Jack Cochran drove all the way from Illinois to Carter County to see his pal Benjamin Clark.
The two became fast friends while serving in the U.S. Marines shortly after the 1953 Korean War armistice. They served in the same company and have been through a lot together. Though they maintained a connection by telephone and letters, they had not seen each other since 1956.
Cochran figured enough time had gone by and decided to surprise Clark on Monday. He contacted the Johnson City Press last week and laid out his plans. He and his wife Susie booked a room in town and on Monday Cochran, 76, knocked on Clark’s door and stood waiting with a big smile on his face.
Clark, 77, emerged slowly, a bit apprehensive at first. Then, he let out a booming laugh. The two hugged and did not stop laughing or smiling. Who knows, they’re likely still smiling.
“When you last saw me I had hair,” Cochran said.
“Well, I used to comb mine,” Clark answered, as the men stared at each other and laughed some more.
Clark excused himself for a minute to “put his teeth in” as his wife Betty helped situate everyone in the living room.
“Now I’ll give you a Colgate smile” Clark joked as he re-entered the room.
The two gazed at each other and finally took a seat on the couch where they would rise and fall a number of times in between gestures and demonstrations of how things happened during their days at the 38th parallel during a time when tensions in Korea still were extremely high shortly after an official cease fire.
Both Cochran and Clark were in the Marines’ 1st Division, 1st Regiment, 1st Battalion. They served in the same heavy weapons company where tanks, heavy mortars and flamethrowers were everyday items. And not surprisingly, they both say they’re extremely hard of hearing.
“I was going down a hallway one day and a Marine recruiter was standing there,” Clark said. “You could cut yourself on the creases on his uniform. He (Cochran) went to boot camp in San Diego. We called them ‘Hollywood’ because they stood around in their sunglasses all day. We were in Paris Island (S.C.) buried in the mud. We both got orders to train for Korea. I was short. An officer told me when I asked why I was going that I’d be hard to hit.”
Cochran said they were placed “in the wilderness” on the demilitarized zone and that 30 divisions of North Korean and Chinese soldiers were amassed just beyond their view.
“We weren’t scared,” he said. “We were too young to be scared. Our company was put there to hold the line. If they would have come across, we wouldn’t be here talking to you. We had what they called ‘scrams.’ They’d ring a bell and we to go to a fortified position while the battalion was moving out.”
They told tales of skulls strategically placed here and there with candles fixed on top to act as directional markers. They also talked about some close calls and how rough things were at times, but both said they were ready to die for their country.
“The most vicious animal in the world is a human being,” Clark said.
He said it with a grin. Not a menacing grin; a relaxed one.
The men served together from 1954-55 and returned stateside by ship. They ended up at Camp Pendleton in the same barracks. That’s the last time they had seen each other until Monday.
Clark got out in 1956; Cochran a year later.
“We’ve stayed close friends, and we’ve stayed in contact,” Clark said. “You become close. There’s something about the Marines. They tear you down and build you back up. You become one.”
Here’s just one — one of a dozen recalled by Clark in a spread of 15 minutes.
There was a soldier named Jason Briggs.
“You could put him in a $500 suit and he’d still look like a bum,” he said.
So, the company would undergo morning inspections. There were four outhouses lined up away from their tents. The waste would periodically be burned with a combination of gasoline and diesel fuel, and the ratio consisted manly of diesel fuel.
“He had a five-gallon can of gas in one hand and a five-gallon can of diesel in the other,” Clark continued. “When he got to the last one, he used way too much more gasoline than diesel. He didn’t want to carry all the gas back down the hill. That thing blew. It came off the ground about shoulder high. He came staggering out from a bunch of black smoke. Man, we laughed and laughed.”
Laugh they did. Fifty-six years later they pounced on the memories — some scary; some comedic. But they did so with childlike enthusiasm. Their wives pointed when one or the other, or both, would get up to re-enact events. They commented about how they were acting like kids, and they loved the sight of it.
“It’s like going through the same crucible,” Cochran said. “We went through some tough times.”
When asked whether the two would ever get together again, Cochran replied, “Sure will.”