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.                

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