Veteran Recalls Leadership Lessons Gained in Korean War
WASHINGTON, July 25, 2012 – The young Marine Corps second lieutenant was apprehensive at first about “making the grade” with his troops during the Korean War, but he soon won the respect of his platoon.
Retired Lt. Gen. Vernon “Mick” Trainor’s first assignment was during the winter campaign of the war in 1951-52 as a replacement officer in charge of a rifle platoon.
“Of course, I was brand new and very nervous,” Trainor told the Pentagon Channel of his Korean War experience. “I had a wonderful platoon sergeant who really ran the second platoon for the first couple of weeks, until he [determined] whether I measured up.”
Measure up Trainor did, and he commanded his Marines on the east coast of Korea to fight the North Koreans and on the west coast to fight the Chinese.
“There was a big difference between them,” Trainor said of enemy fighters. “The Chinese were a little more civilized and a little more rational. You never knew what the North Koreans were going to do, but you could pretty much predict … the Chinese.”
Fighting in the Korean War shaped Trainor’s confidence that his training, experience and leadership principles put him in good stead.
“I went on to command companies and battalions, and I was always confident in my leadership and professional abilities,” after he “looked the elephant in the eye,” and realized he’d performed his job.
The retired lieutenant general described the Korean outpost war as “a static war of trench warfare.”
“It was a lot like World War I, where you had trench raids back and forth. [The enemy] would try to take one of our outposts, we would try to take one of theirs, and it was just a brutal fight of hand grenades, machine guns, artillery and mortar fire. There were a lot of casualties,” he said.
Often called the “Forgotten War,” Trainor said Korea was the interim war between the larger-scale World War II and the Vietnam War.
“People were confused about why we were fighting, where Korea was, [and] they didn’t realize it was the opening of the Cold War that was going to go on until 1989,” he reflected.
Trainor’s Korean War experience wasn’t without tragedy, however.
Once while on night patrol, his platoon sergeant was killed by gunfire. “That was my introduction to war,” he said, adding that he never forgot the circumstances, especially when he served twice in Vietnam.
The night of his platoon sergeant’s death, Trainor had taken a predictable route, he said. “And that was a lesson I knew, and didn’t follow it. The Chinese knew it, and they were waiting for us on the other side. … They ambushed us.” Three Marines were killed.
“If I have one regret and one self-accusation, that would be it,” he said.
His message today to young officers and noncommissioned officers would be never to follow a pattern. “Always do something different, so the enemy never knows where you are.”
Trainor’s career path eventually led him to take charge of Marine Corps professional education, where he shared his Korean War experiences with incoming second lieutenants.
“Succeeding lieutenants going thru basic school [acted] the same as I did with the same look in their eyes of uncertainty when they were going out to join their first units,” he said. “And I thought, ‘I’m sure fellas in World War II went out there as brand-new officers uncertain of themselves.’ I wanted to portray for new officers … that the experiences they were about to face were the same as every generation before them and every generation that would follow them.”
So Trainor wrote a series of articles based on his experiences, which would become one of his career’s top achievements as a Marine Corps officer. His articles were published in a booklet that was issued to graduating lieutenants coming out of basic school, in which he shared his experiences in Korea so young officers could draw their own lessons from it.
Reflecting on his Korean War introduction to military warfare, Trainor said, he hoped he measured up.
“I was trying to remember all the technical things that I learned going through the basic school, and a lot of them went in one ear and out the other,” he said. “So, that was my concern -- that I was going to be able to do the job … and that I would have the respect of my men. And how would my leadership play out?
“I learned then,” Trainor said, “and it stood me in good stead for the rest of my career, to just be natural. Don’t try to be something other than [what] you are. And did I do a good job? Yeah, I think so.”