'Baltimore's Own' Marine Reserves remember Korea

DAN RODRICKS

August 31, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

Forty-three years ago today they marched, sprinkled with loved ones' tears, out of the old training station at Fort McHenry. A band played "Now Is The Hour." The guys boarded dusty Pullmans at Locust Point and started a five-day journey to Camp Pendleton, Calif. They were all Baltimore boys, Marine reservists, many of them too young to have served in World War II, but certainly old enough, by Aug. 31, 1950, to be sent to a place called Korea by a president named Truman.

At Pendleton, they were ordered to a lonely stretch of the reservation that had not been used since the big war. They opened abandoned Quonset huts in which, just a few years earlier, brother Marines had camped on their way to the Pacific. They reopened the huts and stepped into a black hole of American history.

Korea was an undeclared war fought under the flag of the United Nations. The United States provided 90 percent of the troops. More than 54,000 Americans were killed; that's just a few thousand fewer than the death toll from the Vietnam War, which lasted three times as long.

The so-called "police action" ended 40 years ago this summer. The nation was eager to forget it. Only now is a monument being built in Washington to honor those who served there.

In Maryland, Korean War veterans already have dedicated their memorial, at Canton Waterfront Park in Baltimore. And this past Sunday, Mike Pezzella and proud buddies from that long-gone reserve unit lighted another candle.

On the site of the Maryland Korean War Memorial, they dedicated a monument to the 11th Engineer Battalion, Marine Corps Reserve. It was known as "Baltimore's Own," and Pezzella thinks Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., the late mayor, gave it that nickname.

Pezzella and a handful of guys from his East Baltimore neighborhood were among those who joined after high school graduations in the late 1940s. The draft was still on, and the guys figured it was better to sign up and do their time as Marine reservists than to wait for a draft notice.

"We had no idea war was imminent in Korea," he says.

The battalion was formed in 1946, slated to have 37 officers and 653 enlisted men. After a recruiting drive came the summer training at Camp Lejeune, one session each year from 1947 till 1950. During that last camp, the battalion was activated for Korea.

Within two weeks after reaching Pendleton, the battalion was disbanded and the men assigned to other units.

"That's how it all got started," Pezzella said. "These were my friends. When we were in the reserves together, we trained together and we used to hang out together, going to dances, going to Ocean City. We partied together. We estimate 100 to 200 of us ended up actually in Korea. . . .

"I was in Korea less than five weeks," Pezzella says.

He was shot in the leg near a village called Hagaru-ri, a key point to the evacuation from Chosin Reservoir, a two-week battle in which thousands of Chinese communist troops attacked badly outnumbered Marine and Army units along the frozen ridges and valleys.

After he was wounded, Pezzella spent the night in a schoolhouse that had been converted into an aid station just 100 yards from where he had been wounded.

He still remembers doctors performing surgery while bullets whizzed through the thin walls of the station. "I thought we were going to be overrun that night," Pezzella says.

He went home after that.

For more than 30 years, Pezzella and most of the other men who served in the Korean War went along with the rest of the country and hardly ever talked about it.

But how could they ever let go of the memories? Reading the record of the Chosin and other nightmares of the Korean War, you wonder how its survivors managed to maintain their silence for so long.

So, for the last 10 years, since about the time Vietnam veterans got their memorial and forced the nation into badly needed group therapy, Mike Pezzella and other veterans of Korea have been gathering, forming groups, holding reunions, working on memorials, trying to get the country to remember their war and their comrades.

Fifteen of "Baltimore's Own" were killed in Korea. You can read their names on the new monument in Canton.

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