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Note the fancy white belt on my green trousers. As a freshly minted SSgt, I felt a bit of informal celebration was in order, and at home I could get away with almost anything.
Jerome Stanley Bonkowski
Prescott, Arizona -
"It was during this incident that I felt that I was in the most personal danger in Korea. I was isolated with a potentially dangerous machine gun and unable to put it into action by myself without risking its loss to the enemy. I could defend myself, but couldn't be certain of protecting the gun and the Marines on whom it might be used. The result was sensory overload that almost paralyzed my brain and body."
- Jerome Bonkowski
There were three phases to my tour of duty in the Korean War. Phase I was Inchon, Kimpo, north Seoul, and Uijongbu. Phase 2 was Wonsan, Hungnam, Hamhung, all points north up to Hagaru-ri, then back to Hungnam. Phase 3 was Wonju, Hoengsong, Hongchon, Chunchon, and all points north to the Yanggu Inje area.
Some memories stand out vividly in my mind. The Inchon operation got my attention with a supply run to Easy 2/7 during a NKPA attack, digging into a half-completed foxhole only to uncover the tail fin of a 120mm Russian mortar shell, taking machine gun fire on the road to Uijongbu, and having the tank I took shelter near fire off a 90mm round right over my head...which still rings.
The voyage to Wonsan in a Japanese LST, eating corned beef hash three times a day, and smelling that reeking octopus eaten by the Jap crew was memorable. I remember the cozy quarters in the basement-located chemistry lab of a school campus north of Wonsan, long truck rides standing up with as many as 30 full-loaded troops per 15-man truck, a long road march to Sudong-ni and its two-day battle and trucking up to Koto-ri and feeling the 20-degree drop in temperature, eating frozen USMC birthday cake, the long hike up to Hagaru, and the unsuccessful fight to reach Fox/2/7.
I participated in the breakout at Koto-ri, standing cold watches in the snow while my feet went numb, the long walk down Funchilin Pass, trucks at Chinhung-ni, the train south of Sudong, warm tents at Hungnam, hot showers and clean racks on the Gen. D.I. Sultan, standing 24-hour chow line on LSD-17 Catamount and then eating and getting back in line, and the muddy bean field at Masan.
Wonju to Inje was all exhausting movement with moments of concern. A platoon member took mortar fragments in the shin, was put on a bubble-nosed chopper which crashed on takeoff, lived, but didn't come back. Getting ready to go into Division reserve, we collected all the extra grenades. A new kid didn't bother to check safety pins. He just dumped them into an empty sandbag. When the half-full bag blew, we weren't sure how much of him was found. Our platoon held the "back door" open for the withdrawing 187th Airborne, and I was impressed with how professional they looked on the road below us. It was a helpless feeling as the CP took a pasting from 120mm mortars, after which I helped to evacuate our guys who were hit.
I was reassigned to Dog 2/7 although I was a "short timer". I remember attacking a NKPA hill, then sitting tight under return mortar fire. I also remember climbing a high ridge at night as NKPA 76mm rounds snapped just overhead.
My name is Jerome Stanley Bonkowski of Prescott, Arizona. I was a Depression-era foundling who was born approximately August 19, 1929 in Chicago, Illinois. My foster parents were Stanilaus Joseph and Jeanne Helen Gregorowicz Bonkowski. My father was a railroad switchman. My siblings were a sister, Valerie Gorski, who was six years older than me; a brother, William Saunders, who was one year younger; and a sister Teresa (unknown family name) who was about 15 years younger.
I attended grade school in the Bennett, St. Joachim, St. Sabina, and St. Felicitas schools, all in Chicago, and then I attended Leo High School, graduating in June of 1947. After school and summers, I worked stocking and bagging groceries. During World War II I was a member of a school team that petitioned neighbors for scarce materials such as metal and paper.
I was in the United States Marine Corps Reserves (USMCR) prior to Korea, so I missed boot camp. Although I didn't do boot camp, I had excellent combat-proven USMCR NCOs who taught me most of what I needed to be a functioning Marine.
I enlisted on June 23, 1948 to avoid the draft. A high school buddy had just completed boot camp, which is why I joined the Marine Corps Reserve. Three of my high school pals went with me, also to avoid the Army. My folks agreed with my decision to join. Reserve meetings for training were weekly on Thursday. We had semi-annual written tests and competitive gun drills while in the USMCR. The heat and weight of gear were my biggest challenges of infantry training. Since I was from Chicago, the need for cold weather training was minimal.
In addition to the weekly meetings, I had two-week field training at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina and Little Creek Virginia Amphibious Base. I was at Lejeune in 1948 and 1950 and at Little Creek in 1949, traveling to them by train. At the training camp we were under an intense schedule. Our reveille was at 0400, while Regulars' was at 0600. We awakened them early with our platoon cadence during morning runs. They hated us. We had weekend liberty in Jacksonville, North Carolina or Virginia Beach, Virginia.
At Camp Lejeune we practiced standard techniques, especially gun drills on crew-served weapons. We fired most infantry weapon ranges for familiarization, threw grenades, and fired the rifle range for annual requalification. When not firing we made long marches at "forced march" speed or practiced climbing down nets and lowering gear from towers. I also trained on the 60mm mortar. Former active duty NCOs and officers taught us by repetitive hands-on and lectures. All of our training during those two-week camps was on base.
After a two-year enlistment, I was the only one of the four of us who had joined the Marine Corps Reserves who re-enlisted.... Slow learner?
War Breaks Out
I knew nothing about Korea when war broke out there. I did not want to go to war. (Avoiding the draft did not include a desire to go to war.) From the time the war broke out until the time I shipped out I avidly followed the news about what was happening in Korea via newspapers and magazines like LIFE, etc. I expected to go to war, but did not expect a long war. I knew that the Army wasn't ready and the United States Marine Corps was too small to do anything decisive. When Truman acted I took a leave of absence from my job. My family and close friends seemed genuinely concerned about me. I had a girlfriend and she was very upset.
I was assigned to be squad leader of a Machine Gun Platoon, H&S Company, 2d Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division (reinforced), Fleet Marine Force. I had spent over two years becoming an expert on the 60mm mortar, but when I got to Camp Pendleton, I was assigned a light machine gun squad. I had never even touched one before. I slept very little the first few nights. Instead, to be certain that I knew more about the guns than my squad members, a typical late-night activity after lights went out at 2200 was stripping and reassembling a machine gun in the head. I liked doing something new.
We formed 2/7 from scratch at Camp Pendleton. My unit was experimental--the only one in the division. Colonel Homer Litzenberg was allowed to form a Command Post defense platoon, essentially a small light machine gun platoon of 25. The idea was to free up a line company platoon normally assigned to protect the Command Post. I am not even sure we showed on the Table of Organization and Equipment (TO&E). I couldn't believe that simple little me was involved in all this important stuff, making history and all that. As a high school graduate, I was acutely aware that any war is important to a nation. All Marines are aware that when in combat they are being measured against the performance of their predecessors. We knew all about Peleliu and Okinawa, and what the 1st Marine Division had done there. I knew that Chesty Puller had won the Navy Cross on Guadalcanal while serving in my regiment. We were well-versed in how important it was to win, and knew that we would add a new battle streamer to the Marine Corps Battle Color. That must have had something to do with us earning three Presidential Unit Citations in less than a year. Marines tend to feel that they are the only ones making U.S. military history, and the others are just fooling around and getting by.
We boarded the USS Bayfield APA33 on September 1, 1950. It was an old troop transport that could hold a battalion (about 1,000). Only the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines were on the ship, although all holds were jammed with cargo. We were combat loaded.
I had never been on a large ship before, but I didn't get sick. When the ship rolled, lots of others got sick. Most made it to the "head", but some had to clean up their messes on the troop deck. Once they got sick they usually stayed on the weather deck. We didn't hit stormy water, but there were lots of big swells all the way.
There wasn't much entertainment on the ship. We had lots of gun drills, weapons stripping and cleaning, and lectures on life in combat. Time off was spent schmoozing with guys in the unit and there were movies on deck at night. Other than the new guys in my unit, several of whom were from Chicago, I didn't know anybody else on the ship. My only duty was Duty NCO in the troop berth once. The only eventful thing that happened on the trip was the USS Okanagan APA, which was in our two-ship convoy, stopped to blow stacks and soot covered our ship.
On the way over to Korea, we heard stories about the North Korean People's Army (NKPA) using civilians as shields at a place called No Gun Ri. [The 7th Cavalry was involved.] It's always been done by the ruthless. I don't doubt that some NKPA sneaked into civilian groups to snipe at us, and that poses an ethical problem. The resolution is and was that a position is usually supposed to be held at all costs, regardless of "collateral damage". Indiscriminate firing is unfortunate but understandable, given the untrained troops involved. Marines would not have "hosed down" a group like that, but would have fired only at muzzle flashes to gain fire superiority.
We arrived in Kobe, Japan about September 15. I don't know why, but we were in Kobe for two days. I got one night's liberty there. We landed at Inchon, Korea, early on September 21st. The ship motored in, we climbed down the nets into LCVP's, and the ship left.
My first impression of Korea was that it reeked, looked old and shabby, and was too hot. It was hot and humid from Inchon through Seoul. Nights were chilly and damp. I was enervated by the heat, but squeaked by. I was wearing summer clothing that consisted of standard USMC herringbone twill dungarees and boondockers, eventually replaced by Army utilities and buckle-top boots. It was obvious that we were in a war zone because there was lots of burned-out wreckage of buildings and gear. There were huge piles of supplies all over, and busy people scurrying about.
The first night in Korea was a fiasco. Trucks took us to the foot of a god-awful high mountain which we climbed for hours in the dark. Weaker Marines needed major help keeping up because we were all very soft from the two weeks aboard ship. We did physical training aboard ship, but that didn't cut it. The entire unit crashed at the top. We slept through the whole night with no security and could have been torn up badly by guerrillas. That never happened again.
Most of our officers were regulars, and most impressive as a group. Several of our majors later became generals. The most active and "professional" officer who commanded our platoon was Lieutenant Dunne, who was killed as we attacked out of Hagaru-ri to Koto-ri. It was a great loss to the Corps. I think he might have become Commandant if he had lived. He was that good. Our officers were incredible. Our Gunny was a grizzled old grunt who held school every waking minute. Nothing escaped his eye, and the smart ones remembered everything he said. The Gunny was father and mother to us. H&S Commandant was a revolving door job, and we had a new one about each month. A few were quite capable, but some had been relieved as unfit to command a rifle company. They were no fun. Battalion CO Hinkle was hit before Sudong, and S-3 Major Webb D. Sawyer took over--a prince among men. S-4 (?) Major Lawrence took over when Sawyer took 3/7 at Hagaru or Koto. (Lieutenant Colonel Lockwood didn't cut it.) The bottom line was that our Majors were sharper than our Lieutenant Colonels. Most of our officers and staff NCO's were old salts, as were about half of the junior NCO's. They knew their way around, stayed focused on business, and taught us how to survive in many ways. Their attitudes were strictly positive, and completing the mission was everything. A very few were marginal, but we soon learned to tolerate them.
As a reservist I felt incompetent compared to the regulars in my squad. They didn't make me feel welcome for a long time because I had no more time in the corps than they did, so they resented my senior grade of Corporal. I worried about knowing the right thing to do when things got bad. Otherwise, I was a mental sponge, soaking up everything I heard and saw about the USMC, about Korea, and about warfare at the grunt level. I had lots of fears, especially of being maimed.
I saw enemy POWs after a few days ashore. About three days after landing I saw my first dead enemy. They were swollen, napalm-blackened bodies just off the road. There was an incredible stench and it was disgusting. I saw my first dead Marines when moving up to cross the Han River. I saw a line of about five dead Marines under camouflaged ponchos. It is an enduring memory--those boondockers... just like mine...sticking out from under the ponchos. I still see them when I think of Korea. I also have recollection of one poor Korean guy leaning against a building, burned black by napalm.
The terrain was varied. There were mostly scrub evergreens on hills and mountains. Our CP was usually set up in a small valley, and our machine gun platoon had to set up defensive positions on the highest feature overlooking the CP, so we dug in well each night. I can't recall ever staying in one place long enough to build bunkers, although I was in a few that already existed. Movement forward was constant and frequent.
The 7th Marines swung north of Seoul, except for Dog Company, which patrolled at the Seodaemun prison at Seoul. We got to Kimpo, possibly by truck, early on September 22 or 23, 1950. We set up on the flank and never saw the airfield. We were relieved on September 24 by the 187th RCT Airborne. We traded our 15-round carbine magazines for their 30-round "banana" magazines, which they said didn't work. We made them work. We taped them together upside down for quick switching.
The rifle company (Easy Company?) in front of us had a 20-minute firefight at Kimpo with a cow, supposedly not hit. We in H&S were far enough behind the rifle companies to hear but not participate in their firefights. Mortar fire was rare, and incoming artillery even more rare.
We pushed the enemy all day and they pushed back all night. Nobody slept more than a couple of hours at a time. I had a couple of close calls. We took machine gun fire on the road north to Uijongbu when H&S got too far ahead of flanking rifle companies. We laid in the ditch alongside a tank and heard rounds clanging off the tank. We stayed there until the tanker fired his 90mm gun directly above us. My ears still ring. Nobody was hit, but our weak one played battle fatigue. It must have worked because we never saw him again. Another close call came earlier when I carried chow and ammo to Easy Company while they were fighting off a "Mansai" attack. Later I found a half-dug foxhole, but gave up digging when I uncovered the tail fin of a Chinese 120mm mortar shell.
I was personally armed with a US carbine, .30 caliber M-2 with a selector for automatic fire. I "fixed" the bayonet at night. Few of us worried about being killed, but all hoped for the "Hollywood wound" that would not hurt much but would send us home. Later on, when isolated with a machine gun that could have been captured and used against Marines, I felt the overwhelming need to void every opening in my body. Otherwise, I never felt fear with other Marines around except when mortars came in. Mortars frightened everyone.
Operation Yo Yo
Our platoon returned to Inchon after the liberation of Seoul. There we took showers, washed clothes, ate real food, cleaned personal weapons and machine guns, and wrote letters home. We also slept a lot. Whenever there was free time, we fell asleep.
Up this point war was not nearly as bad as I had expected. It helped to be somewhat "in the rear". We got far less shelling than I expected, and on the few occasions that we did, shells landed pretty far away. Road mines were scary, but only blew up one Jeep nearby. I knew the passengers by sight, so was a bit shook up when only the driver survived. We helped in the unsuccessful search for one of them. Later he was found up in a nearby tree.
We left Inchon by ship for North Korea. The trip took two weeks. I don't remember how or why, but I ended up the only H&S member aboard Japanese LST Q082. All others aboard were with Easy Company. Q082 was a rusty, ungainly, flat-bottomed ship that was short of food. We only indirectly had contact with the ship's crew. They had their own section of the ship and their own hours in the galley. We got to sniff their reeking octopus meals. Chow was normal the first week. I remember eggs for breakfast the first week until we ran out of chow. The second week someone found a big locker full of corned beef hash. We ate that three times a day for that second week. I still can't look at corned beef hash without my throat closing up.
There was a week's delay in landing at Wonsan because of mines in the harbor. We went north during the day, then south at night, in what was called, "Operation Yo Yo" while waiting for Navy minesweepers to clear the harbor. The North Sea of Japan was always very rough with waves usually above the superstructure of the ship. We bobbed like a cork.
I had mess duty for three days, but got caught smoking on the tank deck. I was a loner, although a PIO man on the ship took a photo of six of us from Chicago. I read every book and magazine I could find, hung around on deck smoking and talking, and cleaned my weapon every day.
North to Chosin Reservoir
[KWE Note: See also: Addendum - "Straggler's Attack."]
My unit arrived at Wonsan, North Korea, on October 08, 1950. The 1st Marine Air Wing units, engineers, and lots of others arrived there before we did. The first night upon arriving at Wonsan we hiked west uphill to a school campus. Weather at that time was cool, but not uncomfortable. We shuttled in available trucks to the Chosin Reservoir area. They probably drove us ten to fifteen miles, then went back for another load while we continued on foot. We rode in trucks from Chinhung-ni up Funchilin Pass to Koto-ri, then walked to Hagaru-ri., which was the farthest point we went. The 5th and 7th Marines were 14 miles north at Yudam-ni. From a distance I saw many air drops in and around Hagaru, some dropping right into the town.
Baptism of Fire
My first firefight was at Sudong-ni, just south of Chosin. 2/7 was in reserve just behind 1/7. The first Chinese unit to hit the Marines was the 124th CCF Division on November 2-4, 1950. Casualties were heavy. They overran and captured a B/1/7 machine gun on the ridge just above me and clobbered our 4.2 mortar unit about 30 yards out in front. Several Chinese, we thought, had scurried past us on the left. My squad was carrying supplies to the line companies, so I had only one ammo carrier and the section leader with me. After long minutes watching the machine gun duel above, and now slightly behind me, and listening to bodies crashing down the forested slope above, I became worried.
My ammo man had moved out to my left, far enough so that he couldn't hear me with his one good ear. The section leader disappeared to the right into some rocks to watch the slope. There was a small ridge between me and the 4.2 mortars, so I couldn't see who was coming until they were right on top of me. The Gunny had repeatedly warned us about letting our gun get used against us, and I was treated to the sight of this duel above me. Sure that the fight above was killing Marines with our own gun, and unable to get the attention of either of my flankers in the terrible noise, I made a quick decision to knock out my gun before it could be captured. I flipped up the cover and tried to spring the latch, but the gun fell over. I took aim at the receiver and fired a round into it. I checked the deep dent that locked the bolt to the receiver and rolled the gun aside. My ammo man heard the shot and ran to me, but the section leader was nowhere in sight. We squatted to cover the small ridge in front of us when the other section leader, who we were sure had been overrun, came over it with his gun team.
By then we could see that a defensive line had been set up behind us and the gun was badly needed. In our haste we left my section leader out there, and I led the way through our skirmish line so the gun could be set up. Later I went back for the gun and the section leader. The Gunny, badly wounded, heard one of the officers threaten to court martial me, but came to my rescue with the suggestion that maybe I should get a medal for doing the right thing. Very touchy issue. I got neither.
It was during this incident that I felt that I was in the most personal danger in Korea. I was isolated with a potentially dangerous machine gun and unable to put it into action by myself without risking its loss to the enemy. I could defend myself, but couldn't be certain of protecting the gun and the Marines on whom it might be used. The result was sensory overload that almost paralyzed my brain and body.
I saw only three groups of enemy while I was in Korea. Back at Sudong the CCF bodies I saw were badly mangled by machine guns, but they looked like older guys. At Hagaru/Koto the POWs were older too, and most were frozen in cakes of ice from their knees down. They fought until they ran out of ammo. Later in June 1951, I saw NKPA gunners who were older, very determined, and usually died in place.
The NKPA wore baggy brown/green shirts and trousers and tennis shoes. The CCF wore padded cotton coats and trousers, silk socks, and tennis shoes. Some CCF had ear-flapped furry caps. They fought differently than we did. We tried to knock out an entire position by fire and maneuver and heavy supporting fire. The CCF tried to push as many troops as possible through a narrow gap, then spread out to the flanks. The NKPA tried to flow around both flanks. Their weapons were very effective. Their light machine guns had a high rate of fire, and they sited them well. They had lots of grenades. The earlier ones were molded so that they might split in half when they exploded. If the big chunk didn't hit us, there was no problem. Later frog types were pretty nasty. They had a light blue concussion grenade that looked like a quart milk bottle. It packed a wallop. Their snipers were very good and took out a lot of our officers. Their huge 120mm mortars were terrifying. None in my unit were ever taken prisoner by the enemy. Most of us decided that if we were to run out of ammo, we would stage a final bayonet charge, no matter what.
During the travel northward, we were aware that there were Chinese troops in the area. We expected to be hit each night. We knew that the 7th Marines had destroyed a large enemy unit of Regulars, and expected its sister unit to take over the attack. Our normal fighting pattern was that we attacked in the daytime and the enemy counterattacked at night. Nobody got enough sleep, as at night we were always on 50 percent alert, with watches of two hours on, two hours off.
Most of the officers at Chosin were magnificent and unflappable. A few were inept, and probably caused some unnecessary casualties. Regimental commanders were spiritual giants. The corpsmen were always active, and did terrific work under impossible circumstances. They never hesitated. Most of our wounded were sent to the Battalion Aid Station near the airfield and then were flown out in whatever managed to land, including R5D's (C-54's). Wounded hit more than halfway to Koto-ri had to ride the rest of the way to Koto, then might have flown out in the belly of a TBM.
On November 10, the Marine Corps birthday, We had just been trucked up to Koto-ri and dug in our guns in a tree nursery east of the MSR. We found and enlarged some holes, sent out a scrounge team for overhead lumber and firewood, and built warming fires in the holes. Leatherneck magazine later printed a photo of our scrounge team getting ready to turn a beautiful teak table into kindling--a sort of atrocity. Birthday cake was given out, but I don't remember getting any, so we may have been overlooked.
We hiked the 12 miles from Koto to Hagaru, and my platoon posted security on the west side of the bridge over the Changjin River. At the east end of the bridge was massive East Hill. There was no enemy action, but we knew they would be back. We occupied a house next to the bridge, found a heavy metal grate, put it over the kitchen fire pit, and during the night managed to burn the whole wooden fence that surrounded the corner. When we came in off watch, we stood on the grate until we could feel our feet get warm. It had to be at least -10 degrees F, with a gusting wind from 15 to 25 miles per hour. On the second night in Hagaru, the owner of the house returned. He and his wife restored the hidden pot over the fire pit, showed us how to properly heat the house, then left us to occupy it another night or two. We loaded them up with C-rations for whomever they were staying with.
Hagaru was about a mile or more square, with thatched-roof houses and a number of multi-story wood buildings. Contrary to some writings, it had not been bombed. The east side was dominated closely by East Hill. To the north were several low hills, backed by some very large ones. To the west was a mile-square open field ending in a large hill mass on the northwest end, and funneling into a valley on the southwest end. To the south there was the northern tip of a large hill mass that ran all the way to Koto.
Most of 2/7 was shuttled to Yudam-ni on November 27th. H&S and Weapons Companies were to join them on the 28th. The road was cut on the night of the 27th. We puttered around on the 28th, then tried to attack north as far as Fox 2/7 at Toktong Pass. We took several KIA's and about a dozen WIA's, then pulled back to the Hagaru perimeter. It was not an impressive performance, but we weren't front-line troops.
At Hagaru I saw troops of 41 Independent Commando Royal Marines. They were incredibly sharp-looking at zero degrees and wearing only field jackets and berets. They shaved every day and loved to go into action. We felt pretty shabby around them, and were impressed by their skill. They were given nasty assault jobs and always did them with style.
I was not personally involved in any CCF assaults. I was just nearby for several, like that from East Hill. Our attack north on November 29 was my only direct combat, at small arms distance, not close in. H&S CP group and Weapons Company, less a section each of heavy machine guns and 81mm mortars, moved out of Hagaru at dawn. We got a half mile out to where the road turned sharply west to skirt a small valley. We took some machine gun fire from the huge ridge beyond that valley, so we deployed to the left onto the nose of a large ridge to our left, ignoring it. My gun squad was first into action, and my gunner killed a CCF observer in a position at the left top of the huge ridge. He assumed it was a CCF observation post, perhaps for mortars, so he kept up a steady fire on it. As the ammo ran low, I called for more, and was told that CCF to our left had been firing down at me. That explained the odd buzzing sounds. My platoon sergeant was shot in the leg as he observed the ground in front. Soon the ammo carrier laying next to me caught a round in the rump. Weapons Company, with some H&S troops, came across the road and assaulted up our ridge. We followed with the guns. I arrived just as my assistant gunner caught a round at the hairline, and bled like a fountain. Minutes later, a supply man nearby was shot through the trapezius muscle and thrashed around in agony. I was told that a sergeant and corporal from motor transport had been killed. I was elected to dash back down the hill to fetch a platoon of shooters who had begun to attack across the valley. (We were that disorganized.) They dashed up, filled in the line, and slowed the CCF attack. None of my personal friends were KIA. Several were wounded, but none tragically. My senses were so dulled that it didn't bother me.
We attacked at least a battalion enemy force, with others obviously closing in over the ridges. Some wore white smocks, but most were in tan, quilted uniforms, ear-flap furry caps, silk socks, and tennis shoes. They had enough machine guns to worry us, but oddly didn't use their mortars on us. They kept coming in spite of heavy losses, and we were spared a close-in fight by darkness and our resulting pull-back. The Battalion Commander ordered us back to Hagaru when it was obvious that we didn't have the power to hold the hill all night. Our link-up effort ended up a "reconnaissance in force".
We worked in and around Army units attacking south from Hagaru. The Army was to cover our flank (not sure which) and did during the daylight phase. We found them scattered throughout the road column when it got dark, and chased them back out to the flank. Just south of Hagaru I answered the phone on the back of an Army tank when the tank commander waved me to it. He wanted to talk to the Army major leaning against a nearby Jeep. Someone snapped a photo of the tank and my group of heavy machine gunners while I was behind the tank calling to an Army radioman.
Colder than the "Hawk"
The weather was twice as cold as the infamous "Hawk" of Chicago, the one that blows off the lake at about ten below zero, and almost knocks you down. It hurt to breathe, and eyeballs felt as if they were being sand-blasted by the constant fierce wind. Southern lads went into shock when we got up to Koto, and we had to light warming fires in old storage pits to thaw them out. They couldn't stand watch, and had to stay in their sleeping bags. My carbine froze tight the first night. I kicked it open with my boot, wiped out all the oil, then used a pencil to lube it. Having lived with the "Hawk", I knew that oil was no good. I continued to use my pencil for lubricant and had no problems with misfires throughout the next two weeks.
It was a toss-up whether the temperature or the wind was the worst. Out of the wind one could breathe, but moving into the wind was pure agony. At -30 the wind chill was rated near -80. Unbelievable. Typical snow depth was about a foot, but wind blew it into two or three feet drifts around objects. At 0 to -30, the snow was very dry and light. Drifts were a special problem that exhausted us when moving overland.
Most of our vehicles were either kept running or restarted frequently. All of our weapons worked well in the bad weather, but the cold was devastating on our food. Our clothing was too tightly layered to put canned food inside our parka, and fires were few and far between. We ate dry rations--cookies, crackers, and chocolate. We made cocoa and coffee whenever a fire could be found. During the last three days we ate Tootsie Rolls which fit inside the many interior pockets. We filled them all.
We lucky ones stayed constipated the whole time. Dehydration saved us from the agony of unzipping. My weight slipped from 140 to about 120 pounds. Weather affected my mental state. I worried about not having the guts to keep wiggling my toes and stomping my feet. It would have been easy to stop. There was lots more cursing than usual. We had to watch noses and cheeks for signs of frostbite, and did that well. I burrowed into my sleeping bag deep in my one-man foxhole as often as possible. The last two days at Hagaru I was moved from the west to the east side, and found a small blackout tent occupied by tankers. We kept the potbelly stove going and stayed cozy, even getting some hot canned food.
I wore everything that I could put on--shorts and tee shirt, long john bottom and top, regular dungarees, windproof over-pants, button-top sweater, alpaca vest, field jacket, oversized parka, wool scarf, gloves with wool liners (quickly traded for huge mittens), cotton socks, two pairs of wool ski socks, felt pads, shoepacs, dungaree cap, and helmet. We looked and moved like Pillsbury Dough Boys.
All senses were lessened by the cold. Exhaustion was common because of low calories and water limitations. We slept whenever we got out of the wind and weren't involved in an event. I slept while walking along the road from Hagaru to Koto, holding onto a Jeep trailer. I awoke as it hit a deep rut and flipped over on top of me. The trailer wheel and I dropped into a washout at the same time. I slid down a few feet to the bottom of the roadside ditch and landed in the crease. The trailer, packed tight with 81mm mortar ammo, rolled over in sync with me, and the rim flopped across my chest. My recessed position and heavy clothes kept me from getting bruised by the rim and the ammo cases, but the weight was obvious. Lots of Marines ran over, pulled the trailer back over, and reloaded the ammo. I was amazed, but completely unhurt. It almost made me a believer.
Air and Tank Support
We received fire support--lots of it, all kinds, all the time. Air support by Marine, Navy, US Air Force, South Africans, and possibly others was superb. Our toughest times came when clouds and snow stopped air support. Then we were either heavily attacked or our attacks were much more bloody. Air support was best coming south out of Hagaru when Corsairs plastered a draw on East Hill with 20mm cannon, and the casings rattled down on us. They were so low that we could almost shake hands with the pilots. A short time later, Navy AD-1 Skyraiders floated in with full flaps down so they could drop napalm straight down on CCF bunkers east of the road. They must have taken tremendous ground fire on the way in, but they cooked those CCF machine gunners.
Tank support was incredibly effective against mass attacks from East Hill. Lined up almost track to track with machine gun positions between them, they put out a sheet of machine gun fire that slaughtered hundreds of attacking CCF. A typical infantry unit would have been overrun. We almost always had 90mm gun tanks nearby, and they were a comfort. Those guns could pulverize any kind of roadblock.
We were also supported by Item Battery, 11th Marines, and called them "Short-round Item". Rumor had it that the Forward Observer teams changed frequently because they weren't smart enough to stay off the gun-target line, so were blooped by their own short rounds. Other than the few goofs, our fire support was superb.
At Chosin I recall being disgusted that the Army's 31/32 RCT had left their wounded behind. It was typical of the lack of professionalism they displayed through most of 1950 and early 1951. I was not surprised that a Marine officer (Lieutenant Colonel Beall) had to organize a rescue operation to save hundreds of abandoned Army wounded. The Army lieutenant colonels did practically nothing. However, later in June of 1951 when we dug in on a ridge above the road north of Hoengsong, I was impressed with the obvious discipline displayed by the 187th RCT unit we relieved.
Other than the terrible weather, the withdrawal from Chosin was a move like any other. We packed up everything useful, threw everything excessive or broken in a big pile for burning, saddled up, and moved out. The head of the Division column was pretty congested because the first large fire block was a draw up the southwest corner of East Hill. Corsairs blasted it, fried it, then strafed it with 20mm rounds, and we had to hunch up as the casings pattered down around us. As we moved out into the open, long-range fire hit someone every few minutes, so corpsmen were always busy. I knew none of them personally. Flanking units called in continuous air strikes by Corsairs, Navy AD-1s, and SoAfr F-51st. The column moved slowly but steadily with stops for major roadblocks.
It took me 25 hours to walk that 12 miles, and after we found a nice warm tent, we were called out to go back and break up an attack on the column. Most fell in, but this stumbling, one-eyed lad stayed put. Exhaustion was constant; we never felt rested. We also never doubted that we would get out, because we knew that (as General O.P. Smith put it) nobody stops a Marine division from going where it wants to go. Cloudy and snowy days were worrisome because we knew the rifle companies would be torn up badly without air strikes.
While I was stumbling in and out of the Fox 2/7 point unit, I encountered only one fire block. It was a machine gunner dug in on a low ridge that crossed the road about 200 yards ahead. I could see him pop up to fire, but no one else could spot him. I borrowed an M1 from an exhausted Marine and fired off most of a clip before he stopped firing. We moved so slowly as the flanks were cleared that by the time we got to that ridge I had forgotten to check whether I had hit him. He may have run out of ammo.
I stayed on the road during the withdrawal. I was one of only a very few Marines who wore glasses. Postwar buildup of the Reserves was not quite as picky as recruiting of Regulars. I think it was because I came in with three other buddies that the decision-maker bent the rules a bit. As long as I could read 20/20 with glasses, he assumed I could move and shoot with the rest. While leaving the Chosin, one of my eyeglass lenses broke during a restless night in the sleeping bag. I lost my depth perception and was unable to traverse broken ground without falling.
Five Long Days
Having to leave Chosin was pretty depressing. We knew we were hurt, but also knew that we were devastating the CCF. We convinced ourselves that we could handle whatever they had, but nonetheless were extremely happy to be ordered into reserve and out of there.
It took five days to get from Hagaru to Chinhung-ni. Brutal weather cut alertness. Speedy movement was impossible. Ridges were steep, snow covered, and very slippery. Snowstorms masked the approach of attacking CCF, as did the howling wind. My last incoming was a sniper round that chipped the ice on the road three feet in front of me just after I crossed the Bailey bridge over the famous gatehouse gap.
We received no welcome or acknowledgement from those who were waiting at Hungnam. Everyone was busy as bees. The rows of pyramidal tents with warm stoves and cots was welcome enough. We found a tent, collapsed into many hours of sleep, then went hunting for chow. We went aboard ship the next day. It was the 10th of December, I think. The ship took us to Masan in South Korea.
When I had time to stop and think about what I had just been through in the reservoir area in North Korea, I couldn't believe that the weather in South Korea could be so warm. I worried about no feeling in my heels, but was thankful that my fingers and toes still worked. I felt a lot of pride that we had punched through a lot of Chinese Regulars, and thought we could probably do it again if we had to. I attributed my survival of Chosin when so many others did not survive the ordeal to pure luck. I could have been hit a dozen times or could have fallen asleep off the road, but managed to keep moving.
I turned in for new glasses when we got to Masan and was asked if anything else was wrong. I described my sprung back problem, so the corpsman made out an evacuation tag because he couldn't handle that. I caught an ambulance to Pusan Army Hospital and got fitted for new glasses. The Red Cross unit in the hospital there gave us small bags of toiletries such as shaving gear, comb, soap, shampoo, etc. They were very handy and deeply appreciated. A bone crusher at the army hospital put me on a table, straightened my leg, and raised it. I must have turned about three shades of green so he said, "Off to Japan with you, lad." There were so many casualties in the Pusan facility that they couldn't keep anyone for more than a few days, so off I went to Yokosuka Naval Hospital as soon as my glasses were ready. My heels finally thawed after two weeks of warmer weather.
I spent several weeks in Yokosuka, sleeping on a mattress with a plywood sheet under it. I got whirlpool (jacuzzi) treatments and stretched my back. During off times I found a piano and taught myself to play chords that sounded like George Shearing. Then I went to Camp Otsu near Kyoto for outpatient healing. After a couple of weeks I could reach down as far as my ankles and that was good enough for me to be returned to combat in Korea. I was no hero, and was not excited to be going back to my unit. I was still hoping for that Hollywood wound...no pain, but a quick ride home.
Return to 2/7
I got on a little Army steamer and chugged to the 8069th Army Replacement Depot in Pusan. I spent almost a week there awaiting transportation and resisting being sent to the 2nd Infantry Division. I got a ride to Wonju on an ammo truck, riding up on top without a weapon. Scary.
When I returned to 2/7 in early March 1951, the company was fairly close to Wonju. The battalion was in reserve, so I was able to draw new equipment and meet all the new guys in my unit. I can't remember most of them now. (A common problem is not remembering replacements.) We occupied an old bunker complex which just happened to protect the CP. After a few days we started the long push back north with Operations Killer, Mousetrap, Ripper, etc. We moved steadily and set up Battalion CPs just off the main roads. We seemed to do a lot of cross-country moving, especially at night. Some hillside trails above creek beds were narrow and scary.
I don't recall that we took any casualties in Killer. Being in H&S Company I saw no enemy, but sometime during Killer or Ripper we found huge stacks of Russian and/or Chinese mortar ammo hidden in deep ravines. We did not see any psychological warfare leaflets that had been dropped by the enemy, but if we had seen any they would eagerly have been used as toilet paper.
As to weather conditions, I recall road hikes in cold rain, and following tanks and staying warm in their exhaust systems until some of the men turned blue and fell down. Then we realized that the nice warm air was mostly carbon monoxide. Sweaters, field jackets, and ponchos were enough to keep us out of misery.
The oddest memory I have of that time period was of riding in a truck past a single squad tent with a sign in front of it that read something like, "2nd Infantry Division Collecting Station." We figured that what was left of the outfit would probably fit in that single tent.
There was not much difference between Operation Killer, Operation Mousetrap, and Operation Ripper except that in Mousetrap we moved very far forward, overlooking Chunchon, and watched eight-inch Army shells light up the horizon there. We knew we were exposed, so we dug in very deep. When we pulled back several days later, we passed through a narrow gap that was littered with hundreds of artillery-killed Chinese. The three operations had to be successful. We kept moving as fast as possible with a different CP every night. That was exhausting, but we knew it meant progress.
In June, at Yanggu, we had a Korean Marine (KMC) battalion on our right flank. Word was not to leave any kind of weapon lying around as they would steal anything that could shoot. When attacked at night they put on a tremendous show of concentrated firepower that must have vaporized the attackers. They had a wonderful habit of stealing .50 caliber machine guns from stalled Army trucks and using them in their rifle platoons. As far as contact with South Korean non-military, we loved the "Chiggy Bears" that carried supplies up the hills to us. Some were chicken, but most were pretty brave. It was an odd thing to watch a 60-year-old man trudge uphill with a 55-gallon drum of fuel strapped to his A-frame.
Life in a Combat Zone
We lived in bunkers and foxholes. I liked the overhead cover of a bunker, especially when trees were nearby. In one of them, the previous occupant had left deep straw inside. It was great to sleep on. A bunker was much drier and roomier than shelter halves, too. I remember one bunker I stayed in was an old covered hole with a 360-degree visibility, overlooking the bottom of a draw near Hongchon. When we lived in a foxhole, we each dug a shallow hole just about every night on a different ridgeline overlooking the CP. Our job was to ensure that no enemy troops could shoot down into the CP. We dug in the deep machine gun positions, then dug our personal holes nearby. With Dog Company I paired with the squad leader and we dug the hole deeper each day during our wait for flanking units to catch up.
We bathed about once a month, depending on where we were. If aboard ship, it was every day. "Shower points" in the field were few and far between. Other than time in and around hospitals, I recall getting only two changes of clothing during the year. I wiped down with my half-towel and shaved about once a week in whatever water was available after canteens were filled. We reeked. In my final months in Korea in the rear, I showered daily and wore starched utilities. We even "polished" our furry boondockers using our dog tag chains.
About 99 percent of the time we ate C-rations, including while in reserve. Chow tents back in reserve provided the old green eggs, shredded beef, and powdered milk combination, and whatever else they served tasted a lot like C-rations. Sometimes we had bread, almost a loaf apiece. I never ate the native food. I was told about how it was grown [with human waste]. Some friends made stew with Hagaru potatoes, and almost died of raging dysentery. The best thing I ate in Korea was the 5-in-1 rations made for tankers. When we got them, accidentally or on purpose, we relished the canned bacon which was fantastic. Another favorite was any fruit can in the C-ration pack, especially Royal Anne cherries, into which we crumbled the cereal block. I missed all of the stateside food--especially Comiskey Park hot dogs.
Not only did I not meet anyone I knew while I was in Korea, I also never saw any one of the 900 Reservists with whom I traveled to Pendleton. I became best buddies with Charles F. Mathieu of Chicago. We met on the USS Bayfield after he was transferred from Camp Lejeune at the last minute and was tossed into our machine gun platoon. Charles was laid back, pretty salty, and had a comparable silly sense of humor. We invented our own language by pronouncing common things backwards, e.g., "standard" was "dradnats". He was hit just before I returned from Japan in March 1951 when the CP defense platoon was overrun by NKPA stragglers near Wonju--the ones MacArthur was supposed to have "crushed". His hits included a round through the upper chest and a white phosphorous blob which burned through the thumb webbing. He met me with my parents when I landed at Midway Airport in October 1951.
There were some lighter moments during the war. There was always someone to yell something silly at the worst of times, and we laughed at some pretty serious things. Cynicism can be funny. One of our guys, later KIA, took a shot at a CCF scout with his carbine and the metal barrel band snapped, leaving him with only the wooden stock at his shoulder. The rest of the patrol rolled in the snow laughing. Plt. Sgt. James C. Hawley was a clown at heart. At Sudong, when wild firing made us all look foolish, during a lull for reloading Hawley yelled in his high-pitched voce, "Don't shoot! I'll marry your daughter!" Fire discipline was immediately restored. When he was hit in the leg north of Hagaru, the same guy came hopping down the ridge on his good leg, big grin on his face, shouting, "The bastards shot me! I'm going home!" Jim Hawley is someone I knew in Korea who stands out in my mind after all these years. He hid (and still hides) a tremendously sharp mind behind a screen of consistent humor. He's the consummate MC who has a joke for every occasion and can tailor each one to the circumstance and people. He is also the guy you listen to when you need good advice.
I received mail regularly. My mother and girlfriend wrote weekly. I was so sure that I was going to be killed that I wrote the sweet young thing a "Dear Jane" letter--a big mistake. By the end of the Chosin operation we had lost so many of the original gang that I just assumed my luck probably wouldn't hold much longer. Besides, I wasn't ready to face a possible hearty welcome home from a fine creature I didn't feel in love with. The big mistake was that by the time I got back she had gone through some sort of transition and was knock-down gorgeous. I cut myself off from a real winner. Other than letters, I don't recall receiving much beyond a tin of cookies so pulverized that we had to eat them with spoons. We ate everything with our "kimchi" spoons. The others Marines in my unit mostly received edible things like fruitcake, which we loved dearly.
I loved my Bud and Schlitz. Our drink was warm beer (four to six cans per man) humped up the hill about once a month by Chiggy Bears, usually late the night before a push--incredibly bad timing. I learned to enjoy hot sake and Asahi beer in Japan. I smoked Lucky Strike. Cigarettes were a dime a pack, but mostly we settled for the four fags (Luckies, Chesterfields or Camels) in our dry ration packet each day. We could always borrow or trade food for a smoke. I didn't like the habit, especially at night when I had to burrow into my poncho to take a drag when on watch. I never saw USO shows in Korea, but I won a carton of Luckies at the Masan Army Service Club imitating Billy Eckstine's, "I Apologize." I gambled just once to kill time and lost my meager stash so quickly that I usually went looking for harmony singers. I liked singing harmony, so I looked for guys who would get together to sing the old sentimental songs of the time...Sweet Sixteen, etc.
In leisure time we went into cleaning frenzies: guns, personal weapons, clothing, beards, and anything we could improve. We wrote letters, ordered replacement gear for stuff lost, scrounged as much decent food as we could, interviewed new guys until we knew them, then sang sad country/folk songs in the usual barbershop harmony until it got dark or we were threatened with mayhem by tone-deaf neighbors.
I took advantage of Catholic services whenever they were provided, but I didn't go out of my way to attend them. I prayed a lot for that Hollywood wound during quiet times, and made a lot of rash promises about the future purity of my lifestyle if I survived. I forgot it fast.
The only American women I saw in Korea were Army nurses in Pusan. There were Navy nurses in Japan and on the USS Consolation, but that's about it. I never heard of prostitutes inside our areas in Korea, but there were some great cathouses just outside the gate of the Division Rear campus in Masan. Some of those dazzling Korean girls made our stateside glamourpusses look ugly.
The only time I was ever temporarily ill in Korea was in late spring 1951. I had aching ribs that wouldn't let me take deep breaths. It went away after about a week. I mentioned earlier that, due to a sprung back, I was in the hospital in Japan after returning from the Chosin Reservoir. Before being sent to Japan, I spent Christmas Eve 1950 in the Pusan Army hospital singing traditional carols, teasing wounded Dogfaces, and devouring every snack in sight. I had no R&R. My slack time was in Japan, always in a hospital convalescent environment. We got evening liberty, but had to be careful to get back by curfew at 2200 or 2300. Most evenings were spent drinking beer in Kyoto's Mimatsu Cabaret, also known as the Gymnasium because of the massive nightly brawls. (I always sat near the door.)
Lack of REM
It is hard to describe the state of constant exhaustion caused by never getting any "REM" sleep. We never got more than about two hours sleep at a time because we "stood" watches every night. We either moved or attacked nearly every day; then carried water, chow and ammo up the mountain from the supply guys below; then we had to dig in--deep; then we got to sleep--two hours on, two off. Of course, if they attacked during the night, we got no sleep at all, and often counterattacked the next morning. If we went into reserve for a few days, we usually were called back within one day to plug a new hole in the line. It seemed that the CCF knew exactly when to push the ROKs off the line and keep us from getting some rest and hot chow.
Adventure with Dog Company
During the first two weeks of June 1951, near Yanggu, Korea, D/2/7 had advanced along the right side of a wide valley which had earned a reputation for enemy road mines and accurate mortar fire. Near the end of May, one of Dog Company's platoons had assembled for a platoon conference, and a North Korean People's Army (NKPA) mortar shell dropped right into the middle of the group. Almost every man in the platoon was either killed or wounded. Captain Mackin made an urgent call back to the Battalion CP asking for replacements--ASAP!
It just happened to be my turn in the barrel. I was the senior section leader in the battalion's "CP Defense Platoon" which was comprised of three under-strength sections of light machine guns (M1919A4). As one of only a few remaining veterans of the Chosin (Changjin) Reservoir campaign, and the last man left from the Inchon landing, I was counting the days until my rotation home. A few days earlier, an accurate barrage of 120mm mortar shells had reduced my two-squad section to only one squad. Consequently, I was temporarily a redundant squad leader. The new platoon sergeant didn't know me, so after a quick headcount, he automatically offered my services to Dog Company. I wish I had pictures of the expressions on the faces of my machine gunners as I left to "go in harm's way".
Along with a good-sized gaggle of glum grunts (back then we called ourselves "snuffies"), I followed our guide to an assembly area where each of us was given a place to go. Oddly, I cannot recall which platoon I was assigned, but I do recall being miffed at not being sent to the machine gun platoon, as were several in the group. I was paired with a sergeant who formerly may have been in the S-2 section, and we remained foxhole partners for most of the next two weeks. The sergeant, whose name I've forgotten (I'll call him Smith), was senior enough to be selected as the squad leader, and I was unskilled enough at basic snuffie work to be assigned as a rifleman--even though I was a corporal who carried a carbine. I sort of became the guardian of our shared property and supplies. Sergeant Smith had a small box camera, and we took pictures of each other in various warlike poses.
Although I have forgotten many of the historical details of my short time with Dog Company, many events and some names stand as clear in my mind as if they had happened last week. Probably, under the circumstances, I operated in a state of extreme depression, rendering my attention to non-personal details nearly inoperative.
The position occupied by Dog Company when I joined it was on a high ridge overlooking a wide valley scattered with a crosshatch of smaller ridges and hills which led northward to a massive ridge much higher than ours. On the first night, I was paired with another unfortunate to patrol the gap between our platoon and Easy Company, located about 250 yards to our left. The word was that we would meet a connecting patrol from Easy Company in a saddle about halfway between our units. My weak eyes were even weaker at night, so I was grateful for a bright full moon--until we crept out of the trees onto a long saddle of white gravel covered only sparsely by knee-high pine scrub. My first thought: this is a perfect spot for the NKPA to stake out a snatch team. The night was not particularly cold, but I remember that I began (to borrow an expression from my West-Texas father-in-law) "shakin' like a cat shittin' peach seeds".
Before we ventured onto the brilliantly illuminated saddle, my partner and I discussed how to approach this scary problem. Some of our questions were: who covers whom; is this the correct saddle; will the Easy patrol shoot first; how long do we wait; what if they don't come? Our whispers were about as quiet as an owl's flight, but it seemed to me that everyone in Korea could hear us. We finally decided to squat or sit within sight of each other in the middle of the saddle, staying on the reverse (southerly) slope. After about an hour of listening, shivering and praying, we hand-signaled our agreement to return to our platoon area. No one seemed disturbed when we reported that the Easy patrol had not shown up.
The Fifth Marines were in a brutal grinding fight along the rough edge of the valley far to our left. Our right flank was covered by the Korean Marine Corps (KMC) Regiment. After returning from our patrol, we were treated to a classic show of tremendous firepower, as the KMC repulsed an enemy attack. Rumor had it that any kind of automatic weapon left unattended for more than a minute would quickly end up on the KMC's night defensive line. After that night's firepower demonstration, we understood how the rumor began--and believed it.
The following day, we got to watch an air-strike by Marine F4U Corsairs on the small 100-meter hill to our direct front. Following a solid plastering with rockets, bombs and 20mm cannon, each plane did a dramatic and impressive "victory roll" over the hill. Easy Company had been waiting at the base of the hill, and quickly fanned out for a frontal assault. The hammering of machine guns, and the "crump" of grenades made it clear that the Corsairs had missed some NKPA. After what seemed like several hours, Easy Company headed back to their original positions carrying several people on stretchers. We were told that they had been unable to retrieve two of their KIAs, had several wounded--and that our turn would come tomorrow.
"Tomorrow" began with the objective receiving an early morning artillery barrage, most likely by Item Battery (we called it "Short-round Item"), 11th Marines. Our interest in the show was stimulated by one white phosphorous shell hissing its way down to a loud pop between my hole and the hole to the right of it. Miraculously, the rain of burning particles hit none of us. Just before that barrage ended, a high-explosive shell blew directly overhead, and a half-inch by four-inch steel shard slammed into the ground near my knee. I wondered if there was a way I could jam the thing into my leg, then decided that I was too chicken to chance the pain and guilt.
The show was not over yet. The next surprise was the tremendous freight-train roar of Army eight-inch Howitzer shells passing overhead, and vibrating our ridge as they impacted loudly on the objective. We noted that they were using delayed-detonation fuses, and hoped that the shells were burying themselves directly under the NNKPA bunkers before they exploded.
By mid-morning, we had "saddled up" and headed down the ridge toward the still-smoking hill. As we started across the 300 yards of intervening rice paddy, we were pleased to see blasts from a 75mm recoilless rifle sniping at the target hill from our recently vacated position. This time there would be no frontal assault. My squad escorted a machine-gun squad up the right (east) ridgeline toward the hilltop where an NKPA machine gun was busily trying to chop us to mush. Jim Lane, a native American dragooned along with me from my old CP defense platoon, pushed and dragged our machine gun onto the ridgeline, and began a one-on-one duel with the NKPA gunner. Jim was rewarded with a bullet in each thigh, but he simultaneously knocked out the NKPA gun by putting two rounds into its drum magazine.
During the machine gun duel, my fire-team deployed over the ridgeline onto the steep north slope, for flank security. Just as I had settled against a three-inch-thick tree to scan the north slope, I heard someone yell, "grenade!" I quickly glanced toward the top of the ridge and saw two things: (1) the head and shoulders of the NKPA gunner as he bolted from his hole; and (2) what looked like a fist-sized rock bouncing down in my direction. Just in case it wasn't a rock, I squeezed all 125 pounds of me behind that skinny tree--all, except for the right leg which was holding me against it. An invisible sledge hammer smacked my right shin, knocking that supporting leg aside so hard that I flopped down the slope. I may have shouted something like "Got me!" before I checked the damage. My right legging had a deep dimple on the shin right where I had folded my trouser cuffs. (I folded or "bloused" them on the inside of the leggings to avoid snagging them on bushes.) The leg felt broken, but still worked. Seeing no blood, I limped painfully upward in response to my fire team leader's urgent call to get to the top. We overran (I overlimped) the NKPA now-empty circular firing position, noting the jammed Russian light machine gun and several grenades, including the first milk-bottle-sized bright blue concussion grenades I'd ever seen. We also noted that the knees of another now-dead occupant protruded from the dirt that had been hastily piled over him by the surviving NKPA gunner. Strange picture, those threadbare knees.
The NKPA gunner was out of sight, running somewhere down the ridgeline, so we sent a solid volley of rifle fire in that direction. As the rest of the squad moved up, we moved down the ridge to find him. Minutes later, he appeared on the low ground about 50 yards north of the hill, jogging back toward a finger ridge to our right front. "Hot dog", I thought. "A real target I know I can hit." In my best sharpshooter style, I locked my elbow under the carbine in a solid offhand position, aimed belly high, gave him a one-foot lead, and squeezed off a round. Still jogging. I gave him a two-foot lead, and carefully squeezed off another round. Still jogging. By now, most of the platoon had appeared, and all were blasting away at the jogger, who kept jogging. I spent another eight rounds trying every aiming variation I could think of, then flipped the M2 carbine on automatic, and squirted a five-round burst at him. Still jogging. The platoon commander shouted a "cease fire" and ordered a BAR-man to do the job, but by then the jogger had gotten behind the finger ridge. A fire team took off at high port, and returned shortly to report that the NKPA gunner had finally fallen just behind his destination, riddled with at least fourteen holes. Now that was a gutsy world-class jogger.
By now my leg hurt enough to make me dizzy, so I flopped down and unlaced my legging. The shin looked as if a purple golf ball was hidden under the skin, but there was not a hint of blood. Another fire team member had gotten a tiny sliver of the grenade in the back of his armpit, and the resulting single drop of blood earned him an evacuation tag, as well as a probable Purple heart. I knew that Mother Nature loves to play tricks, but she really ticked me off this time. After we had climbed back up to our original positions, I sought out the Corpsman, showed him my livid shin, and asked if he had any liniment or something. Having recently tended to Lane and other wounded, he was not very sympathetic, and did not even have any PCs (G.I. aspirin) to offer. So much for my not-to-be Hollywood wound.
No Purple Heart, but at least I would have those warrior photographs to show my children, right? Wrong. That 75mm "reckless" rifle had chosen my hole as a shooting platform, and the backblast had blown Sergeant Smith's pack, camera and all, to bits. A diligent search revealed charred bits of pack fabric, but no camera or film or letters. Mother Nature was having a field day.
During our search of the conquered objective, we had found the bodies of Easy Company's two missing men. We also discovered that an unbelievably courageous Marine, who I believe was named Sterling Garrett, of Corning, Arkansas, had volunteered during Easy's withdrawal to verify that the men were KIA. That explained why we found both bodies within twenty feet of the NKPA positions, carefully covered with their ponchos by PFC Garrett (who habitually carried a burp gun along with his M1 rifle).
A day or so later, we were selected for a two-platoon recon patrol. Our platoon was on the left as we skirted our NKPA gunner's hill, and proceeded cautiously through the scrub to the top of the following hill. It was unoccupied, and we settled in to see what there was to see. One thing we saw was that the platoon on the little hill to our right had to cross a large scrubless area which faced the NKPA. Several of us concurred in the opinion that sending small groups across the open ground, one after another, was probably not the best way to cross it. The NKPA was in agreement. Just as the last group crossed the area, we all heard the terrifying thunks of about ten mortar rounds being fired from way out on our right front. For the second time in two days, I squeezed my body into a tiny mass small enough to fit behind a tiny tree. We then experienced the sickening mixed feelings that come with having been spared a mortaring, but watching an adjacent unit get expertly blasted. We held position while the unfortunate platoon later withdrew behind us. I can clearly remember a stretcher or poncho on which was carried a big red-haired Marine who appeared to have been wounded in every square inch of his bloodied body.
The huge ridgeline was our next objective, and we spent most of a day cautiously crossing that mortar-threatening valley, and climbing up the front of the huge ridge. We got to somewhere near the top after nightfall, which was extremely dark. The last hour or so was accompanied by the frequent passing, close overhead, of NKPA 76mm high-velocity artillery rounds. High-velocity rounds pass overhead with a sound something like the ripping of a large bed sheet--a very large bed sheet. It would have been terrifying if we hadn't been so exhausted. In total darkness we spaced ourselves out, broke out our tools, and dug into the surprising soft soil. When morning came, I was pleased to find that, contrary to my pessimistic assumption, I did not have a huge rock directly in front of my hole. Nor had I dug into a gravesite.
We had reached the ridgeline as Dog Company's reserve platoon, so were spared more of Mother Nature's frights or dirty tricks. The KMCs and Fifth Marines squeezed us out of the line, so the Seventh Marines went into Division reserve. I was then transferred to the Division Adjutant's office in Masan to complete the remainder of my Korean service, printing Division orders on a mimeograph machine, and watching rear-echelon pinkies being awarded Bronze Stars with Combat "V" for working long hours. It drove me to drink--often. And still does.
I became a regular customer of the Moon Palace cabaret, where I was on a first-name basis with owner Kim (of course) and several of his cute B girls (couldn't afford them). I did manage to fall madly in love, unrequited, with a stunning creature who was considered strictly "officers' material". The Moon Palace was just a little cabaret with about a dozen small tables with lots of chairs. I can't recall whether there was any entertainment other than B-girl watching. There was probably a jukebox. Owner Kim learned our names, and that made the place pretty comfortable and personal. Besides, lots of pretty girls came in to do whatever business they were involved in--I don't know what.
In a very dirty country, I was amazed at how clean the natives kept themselves. The old guys in their white pajamas were spotless. The Korean children were cute, and we spoiled them rotten with whatever we had. The only prejudice I saw was once when I watched a Marine truck driver brutally kick a wounded CCF prisoner. The driver nearly got shot for it. If he hadn't been a real bruiser, I would have butt-stroked him with my carbine. I never saw a white Marine belittle a black Marine. In 1950 all of us were Marine green.
When it was time for me to be rotated back to the States, I think someone came into the office and told me to pack up to go home. I was glad to be leaving. I felt like the last Inchon Marine to go home, and knew very few of my fellow workers well. I don't recall any details of my last hours with the unit except that they sent me ahead to Kobe with the seabag roster so our seabags could be fetched from storage. I hopped a supply plane of some kind, but don't remember where we landed. Someone drove me to the Kobe supply point. I had to complete a checkout slip to make sure that I had returned all the organization gear that I had drawn, e.g., weapon, 782 gear ("web" gear), etc, and then I left Korea about September 15, 1951 as a buck sergeant. I got an extra day of liberty and managed to reunite with my Japanese girlfriend in Kyoto.
The ship that took me back to the States was the General Mitchell. It held about 2,200 happy troops of all services. It was a very cheery ship, and I was almost delirious that I had survived Korea. I had no duty on the return trip. Marine NCOs do not stand duty on ships as passengers. Since I don't get seasick, I was not ill on the two-week trip. Movies were offered, but I mostly read "pocketbooks".
The ship came straight into Treasure Island troop landing in San Francisco. I think there was a small Navy band at Treasure Island, and a fireboat escorted us through the Golden Gate with a water spray show. We almost snapped our necks looking for the Golden Gate through the fog.
Back in the USA
To process off the ship we were assigned to temporary companies of about a hundred each, and mustered each morning in the fog. In the first 24 hours of liberty after leaving the ship I took the train to San Francisco, walked down Market Street to the first tailor shop, had my new greens cut to fit, then went to a movie house that showed seven Roadrunner cartoons in a row. I stayed for about three repetitions.
I returned home to find my mother in the final stages of cancer. During my October 1951 post-conflict leave, I obtained a humanitarian transfer from Norfolk, Virginia to Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois until release from active duty in February 1952. I was Sergeant of the Guard at Center Brigs. I did not get goofy after returning home. Luckily the Great Lakes duty kept me in close touch with several screwballs on my shift, so I had to stay centered to deal with their childishness. I slipped easily back into civilian life after only a few years out of it, but I still wonder at the sloppy way many people approach life and I avoid dealing with slobs or fools. My standards may be unreasonably high, but at least I have them.
I did not reenlist at that time. The loss of Mother, a felt-need to support the family, and the comfort of returning to an enjoyable civilian job dictated taking my release back to the USMCR. Korea had changed me in that I felt more responsible for much that went on around me, and I carried a sadness for the friends I had lost. I had a clearer sense of the future--college, job, marriage, white picket fence.... I continued to play the clown and injected humor into almost everything.
After a couple of months at a job created for me (my old job had been eliminated), I felt enough hostility from men who had been pushed aside that I took advantage of information that a new staff was being organized to reconstitute my old Reserve battalion. I went back on active duty in April 1952 as the Machine Gun Unit Leader (Staff Sergeant billet) on the I&I staff, 9th Infantry Battalion, USMCR, at Navy Pier, Chicago. In June 1953 I integrated into the regular United States Marine Corps for two years and continued to train reservists on machine guns and general subjects.
While stationed at Navy Pier I took a couple of night courses at Northwestern University's Chicago campus. I took my discharge on June 4, 1955 in order to attend college. I stayed in the organized USMCR to augment the thrifty stipend offered by the Korea G.I. Bill. In 1955-56, I attended Northwestern in Evanston. I transferred to the University of Illinois, graduating in June 1959 with a Bachelor of Science degree from the Division of Special Services for War Veterans (DSSWV), majoring in Marketing. I spent one year teaching Business English as a graduate assistant in Advertising--no degree. I was almost eight years older than most of the other students in college, and saw most activities from a different perspective. I offered suggestions to maintain a lower profile on excitable issues.
Marine Corps Assignments
My Marine Corps assignments included:
I finally retired from the USMC as of 19 August 1989 for pay purposes. The word "discharge" is slightly involved. My USMC tour was up on June 4, 1955 and I took the discharge. From then on I was USMCR until put on the Reserve Retired list on January 1, 1971. I was transferred to the Regular Retired list on my 60th birthday and started drawing retired pay.
I married the sister of my roommate, a Gamma Phi Beta named Sara Victoria Edgell, in 1959. One reason I stayed in graduate school was to stick around until she graduated. We had a natural son, Brian Paul, born June 24, 1961, and an adopted daughter, Karla Sue, born May 3, 1969.
After graduation I worked for Sears, Roebuck & Company in Chicago as a catalog copy writer for a bit over a year in 1960-61. I was hired by IBM as a systems engineer in 1961. When they decided that all system engineers also had to be part salesman, I left in 1972. I took a job with the US Department of Agriculture as a systems analyst reviewing and recommending funding for state-developed automated welfare systems. I retired on September 1, 1990 from the US Department of Health & Human Services in San Francisco.
In my retirement I correspond with hundreds of old friends. I write occasional war memoirs. I support, by attendance, all local veterans' organizations (American Legion, VFW, DAV). I formed a new detachment of the Marine Corps League here in Prescott, Arizona. I volunteer (sparingly) at the VA Medical Center in Prescott. I coordinate monthly lunches for 14 local vets of Chosin. I read my old and new books and tons of magazines. I play housewife in my bachelor quarters. I collect and restore old Jeeps. (I have two Willys MBs, 1942 and 1945, and am presently restoring a rusty Jeep trailer.) I watch for illegal trails along the Forest Service road into town and close new ones by using heavy brush and rocks. I fill potholes after rain or snow if the county grader doesn't show up. I maintain a leaky 26-year old house and clean up debris from over 100 messy Ponderosa pines on my lot. I conducted a six-year fight with the VA over my frostbite and hearing injuries. I write frequent letters to members of Congress and the local newspaper editor, agreeing or disagreeing with events about which I have some personal knowledge. I have several weekly breakfasts and lunches with local friends and associates involved with community and Marine projects I support. I try to grow something--anything--other than Ponderosas. I shoot pistol matches. I act as a reference library on USMC issues, attend reunions of Chosin vets, 1st Marine Division Association, Dog Seven Association, and others. I try to stay in close contact with my children.
The Korean War's nickname, "The Forgotten War" is mostly hype. No one wanted another war so soon after the monstrous affair of World War II, so everyone downplayed it. Congress set the Korea G.I. Bill lower than the World War II Bill even though the cost of living was higher. People who did not have loved ones involved didn't want to hear about the Korean War. It was a kind of national denial.
For me personally, the hardest thing about being in Korea was the constant exhaustion, plus the feeling that I wasn't tough enough to do my job right. If I could do it again, I would be much more focused and consistent on everything I did. I'm sure I could have done a better job of watching out for my men, taking an occasional night watch to give them a break, checking their weapons more often--especially at Chosin, and finding ways to make their miserable lives a bit easier. I wasn't focused on much beyond what I had to do--and my own survival. I goofed off many times when I should have been more attentive to what might be coming up next.
Did I ever perceive Korea to be a country worth fighting for? Let's see.... It stunk like an old outhouse, was either too cold or too hot, too muddy or too dusty, full of nasty folks trying to kill us... what's not to love? Comfort was always a problem with terribly hot days followed by very chill and windy nights. The cold and wind at Chosin were indescribable. Really, when we heard what the NKPA had done to even little children, we adopted the attitude that we were there for payback, and the kids at least were worth fighting for.
At the time, I thought that the United States should have sent troops to Korea. Truman woke up late, after he had gutted the military, but he met the threat properly. The major problem was that MacArthur was no longer a military leader, and didn't bother to train his troops. One wonders what they were doing if they weren't training. That's all Marines ever do. MacArthur should definitely not have gone north of the 38th parallel. Inchon cut off the NKPA, and all he had to do was seek and destroy what was left of them. He chose not to because it was too mundane. Instead, he came up with a grandiose plan to repeat a dazzling amphibious landing on the other coast. He didn't care to note that this stopped the UN offensive dead in its tracks while the entire 10th Corps loaded up at Inchon and Pusan, using most of the truck transport that should have been used to chase the NKPA. Anyone knows that you don't clog up primitive roads with contrary movements, but he sent the entire 7th Infantry Division down those roads to Pusan to board ship for the Wonsan landing. It was lunacy. He failed in his primary job--destroying the enemy forces. Having let the enemy go, he then had no choice but to chase them into North Korea. He shot from the hip all the way, and Marine officers thought him reckless and unprofessional.
The biggest mistake was to not send a fighting commander like Ridgway to command the 8th Army at the beginning. Lieutenant General Walker was a good fighter, but had MacArthur second-guessing everything he tried to do. Errors begat more errors. MacArthur should have been stopped at the 38th or approximately where we are now. He said the line couldn't be held, but everyone else knew it could. He figuratively and literally got away with murder for nothing but political purposes. China would not have sent in their troops if we had stopped at the "military" 38th parallel. The map clearly shows an excellent defensive line all the way east to Wonsan. He didn't use it, and millions died.
We have a much tougher Army now, and South Korea is definitely to be admired for its economic success. I am not sure about its political success. I think the war made the communists pause long enough for the rest of the world to wake up to the threat. Korea was the hole in the dike of communist imperialism. Sadly, China is still playing that old discredited game.
In less than a year of commitment to the Korean War, the 7th Marines, as part of the 1st Marine Division, earned the Navy Presidential Unit Citation an unprecedented three times. Inchon/Seoul (9/15-10/11/50), Chosin (11/27-12/11/50), and the East Central Front (4/21-26, 5/16-6/30, 9/11-25/51) were all significant battles that could not have succeeded without the professionalism of the Marines who played a critical role in each operation.
I believe that a war hero is someone who makes a special effort to effect an outcome, and often pays with his life. I knew a few who should have been cited, and also a few who were but shouldn't have been. The most notable was Sgt. Bradley Westerdahl, a scout/sniper in the S2 section. He earned his money by snooping around ahead of the rest of us, and several times saved us from nasty events by spotting enemy strong points and concealed artillery pieces. He should have received several Bronze Stars for exemplary performance of duty under dangerous circumstances, but I'm pretty sure he got nothing.
I have never revisited Korea. Canned tours don't excite me. However, I would like to walk from Hagaru-ri to Koto-ri again. I'd like to find the ridge where I spent most of my time with Dog/7.
I think the US still has troops in South Korea, but I don't think they should be combat troops. We should just have advisors. The few troops we have there could not make a real difference, so should be withdrawn. South Korea can and should handle their own defense. Syngman Rhee is long gone, so we don't need our military there to interfere with him trying to attack the north. We can use the money we spend there to train more of our troops here.
Finding the Lost
I think our government is doing a sufficient job in its efforts to locate and return Missing in Action personnel from the Korean War to the United States. Dealing with mad dogs is very difficult, and our folks seem to be more successful than I would have expected them to be.
I lived hand to mouth for a lot of years, so I had no time or money to search out survivors that I knew in Korea. The few that I talked to made me very uncomfortable because I couldn't think of anything to say. Naturally the visits were very brief, and I always had "dropped in on my way to...."
I attend company/regiment reunions ("Birds of a feather"). I stay tied to the major units in which I served, as well as local military veteran outfits. Not only do I get to see old guys with the same stories to be retold and embellished, but I also meet great new guys with new stories.
I have had difficulties getting compensation from the V.A. I attribute this to their lack of medical expertise, lack of knowledge about military life, lack of common sense in judging cause and effect, and, in general, gross incompetence.
After five years, I finally got the Veterans Administration to rule that I am 60 percent disabled from frostbitten feet. I am "service-connected" for subaceous cysts and arthritis of the spine, but without compensation. I am appealing the 1995 V.A. decision that denied my frostbite claim on the basis of their lack of competence and proper administration. I also am challenging the same decision that my hearing was not damaged during almost a year of infantry combat. If I can find a way to apply criminal charges, I will.
Stories of My Past
If my children asked me about Korea, I told them about what they wanted to hear. I'm not a story teller, so I didn't regale them with stories of my past. As a family we dealt with the present and future, and there was always more than enough of that to fill our time. The particular understanding that I would want someone reading this memoir to gain is that the Korean War was the first impediment to communist world domination and gave the UN a chance to build world opinion into a viable force.
I'm proud that I served, especially in Chosin--one of the most horrific battles the USA has ever had. I appreciate that service as a Marine and Korea vet has given me a level of prestige I might otherwise not have achieved. Those who believe that World War II veterans are treated with more respect and appreciation than Korean War veterans just have sour grapes. I get all the respect I need. I became a better Marine, a more serious citizen, and much more thoughtful about life in general. Serving in the Marine Corps affected my post-military life. I was never a slob, but my life is kept neat in almost every respect. I dress carefully, wear my hair short (as a 1950's man should), and eschew whiners.
There is a saying, "Once a Marine, always a Marine." As usual, the 90/10 rule applies. There will always be the ten percent who couldn't really get into the program. They either ended up court-martialed or snuck out quietly at the end of their enlistment. The rest of us are indelibly imprinted with what is now called the "ethos" of the Corps. That is usually expressed as "Honor, Courage, Commitment". Whether we work hard at living up to that ideal or not, we all carry it in our minds in everything we do. The pride comes from knowing we've performed with the best, as the best, and deliver our best effort in most of the things we do. We revel in the prestige, we view the other branches of service with disdain but enjoy their company, we are quick to recognize our Marine peers wherever we meet them, and we stand like stone when The Hymn is played.
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