  They saw how America changed its attitude toward soldiers, alternately reviling then embracing veterans of the Vietnam War, followed by the vacant platitudes offered to the Iraq-Afghanistan vets. But what of their old colleagues from Korea?  History would make scant record of them unless veterans themselves took the initiative.

From the mid 1980s onward, Dan and Lacy took that initiative.  Not satisfied with the official histories promulgated by the U.S. Army, they joined forces with other Korean War vets to assemble a gritty truth from a disparate collection of archival records and personal recollections.  Theirs was a race against time as the years began to take their toll.  Dan Cavanaugh passed in 1997.  Today, at age 91, Lacy Barnett is one of a handful of survivors who can provide first-hand knowledge of the chaotic days of July 1950. His vigorous research of official records has uncovered numerous permanent facts that have yet to be published. The omission of such facts from official histories, he asserts, could not have been accidental. Mr. Barnett promises that a publication, “Criminal Deployment of U.S. Forces to Korea in July 1950,” is forthcoming. 

Friday, June 8, 2018

Remembering David Douglas Duncan

David Douglas Duncan was a gifted photographer of combat - first, as a Marine in World War II, then later for Time-Life as a civilian embedded with the Marines in Korea and Vietnam. His images came close to capturing the soul of his subjects, so that we are reminded of the human cost of  war. Mr. Duncan died in France on June 7, 2018 at the age of 102.

Shown here is a pastiche of Mr. Duncan's work in Korea.  Foreground from left: Capt. Francis "Ike" Fenton (1922-1998) on the Pusan Perimeter, Korea, September 1950; Cpl. Leonard Hayworth (1928-1950) pictured on the Pusan Perimeter on Sep. 23, 1950; unknown marine at the Chosin Reservoir, December 1950.  Background:  U.S. Marines, surrounded and out-gunned by Chinese forces at the Chosin Reservoir, "attack in a different direction" to effect their passage to Hungnam, December 1950.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

The McGovern Brothers: From Washington, D.C. to Korea ...and Back

Beyond the monuments and landmarks of Washington, D.C. are a variety of working-class neighborhoods, like the one in which Philip Thomas Hughes was raised. Most were developed between 1900 and 1940. Tourists don't usually see these little villages of shops and rowhouses, simple and cheap to build so that they were priced within reach of government bureaucrats.  Mr. & Mrs. Halsey McGovern and their six children lived in one of these homes, at 4610 New Hampshire Avenue, across from Rock Creek Cemetery. Their house was a little over four miles north of the U.S. Capitol. The McGoverns were devout Catholics who attended St. Gabriel’s Church.

With the unassuming career of a freight-rail tariff analyst, Halsey McGovern’s legacy would be unnoticed were it not for the Korean War, the tragedy that befell his family, and the headlines he generated through an unprecedented act of defiance.

The McGovern sons attended Washington, D.C.’s St. John’s College High School, noted for its Cadet Corps. Brothers Robert (b. 1928) and Francis "Jerry" (b. 1929) were both noted for their leadership abilities, and both quickly found their vocation in the U.S. Army. By 1949, Robert was a second lieutenant with the 1stCavalry Division based at Camp Crawford in Japan, where he committed his free time and resources to support a Franciscan orphanage in Sapporo. Jerry became a platoon leader with the 2ndInfantry Division at Fort Lewis in Washington state. 

Robert and Jerome each found his way to Korea under separate commands in late 1950. Each would lead an infantry platoon. In early 1951, both were killed in action, only 11 days apart. They died the same way so many other lieutenants did; each led his platoon from the front while scaling yet another anonymous Korean hill named only by a number denoting its height in meters above sea level. 

The Army chose to posthumously decorate the brothers.  Robert’s award was the Congressional Medal of Honor.  Jerry would receive the Silver Star.  The White House pursued arrangements for President Harry Truman to present the awards to the boys’ father in January 1952.  There was one problem: Halsey McGovern, then age 65, refused to accept the medals. He stated to the Washington Post’s Ray Pittman that President Truman was “unworthy” to “confer them on my boys or any other boys.”

Halsey McGovern’s reasons for refusing the medals were not made explicitly clear.  Some strong clues are available, however. The Library of Congress maintains a file of Mr. McGovern’s correspondence, and his letters to newspaper editors are found in the D.C. Public Library’s Washingtoniana collection. These documents reveal the Tennessee-born Mr. McGovern to have been a staunch conservative, the type who perceived communist direction behind the American civil rights movement. It may be that Halsey McGovern was one of the many Americans who faulted Truman for not using atomic bombs in response to communist aggression on the Korean Peninsula. Halsey McGovern recorded such opinions for the rest of his life, until he died in 1983 at the age of 97.

The U.S. Army considers the awards to be conferred.  The actual medals are now on display at St. John's College.  Robert and Jerry McGovern are buried beside each other in Arlington National Cemetery. In May 1952, a ground-breaking ceremony began the construction of the Tenishi-in Boys Home in Sapporo, Hokkaido Island, Japan. It was dedicated to Robert McGovern.