Robin Matthews was an Army medic aboard a hospital train dispatched to treat the wounded from the massacre at No Gun Ri during the early stages of the Korean War more than half a century ago.
The Korean conflict — known as “The Forgotten War” — was fought from 1950 to 1953 between North Korea, supported by communist China, and South Korea, aided by the United Nations with mainly U.S. troops.
The 71-year-old Port Charlotte. Fla. man initially served aboard the hospital train in South Korea shortly after war broke out in June 1950. Early on, overwhelming enemy forces had pushed the United Nations troops back to a defensive parameter around Pusan at the southeastern tip of South Korea.
The Americans and their allies were losing the war.
No Gun Ri
Conditions were so desperate at that point, American troops were ordered not to allow any refugees to cross the front lines. Fire on anyone trying to cross over, but use discretion in the case of women and children, their orders read, according to newspaper accounts written 50 years later.
These accounts said American soldiers may have panicked and killed several hundred Korean civilians at a bridge near the hamlet of No Gun Ri. The soldiers could have been terrified of being ambushed by the enemy disguised as Korean civilians.
“Remember, we had just been massacred at Tajon. I can sympathize with the American soldiers at No Gun Ri,” Matthews said. Korean civilians all wore white clothes.
“You couldn’t tell who was the enemy and who wasn’t. The enemy used mothers pushing baby strollers in front of them as shields. A 14-year-old kid could be the enemy.”
Checking out civilians
“The only way you could tell who you were dealing with was to look at their shoes. If they were wearing plastic shoes they were probably civilians. The North Korean Army wore a little leather and cloth military shoe,” he said. “But if you were close enough to see someone’s shoes, you were also close enough to get shot.”
He continued, “In defense of the alleged massacre at No Gun Ri, the South Korean military was taking trucks full of North Korean POWs, with their hands tied behind their backs and wicker baskets over their heads, up into the mountains daily. You’d hear gunfire and the trucks would come back empty — except for the wicker baskets.”
“When our very first patient arrived (when Matthews arrived in South Korea) it turned out to be a 6-foot-2 Texan with a complete body sunburn,” he recalled. “It wasn’t my idea of the first combat experience I would have.”
The Texan had been given two clips of ammunition and sent out to scout the countryside. His orders were to make contact with the enemy.
“He made contact with someone, fired both clips of amo, threw his rifle down and ran,” Matthews said. “He got to a stream, took off all his clothes and rolled them into a little bundle to keep them from getting wet. On the way across the stream he went under, lost his clothes and ended up on the other side naked.”
The Texan spent the next day or two running around in the buff trying to stay out of the enemy’s clutches. When he finally found friendly lines he was badly sunburned.
By the time the No Gun Ri incident took place, Matthews was serving as a medic aboard a hospital train. It brought the wounded back from the front lines to Army hospitals.
Their train was sent to No Gun Ri to pick up the wounded. There were hardly any Americans and all the Koreans were dead.
“One of our soldiers had a wound in his right hand,” he said of the extent of the U.S. casualties. “This soldier just wanted a bandage and it noted on his record he had been wounded.”
Matthews said he stayed with the train. He had no desire to check out the dead Koreans at No Gun Ri. Since the shooting produced no injured soldiers to bring back aboard the hospital train, he decided to return with the train to Pusan.
“I don’t know that I had the authority to take the train, since I was only a corporal. But I was the highest-ranking American soldier on it at the time, so I took it,” Matthews said. “I left the rest of our unit up there trying to figure out how to get back to Pusan.”
In July 1950 at Tajon, the 24th Infantry Division’s headquarters was overrun by the enemy. The American general who commanded the division was captured.
“Half of our unit was called back to Pusan to set up an evacuation hospital. The other half stayed in Tajon to take care of the battlefield casualties. Those who stayed were captured,” Matthews said. “Eighteen of our medical people were killed. They found them with their hands tied behind their backs. Each had a .25-caliber bullet hole in their head.”
A few days after the slaughter at Tajon, his unit was sent to a nearby aid station to pick up some wounded. With Matthews’ medical contingent was a distraught young Army nurse.
She learned there was an injured North Korean POW at the station. She went looking for him.
“When she found him, the nurse started kicking the heavily bandaged and sedated enemy soldier in the head as hard as she could with her brown and white saddle shoes,” he said. “She was gonna kick him to death. She was out for revenge.
“The nurse had lost a close friend at Tajon. They pulled her off the injured POW before she killed him.”
A visit from Bob Hope
After a few months on the front lines in Korea giving dozens of shots, Matthews got hepatitis-B.
“I’d given a lot of vaccinations. I got a lot of needle sticks,” he said. “I was sent to Kyota, Japan, for treatment and a little ‘R and R.’
“I was sitting in bed one day and Bob Hope, Jimmy Wakely (the Singing Cowboy) and movie star Marilyn Maxwell walked into my room. They were on a USO tour,” he said.
During the 18 months Matthews served in Korea, a new group of medical officers were shipped in as replacements every six months.
“The first group of nurses and doctors drank, cohabitated and did everything they weren’t supposed to do,” he remembered with a chuckle. “They were real people. They were the nicest people you ever wanted to work with. They didn’t give a damn if you washed as long as you got the needle in the right place.
“The second wave of nurses were a bit more constrained. The third group expected you to bathe in ice water. I told one of them, ‘You officers have hot water. We enlisted men don’t. The only hot water I have I put in my helmet. You’re lucky I use it to shave and wash my hands.’ ”
By Thanksgiving, Gen. Douglas MacArthur had performed a battlefield miracle. The general landed the Marines at Inchon, behind enemy lines. They routed the North Korean troops.
“By then my boots had worn out. It was 30 degrees below zero and my feet were freezing,” he said. “I was desperate, but there were no boots in my size. They had only two sizes — too big or too small.
“It got so bad I decided to look for a couple of boots on legs amputated from soldiers. I thought I’d take a right boot from one guy and a left boot from another who lost their legs.”
Matthews never found any boots that fit on the pile of legs he checked out. Eventually, he went back to see two supply sergeant buddies.
“‘There’s a pair of boots in Quonset Hut 13,’ they told me. ‘They’re your size, and you may have them.’ ”
Quonset Hut 13 was the mortuary. The boots were on a dead lieutenant.
“The first thing that came to mind: ‘What did he die of?’ I asked the sergeants. They told me, ‘A heart attack.’ ”
Matthews decided to take a look at the dead lieutenant’s footwear.
“He had a nice pair of jump boots. They were just my size,” he said. “I unlaced the dead officer’s right boot and attempted to pull it off, but rigor mortis had set in. It wouldn’t budge.
“I ended up with one foot in his armpit and the other in his crotch pulling on his boot. Finally, it came off. I went over backwards and slammed into the floor.
“I had to do it again with the second boot. But the left foot was smaller. It came off easier,” he said.
“I put my new boots on, but I didn’t know what to do with the old ones. I set them on the lieutenant’s bare feet and left the hut with a smile on my face.”
Matthews not only brought back numerous medals and a pair of boots from Korea, but many stories about his experiences as well.
According to Robin Matthews’ DD-214 military records, he received five Bronze Stars, a Meritorious Unit commendation, the United Nations Medal, Korean Service Medal and an Honorable Discharge from the U.S. Army during the 18 months he served in the Korean War.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Jan. 28, 2002 and is republished with permission.
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Robin T. Matthews
April 28, 1930 – May 25, 2013
He was born April 28, 1930 in Athens, Ohio to the late Wayne Taylor Matthews and Marjorie Boyles Matthews.
Robin attended his elementary school and high school years in the Athens School system. He then went on to be a 1948 graduate of Lakeworth Florida High School. He graduated from the Ohio University in 1955 and completed his Master’s degree in 1976.
Robin taught school in Zaleski, Union Scioto, the Unites States Prison at Chillicothe and the Wellston High School; the latter of which he taught at for 17 years. He taught various subjects, but enjoyed teaching history the most. His former students, which would number over 1300, called him Papa Matthews.
Robin served 40 months in the Unites States Army and was a veteran of the Korean War. During that time, he was a medic and helped save lives and did not kill anyone. While serving in the Army, Robin had the honor of personally meeting and shaking hands with Bob Hope.
Robin was a 3rd Degree Mason and was a lifetime member of the V.F.W. Post 9092 of Wellston and the American Legion Post 371 of Wellston.
He enjoyed playing cards and was an avid hunter from the age of 14 until the time of his death.
Robin is survived by his children, Arthur Taylor Matthews of Dayton and Kathryn Ann Walton of Wellston; grandchildren, Matt Walton of Port Charlotte, Fla., Bryan K. Matthews of Midland, Texas, Jonathan T. Matthews of Dayton and Victoria M. Matthews-Courter of Dayton, and his great-grandchildren, Brittany, Kaylynn, Allysa, Elizabeth, Isaac, Arielle and Sya.
Besides his parents, Robin was preceded in death by his loving and attentive wife of 61 years, Cherie M. Munn Matthews on May 10, 2013.
Calling hours will be Friday from 6 to 8 P.M. at the McWilliams Funeral Home in Wellston. Funeral service will be Saturday at 11 A.M. at the McWilliams Funeral Home with Pastor Dave Kelly and Pastor David Faile officiating. Burial will follow in the Alexander Cemetery with military honors by the American Legion Post 371 of Wellston.
In lieu of flowers, Robin requested that donations be made to the American Legion Post 371 of Wellston for their excellent charity work for needy people, as well as their members and veterans. Donation may be sent to American Legion Post 371, 1001 South Pennsylvania Avenue, Wellston, Ohio 45692.