Martin Vasquez was born on November 12, 1927 in Santa Paula, California. The son of Mexican immigrants, he enlisted in the Marine Corps in November 1945 at the age of 18. In May of 1951, he was deployed to Korea as a part of the 1st Marine Division 5th Regiment 3rd Battalion. He participated in four battles including The Punch Bowl. Among his decorations, he received the Presidential Unit Citation and the Korean War Service Medal with four battle stars. In 1975, he retired from the Marine Corps as a Sergeant Major with 30 years of service including tours in the Vietnam War. He has revisited Korea three times in 2008, 2010, and 2015.
Not Much Experience with the People Until Later Years
Martin Vasquez explains that he didn't have much experience with the people of South Korea during wartime. He recalls his only experience with the people was with the South Korean military men who were fighting along with him. He explains that he has seen a very different Korea during the times he has revisited compared to during the war. He goes on to describe the purpose for the United States entry into the war.
Year Long Tour of Duty
Martin Vasquez explains how a tour of duty works in the military. He states that he completed his year long tour of duty in Korea, upon which time he returned to the United States and another Marine replaced him. He goes on to explain that some times a tour of duty was shorter than a year; for example, if a soldier was wounded, he was sent to a hospital and then sent home.
Korea Then and Now
Martin Vasquez explains how different modern Korea is compared to the Korea he knew during the war. He describes Seoul of 1951 having very few bridges and today having many beautiful bridges. He goes on to describe the buildings in Seoul that are even bigger than the buildings in the United States. He recalls the warm reception he and other American veterans received upon their arrival during their Revisit Korea trips.
Vasquez: Martin Vasquez, retired United States Marine Corps. My age is 88 years old
Interviewer: When is your birthday and where were you born?
Vasquez: My birthday is 12, November 1927, and I was born in Santa Paula, California Ventura County
Interviewer: And briefly what is your family history?
Vasquez: Both of my parents, my father and my mother, came to this country from Mexico in the year 1910, and my father came 1910, and my mother came 1915.
Interviewer: Ahh, and you mentioned you were part of the marine corps. Were you enlisted or drafted?
Vasquez: I was enlisted, I enlisted in the Marine Corps.
Interviewer: Ok, and where and when was it that you enlisted?
Vasquez: In November the 12 in California
Interviewer: Do you know about how old were you?
Vasquez: I had just turned 18 years old.
Interviewer: Ok, wow and right before you enlisted, what were you doing were you in school?
Vasquez: I was in school, but at the same time I had a job in the town of Santa Paula, that was in 1944 or 45. My school education was just up to the 8th grade.
Interviewer: And, when did you arrive in Korea now?
Vasquez: In May of 1951
Interviewer: Ok, 1951. So I know the war started in 50 so you arrived a little after.
Vasquez: Yes I did, June the 25th it started in 50, and it ended in July 27th 1953.
Interviewer: Right, Right and where did you arrive first?
Vasquez: Uh huh
Interviewer: Ok and where were you stationed?
Vasquez: There? I joined the 3rd Battalion Febrine Regimen, 1st Marine division
Interviewer: And is that the group that you are president of right now? The Association?
Vasquez: Yes, I
Interviewer: 1st Marine Division Association Southern California Chapter.
Vasquez: Yes, I am
Interviewer: Wow! And so that is the military unit right? 3rd Battalion
Interviewer: Ok, and what was your rank
Vasquez: When I retired or that time in Korea?
Interviewer: Maybe that time in Korea, and then also when you retired.
Vasquez: Ok, in Korea I was a Sergeant
Interviewer: Ok, and then when you retired?
Vasquez: Sergeant Major
Interviewer: Ok, thank you. Alright, now let’s talk about you background being in the military. What kind of basic training did you receive, and where was it held?
Vasquez: I went to recruit training in San Diego, Marine Corps Recruit Depot, from Marine Corps Recruit Depot, I came to Camp Pen Elton. And after Camp Pen Elton I was in the Philippines after WWII, then I came back to the United States in 1951 I went to Korea with the 3rd Battalion Febrine Marines.
Interviewer: And in Korea what battles did you participate in?
Vasquez: I participated in 4 battles. The original one I started with in May or June of 1951 was the Punch Bowl area. And between that battle we went all the way up to North Korea while I was there. They call it the Eastern Front. Then in 1952, the division and the regimen I was in moved to the Eastern Front on the south side first.
Interviewer: What kind of specialty did you have?
Vasquez: I was an infantry man.
Interviewer: Ok, so what was it like when you, or maybe before then, did you know about Korea at all before going?
Vasquez: Didn’t know where Korea was at
Interviewer: Yeah, then how were you feeling and what was it like when you got there? Can you tell me like visual, like what did you see?
Vasquez: Well when we landed there in Pusan, nothing, people just laid tents there and living in tents. Marines that I went with, went all the way to Yangu County. Which is where Punch Bowl was at, and we stayed up in the hills the whole. We didn’t go through any big cities, nothing like that, we straight to a combat area until we move from the Eastern Front to the Western Front, we went right through Sole, that was in March of 52. And the town itself of Sole was completely destroyed, yeah it was all bombarded from whatever North Korea did to it.
Interviewer: Right, can you tell me about the places you were stationed? What was the land condition like?
Vasquez: Well all we did was be in foxholes, live in foxholes, in bunkers, and there were no cities that we went through. In other words, to fight with, the only city that I saw during that period of time on my way back to the states, we stopped at Enchong, and we loaded on a ship, and back to the states.
Interviewer: And when you were there did you also get to experience the Korean society? Did you meet any Korean civilians?
Vasquez: No, I did not. The only Koreans were the interpreters. We had Korean interpreters.
Interviewer: Did they do a good job?
Vasquez: They did because there were ones that would tell us what were, they’ve been there its their country you know? And some of them would stay with us for a period of maybe three months, then other Korean interpreters would come and join us.
Interviewer: Right, did you ever get to kind of tour the country as well?
Vasquez: No, not at that time. I toured it later on.
Interviewer: ok, oh you mean did you go back?
Vasquez: Yes I did.
Interviewer: Ok, tell me about that later
Interviewer: Yeah and you just mentioned earlier that there were interpreters, any other Korean soldiers you interacted with? What was you relationship with the Korean soldiers
Vasquez: Well we fought with the Marines, not with Korean soldiers. See there’s two, there’s a KMC and the ROK. Korean Marine Corps which were our friends next to each other. And there’s the ROK which is the Rock Marines, and they’re part of the other army and then the KMC’s the Marine Corps, our counter parts and at that time we had a whole division in Korea, fighting against the North Koreans with the South Korean KMC’s Marine Corps.
Interviewer: Do you remember any of their names, like specific people?
Vasquez: I can remember one of them, Chong, but the only one I can remember. The rest of them I did talk to them but this one particular Korean, South Korean.
Interviewer: Yeah, so like I mentioned before our goal is to try to collect as many of the Korean War stories from the veterans that were actually there. So there have been some movies and books published about the Korean War, that you feel is from your personal experience that you feel haven’t been told yet. So please feel free to share any of you stories from the war with us now. It can be about the battles, any interactions you had with the people there, anything like that you want to share?
Vasquez: Ok, during the war like I mentioned before, we never had a chance to be with the people of South Korea, we were just there fighting with them as far as period of time I was in Korea 1951- 52 not until real later on when ive been to visit Korea now and it’s a lot different, a lot different. But other than that that’s all I can remember. We were in there to do a job, just to fight, and help the people of South Korea. Because when the war started they were pushed down all the way to Pusan, you know and then when the army, US Army was there a month after the war started, the marine corps went in and one brigade and pushed the North Koreans all the way up to the Yellow River, which divides North and South Korea. But at one time the president of the US, president Truman, wanted us to move back to Sole and go to a demilitarized zone and that’s where we finally ended up.
Interviewer: Any specific anecdotes from any battles, like Punch Bowl, or any other battles you fought in? any specific like incidences?
Vasquez: Yeah well the Eastern Front was where the Punch Bowl was at and we called the main battle the Punch Bowl, and the other battle was the Eastern Front battle. And then in 1952 the whole division moved back to the Western Front, and we were there mostly on patrols, and they named battles between the Sole and the DMZ, where the DMZ was settled
Interviewer: Did you have any wounds from the war? Were you hurt anywhere?
Vasquez: Not in Korea.
Interviewer: Ok, from other wars?
Vasquez: Yes, Vietnam War
Interviewer: Oh, I see and any friends from the Korean War that you remember?
Vasquez: Oh, yes but most of them are gone.
Interviewer: Ok, could you tell me any stories of the friends, even ones that past?
Vasquez: I had several from the Santa Barbra, Santa Maria California. One lives in Tuscan, Arizona now and we keep in touch with one another. And one used to live in Vegas, but he passed away two years ago same age that I am. And we didn’t see each other until 30 or 40 years after the Korean War
Interviewer: Wow, how was it when you finally meet?
Vasquez: Yeah, it was funny they start checking with my home town, if anybody knew where I was at because I made a career out of it and they were only there for three or four years then they got out, they discharge, they got my phone number and called and first time ever we went to Vegas where that other friend had passed away and I still get in touch with my friend that lives in Arizona.
Interviewer: Did you receive any honors, awards, or medals from the Korean War?
Vasquez: From the Korean we received the Presidential unit citation from the Korean government and we go the US presidential unit citation from the United States from the president and we had that Korean War Ribbon with 4 battle stars.
Interviewer: And when did you leave Korea, when were you discharged?
Vasquez: I retired, I left in May of 52.
Interviewer: And I don’t really know why the unit would pull out of Korea or stay, so why did you leave in May of 52?
Vasquez: Well that time they had what they call the tour of duty in Korea. They had every 12 months if you had 12 months in Korea they would send you back and send a replacement, they had a replacement draft, as you call it and I forget how many replacements until 1953 until the war ended, they still were sending Marines there and sending the Marines that were there in ’52 and part of ’53 back to the states. For one year. Some didn’t stay that long, they were wounded, and they sent them to a hospital and then sent them home.
I: And what did you do when you came back to the states?
V: I came back I was stationed in Marine Corps recruit depot San Diego.
I: oh ok
V: from Marine Corps recruit depot San Diego I went to Treasure Island up in San Francisco, Marine barracks at Treasure Island they call it, security forces, and from there I came back to Camp Pendleton here, and I stayed here until 1957, then I went to Japan in 1957 and 1958, that’s where the 3rd Marine division was at. I went with the 3rd Marine division then and spent 14 months there and then came back from Japan to North Carolina to the 2nd marine division and spent 3 years between there and Paris Island SC. And left there again and went back to Okinawa to the 3rd Marine division there, spent 14 months there and came back here to Camp Pendleton and I spent 2 years here at Camp Pendleton and then the Vietnam War started in ’65, 5 months after I got back from Okinawa I had to go back to Vietnam, that’s when the war started in Vietnam.
I: and when did you retire?
V: I retired in Oct 1975.
I: I see. Before I ask you about your visit back to Korea and see how Korea looks like now, anything else from the war you want to share? You also mentioned that your children, you never really told them about your experience with the Vietnam War. So anything else you want to say? Because I could share this video with them later.
V: Sure, sure. Well when I went back to visit Korea with this organization, Marine House USA, in Los Angeles, it was an eye opener for me b/c when I went we landed in Incheon where the Marine corps made a big landing in September 1950 and I hadn’t been there since then. The city of Seoul, I couldn’t’ believe it, they had buildings there even much bigger than here in the United States when I was there in [51, they had one bridge crossing the Hun river, one bridge crossing the –I can’t think of the other big river there – now they have something like 30 brand new bridges, beautiful. I visited the Korean Marine Corp commandant of the Korean Marine Corps and they welcomed us with open arms saying thank you for what you did for my country and it was a big banquet and showed us monuments of what they have done for us over there and you could see names of people that you served with on those big monuments that they have there, in Seoul Korea.
I: and what year was this? When did you visit Korea?
V: I visited Korea twice. I visited Korea 2008, 2010 and this year 2015, that’s right.
I: so 3 times?
V: 3 times. The reason for that I was just going to go one time but I was the helper for the Korean chairman of the Marine House USA, he needed someone who knew the area the way it is now to take 7 other former Korean War veterans and I did that – under his direction. It was very impressive b/c we went through from where we first landed in Poison in August of 1950 and then went through all the battles the 1st Marine division fought in in little towns like Taigoo, I forget the other names, b/c I wasn’t in those areas at those times, but Poison and Taigoo come to mind b/c we had to go through there when we went all the way up to North Korea.
I: that’s so cool that you’ve been there 3 times. How do you feel about the economy and the fact that it became a democratic society?
V: what I’ve seen in Korea, it’s amazing. Some people will probably never understand. Korea itself, what they have now, they’ve built themselves into being probably 9 or 10 in the economy side. Also, they are number 1 in steel making – Pittsburgh PA used to be the number 1, Korea is that number one now. Korea is also the largest shipbuilders in the world now, can you imagine? And look at all the modern technology that they have. Even cars now – as a matter of fact I bought 2 cars that are Korean cars.
I: it is pretty amazing. But it’s still a divided country, you know?
V: yes, yes. Well they should have never happened b/c we were already up to the yellow river during the Korean war and finally they decided, the president which was Truman at that time and General MacArthur who was in charge of all the armed forces in that country, was told to go back to the 38th parallel. I feel sorry for the South Koreans that have family in North Korea b/c they can’t come back.
I: right, right. If there was some kind of like movement for there to be a reunification, would you support that?
V: heck yeah. Yes I would. B/c here they are my age some of them fathers and grandfathers. Probably not grandfathers b/c in 1950 they were taken right to North Korea.
I: to you what does having been involved in the Korean War, what does that mean to you in your life?
V: it means to me that we helped a country that needed help. And some of us didn’t even know where Korea was at. We just went and our leaders told us to go and we went. I think that’s why the people of South Korea appreciate us being there to hold the country for them. It’s so many years ago. You think would you do it again? I would but I think about it all the time. And people ask me why didn’t you get out when the war was over? B/c that was going to be my career.
I: I thank you so much for your service.
V: I thank you for what you do. Thank you for what you do, at least now some of the people that read it in books – you can get it straight from someone who’s been there.
I: Any closing final thoughts you want to say to the camera before we conclude the interview? Any message to the younger generation or you own children?
V: I talk to many young Marines all the time. They honor me for doing what I did for our country and going to be in different wars and to me they are my heroes b/c they are doing exactly what I did and friends of mine did for the country. We want to keep this country free.
I: thank you so much for your time and participating in this interview.
V: thank you for what you do. I appreciate it very much.