The newly minted officers aboard the U.S.S. Breckinridge didn't know whether to take the affable young marine seriously or not. It was January 1951, and they were on their way to the fighting in Korea. In the ship's wardroom, 20-year-old Marion G. "Pat" Robertson, a second lieutenant straight out of officer's training at Quantico, Va., was telling them that his father, A. Willis Robertson, was a U.S. Senator from Virginia and that he was going to have Pat reassigned. Sure enough, when the First Marine Division docked in Kobe, Japan, Robertson, his college buddy Edwin Gaines and four other young officers were taken off the ship and detailed to Otsu—ostensibly to train soldiers coming off the front lines.

Such, at least, is the recollection of Paul "Pete" McCloskey, a former seven-term Republican Congressman from Northern California who was one of the young marines on the Breckinridge. "The most distinct memory I have of all this," says McCloskey, 60, "is Pat standing on the dock at Kobe with this big grin on his face, saying, 'So long, you guys—good luck.' " That memory was vividly revived years later when Robertson, by then a well-known TV evangelist, began making public reference to being a combat veteran. Says McCloskey, a decorated Marine officer who was wounded in action in Korea, "I don't condemn Robertson for what he did 37 years ago, but I sure as hell don't like him lying about it now."

Last year, after McCloskey began sharing his recollections with the press, Robertson retaliated with a $35 million libel suit. The case was scheduled to begin before a Washington, D.C., judge on Super Tuesday, but last week, Robertson moved to dismiss the suit rather than have it open on the day of the presidential primaries in his southern strongholds.

For Robertson, the timing could hardly have been worse. With the electorate already primed to distrust TV preachers, Robertson conceded that his suit may have been "a bad idea" but insisted it was a matter of "personal honor." A President's duties include "the sending of boys into battle, sometimes to their death," Robertson noted on the day he sued. "No man can serve in that capacity with an unresolved cloud over his own...military service." In a pretrial deposition, Robertson said he never asked his father for any special consideration affecting his Marine Corps service. "There are things that are, in my estimation, dishonorable," he said, "namely, getting favors to keep one out of combat. I wouldn't have done it."

Yet McCloskey's lawyer later produced letters to and from Senator Robertson regarding his son's military status. In one, the elder Robertson thanked Gen. Lemuel Shepherd, the Marine Corps commandant, for "your encouraging message concerning Pat.... I am happy he will get some more training before engaging in combat." In another, the Senator passed on the general's good news to Ed Gaines's father, Dr. Francis P. Gaines, then president of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. "Pat and Edwin will be going to an interesting and historical part of Japan," he assured his friend, who replied, in an informal note, "[I] shall always be grateful for everything you've done."

McCloskey said he was surprised by Robertson's suit and maintained that the story of the Senator's string-pulling was well known among Marine officers in Korea. The ex-Congressman never thought to retail it for a larger audience until 1981, he said, when he saw Pat Robertson on TV's 700 Club. "He was talking about Congress being soft on Communism," said McCloskey. Piqued by the discrepancy between the preacher's gung-ho anti-Communism on television and his purported evasive action in Korea, McCloskey proceeded to take the matter up with reporters. An article about McCloskey's allegations ran in the Los Angeles Times and brought a firm letter of denial from Robertson. There the matter lay until August 1986, when Democratic Congressman Andrew Jacobs of Indiana, concerned about Robertson's possible presidential bid, asked his friend McCloskey to detail the charges against the TV minister. McCloskey wrote a six-page letter that Jacobs released to the media. Eight weeks later, Robertson sued both men, though the case against Jacobs was dismissed by the court.

It now appears that Robertson underestimated McCloskey's sense of offended honor. Inviting bankruptcy by spending $400,000 in his own defense, McCloskey tracked down several of the men who served with Robertson. Others came forward when they read about the suit. These men confirmed, in sworn depositions, that Robertson never saw combat and spent much of his tour in Masan, Korea, keeping the bar well-stocked at the officers' club. Paul William Brosman Jr., a second lieutenant who served with Robertson there, also testified under oath that Robertson was "inconsiderate" of a 19-year-old Korean barracks maid—pinching her and carrying on in public even though she was obviously unreceptive and terrified that other Koreans would conclude she was a prostitute. "She would plead with him to stop," said Brosman, "and he wouldn't stop. None of the rest of us would have done that. [We knew that] the prostitutes were dead meat when we left because they had ruined their lives to make money off the Americans." Robertson's lawyer, Joel Leising, asked Brosman whether he recalled any specific conversations with the future minister in Korea. "Well, yeah," said Brosman, a retired linguistics professor in New Orleans. "He was scared to death he had gonorrhea...."

Perhaps the strongest testimony—the "smoking gun," McCloskey called it—was that of Lt. Col. Good Burleson, who was a liaison officer in Tokyo in 1951. Burleson, now 76 and retired, said last week that he remembered a dispatch from Marine command concerning the son of a Virginia legislator (whose name he couldn't recall).The politician, said Burleson, was worried that "had not had sufficient combat training to go to Korea" and asked that he be taken off the ship. "I sort of resented it," recalled Burleson, "because I felt that he probably got as much training as the other lieutenants on the ship, and I didn't like for a Congressman's [sic] son to get preferential treatment." At the time, it was highly unusual for a second lieutenant in Korea not to see combat duty; of the 71 officers aboard the Breckinridge, more than half were killed or wounded in Korea.

With such embarrassing charges likely to be brought out in court, Robertson had an obvious motive for asking Judge Joyce Green to dismiss his suit. McCloskey said he would agree to a dismissal only if Robertson were to pay McCloskey's legal costs and to retract the charge of libel, neither of which seemed probable. Indeed McCloskey said he would countersue, if necessary, to recover his costs.

Of Robertson's request to dismiss the suit McCloskey says, "I'm not backing off. In Philadelphia [Robertson] said I was a pathological liar. I'd just as soon let a jury decide that."

—By William Plummer, with Dirk Mathison in San Francisco