Keep Those Cookies Coming
"The Story of PFC Joseph A. McKenna, U.S.M.C. in Korea"
By Arthur G. Sharp, U.S.M.C.
“Where's McKenna?” the Marines of D Co., 2nd Bn., 7th Marine Regt. (D/2/7), First Marine Division, asked one another. PFC Joseph Andre McKenna had somehow disappeared on Hill 749 in Korea, where they had been engaged in a fierce firefight with the Chinese at the Battle of Kanmubong Ridge in September 1951.
The thought of a Marine missing from their unit weighed on their minds. Historically, Marines did not leave any of their buddies behind in the heat of battle—or any other time. In a mood that defied common sense, they formed a rescue party to find PFC McKenna and bring him back to their lines, alive or dead.
Joseph McKenna was well liked by the members of D/2/7. He was twenty years old at the time of the struggle for control of Kanmubong Ridge, just one of the many hills D/2/7 had fought up and down on since their arrival in Korea. PFC Fred Frankville, one of McKenna's closest friends in the company, joked that his feet had not been planted evenly on the ground since he had arrived in Korea several months earlier.
“We were always going up or down a hill,” he said. “We weren't sure there was any flat ground in the whole country.”
The members of D/2/7 felt a connection to McKenna's family as well as to Joe. He practically received more packages from his mother and fiancée than the rest of the platoon got combined. He gladly shared the cookies and the news from home with his buddies. But, their reasons for liking Joe went beyond cookies and news from home.
McKenna's company buddies respected him in particular for his patriotism. He did not have to be in Korea—or the military, for that matter. Two of his brothers and an uncle had died in combat in World War II. A third brother had been wounded. Their contributions to America's freedom did not go unnoticed. There is a plaque hanging at the Marine Memorial Club/Hotel in San Francisco that commemorates the brothers' sacrifices.
Frank D. McKenna, a 2nd Lieutenant in the Army Air Corps, was killed over Germany on February 10, 1944. Four months later, on June 18, 1944, PFC James C. McKenna died on the beach during the Marines' invasion of Saipan. A third brother, Leo, sustained wounds while serving on Guadalcanal. In addition, Joe's uncle, also a Marine, died while serving in the South Pacific. The McKenna family certainly paid the price for patriotism. Yet, that did not faze Joe.
Joe could have stayed in his native San Francisco and let other people fight for freedom. His family had done its share. Because he had lost more than one brother in combat, Joe was exempt from military service. But, shirking his patriotic duty was not in Joe's nature. He was a team player who believed in his country—and the United States Marine Corps.
Young Joe, who was born in San Francisco on May 5, 1931, learned the value of teamwork at Mission High School in the “City on the Bay.” He was a star on the school's track team, a good student, and an aspiring artist. (He designed the banner shown nearby that let the world know that 2nd Lt. Lealon Wimpee's “Warriors,” i.e., D/7, existed.) Nevertheless, he put his future aside and joined the Marine Corps right after he graduated from high school in 1949.
There were no wars to fight at the time. After all, World War II had only been over for four years, and Americans were not eager to fight another one. Like most Americans, he had no way of knowing that a fight would begin soon on a little-known peninsula called Korea, near China and Japan—or that it would be the last country he would see.
Few Americans between 1945 and 1950 knew anything about Korea. Indeed, many of the 1.5 million young American men and women who would serve in Korea during the three-year war wouldn't have been able to find the country on a globe before they arrived there. That did not affect the North Koreans.
On June 25, 1950, North Korean troops poured across the 38th Parallel and invaded their neighbors to the south. Their aim was to unite the country under one rule—theirs. The country had been divided as a result of the World War II peace agreement, which freed Korea from Japanese control. The north was turned over to Russia; the south came under U.S. control. American military and government officials were pretty much content to let the people who lived there fend for themselves while they rebuilt Japan, which had ruled Korea for forty years prior to 1945.
At first, the North Koreans faced little opposition from the poorly armed, unprepared, and overwhelmed South Koreans. The UN intervened quickly and dispatched troops from 21 countries to restore order and drive the North Koreans back across the artificial border between the two Koreas. By September 1950, UN troops, including the First Marine Division, were doing just that.
UN forces went on the offensive after a successful landing at Inchon in September 1950, and stayed on it for months to come. In fact, by November 1950 they had pushed the North Koreans back to the Chinese border. That month, the Chinese, honoring a pledge to support their North Korean comrades militarily if American (but not South Korean) troops crossed the 38th Parallel, entered the war on a large-scale basis. That dramatically changed the complexion of the war.
Between September 1950 and September 1951 the fighting turned into a series of struggles for dominance of individual hills and control of territory in anticipation of a rumored truce. The Chinese had supplanted the North Koreans for the most part. Thus, the 7th Marines and Joe McKenna found themselves at Hill 749 in September 1950.
Frankville recalled the first time he met McKenna. They were on a trail near Hill 749 on September 13, 1951, their objective for the day. Even though he was only a PFC at the time, the combat-experienced Frankville was D/2/7's S-2 (intelligence liaison) with E/7.
“Joe was having a premonition that he was going to be killed in this operation,” Frankville revealed. “I did everything I could to dissuade him from that idea.”
McKenna's concern was less for himself than it was for his family. He told Frankville that his parents and twin sister, Mary, would not be able to handle his death. That is when he informed Frankville about his brothers and uncle who had been killed in World War II. (Incidentally, Mary McKenna McFadden had ten children of her own to make up for the loss of her brothers and uncle.)
“Being killed in combat is for other people, not for people like us,” Frankville told McKenna. That was ironic coming from him. He had seen enough killing in Korea to last a lifetime, much of it up close and personal, and he knew it was for people like them.
Frankville had earned the nation's third highest medal, the Silver Star, for coming to the rescue of nineteen-year-old Navy Corpsman Richard D. DeWert on April 5, 1951 in a battle northeast of Kunchon, Korea. Sadly, DeWert was killed in the fighting—for which he earned the Medal of Honor.
And, he was among the first Marines to encounter the 11,000 dead American, Dutch, and South Korean soldiers slaughtered by the Chinese in February 1951 at Hoengsong, Korea. Certainly, Frankville was no stranger to death in Korea. He had lost many friends in combat. McKenna joined that group shortly after their conversation.
At the time of the battle for Hill 749, Frankville was with E/7. Once he returned to D/2/7—four days after the battle ended—he went in search of McKenna. No one knew where he was. Frankville and his buddies went in search of their friend. They checked with aid stations, M.A.S.H. units, Easy Med, hospital ships…they could not find McKenna. Immediately, they realized that he was still somewhere on Hill 749. They just didn't know if he was dead or alive.
The Marines' motto, “Semper Fidelis” (Always Faithful), kicked in. They asked company commander Capt. Al Mackin if they could look for him. Mackin granted permission. The men of D/2/7 formed an eight-man patrol to look for McKenna. It did not take them long to achieve their objective.
One member of the patrol, PFC Dick Curtin, recalled being with McKenna as the Marines approached the top of the hill under a barrage of grenades and heavy fire. He pointed out the spot. Sure enough, there lay the body of Joe McKenna, face down in the bushes in which he had remained undetected in the heat of the battle.
From all indications he had died instantly. Patrol members found shrapnel from a grenade in the back of his head, just beneath his helmet. There was nothing left but to place their buddy on a stretcher, cover him with a poncho, and carry him reverently down the hill. The Marines of D/2/7 brought their missing buddy one step closer to home—a place he never had to leave in the first place.
PFC Joe McKenna was no longer with the platoon physically. He remained with them in spirit, as did his family. McKenna's mother and father accepted the news with dignity. His father was being treated for tuberculosis at the veterans' hospital in Livermore, CA when his family broke the news to him. Joe's father's response to his wife Artemise Latulipe was simply, “Well, Mother, I guess we didn't teach our kids to duck.” No matter how he said it, Mr. McKenna could not hide his or the family's sorrow at losing a third son in the service of the United States.
To their credit, the McKenna family did not forget the Marines of D/2/7. Mrs. McKenna continued to send them cookies, and Joe's fiancée continued to write to Frankville after receiving a letter from him describing his death. She encouraged one of her girl friends to write to Frankville as well. But, he said, “After we exchanged several letters, I stopped writing to her. I just did not know what to say.”
That may have been true sixty years ago. Today, Frankville knows what to say. It's the one thing Marines say to one another, “Old Corps” or “New Corps,” for a job well done: “Semper Fi.”
Those two words are also directed at the families such as the McKennas of San Francisco that produce the men and women who are “Always Faithful”—and who continue to send cookies in their honor even after their offspring give their lives to protect their buddies and preserve freedom for people they have never met.
© Arthur G. Sharp, U.S.M.C. all rights reserved
Editor Graybeards Magazine
Courtesy of Fred P. Frankville, U.S.M.C.
Page published May 23, 2013