TRIANGLE, Va. (Jan. 16) -- The Korean War has been characterized as a forgotten conflict, lost somewhere between World War II and Vietnam. But for the men who fought for their lives on either side of the 38th Parallel, the battle-laden years between 1950 and 1953 are anything but forgettable.
Three such men came to the National Museum of the Marine Corps Saturday to revisit the history they shared together more than half a century ago.
Fred Frankville, Gonzalo Garza and Charles Curley, former Marines of Company D, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, all served together in Korea. They made the pilgrimage to the NMMC a day after they buried their old commanding officer, retired Col. Alvin Mackin, in a formal ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
Frankville, an animated 80-year-old dressed in a Marine Corps t-shirt and hat, speaks eagerly of his time as a young man fresh out of high school in his hometown of Rock Island, Ill., impatient to embark on the adventure Korea offered: war in a far-off land.
He joined the Marine Corps Reserve in May 1950, a month before the war started, boarded a train for Camp Pendleton, Calif., and found himself standing shoulder-to-shoulder with troops who had been reactivated from World War II.
He then cunningly avoided the process of recruit training, anxious to get to the action on the Korean Peninsula.
“They lined everybody up – guys who were in service before and guys who hadn't been to boot camp yet,” said Frankville. “They said, ‘People who went to boot camp – World War II veterans – stand fast. Those who didn't, fall out to the right.' I stood fast, so I went with the veterans.”
It wasn't until Frankville attended a recruit training graduation in San Diego in 1997 that he was awarded an honorary certificate of completion of boot camp. He now jokes that it took him 47 years and two months to graduate from recruit training. “You might say I was a slow learner,” he said.
Having no training under his belt, Frankville nevertheless went to Korea, where he was placed with 2/7. Within a matter of months he was a squad leader, although only a private first class.
“I was in charge of two corporals and a sergeant,” said Frankville. “They didn't mind, as long as I did my job.”
It wasn't long until Frankville and his comrades saw the action they sought. On March 7, 1951, the regiment was entrenching itself south of Hoengseong, South Korea.
“The ground was frozen solid,” said Frankville. “With our light entrenching tools, we would be lucky to dig a piece of dirt the size of a golf ball.”
The men's digging was interrupted by a barrage of Chinese artillery that lasted about two hours.
“We hugged the ground with our elbows and hands between our bodies and the ground to cushion the shock,” he said. “It was terrifying.”
But for all the horrific moments Frankville recalls from Korea, there are just as many that provoke laughter at the antics of young men at war.
When Marines and soldiers were forced to coexist in Korea, the result was often friendly rivalry or neighborly one-upmanship.
“Army trucks drove by us all the time when we were humping,” said Frankville. “And sometimes the soldiers inside the trucks were drinking beer. As one truck came to a stop, a soldier reached down to one of us with a can of beer and said, ‘Hey, Marine, you want a beer?' Of course the Marine said yes. But when he reached for it, the soldier said, ‘Screw you,' and pulled the beer back. So the Marine took this grenade and threw it in the truck, but he didn't pull the pin. Soldiers dove out of that truck, and we jumped in and took their beer!”
War began in earnest for Frankville and his peers when their regiment was joined with the 8th Army on April 1, 1951. Four days later, they crossed the 38th Parallel into North Korea. Frankville's fire team was walking point as their company neared its objective – a foggy mountain ridge designated Hill 430.
“My fire team reached the top and that was when the heavy machine gun fire and grenade explosions could be heard,” said Frankville.
Then he heard a Marine shouting obscenities at an invisible enemy.
“It was like a movie,” Frankville said. “I could see Richard DeWert – our corpsman – almost fall on top of the Marine doing the cussing. He was going to aid this guy who was shot in the knees and was in great pain and shock.”
DeWert was shot dead by Chinese machine gun fire seconds later. Afterward, Frankville informed his platoon commander of the corpsman's heroism and, along with two other witnesses, wrote a report of DeWert's actions for which he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Frankville stayed in touch with other Marines from 2/7 after the war. He attended many unit reunions, exchanging memories with the men alongside whom he fought. Recently, he began writing a memoir of his experiences in Korea.
“I figure I'd better get it all down in writing before I get too old and forget all of it,” he said.
Frankville offers his own insights into the war and human nature in his yet-to-be-published book. One of the more philosophical excerpts comes from the day of DeWert's death on Hill 430.
Frankville writes, “As I reflected on the events of that terrible day, my platoon leader received a radio communication from the commander of Company E thanking us for taking out the machine guns that had pinned down his company. Did he offer welcome praise? Consolation for the sacrifices of men like Richard DeWert, and my fire team buddies, the man who took my place and others whose remains we put in body bags that day? Not at all.
“But then war has never lent itself to trade-offs, balance sheets, and profit and loss considerations.
“Men who fight, bleed and suffer the agonies of battle find no comfort in such detached deliberation. They are too involved with their vivid and tragic memories.”
As Frankville's memories converged with living history that day at the museum, he left knowing the so-called forgotten war will not be forgotten, but preserved for posterity, enshrined in the NMMC for future generations of Marines to look back on.
“I'm over-impressed with the museum,” he said. “A museum is usually a stationary target. This one is live.”