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Jack Clifton Burkett
"When I had the chance to reflect on what I had just been through, I was sad and depressed to think of all the Marines that were killed in the Chosin Reservoir. I wondered why in the hell we were in this god-forsaken land in the first place. I was also unhappy with the thought that we had been driven back by the enemy. At that time I would never have believed that this could happen to Marines."
- Jack C. Burkett
My name is Jack C. Burkett and this is my autobiography highlighting my years as a Marine in the Korean War. It is also an update to my memoirs published on the internet site, “Korean War Educator”.
My full name is Jack Clifton Burkett. I was born in Newport, Kentucky at 6:00 a.m. the day after Christmas in 1929, just a few months after the stock market crash, which precipitated the greatest depression this country has ever known. My parents, Jesse Earl Burkett and Margaret Applegate Burkett, were awaiting the birth of their second child at a time when most Americans were not of cheerful countenance, times were not good. At that time, Newport was notorious for gambling and prostitution and known as sin city. To some it was known as fun city. It was controlled by the syndicate.
Jack was the name I was given. My mother preferred it rather than John. I never understood why, nor did she ever offer an explanation. Clifton is my middle name. Clifton was the section of Newport in which I was born. Today it is part of the city. They must have had a difficult time deciding on a middle name.
To provide some background on my ancestry, my father, Jesse Earl Burkett, was the son of a Civil War veteran, Jesse Burkett. Jesse incurred a severe injury at Appomattox Courthouse three days before the war ended. Appomattox Courthouse, as most are aware, was the site of the signing of the armistice by Grant and Lee. I am probably among the few living today who can say that their grandfather fought in the Civil War. His marriage to my grandmother, Anna Cosley was later in life, following the death of his first wife.
When Jesse was still a child, the Burkett’s migrated to Ohio from North Carolina. He had no formal education and could not read or write. Anna was the daughter of a prosperous businessman, Dennis Cosley, and had the opportunity to attend the better schools at the time. She was a schoolteacher. She taught Jesse to read and write and was the driving force behind his successful political career. Jesse later became active in politics and served as the Treasurer of Miami County, Ohio.
The Burkett genealogy I have dates back to the 1600's. Originally, the name Burkett was Burkhardt. My paternal grandmother, Anna Cosley, had ancestry dating before the Revolutionary War. My mother (on her mother’s side) was the descendant of Irish immigrants who came here from Dublin in the 1850's to escape the potato famine. Her father was the descendant of English, French, and German ancestors. I have two ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War.
My father was an ophthalmologist who died when I was six years old, during the heart of the great depression. Because he was a professional, we had no financial problems in spite of the economy at the time. However, after his death, this all changed. There was no such thing as welfare then, and my mother became a widow with three young children and no source of income. After that, we had to struggle to survive.
I was very close to my mother having grown up without a father. My mother worked in a defense plant making Jeep headlights during World War II. We had little, if any supervision at this time, but somehow we still managed to stay out of trouble.
The School Years and Beyond
I attended St. Aloysius Parochial Grade School in Covington, Kentucky (which no longer exists) and then went to Holmes High School in Covington, Kentucky. I liked school, but I was more interested in sports than being a scholar. I was a starting running back on the football team, but track was my favorite. I won the mile run in the regional championship in 1948. I was probably in the best shape of my life. I could run a mile in under five minutes and do over 100 pushups. Looking back, I often wish I had worked harder as a scholar in high school; however, I was never encouraged to study and do not recall my mother even asking to see my report card. I did make straight A’s in history because I found it interesting. The rest of my courses were average. Abraham Lincoln once said that success is 90 percent sweat. I applied that philosophy to my educational endeavors later in life.
I was 11 years old when World War II started. Later and near the end of the war, I worked after school as a Western Union telegraph messenger. The War Department sent a telegram to the family of a service member who became a casualty of the war. Delivering such a telegram was not an enviable task. Many became hysterical. My most vivid memory was the day I delivered a KIA telegram to an elderly woman who fainted when I walked up to her. She was sitting on her front porch all alone. This was a daunting task for a 15-year old. Many war casualties occurred in the families of neighbors. I recall one family, the Durkees, who lost five sons during this war. Several I knew personally were among those for whom I delivered the telegram from the War Department. I remember informing the families of two members of the Holmes football team from the early 1940 era called "The Touchdown Twins" of Holmes High School, Gene Tinnel and Guy Frazier. A kamikaze attack on their ship took both of their lives.
It was a sunny day on April 24, 1945 when I stuffed several telegrams into my messenger cap and went out the front door of the telegraph office. I removed my bike from the stand and was ready to climb on when I heard the high-pitched voice of a newsboy crying out that FDR was dead. This was shocking news. I had never known any president other than Roosevelt since I was too young to know what a president was. I just could not think of anyone taking his place. He had been president since I was three years old. All of America listened to his daily fireside talks about the status of the war. It was hard to think of anyone else leading the country. This news stunned the whole country. He was a president of the common people whom he championed in spite of his aristocratic upbringing. He was the only president elected four times. He had been president for 12 of my 15 years at the time of his death.
The City of Covington, Kentucky celebrated the end of the war in a big way, as did everyone. I was 15 years old and I have never seen so many happy people. I was a member of a group called Sea Scouts (a version of Boy Scouts of the navy). I wore my Sea Scout uniform while walking up Madison Avenue struggling to get through the immense crowd of happy people. Everyone in uniform was getting a kiss from every girl who could get to him. One very attractive young lady looked at me and said, “You are too young to be in the navy.” I did not deny it so she said, "What the heck", and gave me a big kiss. I thought, "Wow. I am having more fun than anyone is."
When I got home, my mother hugged me and said, “Thank God this war has ended before you were old enough to become involved in it.” Most believed this war would end all wars. Unfortunately, it would be only five short years before I would become involved in a war. Most Americans were not willing to think of it as a war, but it certainly became a serious threat to my life.
Becoming a Marine
When I joined the Marine Corps in 1949, America was experiencing a time of great prosperity. Employment was high and the stock market was spiraling upward. America, following the end of World War II, was the most admired country on earth. We had won the war over the axis forces and we were clearly the world leader. We have come a long way since then, unfortunately, in the wrong direction. John Kennedy, in his most notable speech, said, "Ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country."' I am sorry to report to John that today far too many ask, "What can my country do for me?" I worry about the destiny of this country that I love.
In 1949, the farthest thing from anyone’s mind was another war. Little did I know the extent to which my decision to join the Marine Corps would become the most significant decision of my life. Of course, I did not have the foresight then to see that I was making a decision that would eventually take me to a cold and bloody place called Korea. Many young men making the same decision I was then making would die there. I had no idea how close I would come to being one of them.
The Marines were highly regarded in World War II. That influenced my decision to join the Marines rather than the Navy. My respect for the Marine Corps came from many sources, including a former (if there is such a thing) Marine and friend of the family who was awarded a Purple Heart in the battle for Iwo Jima. We heard about the Marines primarily from the reports of their success in battling the Japanese in the South Pacific during World War II.
I traveled to Parris Island by train. Parris Island is a sandy island on the coast of South Carolina. Swamps surround it and the only way off is the main road. This is probably the reason that not many recruits went AWOL. I became a member of Platoon #10, 1949. My senior drill instructor or DI was a Staff Sergeant named Brogdan from Savannah, Georgia. He was a World War II veteran. I also had two junior DIs, a corporal and a sergeant named Anallo and Mosley. These three controlled almost every move we made for the next 13 weeks. Their orders were as if coming from God Almighty.
There was no war going on in 1949 when I joined the Marine Corps; however, the training was nevertheless intensive. Boot camp was 13 weeks of close order drill and training on the rifle range. Staff Sergeant Brogdan was as dedicated a Marine as I ever met. He made sure we took our training seriously. We were required to qualify with the M-1 rifle. My training on the rifle range was the only thing I enjoyed about boot camp.
If we could not swim, they taught us how. I was amazed at the number who could not swim. Many were from the big cities and apparently never had the opportunity to learn. We also had to experience the effect of tear gas. They herded us into a dilapidated old building. We carried the gas masks they had given us into the building. I was not sure what was coming next. We then received orders over the speaker to put on the masks as the gas came hissing out of the pipes. We anticipated the next order to take them off. They made sure we did. It was a terrible experience, but necessary. When they let us out, we all fell down coughing and gagging.
We were highly regimented. When the lights came on at 5:00 a.m., the DI came in screaming for us to get out of bed and be standing at attention in front of our rack (bed) immediately. Any being slow in doing so were harassed mercilessly. We had to field strip the bed (take off the linens) in about 15 seconds. We then had to fall out very rapidly and line up even more rapidly, and then march, often in double time, to the mess hall well before daylight. The meals were tasteless and included a lot of beef and gravy on toast (SOS) and other cholesterol-high foods, such as eggs and sausage.
We spent most of the remaining day on the parade field. It involved marching to the incessant cadence of the DI. His rhythmic cadence haunted me in my sleep. Most of us in the beginning did not know our left foot from our right. The DI must have become hoarse from screaming, “Your left foot, Stupid.” Eventually it began to register. There were several who grew up experiencing only the proverbial Saturday night bath. They soon acquired a different concept of the definition of hygiene. It meant shower at least daily and washing our clothing by hand. We had to hang our laundry out to dry using strings called “tie ties". We had free time in the evening, but most of it was spent writing letters or spit-shining shoes; shoes had to shine or else! We had to clean the barracks it seemed like daily. The floor had to be spotless. This included the cracks between the boards. I remember using a toothbrush to remove dirt. Windows had to sparkle. When we were to be inspected, we had what was called a field day.
We often had to stand at attention with sand fleas crawling on us for extended periods. If someone made the mistake of slapping a sand flea, he faced the wrath of a screaming and angry DI pouncing upon him. We had to attend its "funeral". As a platoon, we had to bury any fleas killed by digging a hole six feet deep. These sand fleas caused us all kinds of grief.
An order carried the implied meaning of immediate response. A slow response meant a sure reaction from the DI. The primary goal of the DI was total humiliation of the offender. God (DI) made sure the offender knew such acts occur only among the lowest creatures that exist. The recruit was humiliated and embarrassed while praying for it to end. Then thinking his misery had ended he was dismissed. However, it was never that easy. He was usually required to return repeatedly. Unity was one of the key principles taught. The success of the entire unit depended on the actions of each member.
There were times during boot camp that I was sorry I ever joined the Marines. I could not believe I could have been so stupid as to volunteer for this kind of punishment. Nevertheless, today I recognize it as one of the great experiences in my life. I had a lot of respect for our senior DI. He was a proud Marine and a patriotic American. It did not seem to be as hard to take the disciplinary training from such a person. Later in life, I could see the reason for much of the training and realized the effect it had on my life. This was especially true in Korea.
When boot camp was completed, we all signed our platoon picture on the back and took addresses so that we could keep in touch. Unfortunately, I never again connected with a member of that platoon. I often wonder if any were lost in the Korean War. The DIs were friendly on the last day, and we came to realize that they were human. Upon graduation, I was proud to be a Marine. This was especially true when I met my friends back home. I was proud that I had stood up to the rigors of boot camp and survived it. I was in great physical condition. I knew what those who preceded me had gone through, especially those in World War II. I was proud to be a member of such an elite organization.
Post Boot Camp
After boot camp, we had a 30-day leave. I spent most of my time with my friends and high school classmates. I wore my uniform most of the time. My first duty was at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. I became a member of the Sixth Marines in an anti-tank assault platoon. At Little Creek, Virginia, we made amphibious landings. I spent most of the year 1949 at Camp Lejeune involved in infantry training.
The policy at this time was to maintain warships in the Mediterranean Sea. This force included a regiment of Marines. In the spring of 1950, it became the Sixth Marines' turn to make this tour. This trip was worth a fortune to me. I will always remember all of the historical places visited which I never could have experienced otherwise. We visited Rome and went through all the famous places there, including Saint Peters Cathedral. We visited the French Riviera, the Parthenon in Greece, Turkey and North Africa, as well as many other cities and countries along the Mediterranean Sea. While visiting the French Riviera we had the opportunity to go to the casino at Monte Carlo and gamble. I bet one chip just to be able to say that I once gambled at Monte Carlo.
Military life became boring to me. However, it would not remain such as the following events will show. We had our General's inspection, in which we spent days on end cleaning and scrubbing the barracks, shining our shoes, and all the other things required to exhibit a perfect appearance for the inspection. After all of this, which happened most of the time, the General never even looked at all the preparation we made.
This training lasted from the time I left boot camp until June of 1950, during which time I learned the use of various assault weapons such as flamethrowers and anti-tank weapons. I was a flamethrower at this time, which was a vintage weapon used extensively in World War II. The biggest challenge was the fact that a flamethrower, fully loaded, was heavy; therefore, trying to maneuver it into the right position was difficult. However, this weapon was never used in Korea in my unit that I can recall. 0ur instructors were non-commissioned officers who were our platoon leaders and unit leaders. We were required to know and understand all of the nomenclature of the weapons and their specifications.
We were free to spend our evenings and weekends away from the base. However, few of us had automobiles and there was nowhere to go, since, as with most military bases, we were miles from any large cities. This resulted in our main recreation, if you could call it that, being drinking beer at the slop shoot (bar) or in the bars of the small towns around the base such as Jacksonville, North Carolina (Camp Lejeune). Also in my time off, I used the gym and did some fishing near the base.
In May of 1950 my life suddenly became less boring. I became a coach on the rifle range. My duty as a coach was gratifying. This was excellent duty with open gate liberty. We worked a few hours a day instructing others on the use of the .45 caliber pistol. I enjoyed this duty because of the opportunities it afforded. I became an expert with the .45 since I had the chance to practice with it daily. Then we heard that there was a war going on in a place called Korea--wherever the hell that was. Regrettably, it interrupted this super duty. My time as a coach was short lived. We soon began training for war.
Training for War in Korea
When the Korean War broke out, the only thing I knew about Korea was that it was located in the Orient. I had a strong suspicion that we might become involved. However, I did not think about it much. I knew that if they intended to send me, it was not open to debate.
I joined the Marine Corps for three years. However, my agreement to serve only three years was far from a binding contract. The Marine Corps unilaterally extended my time--I had no choice. Years later, I attended law school and had the highest grade in contracts. I concluded that a binding contract depended on who the parties were, regardless of what I was being taught.
We did not receive any cold weather training, which was unfortunate. We had no premonition of the 30 below zero temperatures awaiting us in a far away and unheard of place called the Chosin Reservoir. We, the Sixth Marines, moved en masse from Camp Lejeune on the coast of the Atlantic to Camp Pendleton on the coast of the Pacific. The entire regiment was moved non-stop by train. The thing I remember the most about that trip was the Pullman sleeper car. I can still recall being lulled to sleep each night while listening to the rhythmic clickety-clack of the wheels as they rolled endlessly into the night.
In 1950, I had the opportunity to see most of Europe on the Mediterranean cruise, our country from coast to coast by train, and soon the Orient on my way to Korea. Only a few people ever see that much of the world in a lifetime. The Marine Corps gave me that opportunity in just nine months. The Sixth Marines became part of the First Regiment of the First Marine Division reinforced. The commanding officer of the First Marine Regiment was Chesty Puller, the most famous Marine who ever served. He was the most decorated Marine in Marine Corps history.
I was an unmarried private first class when I got orders for overseas. The only personal effects I had were what the Marine Corps had provided me. We left from San Diego for Japan in August of 1950. The name of the ship that took us to Japan was the Simon Buckner. I believe that this ship was a troop transport. It was a large ship and could carry many passengers. As best as I can recall, those on the ship were all Marines. I do not believe this ship carried any cargo; however, it could have carried military supplies.
Because I had made the Mediterranean cruise, as well as participated in several amphibious training maneuvers, for the most part, I had my sea legs by the time we made this crossing to Japan. The platoon I was in at Camp Lejeune went to Korea as a unit. I knew almost all of the members personally.
We went to Japan to prepare for the Inchon Landing. We stayed at Camp Otsu in southern Japan and every day we went on long, forced marches. We stayed at this camp for approximately two weeks before boarding landing ships to go to Korea. To my knowledge, these ships did not have any particular name. They had a number following LST (which stands for landing ship tank). The weather was very rough and these ships have a flat bottom. They had pontoons attached to the sides which I assume were to be used if needed should the tide be low. I do not recall them being needed. We spent most of our time on deck and had to endure the salt-water shower we received each time the ship listed from side to side. The attached pontoons significantly enhanced the amount of spray created. The standing joke was who could go the longest without getting seasick. I was almost to the point of thinking I would rather hit the beach even if it could mean facing enemy fire than endure anymore of that misery.
When I arrived in Korea (the Inchon Landing on September 15, 1950), I was a member of Weapons Company, Third Battalion, First Marines. Weapons Company and George Company, which I later joined, were part of the Third Battalion. Upon arriving at Inchon, we spent several hours watching the strafing and the bombing of the invasion area from the deck of the ship. We were briefed on what was going to take place just ahead.
The naval ships in the area all had big guns. I do not know if any were battleships--most of them were probably cruisers and destroyers. There were a lot of landing ships in the area. My rough estimate is that there were at least a hundred ships within or near the harbor. It was an awe-inspiring display of firepower as we watched the shelling of the hills surrounding Inchon. We observed the explosions of the large naval guns and the strafing of the fighter planes. I saw many of those fighter planes strafing the hills. Many were also carrying bombs.
The tide did not create a problem for us because we were fortunate to land when the tide was at a favorable level. Our platoon was in one of the early waves. Our unit met only sporadic resistance during the landing itself. Most of the Marines were crawling under barbed wire and advancing toward the high ground when we landed at approximately 5 p.m. on a cloudy day. My platoon had no casualties during the landing itself, although I recall a Marine near me was killed when he dragged his own rifle on the ground. Apparently what happened was that he was attempting to crawl up the beach and somehow his rifle, instead of being out in front of him or on his shoulder, ended up beneath him. He died due to his own carelessness. I remember thinking, "What a terrible way to die!" It was the first time I had ever seen anyone die, and will always remember the way he flopped like a decapitated chicken.
I was, of course, not an experienced combat veteran at this time. A few others had served in World War II. I was apprehensive of what lay ahead. Fortunately, Inchon was not a campaign involving high casualties, but at that time I had no perception of what awaited us in a place called the Chosin Reservoir a few months away. After landing at Inchon, several members of my platoon and I spent the entire night crawling through a rice paddy. I remember that we took some captives who were hiding in the homes of civilians, but my most vivid memories of the landing at Inchon are of watching the shelling and bombing that took place before we landed. I do not have any particular memories of the city of Inchon itself.
On to Seoul
We moved along the road to Seoul, for the most part in trucks, though I do not recall how far we moved the first day. We began to encounter more resistance from the enemy as we approached Seoul. We were required to advance through the rice paddies to flush out enemy soldiers who were hiding in them. We had as our goal the capture of the capitol city of Seoul, again traveling by truck when feasible, and on foot about half of the time. We faced the greatest resistance prior to the capitol itself in a suburb called Yong Dong Po. The enemy was heavily entrenched along the levees surrounding this suburb. Our goal was to drive the enemy from these fortifications. The fighting was concentrated--both daytime and nighttime, but mostly at night. Sniper fire was a serious problem as we moved into the more populous areas and we suffered many casualties because of sniper fire.
Never having been involved in the horrors of war before, all of this was a dismaying experience for me. In the back of one's mind is the thought of becoming one of the casualties. It was reassuring to know that many of our leaders had experience during World War II. The more experienced Marines set excellent examples for the uninitiated. I do not believe that we had more than three or four old salts in the sense of having served in World War II. They were mostly NCOs and all set excellent examples for the younger Marines who were experiencing the dreaded reality of war for the first time. Many of the reserves called to active service were World War II vets. Many of our best leaders had been in World War II.
The North Koreans, as well as the Chinese who entered the war later, usually attacked at night, so our orders were that one person always be awake. If the one whose turn it was to be awake fell asleep, we were in great danger. This caused the death of four Marines near Seoul. The battalion commander marched all of us past the scene the following morning to see their dead bodies. It was a chilling display of what could happen if we failed to stay alert. It was a lesson that made a deep and lasting impression in the minds of those who observed it. It effectively reached the intended targets. I later talk about an event that occurred in the Chosin Reservoir where staying alert may have saved my life.
We moved swiftly from Inchon to the outskirts of Seoul. As already mentioned, it was not until Yong Dong Po that we became engaged in major action against the North Koreans. Until then we overran the enemy for the most part, and spent most of our time searching the rice paddies for those who were hiding from us. Many enemy soldiers changed into white robes and tried to blend in with the civilians. Those hiding in the rice paddies often jumped and ran when we got close, reminding me of a rabbit hunt. This was my first experience with taking the life of another human and I was not proud of having done so. That is the duty that one faces when serving as a combat infantryman.
I vividly recall that in Yong Dong Po, Lieutenant Sweeney asked for volunteers from our platoon to knock out a machine gun nest that was holding up our advance. Several in our platoon immediately jumped up and volunteered, including me, but he took the first four in line. Lieutenant Sweeney picked them because they were closest. They managed to knock out the machine gun. However, all four died while doing so. I should remember their names, but after these many years, I do not. However, I will never forget their images. The four Marines killed had left California in our platoon and we associated every day. Like many other situations, I could have easily been one those picked. We were friends and I will always remember the occasion. It was one of the multiple events I experienced in Korea illustrating the part that fate played in determining who died and who survived to fight another day.
We overran the enemy positions at Yong Dong Po. Many of the enemy tried to hide in the rice paddies in the surrounding area as mentioned above. Our job then became pursuing them into the rice paddies. I had to shoot several of them. I found one hiding under a white sheet and when I turned the sheet over, he stared up at me in mortal fear. He was defenseless and I could not shoot him. To my knowledge, I never shot a civilian. As I said, it bothered me to kill another human and to this day, I regret that I had to do so. However, I do not feel that I suffered any psychological effects from it.
There were, of course, many civilians caught in the middle of the battle. For the most part, they were smart enough to stay away from the heavy fighting. The children looked terrified, but I did not see any of them hurt. Most civilians tried to stay in their homes and out of sight. They all wore white robes and carried their belongings on their back using backpacks. I was astonished at the load they could carry, even the elderly. When they stopped, they always squatted on the ground with the load resting on the ground. They were very flexible and appeared very comfortable in this squatted position. It made me think that none had ever sat in a chair.
To me, one of the saddest experiences that I can ever recall was observing the refugees. I remember the day that I saw an old man sitting on the curb of a street in an apparent daze as bullets ricocheted all around him. He was so old I do not think he knew what was happening. Even though the bullets were flying all around him, he never flinched. He was still sitting there when I was required to move on, so I do not know if he survived. I also watched a corpsman amputate the arm of a civilian. Fortunately, the corpsman was able to inject morphine before amputating the arm. I will never forget the sound of the crunching of the bones as the amputation took place.
After these many years, I do not recall all of the specifics of the road to Seoul. I do not recall any continuous fighting during this phase of the war. I would describe most of it as average magnitude. Again, most of the fighting was at night. The North Koreans made excellent daytime targets for our fighter planes. They had little, if any, aircraft as far as I recall. We had almost total air superiority. Their method was to sneak up to our lines at night and try to overrun a weak spot and create disorder. They hoped that we would break and run as many of the units did in the early months of the war. As far as I recall, we never did. The North Koreans used snipers a lot. Because we had to expose ourselves to route them from their hiding places, we made good targets. In addition, because of our superior military capability, this was a more effective method for them. We lost many Marines to snipers. There was considerable house-to-house fighting.
Like many other young Marines, I saw for the first time the wholesale slaughter that a war brings. One of my most graphic memories was that of seeing our tanks going up a street and running over the dead bodies of enemy soldiers. Watching their arms and legs flopping beneath the tank’s treads was excruciating. Their bodies were smashed flat. My preference would have been to move them to the side. I was learning firsthand how barbarous man could be to his fellowman. The astonishing array of events that I observed on the streets of Seoul will remain forever implanted in my mind.
Tank support was always helpful because they could get close enough to an enemy occupied area to destroy it without casualties to our troops. However, they drew a lot of fire from the enemy, and in that sense, infantry forces near them were in great danger.
Seoul looked like the war-torn city that it was. It was in Seoul that the North Koreans made their last stand. We had to secure every building before we could advance. The enemy occupied many of them. They waited until we exposed ourselves, and then opened fire. We had both air and tank support, but the air support was, of course, of little value at night.
The most resistance in Seoul that I was involved in was the night that they counter-attacked. We knew they were coming because we could hear the tanks clanking down the street. I believe that most of their tanks were Russian. They were more effective prior to the Inchon Landing than against our forces in Seoul, but they were effective. Our anti-tank weapons were not as effective as they should have been. We had bazookas and 75mm recoil-less rifles, but hitting the target was not easy. The 3.5 rocket launcher was more useful, but accuracy was a major problem with all of our anti-tank weapons. Of course, with such weapons, the closer one was to the target, the greater the accuracy.
I was a member of the anti-tank platoon at this time. I carried a bazooka in the battle for Seoul, so I was well aware of what anti-tank weapons were capable of doing. I was on a roadblock set up on the street. It was made of sandbags and was about four feet high. When the enemy counter-attacked, their first tank was less than 50 yards away from us. The first tank fired at the roadblock and we could hardly see due to the sand flying all around us. The enemy soldiers were following behind the tanks. We knew we had to knock out the first tank because the street was too narrow for those following to get around it. A lieutenant by the name of Savage stood up, and in spite of heavy machine gun fire, he was able to fire a bazooka that managed to knock out the first tank. That stopped the counter-attack. Had the enemy been successful, I would probably have been a casualty. Lieutenant Savage lived through this counter-attack. He received a Silver Star. I lost track of him after that and do not know if he survived the war.
I went through the entire war without a scratch. The platoon had about 60 people in it when we left Camp Lejeune. Only a few, including me, did not receive a Purple Heart. It was my good fortune to be one of the few. I was never wounded and away from the action. For that reason, I am able to tell this story without interruption from Inchon to the spring of 1951. My platoon took around 10 or 12 casualties in Seoul. Unfortunately, I cannot recall their names. One was Greek; his parents had just come to America a few years prior to the Korean War.
After the capture of Seoul, I saw South Korean soldiers line up civilian communist sympathizers. They stood them next to a trench that they had forced them to dig. Then they forced them to kneel down and while going down the line shot each one in the back of the head and tossed their bodies into the trench. To me it was a painful sight.
The reporter, Margaret Higgins, came into the area we were in, which I believe was an old brewery. We were using it as a field hospital. She talked to us for a good while. One Marine that did not know she was there was swearing up a storm. However, she ignored it. She was a gutsy lady and was the only American woman I saw in Korea.
A Matter of Time
After the capture of Seoul, we thought it was just a matter of time before we could go home. We moved into North Korea and had the North Korean army in full retreat. We took many prisoners because by this time they were surrendering in mass. Most of the prisoners I saw were terrified and quiet and I do not personally recall any that were hostile. I remember taking some prisoners to the rear. One group included a badly injured prisoner. He could hardly walk. I directed several of them to carry him. Even though this was the enemy, I saw no reason to be inhumane.
Following the fall of Seoul, MacArthur was being heralded as a brilliant strategist. The Inchon Landing behind the enemy lines cut off their supply lines. The plan was brilliant. North Korean forces had over extended deep into South Korea. An undisputed truth, attested to in all military manuals and proven many times throughout the history of war, is that an army cannot fight without food and bullets. That is not news to anyone who has studied the history of war. It led to the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. In addition, of course it led to the defeat of the North Koreans in this instance. MacArthur was at the zenith of his career. Many thought that his strategy at Inchon was among the most brilliant ever. His decision to pursue the enemy into North Korea was a logical military move at the time. When you have an enemy in full retreat, you do not let up and give them the opportunity to fight another day. I recall reading about Civil War General Meade who did not pursue Lee following his defeat at Gettysburg. Had he done so many believe the Civil War would have ended much sooner and saved untold lives. However, Lee did not have one of the largest armies on earth waiting in the wings and ready to come to his aid.
A few months later Macarthur ordered the First Marine Division to over extend. Two of our regiments--the 5th and 7th, later ended up near the Chinese border in a place called Yudam-ni. The ghost of Napoleon at Waterloo was an eerie apparition looming over them. I believe that the major reason we did not experience our own modern day Waterloo there was the fighting spirit of the Marines led by General Smith and his gallant unit leaders like Ray Davis and William Barber. The heroics of Colonel Davis and Captain Barber and the vital part they played in the survival of these regiments are detailed in a book called, The Last Stand of Fox Company. I found this book captivating.
The most dismaying issue is why MacArthur did not see this same script developing when demanding that our forces push all the way to the border of China in the north. Did he really think that the Chinese would not come to the defense of North Korea? The evidence was overwhelming that they were preparing to do just that. It was total intransigence to the obvious and a stinging indictment of failed leadership. How could a general of his stature be that credulous? Did he allow his success at Inchon to go to his head? His legacy could have been that he was one of the greatest military strategists in history. Instead, he came close to orchestrating one of the worst military blunders in history.
Of course, another critical factor that allowed us to escape the Chinese vice was that we maintained total domination of the air.
Chosin Reservoir Campaign
While north of Seoul, we received orders to return to Inchon. We had no casualties during this return. We rested at Inchon before leaving by ship for a port city on the east coast of Korea to make an amphibious landing. The enemy was retreating so rapidly that the town was under United Nations control by then.
The trip from Inchon to Wonsan, North Korea, took approximately a week, I think. I believe it was a Japanese ship. It was not a flamboyant troop ship by any means. It was old and definitely not a war ship. I believe we heard that it was a large fishing boat. The crew all spoke Japanese, so we were not able to understand them.
Since this was to be a large-scale invasion, there were many ships in the convoy, but I have no idea of the number. The fact that there were not enough U.S. Navy ships available is an indication of the number of ships in the area. We had to use many Japanese fishing boats. I did not give this much thought at the time. We focused on our mission. We were aware of how dangerous it could be. As best as I recall, we did hit some rough weather, but none that was serious. I know it was a relief to get off that scow. It was cramped and wretched. The mess hall served the worst food I ever ate. We ran out of food. This was due to the delay. We ended up eating potato-peeling soup.
When we finally landed on October 26, 1950, we walked ashore without challenge. Other units (I think they were Republic of Korea or ROK troops) had secured the area before we got there. The North Koreans were in full retreat. Our unit did not go directly to the reservoir area. We first moved from the Wonsan area to a place called Majon-ni. This was a strategic location for preventing the enemy's retreat north. We took many prisoners while in this area. Most of the enemy soldiers surrendered willingly, but we did have to fight off several attacks. I was up in the hills where we were holding the high ground; therefore, I was not close enough to observe the attitude of these enemy soldiers. Most of them were surrendering without a fight. Most were on their own in their attempts to escape north. We were not involved in taking the prisoners to camp. I believe the MPs handled this job in general.
Next to my foxhole up in the hills, overlooking Majon-ni was the grave of a dead enemy soldier. He was buried in a shallow grave and one leg extended directly up toward the sky. One of my fellow Marines hung his helmet on the extended leg. They gave him a name that we all joked about, but I cannot recall what it was.
On November 10, 1950, I was somewhere south of the Chosin Reservoir and still with Weapons Company, Third Battalion, First Marines. I am not certain of the location; however, I remember that we had an excellent meal. I believe we also had a birthday cake since it was the USMC birthday.
From Majon-ni, we went to Koto-ri. We saw civilians in most of the places we went and it got to where we did not pay much attention to them. The Fifth and Seventh Marine Regiments were further north of us, having reached Koto-ri (which was about 13 miles north of us) before we got there. It seemed like those in command (including MacArthur) refused to believe the Chinese would enter the war. We did not get the word that the Chinese had attacked the Fifth and Seventh Marines until about the time we left Koto-ri to move to Hagaru to reinforce the units there.
Hell Fire Valley
We strongly suspected that the Chinese had entered the war. We were convinced of it when we left Koto-ri for Hagaru. Shortly after moving out, they attacked.
This battle was called Hell Fire Valley--more appropriate than the official name of Operation Drysdale after the commanding officer, a British Royal Marine colonel. The Royal Marines were attached to George Company. They suffered many casualties at Hell Fire Valley. They were an outstanding unit and fought with considerable valor. Compared to the Marines, they were always neat and well dressed. This is the only unit of another nationality that I was alongside in Korea.
Several major mistakes occurred during this operation. They included stretching the column too thin and failure to place the tanks in more strategic locations. We, of course, did not expect an enemy attack of this magnitude when we left Koto-ri, this being another mistake in that we underestimated the enemy force. At this point, we did not know that we (members of the First Marine Division) were under siege by eight Chinese Communist divisions. We were like sitting ducks on the road. The enemy fired at us from every direction and could hardly miss because of the fact that we were so exposed. The brunt of the attack was in the middle of the column. I was in about the third truck in the column. This location probably was the reason I was not one of the casualties. Ironically, those in the lead normally suffer the most casualties.
We had to get off the trucks because enemy bullets were going through the canvas covers like a target range. We used the ditches beside the road for protection as much as possible. Leading the column were several tanks. Being near the lead tanks gave those in the truck I was in a tremendous advantage over people in the trucks behind. The tanks were the only ones protected from the enemy fire thanks to their armor. Their machine guns inflicted considerable damage on the enemy. It was probably the major reason I was among those who made it to Hagaru.
William Baugh's Sacrifice
A friend of mine, William Baugh, died in the battle of Hell Fire Valley. On several occasions we had gone home on leave together while members of the Sixth Marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. I lived in Cincinnati; he lived ten miles or so west of Cincinnati. William received the Medal of Honor. He was in a truck several trucks behind the one in which I was riding. The Chinese threw hand grenades into the trucks and one landed in the truck in which PFC Baugh was riding. He threw his body on the grenade, which saved the lives of the others on that truck. The shocking news of his death reached me the next day. This was especially stunning. We had to temper ourselves to the death of those we knew personally since it seemed to be happening daily.
For PFC William Baugh, there was no tomorrow. I thought that if it could happen to him, it could happen to any of us. I wondered who among us was next. William Baugh was an Indiana farm boy. He could stand in a general's inspection with a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth and no one even knew it. We were together in the Sixth Marines at Camp Lejeune for approximately a year. I met his parents after the war. They lived less than 50 miles from my home. They were plain, down-home people and very friendly and warm. He was one of the most famous people in his hometown having won the Medal of Honor and having a ship (the USS William Baugh) named in his honor.
Roadblock at Hagaru
We were able to keep moving toward Hagaru with the tanks leading the way. I remember it was late at night when we reached the roadblock at Hagaru. I looked back at the devastation occurring behind me. Many of the trucks were burning and ammunition in them was exploding. This included most of our equipment and vehicles.
As I reflect back on that night and the utter devastation that unfolded before my eyes, I realize how fortunate I was. My location in that column was purely by chance. I could easily have been among those toward the center and who were withstanding the worst of the attack. I would like to think that it was because somebody up there was watching over me; however, I cannot justify that feeling any more than many, if not most, of those who were out there dying. Once again, I must list it among the many times that fate was on my side. I wish there was another way of saying this without using the same worn cliché, but it seems to be the bottom line as the reason for survival in combat.
We reached Hagaru on November 29, 1950. We dug in on the perimeter. I was in the foxhole close to the road leading to Yudam-ni. Hagaru was in a valley surrounded by high ground. My foxhole was near the southern tip of the Chosin Reservoir. We could see the engineers attempting to build an airstrip. They had heavy equipment within the Hagaru perimeter. It was moved there before the first encounter with the Chinese forces. They were scraping out a landing field. They worked day and night, using floodlights at night. This made them especially vulnerable to enemy small arms fire. Because of the airstrip the engineers managed to scrape out of the frozen ground, we were able to evacuate many wounded by air as well as fly in supplies.
Because of the location of my foxhole next to the MRI, I was able to observe the Fifth and Seventh Regiments as they marched into Hagaru in the retreat from Yudam-ni. It was an impressive sight. They brought out their dead loaded in trucks, many frozen into grotesque shapes. Today, when I reflect on that scene, in my mind I hear the playing of our National Anthem--especially the words, “Our flag was still there.”
Hagaru appeared to be an especially desolate village. The cold winter weather made it appear even more austere. We could only escape the frozen wind by huddling up in the corner of a foxhole. We were under attack at various positions along the perimeter almost every night after reaching Hagaru on November 29, 1950. They had not attacked in full force when we first arrived there. On several occasions they broke through our defenses and into the village, however, we were able to find them.
George Company suffered the most casualties attempting to take and retain a hill to the east appropriately called East Hill. It was a steep hill, making climbing it a difficult task. It became even more precipitous due to the mud and snow and then compounded due to the enemy firing at those struggling to reach the top.
East Hill was strategically located because, by controlling it, the Chinese could fire on and harass those in the Hagaru perimeter. If we had not controlled it, we probably would have lost Hagaru to the enemy. This probably would have resulted in the loss of the entire division because the Fifth and Seventh Marines were still fighting their way out of Yudam-ni and it was critical that they be able to reach Hagaru to reorganize. Some of the fighting for East Hill took place at about the same time as the fighting was going on in Hell Fire Valley.
As to the strength of the enemy, I can only assume the estimates I later read about are correct. The Chinese had an estimated eight divisions in the area. Most of the enemy wore padded, quilted, cotton coats and hats that had flaps to cover their ears. On many occasions, tennis shoes were the only protection for their feet. I assume their suffering from the cold was much worse than what we experienced. In fact, I do not know how they kept from freezing to death or suffering severe frostbite, which many did. Many of the prisoners had the worst cases of frostbite ever seen. Even for a hated enemy, one had to feel sorry for them.
The weapons they used were a mixture of anything they could find. The most irritating situation was finding dead Chinese with Thompson sub machine guns. These were American-made weapons. We had apparently given the Chinese these weapons at some prior time. It could have been World War II or during the communist take-over, having then been lost by soldiers of Chiang Kai-shek. It is also possible that the Russians provided some of them. We provided such weapons to the Russians in World War II; finally, it is possible that an American company sold them to China.
Even as much as we hated these enemy soldiers, one had to admire their courage. They kept moving forward toward our defenses into almost certain death. They were a formidable and shrewd adversary. I would certainly not describe them as Chinese laundrymen as General Almond did. Their method of fighting was almost exclusively to sneak up to our lines in the dark and hope to overrun us in the disorder. They felt that this would terrorize us by not knowing where they were or in what number. They were willing to sacrifice untold numbers in order to make this method of fighting successful.
The U.S. Army troops within our perimeter at Hagaru were, as best as I recall, members of the 31st Infantry Regiment of the Seventh Division which had advanced north on the east side of the reservoir. They were under attack by massive units of Chinese forces. They were in full retreat in a very chaotic manner. Those who were lucky reached the refuge of the Hagaru perimeter. Being in a foxhole at the southern tip of the reservoir and on the main road to Yudam-ni, I witnessed many of them trying to escape the Chinese attack. Their unit was in total disarray. What was most surprising to witness was that, after finding their way inside our perimeter, they malingered on the road and refused to staff any of the foxholes and help in the defense of Hagaru. I never saw any officers. No one seemed to be directing their activities.
It was a frigid day in the middle of December in 1950 when we were advised that we would be evacuating Hagaru-ri. The retreat from Hagaru-ri began around noon. On that day, I had spent the entire morning firing at enemy soldiers as they tried to move across a ridge less that 100 yards from our perimeter. I knew I scored a direct hit when I saw the body lifted into the air. The M-1 rifle had a powerful kick. It was like a shooting gallery, but the target was the enemy soldiers as they tried to get across as fast as possible. I knew that they could be maneuvering for an attack, and that the more I hit the fewer there would be attempting to overrun us.
When we were ordered to pull out and to head for the road, I heard the whirl of a bullet whiz past my right ear. They must have wanted to get even. Fate again became a factor in my survival. If that enemy soldier had been a slightly better marksman you would not be reading this. This is one of the few times, in my experience, that the enemy exposed themselves in the daylight.
When we retreated from Hagaru, we passed the burned-out vehicles and frozen bodies of dead Marines. We were passing through the wreckage and debris of Task Force Drysdale that littered the road. I was retracing the route I had taken on the way to Hagaru (see Hell Fire Valley earlier). One Marine I knew well was a Jeep driver for one of the officers. He was sitting in the driver's seat where the Jeep stopped. He looked like he had just pulled over to the side to rest. His body appeared to be an ice mannequin. One of the trucks carried mail that now littered the area. I wondered if any of the many letters strewing the area were mine.
We could only control the road by controlling the ridges running parallel to the road. We had to leap frog from one ridge to the next. We would hold a ridge until the column cleared, then move forward to the front. The Chinese toppled any structures they could by dynamiting them so that they would fall across the narrow and only road. For the most part, they stayed off the road and fired at us from higher positions above the road. They attacked those on the ridges at night. The ridges running parallel to the road were sheer and slippery, and were a tremendous burden to climb them. It was a great burden to walk in those weather conditions. Exacerbating the problem was the ammo and other equipment that we carried. All of this occurred while the enemy was shooting at us. Snipers were always a threat. I recall walking behind a Marine who was much taller than I am. The enemy believed that officers where tall. He fell dead from a sniper’s bullet as I fell over his body.
One of the great engineering achievements of any war was the spanning of a chasm called Funchilin Pass to replace a bridge the Chinese had destroyed. The chasm was several thousand feet deep. Our destiny lay in the hands of these engineers and they responded amazingly well. Without this astonishing achievement, it is an intriguing question as to what may have been our fate. This served as one more example of the role that fate plays in the events of a war. I was later able to walk across that chasm on the span they constructed during the escape to the sea.
The CO of the First Marine Division was General O. P. Smith. His outstanding leadership probably saved untold lives. He vehemently disagreed with MacArthur and his chief of staff, Major General Ned Almond, about the strategy at Chosin. General Smith understood the strategy of the Chinese that was to isolate enemy forces into smaller segments and then attack these smaller segments. They came very close to achieving that goal at Chosin. He could see this scheme developing when the Chinese waited until after we had crossed the bridge at Funchillin Pass before destroying it. MacArthur never even acknowledged that the Chinese had entered Korea, despite insurmountable evidence to the contrary. Almond wanted to know why we were letting a bunch of Chinese laundrymen push us around. I wonder what would have been the destiny of the Marines if General Smith had not ignored the demands of MacArthur and Almond.
I was in Korea from October to the following May. January and February were cold, but nothing like it was in the Chosin Reservoir. There the weather was miserable and it was just as miserable at -20 as at -30. We could only go by what we were told since we had no way of measuring the temperature, but we heard that many nights it got as cold as -30. I do not know if they considered the wind chill factor or even if there was such a thing then, but we had a high percentage of frostbite. The snow was deep. Because of the activity on the road, it was not a major hindrance. However, it was a problem on the surrounding hills.
In the Chosin Reservoir we wore several layers of clothes, yet at times the wind cut right though them. Starting from the inside we had thermal underwear, next a wool shirt, next a dungaree jacket, next a wool sweater (this created an air space which held body heat), next a field jacket, and finally, a hooded parka. We had thick mittens with a single trigger finger. We wore shoepacks that did not begin to do the job. First, they caused the feet to sweat and then freeze and it was critical to keep the feet dry to avoid frostbite. I had four or five extra pair of socks between the layers of my clothing. Every chance I had, I changed to a dry pair. I believe this kept me from getting frostbite. I do not even recall having a cold while I was in Korea, in spite of the weather conditions.
The havoc that the frozen winds and sub-zero temperatures caused is hard to explain. The M-1 rifles and especially the carbines froze up on occasion. Many of us tried to find single-fire rifles rather than trust the semi-automatic ones. Canned rations were frozen. When we could, we had to chop them open with a bayonet, chip off a block, and put it in our mouth until it thawed out. Canteens like everything else were frozen. We either ate snow for water or did without. The one food that was most available was the Tootsie Roll. We had our pockets filled with them. We could bite off a part of one and hold it in our mouth until it thawed out. A major problem was eliminating or urinating. It was impossible to do so without working through seven or eight layers of clothing and then risk the possibility of frostbite or freezing. Any vehicles that were not kept running continuously would not start. We abandoned these. They were destroyed to prevent the enemy from using them.
The spirit of the beleaguered Marines was dismal. We knew that there was a chance that we would never be able to break through the numerically superior Chinese vice tightening ever closer around us. If one was lucky enough to avoid frostbite, the major effect of the cold was becoming lethargic and sluggish. Just moving was a burden. I began to doubt that I would ever escape alive. I even began to envy the wounded. I could envision the warm hospital environment.
Critical Air Support
Air support was one of the primary reasons we were able to escape the entrapment. If the enemy had had the type of air support we had, Chosin would have probably been the last stand of the First Marine Division. There is a question as to how long we could have held out at Hagaru-ri. We had an airfield there and were able to fly replacements in and evacuate our casualties. We could do the same for supplies and equipment. The entire division was now in one place. The enemy would have paid one hell of a price to take it. However, because we were outnumbered eight-to-one, they would probably have eventually done so.
The weather affected air support because if the pilots could not see the enemy, they could not support us. There were many days when this was the case. We received airdrops of ammunition, rations, and medical supplies. They were lifesaving. Some landed outside of our perimeter and fell into enemy hands. Some were damaged in the drop. Sometimes a parachute would not open.
The best way for me to describe my personal experience in the withdrawal from Chosin is to describe a particular night that stands out in my memory. We were moving south out of Hagaru. Our units were in considerable disarray by now and many were from different platoons or companies. I was selected randomly to help defend a ridge. The officers just grabbed whoever was available. We reached the top with about an hour or so of daylight still left. We formed a line along the top of the ridge with a machine gun on our right flank. There was a natural depression in the earth there. It was an ideal place for the machine gun.
We could not dig into the frozen earth and therefore had little protection from enemy fire. It was so cold there that I felt like my bones were going to crack like an icicle. The cold Siberian wind blew relentlessly into our faces. This wind chill factor greatly compounded the subzero temperature. I knew we would likely be under attack soon. This hill was strategic because if we lost it, the enemy could fire directly down onto the convoy on the road below.
I was so hungry my stomach ached, but I could not eat since the food was frozen and because of my fear of dying. I had not slept in several days. I could not sleep for thinking about what lie ahead. It was truly the most miserable day of my life. As I was lying there that night amidst all those miseries, I thought to myself that maybe dying would not be that bad. At least the misery would be over. However, I could see the pain that this would cause my mother. I was 20 years old and felt too young to die. In any event, I was determined to put up a hell of a fight.
Around midnight, I heard voices echoing across the frozen rise to my front. Voices travel a long distance and are surprisingly clear in subzero weather. One of the words I heard sounded like "chongin." I have no idea what it means or even if I am correct in what I thought I heard. However, I will always remember it as that. Whatever language it was, I knew that it was certainly not English. It sent a chill down my spine like no other has in my lifetime. I knew that we would be under massive attack very shortly. I began firing in the direction from which I thought the enemy was advancing. Shortly thereafter, others along the line began firing and soon we were all firing into the darkness where we thought the enemy was. Then the machine gun on the flank opened up. That machine gun never stopped firing until dawn. I prayed that the barrel of that gun would not burn out. The ammo carriers spent the entire night hauling ammo up from the road below to that gun. It was located such that it could cover the entire rise at almost 90 degrees.
I could hear enemy bullets striking the ground all around me. The cries of Marines on both sides of me made me wonder if I was next. I was, like all of us on that ridge, totaling unprotected from the enemy fire. Since none of us on either side could see the other in the dark, we had to pray that they would not get lucky and score a hit. Unfortunately many did. I prayed that one did not have my name on it. Fortunately for me and the other riflemen on that ridge, the enemy troops were focusing most of their fire on the machine gun that was killing them off in scores. It was the longest night of my life. There were many times when I felt in great danger in Korea, but I felt in the most peril that night.
The cold weather helped us in the sense that, had the Chinese rushed our lightly manned positions when we first opened fire on them, they could have easily overrun us. However, they were as cold as we were and they were likely unable to move fast enough to charge us. I laid there firing into the darkness for at least six hours. All this time the machine gunner continued to sweep back and forth across the rise from which they were advancing. In defending this ridge, several assistant gunners died. Also killed were several ammo carriers. The enemy directed most of its fire at the gunner. None scored a hit, his good fortune was also ours.
Dawn was a beautiful sight because the Chinese always began to withdraw when it began getting light enough for us to see them. I realized that I had survived another day in hell. As it became light enough to see the enemy casualties, the view was awesome. I had never seen that many dead in one place. I doubt if many people have. The count of the dead bodies was way up in the hundreds, my guess being at least five hundred. We had that machine gun and its gunner to thank for our lives.
I have no idea what hill we were on and I have not since talked to any other Marine who was there. I have often wished that was possible, but I have no contact information. I have never heard what the official count of enemy dead was, but that machine gunner must certainly have been among the top in enemy kills in the Korean War. There may be Korean War statistics recorded about this battle, but I have never been able to find any. The only thing I can remember was that the machine gunner's name was Whitehead. I believe he was from Louisiana. I always wanted the chance to thank him for my life, but never saw or heard from him again. There were many heroes in the Korean War, many of whom were never recognized. PFC Whitehead was one of them.
An hour or so after the sun came up we ventured out to see if any of the enemy could still be a threat. I could only see frozen bodies. On one of them nearest to me, and therefore one I could have killed since he was closest to my position, I saw a pocket watch which I took from his body for a souvenir. I still have it today. It has a Chinese inscription inside the front cover. Someday I intend to have it interpreted. On the inside of the back cover it reads, "International Dispensary Shanghai." He may have worked for a dispensary that we had established there at some time in the past. The back of it reads, "15 Rubis-J.Ullmann & Co.-Shanghai." Below that is another Chinese inscription.
Considering all the experiences of my life, I would rate the events of that night among the most memorable. I have often replayed that night in my mind. I ask myself what if I had not been alert and heard the voices of the enemy when I did. Were any other defenders of that ridge awake? If not, and if I had not been alert and awakened the others, especially the machine gunner, how close to our line would they have gotten before our defenders responded? The losses that night were low. How many would there have been if I had dozed off? I raise that question not to imply that I deserved any special consideration. That is what I was sent up there to do. It was my duty.
No one could say too much about the leadership that we had at Chosin. I gained an everlasting respect for the Marine officers I observed. I never saw any of them back down from a dangerous challenge. This was especially true of our Company Commander, Captain Carl Sitter. He was the major reason East Hill did not fall to the Chinese. He received a well-deserved Medal of Honor. I would select Captain Sitter as the best example of a war hero. That is my opinion. His leadership in the defense of Hagaru made him entitled to the Medal of Honor as much as anyone who has ever received it. The defense of Hagaru was the most critical matter facing the First Marine Division. If Hagaru had fallen, most of the First Regiment would have been lost. Even more critical was the position of the Fifth and Seventh Regiments. They were fighting to reach Hagaru in their retreat from Yudamni. Their survival depended upon reaching the Hagaru perimeter. His leadership was, in my opinion, most instrumental in the defense of that perimeter and the survival of the entire division.
Jack Koop was a member of the 11th Marines. He died in the attack on Koto-ri. His death had a special meaning to me. Jack was in my class at St. Aloysius grade school in Covington, Kentucky. We were both in the same grammar school class for eight years during the 1940's. Although I was not aware of it until after the fact, we both had joined the Marine Corps and we both had ended up in Korea. We also both ended up in the Chosin Reservoir where, unfortunately, he died. This ironic set of circumstances is among the more memorable events of my life. Thus were the lives of two Jacks whose lives were so closely entwined--and as if a roll of the dice--one Jack died, and one Jack lived.
After we arrived safely in Hungnam in our retreat to the sea, and when I had the chance to reflect on what I had just been through, it was demoralizing. I thought about all the Marines killed at Chosin. It dominated my thoughts. I wondered why in the hell we were in that god-forsaken country in the first place. I was also troubled because we had retreated. At that time I would never have believed that this could happen to Marines. One of the most difficult things for me to accept while I was in Korea was the retreat from the Chosin Reservoir. I did not want to be a part of the first Marine unit ever to retreat from an enemy. I was proud to be a Marine. Failure was not an option. After Chosin, I wondered what the people back home would think when they read that the US Marines were driven out of North Korea by the Chinese. This is not to imply that I saw our action as a lack of courage. Retreating under any circumstances was just not what I thought Marines ever did.
Today I can see the reason our leaders made the decision to retreat from the Chosin Reservoir. We were cut off and getting little, if any, support from other UN forces. They were fighting for their own survival. We faced overwhelming odds. Our only hope for survival was to escape the entrapment. I now accept the decision of our leaders. They were more battle-wise than I would ever be. The circumstances dictated the decision. The battle of the Chosin Reservoir is the subject of many books. This epic battle will go down in Marine Corps history. The escape from Chosin was one of the greatest achievements in military history. There has never been a battle fought under conditions that were more difficult. Many brave young men gave their lives in the escape from Chosin. Then I was young, idealistic and proud. I could not bear to think that the Chinese were pushing us around.
For its efforts in Korea, the 1st Marine Division received a Presidential Unit Citation (9/15/1950 - 4/25/1951), the Korean Service Medal (Inchon Landing 9/15/1950-Chosin Reservoir 11/3/1950), a Korean Presidential Unit Citation (from Inchon until rotated), and the National Defense Service Medal (same dates as prior). I received a Letter of Commendation for my part in the defense of the column as it left Hagaru. These medals I can wear with pride.
There were many heroes in Korea. They deserved being recognized. However, many that deserved recognition are forever forgotten. I feel that it depended to some extent on who the person was. It also depended on who saw the incident. I do not say this to detract from those who deserved to be recognized. I just feel we should remember that there were many forever forgotten heroes.
I recall discussing this subject at one of our reunions. Some felt they deserved to be recognized. My feeling about this is that we should just be thankful to be alive. I recently read a story about the Doolittle Raiders who bombed Tokyo in 1942. One of the survivors, age 98, said, "I don't think anybody should be asking for a medal to defend his country."
We reached the harbor of Hungnam around the middle of December. We went aboard a ship, name unknown. I had the first hot food that I had eaten in several weeks. We threw away the rags we were wearing and I took a hot shower. I had never before, or since, enjoyed a shower like that one. I then went to sleep for the first time in ten days (except for catnaps) and slept for 24 straight hours.
The ship took us to southern Korea, where we went into reserve in the Masan area. On Christmas Day we attended mass and sang Christmas songs in a rice paddy. I thanked God for allowing me to be there. The next day I celebrated my 21st birthday. I had a few drinks and we joked that, if I was back home now, I could go into a bar and have a drink with the men.
Transfer to George Company
Following the Chosin Reservoir campaign, I was transferred to George Company. I believe it was in early January 1951. I was assigned to the third platoon, 3rd squad, 3rd fire team as an automatic rifleman (Browning Automatic Rifle or BAR for short). That was no surprise since the common joke was that the smallest in the fire team usually ended up with the BAR. I was usually the smallest wherever I went. This weapon, along with its ammunition, weighed about 50 pounds. That is without the tripod, which most of us discarded to lower the load. Many considered it the deadliest weapon of all. It was virtually a portable machine gun. It could fire 500, 30 caliber rounds per minute. It was hard to fire just one round at a time. I eventually developed the touch required to do so. The problem for the Barman was that the enemy knew this. The life of the Barman in combat was often very short. In the back of my mind I thought I had just been handed a death sentence.
In general, I can say that the average age of the enemy was younger than we were. I recall many that appeared to be in their teens (15-18 years old). We called the North Koreans "gooks" and the Chinese "chinks" since they were our enemies; however, we did not think of it as racial prejudice. We all, of course, hated the enemy, and to this day I am uncomfortable around Orientals. They had a variety of weapons. As I said, the Russians provided a lot of them. They had rifles, automatic weapons called burp guns, and grenades called potato mashers. Their weapons were not as effective or of the quality of ours. This was especially true of their grenades. Many Marines owe their life to the fact that their grenades often never exploded. They had machine guns and mortars, but again, not of the quality of ours.
Our strategy was always to control and defend the high ground. No one from my unit was taken prisoner after Chosin. We were, of course, always apprehensive of this possibility, but during this period I do not recall that this was a particular problem. Air support at all times was a tremendous advantage to us. Our fighter planes completely dominated the skies. The enemy seldom fought in the daytime, probably due to our air superiority as well as our superior weapons and firepower. Our control of the sky afforded us another priceless benefit--helicopters. This was the primary means of transporting our wounded from the battlefield to medical facilities. They were strapped to the outside of the helicopter on their stretchers. All of our units used this method in moving our wounded. The helicopters could move the casualties to a field hospital with little delay. This saved many lives.
As to tanks, we found that the greatest benefit from them at this time was when we were moving in the daytime and they could fire at and clear the ridges and hills on our flanks. I do not recall them being of any benefit in night fighting. Artillery was not directly supportive. They found it hard to hit the enemy close to us. Many short rounds killed Marines. They were most effective against enemy troops organizing beyond our immediate area.
I knew several members of our weapons company that died following Chosin. I have forgotten how each died. Several were killed by our own artillery as the result of short rounds. The names I recall include David McNally from Baltimore, a PFC named Paul Weber Jr. from Cleveland, a corporal named Harold Van Nostrum from Ohio who was a married reserve with a wife and three children, and a PFC named David Charles Joseph Marier from New Hampshire.
I especially remember the death of PFC Marier. In a conversation a few days prior to his death, he made the remark, "What difference does it make if we are killed, since we all must die someday." The irony of this has always stood out in my mind. We suffered over 33,000 deaths in Korea. When I think of my children, my grandchildren, and my great grandchildren--I realize that had I been one of those casualties, not one of them would exist today. I cannot imagine a world without them. The 33,000-plus who died compound this figure exponentially. This is a profound philosophical concept. Was David right? Does it really matter when we die since death is inevitable? Is not the existence of every living creature on earth contingent upon immeasurable events that occurred, or did not occur, since the beginning of time?
We were fortunate to have had only limited contact with the enemy during this period. Our casualties were light. Most were, in my opinion, due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I went through all of Korea without a significant injury. To use a worn cliché, I credit this with being in the right place at the right time. One more example of the part fate plays in determining who survives--some call it the roll of the dice. Of course, there were casualties due to stupid mistakes such as those caused by the misuse of one's own weapon. One that stands out in my mind is the time one Marine from our unit pulled the pin from a grenade to throw it, then saw an enemy soldier and without thinking laid the grenade down next to himself and raised his rifle to fire at the enemy. The result was obvious.
Navy corpsmen cared for our wounded and dying. I cannot remember the name of our corpsman after all these years, but I know we called him Doc (as most of the other corpsmen were called). They were very skilled at saving lives under the most adverse of conditions and repeatedly exposed themselves to enemy fire. Many died doing their job and we all had great respect for them because they had to go into areas where the most danger existed. We had as much respect for them as any Marine.
Constantly on the Move
I was never out of the combat area except when we were in reserve. The fighting was mostly on the move when I was there. The use of bunkers began after the two forces became stalemated. Because it seemed as if we had to dig in at a different place every day, our entrenching tool was a very useful item. It was handy in that it was a combination pick and shovel (and occasionally a weapon). The ground was broken up by turning it to a 45-degree angle as a pick. It could then be turned straight and used as a shovel. The dirt could be scooped out of the hole making it surprisingly fast when the ground was soft. It was sometimes hard to dig in at all if the ground was frozen. Many times we were so tired after walking all day that it was a real chore to have to dig a foxhole, but we were constantly reminded that it could save our life.
Moving from one location to another meant sometimes walking long distances. The longest that I recall was the day we covered 13 miles. For a Barman, as I was after transferring to George Company, this included about 50 pounds of equipment plus gear. It was especially hard when we had to climb over a high hill or mountain. On the trails it became challenging to keep our footing when they were wet from rain or snow. It always became harder after it had been worn down by those ahead of us. After falling several times, often many times, most of us were using every curse word imaginable, and some we created.
At the Chosin Reservoir, for over a month we did not bathe or shave and never changed clothes. We did have routines we followed when we had the opportunity, such as using our helmet as a bowl to wash and clean up, this being possible when water was available such as a nearby stream--an opportunity we never had at Chosin. Other than Chosin, we bathed when possible in portable showers set up in tents. I do not recall having the opportunity to change into clean clothes very often. Most did not shave at all. I often smiled when thinking about how these guys would have looked in a General's inspection in boot camp. We had a body powder that we were given to keep parasite problems under control. We called it de-licer powder. However, I do not recall ever having lice.
When in a combat zone, we mostly ate C-rations. We heated these in our canteen cup when we had the opportunity. That canteen cup which held our canteens was a valuable implement. It served as a soup bowl, coffee cup, and over a fire to make hot chocolate or heat rations. Our bayonet was very useful in opening canned rations. It was quite useful as a knife or to some extent, a hatchet.
In reserve, we often had a mess tent set up and had hot meals. I do not recall ever having eaten any of the local food. The best thing I ever ate in Korea came from my mother, who sent me a box of groceries. I was lucky enough to receive it. It included a can of Dinty Moore beef stew. It was the best meal I had other than our Thanksgiving meal flown in for Thanksgiving 1950. That Thanksgiving meal was the last hot meal we had before engaging the Chinese forces. I asked a friend back home to send me a cake with a pint of whiskey inside. He always claimed he did, but I never received it. It was about the time we were attacked by the Chinese at Hellfire Valley. We lost a lot of mail there. That package could have been one of the items lost. I could see a drunken Chinese soldier celebrating the New Year while drinking it. Cheese and crackers was the food I most longed for, although I do not know why. I avoid high cholesterol foods as much as possible, but that was the least of our concerns in Korea.
In our leisure time in reserve, we wrote letters. Like most, I missed my friends and family back home. I was worried that I might never see them again. We heated C-rations over an open fire. We also had beer on occasion when in reserve. Pabst Blue Ribbon is the only one I can remember. As a result, I became a lifelong Blue Ribbon drinker. I never smoked cigarettes, though they were useful for getting a fire started. We played poker when the opportunity allowed. I always lost. I lost $250 one day, which was a lot of money in those days. They gave us was what was called "script". It could be exchanged for dollars when we left Korea. Prior to Korea, I never smoked or gambled. I drank beer on occasion, but never more than socially. I often thought about the irony of how I could have been lucky enough to survive Korea, but could never win at poker. It is all in the roll of the dice, I guess.
There was some humor in Korea, although most of it was probably to mask the inner concern we all had about surviving. William Baugh, who lost his life at Hell Fire Valley, was a gregarious country boy. We always joked with him. I was a PFC in a rifle company. We were never accorded the privilege of seeing a USO show in Korea. Those in the rear echelon were the only ones that had that opportunity. Red Cross and Salvation Army personnel also stayed to the rear.
We received mail regularly most of the time, except for the Chosin Reservoir. The greatest part of any day was when the mail came, which we received every week or so. It was always addressed FPO San Francisco, I assume to hide our location in Korea. My mother and girlfriend wrote regularly. I wrote to the girls from Marblehead, Massachusetts. Their names were given to me by Joe Caruso. Joe was my best friend. We were in the same squad. I can recall ocassions when someone was notified that a close relative had died. Their reaction seemed to have been exacerbated by not having been able to be there.
Religion was important to me in Korea. I suppose, like most, that it was more important to me then than at other times. As they say, there are no atheists in a foxhole. It was important enough that I attended services when possible. The services were usually performed by the chaplain.
In April of 1951, we received orders to defend Hill 902 in order to prevent the Chinese from controlling a position from which they would have had a strategic advantage. Whoever possessed it could control the route through which the rest of the First Marine Division had to pass. As best I can recall, Hill 902 was located in central Korea just north of the 38th parallel. We had to race the Chinese to the top. Everyone carried as much ammo as possible because we knew we were going to need it. The ascent to the top of Hill 902 started in the middle of the afternoon on April 23. the heat and heavy load took its toll as we struggled up this steep and dangerous mountain. It was so steep it was difficult to keep our footing on the path. This was compounded by the weight of the equipment and ammo we were carrying.
The weather was hot and clear. The hot weather, along with the stress of the climb, made everyone thirsty. We each had only a canteen of water when starting up the hill, which was an arduous struggle. We drank most of our water on the way to the top. By the time we reached it, we were all exhausted and too tired to dig in. Like most of us, I looked for whatever natural protection I could find like rocks and depressions in the ground. Some were able to scratch out shallow places in the earth. It was evident that there were many stragglers. The heat and exertion took its toll and many became fatigued. I do not know how many did not make it to the top or what happened to them. There were many more important matters demanding our attention; most of us were there attempting to set up approximately an hour before dark.
George Company took the blunt of the Chinese attack and suffered the most casualties. The heaviest casualties were in the third platoon--my platoon. Our company came under attack maybe two or three hours after dark. The Chinese overran our outposts and some Marines on the OPs were involved in hand-to-hand combat. The enemy was close enough to lob grenades at us. The firepower of the enemy was heavy. They seemed to have made use of their grenades more than usual. Because of the terrain, they were able to get pretty close to our positions. We had to prevent the enemy from breaching our line at this point to avoid losing the hill.
At that time, I was a stretcher-bearer. We were given this duty when we were being rotated out of Korea. I felt that I was so close to getting out of hell, yet here I was fighting for my life. The greatest danger of being a stretcher-bearer was that we had to expose ourselves to enemy fire in order to assist in moving the wounded to the rear for medical attention.
The enemy used the same tactics they always used. They attempted to overrun our positions in the dark and frighten and confound us. This did not work on Hill 902. We (the third battalion of the 1st Marine Regiment versus an estimated regiment of Chinese) defended it successfully that night and held the hill to prevent enemy control. We had placed several fire teams on outposts out in front of our main positions. When they came under attack, we were able to prepare for the enemy and organize our defenses. The Chinese were willing to sacrifice untold numbers of soldiers using their usual method of mass attack. As always, human life was probably the cheapest and most readily available weapon they had. The enemy firepower was unusually heavy in this battle because of the close proximity of the combatants. We had not been able to prepare for the attack. It was after dark when we finally got into position. A major difficulty we faced was the terrain.
As always, our leadership during this attack was outstanding. I cannot point out anyone in particular because in the heat of battle, especially in the dark and because things happened very quickly, we did not need anyone to tell us what had to be done. My platoon sergeant, Speedy Wilson, was instrumental in holding the group together by his individual courage and leadership. His deeds and actions on that night are legendary. Sergeant Wilson received the Medal of Honor for his actions on Hill 902.
Our weapons worked well. It was getting the ammo to the weapon that was difficult. Carrying machine-gun and BAR ammo up this hill was a rigorous task. We were lucky we had the amount of ammo up there that we had. In the dark it was difficult to see who the individuals were, but I feel that every man who fought valiantly to defend this hill was a hero under very difficult conditions.
The casualties on Hill 902 were heavy. One of my best friends--and a Barman in the same squad as me, died that night. His name was Joe Caruso. I did not witness his death as I was in another location. However, when daylight came and we began assessing our losses, I found out that Joe had been one of those killed, which was a shocking and morale-shattering occurrence. We had spent a lot of time talking and debating different subjects of interest. Joe was the Barman in the second fire team and I was the Barman in the third fire team. Joe was probably more intelligent than most of the people I knew. I wrote many of the girls that he knew in high school. We enjoyed receiving letters from the girls back home. Joe was a super nice person whom I would have made a special effort to meet with someday in post Korea. Unfortunately, Joe was KIA that night on Hill 902. Joe spent the final moments of his life trying to retrieve ammunition for his weapon lying outside of his position. He had to expose himself to heavy enemy fire and died giving one last valiant effort. I think of Joe as if one of Custer's troopers at Little Big Horn--an American hero.
I was the automatic rifleman in the third fire team a week before this battle. Because someone decided it was time to replace me in that fire team and make me a stretcher bearer while I awaited my departure from Korea forever, I was not with my fire team (the third fire team) in this battle. It is another example of the part fate played for me in Korea.
Another casualty, Walter Norris, was from the Cincinnati area where I lived and we often talked about things back home like football rivalries between our high schools and other things of common interest. Walter was only 17 when he died on Hill 902. He was too young to die. He had so much to live for. I do not agree with putting 17-year-old kids on a battlefield. War is horrible enough without killing kids; however, I doubt that Walter would agree. He died heroically fighting for his country. A week or so before he died, he received a bracelet from home that he treasured. When we were carrying the casualties off the hill, one of the dead with a poncho over him had his arm hanging out and I knew immediately that it was Walter. I met his sister Patricia after I joined G-3-1, an association of George Company veterans.
To me, the most ironic part of this battle was that many of our KIA were the result of our own artillery landing in our area rather than the enemy area. I felt the ground jump as these huge shells exploded. They landed so close that I feared the next one had my name on it. I said a silent prayer as I waited for what I felt could be my final moments of life. Several Marines who were my fellow stretcher bearers died in this bombardment. They would have been out of Korea in a short time.
At daylight they told us that we would be pulling off Hill 902. We had close to 100 casualties to be carried from Hill 902. We used all of the stretchers available and then resorted to ponchos for carrying the dead and wounded. Since it was daylight and we were relatively close together as a unit, the only dead that we would have likely left might have been the fire teams placed out in front of our main positions. However, groups under the leadership of Sergeant Wilson went to these locations to bring back the dead. As far as I recall, we recovered all of them. To climb down that steep trail was very challenging in itself, but to carry a dead or injured person was exceedingly backbreaking. The struggle to do so in the heat we had to deal with only made the need for water more critical. However, most--including me, had drank all of the water in our canteens the previous day in climbing to the top. I remember in climbing down we could see the river flowing at the bottom of the mountain, which made the awareness of our thirst even more acute.
We pulled back from this hill around the middle of the afternoon of April 24. Again, the memory I have most about climbing down was how incredibly thirsty I was. I ran to the river and started drinking the dirty water. Later it hit me that I might contract some sort of disease from what I had just done. The corpsmen had told us to be sure and put into our canteens the pills we had to purify the water before we drank it. Because the only thing I could think of was cool water, I forgot to do that. As far as I know, it did not affect me. I do not remember being thirstier than I was that day, and I often go back to that day when I hear the song, “Cool Clear Water”.
In our descent from Hill 902, the Corsairs came in to strafe the enemy. Somehow they thought we were the enemy and began firing their rockets and 20-millimeter cannons at us. One of the most frightening experiences I ever had was when I looked up to see a Corsair diving right at me with cannons blazing. The bullets were kicking up dirt all around me. We quickly got out our panels to warn the pilot that we were not the chinks. I was very happy when he left to go terrorize the enemy.
When the battle was over and I had time to stop and think about what we had just been through, I still had the vision of the dead and wounded that we had to carry off Hill 902. I thought, "Why did they have to die? What did it accomplish?" Later I heard that our division would have been able to move through without contact with the enemy even if the battle of Hill 902 had never been fought. I thought about the artillery rounds that exploded all around me and killed several other stretcher-bearers like me who were going home soon. Because I was in the right location that night and those that died were not, fate gave me another tomorrow.
I was always aware of the danger in Korea. When we first arrived there, I experienced something I had never imagined before, and did not know what to expect. Then, as a short-timer, rather than becoming more aware of the danger, I was becoming more aware of the fact that I might be lucky enough to live through all of this. It was becoming more of a reality in my mind every day. I thought that it would be ironic to get this close to surviving and then become a casualty.
Hill 902 was the last time I ever had to face enemy troops in combat. I was rotated out of Korea around the 1st of May 1951. I learned more about life in the nine months I spent in Korea than any other period of my life. The experience itself implants the horrors of death in the mind forever. Reading about it never mimics what goes through an individual's mind when he is facing the termination of his life. I learned a lot about people. I learned never to judge a person by what he appears to be. I really learned to know a person when I saw how he responded when facing danger and possible death. I found that often those I expected to show the most courage did not respond as I had expected. On other occasions, those whom I had the least confidence in responded surprisingly well, and sometimes heroically. I heard that some you would never expect it from, shot themselves in the foot in order to be evacuated from Chosin. I have often wondered if they ever received a Purple Heart and the effect that it had on their self-esteem.
I began to see the kind of people who were great leaders and to
distinguish them from the others. The best example for me was Captain
Sitter. He was not impressive physically and not the person I would have
chosen to be with in a barroom brawl. However, when the chips were down,
he displayed more courage than anyone did. That is my opinion. I learned
how precious life is and how easily it can be lost. Like most people 20
years old, before I went to Korea I thought I was going to live forever.
I thought that dying was something that only old people did. When you
experience combat, you soon learn what your limits are. I learned what
it means to be able to say to myself that, in the fear of facing death,
I was not a coward. This is something you never know until you
experience it--and you never know what you are going to do the next time
it happens. I recently read a poem entitled “A Warrior's Death”
that I feel appropriate for one facing death like what we all faced at
Chosin. It read like this:
I learned how uncivilized the human race can be. Even animals do not kill each other without a reason. I killed enemy soldiers who were possibly fathers of small children or a loving son of some Chinese farmer. As discussed earlier, I took a watch from one engraved, "the international dispensary of Shanghai." He may have been a doctor then or possibly might have been someday and might have saved many lives. I did not know them and had no personal grudge against them. Today I think that there should be more civilized ways of resolving differences. Unfortunately, the discovery of such appears a long way off.
Voyage to USA
I never knew the exact day that I was going to leave until it
happened. Rotation was the term used for the most anticipated event in
the mind of everyone. When they made us a stretcher-bearer, our hopes
escalated. This was the normal routine followed. I do not know the
criteria used in the selection other than time in Korea.
Trucks took us to the airfield. I do not recall which airfield or where it was located. We then flew to Japan where we spent several days before boarding ship. I do not recall any standard procedures as such. Unfortunately, I had to turn in an automatic pistol I had taken as a souvenir. I also had a Thompson submachine gun, taken from the body of a dead Chinese soldier, but I gave that to a friend before I left battalion.
I am not sure of the exact date I left Korea, but it was early in May of 1951. I held the rank of Lance Corporal. As I left Korea I saw replacement troops lined up at the airfield. I remember how neat and clean they appeared. I did not make any remarks to them and I did not see others doing so either. I could only think of what they would soon be facing. I wondered how many of them would become casualties. I wanted to wish them good luck, but did not as I did not want them to think about how much they would need it.
I do not recall ever being intoxicated. That is, until I arrived in Japan that day. Getting out of that hell was something to celebrate, especially knowing that I was going home soon. To me, it was as close to getting out of hell as one can get.
We went from Japan directly to the States. I do not recall the name of the ship that took me back to the United States or how many days I was on that ship. I think we were all very eager to see the good old USA again--at least I was certainly looking forward to it. I was sick for about the first two days at sea and I have never been able to drink Saki since that time. As I recall, the weather on the return trip was fair. There was no reason to be seasick under normal conditions.
One of the most beautiful sights I ever saw was the Golden Gate Bridge as we sailed beneath it. It finally registered in my mind as a reality that I had survived the most serious threat to my life I would ever experience. I was finally home. I had dreamed of this day for nine months. We disembarked at the Treasure Island Naval base near Oakland. I recall a small band playing patriotic music on the dock. Some lucky ones had family or friends there to greet them. I thought there would have been a lot more people there. I guess that is why they call Korea, "the forgotten war".
When we processed off the ship we just took what we could carry--much the same as when I boarded ship on my way to Korea nine months earlier, except for the watch I took from the body of a dead Chinese soldier. I do not recall any specific processing other than the normal lineup and roll call. Many knelt and kissed the ground. I just stood there watching the reunion of those whose families had met them and listening to the band play the Marines Hymn. Not once did I hear anyone say, "Thank you for your service." Today I watch the well-deserved respect given to those returning from the Middle East. We received none. A small amount of appreciation from the public would have been gratifying.
We had to spend a day or so going through medical examinations to make sure we had not contracted any diseases in Korea. I called my mother to tell her that I was home. Then we hit the bars in San Francisco where we spent most of the next 24 hours. We were due back by midnight, but nobody made it before daylight, most much later in the day. The guards on the gate acted as if they did not see us, but most of us were staggering so badly that they could not have missed us.
I completed my time in the Marine Corps on guard duty. I spent my final year and a half at the Naval Ammunition Depot in Portsmouth, Virginia. I also served as a guard on the main gate to the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. I came home somewhat reclusive and probably less sociable than before. I did not consider re-enlisting. I felt that I would have more opportunities on the outside. I completed my service to my country on October 1, 1952. I had served my country honorably as my discharge indicated.
I was now a civilian. To my good fortune, I met a girl who knew me from high school. I was on the high school football team and she knew me, but I did not know her then. She reminded me that she was the girl who followed my then high school sweetheart and me home from school every day. She lived in the same neighborhood. My old girl friend waited until I came home to tell me that she was marrying someone else. I was gone almost four years. That was too long for one so young. At least she did not send me a "Dear Jack" while I was still in Korea. That would have been difficult, but I doubt if I would have done anything foolish. This is another part of my life that fate played a major part. If this had not happened, I would not have met and married Carol Ryan on May 23, 1953. We have had a happy and long marriage (61 years in May of 2014), and have four wonderful children (Karen, Peggy, Terra, and Lora), five grandchildren, and now ten great grandchildren.
I went to work in the accounting department of a life insurance company. I obtained an undergraduate degree at the University of Kentucky, and then a Masters Degree in Business Administration at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, all while working full-time. I was the company’s tax accountant. This job called for an individual with a legal background. The company offered to cover my expenses of going to law school. This was a great opportunity for me. There was no equivocation on my part. I completed law school by attending evening classes over a period of four years. I obtained a Degree of Juris Doctor at the Chase College of Law, (graduating sixth in a class of 52) while working full time. I went into private practice after retiring from the insurance company, including several years as a public defender. I am now retired from both positions, although I still practice law on a limited basis.
On two occasions I looked up the families of my friends who died in Korea. I visited the parents of William Baugh, with whom I had spent most of 1949 at Camp Lejeune and in Korea in the same platoon. I found this to be very difficult to do--much more so than I had anticipated. I told them I remembered the vest pocket Bible they sent him and how he always carried it there. He died at Hell Fire Valley a hero. The Congressional Medal of Honor was an honor justly deserved. It was difficult to know what to say other than that he was a great person and that I was proud to have served with him. They lived near Cincinnati (Harrison), which is about 40 miles from my home. As I mentioned earlier in this memoir, I also visited the parents of Walter Norris, with whom I served in Korea. We spent a lot of time talking about things we had in common back home in Cincinnati. When killed he was seventeen years old--one of the many casualties George Company suffered on Hill 902. He was always smiling and carefree and his family loved him dearly. They were so proud of him being a Marine. Talking to his father was one of the most difficult things I ever did. He was very shattered by Walter's death. The terrible hurting he was suffering was readily apparent on his face. His sister is now a member of the G-3-1 auxiliary (the organization of the veterans of George Company), and we have gone to reunions with her and her husband. We have also had dinner with them at local restaurants on several occasions. She was about seven years old when I went to see her family. She is a very pleasant individual. Walter is fortunate to have had her to keep his memory alive.
Considering the threat that communism was to our way of life, I think it was right that the United States sent troops to Korea. Many felt that if we did not stop their aggression, America would eventually be their target. It is possible we could have ignored this threat and allowed them to destroy themselves as the Russians did.
I am making the following comments subject to this disclaimer. They are my personal opinions and views of the events as I saw them. Not being privy to the information the people making the decisions had available to them, and being only a lowly rifleman, I never walked in their shoes. That being said, it is my opinion that MacArthur allowed his ego to rule his thinking. He had or should have had ample evidence as well as intelligence reports of the Chinese being near the border in great strength. He ignored the obvious. In my opinion, the biggest mistake made was in underestimating, or the outright ignoring, of the Chinese threat. The entire First Marine Division, along with certain US Army units that were in the same area, were facing annihilation. We were overextended. The terrain favored the enemy. The Chinese easily controlled the mountains and narrow road. Our forces were dependent on the mobility of moving by vehicle. The enemy moved mostly by foot. All of the conditions favored the Chinese.
This could have been one of the worst military blunders ever. If MacArthur had been as good a military strategist as he thought he was, he would have known that Chinese strategy was to separate units and then attack the smaller, isolated ones. He gave them the perfect opportunity to carry out this campaign on their terms.
Fortunately, General O. P. Smith led the Marine Corps. It is my sentiment that he was highly underrated in his skillful perception of Chinese tactics and strategies. He fought MacArthur and Almond (both of whom must have slept through military strategy at West Point), who continued to insist that the Marines advance further into enemy controlled areas, thereby becoming further isolated. General Smith may be the primary reason the First Marine Division lived to fight another day.
The comparison of South Korea with North Korea today is the best illustration of the good that came from this war. It made it clear to the rest of the world that capitalism is superior to communism. I am not sure if the United States should still have troops stationed in Korea. North Korea seems to be a hostile regime. In spite of their economic stress, they do have a formidable military force. They have invested most of their resources in their military while the rest of the civilian population starves. They certainly have an incentive to put their military to use in an attempt to solve their economic problems.
The American people did not think of the Korean War as a war. It was the forgotten war. Truman called it a police action and therefore most of the population developed the same attitude. It was only five years after World War II and the country was tired of war and did not want to face another one. It was of no interest to a high percentage of the people. Then came Vietnam and the young people rebelled against getting themselves killed for a faraway unknown Asian country that seemed to mean nothing to them. This distracted the public from Korea, as Vietnam demanded all the attention.
Through the years I spoke very little about Korea until recently when I joined the G-3-1 organization. For many years I just tried to forget it. I had the feeling that most just did not want to hear about it. My children knew I was in Korea, but I never went into detail with them about it. I have said more about my experiences in Korea in this memoir than I have ever said before. I have written about incidents that I have not even thought about since I was in Korea. What is most regrettable is my inability to recall the names of so many individuals whose images I can remember so vividly. There are certain events that I can recall and will never forget, but I cannot state with any assurance the order of their occurrence or location. I wish that I had had the foresight then to realize the value of this information someday.
The World War II vets were given well-deserved respect when they came home. I personally observed this on many occasions. The Korean War vets received little, if any, respect. World War II was a war we fought in order to save our own country, not a foreign nation most Americans cared little about. Everyone was involved, including the home front. Almost everyone contributed in some way to the cause. With the Korean War, there was only limited interest or involvement by the civilian population back home.
I witnessed the Army units that broke and ran during the Chosin Reservoir campaign as they straggled into our perimeter at Hagaru. They suffered terrible casualties. I believe it was because they had not learned to respect and obey the orders of their leaders. We detested the DIs in boot camp who taught us discipline by requiring immediate and unquestioned response to their orders--the kind of discipline needed when facing the enemy. That was the philosophy behind such training. To us, a Marine officer was God incarnated. This probably saved many lives in Korea.
I have continued to work at staying fit. Nothing today compares to the way I once trained. I do have arthritis of the spine that I feel may be due to sleeping on the frozen ground. I also have a bladder weakness. I believe it is attributable to the same situation. I cannot prove any connection. Arthritis is probably common for those my age. I work out using nautilus equipment and walk two miles on the treadmill. In 1980, I ran the Boston Marathon. At that time, I was a two-time winner of the Kentucky (Louisville) Marathon in my age group (over 50). I also won the major local (greater Cincinnati) road races in my age group in the 1980 era. In 1990, I competed in the Mr. America over 50, at which time I was 60. I came in fifth.
I attended the George Company (G-3-1) reunion in Orlando. The thing I remember the most about that reunion was the night I went to the meeting room late one evening for a nightcap. The only people there were Carl Sitter and Speedy Wilson. I took a seat between the two, who were discussing the Chosin Reservoir. This subject probably dominated most conversations between those who were there. Wilson stated that on one occasion he took a leak and it froze before it hit the ground. That probably was not too much of an exaggeration.
I realized that here I was sitting between the two most revered members of the organization, both having been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Wilson was outgoing and highly regarded by all of the members of this organization. Sitter was more reserved. I think of the old saying, “still waters run deep” when thinking of him. He was a humble man who let his actions speak for him. That saying applied to him more than anyone I ever knew. As I discussed earlier, because of his leadership in holding East Hill, he was one of those who would have been at the top of the list of those responsible for the survival of the 1st Marine Division at Chosin. They were both down to earth, and neither allowed the esteem which with he was held to go to his head. They have both since shipped over to that great beyond in the sky where the streets are guarded by United States Marines.
My goal in Korea was in serving my country honorably. I hope the records will show that I did so. I have tried not making any statements herein that implied that I was anything other than just another Marine. I have tried not to talk about things I was not reasonably certain of having happened as described herein. The turmoil and confusion of so many events taking place at mach speed makes it difficult to be certain of what happened or when or where. The furthest thing from my mind at that time was the possibility of ever having to remember it--or for that matter, even wanting to remember it. In fact, for almost 50 years I tried to forget it.
I have now reached the age when I can look back at these experiences of so long ago in an objective manner. I feel that future generations should be aware of the horrors of this war or any war from the perspective of someone who experienced it. Maybe having such an awareness will help them search for better ways of resolving differences. In it are the candid recollections of an individual who experienced it under what I consider to be among the worst of conditions. They provide a perspective from the viewpoint of someone who was in the best position possible to observe what it is really like—a combat rifleman in the United States Marine Corps.
Final Chapter (posted August 01, 2016 by his daughter at Jack's request)
I went through the entire Korean War without a scratch. Fate was on my side the entire time. But I lost the battle against the last enemy - Cancer. I went to join the other Marines guarding the streets of Heaven on July 30, 2016.