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Korean War: Vets remember the Forgotten War on 60th anniversary of peace

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

John Melvin and Chuck Tidwell found themselves in grave danger 60 years ago.

Both were members of the United States Marine Corps and were among thousands of U.S. troops ordered to counterattack North Koreans and Chinese who had overrun allied outposts in March of 1953.

Melvin, a resident of Litchfield Country Club, was a company commander with the Fifth Marine Regiment, Second Battalion, D Company. Shortly after his arrival in Korea, Melvin was assigned to a section of trench along the 38th parallel about 1,200 yards behind a combat outpost code named Vegas.

Tidwell, a resident of the Murrells Inlet area, had enlisted in the Marines seven months earlier in St. Louis and was assigned to the Seventh Marine Regiment, Second Battalion, E Company. His battalion was transported to a blocking position behind the three “Nevada Cities” outposts of Reno, Carson City and Vegas.

It was no coincidence that American troops were bunched along what was called the “Main Line of Resistance” in Korea. After an initial North Korean invasion deep into South Korea in 1950, allied troops under a United Nations resolution pushed the communists back to an east-west border along the 38th parallel. Both sides dug trenches, and the conflict took on the character of a World War I battlefield.

Melvin discovered how dangerous snipers could be after he lingered too long at a rifle slot during a tour of the Vegas outpost and a bullet missed his head by 6 inches. Tidwell was digging a trench and throwing the dirt into the air where an artillery spotter could see it and zero in on him.

Melvin and Tidwell survived a final bloody battle in Korea only to see the territory surrendered by replacement troops or negotiators. The war ended where it started, without resolution, along a line that divided the Korean peninsula.

Many veterans of Korea have felt under-appreciated because of the way it ended without victory. This Saturday, the 60th anniversary of the armistice ending the war, ceremonies are being planned to honor surviving veterans and the 54,000 who were killed in action.

Tidwell will travel to Washington, D.C., Friday with a group of 42 veterans to mark the anniversary at the Korean War Memorial. They will make the trip on a bus arranged by Larkin Spivey of Myrtle Beach, a retired Marine Corps officer and author of numerous books on military history, including “Stories of Faith and Courage from the Korean War.” Donations have funded this one-time trip, known as “The Heroes Remembered Tour.”

“The Korean War came between World War II and the Vietnam War,” Spivey said. “For one reason or another, there’s more controversy with Vietnam and more glory for World War II. The Korean War was unpopular at the time, and these soldiers who went over there kind of felt like they were under-appreciated. You just have to look at the results of what they accomplished for South Korea, the fastest growing Christian community anywhere. It’s an amazing story of a strong nation coming back from a devastating war, contrasted by has happened in North Korea. It’s a black hole, the most repressive government in the world.”

In 2005, Tidwell returned to Korea and visited the building where the armistice was signed at Panmunjom. The land he was most familiar with, inside the Demilitarized Zone between the two countries, remained off limits.

He said his mother was unhappy when he joined the Marine Corps Aug. 21, 1952. “Korea,” Tidwell said, “was going hot and heavy.”

He was sent to San Diego for basic training — they called those recruits “Hollywood Marines,” Tidwell said. “My orders were for transfer overseas. I knew where I was headed.”

He landed at Inchon on the southern tip of the Korean peninsula March 11, 1953, and traveled north toward the fighting. “My regiment had just come off the line a few days before I got there,” he said. “We were in division reserve, learning how to do combat patrols, firing weapons and digging trench lines. On the night of March 26, 1953, we started hearing a lot of explosions to the north of us. Guys who had been there longer started getting edgy. Of course, I didn’t know what was going on, being the new kid on the block.”

Tidwell accompanied a lieutenant to a forward artillery bunker and saw the horror of war through a telescope: the slope of outpost Reno was covered in dead Marines. “That’s where we’re headed this afternoon,” the lieutenant told Tidwell.

“Oh, boy,” he muttered to himself.

But Tidwell’s unit was called back just before reaching the outpost. “We live another day,” he said. “That night they loaded us on trucks and moved us behind Vegas, the next outpost. We started digging in.”

Orders came in the middle of the night to move out with only weapons, ammo and grenades. Tidwell and his fellow soldiers began crossing a rice paddy illuminated by flairs and search lights from tanks. “The Chinese could see us very well,” he said. “Incoming started, and guys were getting hit: the squad leader in front of me and two guys behind me. For whatever reason I didn’t get a scratch.”

Tidwell reached his objective at the top of a hill, but there was no cover. “Here I’m trying to dig a foxhole with a Swiss army knife and my helmet because we’d left our tools back there,” he said. Korean allies arrived with tools and ammunition the next day, and Tidwell began digging with a shovel. “You’re supposed to throw dirt over the reverse slope,” he said. “I must have been asleep or not paying attention in training because I was throwing it over the forward slope. The next thing I know, a round hit directly above me and caved in the trench line and buried me. Fortunately, somebody saw it and pulled me out. I went back to digging trench lines.”

Tidwell’s weapon, a Browning automatic rifle, was damaged in the blast, and he picked up another one off the ground when his fire team was sent to take charge of some Chinese soldiers wanting to surrender. He saw one of them preparing to throw a hand grenade and pulled the trigger on his rifle. “Nothing happened,” Tidwell said. “I did the thing I was supposed to do: push, pull and fire. Still nothing. My assistant came up behind me and shot the Chinaman, two as a matter of fact.”

Tidwell’s unit was relieved on March 30 and pulled back. He spent the remainder of his time in Korea filling in trenches and bunkers and dismantling outposts in anticipation of an armistice. Each side agreed to move back 2,500 meters, creating a demilitarized zone that still separates the two nations.

Melvin, a native of Annapolis, spent 33 years in the Marine Corps — 11 on active duty. He was a veteran of World War II and was somewhat celebrated, having his picture on the covers of Leatherneck magazine in 1951 and the Marine Corps Gazette in 1953.

He got copies of Leatherneck smeared with red paint from his buddies in Korea, mocking his light duty. By the time the Marine Corps Gazette came out, Melvin was on the front lines himself.

Melvin’s men called him “Skipper,” and he made every effort to move along trenches every day to assure his men that “Daddy was watching over them.” The Marine Corps is very close with its men and officers, Melvin said. His unit, Dog Company, was assigned a trench line, and the command post was a bunker big enough for Melvin, the company commander, executive officer and communications officer and an enlisted staff of four or five.

Soldiers slept in what Melvin called “bunny holes” lined with their parkas. For heat, they had little kerosene lamps.

Melvin said he would stay up until the last night patrol returned and sit in on the debriefing to pick up information about the enemy. He would sleep from 5 to 6:30 a.m., eat chow from a tin can and start inspections again. After about a month of this routine, his unit was pulled off the line to a rear staging area. “That was a great relief to everybody,” Melvin said, “because we lost men on patrols.”

Two days later, the communists attacked with full force. “The whole front line just lit up with incoming fire,” Melvin said, “like a fireworks display.” Melvin’s unit of 200 men was thrust back into combat to repel the enemy. “We were scheduled to lead off around 10:30 a.m. under the protection of an artillery smoke screen,” he said. “The problem was a wind came up and blew the smoke away as fast as it landed. Finally, we were given the signal to go anyway. The first 300 yards were uneventful except for sporadic gunfire. Then all hell broke loose in the form of incoming artillery and heavy mortar fire. I read later that an estimated 31,000 rounds of enemy artillery were fired at us that first day. I have never seen anything like it. The sky appeared to rain artillery and mortar shells, and the noise was deafening. My runner was 6 inches away from me, and we could not hear what the other was saying. The concussion of the exploding shells would nearly lift you off your feet or your body off the ground.”

Melvin was shouting orders over the noise when a subordinate pulled back from him and pointed. “I thought he was pointing to something behind me,” Melvin said. “I turned, and blood was shooting out of my neck. I didn’t even feel it.”

Melvin said he grabbed a first aid kit, clamped it against the wound and kept going. “You don’t have time to be scared,” he said. “The whole thing was chaos. That night they dressed the wound and sewed it up. It was minor compared to the boys with their arms blown off or chest wounds. I had a complement of 200 men, and when I got back we had 18 ‘effectives’ or something like that. All were hit, myself included.”

Melvin said he was so exhausted that first night he fell asleep with a cup of hot coffee in his hand. “The next thing I knew they were gently prying the cup out of my hand,” he said. “The coffee had spilled and burned my hand — and I didn’t feel a thing.”

Melvin still admires his fighting force from Korea. “I wouldn’t have three-fourths of them for a spit-and-polish company, but I would not have traded them for anything,” he said. “They were good solid fighters.”

Melvin said the allies regained the Vegas outpost within five days. “That was a great feather in our cap,” he said, “but within two months negotiators at Panmunjom had given it away.”

The ceasefire came four months later. Melvin said his men fired their rifles in the air for joy. “You can’t believe how happy we were,” he said. “We were living in a hole.”

Melvin received the Navy Cross and the Purple Heart for his actions in Korea.

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