GAITHERSBURG, Md. (WDVM) — An American solider turned spy survived the most significant battles of the twentieth century. His family caught only a glimpse through letters they still hold onto today.
“What are the odds that one man would be in two of the most significant battles certainly for the United States in the twentieth century?,” questions Larry Matthews.
That man is his father, former Command Sergeant Major Lawrence Matthews.
In 1941, Matthews joined the United States Army after a rough childhood surviving the Great Depression in Southern Appalachia.
As Matthew’s son and fellow army veteran, Larry says, the military service became a structure for normalcy.
“During the Great Depression, one million American children were on the road trying to survive. He was one of them,” said Larry.
The United States had entered World War II, and after a couple of weeks serving in Normandy following D-Day, Matthews was sent to Belgium to fight in what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge.
“It was bitterly cold, snowing, hard to maneuver because of the snow,” Larry recounts, “It was hard for the Germans to maneuver too. Their tanks and things like that were getting stuck in the mud, it was a mess. But they managed to survive that. It was brutal, but they managed to survive.”
But all Matthew’s mother knew of the six weeks of carnage came from letters her husband sent back home–they were brief and offered only a shallow glimpse into the soldiers’ reality.
“He didn’t write to her until it was over, until in January. The only thing he said is “there’s a foot of snow here. We’re sleeping in barns, and thinks are slightly rugged,’ that’s all he would say about it,” Larry said. “She had enough to worry about. She had me, I was a toddler at the time, and he didn’t want to make it worse for her.”
Matthews survived World War II, and continued his service.
By the breakout of the Korean War in 1950, Matthews arrived in North Korea, and by December fought in the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. The battle pinned communist Chinese forces against Americans who were surrounded on all sides.
Below freezing temperatures only worsened combat conditions.
“It was literally hand-to-hand combat in places. It was brutal, it was terrible. Men literally froze to death,” Larry said. “[My father] tells a story that he told me when he was dying–he turned to me and he said ‘ you don’t know what it’s like to have to take a rifle from a dead man to survive.”
Larry says his father credits that dead marine’s weapon that he pried away from frozen fingers as the man who saved his life.
Evacuations of marines and soldiers, and later civilians, began on December 15th from the port of Hungnam. On Christmas eve, Matthews was among the last units to leave.
He would write home a letter dated Christmas Day: “I’m okay. I’m writing this from the General G.M. Randall. Santa Claus came yesterday and brought us a nice present: boats, lots of boats. Boy, was I glad to get out of Hungnam.”
After surviving another war and infamous battle, Matthews became a spy for the army and by 1953 was living in Germany with his family.
Matthews would retire from the military in 1968. He passed away in 2000 after battling throat cancer.
Larry still holds onto old spy cameras his father used and a photo of the East German clothing he wore while working undercover.
“He’s certainly the most compelling man I ever met only because of his experiences and what he’s been able to survive,” Larry said.