Once I retired from the Navy Reserves, and had more time, I have been an avid reader of military history, and have collected hundreds of books on wars and the prominent figures from WWII and the Korean Conflict. I have biographies of Admirals and Generals, political figures, as well as historical tomes on these conflicts.
For the first time ever, I am currently reading two books on the Korean Conflict simultaneously: “The Korean War – Pusan to Chosin, an Oral History” written by Donald Knox, and “In Mortal Conflict – Korea, 1950-1953” written by John Toland. Reading the dry historical perspective has been totally brought alive by alternately reading the oral histories of the soldiers and marines who experienced the action.
In June 1950, the North Korean Army crosses the 38th Parallel into South Korea. After the United Nations Security Council votes to authorize force to repel the surprise invasion, U.N., South Korean and U.S. troops establish a 150-mile-long defensive perimeter around Pusan, a port on the southeastern coast.
One of the central characters in the early weeks of the war was Captain ‘Ike’ Fenton. Captain Fenton was the Baker Company Commander of 1st Battalion, 5th Marines during the Korean War, the same unit in which his younger brother Michael served and died in during World War II.
U.S. Marines had been in Korea barely two weeks when the 27-year-old Fenton, who had fought in World War II, is plunged into a critical battle. Fenton’s company is sent into a breach in the perimeter and ordered to “hold at all cost,” lest the attacking North Koreans flank and rout the allies. “The only marines coming off that hill are dead marines,” Fenton says to his commander. Using bayonets and grenades borrowed from another company nearby, Fenton’s men hold the line
Combat Photographer David Douglas Duncan takes Captain Fenton’s picture. Duncan, a former marine, is on assignment for Life magazine. He gets as close to the action as possible, trying to show, he says, “what a man endures when his country decides to go to war.” Duncan’s photographs are among the best known of the war, and a few, including that of Fenton, are ranked among the top American combat photographs ever. The photograph captures a weary Capt. “Ike” Fenton, whose radio had just expired, being told his unit was low on ammunition, and ponders his and his unit’s fate.
Marine Captain “Ike” Fenton, USMC, Korea
Excerpted from Donald Knox’s book, is this remembrance of Captain ‘Ike’ Fenton:
“When daylight arrived, I discovered that I was the only officer left the in company. The previous afternoon the company counted 190 men and 5 officers. In the morning 88 men were left on the line. The 2nd Platoon, which had borne the brunt of the night attack, but had 11 men left.
First Lieutenant Nick Schryver from the 1st Platoon was reported to have been killed. My gunnery sergeant, Ed Wright, said he’d had been hit by a grenade burst. I thought it would be demoralizing to the men to have a dead lieutenant lying around, so even thought we were only evacuating the wounded, I told Ed, “Put Schryver on the first available stretcher and take him off the ridge”. A short time later I looked up and, gee whiz, I thought I was looking at a ghost! There stood Nick. With all the bandages wrapped around his head he looked like a mummy. “My God,” I said, “what are you doing here? They told me you were dead.” He told me, “Skipper, back in the aid station I got to thinking. The last couple of days we’ve seen a lot of action. I though your number would be up. You know, Skipper, very seldom does a young lieutenant get to command a company. Since you’re long overdue, I just figured if I could get back here, I’d get myself a company”. ”
After Pusan, Fenton sees more action in Korea and goes on to serve in Vietnam before retiring in 1970 as a much-decorated colonel. He settles in Peachtree City, Georgia, works as an executive for National Cash Register and vigorously promotes the cause of Georgia golf. He dies in 1998 at age 76, leaving two daughters, three sons, 12 grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
Captain ‘Ike’ Fenton was the oldest son of Marine Colonel Francis “Ike” Fenton, 1st Marine Division. In 1945, his father, Marine Colonel Francis “Ike” Fenton, 1st Marine Division, and his youngest brother, Pvt. Michael Fenton of Baker Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, served together in combat. A photograph of the two, delayed by the war, accompanied a story in the May 31, 1945, edition of the San Diego Union. It showed the son holding his M1 rifle beside his father. The caption noted that Okinawa was the son’s first combat experience, while his father had been in the Battle of Peleliu in 1944.
The story reported that the Colonel said, “Hello, Son,” while the Private said, “Glad to see you, Sir.” They talked about mail from home.
Another photograph taken not long after showed the Colonel, a helmet between his arm and body, kneeling in the dirt with his head bowed over a stretcher. A U.S. flag covered his son Michael, who was killed in action on 7 May, 1945, while fiercely repelling a vicious Japanese counterattack.
Marine Father, Marine Son
The faces of the Men in the background register the horrible sadness of the moment.