|Major Newton W. Lantron, Sr. Photo courtesy of Lacy C. Barnett|
At about 0930 hours on July 20, 1950, U.S. Army Major Newton W. Lantron disappeared during the Korean War’s Battle of Taejon. Army historians claim that he neither gave notice nor instructions to his staff. Lantron simply departed his command post by driving away in his jeep.
Lantron’s exit was curious, to say the least. He was the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 34th Infantry regiment (3/34), which, after only two weeks of combat in Korea, was being thoroughly routed by enemy forces. At first under the command of Lt. Col. David H. Smith, the 3/34 had already suffered formidable casualties in a delaying action at Ch’onan on July 7-8. Whereas the third battalion’s understrength rosters counted about 525 men before Ch’onan, only 175 would emerge from that engagement. Among the losses was Lt. Col. Smith, evacuated due to physical exhaustion. This made Maj. Lantron the senior officer available in the battalion, and thus its commander.
By July 20, the U.S. Army’s combat presence in Korea was committed to a tenuous front line defense just north and west of Taejon, South Korea. The 3/34 was an integral component of that line. By this point, the men – and especially, most of the officers – had been functioning for days without proper sleep. This would become evident in lapses of judgment and decision-making. This situation was made worse by poor communications between command levels, a consequence of worn, broken, or otherwise unreliable radios and signal equipment drawn from World War II surplus stocks.
Regimental headquarters became aware of Lantron’s disappearance about two and a half hours later. But by that time, the headquarters staff had more pressing distractions to contend with. A number of North Korean T-34 tanks had by then infiltrated the grid of Taejon’s streets. Clerks, cooks, mechanics, medics and other rear echelon men all became riflemen as they encountered enemy infiltrators. Those troops not already fighting for their lives were now preparing a hasty exit, either packing up their trucks or setting fire to what they could not readily transport. In the midst of this confusion, the disappearance of a battalion commander was of no immediate concern. A 29-year-old captain, Jack Smith, was regimental command’s emergency choice to lead 3/34 after Lantron’s disappearance.
Newt Lantron, a tall and lanky 35-year-old Alabamian by birth, joined the Army before World War II. He entered combat as a company commander with the 36th Infantry Division in Italy, only to be captured by the Germans on September 9, 1943. He was interned at Oflag 64 in Poland for the duration of the war in Europe.
The post-war continuation of his Army service placed him by 1950 with occupation forces in Japan, and subsequently, with combat forces in Korea. The enervating crisis in Korea was only exacerbated by the U.S. Army’s unpreparedness, as it lacked reliable and effective equipment, while its men lacked sufficient spirit and physical fortitude for combat. Field-grade officers like Lantron were further stressed by their awareness of top commanders’ impossible expectations. On July 7, division commander Gen. William Dean sacked the original commander of the 34th Regiment’s Korea deployment, Jay Lovless, for an apparent lack of aggressiveness. Lovless’ replacement, Bob Martin, lasted all of 15 hours as he, armed with an ineffective 2.36-inch bazooka, lost a duel with an enemy T-34 tank in Ch’onan.
Now on July 20, Lantron’s orders were to hold the defensive line north of Taejon until notified to do otherwise. Lantron was in the same fix as Red Ayres, his counterpart who commanded the 34th’s first battalion. While obediently holding his position through the previous night, Ayres, detected the ominous clatter of enemy armor and troops bypassing his position in the dark. But without proper command communications, mission assignments were not forthcoming. Like Ayres, Lantron would have to react to rapidly evolving events on the ground around him. A lack of sleep ensured that his decisions did not always comport with sound military doctrine. These were the circumstances that immediately preceded Lantron’s sudden departure.
The Army suffered staggering losses on 20 July. Lt. Col. Red Ayres managed an effective escape for a portion of his command, which would regroup and continue the fight later that summer along the Pusan Perimeter. Newton Lantron, however, would not return to duty until September 1953 – three years later.
The U.S. Army would learn, several weeks after the battle in Taejon, that Lantron had evaded the enemy for two or three days before he was taken prisoner by the North Koreans. Other American prisoners would later testify as to Lantron’s heroics in saving the lives of several of his fellow captives, both on the forced march to North Korea and by his food scavenging efforts in the prisoner of war camps.
Having endured two separate wartime internments, Lantron suffered yet again when his son, Netwon Jr., age 24, died of a brain tumor in 1964 while serving with the U.S. Army in West Germany. Newton Lantron, Sr. died in 2003 at the age of 88.