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Grass Valley, CA -
"The culture shock of coming from a very clean civilized society to one that was far behind in many respects was very strange. The smells were the hardest to adjust to, but after time, became bearable. As this was my first time in a foreign land, it took a lot of adjustment."
- Russell Mathews
Choice to Enlist
The Police Action in Korea had started in July 1950. In January 1951, 19-year-old Russell Mathews began to contemplate his role in the war. He knew that sooner or later, a decision would have to be made. He had graduated from San Fernando High School in June 1949. He had attended Los Angeles Trade Tech Junior College from September 1949 to June 1950, where he had met his future wife, Ann Merritt. In the summer of 1950, he had worked for the California Department of Forestry, in Calavaras County, CA. That summer, while recovering from the injuries he sustained in a car accident, he had applied for a job at Lockheed Aircraft, and was hired in September. His draft card was on its way; the time had come to make a choice.
Russ was also faced with the eventuality of leaving behind his sweetheart, which made his military choices even more important to him. Since all able-bodied men were drafted into one or another branch of the service at that time, he was faced with three choices. He could be drafted into the Army for two years, and take the luck of the draw. Or he could enlist in the Army for three years, or in the Navy for four years, then he would have a better chance of getting a relatively good assignment. So he decided to go into the Army for three years and hope for the best. Although many of his friends were faced with the same situation, none of them enlisted at the same time that he did. He was later to meet up with one of his high school buddies when he got to Korea.
Russ’s family was very supportive of his decision, as many of his relatives had served in the military. His father, Russell J. Mathews Sr., had served two stints in the US Navy. During his first enlistment from 1926 to 1930, he served as an Electrician’s Mate 3rd Class. He also served in WWII and Guadalcanal as a Seabee, Electrician’s Mate 1st Class, aboard the USS Saratoga. Russ’s maternal grandfather had been a member of the US Navy during WWI, and had served as an ensign aboard a minesweeper. Although Russ was of course apprehensive to enlist, he was ready and willing to do his part in the war effort.
On January 29, 1951, Russell Sr. drove his first-born son to the enlistment center located in the seven-story Mode-O-Day building in downtown Los Angeles (oddly enough, Russ received his draft notice in the mail on the very same day). There, young Russ underwent a medical examination, was sworn in, and was then immediately bussed to Union Station. Fortunately, his fiancé and parents were able to be at the train station to say one last goodbye. There he and many others just like him boarded the train bound for Fort Ord, California, to begin their military journey. They arrived at 4:00 AM, and after breakfast, received their first haircut, and then off to the Quartermaster to get their uniforms. For the next few days, the new enlistees received orientation and prepared for basic training. At the end of the week they boarded a train for Camp Roberts, Home of the 7th Armored Division, near Paso Robles, CA. There, they began basic infantry training and embarked on their new life in the Army. Russ was assigned to Company “B” 77th Armored Infantry Battalion. Interestingly, when Russ enlisted he weighed 150 lbs. and was 6’2” in height, and after completing boot camp he weighed 189 lbs. He speculates that the food and physical activity must have agreed with him.
After eight long weeks of basic training, he was transferred to Fort Bliss, Texas, for another eight weeks of training, this time specializing in Anti-Aircraft Artillery. Here he was assigned to Battery “C” 1st Training Battalion 1st Training Group AAA RTC, where he learned the importance of teamwork. This is where he learned how to set up and fire 90 mm anti-aircraft guns, which was difficult due to the size and weight of the guns. This additional training began on April 2, 1951, and lasted until June 2, 1951. Upon completion of AAA training, Russ was given 30 days leave. On a sad note, at the first formation after arrival at Fort Bliss, he was handed a special delivery letter that informed him of his paternal grandmother's passing. He was not granted leave for her funeral.
On June 15, 1951, during the 30-day leave time, Russ and Ann were married in Burbank, CA. They spent one week at a cabin at Lake Arrowhead for their honeymoon, and then spent the rest of his leave time visiting family and friends.
Duty in Korea
After being married for no longer than two weeks, Russ reluctantly said goodbye to his new bride. On July 2, 1951, he boarded a plane bound for Seattle, Washington, then on to Fort Lewis where he was processed for the upcoming trip overseas. He had hoped for duty in Japan, as opposed to Korea, so that his new wife could accompany him, but that was not to be. He departed from the port of Seattle on the evening of July 6th aboard a large troop ship, with 4,500 troops aboard. As Russ now recalls, “The USNS General Miegs pulled away from the dock at about 4:30 in the afternoon and headed west down the Puget Sound for the Pacific Ocean. As the sun was setting over the bow of the ship, we could see the lights of Seattle fading in the distance as they played the song ‘Harbor Lights’ over the loudspeaker system. Not a dry eye on board as many would not return.” Destination: Yokohama, Japan, via Alaska.
The trip took nine days, which was the fastest crossing of the Pacific at the time. When they arrived in Yokohama, they were bussed to a camp a few miles away for further processing, more shots, and their assignments. Then they boarded another ship that took them to Yong Dong Po, Korea. There they were transferred to a LST that took them to shore, for the reason that the tides were so extreme and these conditions prevented larger ships from going all the way to the shore. When he arrived in Korea, he spent some time at another temporary camp before receiving his final assignment to the Headquarters Battery of the 68th AAA Gun Battalion. In an all-night trip, the troops were transported by train from Seoul to Pusan, a town in the southern part of South Korea.
Upon arrival at the 68th AAA, Russ was assigned to the S-2 Section, which gathers and disseminates information for the gun batteries to enable them to properly aim their guns at possible enemy aircraft. Living quarters at this location were ten men to a ‘Squad Tent’, and they slept on cots. Although they were issued sleeping bags, most of the men bought blankets and pillows from the local merchants, as they were more comfortable than the sleeping bags. According to Russ, “The culture shock of coming from a very clean civilized society to one that was far behind in many respects was very strange. The smells were the hardest to adjust to, but after time, became bearable. As this was my first time in a foreign land, it took a lot of adjustment.”
After being in Pusan for several weeks, a Marine AAA unit relieved his unit, and they were reassigned to an area around Seoul. This was a three-day convoy. At first, they were set up in a large school, but later moved to a smaller set of buildings away from the city. Again they were housed in tents with wooden floors. Russ’s job was to plot aircraft on a large board in the middle of the room. As chance would have it, this was also the place that an old high school buddy, Jim Kelly, was able to get in touch with Russ, and they managed to get together and visit with each other.
He also remembers Thanksgiving and Christmas in Korea, and kept copies of the menus for the holiday meals that were served to the men, which included roast turkey and all the trimmings. But certainly no amount of celebration could make up for the fact that they were in a foreign land so far from home and family during the holiday season.
In accordance with the Truman Administration’s Civil Rights Program for desegregation of the Armed Forces, on March 10th of 1952 Russ was reassigned to the 76th AAA Self Propelled Gun Battalion at the airbase in Kunsan on the west coast of Korea. This was nearly the last battalion to be racially integrated. There he was assigned to an observation post on an island about ten miles offshore. Out of every three weeks, two of them were spent on this island. They commuted from Kunsan to the island by a large Japanese seagoing tugboat. Russ remained on this assignment until late fall when the observation post on the island was closed and they started new posts near the airfield.
Lucky to be away from the front lines and any heavy fighting, the only time he fired shots in anyone’s direction was when a Korean man had stolen something from their compound. Russ fired two shots into the air; the man stopped and was apprehended. The only other times they fired their rifles was when they were shooting at targets or trees, or when they fired into the air over the ocean with tracer bullets in order to show the base commander just how much fire power they could provide in case of an air attack.
On one cold morning, Russ had a minor incident while driving a jeep that was pulling a trailer. He was driving up a fairly steep snow covered hill, and when he got about 2/3 of the way up, he lost traction and slid all the way back down to the bottom of the hill where the jeep and trailer jack knifed. No damage was sustained, but he says it was “rather scary!"
One of the most unforgettable people that Russ had the good fortune to meet was his houseboy, a young boy named Jong Ki Dong. Besides doing chores around the observation post, he became a valuable go-between for the men and the local villagers. Jong Ki Dong helped the soldiers to obtain supplies and extra food for far less than they could have bought it for themselves. Russ and Jong Ki Dong became good friends over a six month period, and Russ considered the possibility of adopting him and taking him back to the states. Unfortunately, the red tape, paper work, and finances were prohibitive, and in addition, the Army didn’t favor soldiers bringing Koreans back to the states. When the day came for them to say goodbye, it was a sad time, indeed, and many tears were shed that day.
At one point, Russ had a dog named “O.P.” (short for Observation Post). When the men were on the island, O.P. was their watchdog and a good pet, too. Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond their control, the men were required to abandon their position on the island and return to the base for several weeks. They were not able to take O.P. with them, as there were no provisions to have pet dogs on the airbase. Upon their return to the island, O.P. was nowhere to be found. With the help of Jong Ki Dong, Russ questioned the villagers and found out that poor O.P. had become dinner for one of the village families.
Russ was originally scheduled to rotate home in December of 1952, but the ‘points’ he needed were raised by two, which meant that he wouldn’t be able to leave until January. He laments, “As luck would have it, they raised the points again and I wasn’t able to leave until February.” At long last, he was able to take the train to Pusan, then board a ship bound for Sasebo, Japan, for an all-night trip over very rough seas. Upon arrival, the men were given new clothes for the trip home. They also took part in a preventative treatment of malaria, which involved taking a very bitter pill every morning with their breakfast. Overall, the out-processing took about a week. They left Japan on the USS General Black, and Russ remembers that they crossed the International Date Line on March 7, 1953, only because that is the day he heard Joseph Stalin had died.
Arriving in San Francisco was one of the more memorable occasions for Russ. The ship approached the shore as the sun was coming up on a clear beautiful day. The anticipation was unbearable, as he knew his wife and parents would be waiting on the dock to greet him when the ship landed. As Russ recalls, “It was about dawn on a mid-March morning when the General Black sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge. The Captain got on the loudspeaker system and announced, ‘Gentlemen, we are now passing under the Golden Gate Bridge, and welcome back to the Z.I.’ (Zone of Interior). Again, as it happened when we left from Seattle, not a dry eye on board, but a loud cheer from the troops assembled on deck.” After disembarking the ship, the men were then allowed to visit with their families before being transported to another camp for processing, and to obtain a pass for the night. The next day, they were transferred to Fort Ord where they were given a 30-day leave.
After his leave time, he was reassigned to Camp Stewart, Georgia, where he spent the rest of his enlistment in a cadre involving cold weather gear training for new recruits and the National Guard during the summer. He was assigned to 177th AAA Operations Detachment, Headquarter Battery 554th Gun Battalion, and Headquarter Battery 13th AAA Group. Ultimately, Russ was discharged from the United States Army on January 28, 1953 (exactly twenty years to the day before his first grandchild was to be born).
When Russ left Korea, he was authorized to wear the Korean Service Medal with three battle stars, the United Nations Service Medal, the National Defense Medal, and the Korean Presidential Unit Citation on his uniform. He only wore the ribbons, as he didn’t receive the actual medals until many years later. The process to obtain the medals took many months and several letters, as his Army records were destroyed in a fire at the Army Records Depot. These commendations were issued to all servicemen upon completion of their tour of duty in Korea. In addition, Russ received the Good Conduct Medal for exemplary behavior during his three year enlistment. In 2001, he received the Korean War Service Medal in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Korean conflict. He had to apply for this particular medal, as it was not an automatic issuance. It came with a letter of thanks from the President of Korea.
Three years of military service provided Russ with an appreciation for life back home in Southern California, and he was certainly glad to return to the modern conveniences of living in the USA. Upon his homecoming, he was immediately rehired by Lockheed Aircraft, and was also approved for educational assistance under the G.I. Bill.
While in Korea, he developed a sense of duty and responsibility, learned how to work in a team setting, and formed a sense of pride in not only himself, but in his country. He matured into the man who would eventually serve on the Los Angeles Fire Department for many years. The leadership experience and qualities that he gained were valuable assets throughout his life in the LAFD, and also useful in his many years of volunteer work as a training instructor in the Boys Scouts of America, and an Explorer leader in the LAFD. Russ humbly served his country, and now proudly says, “I am a Korean War veteran."