Preserving Falmouth's Heritage The Falmouth Historical Society 

About Falmouth - Retrospective—May 2024

Remembering One Who Fell in the "Forgotten War" on Memorial Day


Riflemen from the 1st Marine Division Advancing During Operation RIPPER

Marine riflemen hug the ground as they advance under fire during Operation RIPPER in March 1951

U.S. Marine Operations in Korea, 1950-1953, Volume 4

Memorial Day is when our nation honors and mourns those who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces.  Roughly one out of four Maine men of military age served during the Korean War.  Out of forty thousand who served, 241 of those sent to Korea died with 154 having been killed in action.  We honor those who died with a parade, ceremony, and flags by their gravestones.  It is also fitting that we recall their stories.  This year, we remember the story of Corporal Erman Rogers Burke, United States Marine Corps Reserve, who was the only person from Falmouth to be killed in action during the Korean War.

Erman was born March 1929 at Boston and lived in Portland during his youth.  He was the third and youngest child of William Russell Burke and Cora May Sawyer.  Erman’s father was a naturalized US citizen who had emigrated from Prince Edward Island.  He was a carpenter and a call fireman.  Erman’s mother was from Deering with family ties to Falmouth.  His military records listed Falmouth as his home of record.

Erman attended the Cummings School in East Deering, and Portland High where he played tennis and was a cadet.  He was also a Boy Scout.

1946 was an eventful year for Erman.  His mother died in March while he was a high school junior.  The next month he dropped out of school and enlisted in the US Marine Corps. 

Erman Rogers Burke-1950 Totem
Erman Rogers Burke
PHS Totem Yearbook 1950 (Ancestry)

Erman was immediately sent to Parris Island, South Carolina, for boot camp.  Upon completion of his training, he was assigned to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina where he was promoted to corporal and served as a supply NCO.  Upon completion of his three-year enlistment, Erman received an honorable discharge to the Marine Corps’ voluntary reserve.

Three months after his discharge, when asked by the Evening Express whether he ever wished he were back in the service, Erman replied, “I think young men ought to get some military service at about age 17 and I’m glad I got mine in the Marines, but I like liberty too much to want to get back in again.”

Basic Marksmanship Instruction at Parris Island
Basic Marksmanship Instruction
MCRDPI History

Erman returned to Portland and completed his high school education, graduating from Portland High School in June 1950.   His yearbook entry observed that "Handsome Erman has all the girls ah-ing."  His father had retired and moved to Raymond to live with Erman’s sister, which left Erman living at the YMCA. 

On June 25, North Korea launched a surprise invasion of the Republic of Korea (ROK).  President Truman responded by ordering General MacArthur to help the South Koreans repel the attack.  Unfortunately, the US armed forces had drawn down substantially after WWII.  

The 1st Marine Division was ordered to Korea, but all that could be cobbled together from the 1st and 2nd Divisions was a single brigade. 

The Marines initiated a callup of its reserves beginning with reserve units.  Then they called up individual “voluntary” reservists.

From July to December, they ordered forty thousand reservists to active duty with half (including Erman) being mobilized in October.

Map of North Korean Invasion of South Korea
North Korean Invasion of South Korea
June-September 1950

Erman soon found himself on his way back to Camp Lejeune for refresher training.  He was then assigned to A Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, but that didn’t last long. 

In January, Erman was sent to San Francisco to board a troop transport ship bound for Korea.  He arrived in February and was assigned to I Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.  His company was comprised almost entirely of mobilized reservists. 

The phonetic alphabet was often used when referring to companies; “I Company” would be called “Item Company.

Mobilized Marine Reservists Reporting for Duty 

Mobilized Reservists Reporting for Duty
"Our First Year in Korea," USMC Historical Branch

The 1st Division had already seen a lot of combat.  The division led the amphibious assault into enemy-held territory at Inchon.  During the battle for the Chosin Reservoir, the division had been forced to withdraw from North Korea after the Peoples Republic of China launched a massive surprise attack across the border.

When Erman arrived in Korea, the allied forces had halted the advance of the Chinese Peoples Volunteer Army. 

 Patch of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines

Allied units—including seven US divisions and a like number ROK divisions—formed a barrier across the Korean Peninsula just below Seoul with the 1st Marine Division roughly in the center.

The next phase in the effort to push the Chinese and North Korean forces back was named Operation RIPPER and scheduled to commence on March 7th. 

Oum Mountain, a stark 2,900-foot peak, was about five and a half miles from the line of departure.  The 1st Marine Division was confronted by a natural fortress of wooded hills and swift streams.  

Map of Operation RIPPER Western Front in March 1951
Operation RIPPER Western Front - March 1951
Seoul is at left - Red line shows route of 1st Marine Regiment

There were few highways, and extensive maintenance would be required to use the Hoengsong-Hongchon road as a supply route.   Secondary roads were few and so poor it would sometimes prove necessary for vehicles to detour along the rocky stream beds.

Wednesday, March 7th, dawned cold and clear, with snow falling in the afternoon.  The Hoengsong-Hongchon road, winding through Kunsamma Pass, paralleled the boundary between the two Marine assault regiments, the 7th Marines on the left and the 1st Marines (Erman’s) on the right. 

Hills in the 1st Marine Division Area of Operations

Hills in the 1st Marine Division Area of Operation


The two Marine regiments met with light resistance.  Both took their objectives with little trouble except for scattered bursts of machine gun fire.  Total casualties for the day were seven men wounded.

The second day’s advances gave added proof that the enemy was up to their old trick of putting up a limited defense while pulling back before the Marines could come to grips.  Log bunkers were ideal for these delaying tactics; each was a little fortress that might enable a squad to hold off a company while larger units withdrew.

The Marine advance came to a halt on March 9th to wait for Army units to catch up on the right.  For the next two days, 1st Marine Division operations were limited to patrolling.  The advance resumed on March 11th.  Chinese resistance continued to be light as the two Marine regiments occupied rather than seized ground on March 12-13.  By the 14th, all units were dug in along Phase Line ALBANY.

 Operation RIPPER 1st Marine Division Sector
Operation RIPPER - 1st Marine Division Sector

U.S. Marine Operations in Korea, 1950-1953, Volume 4

With scarcely a pause, the second phase of Operation RIPPER began on March 14th with a drive toward Phase Line BUFFALO.  Despite the difficulty of maneuvering over muddy roads in mountainous terrain, the operation plan called for a rapid advance of the 1st Marine Division.  The division made rapid progress.  Flash floods and roads churned into hub-deep mud were the greatest enemies of progress.

The 1st Marines met stiffening opposition which indicated that the enemy planned to make a stand on the high ground east and north of Hongchon.  At 12:30 p.m. on March 15th, the 2nd and 3rd Battalions commenced an attack on Hill 428.


1st Marines on the March
1st Marine Regiment on the March

U.S. Marine Operations in Korea, 1950-1953, Volume 4

Easy Company and Item Company (Erman’s unit) engaged in a hot fire fight with the enemy.  Both sides relied chiefly on mortars, but the Chinese had the advantage of firing from camouflaged bunkers. 

An air strike was called, and four Marine aircraft responded immediately. Fox Company was committed in the attempt to carry Hill 428, but the enemy continued to resist stubbornly until dusk. 

The battalion commander then ordered a withdrawal to night defensive positions around Hill 246. The two battalions suffered 7 killed in action and 86 wounded that day.

 Riflemen from the 1st Marine Division in Operation RIPPER

The Hills Bristled with Pillboxes and Bunkers

"Our First Year in Korea," USMC Historical Branch

Corporal Erwan Burke was one of the seven; he was killed by enemy small arms fire on Hill 428.

Erwan’s remains were interred with his parents and older brother at Pine Grove Cemetery on Falmouth Foreside.

The Press Herald published “In Memoriam” items placed by his family on the anniversary of Erwan's death until 1965.  Erman's name is listed on a plaque at Portland High School honoring former students who lost their lives in Korea.

 Burke Gravestone at Pine Grove Cemetery in Falmouth
Burke Gravestone at Pine Grove


Corporal Burke's Decorations 

Corporal Burke's Decorations


For more information about the US Marine Corps during the first year of the Korean War:

  1. Historical Branch, US Marine Corps, U.S. Marine Operations in Korea 1950-1953, Vols 1-5, 1954-1972.
  2. Historical Branch, US Marine Corps, Our First Year in Korea--Reprints from the Marine Corps Gazette, 1951-1972.

Retrospective:  Remembering One Who “Gave the Last Full Measure of Devotion” on Memorial Day

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