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Former POW (one who escaped) gets long overdue recognition

 

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The Oregonian (Portland, OR)
October 2, 2005

An attic discovery, a daughter's gift
Tom Hallman Jr.

Mary Emerton uncovered her father's secret in 1978.

She was 17, a high school senior, and her parents had asked her to clean the attic as they prepared to move from their Southeast Portland home. She sorted boxes and carted them downstairs, eventually clearing a space that revealed an old steamer trunk. It was too heavy for her to lift, so she opened the lid to remove the contents.

That's when she discovered the scrapbook.

As books go, it was thin, maybe 50 pages. Some, brittle with age, had pulled loose from the dark-brown leather binding. Although her family enjoyed passing around photos and reminiscing, Emerton had never seen this scrapbook.

She carefully turned each page, making sure the book didn't fall apart in her hands. She was surprised to see a photograph of her father. He appeared to be a soldier, a part of her father's past she'd never heard about.

But there he was, a strapping young man in a Marine Corps uniform. She glanced at a newspaper story glued to the facing page: August 1950. A Marine Corps reserve unit based in Portland was being sent to the Korean battlefield. Pages later, Emerton found a thin War Department envelope. She pulled out a single sheet of paper. A telegram. She read five gut-wrenching words: "We regret to inform you."

Each page of the book told another chapter. Cpl. Lawrence Adelard Plaisance was paralyzed from the waist down by mortar shrapnel. He and 100 other men were captured by Chinese soldiers. Those able to walk were forced to hike to a prisoner-of-war camp. Severely wounded men were left at an abandoned farmhouse under the watchful eye of two armed guards. Three weeks after his capture, her father choked the guards to death with his bare hands and led the other prisoners to freedom.

In the attic, parts of her father that had always seemed strange began to make sense. He refused to eat rice. In the winter, his feet turned black. His jaw constantly ached. He spoke about the metal plate in his mouth. When the television showed anything war-related -- whether news or a movie -- her father left the room.

Emerton placed the book back in the trunk and went downstairs to tell her mother what she'd discovered. Her mother, with tears in her eyes, said her father knew nothing of the scrapbook. She'd started it when he was sent overseas. What happened to him in Korea was a painful part of his past. The mother made the daughter promise to never mention the scrapbook. For more than 25 years, Mary Emerton kept that promise. Then, two years ago, Emerton asked her mother to find the scrapbook. She
wanted to read through it, now as a grown woman, to better understand her father.

Research in secret

Months later, she met and began dating Eric Emerton, the man she'd eventually marry. She told Emerton, a U.S. Army public affairs officer stationed in Michigan, about her father and his secret past. Intrigued, Emerton asked to see a copy of her father's separation orders from the service.

Larry Plaisance, Eric Emerton learned, had been a warrior. He'd served in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II in the European and Pacific theaters in a unit that was the forerunner to the Navy SEALs. In Korea, he'd been with the Marine Corps Reserve.

To learn more, Eric Emerton asked an Army historian to look into Plaisance's record.

Months later, the historian reported back to say that Plaisance fought in three bloody Korean campaigns with the 1st Marine Division. He took part in the invasion of Inchon and the recapture of Seoul, and was wounded during the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, or as Marines call it, the "Frozen Chosin." The battle, the historian said, was one of the most brutal in Marine Corps history. The Marines were outgunned and poorly equipped to fight in temperatures far below zero.

At Chosin, the Marines were surrounded by more than 200,000 Chinese soldiers who had unexpectedly become involved in the Korean War. On the day Plaisance was wounded, the Marines had been caught up in a 14-hour firefight. The historian said Plaisance was wounded and left to die at a farmhouse with 10 other Marines. While there, he asked another prisoner to remove the mortar shrapnel from his backside. He bided his time, gathering his strength. He then killed two guards and led other prisoners on a 37-mile hike in freezing weather to rejoin the 1st Marine Division. During the journey, Plaisance had no gloves and only moccasins on his feet.

Surprisingly, Emerton discovered that Plaisance had not received any decorations for his Korean service. Mary Emerton asked her mother whether she and her husband could pursue getting her father the medals he'd earned. In the same way her mother had asked her to keep the scrapbook a secret, she asked her mother to not tell her father.

Eric Emerton contacted Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who in turn requested that the Marine Corps conduct a formal review into Plaisance's service. The case took more than a year to research and was adjudicated by a Marine Corps panel that studied reports, evidence and war history. It ultimately recommended medals for Plaisance.

When Mary Emerton received official word, she stopped by her father's house and found him sitting at the dining table with her mother. Emerton acknowledged that long ago, she'd found a scrapbook in the attic that detailed his time in Korea. Until that moment, Larry Plaisance didn't know the book existed. Only then did Evelyn Plaisance show it to him.

And then his daughter told him that the Marine Corps planned to issue him medals.

In her life, Mary Emerton had seen her father -- a retired Portland policeman -- cry only three times. Now it was four.

A parting gift

Mary Emerton is 44 now. But she will always be her father's daughter. For the past year, Mary and Eric Emerton have lived in separate cities as she ties up the loose ends of a life in Portland. On Monday, she leaves for Michigan to be with her husband. But first, she had a gift for her father.

On Saturday morning, the extended Plaisance family gathered at the Oregon Korean War Memorial in Wilsonville. A color guard marched into place, and then Major Jason Moriss, commanding officer of Portland's Marine Corps recruiting station, told those gathered that he was proud to honor a man he described as humble and honest, a man who showed incredible valor while fighting in what became known as "Hellfire Valley."

Plaisance, he said, displayed honor, courage and commitment. The epitome, he said, of the Marine spirit. For his actions, Plaisance was awarded the Prisoner of War Medal and the Republic of Korean War Service Medal.

"While the official record of your period of captivity was either buried in bureaucracy or lost in the chaos of combat for almost 55 years, your legacy of courage and valor to win your freedom and win the freedom of your fellow Marines has lived on."

He called Plaisance forward.

With a slight limp, the older man let go of his wife's hand, and walked to stand in front of the major, one Marine to another. He straightened, at attention now, the years slipping away from his nearly 80-year-old body, eyes front, unwavering, not moving as the major pinned one medal, and then another, to his suit jacket.

And then slowly, he raised his right hand to his brow, his fingers tight, the angle correct, to snap a salute.

 

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