E-Company Marines Remembered


Home / Oral Histories / Herbert "Dick" Oxnam

Herbert "Dick" Oxnam
Herbert "Dick" Oxnam

My father was born in Chicago and my mother was born in Kennebunkport, Maine. Our family moved to Tucson in 1932 for my father's health. He had been kicked in the chest by a mule while "cowboying" in Carlsbad, New Mexico. One of his lungs had collapsed, making it difficult for him to breathe. We moved to 1616 East 2nd Street, where the Steward Observatory is now located. I attended Sam Hughes, Mansfeld and graduated Tucson High School. At Tucson High, I was in the National Honor Society played football and baseball in the Class of 1947. These were fun times. Everyone in Tucson attended Tucson High and we had fun studying and playing together. We never heard of discrimination or drugs. Our teachers were excellent! I then graduated from the University of Arizona, College of Agriculture. With the help of credit for Marine training, I was able to complete my Bachelor of Science in three years. Then, on to Texas A&M for my Master's.

During World War II, my dad worked part time as a coordinator at the University of Arizona Auditorium for Navy classes. My mother supported the family working as a corporate secretary for Arizona Trust Company. While on a vacation, we saw the Marines parade at the San Diego Recruit Depot and went to the San Francisco World's Fair. We were among the first to drive across the new Golden Gate Bridge.

One of my fellow football players at the U of A was World War II veteran C. W. 0. Larry Howard. Larry enlisted me in "E" Company, 13th Infantry Bn., U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, June 23, 1948. It sounded like a good deal to me. We got a train ride and a two-weeks paid vacation in Southern California. I attended Platoon Leader Classes in Quantico, Virginia, during the summers of 1949 and 1950. I retired June 30, 1989, after 41 years in the Marine Corps Reserve.

I met my future wife, Betty, in Quantico. She was attending the Women Marine Officer Candidate Class. She was my senior for several years. Betty is a physical education graduate of Slippery Rock State Teachers College, Pennsylvania. We were married September 17, 1954, a year after my return from Korea. She thought living in Tucson might be better than teaching school in Vermont. We now have seven children and eight grandchildren.

I was a sergeant in Quantico when "E" Company was activated in July 1950. As I was already in a graduate studies program at Texas A&M, the Marine Corps asked me to finish my Master's degree. When I did finish my Master' I knew a new Special Basic Class was beginning in Quantico. Without orders, I jumped on a bus for Washington, DC. I rushed to Marine Corps Headquarters on a Friday afternoon. Sherrod E. Skinner (a son of a General Motors Vice President and a future Medal of Honor winner, and I were sworn in as 2nd Lts. in the Marine Commandant's Office. We were in Quantico on Monday, for the beginning of the 11th Special Basic Class. The Marines even reimbursed me for my bus ride. I did all right by the Corps. They issued me a rifle, a seabag and a wife, in addition to summer vacation camps.

After Basic School, I got my first choice of duty as an infantry platoon commander with "B" Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. While training on the Isle de Viegues, I got my best liberty ever! As we were getting ready to go ashore at, San Juan, Puerto Rico, the battalion received a request to furnish a military police officer. The battalion commander looked over the lieutenants and said "Oxnam, you don't drink, you can be the military police officer." "Thanks a lot, Colonel!" It turned out great! When I got ashore, I was met by the regular army military police with a jeep and driver. He gave me a grand tour of the island. He showed me the old Spanish forts and harbor facilities. Of course, he had to check out all of the "off limits" restricted areas. What an enlightment! As we rode past my buddies walking the streets I would smile and wave. As Queen Victoria said, "Tell it to the Marines!"

Back to Viegues. On returning to camp after three days in the field, everyone was congratulating me. The battalion had received a request for volunteer reserve lieutenants to go to Korea. One of my Basic School Buddies, Leroy "Scotty" Payton, decided he wanted to go. He didn't want to go alone, so he put my name in also. (It pays to have friends in the right places.) Payton and I stayed together through Replacement Battalion training in Camp Pendleton and on board ship to Korea. At Inchon, Leroy went to motor transport and I went to Reconnaissance Company. I didn't see Leroy again until we returned home on the same ship. He had not seen a Chinaman during his entire tour.

From Camp Pendleton, we went to Pickle Meadows for cold-weather training. One day, on a company hike, I was the rear guard. Three former German soldiers were lagging behind. A major blizzard came in with heavy freezing winds and blinding snow. The rest of the company left us behind. The trail was obliterated by the heavy snow. The Germans went down and refused, to get up and move. I stood there, kicking them. They cursed me in their finest German! They told me I was worse than their German Nazi officers. I guess that was a compliment. I told them I couldn't carry them. They finally got up and we straggled into camp. About 2200, they came to my "igloo" and apologized. They realized they would have frozen, if I had left them overnight.

Sailing across the Pacific, I kept hearing young lieutenants expound how they were going to win the war single-handed. Once in Korea, they were nowhere to be found. I was pretty "gung ho" myself, restless and ready for adventure. I put in for Reconnaissance Company, 1st Marine Division and got it. No one else wanted Recon. On arriving at Inchon, we saw the terrible quick-mud flats that protect the harbor. I joined the 2nd Platoon Recon. Co., on December 16, 1952. There, I met my best friend ever. Jim Day was platoon commander of the 3rd Platoon. We worked fabulously well together. One night my platoon would back up his patrol. The next night he would back up my patrol. Jim always kept his word. If we planned to meet out in "no-man's-land" at 0200, he would be there. Jim Day was awarded the Medal of Honor and retired a Major General.

Yes, we ran a patrol on Christmas Eve. To me, the most important bit of information to know before going on a night patrol was the stage of the moon and time of moonrise. A patrol could really get in trouble if you got caught out in an open, snow-covered rice paddy under a full moon. Moonlight reflection off the white snow on a flat paddy can be almost as bright as daylight. Not the place to be while under enemy observation.

In January 1953, someone got the wild idea to run a daylight probe against the Chinese. We jumped off from the Main Line of Resistance (NUR) at dawn. Accompanied by three tanks, we moved across an open, frozen and, mined rice paddy. It didn't take long for the Chinese People's, Volunteer Infantry to swarm over our tanks. The Chinese climbed on our tanks and attempted to put mud on the windows to blind the tankers. They put rocks and other, debris down the gun barrels. We had to shoot the Chinese off our own tanks to rescue our men. One of the major errors Marines make is to under-estimate the enemy. It was not a good trip, but it did accomplish one thing; our interpreters did break the Chinese code. The front-line Chinese radioed back that they were being attacked by the 3rd, Marine Division. The 3rd Division was in Camp Pendleton. They asked, "What shall we do?" The Chinese rear answered, "Be, strong; be brave; die for dear old China." We spotted several Chinese standing on a ridgeline. I called in artillery support. Soon we were hit by incoming air burst,anti-personnel, shrapnel fire. I thought it was Chinese artillery. I radioed back that we were being hit. It was our own artillery firing, 1,000 yards short. I don!t know who named it "Friendly fire!"

I subscribed to the Arizona Daily Star newspaper. The only mention of the Korean War was usually on the financial page and how the war affected the stock market. The lead front-page stories were of those daring "panty raids," on the women's dorms at the University. The Korean War was not forgotten; it was ignored and not reported at the time. I never did see a reporter or photographer on the front line. The only reporters I saw were in a hospital trying to get, a story from the wounded.

Other incidents included Sergeant Nixon, son of a New York newspaper publisher, charging a machine gun single-handed. We did rescue him! Corporal Rockefeller, of the millionaire Rockefellers and a college graduate, was one of Jim Day's point men. One veteran corporal told me he had done his share and had enough patrols. I agreed with him. He said if I took him out again, he would shoot me in the back. A few nights later, I noticed he did not have his weapon. I asked him where his rifle was. He said his sergeant would not let him carry a weapon. The sergeant had overheard our previous conversation and would not let him carry a weapon on patrol. The three of us talked it over and gave him back his rifle. Another time, a sergeant and I were in a supply tent and he told me he was not going back up on line again. I told him we were all going up that night. He had been drinking and took a few swings at me. I grabbed him by the back of his collar and threw him on the deck. Two supply clerks witnessed this exhibition and spread the word that I had beaten up the platoon boxer! Other officers suggested that I lock him up. I was not about to do that. I figured the entire platoon would rather go to the brig than go back on line. Another man shot himself in the foot and wanted to be evacuated. I told the corpsman to patch him up, he was going with us. Shooting onself in the foot could rapidly become a contagious disease.

The night of February 26, the 1st Platoon got, a little over zealous and walked into a Chinese machine-gun nest. It was noon the next day before the rest of Recon could extract them from the field. This was not a good time in Recon history. Three of the five Recon officers I served with comitted suicide after they returned to the states.

It was normal to rotate men to the rear after three months on the line. In March, I was transferred to 3rd Platoon Commander, Item Co., 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. This was hardly the rear. We were the right flank company of the 1st Marine Division extending to the Hook. We tied in with the Army, the British Commonwealth and the Turks. Every afternoon at 1500 was "Tea Time." Stop the war! "TeaTime!" Do those Brits eat'well? At night we would go'on patrol with Scottish Black Watch. We would get behind the Chinese lines. At, 0200, the Scots would play their bagpipes and make the wierdest sounds. Those bagpipes were weapons of war! The sounds would echo off the mountains and terrorize the Chinese! A Turkish sergeant said he was going to get me a Chinese head! What was I going to do with a Chinese Head? He said I could put it on my fireplace mantel at home. He would take off in the evening, alone with only his sword. He would not return until dawn. I resolved that if he were successful, in the interest of international relations, I would have to graciously accept his gift! Fortunately, he never brought me his souvenir!

The 3rd Platoon, 1-3-7, spent many-tours on Combat Outpost duty. On Easter,Sunday, we were on Outpost Vegas. At dawn, I was watching the sunrise, relieved we had survived another night. My M-1 rifle sights just framed the rising sun. What a sight! I remembered the Easter Sunrise Services in Tucson. A hard charging fresh lieutenant came up to relieve me. He stood on the skyline. He said, "You have to show the men you have guts!" I told him to get down. He did! We had to carry off another wounded. He asked me if I thought he would get a medal. I did not answer him. It is one thing to be brave. It is something else to be foolish.

During the eight months I was in Korea, there were seven lieutenants who were sent to relieve me. None of them made it. Some I never saw. Others became casualties and I had to return to my old platoon. I was not the hero type. I did not mind getting my uniform dirty. Whenever I heard incoming rounds. I was on the deck. My theory is that dead men don't win wars; survive to fight and love another day.

In July, we were assigned to defend Outpost East Berlin, a hill about the size and shape of "A" Mountain in Tucson. It was against my policy to ever volunteer my men for a risky job. We would take our turn, but never vounteer. Our turn came up frequently enough, particularly as we were often the only platoon that was still up to strength. East Berlin was different The war was coming to an end. The treaty said that the Demilitarized Zone would extend 500 meters north and south of the final battle line. East Berlin was within 500 meters of the Imjin River. The Imjin is the major transportation route in northern South Korea. The Chinese knew this and I knew this. If the Chinese captured East Berlin, it would push the DMZ south of the Imjin River and the republic of South Korea could not use the river today. My senior officers could not understand how important it was to save East Berlin. My battalion commander finally said that if I felt so strong about it, I could take my platoon up the hill and defend it.

I went back to my platoon and explained the situation to them. I told them I would only take volunteers. To my amazement, they all volunteered to go. We went up on East Berlin with a reinforced platoon of fifty-four Marines and two Navy corpsmen. We fought for four nights and three days. There had been so much incoming artillery that all the dirt had all been blown away. There was only bedrock left, which we could not dig into. An Artillery Forward Observer counted that we took twenty-two hundred incoming rounds the first night. The only building material available were Chinese bodies. We stacked these bodies up, four feet high. They were excellent for absorbing incoming rounds. On those hot July days, though, one had to get used to the stench and, watching their eyes pop out, and back in. We lost our radio and telephone communications to the MLR (Main Line of Resistance). We used our available ammunition, very sparingly. On the third morning, we saw four Marine Corsairs flying overhead. We stood up and waved to them. Being out of contact, we didn't know the current air panel code. (Air panels are red and yellow three-foot plastic square cloths. The infantry could set out to signal the planes where our front lines were.) The MLR and the planes thought the Outpost had been overrun and that we were Chinese. The planes, proceeded to strafe, bomb and drop napalm on us. This is what they call "friendly fire." On the fourth night, fifty-six men walked off the hill! We had suffered only minor scratches. The next night, we went back up the same hill.

I was finally wounded on Outpost East Berlin on July 11th, 16 days before the end of the war. I was evacuated back to the Regimental Tent Hospital. I only had a minor wound and, was put in a holding cot. At 0200, the doctors finished caring for the seriously wounded. The corpsmen made a last check through the lesser wounded. One corpsman looked at my tag and said, "Here is a lieutenant! They rushed me into the operating roon patched me up and sent me back to the MLR. The troops thought that was the funniest joke they had ever heard. There was much "hee-haw" and laughter and comnents like "I wish I could be a lieutenant!"

The tougliest part of the Korean War for me was coming home. We landed in San Francisco and were promptly released from active duty. I took a train, a bus and finally, a taxi home to Tucson. My folks were not physically, able to drive to meet me. The next Sunday I returned to the church I had been raised in. There I was met with "You killer of women and children!" That hurt!, And, still does. One of the draft-dodging fraternity brothers asked, "Dick, where have You been" We haven't seen you for a while! I couldn't answer him. Some folks just cannot believe a man can be both a Christian and a Marine.

My men and I never swayed from Christian principles. We never looted, plundered or destroyed Korean villages. We only killed enemy soldiers to stop their attack. Many of us felt we were on a crusade to protect South Korea. We did not hate the Chinese, but rather felt sympathy for them. It is not fun killing fourteen year old boys and old men hobbling on a cane without a weapon. We had to stop them or be overrun by their human-wave attacks. The strongest Christians I have ever met were Marines in Korea. These were not new battlefield converts, but hardcore Christians who came to Korea on a mission.

Last summer, I finally built up the courage to attend a Korean War Reconnaissance Company reunion in Louisville, Kentucky. What a thrill! I had always known that, some felt I was a coward because I did not stand upon the battlefield and lead a charge. I spent most of my time on the deck, in the mud, snow and dust. I instructed my men to do the same. I did not hold parade-ground inspections in dress uniforms while preparing to go on patrol or occupy an outpost. At our reunion, I met four of my old platoon members who are now Christian ministers. I was very pleased. I hoped I had a positive influence on their lives.

Thank you for reading this story. It is the first time I have told some of these stories.

SemperFi!

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