Korean Vets

Dennis McGary (left) and Jack Martin met in Korea after enlisting in the U.S. Army, creating a 57-year friendship that lasted until McGary’s passing in July. (Courtesy photo)

CODY — For Korean War veterans Dennis McGary and Jack Martin of Cody, a train ride in Korea in 1965 was the start of a beautiful 57-year friendship. 

It all began as they sat together watching South Korean children digging for food out of 55 gallon barrels.

“[The U.S. Army] gave us a sack lunch to eat while the train was loading, and when you got done with your lunch, you’d throw your garbage out the window into 55 gallon drums lined up along the tracks,” Martin said. “When our garbage hit the barrel, all the little Korean kids dove headfirst in there to see if we had left any scraps in our lunch bags. There’d be like 10 kids jammed in those barrels.”

Martin was 17 years old and McGary was 24 years old when they met. Both had decided to enlist in the Army.

“We both expected to get put in Vietnam,” Martin said. “But at the last second, they sent us both to Korea.”

For the two friends, the poverty in Korea was a shock.

“Jack and my first impression of Korea was that children were starving to death,” McGary said in an interview given for the Korean War Legacy organization in 2020.

“We were sitting there [on the train] and a little baby with a diaper on came crawling under the benches to see if we dropped any food on the floor,” Martin said. “We were just devastated watching it. It was kind of an eye-opener [because] we’d never seen poverty so bad.”

And, there were the smells that caught them off guard.

“Him and I were talking and visiting [on the train] … and all of a sudden, he looked at me and I looked at him, and I said ‘what’s that terrible smell?’ I grabbed my handkerchief and put it over my nose,” McGary said in the Korean War Legacy interview. “We finally looked out the window, and there was dried, dead fish hanging on fences for blocks and blocks and blocks.”

It was Martin’s need for a smoke during that train ride that sealed the friendship.

“I used to smoke cigarettes, and I had lost my lighter on the ship [that carried them to Korea], and Dennis pulls out a really nice lighter and gives me a light,” Martin said.

Martin offered McGary a cigarette, but he didn’t smoke.

“I said ‘why do you carry that lighter?’ and he said ‘For guys like you asking me for lights,” Martin said. “I thought, ‘Well, this guy’s gonna be okay [because] he thinks of other people.’”

McGary and Martin were stationed at Camp Rice, which was just a few miles from the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea.

At night, they could hear propaganda spewing from loudspeakers.

They ended up bunking together for the next 13 months, Martin working as a mechanic and McGary working as clerk, though he had initially been trained as a diesel engineer.

“When we got to Camp Rice, they dumped us out of the trucks and lined us up,” McGary said in the Korean War Legacy interview. “The first sergeant said ‘Does anybody type?’ and nobody answered, so finally I said ‘First sergeant, I do’ … so I spent thirteen months behind a typewriter behind a desk [and] never turned a wrench.”

Throughout their time at Camp Rice, McGary and Martin became very close.

“We got to be best friends,” said Martin, explaining that McGary, who was born and raised in Wyoming, would tell him all about Cody.

“He was always telling me about Cody and the hunting and the ranches and the horses ... so I decided when I got out of the Army, I better go check out Cody,” Martin said.

After Korea, McGary and Martin were stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. When they were discharged in 1967, Martin came to visit Wyoming.

He fell in love with Cody, but went back to Wisconsin, where he met his wife Diane. He convinced Diane to have their honeymoon in Cody.

“We were floored over the weather. It was so nice out here. We came from Wisconsin where it rained all the time,” Martin said.

After the honeymoon, the Martins moved to Cody.

“Diane and Judie [Dennis’ wife] became best friends,” Martin said. “And our kids grew up together, went to school together, did sports together and everything else.”

“Dennis and I both ended up working at UPS together till we retired,” Martin added. “We traveled a lot of miles together by every means of transportation you could think of.”

Both became life members of the VFW as well as part of the Honor Guard. And, both were members of the Korean War Veterans Association.

Their friendship was jolted, though, when McGary passed away in July in Billings from health complications.

“It was really hard for [Jack], [and] he suffered dramatically,” Diane Martin said. “After Dennis died, Jack said, ‘I got to see all my friends before it’s too late.’”

Martin and his son rode 2,600 miles on their motorcycles to visit every friend on Martin’s list.

But Martin remained with McGary until the end, escorting his body back to Cody with the help of VFW Honor Guard Commander Ron Silva.

“That was tough,” Martin said.

Martin said he’ll miss his friendship with McGary the most.

“They were almost like brothers,” Judie McGary, Dennis’ wife, said. “They just always had each other’s backs.”

For McGary and Martin, their service remained a part of their lives until the end.

McGary kept a scrapbook that held every veteran’s funeral program and every newspaper article about the VFW. And Martin and McGary visited ill veterans in the community.

“They did things like that just to keep track of the other vets,” Judie said.

It’s that service to their country and to other veterans that will remain their legacy — a legacy which death cannot steal.

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