Sandwiched between the worldwide upheaval of World War II and the controversial Vietnam War, the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953, is the forgotten war. It was the first United Nations’ war, though it was deemed a police action, and it was the first armed conflict of the Cold War, pitting the West against two increasingly powerful communist nations, the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union. The 50th anniversary of the Korean War—also the first war fought by a racially integrated United States military—is June 25, 2000.
Writer Martin Russ, 69, a former Marine and former associate professor at Carnegie-Mellon University, who wrote Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950, (Penguin paperback, $14.95), talked with freelance writer Scott Holleran at his home in Napa Valley, California.
What makes a good Marine?
Well, this gives me a chance to tell you that I think I was a minimum Marine. I wasn’t very good back at the line; I was sloppy and I tended to do as little as I possibly could—I never volunteered for anything. When I got up to the line, I saw it as a great, fun adventure for a couple of months, and it really turned me on—it was like being in a movie. I was never challenged seriously as far as bravery was concerned. I never did anything that was particularly brave—I never had the chance. My mind is not the kind that thinks of [my service] in terms of sacrifice—to me it was an adventure.
I saw plenty of bravery. When Lieutenant Butler was killed, because he had gone up over the skyline and had exposed himself [to enemy gunfire] in the moonlight, a corporal jumped up and went over that skyline to drag his dying body back—I thought that was tremendously brave. I sure as hell wasn’t going to go and get him back—I would have if I’d been ordered to--but it didn’t cross my mind that i should do that. While I was thinking about that, a corporal did it. We got together [later] and wrote him up for a medal, which he didn’t get because he just did what he was supposed to do.
When were you the most afraid?
When I crawled out in front of my bunker. It was at night and I had no feeling of vulnerability. But this sniper was pretty close and he, apparently, had heard me come out or had seen me come out—I don’t know [which]—and, I believe he must have been the one to do it—he called in mortar fire on me. So, I was out there by myself with no hole and no shelter and the mortars were falling all around me. Then they stopped and I crawled back. That was the only time when I really became afraid. It was very primitive; I just felt fear and then the fear was gone and I resumed what I was doing.
What is your most searing, personal memory?
There’s so many of them, but the one that came to mind first of all when you mentioned that was the yo-bos, the first Korean service corps, Many of whom were wounded veterans from earlier fighting. It’s a phrase in Korean that means something like “come here” or “hurry up” or something like that. Some denigrating phrase. These were men who were too old to be drafted into the Korean army and they helped us, they brought water, they brought ammunition and C rations and put in barbed wire for us and carried the dead away, they carried the stretchers for the wounded and nobody paid any attention to them; they were constantly terrified. They had to come up to the outpost and the Chinese were right there and grenades were being thrown. Looking back, I admire them now. I think they should be honored. The most searing memory is when I was in an outpost new bunker and there were some mortar rounds coming in and the yo-bos got terrified and I remember the way their faces looked when they really thought we were all going to die. I feel sorry for them in retrospect and I didn’t then. I don’t spend much time thinking about my own experiences in Korea. To me it was a great adventure—and it was a great adventure—but I don’t think I went through any traumatic experiences.
You encountered death. You had to face your own mortality—
Not that—I thought I was immortal, which I think is the case with many young soldiers. You're just sure it could not be you and, when it isn’t, that confirms it. If you’re wrong, you’re six feet under. It was the Corporal Martin Russ show. I really didn’t have an understanding of the suffering that was all around me. The Koreans who were suffering. I’m conscious of that now but at that time I couldn’t have cared less.
Do you feel guilty?
Oh, no. Not at all. Such guilt as there is quickly passes. I do regret having to kill at least one person and I don’t enjoy thinking about that but guilt is very easily handled. If I was a Catholic, I wouldn’t go to a priest and confess because it’s not that deep. I would rather not have done that. It had no point. It was totally meaningless. It wasn’t an organizational death. It was like a private killing that was unnecessary. [Pause]. I’m wrong—it wasn’t tactically meaningless. This was a sniper that was threatening the entire platoon that was on the outpost with me. So, in other words, to eliminate that sniper was a good thing, tactically speaking. I never thought about this until I started talking with you.
Is cowardice something for which a solider should feel ashamed?
There’s no way you can avoid feeling ashamed of it but I sure as hell will not look down upon him and I’m not sure how I would react in the same situation. I have sympathy for anybody who was a coward in the war. I wonder how quickly I would have become a coward if the Chinese had attacked my position en masse. One part of me wanted that to happen. I fantasized that the Chinese would come against me and then I would be a great hero. I had all the magazines stacked up and the grenades and I was ready. Looking back, I wonder how long it would have taken me to run.
Is bravado necessary in war?
Sure. But when you get older you get to be soft. To be really corny, back then, these Chinese didn’t have parents, now I see their sisters and brothers. I didn’t see them as human beings, they were just gooks.
What would you tell a young solider about to go to war today?
Consider it a great adventure that you’re going to write about when it’s all over and notice everything that’s going on and remember who says what and who does what and remember it as a great adventure—material you’re going to translate into a book someday.
Have you heard from many Korean War veterans?
Yes. This is more personal but this is a card written to my sister. This is a guy named Jim from North Carolina who wrote to my sister: “I just finished talking to you and I forgot to mention how your brother’s book is knocking me out. The accumulation of the scenes he depicts has more power the more I read. What chaos...I could feel the Korean winter all over again. It’s an incredible book.” I’m glad to say that is rather typical. I don’t say that in a blase way because I’m really thrilled when I get mail like that. That’s basically what it’s like. They say “I really liked it a lot, thank you for writing it, it’s very powerful.”
Have you visited the Korean War Memorial in Washington, DC?
There’s been some controversy over the Memorial because the soldiers are depicted actively pulling pins out of grenades. Do you think it’s appropriate to depict men of battle engaging in battle in a war memorial?
I think it should be haunting.
Is there any glory in war?
Sure. There is.
Did you experience glory when you fought?
Fifty years later, the North Koreans have missiles that could reach California and half the continental United States and are poised to invade South Korea again. Do you have any thoughts on the present situation?
I thought they were going to do it before the 1988 [ Seoul] Olympics so I was wrong. But I have the feeling the North Koreans are going to invade South Korea again eventually for the simple reason that, when you create a huge, standing army, you end up using it. I feel that, eventually, the order will be given to invade South Korea again, which will be a total disaster because all the cities will be flattened, all the dams will be destroyed, there will be many casualties.
Have you been to Korea since the war?
Once while working with former Navy secretary James Webb. I worked for him for four months in the Pentagon and he sent me to Korea in 1985 doing research. He wanted to know the state of the hospitals in case the North Koreans invaded again so I went to all the military hospitals in Korea and Japan. They were not ready but they could get ready real fast.
Korea was the first war in which the United States had an integrated army. Was there racism?
There was no sign of racism at all. We had two black guys in our squad and they were just guys—Marines.
What were the major events in the Korean War?
The Inchon landing, the Chosin reservoir campaign, which was the big turning point, and General Matthew Ridgway’s campaign in 1951.
Do you have any opinion on the conflict between General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman, who fired MacArthur?
No, not really, though I’ve always felt that MacArthur is one of the great captains. He’s remembered as being kind of a jerk, nowadays, but he wasn’t a jerk. He had reason to believe that the Chinese were not going to enter the war, and he had reason to believe that the North Koreans were retreating and that all he had to do was push them across the Yalu [River] and the war would be over—and he was very close to doing that. So he decided that it’d be alright to split his forces into the 10th Corps on the east and the 8th down there on the west unable to support each other and, at that moment, the Chinese intervened, so it was a disaster. Nobody grabbed MacArthur by the lapel and said, “Doug, the Chinese are about to come in great force. You better look out.” Nobody did that. There were hints. The Indian Minister warned us. He did magnificent work in Japan after the war. He got the Japanese back on their feet by himself and I think he should be honored for that. And his work in World War II was magnificent. He made a series of landings, every one of which was successful. He was very aggressive, and the thing that impressed me the most about MacArthur was that his causalities were light and that requires great skill. He was good. He was damn good.
MacArthur is criticized as thumbing his nose at Truman’s authority—
I think it’s all rather equivocal. I don’t think there’s any point when you can find somebody quoting MacArthur being directly disrespectful and I think all the decisions he made were ambiguous. If you were against MacArthur, you can say that he made a series of mistakes which were anti-authoritarian and so on, but, if you’re a friendly person toward MacArthur, which I am, you can sort of see that he never said to himself in his heart of hearts: “I’m going to defy the president and do what I want to do.”
Did anyone ever say thank you for fighting the war?
No. Nobody has.
Do you think that’s a proper thing for someone to do?
Why does it matter if Korea is the forgotten war—suppose it should be forgotten?
I think all wars should be forgotten, really. Except by the loved ones of the men who died. But, historically, there was a major war which saved the Republic of Korea and its 20 million people from being enslaved by a Stalinist regime which still exists. And is still a disgrace to humanity. If you’re going to teach the Korean War, I’d teach that.
This 2000 article was published in the Hartford Courant, the San Jose Mercury News and Los Angeles Daily News.