RIGBY – It was January of 1951 when George Marriott of Rigby left with his unit in the Idaho Army National Guard to serve overseas in the Korean War.
He was one of 233 men who made up the 116th Engineer Combat Battalion.
His journey began at Camp Stoneman in California, followed by a 30-day voyage on a ship. After a brief stop in Japan, he landed in Pusan on the southern tip of South Korea sometime in late February.
Marriott’s war experiences are unlike others who have served overseas. He didn’t lose any comrades in battle nor did he experience any combat. Marriott tells EastIdahoNews.com most of his duties consisted of building roads and bridges.
“The roads on the mountain passes were very narrow, and we had to extend the road out in places so the tanks would have room to go up the road,” Marriott says.
At some point during his service there, Marriott says there were unconfirmed reports that China was planning a counter-offensive. He recalls helping the South Koreans prepare for this attack.
“Lt. Pence from Ashton was our platoon leader. We went with the Korean army and we put serpentine wire around the ridge of this mountain where they thought the offensive was going to happen,” Marriott says.
John Leese, a member of Marriott’s squad, remembers Marriott telling him about a wounded Korean soldier they rescued out of a reservoir during this time.
Barbed wire installations only lasted about 10 days, Marriott says, and the attack ultimately never took place. But it was still a tense period of time for he and other members of his squad.
“We spent quite a bit of time on a place called Bloody Ridge, which was a big battleground. We built a large revetment there,” says Marriott. “We built it out of rock.”
The conflict continued for another year and a half after Marriott and his battalion left in January of 1952.
“It was an interesting time, but I wouldn’t care to do it again. We never got involved in any shooting skirmishes, so I’m very thankful for that. But we lost a lot of people over there,” says Leese.
The conflict claimed the lives of millions of Koreans and Chinese, and more than 50,000 Americans, according to History.com.
But the war never officially ended.
On July 27, 1953, an armistice agreement established a demilitarized zone to separate North and South Korea. The countries reverted to the relationship that was in place at the end of World War II, Marriott says, but a peace treaty was never signed.
“They divided North Korea and South Korea at the 38th parallel. Russia was given custody over North Korea and the United States was given custody over South Korea,” Marriott says. “South Korea was so appreciative of America saving their country that the South Korean president invites Korean veterans over there. You pay your fare, but he pays all the expenses.”
Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea continue to this day. Marriott says further conflict would be disastrous for the entire globe, and maintaining peace negotiations is critical.
A reunion 70 years in the making
This year marks 70 years since the Korean conflict began. There are only about 28 remaining members of the original 116th Engineer Combat Battalion. Among them are members of Marriott’s company, Art Chandler, who served on the Idaho Falls City Council for many years, and Jack Later of Rigby.
“I don’t remember all the members of the squad. I remember five or six of them. I talked to one of the members this week — Al Ionia in Florida. He’s doing pretty good. He and George are the only two I’m still in contact with,” Leese says.
“I was a squad leader. There were 12 in a squad and there’s three of us left,” Marriott says. “Our relationship is solid and we’re at the tail end.”
Marriott is inviting the surviving members of the battalion to the 70th-anniversary reunion, Thursday, Aug. 13 at Rigby South Park. A program will begin at 2 p.m. at the Veterans Memorial.
Former National American Legion Chaplain Ron Derrick will give the invocation and a few remarks. Rigby Mayor Jason Richardson and Roy Gibson, Commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1004, will be speaking as well. The keynote speaker is Idaho National Guard Brigadier General Russell Johnson.
Local singer Eileen Earl will be singing a few patriotic songs. A sack lunch will be provided for those in attendance.
‘I would do the same thing again’
Seventy years after the conflict began, Marriott has never returned to South Korea, but he says it was an honor to serve his country.
“I’m proud to be an American and glad that I had the privilege of serving my country,” says Marriott. “I would do the same thing again. Whatever I could do to serve, I would.”
Despite his service in the Korean War, Marriott does not consider himself a hero. He’s grateful to George Washington and others who paved the way before him, particularly those who fought in World War II. He has a special message for members of “the greatest generation.”
“Word War II was a turning point in our history because had we not won, we wouldn’t have our country the way it is today. (The veterans of that war) have always been my heroes.”