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John A. Hoskins
Richwood, OH -
"In the middle of the night it began to rain. It rained long and hard. My sleeping bag was soaked; my clothes were soaked; I was soaked--and cold. The creeping realization that there was nowhere to go, no way to get dry, no way to get warm in the blacked-out night, gave me a sensation of total physical misery that has remained with me as a lasting memory of that not-at-all-forgotten war."
- John Hoskins
Active Duty Midshipman
As a member of Dartmouth's Class of 1951, I had finished high school in 1947, too late for World War II. My father foresaw, with my complete concurrence, a political career for my future, but there was a problem. As a World War I veteran, he had learned the value of the veterans' vote in his successful political career. He believed I, too, would need these votes some day. The solution arrived in the mail. The Navy was initiating a NROTC program and invited budding college freshmen to join. Four years of free tuition, followed by two years of peacetime service would make me a veteran. The votes would be there.
Dartmouth offered NROTC and, of course, much more, so I went to Dartmouth. NROTC classes and weekly drills were not fascinating but passed quickly enough. For half of each college summer I became an active duty Midshipman.
My first summer was spent on the battleship Iowa. My most vivid memory of this summer was my one and only stint on the bridge. I was assigned to use a microphone to relay the Captain's message to the engine room ordering increased speed to dodge an oncoming destroyer. Somehow the microphone did not work for me. Although we missed the destroyer, the Captain was not happy, so I was not happy, but I preferred to see it as a learning experience.
The next summer we went to Norfolk for amphibious landing training and then to Pensacola for exposure to the navy's airplanes. My experiences that summer focused more on fantasizing about the girls who seemed drawn to naval bases.
War Breaks Out
But then came June 1950. My well-planned path changed quickly. North Korea invaded the South and my decision six months earlier to opt for the Marines instead of staying with the Navy took on new meaning. The 1942 film "From the Halls of Montezuma" with John Payne had convinced me years earlier that the Corps was for me. Then the Marines landing at Inchon and the retreat from the Chosin Reservoir indicated that my post-college career might be even more exciting than anticipated.
A year later, on a beautiful June morning, I put on a long black robe to walk with my classmates to receive our coveted bachelor degrees. Twenty minutes later I was dressed in a green uniform, being sworn in as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Marines. The Marine sergeant who worked in NROTC administration bizarrely remarked to the dozen new 2nd Lieutenants that we would soon be in Korea and that would be the end of us. The major in charge quickly said that was nonsense. It was an interesting start to my new career.
My first stop was Basic School at Quantico, Virginia. The normal year-long Marine officers training program had been shortened to six months. Then we were on our way to Korea. I was first offered artillery but that seemed too tame, so at my request I was assigned to the infantry. After a short stop at Camp Pendleton in California, we were bused to the San Diego docks and loaded aboard the converted liner SS President Wilson. As the Marine band at the end of the dock played the Marine Corps Hymn, the 19th Replacement Draft steamed away across the Pacific.
We stopped overnight at Kobe, Japan, where I still remember the brightly lit nightclubs and World War II Japanese veterans, still in their peaked army caps, glaring at me as I walked along the sidewalk in my Marine uniform.
Infantry Platoon Reinforced
From Kobe we sailed to Inchon. Here we stuffed all our non-essentials into duffel bags to be returned when we left the country. We were then trucked past Seoul, past Munsan-ni, across the Imjin River to the headquarters of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. There we stayed for three days. It seems that some replacements had been killed their first day in Korea and so now all newcomers waited three days before risking that unhappy event. Then a sergeant from my new platoon came to guide me up to my assignment. I was now Commander of the 1st Platoon, How company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, all part of the US 1st Marine Division
My platoon, like the other two in our company, was called an "infantry platoon reinforced." We had the usual 44 men, broken down into three 12-men squads, each having three "fire teams". Each fire team had three riflemen and one man with the heavier Browning Automatic Rifle, always called a BAR for short. Fire team tactics centered around the firepower of the BAR. In addition, my "reinforced" platoon had a machine gun squad with one heavy machine gun and several light ones and a squad of mortars. It added up to quite a lot of firepower, which seemed appropriate for a relatively defensive position.
The young lieutenant I was replacing showed me around the trenches and bunkers of our platoon area. The war had reached a more stable phase and the underground bunkers and connecting trenches reflected this. Our orders were to stay where we were and only use small patrols to explore the forward areas and try to ambush the Chinese in front of us.
While being shown around the area, four of us were walking along the ridge of a dried-up rice paddy. Suddenly, there was a "plop, plop, plop." Holes opened up beside us. We were being mortared. We hit the ground of the paddy floor and I thought, "Oh, no. I just got here. I can't get killed now." Fortunately, I wasn't. Ironically, we were told later that the mortars were not the enemy's, but misdirected fire of our own mortars. Not much comfort there.
Memories of those first few weeks flood my mind. The incoming. Quickly I learned the sound of incoming. An alert ear could catch the far-off clunk of a mortar shell being dropped into its tube and then on its way to us; the swoosh of an artillery shell as it approached and the relief when it landed somewhere else. Patrolling. Our first patrol was down the hill we occupied and up the smaller, now abandoned hill in front of us. It was spooky as we gingerly peered into the now empty bunkers and trenches, always on the lookout for the dreaded landmines. Those mines were a real problem. ROK (South Korean army) troops had occupied our area before us and had planted landmines everywhere without making any map of where they were. A careless step anywhere could be our last.
And alcohol -- an odd subject for a front line memoir. It seems the battalion's dubious practice was to allot each non-commissioned officer (NCO) a case of beer each month, while officers received the beer and a fifth of bourbon whiskey. Soon after receiving my first allotment, the Gunny (Gunny Sergeant Wolf, the platoon's senior NCO) and I shared our spoils one night deep inside the underground command bunker. My hangover the next morning led me quickly to the conclusion that this could really be dangerous. That conclusion remained with me for the rest of the war.
On the lighter side were the propaganda leaflets the Chinese sent over by an occasional artillery shell. One I still have shows two couples in bathing suits lolling beside a swimming pool drinking champagne with the caption, "Where are you this winter?"
Two other memories remain vivid. While I was leading a squad along a trail behind our lines, one man strayed off the path and tripped the wire of a landmine. He was wounded in the arm--not badly, but it was the first wound I had seen. Our Navy medic (all Marine units had Navy medics) treated him immediately and he recovered quickly, but I was impressed.
The second memory was being wet. While moving our unit we had to spend the night outdoors. No tents, only sleeping bags. In the middle of the night it began to rain. It rained long and hard. My sleeping bag was soaked; my clothes were soaked; I was soaked--and cold. The creeping realization that there was nowhere to go, no way to get dry, no way to get warm in the blacked-out night, gave me a sensation of total physical misery that has remained with me as a lasting memory of that not-at-all-forgotten war.
Then our battalion took its turn to rotate into reserve. We were flown off by helicopters to Kimpo Peninsula, across a gulf of the China Sea from the war and free of the enemy. It was peaceful there and everyone enjoyed the ability to move about freely. Most civilians had left the area, but a few remained. In one hut an enterprising farmer prepared "yakimesh", a rather basic fried rice which tasted magnificent after the diet of canned C-rations. I spent my 23rd birthday in this oasis of reserve.
Soon enough, however, we moved back across the gulf to resume the fighting. This time my platoon was assigned a smaller hill, one of three our company held. The bunkers and trenches were there waiting for us. We looked out from our hill over a dirt road and a few dried up rice paddies to a larger hill on the other side. Hill 151. (Most hills were named for their elevation.) The slope of the hill facing us was barren and featureless, but on each side was a barely discernible edge of a trench. We could not see them, but we knew the Chinese were there. We exchanged periodic mortar fire and from further behind Hill 161 there would come artillery fire. Occasionally our airplanes made dive bomb attacks, but that was all.
We did do some active nighttime patrolling. One patrol assignment I remember well was to lay an ambush in a likely spot to intercept a Chinese movement. I picked one of our platoon's three rifle squads. We blackened our faces, put on our protective flak jackets, and moved out to set up the ambush. It was about midnight. We positioned ourselves to spring the trap. We waited. And we waited. About 4 a.m. we called it off and slowly returned to our lines to be back before daybreak. No action that time.
I did, however, make one big mistake. I wrote a detailed letter to my parents in Ohio, explaining our ambush attempt and hoping for better luck next time. Only on my return to Ohio did I learn of the fear and trauma this letter caused at home. A dumb son.
Then one day I was called back to battalion headquarters. There I was told that Saturday night I would lead my platoon up Hill 161 as the lead platoon of a battalion-strong frontal assault on the Chinese position. I returned to my platoon and explained to the men, as calmly as I could, how we would spend next Saturday night. The gunny sergeant was his normal, cool, professional self. (He was a World War II-experienced reservist from Boston.) The other NCOs were also, outwardly at least, accepting. But among some of the platoon riflemen (several had been drafted) there was some audible grumbling and uncertainty. Then a proud moment occurred. Sergeant Scroggins, a lean, quiet, unassuming squad leader from the mountains of West Virginia, quickly responded to them saying, "Hey, don't forget, we're Marines. This is what we're here for. It's our job. So we'll do it and get it over with." That seemed to quiet the troops and we all began to prepare ourselves for what was to come. Fortunately, somewhere, cooler heads prevailed and Division Headquarters called off the Saturday night assault. It had seemed pointless at the time, but no one could ever say so. Sergeant Scroggins had the only pertinent comment and now I can write about it.
Most of the time we were on line we occupied what could be called a passive defense. Nighttime patrols continued, but no more assaults on Hill 161 or any other such objective. We just stayed in our bunkers and connecting trenches, watching the enemy positions, which also seemed quiet. We did take some casualties. The young lieutenant who led the platoon next to mine was shot through the chest during a night patrol. He was evacuated by helicopter to a hospital ship and survived. Another of my squad leaders, Sergeant Cozad, a likeable, bright, blond-haired young man from Chicago, was sitting in front of his bunker listening to his radio when a Chinese mortar shell came in and blew off his leg. He also survived. Sergeant Cozad became the subject of my first letter sent to a Marine's parents--a duty of all platoon commanders for killed or severely-wounded Marines.
Advisor and Liaison Officer, KMC
The First Marine Division had a personnel rotation policy. After a certain time with front line troops, officers were transferred to other positions. By now I had become a 1st Lieutenant with silver bars instead of the brass of a 2nd Lieutenant. Such promotions were automatic after 18 months of service. Of course, we did not wear the rank insignia in combat--no point in offering a tempting target. So in the fall of 1952 I became an "Advisor and Liaison Officer" with the 3rd battalion of the Korean Marine Corps Regiment (KMC). At that time the 1st Marine Division operated with four regiments--three U.S. and one of the Korean Marine Corps.
I passed through our headquarters on the way to the KMC battalion. As I was waiting for transportation, there came a need for someone to deliver something (I don't now remember what) to the British Commonwealth Division, which was on our right flank. It was a unit of the many nations who had joined together under the United Nations banner to fight in Korea. I got into a jeep and the driver took me along a road, peaceful enough, running parallel to the front lines. When I arrived and delivered whatever it was, a British officer very cordially invited me into the bar of the officers' mess. There I drank my first English beer--a bitters of some kind, I remember. Very civilized and something that did not exist at all on the American side, despite the liquor rations.
As my KMC battalion was then in reserve on Kimpo Peninsula, where I had earlier been with the 5th Marines, I was driven back through war-devastated Seoul and then up to Kimpo Peninsula to join the battalion. Rice was being harvested then and I remember seeing lush expanses of deep green rice in areas restored to farming. This rice was called the King's rice and was considered the best in Korea.
Life with the Korean Marines in reserve gave me a glimpse of Korean culture I might not otherwise have seen. As Advisor and Liaison Officer I was to maintain close relations with the battalion commander, the very likable Lieutenant Colonel Kang. To start this process I shared a fairly large tent with Colonel Kang and young Lieutenant Choi, who served as my interpreter.
There were some new experiences. Each morning we shared a breakfast of rice and kimchee. Kimchee, a spicy, pickled and fermented cabbage, was new to me. Fortunately it went very well with the hot steaming rice and I grew to like it. I still eat it often.
Discipline was also quite different. Once I saw Colonel Kang line up an enlisted man at attention before him. The poor fellow had committed some violation and was to be punished immediately. The Colonel took a wooden board and struck the man on the shoulder with great force. The man fell toward the ground but immediately got up, came back to attention, and was immediately struck again. Hard. This went on for some time until the man was dismissed. Punishment had been rendered. I was shocked, but the Korean Marines saw nothing unusual in it. What the long-term effect might be I did not know, but I did know that the Korean Marines were a tough, brave, hard-fighting outfit.
Another interesting event, more pleasant than the punishment, was the Colonel's wedding anniversary. As the battalion was in reserve, the officers' wives came to Kimpo to be with their husbands. On the day of the wedding anniversary, the officers' wives worked the whole day in an outdoor kitchen, preparing a magnificent feast. In the evening all the officers (including me) sat in a tent cross-legged on mats on the ground in front of a long table laden with all kinds of delicacies of Korean cuisine. We ate and drank long and well. Then, as a climax to the occasion, the Colonel's wife was invited to come into the tent and sit beside the Colonel while we drank a toast to the happy couple. I could not help but reflect on how different the roles of women and men were in Korea.
At this time I also had my eyes opened about Korean politics. Previously all I knew was that Syngman Rhee was the President of Korea. He had been a long-time, anti-Japanese fighter and was universally considered the George Washington of Korea. Or so I thought. The young lieutenant who was my interpreter had been a university student when the war began and had been involved with student political movements. He told me (not in front of the Colonel) that Rhee was considered too autocratic, anti-democratic and close to being a dictator. The students were against him and would like to see him out of office. In my naiveté about Korean politics, I had thought Rhee was very popular with the people, so it was interesting to learn of the opposition. Eventually history proved my interpreter correct.
As our time in reserve was coming to an end, the Colonel and his other officers made the best of what was left. The Colonel decided to have a fling in Inchon and invited me to come along. Inchon was famous to me as where the 5th Marines had landed to force the earlier North Korean retreat. To the Colonel and his officers, however, Inchon was a play town and our destination was a special Chinese restaurant. Even in Korea Chinese restaurants were considered special. This one certainly was. The food was unlike any I had ever had before or since, but it was delicious. The many bowls and platters were filled with things I could not immediately identify, but when I got over my hesitation I found them most delectable. Three things helped. I was the Colonel's guest, so I had to eat the food he offered. The rice wine was also good and flowed smoothly. And then there were the "keesang girls". Keesang were the Korean version of Japanese Geisha and their purpose in life was to entertain men. Entertain us they did. A keesang sat beside each of us and helped us eat. They used their chopsticks to find the most succulent morsels and plumped them into our mouths, while at the same time making constant, giggly conversation. For me the conversation was limited, as my Korean was very basic and they did not speak English, but I certainly did enjoy their presence.
Then we left Kimpo and returned to the line. We were very close to Panmunjom, where the armistice talks were underway. Black balloons floated over that area to warn military aircraft that this was a bomb-free zone. We took over the position of another Korean unit. In front of the main line was a number of small hills, once wooded and now barren, where we set up outposts. One night the Chinese attacked. From our safe, mainline position we could hear the Chinese bugle sounding the assault, a psychological weapon the Chinese always used. We called for artillery and flares to light the battlefield. The fight lasted about an hour and then the Chinese withdrew. The next morning the Colonel led a group of us out to see what had happened. It was truly a grizzly sight. Our dead and wounded had been mostly picked up, but there were Chinese dead everywhere. Most looked like young kids. Many had charged without any rifle, with only grenades. The bugler was dead too. He had had only his bugle. Our losses were severe, but the Chinese losses were worse. But we still had the hill.
About that time someone came up with the idea of building a fence. Recognizing that we would remain in our defensive positions until the results at Panmunjom were known, it was decided to build a huge, dense, barbed wire fence. This fence was made of many rolls of barbed wire piled high on each other to about the height of three men standing on each other's shoulders. It was impressive to look at, but I never learned if it was tested.
Korean Service Corps
As I mentioned before, my job was officially called Advisor and Liaison Officer, but I did not give much "advice", as the Colonel and his officers knew more about their jobs than I did. So it was decided to replace the lieutenants with more senior US Marine officers. Out went the lieutenants and in came the majors.
As I still had a few weeks to go before I was eligible to leave Korea, I was assigned to a U.S. Marine unit logistically supporting the Korean Marines. My job was to coordinate with the Korean Service Corps (KSC) who provided the labor for moving supplies and ammunition to the front. We called them "itiwas" (eeteewas), which in Korean means "come here." They had a tough and often dangerous job, but always seemed jovial and full of smiles. Perhaps it was better than being in a fighting unit, but even in this relatively protected spot there were perils. The U.S. Marine lieutenant colonel in charge of our unit was arriving by helicopter one day when he turned the wrong way as he jumped to the ground. The rear propeller took off his head.
Six Months & Malaria
My time was running out and I was planning to leave for my next assignment, which I had learned would be San Diego (Marine boot camp), probably. Then I was told that there was a need for Marine lieutenants in guard detachments at U.S. naval bases in the Pacific area. The Marine guard detachment at Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines had an opening. As I had six more months to spend on active duty and the Philippines seemed more adventurous than San Diego, I jumped at it. Soon I was on a plane to Yokohama. I waited there four days for transportation and fully enjoyed a brief taste of Japanese life. Then I flew south to the Philippines.
There I spent six enjoyable months in charge of a Marine guard platoon, exploring the nearby town of Olongapo, and occasionally visiting Manila. The Philippines offered a much different culture and great experiences, but it ended soon, as my tour was over.
On my way back to America I came down with malaria, a parting gift from Philippine mosquitoes. I was quite sick for a week. On returning to Ohio I explained my condition to my family but was greatly cheered by my 12-year old sister telling me that while I had been gone she had saved all her allowances to give to me to help me buy a new car. It was good to be home.
So back to Ohio, law school and politics I went. But that is another story.
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