Precious memories: Former Marine visits C-119B ‘Flying Boxcar’ that helped save his life in Korean War

DOVER — There are those rare times in life when it seems like the stars align themselves perfectly and everything comes together to produce a moment that stands frozen in time.

Mike Tatoian, who serves as the president and CEO of Dover International Speedway, had one of those instances this past spring when his father, Arthur Ambrose Tatoian, came to Dover from his home in Iowa to visit his family.

Though never an easy task to get an 88-year-old to travel across country for a visit, Mike Tatoian joked that it didn’t hurt that his daughter “recently had a baby boy named after my dad (so that) was a pretty good incentive!”

That family visit to Dover eventually led Arthur Tatoian to the Air Mobility Command Museum at Dover Air Force Base for emotional reunion with another old friend — a historic C-119B “Flying Boxcar” aircraft that flew in the “Battle of Chosin Reservoir” during the Korean War.

Mr. Tatoian served as a sergeant in the 1st Marine Division from August 1948 until September 1952 and was quite familiar with the airplane.
“He couldn’t believe the plane was actually at the museum,” Mike Tatoian said. “As you likely know, many veterans don’t speak much about the horrific experience they encounter and when my dad saw the plane — he was quiet — and the first thing he said was, ‘I lost a lot of friends in Korea, but this plane saved so many more.’

“It was pretty touching and emotional for him. Then he opened up and shared many of the experiences, some of which I had heard, some of which I hadn’t, about Chosin. It was very cool for me to have that moment with him. (He) kept saying … ‘this is unbelievable.’”
It is that kind of personal experience that truly makes restoring these historic aircraft and bringing them back to life a passion for so many, said John Taylor, the director of the AMC Museum.

“The veteran’s experiences such as the one of (Mr. Tatoian’s) dad makes each and every museum staff and volunteer honored to be able to do what we do,” Mr. Taylor said. “It also provides a sense of pride and motivates each and every museum team member to continue our mission of preserving aviation history.”

He added that the C-119B is now arguably the most historic aircraft in the museum’s collection, noting that it is now completely assembled but not restored. The goal for complete restoration is October 2020.

Battle of Frozen Chosin
Arthur Tatoian had first-hand experience with those C-119B aircraft during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, which took place from Nov. 27 to Dec. 13, 1950, in the early stages of the Korean War, known for its fierce fighting and freezing weather.

United Nations forces, comprised mainly of South Korean, American and British troops, had recently pushed the invading North Korean Army out of South Korea back north of the 38th parallel. Not stopping at the border, the UN forces continued pushing north to destroy the remnants of the North Korean Army.

They soon approached North Korea’s border with China, which provoked China, a North Korean ally and fellow communist state, to intervene in the war by sending hundreds of thousands of troops south to stop the advancing UN forces.

“During the battle the Chinese blew the bridge up,” said Jon Andrews, AMC Museum board member. “This trapped all the United Nations forces.”
The blocked evacuation route was between Koto-ri and Hungnam.
Surrounded by more than 120,000 Chinese soldiers, the trapped 30,000 UN troops were running out of options. A decision was made to airdrop mobile bridge sections to these forces, with the hope that they could be used to rebuild the bridge, affectively giving them an escape route.

Eight C-119s, operated by the 314th Troop Carrier Group out of Ashiya Air Base, Japan, gathered to complete this mission. Out of the eight bridge sections dropped by parachute, four were used to build a usable bridge.
This opened up an escape route for the retreating UN forces.
That’s why the C-119B aircraft that now belongs to the AMC Museum is such an important part of history, according to Mr. Taylor.

“It’s the second-oldest C-119 in existence,” Mr. Taylor said, “and the only surviving aircraft from the operation that air-dropped mobile bridge sections to Marines during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.”

While Arthur Tatoian, now 88, was among the fortunate ones who managed to escape, the Battle of Chosin Reservoir still left a multitude of scars on him, both physically and mentally.

“He was very close to losing his hands and feet in Korea due to frostbite and in fact it still bothers him today, but he remembers some doctor and a South Korean nurse took a liking to him and saved them,” Mike Tatoian said, of his father. “He is able to walk today with some assistance and still appreciates what they did.

“He also talks about how outmanned they were and said, ‘We would shoot one of the Chinese (soldiers) and 1,000 more would show up. They would shoot one of us and we felt it deeply.’”

‘Pretty memorable moment’
He was also deeply touched when he was reunited with that C-119B at the AMC Museum.

“My dad was just amazed that almost 70 years later he is sitting in front of the C-119 that ostensibly was the key to saving so many lives,” Mr. Tatoian said. “He was thrilled. He didn’t say much at the beginning and softly just said that he lost a lot of friends in the fight … and then didn’t stop talking about (what he could remember) about the conflict.

“He was thankful to everyone that is restoring the plane so that battle will never be forgotten. He was beyond happy to see it. I think it was a bit emotional for him, but he’s also so thankful. It was simply very cool to have him see it.”

Les Polley, AMC Museum aircraft restoration chief, was on the team that travelled to Edwards AFB to pick up the C-119. He is also happy that the plane is now at Dover’s museum.
“It would have been sold for scrap metal,” he said. “A big piece of history would have been lost.”

During his father’s visit to the AMC Museum, Mr. Tatoian was also able to show him the comments from the museum’s C-119B “bench” page listed under his name on the bench.
“Sergeant Art Tatoian was a member of the United States Marine Corps and served in the 1st Marine Division during the The Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.

Despite being completely outnumbered by the enemy and suffering the harshest winter in 100 years, Art was part of one of the Marine Corps’ most defining moments in military history by being able to make a successful withdrawal from North Korea. Our family is incredibly proud of his service to our country and he did so with tremendous honor.”

All in all, that Saturday back in the spring turned out to be an unforgettable one for the Tatoians.

“Simply put — it was a pretty memorable moment for us,” Mike Tatoian said.

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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