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Robert Luster, Recon Co. 54/55

Robert Luster Recon Co. 54/55

In June of 1953, I graduated from Cathedral High in Bellville, Illinois. In a few brief weeks I went on job interviews and soon learned my draft status of 1A was an obstacle to any meaningful employment. In 1953, a young man did not seek a series of military deferments or flee into Canada. He instead did what was expected of him. It was time for me to put aside my private life and make a real pledge of allegiance to America.

On July 13, 1953 in St. Louis, Missouri, I raised my right hand and swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America and obey all lawful commands of the United States Marine Corps. I said farewell to my family, boarded the streamline Santa Fe Super Chief bound for Marine boot camp in San Diego, California.

In the next 14 weeks I learned how to drill, to fire the M1 Girand and most important to respond like lightning and without question to orders given by my superiors. Upon graduation, I went home on boot leave forty-five pounds lighter. When I walked up to my mother in uniform; for a moment, she did not recognize me. I had to introduce myself. I knew I was carrying orders to report back to Camp Pendleton for advanced combat training but I did not discuss those orders with her, as I did not want to cause her any undue stress. I relaxed and enjoyed a few days of liberty and then become anxious to return to duty on time.

The thirty days of combat training flashed by quickly, then a week of cold weather survival training at high altitude in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains.

On December 23, 1953, I boarded an MSTS transport ship with thousands of U.S. Marines as part of the 39th replacement draft bound for Korea.

When we disembarked in Korea I was wearing standard leather boots and every piece of cold weather gear issued including a parka. The cold radiated up from the concrete docks into my bones and I shivered uncontrollably. In all of my midwestern winters I never, ever, had experienced cold like that January day in Korea. It would be many weeks before I would become hardened to the Korean winter.

The 39th draft formed into a column and moved inland to the troop train cars that would take us to a distribution point and then a truck ride. My destination was 1stMARDIV, HQBN, radio school. After a study of PRC-6 walkie-talkies, the PRC-10 and other radio gear, I was sent TAD, temporary additional duty, first to HQBN guard duty for 30 days, and then to “Baker” Co. shore party for KP. In all the shuffling around, I began to lose my sense of belonging to a unit. The aqualung was relatively new and I had a deep desire to learn and use SCUBA equipment.

When I returned to HQBN, I asked my tent mates about whom in the U.S.M.C. used SCUBA gear. Over and over, the answer was 1stMARDIV, Recon Co. The Marines around me also told me that recon duty was dangerous, very dangerous. I noticed the awesome respect they had for Recon Marines. When I said I want to transfer I got derisive laughter. “Are you crazy? Nobody gets a transfer out of HQBN.”

The next morning I requested mast with my platoon leader. The lieutenant said “No.” So, I asked to see the captain who was company commander. The CO said “No.” So, I asked to see the colonel who was Battalion Commander. The Battalion CO told me if I stayed where I was I would be relatively safe and might even make sergeant. If you go to Recon, he said, they would probably send you home in a box in less than six months.

“Sir,” I said, “I’ve learned how to operate the radios used on patrols, I’m a qualified rifleman and an expert swimmer. And, I want to learn SCUBA.” I was told to return to my company area and wait for his decision. At 1400 hours I got word to pack my gear and standby for weapons carrier transportation to 1stMARDIV, Recon Co. at 1800 hours.

All during the sixty some miles north towards my new duty station, I was wondering if I could handle the physical and mental stress of being a Recon Marine. “Can you do this duty?” I asked myself over and over again. “Can you cut it?” The answer was, “By the grace of the Almighty God, I will do everything humanly possible to achieve this goal.”





After the North Koreans signed the Armistice, they immediately started sending insurgents across the DMZ. Recon Co. was reassigned to Kang Wa Do Island where a base camp was established. Recon Co.’s new mission was to stop the insurgents and gather intelligence by patrols along the DMZ, night and day. A reasonable person would assume that the Korean war was over with the signing of the armistice. No longer were there attacks where wave after wave of North Koreans rushed up the hills to kill and to die. But North Korea has never been known as a reasonable place. North Korea had hundreds of reasons to delay, postpone and stall with many excuses for not signing. Meanwhile, US Marines and soldiers of all nations were wounded and died in battle.

After the armistice was signed, hostility and aggression continued. North Korea sent patrols across the DMZ into South Korea and insurgents slipped across the line often under the cover of night. When we captured them and they were pulled off fishing junks and inflatable boats, we found them carrying huge amounts of cash, maps, firearms and some explosives. These agents were determined to sabotage, murder and undermine the peace of South Korea. These agents would not hesitate one second to kill anyone who got in the way.

During the summer months LCM landing craft were utilized to navigate the many waterways in the area assigned to the patrol. During the winter months when ice and wind made navigation impossible, USMC Sikorsky helicopters were used to fly patrols into position. As we approached the demilitarized zone, DMZ, the choppers would fly in low between the mountains to the assigned drop area. Small fishing villages and rice farms dotted the area. Sometimes partisan South Korean agents working in North Korea would provide advance information about the route and/or destination the enemy insurgents would use. At that point, a Recon team would stake out the fishing village at night in the area where the enemy was expected. After being captured, South Korean interpreters who were with us had a long list of questions they wanted answered. Other patrols were sent to observe what the Chinese Black Dragon division was doing and how they did it. At times we were close enough to see them clearly without binoculars.

New Year’s Eve 1954, our patrol was sent to destroy a buried outdated partisan ammunition dump. The enemy was clearly visible across the river, queuing up outside their mess tent. The rusty ammo was uncovered and stacked into a wall about 30 inches high and over 100 feet long and then detonated. Two W/P mortar rounds made a huge arch out across the river and the Chinese troops in the chow line ran in all directions. There was uncontrolled panic across the river after the huge explosion. Our patrol of fewer than a dozen went back to our base camp. It was the most exciting New Year’s Eve party I ever attended. 1955 had started with a big, big Bang! I still laugh when I think of how a handful of Recon guys sent waves of panic through a Chinese division.

On one patrol, my squad leader spotted a circle of vultures in the sky. He recognized trouble at once and had me radio other Recon units. We moved in to investigate. We found the body of a young woman floating face down in the river. She had been disemboweled. Her hands had been tied behind her back and several small arms holes were found in her arms. Yards of her intestines trailed down the mud flat out behind her. When the body was recovered, it was decayed to the point the stench was overwhelming. Worse than the stifling odor of decay was the full realization of the cold-blooded brutality and cruelty that our enemy did not hesitate to display.

I volunteered to extend my fourteen-month tour of duty another six months in Korea to stay with Recon Co. When the Division pulled out of Korea, I was selected one of seven radio operators to stay behind and act as rear guard for the units moving south to board ships and go home.

Stateside, Recon Co. was assigned to Camp Pendleton barracks 15-B-9. We continued to train with the new landing craft nylon (LCN) inflatable boats and we received considerable training on SCUBA equipment. We trained new Recon troops and I was discharged honorably a sergeant from 1stMARDIV, HQBN, Recon Company on July 13, 1956.

When I left Korea in 1955, many of the big buildings in downtown Seoul had no roofs, no windows and were marked by the shells that hit them in the many struggles to take and retake the city. There had been back and forth battles over Seoul and much of that area now South Korea. Most of the people were dressed in white, mourning lost family members killed in the war and those who lived struggled to survive in primitive lifestyle. I’ve wondered how the people of South Korea have fared in the fifty years since 1stMARDIV returned to the U.S.A.

Recently, one evening I watched--the Discovery Channel on TV—a program called Super Ships. I watched thousands of South Koreans as they did final assembly on a new super tanker 1200 feet long, with a propeller 30 feet in diameter! This was in a modern shipyard, building a modern miracle—the biggest tanker in the world. The people of South Korea are now working in ultra modern cities and enjoying their freedom and prosperity completely unknown across the border to the north, where slavery and starvation are commonplace. As this giant tanker, HELLESPONT FAIRFAX, slid down the ways at launching, I felt a sense of warm pride. In a small way, I did everything I would do as a Recon Marine to help these people of South Korea. Now, it looks like they have created more than one miracle.

I am now seventy-one years old and as we move from one world crisis to another, I sleep soundly at night. It is reassuring that 1stMARDIV, Recon, has reorganized. Recon is no longer a company of some 200 men. Recon is now a full battalion of dedicated well-trained, hard charging U.S. Marines. Today Marines are serving in an elite, all volunteer Corps. They have the spirit, courage and ability to handle any mission assigned to them.

I would like to say in closing, GOD BLESS AMERICA; and to all Marines everywhere,










OCTOBER 26, 1958