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Erik Larsen
M.D., F.A.C.S.

Erik Larsen

Chicago, IL-
Korean War Veteran of the United States Army

"By large, Tootsie Rolls were our main diet while fighting our way out of the Reservoir. You can bet there were literally thousands of Tootsie Roll wrappers scattered over North Korea. No doubt it made a nice change from Spam."

- Erik Larsen

 


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Task Force Zebra - 18 MAY 1951

by Erik Larsen, M. D., F.A.C.S.

I was born in Aalborg, Denmark on April 8, 1922 and immigrated to America with my mother and two older brothers Kaj and Poul in 1924. My father, Niels Christian, had come to America the previous year in 1923. After a two week sea and train journey through Ellis Island and Canada, we finally arrived in Chicago where we settled in a Danish neighborhood in the Humboldt Park area.

Our family suffered greatly during the depression years but with the help of the Danish community we survived. When the United States entered World War II my brothers enlisted and served with distinction in Europe with the United States Army. During World War II, I was a medical student in Chicago and was, therefore, deferred from military service.

When the Korean War began in 1950 I was drafted as a Medical Officer. At the time I was married, a father and was in general practice on the north side of Chicago. I was given an intensive, but short, medical/combat training course at Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. I was then sent to Korea via the emergency airlift out of Travis Air Base in California. I ultimately ended up in the front lines as a Battalion Surgeon, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Regimental Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. In May of 1951, I was assigned to Task Force Zebra, which was comprised of the 23rd Regimental Combat Team plus additional special units. We moved to the eastern sector of the 38th parallel to a town called Chaun-ni at Hill 1051. This narrative is about a great battle I witnessed and participated in which erupted on May 18, 1951 between Chinese, North Korean and United Nations Forces.

One cold, damp, spring day my medical battalion settled in along the main road adjacent to the foundation of a small school ravaged by the war. We set up a squad tent that was dug deeply into the ground for protection as casualties were already coming in on May 16th. Task Force Zebra took a defensive position on the east central front behind several South Korean units. Our aid tent was large; probably 10-20 stretchers could be accommodated. The sick and wounded were brought down to the aid station by my "boys" (the medics), given appropriate treatment and care and then evacuated, if possible. Medical personnel, myself included, were armed with carbines and pistols. None of us had Red Cross identification and our tent was camouflaged to avoid detection by infiltrating enemy soldiers. This ensured or added to the safety of the wounded and ourselves, as being conspicuous was unwise for this made us targets. It was not a gentleman’s war.

On the night of May 16th, the Chinese began making contact in our area. On that same night the South Korean forces began a disorderly withdrawal ... in spite of orders to remain and fight. I personally witnessed their troops fleeing past my unit without weapons while our officers encouraged them to stop. The following day, May 17, the big push started in our sector. All day and all night we worked taking care of the wounded. This included completion of amputations, resuscitation procedures and evacuation when possible. In the early hours of 18 May (about 2 AM) a Chinese patrol got into our area, killing two men and wounding eight others outside my aid tent. Approximately ten enemy solders were then killed there. They were armed with "burp" guns, which caused gruesome injuries when used in close encounters. We took care of the injured throughout the night and at about 6 AM when it got light, the Chinese could be seen swarming over and down the hills to the south. All morning our mortars, tanks, machine guns and infantry riflemen fought the enemy on the hills. Bullets were whizzing everywhere around the aid station. Then Chinese mortar started coming in. Before noon our task force was completely surrounded by hundreds of Chinese. I saw them swarm like ants down the hills towards our position. Many Chinese were killed at my aid site. Task Force Zebra was completely cut off from the rest of the United Nations Forces as the only road out for many miles was in enemy hands.

Major Lloyd Jenson, (who happened to be of Danish extraction) 2nd Battalion Commander ordered that we remain and fight until relief could get to us. When it was recognized that relief would not be forthcoming, it was decided that Task Force Zebra would run the "roadblock" with tank escort. But this plan also came to grief -- the two lead tanks crushed a bridge making it impassable and then hit mines thus blocking the road completely. I had been ordered by Major Jenson to follow the lead tanks in my litter jeep assuming this would be a safe position in the convoy. (The convoy consisted of a total of several hundred vehicles of which 117 were trucks and jeeps, and 76 were trailers.) There were two wounded Chinese prisoners on the litters in my jeep who fell off during the ensuing fighting. Chinese infantrymen were alongside the road on the right side embankment firing at us with burp guns, machine guns and rifles. I had given my carbine to an unarmed medic and had only my 45 pistol but I managed to participate in the combat. As I remember, the lead tank hit a mine about a quarter of a mile down the road and was pushed aside by the other tanks so as not to block the road. We continued on. About a half-mile down the road, the lead tank and our jeep hit mines. In the confusion, dust, smoke, noise, etcetera, I stumbled out of what remained of the jeep and hid in a crater on the right hand side under a hill swarming with Chinese. The withdrawal was completely stopped. I could see the line of vehicles with dead and wounded GI’s in and under the vehicles. The tank, which hit the mine and obstructed the road, had its track off and the men inside were being killed in the process of trying to escape through the hatch. The sight was horrible and depressing. It was a moment I will never forget.

The attempt the run the roadblock occurred in the early afternoon of Friday, May 18, 1951. As I sat in my hiding place, shocked and alone in the midst of battle, I suddenly saw two GI’s run to where I was and jump down beside me. Now there were three of us separated from the Task Force, but my new comrades were young, energetic and well armed. There was a brief introduction and I instinctively felt their disappointment when they realized I was only a doctor and not a well armed knowledgeable infantry Captain. A Chinese machine gunner was shooting at us from a hillside several hundred yards away. He couldn’t quite hit us but the bullets were too close for comfort. I spotted the gunner and exchanged positions with my friends so they could get proper aim. They silenced the gunner but there were many more all around us keeping us pinned down.

I remember thinking the end is near. My friends said, "this is it". We were expecting the Chinese to jump down on us at any minute. We were in the crater approximately thirty minutes when we made a decision to get up and run rather than wait to be killed. The plan was that we would meet on the other side of the river, which ran parallel to the road. These wonderful men offered to not leave me alone but I felt our odds would be better if we separated. The GI’s respected my rank and my decision to separate and run across the road to diminish the target. Later on I heard they made it to American lines and inquired about me but I never had the opportunity to meet and thank them. I offered to treat them to a royal feast if we survived but this can only occur if we find each other.

After the GI’s left, I waited until the shooting diminished, ran across the road, and dived headfirst into the gully along the riverbank. At this point I lost my glasses which added to my despair and confusion. My friends were nowhere to be seen. The shooting continued so I ran, waded, crawled and swam across the river, which was in its spring high. Bullets were hitting the water all around me. My adrenalin must have kicked in. All I know is that I kept going ... I fell ... I crawled ... I got up ... I crawled ... I fell ... I rolled ... I got up. Luckily, I was not hit except on my helmet. I staggered across rice paddies filled with spring rains and eventually collapsed on the far side of the valley. At one point during this frantic escape I did compose myself and tried to use reason to solve my dilemma. I had my 45 pistol and contemplated shooting myself, a subject which had been discussed earlier with my comrades who told frightening stores about capture and death especially by North Korean soldiers. I thought about home, my parents, my wife and child, my family -- how would they react upon receiving the dreadful news? I thought about life in the hereafter -- ­now I’ll know the truth! I did say The Lord’s Prayer to myself and even contemplated going north through enemy lines rather than south through minefields and the ongoing battle. Totally exhausted, I collapsed in a rice paddy.

Luckily an escaping American tank spotted me lying there. It came alongside, hauled me in through the turret and continued its escape going south while stopping at intervals to fire its gun. We were probably twenty miles north of the new United Nations lines where massive artillery stopped the Chinese advance. That night we reached safety and I was treated and evacuated to a hospital in Pusan. Part of my recuperation was on the Danish Hospital Ship, Jutlandia.

This beautiful ship was a converted freighter and was Denmark’s main contribution to the United Nationals during the Korean War. The Jutlandia was moored in Pusan harbor for most of the war and cared for wounded UN soldiers and civilian casualties. Later in the war, The Jutlandia was the site of peace negotiations with North Korea and China. At the time I was in Pusan, the chief medical officer was Dr. Schoitz from Aalborg Kommune Hospital and he knew several members of my family in Aalborg. Several times I was invited as his personal guest to dine on board in the private officers salon and had several wonderful means, including Aalborg Aquavit, Tuborg Beer, frickedeller, et al. The meals were wonderful and I’m sure that they contributed greatly to my recovery.

After recuperating in Pusan I was reassigned to the 2ID which was in pursuit of the fleeing enemy. Then I was fortunate to be transferred to the 1st MASH (8209) as a surgeon where I had many exciting experiences until I was rotated home in 1952. I am forever indebted to the two brave infantrymen who shared those horrific moments with me in the crater along the road. I also appreciate the heroic medics of the 23rd Regiment, 2 Battalion Medical Company and Major Lloyd Jenson, my commander, who watched after my medics and me like a father to keep us out of harms way. I am sorry that I cannot recall the name of the driver of my jeep. I do know that he was a young medic from the 2nd Battalion but I cannot say whether he survived or was rescued. It was very difficult for me to get any follow-up information because of the confusion at the time and the transfers to different units. Perhaps more information will be available with the renewed interest in the Korean War and the use of the Internet. Just a comical note; the two Chinese wounded prisoners who fell off my litter jeep in all the excitement kept running down the road after the jeep apparently preferring to be with us than their attacking countrymen, but we were in no position to help them under the circumstances. I often wonder what happened to them in their short or long lives.

Captain Ernest L. Graveline, Jr. from Pawtucket, Rhode Island was the other medical officer assigned to Task Force Zebra. He was an experienced combat surgeon, dedicated to the task of treating the sick and wounded. Captain Graveline was captured on the 18th of May in the area of Hill 1051 while attending to the wounded. I subsequently learned that he was treated harshly and died while under internment. It was he who gave me the encouragement to survive the rigors of front line duty.

 

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Korean Revisit - September 10-17, 2000

by Erik Larsen, M.D.

On Sunday, September 10, 2000 I left my home in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin and started my journey back to Korea after almost fifty years. In 1950 when the Korean War began I was drafted as a doctor to serve as a medical officer in the United States Army. At the time I was 28 years old, married with a 2-1/2 year old daughter and in general practice in Chicago. I served as a captain in the Army from December 1950 to January 1953. For four months I was a battalion surgeon in the Second Infantry (2ID), 22nd regiment and for 9 months I was a MASH surgeon with the 8209 First MASH.

In January, 1951, I joined the 2ID unit while they were in combat and quickly became a seasoned combat surgeon. When I arrived at the front in South Korea I was befriended by the battalion surgeon for the 3rd Battalion, 23rd regiment, Captain Ernest L. Graveline of Pawtucket, RI. He and I became close friends and worked closely together whenever possible. Ernest was experienced in war and was totally dedicated to the care and well being of the sick and wounded. At the end of April 1951, after recovering from the first spring offensive of the Chinese Communist Forces (CCF), Captain Graveline and I were assigned to a forward position as doctors for Task Force Zebra which consisted in part of the 2nd and 3rd Battalion, 23rd Regiment of the Second Infantry Division. I established an aid station adjacent to the main supply road in the village of Chaun-ni on the northeast front along the 38th parallel in a very mountainous area close to Hill 1051. My aid station was a large squad tent which was dug into the ground adjacent to the cement foundation of a bombed out Korean school. What ensued during the early days of May, 1951 and especially on the morning of May 18 are described in my article "18 May 1951" which is attached.

Through the years I wanted to learn the details of my experiences in Korea and what really happened to Ernest Graveline. I already knew from corresponding with his parents, who are now deceased, that my friend had been captured by the CCF on May 18th, was harshly treated by his Chinese captors and had died as a POW. But what happened to my medics? Where is Chauni-ni? What is there now? Was the Korean school ever rebuilt? Little information was available to me until recent years when I was able to get some answers and information through the internet mainly from the Korean War web page and its various links. I purchased maps of Korea , got some additional maps from the US Army, and obtained names of war veterans. Through the internet I was able to contact other veterans and corresponded with them via e-mail and posted notices. I joined the Second Infantry Korean War Veterans Alliance and was made aware of the 50th Anniversary Revisit Trip September 10-17, 2000. I had been encouraged to return with this group by its founder and President, Joe Hess.

On arrival at the Seoul airport, all veterans were honored by a Korean honor guard composed of Navy, Army, Marines and Air Force. This was an overwhelming experience and throughout the journey in Korea from Seoul to Taigu and then back to Seoul we were honored by Korean and United Nations troops. There was a typhoon raging off the coast of Korea during the entire week that I was there.

The highlight of my return to Korea came on Friday, September 15 when Major Charles "Chip" Knighten, Deputy Command Historian of US Army Forces in Korea arrived at 10:00 AM at the Capitol Hotel in Seoul in a downpour. With him was an army van with a driver named Air Force Pvt. Tracy. Major Knighten and I had corresponded prior to my trip by e-mail so he had an idea of what our goal was. He was well acquainted with the details of the May Massacre but he had not visited Hill 1051 or Chaun-ni. We were not certain if the village of Chaun-ni still did not exist nor whether a school was on the now busy road Highway 44. Three other members of the 50th Anniversary Revisit Korea group, Al Seyther from Haddenfield, NJ, and Jerry Miller with his daughter, Amity from Simpson, IL joined Major Knighten and me. Al had been wounded and captured on May 18 by CCT troops and had witnessed the road block of Task Force Zebra. Jerry Miller’s father was wounded in a nearby area and died in a front line medical facility. It was important to all of us to find the village of Chaun-ni, the school, if it existed, and visit a battlefield site that was very personal to us all.

The weather was awful with high winds and torrential rains from the typhoon but our driver, Tracy, was up to the task. Our destination was near the town of Hong Chong which is located in a northeast mountainous area of Korea on Highway 44. We arrived in Hong Chong at noon where we stopped for lunch at a restaurant connected to a gas station and had a delightful Korean meal consisting of soup, meats and kim chi. The drive from here to the anticipated school was about 8 miles and with great excitement I looked ahead and saw the hills along the left side of the road where the Chinese had swarmed and also the Hong Chong Gang River on the right side of the road with rice paddies extending from the mountains to the east side of the valley. There was no doubt in my mind that I had been here before. We came to the town of Chaun-ni and on the left side of the road Major Knighten spotted a building set back several hundred yards which turned out to be a Korean village school named after the great naval hero Admiral Yi Sun-Shan. We drove into the school parking lot determined to explore the site. Several women were outside the building and quickly summoned the principal who spoke no English. Since school was in session the principal came out into the rain and seemed to be confused as to what we wanted and why we were there. Major Knighten spoke to him in Korean whereupon the principal went back inside the school only to return about 10 minutes later smiling and welcoming. The principal now seemed to understand our reason for the visit to his school. I presented him with a plaque and attempted to read the inscription on it but because of my emotions I was unable to do so. Major Knighten stepped in, translated the words into Korean and the plaque was accepted by the principal who indicated that it would be placed in the school.

Later, after we surveyed the area around the school and took some pictures, I was invited by the principal to enter the school and visit with the children. I removed my shoes and went into the 1st grade classroom where I was immediately surrounded by around 30 beautiful boys and girls. I had my SONY video camera with me and thought I was video taping the event but in the excitement of the moment, I neglected to turn it on. Despite that mishap, we all had fun laughing and making faces. I could not believe what a difference fifty years of peace could make. We stayed at the school for about 2 hours. I found the wall against which my aid tent was built and my medics and I were pictured almost 50 years ago. My maps and old photographs all certified the correct location of the battalion aid station. Hill 1051 was visible; the road was there, the only thing missing was the masses of Chinese infantrymen swarming all over. The peak of Hill 1051 was visible and it was raining just as it was 50 years ago... what a sight! We also checked out the village of Chaun-ni which had a church but seemed to be a sprawling collection of tin-roof houses along Highway 44.

After leaving Chaun-ni we followed the path of the ill-fated convoy. Approximately one half mile down the road, south of the school, we stopped the van and Major Knighten and I got out to see if we could find the site where the lead tank had struck a mine. We were successful and were also able to find where my jeep had blown up along with the depression in which I had hidden from enemy fire. It was from this spot that I witnessed the massacre of many GIs from the 23rd Regiment including those of the tank that was disabled and the personnel from all the other vehicles that were following the convoy. This is where I found myself alone during that horrible day. (On May 18, thanks to the timely arrival of two soldiers from another regiment, I escaped by running across the road and rolled down an embankment, losing my glasses which made me became totally disoriented. I swam across the river, scrambled up the other side and made my way across numerable rice paddies to a spot where an escaping tank picked me up. ) Looking across the road I wondered if my army issued glasses were still there. The Hong Chong Gang River was high with a fast current. It was about 100 feet wide and I noticed the far embankment was around 10 to 20 feet high in front of the rice paddies. How I managed to get up that embankment after having swum across the river fully clothed and shod, I’ll never know. Chalk it up to an adrenalin rush and my youth. Major Knighten took my video camera and properly filmed the area with me standing along the roadside. Incidentally, the major and I were on that road at 2:55 PM which was the exact time that my jeep hit the mine, my broken watch will forever attest to that. We then returned elated and exhausted but happy to the Capitol Hotel in Seoul. That evening Al Seyther and I had dinner and drinks together at the hotel reviewing the days activity with tears in our eyes; an unbelievable experience 50 years ago and today.

On the following day, Saturday, September 17, I played hooky from the tour group to get some needed R & R which included a Korean sauna with a glass of ginseng tea and a game of golf in an adjacent multilevel golf range. I also took advantage of the day and went shopping for a bauble for my Lynda. That evening I learned that the rest of the tour group had extended their tour that afternoon to include a visit to the Chaun-ni school that Al, Jerry, Amity and I went to on the previous day. They had heard the story of the presentation of the plaque and wanted to see the school for themselves and be a part, albeit a day late, of my adventure and tribute. That evening we all attended a formal dinner at the Navy Club Yong Song Army Base and all the veterans received a beautiful medallion of honor on a red, white and blue ribbon. This was presented by the base commander.

The following morning we had breakfast at the hotel followed by a tour of the Korean War Museum in Seoul which was one of the finest museums I have ever been to. Our flight back home occurred that evening and needless to say the sun finally came out as we departed the country we were sent to save fifty years earlier.

In retrospect I am glad I went on the trip. It was a long, hard trip but rewarding in more ways than I can possibly describe. I got to see what we were fighting for and feel very proud to have served in "The Forgotten War".

 

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