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Richard Noble Wagner

Louisville, Kentucky/Springfield, OH -
Korean War Veteran of the United States Marine Corps

"There were two times that I felt I was in the most personal danger in Korea, and they were on the first day when I arrived and the last day when I left.  They always said, "You either get it when you first come or the last day when ready to leave."  I snuggled deep in my hole.  I am not a hero, but I am not dumb either."

- Richard Wagner


[The following memoir is the result of an online interview between Richard Wagner and Lynnita (Sommer) Brown that took place in 1999/2000.]

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My name is Richard Noble Wagner of Louisville, Kentucky.  I was born March 2, 1932, in Clark County, Springfield, Ohio, a son of Clarence Edward and Edith Barbara Easterday Wagner.  My father was president of Wagner's Service Inc., a moving and storage company established in 1894 by my grandfather.  I had one older brother, Leroy Jacob Wagner, and a younger half sister, Joyce Ann Wagner Trego.

I attended grades one through six at Jefferson and Rockway Schools, seventh and eighth grades at Roosevelt School, and Kentucky Military Institute from ninth through twelfth grade.  I worked for Father in the summer in his moving and storage business.  During World War II, Father's business furnished a large yard area to store old used scrap metal for the government for sorting different types of metal.  I went to the military school because my mother was deceased.  My father thought my brother and I would be in better care as he knew of a similar situation with another family and was convinced it was the correct thing to do.  I was not a problem child.  A lot of people have the wrong impression about a military school.  After all, it's like going to a college, only at an earlier age and with more discipline.  We learned to stand on our own two feet and were taught good habits from study habits to personal hygiene.

I joined the Marine Corps on November 21, 1950.  I quit college to do so, thinking it was the thing to do.  I was interested in serving our country and felt that I needed to regain any discipline I might have lost that I had gained at military school.  I suppose joining the Marines was a show-off thing, but also I knew I needed discipline.  By then Mother was deceased.  Father, who had served in World War I, felt it would be a good thing to tame my wildness, but he was also concerned because of Korea.  He never let me know of his worry.  People noticed the Marine's tradition more, and from where I came from I think the Marines were more respected.  Of course, that is my opinion and that's not to take anything from the other services.  When you are at a young age, you often think you know all the answers.  Boys always will be boys and think they know all the answers.  Also, girls in those days listened.

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Marine Corps Training

A group of recruits from Cincinnati, Ohio, and I traveled to Parris Island by train for boot camp.  I do not know or remember any of their names.  We arrived in Beaufort, South Carolina, where other recruits and I were met by a DI, put on a bus, and taken to boot camp.  While on the bus heading to boot camp, we were given our first instructions.  If I remember right, the instructions were that we were to know from that point on the Marines would be our father, mother, girlfriend, etc., and we were to call everyone Sir.

There was only one way into Parris Island and that was the front gate.  The island was swamp on one side and ocean on the other side.  After unloading from the bus, we were divided into our platoon number and at that point were then taken to a shower area for delousing and showering. Then came the wonderful haircut Marine style.  From there we went for clothing at the quartermaster, where we were given the wrong size of clothing (naturally).  If our shoes did not fit, however, we were to soak our shoes in water and walk around until dry.  Then they fit.  We were also given an IQ test and drew a picture of men and women.  There was an obvious reason for this.  The readers of this memoir have to use their judgment as to what that reason was.

Our senior DI was McMackin and the Junior DI was McCurdy.  They were both sergeants, I think.  Boot camp training was 11 weeks and during that time we learned marching, cleaning, how to make a bed, laundry, etc.  We learned that a rifle is not a gun.  (An old saying was, "This is my rifle and this is my gun.  This is for fighting and this is for fun.")  We also had classes on maps, compass, and how to disassemble and reassemble a rifle in x number of minutes.  We were put into a room full of tear gas without masks.  They would not let us put on masks until we learned and sang the Marines Hymn.  There was more training, but too much to recall.  Over all discipline was the word.

We were awakened early (meaning 1 a.m. to 6 a.m.) by a DI shouting the words, "You have fifteen minutes to shit, shave, shine, shower."  That was impossible as there were about 50 men in the platoon so in order to do all that in fifteen minutes some guys shaved in urinal bowls.  Meals always had coffee, bread (all we wanted), eggs in the morning, soups at noon, and pork chops at night.  There were times when we wanted more pork chops, which they would not give.  Then as we left the mess hall, we saw the kitchen help throwing good pork chops out.  It didn't make much sense, but at least we were filled up on bread and coffee or cocoa, although it was not like home cooking.

Free time was shining shoes or reading mail.  Toward the end of boot camp we were taken to the PX to buy candy, etc., but no cigarettes.  In fact, if anyone was caught with a cigarette, the DI gave him a pack of them to smoke under a bucket or under a poncho--enough to make a recruit green.  The barracks was cleaned daily--sometimes several times a day at different times.  Sometimes floors were scrubbed with toothbrushes.  Lights out was at different times and sometimes late, only to arise an hour later for the rest of the night.  We were awakened many times for many reasons, but usually the DIs did it for the hell of it and with the excuse that we weren't in the racks soon enough.  If that happened, the DI made us play a game called "cuckoo."  That was where we had to get under our bed and when he yelled "Cuckoo," we stuck our head out and he would hit us with a broom.  Crazy, huh?  Outside in the sand we had mail call.  The DI would call us by name, but put captain in front of each name.  He would say, "Get up here and get your mail."  We ran up and he would say, "Are you a captain?"  Our answer was, "No Sir."  He would then say, "Get back in line."  Then he would call us by our name as Private So and So."  We then went to get our mail and while going to get it he dug a hole in the sand and dropped the letter into it, covering it up with sand.  Then he said, "If you want that letter, pick it out with your teeth."

Our DIs were very strict, but like all drill instructors, they were doing their job.  I am sure there were tougher DIs than ours.  Our DIs did not use corporal punishment to my knowledge--just mental.  But they never laid a hand on anyone.  The platoon cleaned the barracks as a group.  Sometimes we had to put our belongings in our footlocker, then put it above our head and run up and down the halls and barracks until we fell and couldn't carry on anymore.  It was the DI's discretion to do as he wanted with regard to discipline.  We had no choice in the matter.  (Sometime while I was in the Marines my dad told me that he heard the news commentator Walter Winchell say, "If you have a boy in Korea write to him, but if you have a boy at Parris Island, pray for him.")

The only "fun" I had in boot camp was the day I got on the bus to leave the camp.  But I was never sorry I joined the Marine Corps, though, as training came fairly easy since I had experience in military school.  Being yelled at all the time was the hardest thing for me personally about boot camp, but I came to appreciate my DIs for the discipline that they instilled in me.  Platoon graduation consisted of marching, and then PFC stripes were awarded.  I left camp feeling like I could whip the world.  I was in better shape, too.  I went into the training weighing about 145 pounds.  I left weighing about 170 pounds.

After boot camp I had a week leave.  From there I was assigned to Washington, DC at a security guard depot on Nebraska Avenue.  I traveled by car to get there.  I was in D.C. for about five months and was then transferred to Camp Pendleton, Oceanside, California.  When I left to go to Pendleton, I called my dad and told him that I was going to Pendleton for advanced training to go overseas and told him not to worry.  Being the tough old guy he was, he said, "I am not worried, but you'd better be."  Of course, he really was worried, but he wasn't going to let me know.  I checked in to Tent Camp 2 at Pendleton.  There I mainly received instruction on the 81 mortar, among other things like crawling under live fire and the operation of other weapons.  I spent a couple of months at Pendleton.  Training took place on the base, as well as off base at San Diego beach where we practiced ship debarkation.  There was no cold weather training.

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I left the USA for Korea sometime in August of 1951 aboard the Marine Lynx, a converted freighter.  There were probably 1200 to 1400 men onboard.  They were all Marines, with a few Navy people.  There was some cargo (what and how much I don't know).  It was my first time on a large ship and I got seasick as a dog all the way.  I was glad to see land.  A few others got sick, but I feel to this day that I felt worse (nobody could have been as sick as me) than anyone, especially when I had to go below to eat, stand fire watch, or use the head.  We hit somewhat rough weather, especially when we were near Japan.

I believe it was a 17-day trip going over and 14 days coming back when my tour of duty in Korea was over.  For entertainment we played poker and cards such as crazy eights, did exercises, sang, stood fire watch, and made trips to the ship's PX.  I knew a few of the other Marines on the ship.  One that comes to mind was Ardys Richardson, who was killed a few weeks after we arrived.  He was with a rifle company in the 2nd battalion.  There were a few others, but I do not recall names.

We stopped for a short time in Sasebo or Kobe, Japan for supplies.  We stayed on the ship while some cargo was loaded, and then we were escorted to Korea by a destroyer/gun ship.  We arrived in Korea in late August or early September of 1951.  I really didn't have any thoughts or first impressions about the country when I arrived, other than being glad to see land and getting away from seasickness.  We knew that the port city was not in a war zone because the draft we were replacing was there and a band (if you can believe it) was there playing, "If we knew you were coming we would have baked a cake."

I was assigned to Weapons Company (81mm mortars), 7th Regiment, 1st Marine Division.  My job was to carry mortar shells to gun crews when firing.  The company was in reserve getting ready to replace an online unit when I arrived there by truck.  They were taking it easy and regrouping.  When we got to the reserve site I only knew a few people.  A short round by our artillery wounded one of the guys arriving about the same time as I did.  He got a wound of his heels and foot--not a life-threatening thing, but he was sent to Japan and later to the USA.  Only about two hours in Korea he got sent back, got a Purple Heart, and never saw one day of combat.  His name escapes me for now.

My first days in Korea were very quiet as we were set up in defensive positions.  Not knowing much it was somewhat frightening being on the line wondering what came next, even though they put us in a bunker with a combat vet.  There is a funny story to tell here.  All old-timers slept with their boots off.  I slept with boots on and was ready to get out--where I don't know.  Bunkers were large holes with log roofs that had sand bags on top of them.  They were not waterproof, so to keep moisture off of us while sleeping we put a poncho inside our bunker under the ceiling logs.  The first night on line in the bunker we heard this "di-di-di-di" on the roof of the bunker.  The old vet said to me, "Be quiet."  I knew for sure it was an infiltrator ready to throw a grenade in on us, so I lay quiet as a mouse.  All of a sudden the vet fired two shots into the roof.  Guess what?  It was a rat going back and forth on the poncho hunting for food.  I soon found out that it happened all the time as rats found food from C-rations and hid them there above us.  I felt somewhat protected from mortar fire and the elements in the bunker, and believe it or not it was warm in the winter if we were down far enough.

Other than exchange of mortar and artillery fire and sending out duck blinds, things were somewhat easy in the days that followed.  We continued to keep busy revamping bunkers and so forth.  I first saw the enemy after about three weeks in Korea.  They were prisoners with safety papers who crossed into our lines.  They had leaflets that had been dropped by plane.  The leaflets guaranteed safe crossing into our lines.

During the first three months I was in Korea, we were about 70 percent defensive and the other offensive.  I don't know exactly where we were in Korea, but I know we arrived on one coast and before leaving Korea we were trucked to the other coast to set up for peace talks.  Sometimes in our movement we went into Seoul over the Han River.  I also know that we departed for the States at Inchon.  Naturally we were in many towns, areas and hills, but even if I knew or remembered their names, I would not be able to spell them.

I carried a carbine until I became section leader, then I used a .45.  We all worked together--the veteran combat Marines were learning the ropes of being in Korea the same as I was.  I learned "on the job" in Korea that war was serious business.  We had artillery support and from the air Marine Corsairs dropped napalm. I never had rifle fire, but there was plenty of incoming mortar and artillery.  All I did was get as low as possible.  They always said to not worry if an incoming round had my name on it--it was the one that I didn't hear that would get me.  I was never wounded, but came close with incoming mortar shrapnel.  Those who were wounded were treated immediately by a corpsman, and then if possible a helicopter flew them back to the aid station.

The weather was sunny like Ohio weather in the summer, but the roads were very dusty.  Then rain came and everything cooled off in September.  The terrain was somewhere between high hills and small mountains, and there was some vegetation.  We lived in tents in reserve areas, bunkers on lines, and in heated tents sometimes on lines if we were a hill or two behind the lines.  It was cold living in the bunkers, but we soon became adjusted to it.  For cold weather gear I wore underwear, shirt, sweater, sometimes a jacket, parka, fur tab hat, gloves, and thermal boots.  The earlier veterans had shoe pacs which were lighter but not as warm, thus they had more frost bite.  Once I caught the flu.  I had high fever and chills so they sent me back to the med tent, fed me aspirin galore, and put me in a sleeping bag with blankets on top of that.  I slept near a pot belly stove.  Naturally, I sweated.  The next morning the fever broke and I went back to the lines.

One time I was with another Marine on night watch down a draw away from the main line.  It was snowing and we had bouncing Betsy (trip wires strung that when hit would send up a flare) near us.  The other man was on watch as we took turns.  One of the flares went off.  I stared and stared, afraid to move for fear I would give our position away.  We discovered the flare was set off by a chunk of snow falling off a small tree.

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In a Combat Zone

Enemy & Other Foreign Troops

The enemy looked young but usually were always older than they looked, probably because they were a small people.  I never saw them in an actual fight.  The enemy wore quilted pants and jacket and fur-lined cap.  They looked very bloated.  They were clever in some respects.  They would put mines off to the side of the road and zero in on the road with heavy pieces of artillery.  So while traveling down the road, their forward observer would fire on the road, thus causing us to jump to the side of the road and step on the mines.  They did a lot of harassing and infiltrating.  They were excellent with mortars.  Most of the Korean equipment was Russian-made, such as the burp gun, although I thought it was made poorly.

The enemy made mistakes in not putting enough charge in their mortar shells, thus causing large pieces of metal instead of small pieces.  True, if a large piece hit us it probably would be worse, but our theory was the more pieces flying, the more casualties we got, thus causing more medicine and people to administer help to the wounded.  I was never wounded, but came close with incoming mortar shrapnel.  I had buddies and friends I knew who were casualties, but I do not want to talk on this subject.  Those who were wounded got immediate care from the corpsman, and then if possible they were taken back to an aid station by helicopter.

I had very little contact with the South Korean military.  For a short time the Republic of Korea (ROK) army was near us.  Even though these people learned things quick, it seemed as if they were not trained well.  For example, I saw men hide behind a bush with incoming fire.  The contact my unit and I had with South Korean civilians was hauling our C-rations, etcetera to the lines.  We could get them to do most anything for a pack of cigarettes, including washing clothes.  Civilians were not a problem for our unit to my knowledge.

We used tank support to fire on the enemy stronghold.  Our tanks would mount on a high angle of dirt or something to get an added distance on their fire.  When we dug in for the night or for several days, we set up machine guns in valleys or draw areas and all guns were zeroed in at danger areas.

Daily Life in Korea

If in reserve we had portable showers or makeshift showers to keep clean.  In the field we had possibly a stream or sponged off or didn't clean up at all.  You know how little boys are.  "Washie-washie" boys (Koreans) laundered our clothes or we washed them in a stream if available.  Otherwise--you know how little boys are.  Shaving was no problem.  Water in helmets was our sink for shaving.

While on the front lines our meals consisted of C-rations all the time except Christmas, when we took turns going to the rear for Christmas dinner turkey and all the trimmings.  In reserve we had mostly hot meals and some C-rations.  The best thing I ever ate in Korea was the Christmas dinner.  Also someone shot a deer once and I had a piece of it.  I'm not sure to this day if I liked it or not, but at the time I thought it was good.  Normally I can't stand venison (deer).  The stateside food I missed the most was anything and everything.  Did I ever eat the native food?  Heavens no.  The Koreans would sit in a squat for hours eating rice and fish.  It stunk bad, looked bad, and I'm sure it was bad.

I became good buddies with a fellow by the name of Al "Ack Ack" Brown from New Jersey.  He was a forward observer for our mortar outfit.  He made it out okay, but he had a shocking experience before I arrived in Korea.  As forward observer on the front lines, a short round came in beside him and never went off.  Whether you believe this or not, his hair turned white.  This is the story that went around our unit.  Everyone talked about it.  I saw pictures of him with black hair taken while he was in Korea.  When I knew him, it was white.  Once we were back in the States he visited me in Ohio, but we lost track of each other.  I've tried using white pages on the internet to find him, but there are too many Alfred "Al" Browns.

There were some bad days with incoming mail (shells), cold, etcetera, but we also had good days since we were in a defensive mode.  I was a smoker and had a few beers while I was in Korea, but I was not a gambler.  We bulls---ed, played cards, and played a crazy game that was called "Spread", whereas we threw a bayonet at another's feet to get him to spread off balance.  Charlie Chastain from Naptown (Indianapolis), Indiana kept us laughing by writing poems and being a clown.  What was amazing was that he was so good at it.  (He was a school dropout.)  I recall playing cards with the orphan boys, thinking they would not catch on easily.  But they did, so we fed them and gave them cigarettes.  We also thought we could beat them in poker and then they would do our wash.  They usually beat us.  Don't ask me how, but they picked up English and every trick in the book.

I did not practice religion in Korea, but on occasion it was offered by gathering some of us aside for singing and reading the Bible.  We celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas in Korea.  We hung beer cans on a pine tree, along with Christmas cards we received.  I turned 19 or 20 while I was in Korea.  It was just another day.  There were times when we sang to pass the time.  I remember singing this song with my fellow Marines:

"Ten thousand chinks coming over the pass
Playing the burp gun boogie on a doggie's ass
He's moving on - he'll soon be gone
He's moving across the 38th
Like an 88
He's moving on."

The 38th parallel is the line between North and South Korea.  An 88 was a fast-moving Oldsmobile car.

Once in reserve I saw American women when a music troupe came in for a show for the troops.  As to native women, there were times that Korean prostitutes got into the Marine areas, especially if we were near a town.  It was rare, but sometimes a guy would sneak out of his unit to be with one.  I saw the living conditions of the natives.  They lived in mostly wooden, straw-type homes with dirt floors, as I recall.

I received mail regularly from my family and my girlfriend (who is still my wife after 46 years as of November 15 of this year--1999).  I also received packages.  A stateside buddy sent me some ladies panties.  Naturally I also received food, and one uncle sent enough razor blades to do the whole Marine Corps for 100 years.  I remember that one of the guys, an Indian boy from Arizona, got bad news in a letter when his wife wrote to tell him that she had fallen in love with another man and was leaving him.

I was never seriously ill in Korea but once there was an epidemic called hemorrhagic fever that went through our area.  It was caused when we dried our clothes on bushes.  Fleas had jumped off the backs of mice onto the bushes, and then they got on our clothes.

There were two times that I felt I was in the most personal danger in Korea, and they were on the first day when I arrived and the last day when I left.  They always said, "You either get it when you first come or the last day when ready to leave."  I snuggled deep in my hole.  I am not a hero, but I am not dumb either.  I did not question whether or not Korea was a country worth fighting for at the time.  I was just a kid, so that did not run through my mind.  It was a country of "have not" compared to our country that "has too much."  I also was not discouraged or encouraged about how the war was going.  We were kids who were there to fight a war, not run it.  We were still wet behind the ears.

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Going Home

Right before I left Korea they set up Freedom Village at Panmunjom to start peace talks.  On either side of Freedom Village there was a no-fire zone that I believe was 100 yards.  No-fire meant that we could not fire in that zone to protect negotiators.  What happened then was both sides would fire a mortar, then jump into the no fire zone.  All of this could be observed via field glasses from where we were set up.  Talk about a screwed-up war.  At times both sides were like little kids.  And, of course, remember--the war would stop for 24 hours in order to observe Christmas, then after 24 hours we could start firing again.  War is crazy and dumb.

It seemed that every month a new replacement draft came in and relieved the next one in line to go home.  When it was time for me and some of the others to rotate, there was joy in the unit.  We kidded what we would do when we got back, promising to write, but generally didn't.  I felt both glad and sad to be leaving, but was probably anxious to get going.  For me personally, the hardest thing about being in Korea had been missing friends, food, and family--not necessarily in that order.

We left our unit by truck and went to Inchon, the point of embarkation.  We were deloused, checked for worms, and got new clothing and instructions on what to expect and the way to act when we got back to the States.  I think we left either August or September of 1952 on a ship whose name I cannot remember.  I was a corporal in Korea and was promoted to sergeant either before leaving Korea or soon after I got back.

It has been about 60 years since I left Korea.  Either my memory is not good or I never knew the name of the ship that I came home on.  My mood and the mood of others on the ship was good, although we dreaded the trip because of sea sickness.  The only duty I recall on the 14-17 day trip was fire watch.  Nobody escaped that to my knowledge.  I think seasickness and bad weather was better on the return trip than when we went over.

The ship returned to the States at the return staging area of Treasure Island just off the coast near San Francisco. Coming under the Golden Gate Bridge was emotional.  All Marines went topside to view it, talk, and cheer.  There were quite a few people waiting for us at the dock when the ship pulled in.  Probably there were families that met their sons if they did not have to travel too far to get there.  Once we disembarked we got new duty assignments, had fun, drank, and made phone calls.  I called Dad and asked him to wire money to me so that I could really turn it on for the few days we were there.  We got paid, but this was extra.  I got two hotel rooms and paid for them in case I couldn't find one after being on drinking time.  Then I went into an after-hour joint (my first time).  Earlier we went to China Town, rode a street car, and just tried to do everything in the world on our first night out.

After leave, I finished out my time in the Marine Corps at the Marine Barracks, 8th and Eye Street in Washington, D.C.  My duty was as ceremonial guard for parades and funerals and at the Marine Corps Institute (MCI) sending and grading papers for a correspondence school.  I was discharged from the Marine Corps on June 30, 1953.  I was under the care of the USMC for 24 hours after receiving my discharge.  A few days before getting our discharge papers, we were each called into the office of the officer in charge for an attempt to get us to re-up for more time.  (Most of the people where I was were college-educated draftees and not too happy about being drafted into service to start with.)  Anyway, we were called into his office in three's for the lecture.  After failing to convince any of us to re-up, the officer said, "Well, at least, boys, you will have to admit that the military is the oldest profession in the world."  The first draftee said, "You're wrong, Sir.  Prostitution is."  The second draftee said, "And you make more money."  With that we all laughed and the officer shook our hands and said, "Get out of here and good luck."  That is a true story and the last words that were spoken to me while I was in the Marine Corps.

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Final Reflections

After my discharge I went to work in my father's moving and storage business.  Korea had changed me in that I learned to appreciate the convenience of things (like having a light switch to turn off and on) here in the States.  I felt a little jittery at times for no reason, but other than that I had no trouble adjusting to civilian life.  I married Barbara Huffman on November 15, 1953.  We had children Anthony Ray Wagner and Michael Rolla Wagner.  I stayed with the company (Wagner's Service Inc.), which is an agent for Aero Mayflower Transit, until I semi-retired in 1989.  Now in my retirement I do as little as possible.  No charity work.  Absolutely nothing.  In 2007 I received 70 percent disability for peripheral neuropathy.

I don't really know any good that came out of the Korean War.  In hindsight I believe that the United States should not have sent troops to Korea in the first place.  There was too much blood, heartache and money involved.  Since we were there and what it cost us at the time, I think that MacArthur was right in going north of the 38th parallel.  Once we were there Truman should never have pulled us out after wrongly getting us involved.  Now the Korean War carries the nickname "the Forgotten War" I suppose because Truman declared it a police action (Yea right, Harry.  Over 35,000 dead.)

I hope that anyone reading this memoir knows Ross Perot's saying, "Measure twice - cut once."  Check and recheck before you jump.  But my hat goes off to the men who served and the families who lost their loved ones in Korea.  I have never had a desire to return to Korea on a revisit.  There are too many other places to see and a short time to see everything I would like to see.

I have a list of the guys I served with in Korea and have found some and been in touch with them, but I cannot locate most.  Some are deceased, but I did find one wife of a deceased Marine named Swift who lives in Minnesota.  The ones I found and contacted were from Maryland and Connecticut.  I tried via internet to find some of the other guys, but it became too much of a hassle and expense.  The Korean War was a long time ago and it's tough finding them now.

The training I received in boot camp served me well in Korea, but I feel we could always train more and harder.  There is never enough of anything to prepare for combat.  The Korean War was an experience I'll never forget, and I guess I will always be proud that I was a Marine.

December 20, 1951 -
Third Section Mortars

(Click picture for a larger view)

Standing - left to right: Sgt. Van Treek - New Jersey; Pfc. Covey - California; Cpl. Mills - Arizona; PFC Raitz - Ohio; PFC Vallese - Pennsylvania; Sgt Tettaton - Missouri; PFC Rasile - Connecticut; PFC Zapp - Maryland
Kneeling - left to right: Cpl. Capson - California; Cpl. Wagner - Ohio; Sgt. Sommario - New York; PFC Roberts - California
Seated: Sgt. Rossow - New York

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