Thursday, June 25, 2015

Remembering a hero of the forgotten war

Sgt. Mathew Caruso, left, and Father Connie Griffin in Korea.
   Today (June 25) marks 65th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War, when 75,000 North Korean soldiers poured across the 38th Parallel, captured the South Korean capital of Seoul and drove the small force of American defenders and Republic of Korea troops into a perimeter around the southern port of Pusan.
   Nineteen-year-old Marine Sgt. Mathew Caruso was at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where he lived off base in a small apartment with his wife of a few months, Betty. During the day Mathew was assigned as a chaplain's assistant.
   Mathew's 1st Marine Division was activated and transferred to Camp Pendleton in California. There, he was assigned to a new chaplain, Navy Lt. (j.g.) Cornelius "Connie" Griffin, a 30-year-old Catholic priest. (Navy chaplains and medics, or corpsmen, are assigned to the Marines.) Betty Caruso returned to Rocky Hill, Conn., where she lived with her parents. She was pregnant, and had a feeling she would never see her husband again.
   While the division hastily trained for overseas duty, Mathew helped build a temporary chapel with crates for pews in a quonset hut at Tent City 2 near the north end of Camp Pendleton.
   Mathew and Father Griffin took part in the landing at Inchon and the fierce fighting that led to the recapture of Seoul. They also took part in the landing at Wonsan and the subsequent invasion of North Korea. During this time, Father Griffin would say in a newspaper interview, Mathew "saved my life" on numerous occasions.
   Meanwhile, Mathew wrote home to his dad, Michael Caruso Sr., that he and Father Griffin often "prayed the rosary in foxholes." Mathew wrote that he looked forward to completing high school on his return -- he had dropped out in 1947 to enlist -- and getting a good job, now that he would have a family to support.
   Late on the night of Dec. 6, 1950, during the breakout from the Chosin Reservoir, Mathew and Father Griffin were in an ambulance where Griffin was tending to a gravely wounded Marine. Outside the wind was howling and the temperature had dropped to around 20 degrees below zero.
   The battle of the "Frozen Chosin", in which 300,000 Communist Chinese soldiers attacked the vastly outnumbered 1st Marine Division, along with some British commandos and United Nations troops, was one of the fiercest in Marine Corps history, earning a place alongside the World War II battles of Iwo Jima, Saipan, Peleliu and Guadalcanal.
   The ambulance was in a long column on a narrow mountain pass that had come to a halt because a bridge was blown at Koto-ri, North Korea. Over the past few days the column had withstood several  whistle-blowing, bugle-calling human wave attacks.
   According to at least one account, as the column was bathed in darkness, the headlights on a nearby jeep went on, possibly by accident, illuminating the large red cross on the side of the ambulance. Suddenly a machine gun opened fire and bullets began penetrating the ambulance. Without hesitating, Mathew was heard to shout "Down, Father! Down!" He threw the chaplain to the floor of the ambulance and shielded him with his body.
   Mathew Caruso was killed. Father Griffin was wounded in the chin and shoulder but survived. Over the wounded chaplain's protestations, Mathew's body was removed from the ambulance and buried in a mass grave that had to be blasted and bulldozed into the frozen earth at Koto-ri.
   Six days later, his son, Daniel Caruso, was born in Rocky Hill.
   Thirteen and a half months later, in a ceremony at the Groton submarine base, Mathew's posthumous Silver Star was presented to the toddler Danny, who was accompanied by his mother, who had remarried, and his grandfather.
   When Father Griffin recovered, he oversaw the construction of the Caruso Memorial Chapel at Tent City 2. Sixty-four years later it is still a focal point of life at the Marine School of Infantry West.
   John Caruso, one of Mathew's nine siblings, enlisted in the Marines after Mathew's death. He was at Camp Pendleton in 1955 when Mathew's remains were repatriated as part of Operation Glory, an exchange of thousands of sets of remains with the North Koreans. John Caruso was given the honor of accompanying his brother's body across country by train for burial in Hartford. Father Griffin, who would go on to become a monsignor in the Tucson, Ariz., diocese, came East and participated in the burial Mass.
   Last year, Hartford's Bulkeley High School awarded Mathew a posthumous diploma in recognition of the fact that he hoped to complete his education. John Caruso, now a retired Hartford Superior Court judge, started a scholarship in his brother's memory, and organized a golf tournament to help fund it.
   The first Mathew Caruso Memorial Golf tournament and dinner will be held at Wampanaog Golf Course in West Hartford on Monday (June 29). If you're not a golfer, you can come for the dinner, as several great silent auction and raffle prizes have been donated.
   For information about the golf tournament, call John Caruso at 860-212-9092 or visit the Caruso Memorial Golf Tournament web site.