At the time of Jon Kilburn’s graduation from Moore High School in May, 1949, the Marine Corp was offering a one-year active enlistment with six years in the Reserves. He thought that was what he wanted, getting his military obligation fulfilled rather quickly, instead of waiting for the draft call of two to four years active service plus Reserves. His dad, John Calvin Kilburn, had served in the Marines from 1921-1923.


At the time of Jon Kilburn’s graduation from Moore High School in May, 1949, the Marine Corp was offering a one-year active enlistment with six years in the Reserves. He thought that was what he wanted, getting his military obligation fulfilled rather quickly, instead of waiting for the draft call of two to four years active service plus Reserves. His dad, John Calvin Kilburn, had served in the Marines from 1921-1923.
With this background of Marine service and pride in his country, Kilburn signed up and left for boot camp in June, 1949 at Camp Pendleton, Calif., where all new recruits born west of the Mississippi went for training. His specialized training (MOS) was Topographical Survey.
His next year was spent at MCAS El Toro in Santa Ana as a radar operator. The day of his discharge, June 20, 1950, was the day that China and North Korea invaded Seoul. All leaves and discharges were canceled. however, he and a friend, Gerald Buckner, were able to leave by running before the base was locked down, caught a cab and were gone.
A few days after he got home, he received orders to return. He never saw his friend again as he was killed in action in Korea.
Kilburn reported to Camp Pendleton in September, 1950 and received training as a machine gun operator. He was assigned to the Third Replacement Wave, but just before they were to ship out to Korea, he noticed on the bulletin board an offer for a radio operator. He thought that sounded better than operating a machine gun, made application and was accepted because of his original MOS and radar experience.
They soon left for Korea on a troop ship, the USS Gen E T Collins. The trip was uneventful, some of the men were seasick and the 21 days meant light duty. He read books and stood in the chow line. Upon their arrival at Kobe, Japan, the ship was greeted with lots of fanfare. Uneventful did not describe the setting once he was in Korea.
The immediate assignment was to assist the First Marine Brigade already fighting near Inchon. That group had already marched across Korea and was pinned down by enemy fire in an area near Wonsan on the east side of the country. Those men were picked up by the E T Collins and moved south to Pusan. The enemy had taken most of Korea so the first action was to establish the Pusan perimeter.
He arrived in Korea about Christmas 1950 at Mason Harbor where his first team assignment came securing the Pusan Perimeter, and was accomplished. The first Marine Brigade had been trapped at the Chosen Reservoir and were fighting south under bitter winter conditions. His group worked its way north to assist them until they reached Hamnung Harbor. Soon after Christmas a major offensive was launched to retake Korea. His team’s focus, retake all of Korea pushing as far north as the Yulu River.
Just a little east of Seoul and south of the Yulu River is where his team was spotted. They were moving their position after directing fire and were on a climbing mountain trail when they were suddenly under fire. Jon was carrying a back pack radio which saved his life. The radio took several hits and all his five member team were hit. That was April 22, 1951, a day Jon will never forget. He suffered injuries to his left forearm and hip. It was into the night before they were removed from the field, loaded on a jeep with several racks front to back to carry stretchers, and taken to an Army Mash Field Hospital. From there, they were moved to the USS Repose, a hospital ship and four days later, to a hospital in Youkuska, Japan. The surviving members of his team stayed together in the hospital.
After full recovery, he was returned to the First USM Division and assigned to a South Korean outfit with an interpreter. His group (FO Team) was to direct artillery fire and naval air strikes in support of the allies, the South Korean Marines.
During this assignment, he had a radio message from the USS Missouri, anchored approximately five miles off the Korean Coast. Being 10 to 12 miles inland put them 15 or 20 miles apart. The ship wanted in on the action and asked if he had a target. He was glad to help and called for one round in effect of WP (white phosphorus) to mark the target. He ran as fast as he could to observe and when the shells were approaching, “it sounded frightening, like an airplane coming over and when they hit, seemed as though the entire would shook, taking out hills, rocks and they enemy,” he said.
American Marines are considerate to the homeless children. He could not recall a wartime chow line where there weren’t hungry kids and often women with children to eat and they always were fed. One orphan named Kim Suel adopted Jon. He was perhaps 10 or 11 years old and once when the Marines were filling sandbags for a protective wall around their foxholes, he came up to Kilburn and started helping.
He could speak very little English. He bummed a shelter half from a buddy and offered Kim a bed for the night. He stayed for several weeks and when Kilburn would dig in for the night, Kim would show up. In bad weather he would always try to quarter Kilburn in a Korean home, made of clay or mud like adobe with a crawl space between floor and ground. Homes were heated with a firebox underneath and people slept on a mat or quilt on the floor. Kilburn was always in a sleeping bag so he stayed toasty warm.
During Kilburn’s Marine service, he earned two Purple Hearts, Korean Service Medal, a United Nations Medal, and was privileged to serve in President Trumanís Military Honor Guard.

Editor’s Note: This story is authored by Dan Selock of Prague, a friend of Jon Kilburn who died several years ago.