My grandfather

Few events impact the lives of humans as war.  The United States found itself in many wars during the twentieth century, in every corner of the world.  The common trait throughout all these wars was that they were fought by young men, many of whom had little political education or any idea why they were fighting.  My grandfather, Francisco Martin, was one of these young men, as he fought in the Korean War.  Through the violence and the confusion, he survived to create a family and life of peace, though the memories of the war always stayed with him.

My grandfather was born in Puerto Rico in 1930, and was still a young man when the Korean War broke out.  As a twenty-year-old college student at the University of Puerto Rico, Francisco knew very little about Korea, save for what he learned in history class.  After World War II, in a 1945 agreement reached by the allies at the Potsdam Conference, Korea was divided along the 38th Parallel into North and South Korea.  It was an early indicator of what would become the Cold War, as the communist Soviet Union would occupy North Korea and South Korea would be occupied by the democratic U.S. forces.

However, only five short years later, on June 25, 1950, North Korean communist forces launched a massive surprise attack on South Korea quickly overrunning the capital.  U.S. Intervention was ordered on June 27 by President Harry S. Truman on the same day the U.N. invoked military sanctions against North Korea.[1]  As a citizen of Puerto Rico, my grandfather was also a citizen of the United States, and his dual citizenship in each country would prove desirable to the armed forces, as well as his college experience.  Less than a year later, young Francisco would put his studies on the shelf when his country called.

As a student at the University of Puerto Rico, my grandfather had some experience in the R.O.T.C., and he could also speak Spanish and English, so his qualifications for the military were more than adequate for what the military needed and he was inducted on October 5, 1951.  For young Pvt. Martin, adjusting to life in the military was no easy task: “It was difficult.  The transition from being a University student, to being a trainee preparing to go to war was not easy.  It was a drastic change in mentality and attitudes.

After all, it was sort of ‘brain storming’ in order to prepare the soldier to go to possible ‘combat areas’ as was called.”[2]  After four months of basic training in San Juan and Salinas, Puerto Rico, Pvt. Martin found out that he would be going to South Korea, which came as no big surprise.  However, finally hearing about his destination filled him with fear and trepidation, and he worried about what would come next.  While his commanding officers repeated that it was their duty to serve and go to Korea, this did little to quell his fears.

My grandfather’s unit left Puerto Rico in April of 1952; at the time he was twenty-one years old and celebrated his twenty-second birthday on the way past Honolulu, Hawaii.  He describes the long journey by boat to South Korea as being difficult, uncomfortable, and lacking enough fresh water for the troops.  “We showered with salt water… It was awful… We spent approximately one month on board.

We passed Hawaii and reached Japan; it was civilization at last!”[3]  The experience of Japan after the long journey was a welcome relief.  In particular, Tokyo proved to be an eye-opening experience for the young Puerto Rican American soldier, and made life off the ship that much more enjoyable:  “Nice food, big city…  No more rotten eggs for breakfast as in the ship.

No more seawater for bathing.  No more nasty odors and boring hours.”[4]  After being initially assigned by to be a translator because of his ability to speak Spanish and English, he was slowly beginning to adjust to life in the army, of course helped by being in the big, fast city of Tokyo.  However, before too long, he and his unit were finally shipped to South Korea to continue their duty and fight the communists of the North.

My grandfather left Tokyo by train, leaving behind the many creature comforts of life in the big city, such as hot food and comfortable beds.  Back on the old, uncomfortable train he was forced to sleep on the floor with the rest of the men, or on the hard, wooden seats.  The only food they had for the trip was canned rations of spaghetti and meatballs, and once again life in the military seemed harsh and monotonous.  After the long train ride and a short ferry ride, they were finally on the mainland of Asia and in South Korea.

When arriving in Pusan in the summer of 1952, it became immediately clear to all the soldiers that they were in a war zone: “On our arrival to Pusan, we could here the guns from far away.”[5]  There was no mistaking that there lives were now at stake, and the uncomfortable boats and the trip to South Korea did not look so bad.

My grandfather remembers vividly his early days in South Korea: “I was assigned to the Second Division.  This army division arrived to Korea in 1950.  In 1951, the 9th Infantry regiment played an important role in the offense and defense in Korea.  I was there.”[6]  He recalls the large military presence and the continuous movement of trucks, tanks, and troops coming and going.

He also remembers the differences in the attitudes of the soldiers, which depended highly on which direction they were heading: “Soldiers were leaving Korea and heading to Tokyo in their way back home (from U.S.A Puerto Rico, Colombia, and other countries in South America).  We (the incoming troops) were sad.  But they (the ones leaving) were very, very happy; it is understandable that after fourteen months in the combat zone.”[7]  Pvt. Martin prepared himself for the idea of spending the next fourteen in the combat zone, but failed to realize at first that the main feelings would be of alienation.

After going through the long journey to get to South Korea, my grandfather found himself deep in a learning experience upon arrival, with little companionship from any fellow Spanish-speaking soldiers: “I went through a learning period.  Everything was new for me; nobody spoke Spanish.

It was a harsh process of adaptation because everything was uncertain.”[8]  In addition to the hard adjustment of life in a combat zone, he was also met with repeated stories of the violence that took place not far from his post, which filled him with even more anxiety: “I was fearful after listening to all the stories of the battles, the misery, and violence.  Everybody around me was very pessimistic.  I was sure that I was not going to make it.”[9]

The young soldier would hear stories of the biggest battles while in South Korea, including “Bloody Ridge,” which was the name given to the twelve-day siege waged by the men of the 9th Infantry regiment against a communist held hill in the fall of 1952.  Because of security reasons, the military publication Stars and Stripes would not disclose the exact location of the bloody battle, and soldiers in my grandfather’s regiment were left to wonder just how far away the violence raged.

He would even hear stories about his fellow Puerto Rican soldiers fighting and dying in the battle of Kelly Hill, which also occurred in the fall of 1952, making him realizing the deadly cost of the war: “The Puerto Rican regiment (the 65th infantry regiment) participated in ‘Kelly Hill Battle’ that happened in the fall of 1952.  Half of the 743 Puerto Rican soldiers that died in the war, died in this battle.”[10]  But, as with so many soldiers and civilians caught in combat zones, it was only the faith in his God that gave him the strength to ignore his fear and do his duty.  My grandfather credits this for returning home and proclaims, “My faith was the only thing that kept me alive.”[11]

As a soldier, Pvt. Martin served in the 9th Infantry regiment for around a year, moving to and from many different locations throughout South Korea.  Despite his close proximity to the frontlines, he was fortunate enough to avoid all major combat events.  Though he knew that his fellow soldiers were fighting and dying, he did his duty as assigned, not matter how fearful he was or how dangerous the duty seemed: “I did not fight a person-to-person combat or patrols.  But I stood for guard many times.  I remember guarding from 12:00am until 4:00am in a wet, cold and scary dangerous forest.

Nights were horrible.  There were constant bombings but we had to get used to them and pray for our lives.” [12] One time on guard duty, he suffered the lowest moment of his time in Korea: “While supervising guards and moving the soldiers to different posts, one of my legs suffered frostbite.  I was hospitalized for a period of time and received treatment.  Once I was cured, I was sent back to the frontlines.  In that period, I was serving in a technical capacity.  I was part of a special unit called I.R.I.  That unit was in charge of distributing tools and explosives to those soldiers assigned to difficult missions as mine finding.”[13]  Once again, it was his religious faith that helped get him through the most difficult times of the war.

Though my grandfather did not experience any serious combat while in South Korea, the threat of combat was always present.  When coupled with the often monotonous life of being a soldier, and the extremely hot and wet summers and extremely frigid winters, the days and nights could drag on and become terribly lonely and fearful times.  The only things that usually made this go away were the letters and news from back home: “Receiving letters was very important.

Receiving mail from the family and friend brought me happiness and strength.”  This was especially true of the letters from his young wife:  “Ana’s letters were well received and expected.  She was very consistent in writing and that helped me a lot.”  In addition to letters from loved ones, the soldiers were sometimes offered breaks from constant life on the frontlines.

Trips to Japan for rest and recuperation offered soldiers a welcome break from soldier life, and according to my grandfather: “I spent a week in a city called Sasebo Kokura.  It was nice, good food, movies, and trips to the city, dancing in the fort, rest, and sleep.  But after a period of “relaxation and distraction” I was sent back to Korea, but this time by plane.”[14]

Even away from the war zone, terrible things can occur, and the plane ride back from Japan would stay with my grandfather for the rest of his life:  “The flight was dangerous, the plane had no seats.  I was standing strapped to the wall.  It was a horrible and traumatic experience.  Today I suffered of ‘flight fear syndrome.’  I still have flashbacks of that moment.”[15]  However, with his strong faith and fortune to avoid serious combat while there, he avoided many of the pitfalls that claimed other soldiers such as depression, alcoholism, and mental illness.

There were also some good times in South Korea, which my grandfather recalled fondly, especially Christmas of 1952.  The Army threw a large Christmas party complete with treats and Christmas dinner:  “There was ice cream, turkey, fruitcake, juice, and candy… It felt like home.  I went to mass, we received letters, and I even received food from home!  I still remember that day; we had a Christmas tree and everything that goes with it.”  [16] What made the holiday even better for the young soldier is that it would not be long that he would be able to leave South Korea.  He recalled: “By that time, there were three or four more moths to go — we were ready to rotate–other troops would replace us.”[17]

However, he still had a few more months to go and realized that anything could happen, as the stories of battles and casualties continued to pour in.  But, he could not get around the fact that he was so close to the end of his time in South Korea.  Around March of 1953, Pvt. Martin received news that his time in Korea was up.  As he lived in a bunker at the time and news was delivered by a messenger, he remembers when a messenger came to his quarters and stated: “You, F. Martin, are leaving Korea.

You are heading to Tokyo (back to Seoul and the Tokyo).   A modern ship will take you back to the U.S specifically to Seattle, Washington.”[18]   And, after fourteen months in the combat zone, his time was up and he could leave with the satisfaction that he served his country and did his duty.   He transferred to the U.S. Army Reserve on June 23, 1953, and finally finished his military service with an honorable discharge on October 6, 1959, after a full eight years in service.

After his experience in Korea, my grandfather took with him many lessons learned about life and war.  His view of the war is that there were no clear winners.  Tens of thousands of Americans died, along with countless more Koreans, Chinese, and Russians.  However, he cannot help but feel that some progress was made concerning the state of South Korea:  “South Korea obviously gained… Today it is a prosperous, well-developed nation, technologically advances and democratic.”[19]

But, he also acknowledges that the conflict itself failed to succeed in its greater goals: “On the other hand, that place is a divided nation! North and South are divided! Families separated! North Korea today is in bad shape; hunger, famine, no democracy at all.”[20]  Though my grandfather did his duty, he does not claim to be a politician or have answers to the most complex political questions facing humanity.

He prefers to be a kind, decent man that loves his family and tries to impart his simple wisdom whenever possible.  Though many memories of Korea stay with him, he considers himself fortunate to be able to share his wisdom and experiences with his children and grandchildren, and is proud to be both Puerto Rican, and a citizen of the United States.


Martin, Francisco. Interview by author.  Written notes. Location, date month year.

[1] Francisco Martin. Interview by author.  Written notes. Location, date month year.

[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid.

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