Korean War Oral History Interview
Date: September 13, 2001
Veteran: First Lieutenant Thomas Martin
2nd Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division
Interviewer: Robert Pontecorvo
Summarizer: Walt Borkowski
Thomas Martin was born in December, 1925 and was drafted into the U. S. Army in January, 1951. He spent the remainder of that year and a good part of the next in training. After finishing his basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, he went to Officer Candidate School (OCS) at Fort Benning, Georgia and was commissioned an infantry second lieutenant. Following OCS he attended leadership school at Camp Atterbury, Indiana before being assigned to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and then participating in training in Texas for a month. He was so busy during that period that he can hardly “remember taking a breath.”
In late 1952 Martin traveled to Seattle, Washington to board the U.S.S. General Walker, a troop transport bound for Korea. He recalled being Officer Of the Day for the three days the ship sailed through a typhoon. Most of the men were seasick and he remembered that it was difficult to “clean and maintain the ship like a military base -- almost impossible to do.”
The Walker landed at the port of Pusan, Korea, where Martin recalled that “life…was indescribable,” because the people of Korea were very poor, had been neglected for years under Japanese rule and suffered considerably in the war. Martin recalled that South Korean President Syngman Rhee personally welcomed his troopship on its arrival. Rhee was especially happy to greet the men of an artillery battery assigned to defend the perimeter of Seoul, his capital city.
At Pusan, Martin and a number of other soldiers boarded an ancient looking train with a steam engine that reminded him of ones he had seen in old Hollywood western movies. The train chugged and rattled north to Seoul, where the Americans transferred to trucks and an even more rugged ride to Seventh Infantry Division Headquarters, five miles behind the front lines. At division headquarters, Lieutenant Martin was assigned to the Second Battalion of the Thirty-first Infantry Regiment.
Martin arrived at the Thirty-first’s regimental headquarters, near Kumwha, in October, 1952, just in time to take part in a battle. His battalion was assigned to take a 598 meter high hill known as Triangle Hill, which was occupied by Chinese troops and overlooked the Seventh Division lines. The struggle for Triangle Hill and its several adjoining ridges would be his first fight; it would also be his last.
On October 14, 1952, the opening day of the battle, called “Operation Showdown” by higher headquarters, the First and Third Battalions of the Thirty-first attacked, while Martin’s Second Battalion was held in reserve, “…to attack the following day if needed.” Martin remembered that “we were needed. The First and Third [Battalions] practically disappeared in the action going up the hill. They were decimated.” [The two battalions lost ninety-six men killed and 337 men wounded, the heaviest casualties the Thirty-first Infantry Regiment suffered in any battle of the Korean War.]
Martin recalled that Triangle Hill was overlooked by a larger Chinese occupied mountain [probably “Pike’s Peak]. The Chinese were well dug in and lobbed numerous mortar, howitzer and heavier artillery shells into the American positions. The day following the repulse of October 14, Martin remembered moving up Triangle Hill with the Second Battalion. He recalled that “the Chinese weren’t as active, but there were numerous reminders of what had happened the day before, all the way up the mountain. We went up and took our assigned areas.” Things got hot fast, as the Chinese launched a series of attacks on the American positions.
“We were on the hill for two and a half days, and we lost most of our officers.” Martin recalled. “On the last day we lost our commanding officer, and I was the last officer left alive and in command of the hill and battalion. We had many casualties. Before our commanding officer was killed, he begged for reinforcements, begged for supplies, begged for ammunition, begged for everything. He was told it was impossible.”
Martin remembered the snow and the cold on top of the mountain, and how the Chinese used bugles to muster their men before and during an attack “The sounds of the bugles were strident, not rhythmic, and they used them during the night to keep us from getting any rest. They wore white uniforms and liked to attack under the cover of darkness. Throughout the day they would lob shells down on us.”
Martin spent his last night on Triangle Hill placing his men to strengthen their positions and make it more difficult for the Chinese to zero in on the muzzle flashes from their weapons. He described the actions of one of his medics as “heroic and indispensable” as the man answered the cries of the wounded for help. The medic ran out of morphine before he was hit and went down himself. It wasn’t until the third day of the battle that men could be spared to take the wounded Americans off the hill. It was on that morning that an exploding mortar round knocked Martin unconscious and drove shrapnel into his legs. Although he has no memory of it, he believed the men who carried his stretcher down the steep fire-swept slope of Triangle Hill must have endured a “terrible ordeal.”
Lieutenant Martin was transported from his battalion to a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) unit for rudimentary care, and then put on board a hospital train which brought him to an abandoned war-battered roofless school serving as a makeshift hospital near Seoul. It was there that he regained consciousness on a crisp autumn day and gazed up at a beautiful blue sky, glad to be alive. Shortly afterward he was moved from Seoul to a military hospital in Japan. Army Medical personnel in Japan determined whether or not a wounded soldier could recover in three months. If he could, he was kept in Japan for eventual return to Korea. If not, he was sent to a hospital in the United States. Martin was promoted to first lieutenant for his actions on Triangle Hill and then shipped to a stateside hospital.
It was ten months before Lieutenant Martin’s wounded legs healed enough to allow him to be discharged from Murphy Army Hospital in Waltham, Massachusetts. He never quite recovered from his wounds, and to the day of his interview, migrating shrapnel remaining in his legs caused bone infections and high fevers. His wife and family have learned of his experiences on Triangle Hill through comments he made while suffering through these fevers.
Martin was interviewed two days after September 11, 2001, and he referred to the horror of the 9/11 terrorism strike. He said that he believed “…that we have to make every effort for peace. It seems that we are continually at war, whether we want to or not. Peace is a hard thing to grasp. I hope we can be more successful at it. I don’t mean we have to exterminate our enemies, it only prolongs the conflict. But we got to have some method that we can live with our families and be at peace”.
Thomas Martin currently resides with his family in Rumson, New Jersey.
[After twelve days of fighting, attack and counterattack, the Seventh Division turned over the fight for Triangle Hill to the Republic of Korea’s Second Division. That unit was eventually forced to abandon the hill. The lines were restored to where they were before the attack of October 14, and remained so until the fighting in Korea ended in an armistice on July 27, 1953.]