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.
With his attacker subdued, Person hopped into his vehicle and he and the rest of the crew “buttoned-up,” and engaged the enemy throughout the early hours of the morning, using their machine guns to sweep the invaders off the American tanks. Hostilities continued until 4:30 a.m., but the tankers remained alert until daybreak.
Military duty was a strain on the now seasoned Marine’s personal life. He’d been married shortly before shipping out for the Korean peninsula, so he separated from the Marines after hostilities died down. Two and a half years of civilian life and the whims of a fickle economy lured him back to the security of the Corps. The ebb and flow of the Cold War saw Person steadily progress up the ranks, and perform duties including drill instructor, starting in June of 1963.
The precarious relations between the Soviet Union and United States, principal superpowers of the era, determined the ever-changing status of the Cold War. The specter of nuclear war, in turn, led them to substitute proxy nations to actually engage in combat to avoid direct confrontation, and possible escalation to apocalyptic oblivion. This set the stage for another clash, this time in the Southeast Asian peninsula then known as Indochina. Beginning in the late 1950s, America backed the South Vietnamese regime against their communist rivals to the north, the Viet Minh, an independent coalition lead by the charismatic Ho Chi Minh, who in turn, was supported by the Chinese and Russians.
Meanwhile, Person, now a Gunnery Sergeant (E-7) responded to the fear of Communist expansion and packed his duffle bag for the then unknown country of Vietnam.
Shortly after arriving “in country” he was dispatched to retrieve a scout helicopter that had been shot down 400 meters on the other side of the Bien Hoa River, just south of the 17th Parallel. This area was designated as the DMZ, land marking the political division of Vietnam, the northern portion of the country like North Korea was under Communist rule.
Marine Corps doctrine in Vietnam was divided into two major objectives: stemming the tide of North Vietnamese infiltration over the DMZ; and acting as a counter-insurgency force in the rest of South Vietnam.
In Vietnam, the DMZ was the prime “avenue of approach” for communist forces sending troops and supplies to the war in the south. Technically a region excluded from military engagement, it provided an ideal sanctuary for the massing of troops and positioning of artillery for the North Vietnamese Army’s (NVA) forays into the south. The pathways the NVA “regulars” used to move men and supplies south to engage their South Vietnamese and American adversaries was derogatorily called the Ho Chi Minh trail, in a sarcastic reference to the North Vietnamese president.
In true gallows humor, among leathernecks the DMZ became informally known as the “Dead Marine Zone.”
To counter enemy movement from the north, a network of electronic sensors and tracking devices was installed along the DMZ, called the McNamara Line in honor of and approved by Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. These contraptions included motion detectors, audio sensors, seismic sensors built to pick up ground vibrations, and scent detectors calibrated to “smell” gas emissions from trucks, and even human sweat and urine.
Further south, the Marine tankers’ mission was primarily to support defensive infantry units assembled to stop the enemy from advancing. It was in this role that Gunnery Sgt. Person and the Marines of Alpha Company found themselves on the night of May 7, 1967 in defense of the Marine firebase at Con Thien.
Con Thien and three other Marine firebases, Gio Lihn, Dong Ha, and Cam Lo marked the four corners of an area more then 54 square miles dubbed “Leatherneck Square.” This plot of land would claim the lives of over 1,400 Marines and Naval Corpsmen in a two year interval between 1967 and 1969.
Roughly translated as “the hill of the angels” (Marines called it “the meat grinder”), Con Thien was a strategic treasure as a corner stone of leatherneck square, and provided the Marines with unobstructed views of the DMZ into North Vietnam and the coast 15 kilometers (just under nine and a half miles) east. It was also directly in the path of the NVA approach southward.
In the dawn of the following morning, the NVA let loose with a barrage of artillery and mortar fire. This attack couldn’t have come at a worst time, because Person’s loader was performing security duty at the Command Post away from their vehicle, and his gunner, Lance Cpl. Donald Gehil, was sleeping underneath the tank.
Caught undermanned, Person was forced to perform double duty, firing his 90-mm main gun, and switching to his .30 caliber machine gun. Meanwhile, the NVA swarmed his M26 tank using satchel charges (demolition devices utilizing explosives placed in a bag) to try to disable the turret and render the vehicle inoperable.
The invaders were beaten back by the Marines, and Gehil took advantage of the lull in fighting to climb back into the tank and helped his crew members in the fighting to come.
The NVA neutralized two Marine tanks on his right flank, but Person carried the battle throughout the morning, aided by U.S. Army soldiers on a “Duster” M42 40 Anti-Aircraft vehicle on his left. He directed his tank along the perimeter to engage NVA regulars, who had infiltrated the bunkers and trenches as they attempted to overrun the command post. Before the smoke cleared at the light of dawn, he single-handedly killed more than 40 enemy troops before returning to battalion headquarters to reload.
Sustaining a foot injury from a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) explosion, Person was taken to the Naval Support Activity (NSA) Hospital at Da Nang in central Vietnam for five days of recovery before returning to the fighting in the DMZ.
By this time, the enemy had effectively chewed up Marine tank units along Gunnery Sgt. Barnett’s old stomping ground, the Bien Hoa River, and Person’s platoon was tasked to relieve them. Once again, the Marine force of maybe 1,500 was outnumbered as they faced three regiments (with perhaps 1,500 troops in each for a total of 4,500 plus) of NVA regulars.
Engaging the enemy on July 29, Person and his Marines fought from 10a.m. to 6p.m. By the time the fighting was over, Person’s gunner had been killed, and his other three crewmen had sustained serious injuries. Person personally caught RPG related shrapnel over his hand, stomach and leg. Others had it worse, and Person loaded several dead and wounded on to his tank for transport to the assembly area to be “medivaced.” Among those he picked up was 1st Sgt. Jack Mc Dowell (see “One Montford Point Marine’s Story,” from the 11-9-2011 issue of Our Weekly), who lost a leg while leading the infantry company that Person was charged with supporting.
By 7p.m., the helicopters came, and Person was taken to the hospital ship USS Sanctuary off the coast in the in Guam, where he received the Silver Star for his actions at Con Thien. By December, he was in the Balboa Naval hospital at San Diego. After 8 months of convalescence, he returned to the parade field to continue his duties as a drill instructor, this time as a newly promoted 1st Sgt. (E-8).
For the rest of his career with the Corps, Barnett Person had a relatively tame life before retiring in 1974. He enjoyed a second career working in the Bureau of Prisons in San Diego and at Terminal Island. Prison culture had its inherent challenges, but it paled when compared to those hellish days and nights on the “hill of the angels.”