Thomas James Pentony (1932-2019)
Thomas James Pentony, a Korean War Marine veteran who lived for decades in Korea and Southeast Asia, died on Oct. 30 at the VA Medical Center in Northport, NY. Mr. Pentony, who was also awarded a Bronze Star for Valor in Vietnam and received numerous other medals and commendations, had lived in Levittown, NY, since leaving Korea for the last time two years ago. He was 87.
Born in Atlantic City, NJ, Mr. Pentony joined the Marines in October 1950, just months after a North Korean attack had launched the Korean War, and saw brutal combat during his three-year enlistment. British journalist Max Hastings, in his 1987 history The Korean War, writes that Sergeant Pentony, then an artillery forward observer with the 5th Marines, "had found boot camp untroublesome after the rigours of a Catholic upbringing in New Jersey, 'where the nuns taught you that you would die as a martyr if you went fighting communism'." [p. 373; see longer quote below]
After six years in civilian life, Pentony rejoined the Marines in 1959, eventually serving a total of 26 years. His military training included 47 weeks of Thai language in 1962, which he used when serving as an advisor to Royal Thai military forces. He also studied Vietnamese for 47 weeks in 1969, and served two combat tours in Vietnam as an intelligence officer, receiving a battlefield commission there. While serving in the military, Pentony earned a B.S. degree from Chaminade University in Honolulu, and also completed coursework for a master's degree there.
In 1978, by then a major, Pentony returned to Korea and served four years with the UN Command Military Armistice Commission's Tunnel Neutralization Team, detecting tunnels North Koreans were digging under the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea. In 1982, he retired from the Marine Corps as a major, but continued to live in Seoul as a businessman.
During these years in Korea, Pentony joined the Seoul Hash House Harriers, which members describe as "a drinking club with a running problem." At the weekly "Hash" gatherings, he quickly became known as "Kimchi Marine." Acclaimed for his salty and razor-sharp humor, and his fondness for reciting ribald rhymes by Rudyard Kipling to the assembled, he was named Hash Grand Master in 1982-83. He later served for several years as an Emeritus Master, and each week's event in Seoul still closes with a rousing and irreverent Marine anthem which is Pentony's legacy. Bonds of friendship formed in the Hash lasted for decades, and in Kimchi Marine's last weeks well wishes flowed in from fellow Hashers all around the world.
In 1993, Pentony and his wife, Eun-sook "Silver" Suh-Pentony, relocated from Seoul to Phuket, Thailand, where they lived for four years, managing a resort condo complex. Then, returning to the U.S., they lived briefly in Pennsylvania before settling in Phoenix for four years while Silver attended the Thunderbird Graduate School of International Management and worked with Calance, Inc.
In 2002, Pentony and Silver returned to Korea, living for nine years on Cheju Island, then five more years back in Seoul. In August 2017, they left Korea once more, moving to Levittown, NY, on Long Island.
Pentony is survived by his wife Silver, and a son Thomas Pentony of Levittown, PA. He was predeceased by a daughter Deborah Madden and a son Mark.
A Catholic Mass will be held at 10 a.m. on Saturday, November 9, at St. John Vianney Church, 350 Conshohocken State Road, Gladwyne, PA 19035; (610) 642-0938. Interment will be at Arlington National Cemetery.
* From Max Hastings' The Korean War, pp. 373-74:
Sergeant Tom Pentony was an artillery forward observer with the 5th Marines. He had found boot camp untroublesome after the rigours of a Catholic upbringing in New Jersey, 'where the nuns taught you that you would die as a martyr if you went fighting communism'.
On 26 March 1953, Pentony was with the 3/5th behind Vegas, when the Chinese overran the American 'Combat Outposts', and the Marines went in to retake the position. Pentony watched, appalled, as the Americans fought their way up the hill under punishing Chinese fire: 'I used to think officers were smart. Now I felt: "This is stupid. Do they have any plan?" They just seemed to think: "The Marines will take that hill, frontal assault, that's it." '
On the afternoon of 27 March, Pentony's senior gunner officer, a major, was so appalled by the spectacle of infantry still struggling forward, having lost all their own officers, that he received special permission to go forward and lead them himself. His radio operator returned two days later with the dead major's pistol and watch.
The March battles for Carson, Reno and Vegas cost the Marine Corps 116 men killed out of a total of over a thousand casualties, and inspired some of the most remarkable feats of American courage to come out of the Korean War. Pentony found that his own mood, his attitude to the war, vacillated greatly from day to day: 'It was like indigestion: some days you felt very brave, nothing bothered you, sounds at night didn't worry you. Then on other days, for no special reason you were scary, jumpy -- the smallest thing bothered you.'
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