Cold War memories from the turret of a Pershing tank
Gregg Reese | 11/6/2014, midnight
Next week marks the celebration of the Marine Corps birthday (Nov. 10) and Veteran’s Day (Nov. 13). In order to acknowledge both occasions at once, Our Weekly presents the story of a bona fide military pioneer who bridged the gap between World War II and the Cold War.
Barnett Person’s primary motivation for joining the Marines was the dress blue uniform.
Like many of his contemporaries during the 1940s, the 16 year old lied about his age, assuming that he would “spend a few days playing ‘dress up,’ then come back home on leave.”
As one of the original Montfort Point Marines, Pvt. Person put up with the drudgery of boot camp before shipping out for the South Pacific right after World War II.
Person performed the menial duties reserved for Black servicemen at the time, including serving as an ammunition handler (on the island of Guam), and guarding Japanese prisoners of war (on the island of Saipan). These duties were not especially exciting, aside from the occasional threat of renegade enemy soldiers who had not received word that their emperor had surrendered, and chose to hide and fight from the maze of caves common to islands in the Pacific.
Stuck far down on the military pecking order, Person jumped at the opportunity to train for the comparatively glamorous MOS (Military Occupation Specialty) of tank crewmember in 1950, and completed his training just in time for his baptism of fire, as the Marines joined the United Nations contingent assembled to counter the Communist invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950.
Missing out on the historic Inchon landing on the West Coast by his fellow Leathernecks in September 1950, Person’s unit arrived in the East Coastal city of Pusan that December, and pushed north towards the demilitarized zone (DMZ).
Technically, “demilitarized zone” denotes an area designated as neutral territory in which military establishments and personnel are forbidden to enter, usually along the border of two conflicting nations. This status of neutrality is established by treaty or other diplomatic agreement in order to inhibit the continuation of hostilities between the antagonistic parties. But often, as in the case of the DMZ intersecting North and South Korea, the political friction sometimes interferes with pacifist efforts.
Woefully unprepared, the Chinese Communists often marched into battle armed with sticks, but they made up for this inadequacy by committing overwhelming numbers of troops, taking care to mount their attacks under cover of darkness to avoid the U.N.’s air superiority. One of these night raids happened suddenly in the early morning, and would give Person his baptism of fire.
Corporal (enlisted man grade four) Person was chatting with his platoon sergeant outside his M26 Pershing tank, when a knife or hatchet whizzed past him and burrowed into the head of the corpsman (Naval medic) attached to his unit, killing him instantly. Caught without his Colt .45 automatic pistol, Person scampered up the side of his tank with an unarmed Chi Com soldier hot on his heels. At the top of the turret, he reached inside the hatch for the service pistol, but found only the stainless steel cup to his canteen. Armed with this makeshift weapon, he turned on his opponent and viciously hammered the man off the tank to the ground below.