A long-lost Marine lives on in his letters from Korea
By DANIEL PATRICK SHEEHAN | The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) | Published: May 23, 2019
(Tribune News Service) — The memory of Marvin Nothstein survives in a sheaf of letters, a couple of Christmas cards, a handful of photos. They tell the story of a reluctant but dutiful Marine, drafted into the Korean War and longing, as the days wore on, for little more than a decent pair of socks and a ticket home.
Pfc. Nothstein — Company E, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, 1st Marine Division — was no romanticizer. He didn’t pretend war was anything but war. In letters only recently rediscovered by his family, he writes bluntly of front-line misery: death, cold, rain, hunger, filth, rats.
On Memorial Day weekend, the letters are a stark reminder that in every conflict, the nation’s soldiers and sailors endure conditions beyond imagining for most of us, and many of them never know a moment of comfort again.
“This is a hell hole of a country over here,” Nothstein, a 22-year-old Lehighton, Pennsylvania, native, told his father, Earl, and stepmother, May, in a letter dated Oct. 15, 1952. “When my time is up over here, I’ll have enough of this Marine Corp to last me for a long time.”
A little more than two months later, Nothstein was dead — killed in action with 11 other Marines during a raid on enemy positions two days after Christmas. Their remains weren’t recovered, so they were listed as missing in action.
A year later, the Defense Department provisionally declared Nothstein dead, a status that become official when he wasn’t among the troops returned in a postwar prisoner exchange. Nothstein joined the ranks of the 36,000 Americans lost to battle, disease and accident in the 1950-53 conflict. And he is one of more than 7,800 Americans — including more than 20 from the Lehigh Valley — whose remains haven’t been recovered.
“You can learn a lot about him from his letters,” said Susan Grim, Nothstein’s half-sister, who was an infant when he went off to war. She came to know him better from his sometimes wistful, sometimes terrifying missives than from any family stories.
“I always knew what had happened to him, but it was never talked about," Grim said, looking over the letters and photos laid out on the kitchen table of her Hamburg home on a recent afternoon.
For years, the letters were tucked away in shoe boxes. Grim had some. Her half-brother, Darvin Schoenberger — Nothstein’s step-brother — had others. They emerged from their attic obscurity when Grim’s son, Kevin, a civil engineer from Conshohocken, began researching his genealogy.
“The letters just sort of sat around and we didn’t do anything about it,” said Schoenberger of Lehighton, who was 9 when Nothstein died. “But now, with Kevin digging, we’re finding out a lot of things we never knew.”
Boot camp and deployment
Nothstein was born July 1, 1930, in Lehighton to Earl Nothstein and Zenobia Rehr. He graduated from Lehighton High School and went to work for Bethlehem Steel until the draft board beckoned. He entered the Marines and was at boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina, by February 1952. The war had been raging nearly two years by then.
Letters from there reflect the discomfort and homesickness of a man uprooted from ordinary life and plunked into the mud puddle of boot camp. The first, dated Feb. 23 and addressed to “Dad, May and Darvin,” recounts the notoriously tough daily training regimen and makes the first of several homesick references to the family’s beekeeping:
“Who is winning all the Parcheesi games? Boy I sure could go for some honey right now. The food we get here is good, but an hour after I eat I’m so damn hungry I think I’m starving. It don’t fill you up long."
A month later, Nothstein sounds utterly fed up.
“As for me getting used to my new life, ‘No!’ But I have no choice so I have to do the best I can and sometimes that ain’t good enough. You have to do the almost impossible sometimes and then if you don’t do it right or forget how it is done you get your ass chewed out. They treat you here just like you were a dog the way they Bitch and Curse at you. I’ll be glad when I get the hell out of here.”
That was the last letter from Parris Island. In April, Nothstein moved on to Camp Pendleton in California, near San Diego, where he endured even tougher training until the call came to deploy to Korea.
He departed on July 20 aboard the USNS General John Pope, a civilian-manned ship hauling 3,000 Marines into an uncertain future.
“Well we are out at sea now 4 days already and so far as I know we have traveled 1500 miles and have about 4700 miles more to go before we reach Japan," Nothstein wrote on July 24. "We’ll go there first before we go to Korea. This letter I’m writing on the ship will be old news by the time you receive it because I won’t be able to mail it till we land in Japan.”
He speaks of the drunken feeling of seasickness and the amenities that were largely missing from the camps — decent food, candy, cigarettes, nightly movies.
And he marvels at the homefront news that his old friend Stooky had married.
“I never thought he would be ready to settle down yet. It looks like I’ll have to find myself a woman too when and if I ever get back home.”
'Lucky to be alive today’
Korea, sandwiched between the global catastrophe of World War II and the Vietnam quagmire, is sometimes called the “forgotten war.”
It erupted June 25, 1950, when communist North Korea, backed by China and the Soviet Union, invaded democratic South Korea. A United Nations force, with the U.S. in the lead, pushed the invasion back, but there would be no victor. Hostilities ended July 27, 1953, with an uneasy truce that threatens to fall apart even today.
For Nothstein, the sense of displacement born at Parris Island reached full maturity on the Korean peninsula. Letters from the front lines show a man in culture shock, appalled by the hardship he saw in the countryside and leery of threats beyond bombs and bullets.
“There is another disease over here that is bad, it’s a fly carried by the rats,” he wrote. “And I don’t think there is a cure for it. Himaracket disease. I seen plenty of them rats around too gives me the cold chills when I see rats.”
Nothstein likely is referring to hemorrhagic fever, a rodent-spread viral malady that affected more than 3,000 soldiers in the war zone and had a fatality rate as high as 33 percent during some outbreaks.
In a Sept. 7 letter, Nothstein describes an engagement on Bunker Hill, an area of notoriously tough on-and-off fighting where his unit spent six days battling North Korean soldiers and reinforcing Chinese troops:
“We got attacked about four hours before we were to get relieved by another company. We had quite a few casualties the first couple days we were up there and a couple dead but that was caused by the [enemy] throwing in mortar and artillery shells. Then we had 17 or more killed in the fighting and over 59 some wounded, anyway it comes pretty close to a hundred. I seen some pretty horrible looking sights, I and my buddy are lucky to be alive today."
Writing his congressman
Nothstein wrote one letter to someone outside the family. Dated Dec. 21, it was to his congressman, Democratic U.S. Rep. Francis Walter, and outlines his grievances against the treatment of the troops — the length of tours, lack of sleep, insufficient food.
“I and the rest have been on the go for at least 20 hours a day,” he wrote. “We go out on patrols at night and then when we come back we have to stand watch the rest of the night. By the way it gets awful cold outside at night, although we have warm clothing. It is also very hard to get stockings, it was necessary for me to write home for stockings twice already, but I see these Korean men have to do work around here wearing almost better clothing than we have.”
Walter passed this on to the Marines, who investigated and offered a lengthy response that boiled down to a blunt conclusion: The complaints “were without basis in fact."
The letter is broadly sympathetic, however. Nothstein was not a chronic complainer, the investigators found, and was “extremely well-liked” because he could be counted on in difficult situations. “Some of his complaints may have well seemed justified from his viewpoint,” it said.
In his final letter to the family, dated Christmas Day, Nothstein opens by recounting a holiday dinner of turkey, potatoes, stuffing, shrimp salad, nuts and candy, pickles, olives, ice cream, peaches, bread, coffee, bologna, liverwurst, cheese — an exhaustive list of foods favored in his Pennsylvania Dutch household.
Grim and Schoenberger both believe the feast was an invention to make Nothstein’s family feel better about his plight.
“He was eating C-rations,” said Schoenberger, an Army veteran of Vietnam who ate plenty of those military-issued meals in his time.
The letter is haunting to look at. Nothstein’s handwriting is a mix of ragged scrawl and readable cursive, suggesting a man in mental turmoil. He had confessed as much in his letter to Walter, fearing that he would “crack up” if he didn’t get out.
As in any war, the enemy exploited this sort of stress through psychological warfare.
"[The North Koreans] put signs up during the night the other night with pictures and writing on them. One sign had a picture of a Marine kneeling by a cross and writing saying “This might be you Marine quit fighting and go home” and one sign had on “if you value your life and want to see more Xmas go home” there were other signs but I couldn’t see what they had on...
“They even serenade us during the night. They play records to try and make us homesick so we quit and go home.”
He closed this letter like so many others: “Loving son, Marvin.”
Two days later, he was dispatched on a mission to Kumgok Hill to glean intelligence on Chinese troop movements and, if possible, capture soldiers for interrogation. Nothstein was among 13 men picked from the platoon for an assault force, which scaled the hill before dawn and was immediately pinned down by small arms fire.
When the sun rose, observers could see the bodies of Marines scattered along the crest of the hill. Three more Marines died and another was captured in a failed effort to retrieve the bodies.
Nothstein was listed as missing in action, a status that gave his family a measure of hope until the declaration of his death a year later.
His death cast a long shadow over the family.
“After it happened, Christmas didn’t mean too much anymore," Schoenberger said.
Since the war, North Korea has returned hundreds of sets of remains discovered on old battlefields. The U.S. Defense Department runs a program to match remains with survivors through DNA testing. Susan Grim has provided DNA samples, and the family hopes to receive word someday that Marvin will finally come home.
It would be nice, they said, to give him a proper burial, a permanent marker to his life and service.
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