Robert B. Simpson: The Picture - and the story

August 11, 2013 

Those old enough to remember World War II or Korea, or both, no doubt will recall some famous (I'm trying not to use the overworked word "iconic") photographs from those wars. David Douglas Duncan was one of the best of the war photographers, and one of his most famous shots from the Korean War showed the face of a warrior reflecting a memorable mixture of discouragement and total exhaustion.


My friend, Dr. David Whitten, sent me a copy of the photo recently. He was responding to a previous column in which I had talked about the famous, near-famous, or otherwise noteworthy people we meet or nearly meet in a lifetime. Dr. Whitten, a retired professor of economics at Auburn, has reason to be proud of a successful academic career that includes not only a lot of teaching, but also of the ten books he has in print. He also is rightly proud of his service as a Marine. Thus the picture, and the story related to it.

The worn figure in the picture is 27-year-old Marine Captain Francis "Ike" Fenton, Jr., veteran of World War II. His command, Company B, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, shoved into a breach in the Pusan Perimeter, has orders to "hold at all costs," and the costs have been high. After fighting hard all night, more than half the men of the 190-man rifle company are either dead or wounded. Fenton has lost radio contact with higher headquarters, his unit is out of ammunition, and he has just learned that his company first sergeant has been wounded. At some point soon after the famous picture was snapped, reinforcements arrived.

Fentons were not strangers to the costs of wartime duty. Ike Fenton's father, Ike, Sr., had enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War I. In 1945, having moved up through the ranks, Colonel Ike Fenton, Sr.was serving on Okinawa as the division engineer officer of the 1st Marine Division. Marine Private Michael Fenton, Colonel Fenton's youngest son and the younger brother of the Fenton whose Korean War photograph would become famous, was also on Okinawa and was killed in action shortly after a brief meeting with his father.

One night a dozen years after the famous photo was snapped, young Marine recruit David Whitten was standing guard on the company street in Parris Island, the famous USMC training base. The battalion commander, a remote and fearsome figure to a new Marine, checked the young recruit on his guard post, which was located about 100 yards from an outdoor theater, questioned him, and then went on his way. The battalion commander was Lieutenant Colonel Ike Fenton.

Some six months later, young Whitten was back on reserve status finishing high school when he was pressed into service to drive his step-father and two fellow golfers to Parris Island, where they would be joined by a Marine to play in a pro-am golf tournament. When the young driver went back to the golf course to collect his passengers at the end of the tournament, he was surprised to see that the fourth on their team was Ike Fenton.

Colonel Fenton predictably claimed to remember the young man, but then proved it by recalling the questions he had asked and the answers Whitten had given at his guard posts that night. Especially the last question, which was, "How are you enjoying the movie?" And the young recruit's answer: "Movie, Sir?"

Despite his feigned ignorance of it, to this day Dr. Whitten clearly remembers the movie, very visible on the outdoor screen. It was Jack Webb's "The DI," an excellent Marine story, and he says he enjoyed it thoroughly.

More to the point, though, he remembers clearly the Marine officer of the Korean War photograph, the warrior who would lead gallant troops against overwhelming odds, never giving up, and who yet had the human touch when dealing with a young recruit.

And we both consider the man in the photograph another case of some of the unusual people whose lives have touched our own, even by so much as a brief whisper, and who have made us better people by the example they set for us.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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