Highland man used T-square, camera in war effort

2014-03-09T17:30:00Z 2014-04-14T14:15:07Z Highland man used T-square, camera in war effortMonte Martin monte.martin@nwi.com, (219) 852-4318 nwitimes.com

Robert E. Montgomery II was in Korea to rebuild and preserve, not to search and destroy, in the waning days of the Korean War.

That was probably for the best, his wife, Marguerite, wryly observed, given his reactions to what little shooting he saw.

The Army Corps of Engineers specialist second class was aboard a train chugging to Pusan in late July 1953 when it was attacked by "what were probably the last remaining guerrillas" still marauding in that area, Montgomery said. He and his fellow new arrivals promptly stuck their heads out the train windows to see what was happening, Marguerite said. Not something anyone facing enemy fire should do, she noted.

The troop train's attackers were quickly dispatched by other forces in the vicinity.

Upon arrival in Pusan, Bob Montgomery and other members of the 2nd Engineering Group were walking along the city's streets when sirens went off, traffic scattered and everyone went running for cover, except for one GI.

"I had no idea what was going on," said the Highland resident. "It was an air attack. And here I was just standing there. That was the end of my excitement."

The three-year war concluded days later with an armistice on July 27, splitting the nation into communist North Korea and democratic South.

The son of an appliance repairman, Montgomery was born in Washington, Ind., spent his freshman year at Bosse High in Evansville, but graduated from Springfield High in Illinois. He had a year of college at what is now the University of Evansville, studying engineering before enlisting.

Montgomery, who had hoped to join the Navy's Seabees, but there were no openings, spent much of his 18 months in war-torn Korea helping map out plans for rebuilding roads and bridges as well as warehouses and temporary structures for storage from his draftsman's table.

The peacetime duty never put him in any danger (other than from ROK troops guarding the base's perimeter who were known to shoot first and ask questions like "who goes there?" later, he said).

Consquently, the young soldier so far from home became an accidental tourist. A novice photographer, Montgomery has the customary shots of Army buddies and exterior shots on-base and off.

But it is the collection of photos of the countryside, of such clarity it looks as though it was shot yesterday rather than 60 years ago, that attests to his abilities as a photo historian. What he captured through his lenses is a rich visual record of a less-mechanized, near-feudal society that still existed in postwar Korea before the South's emergence as an industrial leader.

Most Korean cities were surrounded by ancient walls that were severely damaged in the war, Montgomery said. His photos of those historical structures reveal the beauty of ornately constructed pagoda-style gates with small inlaid hand-painted tiles. Some of the structures fortunately had withstood the ravages of war as well as time.

He chronicled the life of farmers in their rice paddies. Several are seen shoeing an ox. Another pedals a large grist mill-style wheel, lifting salt water into a canal where it can dry, leaving salt crystals to be gathered.

Montgomery's shot from atop the 1,000 steps on the outskirts of Seoul looks down on one of the few large white Christian crosses he saw in Asia. The contrast between the modern city of Seoul with its stylish stadium and university and the mud huts where people lived on its fringes was striking, Montgomery said.

He saw mothers trudging through sewage in the streets, toting children on their backs.

It was an adventure that was more perilous in arriving (in addition to the train attack, his storm-tossed ship was listing 36 degrees at one point — 38 degrees being a capsizing point, he was told), than in the actual stay.

"It (the experience) provided me with an opportunity to grow up," said Montgomery, who used a bachelor of science in business administration degree in a variety of subsequent jobs.

As for photography? Times were tough financially at one point, and all his camera equipment was sold.

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