Half a Century Ago, Marines Were Showing
Their Willingness to Help the Less Fortunate

By LtCol Jack Lewis, USMCR (Ret)

Back in mid-1957, a television show titled "Son of Thirty-seven Fathers" was telecast live as a segment of NBC's "Matinee Theater." The story in this particular segment involved a Korean orphan adopted by a group of Marine Corps combat correspondents, who were attempting to "Americanize" him. I wrote the show and can admit that the story was sheer fiction, as were all of the characters except a small Asian boy named Henry.

I had been in Wonsan, North Korea, on special assignment with the First Marine Aircraft Wing soon after the war began. Just days before the withdrawal of the First Marine Division from Chosin and evacuation by sea, I was ordered back to Marine Corps Air Station, El Toro, Calif.

By the end of July 1951, as a first lieutenant, I was back in Korea. When the transport landed on a dusty strip somewhere north of Pusan, I was met by Major Rube Monson, an old friend I was to relieve. With him was a 12-year-old Korean boy dressed in cast-off civilian clothing.

"Jack, this is Henry. Since you're relieving me, that makes you the Number One, Ichibon Father!" The major turned to the youngster to announce, "Henry, this is your new father. Your 29th father, if I haven't lost track."

The boy, whose real name was Ahn Soon Wan, stood there staring at me, then bowed from the waist Oriental-fashion. "Happy t'meet you, suh," he announced with a thick accent. As he straightened, I had an opportunity to see the stolid expression on his pinched, fear-aged face.

Today, they'd call it a Public Affairs Section. In those long-ago days, it was the 1stMAW Public Information Section manned by combat correspondents, photographers and radio reporters. Master Sergeant Charlie Prindle was in charge of Henry's discipline. A veteran of campaigns as far back as the "Banana Wars" of the early '30s, Prindle was a source of amazement to the youngster. This sense of awe was in greatest evidence when the six-striper took off his shirt to reveal tattoos from a dozen different countries.

One of the combat correspondents, Sergeant Bob Shade, and my radio correspondent, Corporal Jeff Hennelly, were in charge of Henry's readin' and writin', as well as a mini-course in Emily Post manners. Arithmetic was mentioned, but it turned out Henry knew more about handling numbers than his teachers.

He had been found, alone and hungry, in the wreckage of a building in the North Korean coastal city of Hungnam as the Marines were departing. The correspondents bundled him up and loaded him aboard one of the rescue vessels. His parents were dead, although he said he had a brother somewhere.

He had been kept with the combat correspondents, and when a tent city had been erected some 20 miles north of the South Korean city of Pusan, Henry had been taken along as the team's houseboy. His duties were varied and based on need.

Our Public Information Office consisted of a large hospital tent that had been divided into two sections by a plywood partition. The front section was for business involving the visiting civilian press and the facilities for doing our own articles and stories on Marines of the command. The rear half of the tent provided quarters for myself, MSgt Prindle and Henry.

A sergeant named Curtis Cowan was sent to us from the motor pool to serve as driver and clerk typist. He was better with a wrench than with a typewriter, so he hired a local Korean girl to do his typing, paying her out of his own funds. In addition to driving, he was put in charge of housekeeping.

The boy became Sgt Cowan's assistant, helping to keep clean the office, the attached quarters and our jeep. He also helped Technical Sergeant Ralph Austin and Staff Sergeant Chuck Tyler maintain our photo lab, which was located in an adjacent tent. With propeller-driven combat aircraft racing up and down the runway less than 50 yards away at all hours, cleanliness was a full-time challenge.

Obviously, the Korean lad had a close relationship with the other Marines, but in his mind, I didn't seem to fit. He had picked up basic English rapidly and often served as interpreter for the others. If I needed an interpreter, he suddenly was gone. Frustrated, I even toyed with the idea that he might be a spy. The Reds had been accused of using children for such purposes.

I talked to several of my troops about this, and Cpl Hennelly probably came close to the truth.

"Major Monson was father and mother to the kid," the corporal explained. "Henry probably resents you taking his place. If you played up to him as the major did "

"The only thing I'm likely to play is a tattoo on his bottom with a switch!" I replied. Nonetheless, I kept talking to the boy only to get solemn one-word answers to any question. Nothing worked.

I did learn, though, that no one in the outfit had any knowledge of what had happened to the boy's parents. He would not discuss it. Some felt they had been slaughtered by the communist forces as they had pulled back from Hungnam earlier in the year. Others tended to suspect his parents had died under bombs or artillery from our own forces.