|SERGEANT MARTIN RUSS|
Martin Russ, at 79;Marine who wrote about combat
NEW YORK — Sheets of enemy gunfire and a hail of mortar shells pinned down Sergeant Martin Russ and his platoon of Marines when they ventured into the no man’s land between North and South Korea in the summer of 1953 — the last days of the Korean War.
“During the barrage,’’ Mr. Russ later wrote, “I tried to draw my entire body within my helmet, like a fetus.’’
For seven months, when he was back in the bunkers, he scribbled his thoughts in a small notebook. Diaries were prohibited, so when a lieutenant asked what he was writing, he said they were notes for letters home. Those notes became “The Last Parallel: A Marine’s War Journal,’’ which rose to number eight on The New York Times best-seller list in 1957.
Mr. Russ, a college dropout who went on to write other books about the chaos of combat, died Monday at his home in Oakville, Calif., his sister S.K. Dunn said. He was 79.
At 21, Mr. Russ served on that front line — the 38th parallel — with the First Marine Division. The Marines called it the MLR, or main line of resistance — a strip that in some places was a hundred yards wide, in others thousands. There, despite horrific battles, the armies did not move on, he wrote; they just dug deeper into their trenches and caves, in outposts they named for movie stars: Marilyn, Ingrid, Ava, and Hedy. Decimated companies were replenished by fresh troops.
Both sides became so fortified that few men ever ventured out in daylight and survived. Night after night, patrols wove through the brush and terraced rice paddies to confront the enemy and rescue the wounded. It was a stalemate accepted by both sides because a breakthrough would have cost more casualties than it was worth — a stalemate that holds to this day.
Home from the war, Mr. Russ tried his hand at acting in Pasadena, then moved to a small town in Oregon where he sold sewing machines and turned his combat notes into his first book.
“A book for the years that sets new standards for candid narratives about citizens in armor,’’ The New York Times said in a review.
Among Mr. Russ’s other books, most of them based on interviews with combat veterans, are “Line of Departure: Tarawa’’ (1967) and “Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea’’ (1999).
In “Line of Departure’’ he recounted the World War II battle in which, for the first time, American forces faced serious Japanese opposition to an amphibious landing; the Japanese fought almost to the last man and exacted a heavy toll.
For “Breakout,’’ Russ interviewed Marines who were surrounded when a Chinese army of about 60,000 poured over Korea’s border in November 1950, intent on wiping out American forces marching north to the Yalu River on orders from General Douglas MacArthur. About 12,000 Marines, strung out along 80 miles of winding mountain road leading to the Chosin Reservoir, battled their way out of the encirclement.
Martin Saxon Russ was born in Newark. Besides his sister S.K. Dunn, Russ leaves his wife of 48 years, the former Liza Blaisdell; another sister, Sissy Turner; two daughters; a son; and two grandchildren.
After graduating from a Connecticut private school, Mr. Russ attended St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., but dropped out in his junior year to join the Marines. Assigned to an ordnance battalion, Russ made a nuisance of himself until his request for combat duty was granted.
In later years, although he had no college degree, he taught writing at what is now Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Despite the fear and devastation he had faced in Korea and later wrote about, Mr. Russ remained “a gung-ho Marine’’ throughout his life, his sister said. Of his time on the front line, he wrote in his first book: “I’d rather be here than anywhere else in the world. Whether I’m ready for the loony bin or not is beside the point.’’