Bob Kleisley had a better chance of hitting the lottery than ever crossing paths with Mark S. Tong. Yet both men hit a jackpot worth more than money when fate put them together during the Korean War. “You know how sometimes you meet someone and it just clicks,” Kleisley said. “That’s how it was when I first met Mark.” That 1951 chance meeting near a stream in Korea blossomed into a 60-plus-year friendship for the Marine from Rochester, N.Y., and the former homeless kid from North Korea. Along the way, Kleisley and Tong have celebrated and often played major roles in helping each other reach mileposts on the highway of life. The two even live near each other in Arizona — Kleisley in Sun City and Tong in Scottsdale.“We probably don’t get together as much today as we should, but life has a way of being like that,” Kleisley said. “We do send each other a lot of emails.”
Kleisley decided to join the Marine Corps in 1950. The retired auto executive said he enlisted for two reasons — he wanted to use the G.I. bill for educational purposes and he thought he looked good in the Marine uniform. “I figured after two major military conflicts, chances were I wouldn’t be in for any heavy fighting,” the 83-year-old Kleisley recalled. “Little did I know that the Korean War would start after I signed up.” Instead of spending time out of harm’s way, Kleisley found himself in the middle of the action. He participated in numerous firefights and suffered shrapnel injuries to his wrist during a Marine offensive on Hill 749 on Kanmubong Ridge. The three-week battle in late August and September 1951 was part of the Battle of the Punchbowl, which represented the last Marine offensive in Korea following the breakdown of peace negotiations. Heavy fighting resulted in the deaths of 69 Americans and put Kleisley out of action. His injuries turned out to be good news. Without them, he never would have met his best friend. Kleisley went for rest and recovery to Yanggu, an area near the demilitarized zone. One day, Kleisley and another Marine walked down to a nearby stream. They met Tong and another member of the Republic of Korean military. “I was studying English because I wanted to be an interpreter, so I figured it was a good opportunity to practice,” Tong said. Tong took a more circuitous route to that fateful day in Yanggu, a road filled with personal hardship as he pursued the chance at a better life. Tong, whose original first name is Sukmoo, grew up in a small village in North Korea. As the communist threat grew in his home country, Tong’s mother made the most important decision in her son’s life. At the age of 12, Tong was forced to leave his home and move to South Korea, a place where he had no family or friends. “My mom was illiterate, but she was very smart,” Tong said. “When she told me I had to leave, I was crying and jumping around because I didn’t want to go. “But she told me I would have a better chance to get a good education and make a good life if I moved away.”
Tong fled in the middle of the night with other villagers and made the trip to South Korea in several days, traveling on foot or hopping on southbound trains. “Security wasn’t as tight because war had not broken out,” said the 81-year-old Tong, a retired medical doctor who specialized in obstetrics and gynaecology. “But when I got to South Korea, I had no one to stay with.” For two years, Tong lived on the streets, selling newspapers or shining shoes to survive. “Sometimes people would give you a place to sleep,” Tong recalled. “People were pretty nice.” Tong eventually landed a job as a doctor’s assistant, a position that later influenced his decision to become a doctor. However, as the communist threat grew throughout Korea, intellectuals and professionals came under attack. Tong’s employer was arrested and Tong found himself back on the streets. As war broke out, he decided to join a student volunteer group affiliated with the South Korean military, a move that led to his chance meeting with Kleisley. The two traded addresses that day in Yanggu and maintained a correspondence throughout the war. Because of his quick grasp of English, Tong got the attention of American forces. In addition to his work as an interpreter, he also was assigned to artillery school at Fort Sill, Okla. “Here I am in Korea, and he gets sent back to America before I do,” Kleisley said with a laugh. Tong returned to South Korea after the war, but came back to America to attend medical school at the University of Oklahoma. Kleisley returned home after the war and worked at an auto dealership in his hometown. “Mark would come and visit every summer,” Kleisley said. “In fact, one year he got a job washing cars at the dealership.”
Tong returned to upstate New York after medical school, completing his internship at Rochester General and his residency at Genessee Hospital. By that time, Tong decided it was time to get married, and called on his best friend to lend a helping hand. “One day Mark tells me that he thinks it’s time to get settled down,” Kleisley said. “There’s no mention of a girl and I don’t know that he’s dating anyone. “Then two weeks later, he tells me he’s getting married.” Unbeknownst to Kleisley, Tong had met a Korean exchange student at the University of Oklahoma, and she accepted his marriage proposal. There was just one catch.
Tong’s fiancee came from a wealthy family, a potential stumbling block for the boy who spent his teen years penniless on the streets of Seoul. Tong asked Kleisley to act as his advocate at a meeting with his fiancee’s brothers. Kleisley not only pulled off a successful negotiation, he also served as Tong’s best man at the wedding. The boy who fled North Korea had turned his mother’s wishes into reality. Kleisley’s son, an Army veteran, once accompanied his father on a vacation to South Korea and fell in love with the country and its people. He eventually received an Army transfer to South Korea and later married a Korean native. They now live in South Carolina. Kleisley kept many of his personal papers, photos and other correspondence from the Korean War. Many of the items are in his Sun City home office. He said a 2003 letter he received from Tong captures the essence of their friendship. “Bob, you know how I love America, Tong wrote. “America gave me all that I am and all that I have. I have many friends and many have passed away. “It could have been awfully difficult without your help. You have been my hero and a beacon through my struggle.” It is signed, “Love, your Korean brother.”