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Our War Korea: Vet battled communists in China before the U.S. ever entered Korea

Leon Anderson, at left, with some of his friends while stationed in China.
Leon Anderson, at left, with some of his friends while stationed in China. Derik Holtmann/BND

When 83-year-old Collinsville resident Leon Anderson was in high school, one of his neighbors came back from fighting in World War II.

He was a big fellow named Buford who looked like the model for a bond drive poster.

"He was a Marine and he fought at the battle of Guadalcanal," Anderson said. "He had a 1st Marine Division patch on his sleeve. I remember seeing that and thinking that it was really something. After that, I knew I wanted to be a Marine."

Anderson's parents wouldn't let him drop out of school to join the Marine Corps. So he had to wait until he graduated in 1945. The Germans and Japanese had surrendered before he even made it out of basic training. It looked like he had lucked out. But things weren't going to be as easy as they seemed.

A new war was brewing. The air was filled with tension as communism filled the vacuum left in Europe and Asia by the defeated fascists. Anderson would soon be on the front lines of a new kind of war.

He was originally stationed state side, guarding a gunpowder factory. One night the private was assigned to guard prisoners awaiting court martial when a sergeant he described as "half-drunk" got between Anderson and the man he was supposed to be guarding on a work detail.

"I had a .45 pistol and a stagger stick, and I had to do something," Anderson said. "I had never clubbed anyone before in my life, but I took that stick and closed my eyes and took a big cut at that sergeant."

The blow caught him right behind the ear and took the sergeant to the ground with a thud.

"That prisoner saw what happened, and he didn't know what to do," Anderson said. "After he saw me hit that sergeant, he probably wondered if he was next so he started shouting 'I'm not going anywhere! I'm not going anywhere!"

Anderson was found by the sergeant of the guard to have handled the situation correctly. But it turns out the guy he clubbed was in charge of the mess hall.

"After that, I was getting half as much food as everybody else after I went through the chow line," Anderson said. "I knew I needed to get out of there, so I volunteered for overseas duty."

On his 18th birthday in 1945, Anderson found himself waiting eight hours for a train in Kansas City that would take him to the port where he would be shipped out.

"I was in a town where I didn't know anybody, feeling lonely," Anderson said. "So I went to the movie theater and saw 'The Bells of St. Mary's' with Bing Crosby three times before it was finally time for my train."

He boarded a boat with other Marines headed for the Pacific. He didn't know where they were going, only that it was apparently going to be cold because they were issued two pairs of long johns before they boarded.

It wasn't until 28 days later that the Marines found themselves anchored in the Yellow Sea off the coast of northern China.

"We were sent there to guard the (thousands of) Japanese soldiers being held there since the end of the war," Anderson said. "We were also sent to hold the area for the Chinese Nationalists who were fighting with the communists led by Mao Zedong."

He was shocked by the stark conditions when he got off the ship.

"It was cold, dirty and those people looked so poor," Anderson said. "I wasn't prepared for the culture shock."

Anderson didn't like dealing with the prisoners. He, like the other Marines, was bitter about the nasty fighting that had to be done to pry the Japanese out of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and points in between, not to mention stories of atrocities like the Bataan Death March.

"We had some of the prisoners do odd jobs around the area and one day I was going to get a group of six or seven of them," Anderson said. "One of the men I picked was an officer and another officer who spoke English asked me if I didn't know that it was against the Geneva Convention to force officers to do menial tasks.

"I couldn't believe it, the way they bayoneted their prisoners and massacred civilians, they were mad because they had to do a little work?" Anderson said incredulously. "Compared to the way they treated their prisoners, they had the life of Riley."

The question earned the interjecting officer a spot on the work detail. Later, the officer complained to Anderson's superiors.

He was called in by his commanding officer who asked if it was true that he made the argumentative officer go on work detail, and Anderson confirmed it was.

"He said, 'Don't you know that's against the Geneva Convention?'" Anderson said. "I said I did -- but the Japanese didn't sign the Geneva convention."

After a tongue lashing, Anderson was told not to use officers for work any more. But as he left, the commander asked "what I made him do."

"Clean the latrine," Anderson replied.

"I suppose you enjoyed that?" the commander inquired.

"Every minute of it," Anderson said.

Assigned to a transportation outfit, Anderson often found himself escorting truck convoys or groups of soldiers or sailors who were in Peking on liberty. The job gave him the rare opportunity to see sites that few westerners had seen before, including the Great Wall, the Summer and Winter Palaces and the Forbidden City.

But it also put him in the line of fire for Chinese communist guerilla fighters who would occasionally ambush convoys or take potshots at Marines.

"At first our orders were not to fire back until we took casualties, and that didn't last long," Anderson said. "That's a pretty tough deal. Eventually they changed it and we could return fire if we were shot at. When you read the reports of those incidents, it always says the enemy casualties were unknown because they carried off their dead and wounded."

Anderson said it was always uncomfortable trying to hold ground for the Chinese Nationalists.

"We were Marines. We weren't trained to be an occupying force. We were an assault force," Anderson said. "If we were in combat, I would fight with my fellow Marines to the gates of hell. But I admit it was pretty scary being on guard duty by yourself at night."

While he was among the first Americans to fight Chinese communists, Anderson was frustrated by what would become the Cold War. Especially when the Chinese Nationals eventually fell to the communists in 1949.

His last memory of China came as his ship left harbor in 1947 when another one of the guys shook his fist as the land drifted off into the distance.

"You bastards," Anderson remembers him shouting. "You're not done with the First Marines yet!"

The words proved to be prophetic.

In November 1950, soon after communist China joined the Korean War, NATO troops, including the 1st Marines, were encircled by the enemy at Chosin Reservoir.

"They were greatly outmanned," said Anderson, who had left active duty in 1947, but they were able to fight their way out.

Today, Anderson said most people don't even know Americans were in China fighting the communists in the years between World War II and the Korean War. But he said he doesn't need recognition.

"I'm glad I joined the Marines because it was the best thing that happened to me," Anderson said. "Being a Marine taught me about pride and honor. And my parents could have never afforded to send me to college, but I got to go to McKendree because of the GI bill.

"No one knows what would have happened to them if they did things differently," Anderson said. "But I've always been glad I was a Marine."

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