Robert Fleischner ’51 will never forget the Korean War.
“I had murder all around me” is the way he remembers the waning days of July 65 years ago.
In a place called Boulder City, an outpost in Korea so named by American leathernecks because of its craggy outcroppings of rock, a then-24-year-old Marine Corps 1st Lt. Fleischner was hunkered down with the men of his platoon from Company G, 3rd Battalion of the 1st Marine Division.
Over the course of three days and nights, July 24 through 26, Fleischner and his platoon engaged their Chinese enemies in what is regarded as one of the fiercest military encounters of American military history. Historians recall this last battle in Korea in terms that include “bloodbath” and a “contest of absolute savagery.”
At times there was drenching rain and mud, the American GIs surviving on rations of cold beans, hot dogs and hard-tack crackers. Their numbers would steadily dwindle as the Chinese combatants tossed a non-stop torrent of bombs and bullets upon them night and day. Many of the Marines would fight on while wounded, refusing to retreat and determined to hold the line as their commanders had instructed.
Within 24 hours after the battle in which the American Marines held firm, a ceasefire—never a surrender nor peace treaty—was signed not far away in the village of Panmunjom at 10 a.m. on July 27, 1953, halting the hostilities but technically not ending the war. That is among the outcomes that President Donald J. Trump hopes to see accomplished through his continuing talks with North Korea.
This Veterans Day, Fleischner reflects on what happened in 1953 and how important he views the need for North Korea to return the remains of many more of 7,000 American soldiers still left unaccounted for in Korea. The five symbolic coffins he saw arrive in the U.S. in television news reports this summer when North Korea turned over 55 boxes of remains, Fleischer says, is simply not enough.
A supporter of Trump, Fleischner believes the president must go farther in demanding the remains of the fallen be brought home. “I’m all for Donald Trump. I hate to think what this country would be if he didn’t become president, [but] he hasn’t really handled Korea to date,” the now 89-year-old Fleischner says.
His personal journey to Korea began back in 1951. Fleischner had come of age in the midst of World War II in his hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, before heading north to Springfield, where, with the help of a football scholarship, he attended American International College.
Soon after graduation in the spring of ’51, with the draft in full swing, Fleischner, along with a college friend, Ozzie Wernick, of Holyoke, Massachusetts, decided to enlist. He joined the Marine Corps in a program for college graduates in which they would, after training, become officers.
“We knew we were going to be in the service at some point,” remembers Fleischner. “I wanted to be in the Marine Corps.”
After boot camp at Parris Island, Fleischner headed first to Quantico, Virginia, for additional training and duty. Over the course of more than a year that followed, he was stationed stateside at various Marine posts until early 1953 when Fleischner says he sent a letter to his commandant, telling him “I would extend my enlistment if I could be sent to Korea for combat.”
It is not a story his wife of 53 years, Dorothy, likes to hear retold, but she is also fiercely proud of all her husband accomplished in the military. Their life together would not begin until well after the war and after Fleischner attended podiatry school at Temple University before coming to Springfield to take over an uncle’s medical practice.
As it was, Fleischner landed in Korea in early 1953 for what would be the final months of the conflict, and he found himself in a pivotal place at what would become a history-making time for the Marines to once again prove their mettle.
“Our captain told us how important this [engagement] was for us. If we held that line, we would stop the North Koreans from coming down,” Fleischner remembers. “It was a matter of only about 500 yards, separating the north and south. We were to hold this area at all times and for all costs, and that’s what we did.”
“A lot of my friends got killed there. I was in a tough one,” he recalls. “When a friend of mine went to one area and I to another, the Chinese were firing down into our areas of weakness, a thousandth of a second before me, he and another guy died instantaneously, and we killed the Chinese.”
Fleischner was himself wounded by shrapnel during the firefight. He recalls being flown out to have his wounds treated and, on the airplane, receiving “my first good meal in a very long time.”
Fleischner would return to Boulder City post-ceasefire. A photo of him amidst a landscape littered with bodies, many of them the Chinese his men had killed, landed in Life magazine. The caption reads: “Looking for their dead atop shell-shocked border city, Chinese swarm across no man’s land, carrying makeshift litters. Some have gauze bandages over their faces to keep out the stench. In center foreground, a Chinese officer in charge of the detail waylays a Marine lieutenant.”
Fleischner remembers that moment. “I was there in hopes I could pick up the people I had sent out. That’s who I was looking for when I was up there. A Chinese officer came up to me, asking, would I help them get their dead out,” he recalls. “Naturally, I didn’t. I told him no.”
Fleischner remembers well those young men with whom he served and who didn’t survive. One was 2nd Lt. Robert G. Herlihy, whose family Fleischner went to visit in a town outside Boston when he came home.
Herlihy was the man who Fleischner had seen go up the hill seconds before him that most deadly night in the midst of battle. He can recall entering the Herlihy family home to deliver his condolences to his friend’s parents.
“When I walked in, there was a picture of Bob there. And, I remember their eyes and lips scrunched right up on me as if to say, ‘Why are you here and our son is dead.’ He was the heroic one. He was killed instantly,” says Fleischner.
Fleischner is thankful Herlihy’s remains were returned home for burial at Arlington National Cemetery. It was a hallmark of Marine service, he says, to ensure as many of the dead as possible were brought from the battlefield. Now, 65 years later, he is focused on hope many more from Korea will be returned to a grateful nation. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, just over 7,700 remain unaccounted.
“I feel awful about these people who died over there and no one has seen them since,” Fleischner says. “We know nothing about them, [and North] Korea gives us a lot of baloney. We lost 33,000 men over there. They make such a big deal about five coffins. I’m sure there are so many others there. They need to be brought home.”
For his service at Boulder City, Fleischner was awarded the Silver Star, our nation’s third highest military award for gallantry in combat. The text of the medal citation sets out the reasons for the honor given “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity” on the night July 25 into the morning of July 26, 1953:
“Although painfully wounded, First Lieutenant Fleischner organized and led the remainder of his platoon throughout the night in a desperate defense of a critical sector of the main line of resistance against a numerically superior attacking force. Refusing evacuation or medical aid, he led counterattacks against groups of heavily armed enemy troops and repeatedly engaged in bitter hand-to-hand fighting in a determined effort to clear the trench lines and defend his wounded comrades.
“At dawn, [Fleischner] organized a group of Marines armed with a rocket launcher, rifles, and hand grenades and skillfully maneuvered his men through the forward trench lines, clearing snipers and infiltrators from damaged bunkers and other installations. By his courageous leadership, indomitable fighting spirit and steadfast devotion to duty, First Lieutenant Fleischner served to inspire all who observed him and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
Unbeknown to him until after the war, Fleischner also received a battlefield promotion to captain.
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM THE REPUBLICAN
By Cynthia Simison, THE REPUBLICAN
PHOTOS BY DON TREEGER, THE REPUBLICAN