A whimsical look at life growing up in the small town of Waldron, Arkansas in the 1960s and 1970s, plus occasional observations from the present. Want to start at the very beginning? Click HERE.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Paul Martin, Scott County Hero

It was his smile that people remembered most, because Paul Martin didn't stand out in any crowd.  He wasn't much of a joiner in high school either; he played basketball in ninth grade, joined FFA for a couple of years, and that was about it.  He was quiet and unassuming, a country boy who enjoyed his life in western Scott County.

After he graduated from Waldron High School in 1965, Paul answered his country's call to service and joined the Army.  As a member of 23rd Infantry of the 8th Army's 2nd Division, he thrived, rising to the rank of Sergeant.  The 23rd Infantry was in the middle of the action in January of 1968, but not in Vietnam.  They were on the volatile border between North and South Korea.

The two countries had been in an undeclared war between 1950 and 1953, and the ceasefire that had been in effect since that time did not always hold.  Communist North Korea was determined to unify the country under one government; theirs.  In January of 1968, a carefully planned plot to accomplish that goal was put into effect.

In 1968, a team of 31 elite North Korean commandos infiltrated the south. Their target: the president of the Republic of Korea.
Photo courtesy of http://militaryhistorynow.com

 The plan was bold: a cadre of highly trained North Korean commandos would slip across the border into South Korea.  Once inside, they would pass themselves as South Korean soldiers, and gradually make their way toward the capital of Seoul.  There, they would assassinate the South Korean president, Park Chung-Hee.

Their training was intense.  They had to be able to traverse long distances carrying heavy packs, and they had to master the South Korean dialect to the extent that they could pass themselves off as South Koreans if they were challenged.  They were indeed an elite group of soldiers.

The plot worked surprisingly well.  After making it across the demilitarized zone separating the two countries, they made fast time.  They moved at night, mostly, and rested during the day.  But one day, as they were resting, they were discovered by four South Korean men who were out cutting wood.  But the commandos  had planned for such an event, and their orders were clear:  kill anyone who gets in the way.

But, for some unknown reason, the commander of the elite North Korean unit decided to instead try to convert the four South Koreans to the North Korean political ideology.  So there, in the frozen forest, a four hour discussion ensued.  The North Koreans had been taught that their neighbors in the south were oppressed, and that if given the chance, they would support the unification directed by the north.  Of course, this propaganda was not correct, but the four South Korean woodcutters gladly played along, pronouncing themselves proud communists at the end of the indoctrination session.  Vowing to keep quiet until after the ensuing revolution, the woodcutters were released.  They promptly sought out South Korean police, and told them of the invaders.

South Korea's presidential palace, known as the Blue House, was the scene of a desperate gun battle on Jan. 21, 1968.
Photo courtesy of militaryhistory.com
But the North Korean commandos were so well-trained that, even though their presence was known, they were still able to continue their mission.  Their goal was The Blue House, the South Korean presidential palace.  Relentlessly, they continued to make their way toward their target.

Their South Korean uniforms were perfect; their South Korean language and dialect beyond suspicion.  They were stopped occasionally, by South Korean military or police officials, but were able to bluff their way out of any questions.  In fact, they got to within 100 yards of The Blue House before anyone suspected them.

An alert South Korean police official challenged them at a checkpoint.  As he grew suspicious, he drew his gun, which caused the North Korean unit to open fire.  A horrific gun battle ensued, in the streets of Seoul.  A bus stopped at the checkpoint found itself between the North Korean commandos and the South Korean army, and almost everyone on the bus was a casualty.  The North Koreans, realizing their objective was lost, dispersed through the streets of the city in groups of two or three, with the goal of making it back across the border as best they could.  Most were killed immediately.  One North Korean forced his way into a house, and told the woman who lived there to fix him a bowl of rice.  Frightened, she complied.  The North Korean sat down at her table, consumed the rice, and then went into another room and ended his life.

North Korean commando Kim Shin-Jo at the moment of his capture in 1968.
Kim Shin-Jo, North Korean commando, at the time of his capture.

One of the North Koreans was captured.  Kim Shin-Jo was forced to reveal the plot.  In the years after his capture, he told of the brutal training that the commandos endured to get ready for their mission.  Interestingly, Kim Shin-Jo remained in South Korea after he was released from prison, eventually becoming a Christian minister.

As the North Korean intruders began to attempt to return home, American and South Korean soldiers along the demilitarized zone were put on alert.  They were to stop any North Korean from getting back across the border.  One of the soldiers manning a checkpoint was Sgt. Paul Martin.

The Associated Press newswire that accompanied the AP photo sent to papers across the country tells the awful story:

It is known that one of the commandos made it back across the border to North Korea.  It is not known whether this is the individual who killed Paul Martin, or whether it was some other North Korean hostile intruder who had crossed the DMZ.  At any rate, Paul Martin gave his life that cold January day.

Back home, the Advance Reporter carried the story.  The headline was "Waldron Man Killed In Action In Korea."  Here is the story as it ran in the Advance Reporter:

SEOUL - Sgt. Paul W. Martin, 21, of Waldron, who was killed January 24 in a gunfight with North Korean Communist intruders, was paid final tribute Monday by his comrades.

Two generals, Lt. Gen. Vernon P. Mock, deputy commander of the 8th U.S. Army and Maj. General Frank Isenour, commander of the 2nd Division, were among those attending services and saluting Martin at Kimpo Air Base.

A platoon from his unit, the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry, stood on the airfield apron in subfreezing temperatures.  The division honor guard played a funeral dirge as Martin's aluminum casket, covered by an American flag, was borne to a bier, carried by six sergeants.

Capt. Clarence A. Olszewski, a chaplain, led the funeral procession and a short prayer.

Martin and other U.S. troops were trying to block off the remnants of a 31-man North Korean commando unit that slipped across the border and traveled to Seoul when he was killed.   Authorities say the unit's aim was to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung Hee.

Policemen from the Korean National Police blocked their efforts and U.S. troops from the 2nd Infantry Division launched a major effort to intercept them when they fled.  Martin was one of two Americans who were killed in encounters with the North Koreans.

Martin was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Charlie Martin.  Funeral arrangements are incomplete at this time.  

The next week's edition of the Advance Reporter told of the funeral, how Paul's body had arrived back in Waldron on Sunday morning, with his funeral on a Monday afternoon at Winfield Baptist Church.  Paul was buried at Oliver Cemetery with full military honors, including a 21 gun salute.

A few days later, the U.S.Navy vessel Pueblo was seized by the North Koreans, and the crew held captive for many months.  That, and the war in Vietnam, occupied the minds of most Americans, and the death of a brave soldier in Korea was soon forgotten.

But Paul was not forgotten by those whose life he had touched.  And the quiet boy from Winfield, who had made of himself quite a soldier, was saluted by generals and earned his place in history.


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  2. Sir, we remember your service. You answered the call, served with honor, bravery, and you have earned out deepest respect. Besides their freedom, the G-20 country of S. Korea for 40 years still continues to enjoy incredible development and economic growth, with a current a market economy that ranks 11th in the world! Thanks in part to the brave, humble sacrifice of men like you. ~ KC Rupe http://www.forbes.com/places/south-korea/