An honor to remember

Norman Mathews was among the first 400 soldiers to go into South Korea during the Korean War. His company is being honored in South Korea next month as part of the 60th anniversary celebration of the armistice and recognition of the U.S.’s help. Eric Johnson/photdoesk@austindailyherald.com

Norman Mathews was among the first 400 soldiers to go into South Korea during the Korean War. His company is being honored in South Korea next month as part of the 60th anniversary celebration of the armistice and recognition of the U.S.’s help. Eric Johnson/photdoesk@austindailyherald.com

Norman Mathews doesn’t like to draw attention to himself.

The 85-year-old Dexter man has served his community, his country and his neighbors all his life, but he doesn’t always want to accept credit. That is, except when it comes to the Army, which he calls “[his] home, almost,” and where he spent seven years of his life.

The former Sgt. 1st Class will get much more attention than he bargained for in July, when he and two other U.S. veterans will be recognized for their efforts during the Korean War. As a part of Task Force Smith, Norman and his wife, Lindy will travel to Osan, South Korea, where he will be honored at a memorial park during an annual event to commemorate the first battle between the U.S. and North Korea of the war.

“It’s an honor,” he said.

Norman Mathews salutes with fellow soliders on a trip to Osan, South Korea in 1992. Herald file photo

Norman Mathews salutes with fellow soliders on a trip to Osan, South Korea in 1992. Herald file photo

Serving in wartime

A longtime Dexter resident, Norman, or “Speed” as he’s also known, joined the military in November 1947. At 17 years old, Mathews wanted to serve in the Army because the economy was “just like it is now — no work.”

He worked in a guard company, watching over various depots and barracks during his service which took him around the world.

He spent several years stationed in France, Korea and Japan before the war started, but he, as so many of his company under the 1st Battalion of the 24th Infantry Division, wouldn’t know and weren’t prepared for the opening hostilities between North Korea and the U.S.

North Korea surprised the world when it mustered more than 85,000 troops to push into South Korea on June 25, 1950, the start of the Korean War. North Korea captured Seoul, South Korea’s capital, less than three days later.

The U.S. armed forces stationed in Japan were called into action, specifically the 24th Infantry Division under the Eighth Army. The Division head, Major Gen. William F. Dean, ordered Lt. Col. Charles Smith to lead a group from the 1st Battalion into Korea to delay the North Korean Army while the U.S. brought more troops into the Korean Peninsula.

That’s how Norman found himself among the 540 soldiers of Task Force Smith, the first U.S. forces to fight against North Korea.

Norman was a member of C company, which joined B company and members from the A Battery of the 52nd Field Artillery Battalion on several planes out of Japan and into Korea by July 1.

As Norman remembers it, his unit didn’t leave until July 3. He found himself in combat less than two days later near Osan, about 25 miles south of Seoul, on July 5, 1950.

“It was a clueless day,” he said. “Nobody knew what in the hell was going on.”

Unfortunately for Norman and Task Force Smith, the American force was doomed from the start. The U.S. had decreased its forces in Asia ever since the end of World War II. That meant soldiers were under-equipped and ill-prepared — many soldiers had never seen battle before and most were teenagers fresh out of basic training.

“They didn’t have anything to fight with,” Lindy said. “It was unbelievable. Most of their stuff was from World War II, I guess.”

What’s more, they faced a North Korean army with more than 5,000 soldiers and more than 30 Russian-built tanks. The 134 soldiers from the 52nd Battalion only had six Howitzer artillery pieces and only six High Explosive Anti-Tank rounds.

The battle lasted for a little more than three hours before Smith ordered U.S forces to withdraw in the afternoon, according to historical records. American soldiers couldn’t keep up communication on the battlefield and couldn’t stop North Korean tanks.

At the end of the day, about one-third of Task Force Smith was reported either killed or missing in action, and several dozen soldiers were captured as prisoners of war.

Despite the defeat, Task Force Smith accomplished its goal: The soldiers temporarily delayed the North Koreans. Though the U.S. suffered several similar losses over the next few weeks, American soldiers finally halted North Korea at the Battle of Pusan Perimeter in August and September of 1950, which marked the turning point in the war and allowed U.S. forces to drive into North Korea by the end of the year.

 Remembering the battle

Norman served in Korea for another year before his service was up. He would re-enlist for another three years, where he was stationed around the world in places like Germany and France.

He left the Army in 1954, when he came back to southern Minnesota. He would spend the next few decades working for Akkermans — at Brownsdale construction company that turned into a manufacturing company — and local lumber yards, among other jobs. Norman also served as a city council member and mayor of Dexter, as well as its public works superintendent.

“I helped put in all the sewer piping in town,” Norman said.

Norman Mathews stands at the memorial in Osan, South Korea, on a trip in 1992. Photo provided

Norman Mathews stands at the memorial in Osan, South Korea, on a trip in 1992. Photo provided

If Norman had his way, he’d still be working. He only retired last October, according to Lindy.

“He still mows peoples’ yards,” she said. “Two neighbors here on our street, they don’t have a lawnmower, so he mows their yard for them.”

For Norman, it’s a way to keep busy.

“You can’t sit in a chair all the time,” he said.

He’ll be going to Korea before too long. He was selected to represent his company at the upcoming dedication of an outdoor park near the UN Forces First Battle Memorial Museum in Osan, which opened in April of 2013 to honor Task Force Smith and the soldiers who assisted South Korea during the war.

“The Korean people are forever grateful for these fighters who had probably never heard of Korea back then,” said Hanna Yun, project manager for Image Media Services, one of the companies involved in the dedication ceremony. “We’re forever grateful, and this is one of the ways to express our gratitude.”

The museum is about two miles away from the site of the battle, which prompted the city of Osan and the Future U.S.-Korea Foundation to plan for a memorial park at the battle site.

Representatives from Osan usually contact every surviving Task Force Smith soldier and families to come to the dedication ceremony, but budget issues and South Korea’s recent ferry disaster controversy has caused many celebrations to be canceled or downgraded this year.

The South Korean government has come under scrutiny for its response to the sinking of the MV Sewol on April 16, and President Park Geun-Hye has since called for the nation’s coast guard to be disbanded as more than 200 high school students are still unaccounted for after the disaster.

Yet Osan still wishes to continue its annual tradition to honor Task Force Smith, according to Yun, which is why three veterans representing each company will be at the park’s dedication ceremony on July 3. Yun said everyone will likely be invited to once more take part in the 65th anniversary ceremony next year.

The park is 12 to 13 acres and will feature 540 trees, one for each soldier in Task Force Smith. Every tree will have a name tag for a Task Force Smith soldier, as well as a time capsule to store things like diaries, pictures and anything the museum isn’t featuring at the time.

It won’t be Norman and Lindy’s first time in Osan, however. The two visited South Korea in 1998 for another ceremony commemorating Task Force Smith. This trip will be special, as the married couple will celebrate their 50th anniversary on July 3.

Norman is taking everything in stride and he’s glad South Korea still remembers the sacrifices U.S. soldiers made during the war.

“I think the Korean government is one of the only governments in the world that have appreciated what we’ve done for them, bar none,” he said.

Norman is pleased to represent his country, though he may not like all the accompanying attention. He certainly doesn’t like being recognized in the newspaper.

“Too much publicity,” he said with a wry smile.

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