Comanche native Russell Combs is a man who was shaped by his experiences in the military, from World War II as a young man not realizing just how close the enemy really was to his ship, to being on the front lines in the Korean War. Later in life he still served by being part of the Stephens County Honor Guard and the commander for the Comanche American Legion.
His wife of more than 60 years, Martha, said he was sometimes haunted by what he had seen during their life together.
“He was over there (Korea) for 18 months on the front line and they called him in the office one day and said ‘You can go home now,’” she said. “No rehab or anything to adjust them back to into the world. He almost jumped over (the rails) on the ship because he didn’t know where he was at, or what he was doing.”
Later Russell was diagnosed with PTSD.
“All the years I’ve been married to him — he’s still affected. He’d have nightmares and all this kind of stuff. He said he’d seen so many dead bodies — kids, women — that nobody knows what it’s like until they have to walk over dead bodies to get back to their line, and those North Koreans were after you and shooting and you’re just digging a hole anywhere you can find.”
A few years ago, Russell started to forget more and more and Martha didn’t know how to help him with his new enemy — dementia.
“I called my friend Stipple Johnson in Duncan, he’s in the American Legion, well he called Anthony Sykes (then Senator for District 24),” Martha said. “Anthony is a real good friend of ours. Russell has been up at the State Capitol with him and Dennis Johnson (former Representative District 50) through us knowing them and them visiting American Legion meetings.“
Sykes called others like Sen. Paul Scott and they were able to get Martha the paperwork to get Russell into the Veterans Center in Lawton.
“Within three days I had him out of Duncan and in the Veterans Home,” she said, “Sen. Paul Scott called later and wanted to know how everything was and I told him and he said ‘Good, that’s what we want.’ He’s doing better but I don’t know if he’ll ever be home — he’s got dementia so bad. He has really, really suffered.”
The following is part of a story from The Duncan Banner about Russell by former staff writer Kevin Kerr. Combs is recounting his entry into the Merchant Marines and then his time in the Korean War.
In 1944, Combs was only 16. He was looking for work in his hometown of Comanche but with little luck.
“This little town, there’s not a lot of opportunity for you for work,” Combs said. “I was single, and nobody would hire you. So I finally got tired of it, and me and another friend quit school in the middle of the 10th grade, went to Dallas and checked with the Merchant Marines. We heard they were taking young men.”
Combs remembered the recruiter saying they would be happy to have them, and after his father signed the release forms, the 16-year-old was headed into the military.
In October 1944, Combs went through basic training in Florida, then deployed from New Orleans on the U.S.S. George Gershwin, a Liberty Ship, and headed through the Panama Canal into the Pacific Ocean.
“That part was kind of a vacation for me,” Combs joked. “We were on a boat, I had a white suit and seeing the water, it was kind of fun. I didn’t have sense enough to know there were Japanese submarines everywhere sinking those Liberty Ships in the Pacific.”
Thirty days after deploying, Combs landed in New Guinea and the Philippines, dropping off supplies to troops in that region.
“They were moving the Japanese forces north into Manilla Bay, and that was the big one,” Combs said.
Combs said they had 13 ships to get into the bay, when 300 ships had already been sunk by Japanese forces, mostly in part to Japanese gunning stations positioned on Corregidor Island.
“It was nothing but a big rock, just a big, huge mountain rock filled with caves. The Japanese were occupying those caves and you couldn’t get by without them opening fire on you,” Combs said. “So to counter that, the Navy had an aircraft carrier that would send planes across that mountain and blast the side of that thing with Napalm so the Japanese would have to move back in there and we could sneak the ships into the bay.”
Combs said it took 24 hours to get each of their 13 ships into the bay and out of artillery range from the Japanese.
Once in the bay, the Army sent forces to unload all of the Liberty Ship’s cargo which included groceries, equipment, trucks, more supplies and half of a hold full of beer.
“They started unloading us, and those GI’s would get down into the beer hold and start uncapping those beers, you know because they were beer starved to death,” Combs recalled. “They’d sneak back in there drinking those beers, and pretty soon, you couldn’t find any of those GI’s because they’d all snuck up in there to drink beer.
“They eventually had to put MPs by the hold to keep them from drinking it all.”
In all, Combs made five trips with the Merchant Marines all over the globe.
In 1949, after not being active with the Merchant Marines for a while, Combs was still unable to find good work, so he talked with a recruiter who told him he should be a Combat Engineer.
“I didn’t know what they were, but I was determined I was going to do something about it,” Combs said.
After basic training, Combs was put on the U.S.S. Ainsworth that took he and his fellow soldiers to Yokohama Harbor, Japan, in March of 1950.
They spent time in the town of Kokura, Japan. One day when he and a group of friends returned to the base, the gates were closed, which was unusual.
When the Military Police Officers (MPs) let them in but didn’t tell them anything, Combs said he knew something was up. That night, they loaded all of their supplies into trucks and were escorted to a western dock where they loaded onto barges.
“I said ‘what in the heck is the deal, this is not a maneuver,’” Combs said. “Come to find out, they said we were headed to the war.
“I said ‘what war,’ and they said we were headed to North Korea and we were headed to Buson, Korea.”
Upon landing in Korea, Combs’ troops loaded everything on trains to transport. While traveling, their train stopped in a tunnel.
He said he and three other soldiers headed toward the front of the train to make sure the engineers wouldn’t uncouple the train and blow both ends of the tunnel, trapping them for good. When they approached the front of the train, the engineers started the train up again, blowing smoke, steam and dirt directly into the faces of Combs and the other soldiers.
Combs was up on the coal car when the train started back up, so when he tried to move back on the train, he leaped for what he thought was a ladder on the next train car, but missed and fell to the ground below.
“I fell between those tracks and the train hit me here,” he said while pointing to his left side. “I’ve still got caved in ribs from where I didn’t get medical attention and they just grew in crooked.”
Combs laid on the ground in the pitch black tunnel, feeling cautiously around him.
“I moved my elbow a little to the left and finally, I felt the wheel of the car bumping my arm as it came by,” Combs said. “So I went to my other side and I found the wall, so I knew I was beside the tracks and not under the train.”
When the train finally cleared him, Combs shouted back at the guards on the back of the train to stop the train and pick him up.
Combs’ unit continued to push north to meet the North Koreans on numerous fronts with inadequate equipment, only to stall the N. Korean troops until more help could come. He narrowly escaped capture numerous times while in Korea, was separated from his unit several times and came out lucky more times than he cared to admit. Finally in October 1951, Combs got his 18 months in combat, and was told to come home.
“In that time, I went from the rank of private to a Sergeant First Class in 14 months,” Combs said. “That’s a lot of rank in only 18 months, but that’s front line duty. You can make a lot of rank in a short amount of time on front line duty.”
Upon returning home, Combs joined the National Guard, 158th Field Artillery Battalion in Duncan.
“I stayed in the National Guard for about five years and made it all the way to Captain,” Combs said.
In total, Combs spent over 20 years in three different branches of the military and traveled to nearly every theater in World War II, as well as saw the first part of the Korean War.
When asked if he would change anything about how he got to where he is today, Combs said he wouldn’t change a thing.
“I’ll tell you why,” he said. “I came from a real poor class in this area, and I dug my way to the top. Had I never completed my GED in the military, I wouldn’t have become an officer and wouldn’t have had the opportunities I’ve received.”
Donning his military dress coat and hat, Combs joked that he was proud he still fit in his uniform and said he looked as if he was back in the service. When asked if he would do it again, he didn’t hesitate.
“If they took 83-year-olds, I’d go right back,” Combs said. “If I could kept them off of our shores here, I’d stay with them until the end.”