With Bob Dugan, what you see isn't what you get.
He seems like a homebody – living in the same Costa Mesa house for more than 50 years, married to his wife for 51 years until her death, the father of four, now a grandfather and great-grandfather.
Robert "Bob" Dugan, 88, wears his USMC Uniform several times a month serving as an honor guard at memorial services at Riverside National Cemetery. Dugan served in the WWII Merchant Marine and later joined the Marine Corps, being awarded The Bronze Star and Purple Heart for actions during the Korean War.
JEBB HARRIS, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
But then, without drama or self-importance, he answers questions about fighting in Korea with the Marines.
He gives the impression that history just happened to him, but that can't be right. You don't just "get" the Bronze Star for valor for slipping ashore into North Korea to blow up tracks supplying the Communists via the Trans-Siberian railroad.
You don't just "happen" to survive a winter on the Korean peninsula or the Battle of Chosin Reservoir and walk away pressing a compress to the wound in your side.
Back then, explains Dugan, 88, you simply served from a sense of duty.
"That's what you did. You served your country."
Still, you have to think he got more than he ever expected to see.
FIRST AT THE WAR
After Pearl Harbor, Dugan joined the merchant marines, serving in three war zones during World War II. In 1948, he was 22, living in Los Angeles, when he enlisted in the Marine Corps to avoid the draft.
"I thought it might be another adventure – three years, piece of cake."
He shipped out to Japan on the USS Juneau in 1950. When North Korea invaded South Korea across the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950, he had just arrived in port.
"I saw a Navy car pull up, and someone carrying a satchel came aboard. Then smoke began to blow through the stack, they blew the whistle – and we left that afternoon."
The Juneau arrived the next day, and so did the Korean War.
Many war-weary Americans might not have heard much of Korea previously. Dugan came to know it well.
Early in the war, Dugan helped provide security for Cmdr. William Porter as they went ashore. The ship patrolled up to the 38th parallel.
After a British frigate joined them, they sailed farther north, one morning shooting at North Korean torpedo boats. In July, Dugan was one of four Marines who transferred to the destroyer Mansfield and went ashore with Porter to help plant two 60-pound charges in a railroad tunnel.
It was the first U.S. amphibious raid of the war – and the first landing in North Korea. It worked.
"They told us the train went in the tunnel and didn't come out the other end."
Dugan's medal citation locates him at 40-29.5 North latitude and 129-05.5 East longitude. Today that geography is sealed to the outside world.
After initial defeats, troops led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur drove back the North Koreans and recaptured Seoul. In November, Dugan's battalion was trucked into the mountains and began to trek 30 miles north.
What is Korea like?
"The parts I see, I'm not crazy about it."
As MacArthur continued to advance, though, the Chinese launched a massive counterattack, surrounding the Marines around Chosin Reservoir.
"All hell broke lose," Dugan recalls. "We were on the defense."
He paraphrases Maj. Gen. Oliver Smith: We weren't retreating – we were just fighting in another direction.
That direction was south.
Dugan notes that their enemy was the weather as much as the Chinese. Temperatures were minus 40 as the wind whistled across from Siberia.
"You really find out what cold is. ... If you were lucky and the ground wasn't too bad, you could dig a hole."
In a speech years later, he said:
"Seldom has the human frame been so savagely punished. ... Many men discovered reserves of strength that they never knew they possessed."
In December of 1950, Dugan was a first gunner in the 1st Marine Division, firing a machine gun as the unit moved down from the mountains on the offensive.
"All of the sudden, instead of charging forward, I was going the other way."
He had been hit by a hand grenade – but it was so cold, he didn't bleed. Medics wrapped him in a compress bandage and told him to wait there.
"Wait here? We're moving out. If I wait here, I might be the only one here."
Dugan walked himself down the hill to the first-aid tent. He handed his gun to the platoon leader – who was killed that night.
Dugan spent 30 days in the hospital in Japan without surgery and was eventually shipped home. He served in China Lake until his honorable discharge as a staff sergeant in 1952.
Years later, after colon surgery, doctors discovered Dugan was still full of shrapnel.
You wonder, though, what else Dugan brought home from the war.
His memory is clear, but he doesn't pontificate or gab. He's reluctant to talk politics, but he allows that MacArthur might have made some bad choices and lost a lot of lives. Perhaps he stayed too long on the job.
"I have more respect for my fellow servicemen. ... I learned respect for the law, your flag and your country."
He flies that flag night and day on an illuminated pole in front of his house. The Marine flag flies just below it.
After tremendous loss of life, the Korean War ended in a cease-fire 60 years ago this week. Armistice stopped, but did not settle, the conflict. And North Korea remains a terrifying place.
Dugan heard the news and thought: "That's it? Everybody picks up and goes back to their own side?"
Still, he doesn't feel it was in vain. Korea itself might not have been worth fighting over, but it represented a greater cause.
"If we hadn't stopped them, it would be all North Korea today. We stopped communism from running wild."
Korea has been called the "forgotten war." Shamefully, it fell through the cracks of history between World War II and Vietnam.
Dugan wants us to remember. He's part of the Freedom Committee of Orange County (fc-oc.org), a veterans' group that offers "living history" lessons to students.
Dugan's father did not discuss World War I with him, and Dugan did not discuss Korea with his sons, who did not serve in the military.
You understand he does his talking with other veterans.
For years he attended reunions for the Juneau, but their numbers are dwindling.
"I lost six friends in the last 30 days."
At least three days per month, he serves in the honor guard for military funerals at Riverside National Cemetery. His wife, Lois, is buried there, and Dugan's name is on the gravestone to lie beside her.
You have to imagine it's hot in the high collar of his Marine dress blues, but wearing them, he stands erect and his posture is perfect.