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Beverly Hills, Florida-
"I enjoyed the Marine Corps and am proud that I had the opportunity to serve in it and to repay my country for the privilege of being a US citizen. There isn’t a better group of fighting men on this earth then the Marines, and serving in the Corps is like becoming a life long member of an exclusive society."
- Len Martin
Korea: My Experiences
In the following three chapters I have written of my Korean War experiences. These chapters cover the periods of time from when I enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves until after I was released from active duty. The greater part of these chapters is devoted to the time that I spent in Korea.
I was born on July 24th, 1932, in Melrose Park, Illinois. I am one of nine children, six girls and three boys. I was the youngest boy with three older sisters and two older brothers. My parents were both born in Russia, my father immigrated to America by himself and my mother came over with her parents. I was nine years old when World War II broke out, and I remember playing soldiers and spending hours tracking the progress of our troops by maps in the newspapers. My father had served in the Army prior to and during the First World War. He was originally stationed in the Philippine Islands and was eventually sent to France on November 8, 1918. He always told us that when the Germans heard that he was over there, they quit fighting. My oldest brother served in the merchant marine before joining the US Navy. My mother was very strict and childhood was not always pleasant. My father had always told us boys that if we wanted to leave home and join the service at the age of 17 that he would sign for us.
While in my senior year of high school at Proviso High School in Maywood, Illinois, some of my classmates, who were members of the Marine Corps Reserves, showed me pictures taken of them at summer camp where they were dressed in combat gear, rifles, helmets etc. I had always liked the Marine Corps and they talked me into joining their reserve outfit. At first my mother did not want to sign for me, but my father talked her into it. I enlisted on October 10, 1949, attended preliminary training down at Navy Pier, and eventually joined Able Company of the 9th Infantry Battalion in Cicero Illinois. We met one night a week for several hours. Most of our training consisted of close order drill and learning to field strip the M1 rifle. In late June of 1950 we went to summer camp at Camp LeJeune in North Carolina. We flew from Great Lakes Naval Air Station to Cherry Point in what was known as a flying boxcar. I remember watching the tail section vibrating as we flew.
On June 25, 1950, while we were at summer camp, without warning the North Koreans invaded South Korea. Having been supplied by the Russians, the North Koreans had heavy tanks, artillery, and airplanes. The South Korean army was ill-equipped and did not have adequate weapons to repulse the attack. U.S. troops rushed in from Japan were basically occupation troops who had had little, if any, combat experience or training, and suffered from the same deficiencies of equipment. The regulars stationed at Camp LeJeune (who had no great love for reservists) taunted us reservists, saying that we would be back in thirty days. They did not know how close to right they were or that they would be gone long before us.
The North Koreans advanced rapidly and all the defenders could do was fight a series of holding actions. Eventually the South Koreans and US troops were pushed all the way south to a perimeter defense around the seaport of Pusan. Without additional help they were in danger of being pushed into the sea. In the meantime, the United Nations had declared North Korea the aggressor and voted to help South Korea. Additional troops and supplies were rushed to Korea. The Marine Corps formed the First Marine Brigade, which was made up of the Fifth Marine Infantry Regiment, with supporting tanks, artillery, and other units. The Brigade landed in August 1950, gave the North Koreans their first defeat at the Naktong River, and was instrumental in holding the Pusan Perimeter.
General Douglas MacArthur was given command of all UN forces in Korea. He immediately devised a plan to have a combat division land at Inchon on the West Coast of Korea and far behind the enemy lines. His goal was to cut off the enemy lines of communication and supplies. Since the Marines had been the primary landing force during the Pacific campaign of World War II, MacArthur called for a Marine combat division to make the landing. Since the end of World War II, the Marine Corps had been reduced to fewer than 75,000 men on active duty who were spread out all over the world. A decision was made to call up the active reserves in order to fill in the ranks.
Activated for Overseas Duty
I graduated from Proviso in early June, attended summer camp in late June and turned 18 on July 24th. On July 21st we received a warning notice that we would be activated and that if anyone wanted out it, was his or her last chance. Most of us were gung ho and never considered dropping out. On July 26th we received notice that our unit would be activated on August 8th. Prior to leaving we had a final physical. It was somewhat comical since they were so hard up for warm bodies that they were taking anyone with two arms and two legs. Two of our group had high blood pressure and were told to lie down on cots. Their blood pressure was checked every 15 minutes or so until their readings were acceptable. My family drove me to the armory on the 8th and was told that they could see me off at the train station. As usual, things got fouled up and my parents were not able to see me off at the train station. My mother took it pretty hard.
It took us four days to get to Camp Pendleton in California, arriving there on the 12th of August. By then, trainload after trainload of reserves were coming into Camp Pendleton. There were troops all over the place. Initially we marched each day to a large staging area where anyone with prior active duty was sorted out and assigned to the Seventh Marine infantry regiment. These were guys who had served in World War II, and had remained in the active reserves. Most were just getting settled in to being married and raising families. Within a short time they were loaded aboard ship. They landed in Korea shortly after the other two regiments of the division landed at Inchon on September 15, 1950. The only additional training they had was aboard ship on their way to Korea. We had one guy who was so physically unfit that he passed out virtually every time that we marched somewhere. It took him several weeks and visits to a number of sick bays before he was finally released. I also remember a corporal who actually cried because he was going to go back overseas.
I was eventually assigned to a two-week working party crating up gear that was to be shipped with the Seventh Marines. The gear was brought to the Regimental parade grounds at 24 area in Camp Pendleton. We worked twelve hours on and twelve hours off. We were told to estimate size, weight, and volume and stencil this to the crates. I understand that normally the loading of equipment aboard a ship is very precise and tightly controlled. So much for normalcy. The 24 area was also the location of headquarters for the Commanding General of the 1st Marine Division. One day his command car cut in between our platoon as we were marching across the street. Someone said, “There goes the General,” and I replied, “Screw the General.” The next morning the entire working party was called out in formation. An officer said that someone had made derogatory remarks about the General and that this was not acceptable. Fortunately he did not ask who it was because, being naïve, I probably would have stepped out.
After finishing with the working party, I was given a weekend liberty and several buddies and I went to Los Angeles. Due to heavy traffic, we got back late and, like a bunch of little kids, we got a written note from the bus driver explaining why we were late. Of course, this was not acceptable and we were supposed to go up for Captain's Mast (disciplinary action) on Monday. However, the first thing on Monday, I was told to report to Camp Delmar, which was the training camp for tracked vehicles (i.e., tanks and Amtraks). Before going on the working party, I had gone through screening to see where I was to be assigned. Not knowing any better, I requested to be sent to the infantry. But since I had had two years of auto mechanics in high school and since there was a shortage of tanker replacements, someone probably thought I would be a good candidate for tanks. All in all, it was a good thing. Had I gone into the infantry, there was a good chance that I may not have come back.
I think that we were the first troops assigned to Delmar since the Second World War. We had to clean out the barracks so that we had someplace to sleep. I remember cleaning up the second floor head (washroom) and having a Sergeant tell us to use plenty of water. We took buckets of water and poured it on the floor. Pretty soon someone started hollering that we were flooding the first floor.
Obviously Delmar was not really prepared to handle incoming tank recruits. I remember having classes that consisted of films designed for the infantry on how to knock out tanks. Very encouraging. Eventually we went out to Los Flores Tank Park, a ride of about a half an hour or so. At first we rode in the back of open six-bys, waving at the cars that passed us. At Los Flores they had about five World War II M4A3 tanks. This was the first time that I had ever seen a tank. I climbed into the driver's compartment. On my left was a control panel and in front was a clutch pedal, gas pedal, and two levers coming up from the floor. These levers were used to steer the tank. Overhead and behind me were headsets and I could see up into the turret. I looked up through the driver's hatch and said to myself, "This is no place for me." I wanted no part of these things.
That night after we had returned to camp, I went to see the First Sergeant and asked to be transferred out of tanks. The Sergeant looked at me in a fatherly manner and said, “Son, they need tankers in Korea. You are not going anywhere.” That ended that. The next day or so we got around to driving the tanks. We had a reserve sergeant, Sergeant Rogers, as instructor and his favorite saying was, “There are gooks to the right of us and gooks to the left of us and gooks all around us. Let’s get the hell out of here.” The object was to see how fast we could get up into the tank and get it operational.
Once I started driving the tanks, I fell in love with them. Since the M4 had a clutch and a gas pedal, it was somewhat like driving a car. Instead of a steering wheel, the tank had two levers for steering. Pulling back on either lever locked the corresponding track and allowed the tank to turn. The faster we were going, the easier it was to turn. At slow speeds it took a bit of effort to pull the levers. The tank had a five-speed forward and one reverse. We normally started out in second gear and, if we could make it before the tank stopped, we double-clutched into third. If we got it into third, it was easy to get it into fourth. Very seldom were we able to get up into fifth gear unless we were on fairly level ground or in an area of gently rolling hills. Top speed was about 25 miles per hour and we felt like we were flying. Imagine driving 35 tons of metal at 25 miles an hour. Lots of fun.
The tanks were so old and worn out that one day I broke a drive shaft on one. Driving a tank is really not like driving a car. In a car one relies on the brakes to stop. But since the tank is so heavy, it takes a long time to stop using the brakes only. Normally we would gear down to the lowest speed, thus using the braking power of the engine to slow down, and then use the brakes to finally stop. Since I was inexperienced, I didn’t realize that I was not supposed to suddenly take my foot off the gas, particularly when coming down a hill since this put a heck of a strain on the engine and drive shaft. The drive shaft in this tank was so old and crystallized that the strain broke it in two. The drive shaft ran from the rear of the tank to the transmission in front. When it broke, it went clanging around inside the tank, scaring the daylights out of us. They ended up towing the tank to be repaired. I took a lot of ribbing, but nothing came of it.
None of the radios worked in the tanks, and one day when we took them up and fired the 105 cannons, we ended up with several of them having rounds jammed in the tubes.
We had a platoon sergeant by the name of Bonwell who was a reservist like us. Rumor was that he had connections higher up and was bucking for a commission. He couldn’t call cadence worth a damn and when marching us, he constantly fouled us up. One consolation was that we figured that at least we would be rid of him once we went overseas. At formation one day, he announced that he knew that we did not like him and that we thought that we would be rid of him when we went overseas, but that he was going to go with us. I happened to be in the back row, and for some reason I busted out laughing. He ordered me up to the front of the platoon and said, “Martin, I’ve got a boot the size of your ass.” For punishment I had to clean out the trailers that we used to transport us around. It was worth it. I understand that he died shortly after landing in Korea from drinking bad alcohol.
We had a nice Lieutenant as Platoon Leader. I can’t remember his name. He was very honest with us and once told us that he did not want to scare us, but that when we finished our training, we would be shipped overseas. He said that we might finish on a Friday and ship out on Saturday. As it worked out, we finished on Saturday and shipped out the next day on Sunday, October 1, 1950. I remember when we got our shots before shipping out. Everyone was stripped to the waist and lined up in single file. At the start, our records were checked to see which shots we needed. Each shot had a number and as we stood there, the numbers were written on our chest. Some guys got as many as five shots. As we moved forward, we got whatever shot we needed in either arm or both arms at once. There was one sadistic Corpsman who had a towel over his shoulder and each time he drew blood he wiped it off on the towel. There really wasn’t much to it other than our arms were sore for several days, but some guys actually passed out. Tough Marines.
Since I knew that I was going overseas, I called home and talked to whoever was home at the time. I talked to my dad, who had served in the Army before and during World War I, and who had told me at one time that the Marines must really be hard up when they start taking punks like me. In his day, in order to be a Marine one had to have served in another branch of the military. He was not serious and was very proud of me.
Early Sunday morning we packed up our gear and loaded busses for San Diego. It felt funny passing civilians going about their Sunday routines, knowing that we were going overseas and not really knowing what to expect. I wasn’t scared--I probably didn’t have enough sense to be scared. I was only 18 and everything was happening so fast that I didn’t have time to think about it. There were quite a few people on the dock as we loaded aboard. We went below and stored our gear and then went topside. There was a band playing music. Apparently it was traditional to have a band see troops off and to welcome them when they arrived home. Eventually we pulled away from the dock. Before we got too far, one of the guys got seasick. Poor guy. It was to be a long, eleven-day journey.
Trip to Korea
Our ship was a large, civilian-manned troop ship, the General Nelson M. Walker. Aboard ship, we slept in typical Navy hammocks which were stacked two or three high and hung from the upper bulkhead. We had quite a bit of room between bunks, so it was not uncomfortable. We did not do too much while aboard ship, but did stand several formations. The ocean was pretty calm, but the ship did rise and fall for and aft. It was fun trying to keep our balance while standing at attention. One day we saw some civilians coming out of a hatchway. Turned out they were part of the engine crew. They invited us to go down one deck and look at the engine room. It was fascinating. There was hardly anyone there. The two screws that propelled the ship were about three feet in diameter, and they had to keep them turning slowly while in port so they would not sag.
It took us 11 days to cross the Pacific. All in all it was a pleasant trip. We got a feeling of insignificance when all we could see for miles was open water. Every day on the shipboard radio--which was played throughout the ship, they played the songs, “Goodnight Irene” and My Heart Cries For You”. Every time I hear either of those songs, it immediately reminds me of going overseas. In the Corps it was considered to be “salty” if our utilities had the appearance of having been washed a number of times and were faded. In order to get this faded look with new dungarees, some of the guys tied them up with ropes and tossed them overboard thinking that being pulled through the salt water would age them. This worked sometimes, but unfortunately some of the guys lost their clothes when the lines snapped or the knots came apart. Live and learn. We crossed the International Date Line and we were all awarded a little card inducting us into the Domain Of The Golden Dragon, which I still have.
On October 13, 1950, we docked in Yokohama harbor in Japan. We noticed that the dock workers wore sandals with straps that went in between the toes. Some guys started dropping pennies down to them, but our officers soon stopped this. We unloaded ship and went aboard a train. The seats were upright and had no padding. We got our meals in a separate car that had been set up with stoves and such. I remember seeing Mt. Fujiyama in the distance. We eventually arrived at Camp Otsu, which I think was in the town of Otsu and near Kyoto.
We did not know at the time that the Division was lying outside the port of Wonson waiting for mines to be cleared from the harbor. We had to wait in Japan until they landed before we could join them. Upon arriving in Japan, we had a lecture by an officer who told us that the Japanese felt that if Korea fell they would be next and that we were, in effect, fighting to protect them. While in Japan I had some dental work done by Japanese dentists. I think it was in Osaka, but I am not sure.
Eventually we moved to a former Japanese officers' training camp, Camp Sakai. Just about every day that we were there we went out on hikes with field packs, helmets, and rifles. We went out in the morning and came back for lunch, and then went out again until supper time. Several times we stayed overnight in the field. We were out in the countryside and I remember walking though some villages that had raw sewage running in the ditches alongside the road. One day we went out to a firing range and fired the M1. That was only the second time that I had fired one. They were very strict about anyone having live rounds in their possession. It was a court martial offense to have any. I mention this now because when we finally got to Korea, it was a shock to see so much live ammo lying around.
After about two weeks, our replacement commander Lt. Colonel Bathum, who was my reserve Battalion Commander, got us all together in the base theater and told us that we would be shipping out shortly to Korea. I really had mixed emotions. I had no idea what it was like in Korea and what to expect. I did not know if we would be in combat the minute we landed or what. I think it is safe to say that I did some praying that night. Colonel Bathum said that if we ever ran across him in Korea to stop and say hello. I did eventually see him in Korea and had a nice conversation with him. As a PFC it felt strange talking directly to a lieutenant colonel.
On November 3, 1950, we loaded aboard an APA Navy ship named Aiken Victor in Kobe. This was a much smaller ship than the transport that we came on from the States. Our bunks were stacked five to seven high and we had just enough room to crawl in them and hope that the guy above us was not too heavy. On the second day out we hit some rough seas. The ship first pitched fore and aft, and then rolled from side to side. Putting the two motions together, we ended up with the ship doing a figure eight. It was pitching so much fore and aft that when we went up a gangway with the ship rising, we felt like we were climbing a steep ladder. When it was falling, we had to hang onto the rails to keep from falling off.
The motion of the ship did not bother me until the morning of the third day when I was waiting in the chow line and they ran out of prepared food. We had to wait until they made more. I think that if I had had some food in my stomach I would have been okay, but I felt very queasy and went down below to lie in my bunk. Later in the afternoon, some guys came to clean the hold and forced me up on deck. My buddies were making fun of me and finally I had to throw up. Upon seeing me vomit, several of them also got sick, which made me feel better.
North to Hungnam
We finally reached the port of Wonson on November 7. Our ship could not dock so we off loaded over the side onto an LST which took us into the beach. After disembarking we formed up and moved out, led by a Marine Corps Major who was carrying a briefcase while we had full field packs. The Major marched us at rout step through what was left of the town to its outskirts. I don’t know how far it was, but it seemed like several miles. I almost passed out. I remember marching with my head down, watching the ground sink under the footsteps of the guy in front of me.
We reached a group of bombed-out houses with walls standing but no roofs (Korean air conditioning). I remember seeing .30 or .50 caliber machine gun rounds lying around and I remembered how strict they were about live ammo in Japan. Korea was a different world. I slept pretty well that night.
The next morning we marched back to the port, loaded aboard a landing craft, and went out to work unloading a Greek liberty ship, the Stagus J. Unagus. We had to climb aboard using a cargo net or Jacobs ladder. We unloaded 50-gallon drums of fuel by climbing down a narrow ladder into the hold, pulling the barrels over onto their side, and rolling them over to a hoist where they were hoisted up and out. Apparently we were not supposed to stay too long, because we did not bring our sleeping bags. But we were aboard for several days. When night came, it got pretty cold. We had no place to sleep and nothing to keep us warm. We found our way down to the rudder room where the constant motion of the moving rudder generated a small amount of heat. We did not get much sleep. Sometimes we went over the side of the ship via cargo net onto an LSU--a smaller vessel that came along side for the barrels. After several days of constant work and little sleep, I was leaving an LSU by standing on one of its gun ports and grabbing hold of the bottom of the cargo net. I did not have the strength to pull myself up to get my feet in the net. I was hanging there when one of my buddies gave me a boost so I could get my feet into the net. I hate to think what would have happened had I lost my grip on the net. Both ships were rising and falling at different heights due to the difference in their sizes. Had I fallen, I probably would have been history.
We finally returned to our air-conditioned quarters outside of Wonson. That evening while using my helmet to heat water, the straps got burned off. I kept badgering the Sergeant for a new helmet, but there weren’t any to be had. The next morning we fell out and were told that we would be picked up by truck at 11:00 a.m. to join our outfit. We waited and waited and waited--typical hurry up and wait. Finally three trucks came and I loaded aboard the middle one. There were two guys up in front of the back of the truck that were from Headquarters Company, 1st Tank Battalion who were riding as shotgun guards. After a while we stopped to pick up a couple of Marines who were walking along the road. After getting aboard, they asked the two shotgun guards if the shots that they had heard were aimed at us. Although the guards told them no, this naturally shook us up a little bit. We had heard that an Army outfit that had left the day before us by train had been ambushed with many casualties.
Shortly after this exchange someone on the surrounding hills started shooting at us. There were a lot of North Korean guerillas in the surrounding area. At this time the driver of our truck stalled the engine and could not get it started. Everyone piled out of the trucks. The only thing I could think of was I did not have a helmet. I landed in a ditch next to the road. Some of the guys started shooting at the hill and I fired off a couple of rounds not really knowing what I was shooting at. It’s surprising that we didn’t shoot each other. Finally a Sergeant made us stop firing and we all loaded back onto the trucks. Our driver still could not get the engine started so they had to push us. By this time it was getting dark. As we passed through a column of marching troops, probably ROKs (South Korean troops), someone in our truck accidentally fired off a round. Just nervous.
We finally arrived at Headquarters Company of the 1st Tank Battalion on November 10, 1950, the Marine Corps birthday. With chow we had a piece of birthday cake for dessert. The next morning I volunteered for a patrol to find the spot where the shots came from. We had a tank for support. When we climbed the hill, we found where the snipers had been. We had a clear view of the entire road. The next day Staff Sergeant Fox fell us out and asked if any of us knew how to fire a machine gun. Thinking that I would be assigned to a tank as a gunner, I volunteered. One soon learns in the military not to volunteer for anything. Instead of being assigned to a tank, I was assigned to stand guard on a machine gun outpost.
We had a machine gun outpost about 300 yards from the CP (command post). About 50 feet in front of the machine gun nest was a one-man listening post. In addition to his rifle, the man in the listening post had several different kinds of grenades, an illuminating grenade, and a fragmentation grenade. The grenades were contained in cardboard tubes that made a "fwooping" sound when they were opened. In front of us was strung barbed wire that had tin cans with rocks in them attached to the wire. The slightest breeze would make the cans rattle. This was scary business in the middle of the night where one could not see ten yards in front of him. One man sat in the listening post and his job was to detect any movement and warn the machine gun post. If the man in the listening post heard anything, he was to throw a grenade and then get back to the machine gun nest. (I don’t recall having to man the listening post.) Sitting out there in the dark, one can imagine hearing all kinds of sounds.
One night a black Marine who was particularly scared was assigned to the post. Suddenly the guys in the machine gun nest heard the sound of a grenade container being opened. They assumed that the guy was going to throw a grenade, but hoped he would throw it in front of him and not at them. Suddenly they heard someone running towards them. They hollered “Halt”, but he kept on coming. Instead of stopping, he ran all the way back to the CP. Apparently he thought he had heard a noise and threw an illumination grenade that landed in some water and did not go off. He was relieved of guard duty and put on permanent KP. He was happy to get off guard duty. Ironically, later during the Chosin Reservoir campaign, they were short of mess men and he got sent up there. We heard that he eventually was wounded.
After several days we got orders to move up north to join the rest of the Division around Hamhung, outside the city of Hungnam. It was about a 90-mile trip over a primitive mountain road. I was assigned to ride up on top of a load of crates of 90mm tank ammo. It was stacked so high that we were up above the cab of the truck. The temperature was around zero to 10 below and the trip took several hours. I was never so cold in my life. There was no place to go and we had a wind blowing in our faces. In order to try to stay warm, we climbed clothes and all into out sleeping bags. We had to stop frequently to answer nature’s calls. One time my feet were so frozen that I had no feeling in them. When jumping off the truck, I did not know when I hit the ground.
We did not run into any trouble on the trip. The road was lined with trenches and at many bends in the road we saw North Korean self-propelled artillery down the side of the mountain. Apparently our airplanes had knocked them out. We finally made it to Hamhung and spent the night sleeping on a cement floor. I heard that one guy came down with frost-bitten feet. We carried loaded rifles on the trip in case we ran into any guerillas. One guy forgot to clear his rifle before pulling the trigger and put a round through a wall. Fortunately, no one was hurt. The next day he had to walk around with a machine gun on his shoulder to remind him to clear his weapon before pulling the trigger.
On November 17, we moved to a former agricultural college at a town called Soyan-ni, about seven miles northwest of Hamhung (see page 137, US Marine Operations in Korea). We were set up next to a narrow gauge railroad that came from Hamhung and went further north. Soyan-ni was located in a flat valley with ridges to the right and left of us. There was only one dirt road coming out of Hamhung and going north. (This was known as the MSR, main supply route.) The road went by us, through the town, and on up to the towns of Koto-ri, Hagaru, and Yudam-ni, all in the vicinity of the Chosin Reservoir. We were set up about 50 air miles from Yudam-ni.
We lived in pyramidal tents about six to eight men per tent. Since it was mid November, the weather was very cold. It got down as low as 20 below. The road up north was dirt, and tanks made a mess of it. It looked like we might be set up there for a long time. I later read in the Marine Corps Tankers Association Newsletter of June 2000 that we were scheduled to move up further north on the 28th.) I remember that a head (similar to an old-fashioned outhouse) was dug to a depth of six to eight feet. We never got to use it, although one day one of our patrols came back with several prisoners who were put in the hole for a short period of time.
For heating the tents, we had little pot-bellied stoves that burned diesel fuel. We set up a five-gallon GI can full of fuel on a platform in back of the tent with a hose leading to the stove. Invariably the stove ran out of fuel during the night and we woke up in the morning to a tent completely covered on the inside with frost. Fortunately, we had warm goose down sleeping bags that kept us warm during the night. I remember stuffing an undershirt into the opening and waking up to find it covered with frost. It was interesting getting up out a warm sleeping bag in a freezing tent and getting dressed as fast as possible without freezing. We used to wear many layers of clothes to keep warm. First we had long underwear, then a woolen pair of pants along with a windproof pair of pants. We had a woolen shirt, sweater, and field jacket and topped it off with a fur-lined parka. We were lucky that we had tents. The infantry had to live out in the open.
The 1st Tank Battalion had the responsibility for security of the MSR, so we went on frequent mechanized patrols into the surrounding mountains. We rode around most of the day in the back of 6-by trucks. The sides of the bed of the trucks were made up of wooden slats. The center part folded down to make seats. These trucks were built to carry supplies. The name denoted a six-ton truck capable of carrying six tons of supplies. Since they were designed to carry heavy loads, they were not at all comfortable when almost empty. Since all the roads in the area were dirt, we got bounced around quite a bit. At the end of the day, every organ inside of our body just ached from being bounced around.
One day we came to a ditch that had a wooden bridge across it. A Jeep was driven across to see if it would support us. When the truck that I was riding in with other guy got half way across, the bridge started to collapse. Fortunately, it just gently settled on one side and we did not flip over. They had to enlist the help of civilians from a small village to get the truck out. We used to go through small villages, raid their police stations, and take away their automatic weapons. We never knew who was on our side. As we drove through one village, we saw a young kid who looked like he was about 15. He was standing on an intersection dressed in a Chinese uniform. We took him prisoner and took him back to the CP.
In addition to the mechanized road patrols, we also stood outpost watch. We had two outposts. One was set up in an open field about 300 to 400 yards to the west of the CP and the other was in a field across the road from the CP. The first one looked across a broad valley towards some ridges to our west and the other faced north. I helped dig the one that faced west, and spent most of my guard duty in that one. The one to the east across the road consisted of a rectangular hole in the ground covered by a roof made up of trees. There was just enough of an opening in the front to crawl through if one had to. It had an entrance in the back.
The outpost to the west was shaped somewhat like the letter "U" with the front of the U facing west. Behind the "U" was a makeshift shelter that we slept in when not on guard. The machine gun was set up in the middle of the "U", giving us a 180-degree range of fire. As I recall, there were three or four of us to a watch and we spent the night in the outpost. We stood a tour of three or four hours on guard and the rest of the time we slept in the shelter. Being down in the valley with mountains or hills on three sides of us, it got so dark at night that we could not see our hands in front of our face.
The footwear that we had at that time was called shoepacs. They consisted of a boot that had leather tops that came up to mid calf and a rubber bottom. The theory was that the rubber was waterproof and thus allowed us to walk in snow and water without getting our feet wet. In actuality, the rubber did nothing to keep out the cold. I remember more then once going around in circles for hours stamping my feet just to keep them warm. We used to wear a regular pair of socks and two pair of ski socks. We also had two felt liners in the boots, but still our feet froze. Many of the infantry ended up with frostbite because of these shoepacs because if they didn’t keep moving, their feet froze. Later on, just as I was going home, the Marine Corps came out with insulated boots called Mickey Mouse boots. They did an excellent job of keeping our feet warm. I left before they were issued.
As to clothing, we wore long underwear, a woolen shirt, woolen pants, sweater, field jacket, windproof pants and a 12-pound fur lined parka, but we still froze. Temperature got down to at least 20 below zero. Imagine being out in the middle of a field in 20 below weather with no place to go. All we could do was freeze. At the end of my shift, I climbed into my down sleeping bag, clothes and all. The parkas were quite warm, being fur lined, but since they were relatively heavy, at the end of our shift our shoulders ached from the weight. Since it was so dark, we had to rely on our hearing to detect any movement. The hood of the parka was also fur lined, so each time we moved our head the slightest bit, our ears rubbed against the fur and we thought we heard something. Standing outpost was not one of the most enjoyable times of my tour.
In order to fire a 30-caliber machine gun, one had to cock it twice. When on watch, we used to cock it once, then we only had to cock it once more if we needed to fire it. Fortunately we never needed to. One day when coming off outpost duty, the fellow carrying the machine gun forgot to clear it. It must have been accidentally cocked twice and was ready to fire. As he set it down, he squeezed the trigger and fired off a round. Fortunately no one was hit, but he had to walk around with the machine gun on his shoulder for the rest of the day.
One night when things started heating up at the Chosin Reservoir north of us, we had an Army 4.2 mortar outfit set up near us. I had just crawled into my sleeping bag at the end of my watch when the guy on watch started hollering for us. I pulled aside the flap to our shelter and there was a flare hanging in the sky lighting up the area. We had an old-fashioned crank field phone that connected us to the CP. We cranked up the phone and Sergeant Brown answered. In an excited voice, we told him about the flare. He, in a calm voice, asked what color it was. When we answered white, he said, "Don’t worry. Theirs are green, ours are white." Needless to say, this shook us up a little bit.
As the situation up north worsened, we stepped up our security. In addition to roving patrols among the CP, we established a combination of tank and machine gun positions around the area. We had several drills where we grabbed a box of 30-caliber machine gun ammo and made a mad dash for the machine gun nests. As to the roving patrols, they consisted of two men walking with loaded rifles (on safety) with fixed bayonets. One night the guy I was on with had a case of the sniffles. When the Officer of the Day (OD) stopped us, he asked the guy to stop sniffling. He answered, “Aye Aye, Sir" and kept on sniffling.
One night the outpost reported that they heard noises in front of them. A patrol of about six men, all World War II veterans, went out to investigate. In order to move around, they took off their heavy parkas. They crept along the ground and found a civilian burial in progress. One member of the patrol came down with a case of pneumonia and was sent back to Japan. He joined us later after we had moved down to Masan in South Korea. After he was back for a few days, he took a .45-caliber pistol and shot himself in the ankle. He had had enough of combat in the Second World War. I don’t know what became of him, but he probably crippled himself for the rest of his life.
Our company was set up next to Service Company. A relief column, Task Force Drysdale, was formed up consisting of tanks, infantry, and members of the 41st Commandos from England. They attempted to move north to assist the Marines at Hagaru-ri. Part of the convoy included 32 trucks from Service Company. On the way, the task force had to fight their way through the Chinese. They lost a lot of men and Service Company lost 30 of their trucks. The tanks got through, but a lot of the infantry were killed or captured. The CO of Service Company was killed and several of the drivers were taken prisoner. The Chinese tried to brainwash them and later--I think sometime around May 1951--we heard that they were turned loose to try to talk fellow Marines into surrendering. I later read that they actually escaped from the Chinese. One way or the other, they were sent south, put on planes, and sent home.
Back from the Chosin
The infantry outfits up north fought their way back from Yudam-ni, Hagaru-Ri and Koto-ri towards Hamhung and us. As they neared us, we broke camp and moved someplace else. (Your guess is as good as mine as to where). We were put to work setting up pyramidal tents for them. It was so cold that we worked about 20 minutes and then had to come in and warm up. I kept thinking that we had a warm place to sleep, but the infantry had to sleep out in the open in the freezing cold. There are several good books on the Chosin Reservoir Campaign. Two of them are Chosin by Eric Hammel and Breakout by Martin Russ.
Since we knew that we were to be evacuated and could not take all of our gear with us, we destroyed what we could not take. We wore a pair of utilities for several days, threw them away, and drew a new pair. Later in 1951, clothes became so scarce that we wore our utilities until they had holes in the knees. I lost my cap and could not draw one for some time. We made piles of clothes, doused them with gasoline, and burned them. We also buried boxes of 50-caliber machine gun ammo.
We eventually moved to the seaport of Hungnam. The port was loaded with men and equipment. In order to keep warm, someone started a fire. I remember a cook throwing large junks of baking grease on it. Several of us roamed around the port and saw a large group of civilians. It turned out that there were over 100,000 of them. We talked to some South Korean soldiers who spoke English. They told us that these were North Koreans who were fleeing the Chinese and Communism. They had left everything behind them--their homes, places where they had lived their lives, and the graves of their ancestors. If the Chinese had caught them, they would probably all have been executed. At the time, I remember feeling sorry for them. I knew that I would be getting out, but they might have to stay. Later they were all evacuated and relocated in South Korea.
Since there was so much Army equipment on the beach, and since the Marine Corps had lost a lot of theirs, the Marines borrowed (stole) a lot of the Army gear. It got to be somewhat of a joke. Marines crossed out Army serial numbers on Jeeps and trucks and painted on their personal serial numbers. Later the Army finally asked that they change the markings from Army to Marines, but that they leave the original serial numbers on the vehicles so that they could account for them.
One day while I was waiting in the chow line, I saw a bunch of trucks coming in. Many had flat tires and were loaded with men sitting on the fenders. These were Marines that had broken through the Chinese and had fought their way down from the reservoir. They brought back their wounded and many of their dead. They were a sorry looking bunch of guys. I talked to several of the tankers and they said that the Chinese just kept coming and coming in waves. Eventually we got the word and loaded aboard an LST (Q009) for evacuation, I understand that many of the infantry loaded directly onto the LSTs, taking some of their wounded with them.
On board our LST with us were remnants of the British 41st Commandos. They had started off with about 250 men and had suffered about 50% casualties. I tried to barter with one of them for his beret, but he would not part with it. I found out later that it was a dishonor to lose one’s beret. He did give me a pin, which unfortunately I eventually lost. Some of them were also reserves, however they served a 12-year stint, of which five or seven were on active duty. Nice bunch of guys.
We sailed down to the port of Pusan. On entering the harbor, our LST got its propeller tangled up in a submarine net and divers had to come and cut us loose. In Pusan we loaded aboard about 1,000 men of the 5th Marines. These guys were just a day or so from having come down from the Reservoir. A LST usually sleeps about 250 men. We had close to 1,300 aboard. Guys were sleeping everywhere. The crew could not feed all of us, so we ate C rations. Several years later, a Lieutenant would not believe that an LST could carry that many troops. It did.
From Pusan we sailed down to the port of Masan where the 5th Marines disembarked first. They left a lot of gear behind, boxes of machine gun ammo, mortar rounds, etc. They also left a big pile of weapons (must have been at least five foot high), rifles, carbines etc, in the center of the tank deck. These were weapons recovered from their dead and wounded. We scrounged around and took whatever we wanted. I picked up an automatic carbine and later traded it to a ROK soldier for a Russian rifle. We were the last ones off the LST and had to clean up what the 5th had left behind. We ended up throwing everything overboard, including boxes of ammo and such.
We had left Hungnam on December 12th and it took about two days to reach Masan. We moved to a site away from the port and lived in pyramidal tents. It seems everyone was feeling sorry for the Marines, so they sent us rations of turkeys. I think that we had turkey and trimmings at least three times between Christmas and New Year's. The Division stayed around Masan for a while, recouping and drawing replacements. We pulled some liberty, but there wasn’t much to do or see. Masan did have an open-air market that was somewhat interesting. There was raw fish, etc. One night some South Korean kids from a Christian school came around singing Christmas songs.
On New Year's Eve, one of our guys, Corporal Shurte, fired a .45 pistol in the air to celebrate. He ended up getting put in the brig, which was a tent next to ours. We picked up the sides of the tents and rolled him oranges and whatever. All in all, we spent several weeks around Masan before moving out.
Just before moving out, I got stuck on mess duty. One day while on mess duty I was assigned to the garbage detail. In addition to the mess hall garbage, we went around the camp and picked up all kinds of discarded items--clothing, sleeping bags, and whatever. The trash was loaded in the back of a metal bed 6-by truck that had a metal tailgate that was hinged at the top. We took the truck outside the camp to a dumpsite on the top of a hill. When we reached the dumpsite, we were surrounded by a large group of civilian men, women, and kids. Before we even started to dump the garbage down the side of the hill, they swarmed all over the truck to get at the garbage. One young boy got his leg caught in the tailgate as it was raised and the crowd packed in so tight that I had to use a shovel to move them back so that I could get him free and dump the garbage. As the garbage cascaded down the hillside, the civilians followed it trying to grab whatever they could. It was quite a sobering experience for an 18-year old, and made me appreciate what I had back home.
We loaded aboard an LST, Q014, and off loaded in a place called Pohang. On board the LST, a couple of us slept on top of communication trucks. We were set up next to an airfield that was not yet being used. I spent quite a bit of time on mess duty and hated every minute of it. I didn’t like the cooks and they didn’t like me. The troops washed their mess gear by dunking them into several different metal garbage cans that had water that was heated by gas burners. It was part of my job to get up very early every morning in order to light the burners. Before trying to light them, I had to chop through a couple of inches of ice that had formed overnight. In order to light the burner, I had to first open a valve that let gas pour down to the bottom of the burner. Then I had to strike a match and drop it down the burner tube to light the gas. It was so cold and windy that by the time I took my glove off and tried to strike the match, my hands were frozen. Invariably the match would go out and in the meantime the gas collected at the bottom of the tube. When I finally got a match lit and dropped down the tube, there usually was a bit of an explosion from the gas. Fun and games.
I had to get up in the dark and worked until it got dark. We had no electricity and used candles for light. I didn’t get too much time to write letters. This did little to make me happy. One day we got a load of fresh shrimp from local fishermen. I had to help clean them. Fresh shrimp are the ugliest looking creatures with beady eyes, heads, legs, and eggs attached. I did this for a couple of hours and finally just got up and walked away. That did not make too many points. Normal mess duty is for 30 days. When I was ready to get off, the mess Sergeant (he and I shared a mutual dislike) told me that if I did not get a good recommendation from the cooks, he would put me on another 30 days. I told the cooks that they had better give me a good recommendation or they would be stuck with me for another 30 days. I got a good recommendation.
One day a pair of Air Force F80 Shooting Stars were trying out the airfield by making touch and go landings. The airfield was set up on a small plateau and at the far end it dropped off about 30 or 40 feet. There were several ridges beyond the end. One of the F80s must have lost power, as he was trying to get back up. He went off the end of the runway and piled into one of the ridges. The pilot never had a chance. I can imagine what his buddy in the other plane must have been thinking.
From time to time we went out on foot patrols looking for remnants of North Koreans that had been cut off behind our lines. This usually meant hiking with helmets, rifles, cartridge belts (with ammo), canteens, and sometimes field packs. The object was to look for infiltrators or anything unusual. We never did find any, however on at least one occasion, a later patrol covering the same area that we had patrolled came back with several prisoners. Mostly these patrols served as conditioning hikes. I sometimes thought that I covered more miles hiking then I did in tanks (not really, but it seemed like it).
Our patrols usually started on flat land, valleys in between the mountains (or hills), and ended up with climbing the hills. We climbed up looking at what we thought was the top of the ridge, but as we neared it, we found that there were more ridges. After the first 15 minutes or so, we were completely pooped, but had to keep going. All we could do was put one foot in front of the other and keep going. It was kind of comical though. When we did stop for a break and took off our packs, our arms automatically rose up when the weight was off. We didn’t dare lie down because it was too much of an effort to get up again. I never did get used to climbing mountains. I'm glad I wasn’t in the infantry.
I remember the first patrol that we went on. After laying around all that time in Masan, we had become pretty soft. The first patrol was a long grueling hike about 20 miles up and over the mountains. As luck would have it, I drew guard duty that night. Someone was stealing eggs from the mess tent, so they decided to post a guard and I was it. I was so tired that, after walking the post for a while, I went into the mess tent and sat down with my head between my legs. After a while, I saw a pair of boots at my feet. It was the Sergeant of the Guard. Sleeping on guard was a court martial offense, and this Sergeant had a reputation for being strict. I was so tired that I didn’t care. He said, “Martin, are you on guard duty?” I answered yes. He asked me if I had been on the patrol earlier and again I answered yes. After a pause he said, “I think that you should get back to your post.” I answered, “Yes Sir,” and he left. I stayed there in the tent until my watch was over.
After all these patrols, I could have walked from New York to California without getting tired. On one of the patrols we came upon a small village and in the village square the civilians were conducting a funeral. Our officer told us that we could observe, but not to interfere. There were about four mourners. I assume they were women because their heads were covered with sack cloth. The front of the sack cloth bags were wet from their tears. The casket was placed on top of a structure of logs spaced apart and joined by ropes. There were posts on either end of the casket and a string was strung between the posts. Hanging from the string was the man's smoking pipes. There were about a dozen or so pallbearers who were proceeding to get drunk, drinking something out of saucers. They were also singing (moaning) some kind of funeral chant. After some time, the pallbearers hoisted the platform onto their shoulders and proceeded out of the square into the road outside the village. They proceeded out of town towards the surrounding hills, swaying from side to side of the road and bumping into the houses that lined the road. Out in the countryside in Korea, it was customary to bury the dead up in the hills in order to leave the flatter ground available for farming. The dead were buried standing up facing the rising sun in the east. We had seen quite a few burial mounds in our travels. We figured that the reason that the pallbearers got drunk was so that they could make it up the hills with the platform, which must have been pretty heavy.
While in Pohang I got assigned as the loader on Y51, the Battalion Commander's M26 tank. We got the word that we would be moving out and would have a full gear inspection. This meant that we had to take all of the tools, radios, machine guns, etc., and display them on a tarp in front of the tank. We had to stand at attention before the inspecting officer. Needless to say we froze.
We loaded the tanks aboard railroad flat cars. The railroad was narrow gauge and the tracks of the tanks stuck out over the edges of the cars. We had just enough clearance between the tank tracks and the station platform when we went through train stations. The tanks were loaded on the flat cars and we slept in boxcars. It reminded me of reading about the 40&8s of World War I. I remember stopping one night in a train yard in a place called Taegu. Across from us were some brand new Army M4 tanks. We stripped them of their pioneer tools that were on the outside of the tank. Pioneer tools are picks, shovels and tanks bars (long crowbars). Midnight requisitions.
After several days we offloaded in some town whose name I don’t recall. The roads in the town were definitely not made for large tanks, and we tore down the corners of buildings when we turned a corner. Most of the buildings were made of mud and straw, so there was no damage to the tanks. I can’t say the same for the buildings.
We started on a long road march. The driver of the tank behind us was new, so he was told to follow us. We were riding along and came to a curve in the road when our right brake did not work. Before the driver could stop the tank, we went off the road into a rice paddy. Fortunately, the paddy was frozen and we didn’t sink in. The driver behind us, not knowing that we had a problem, obediently followed us off the road. We got the tank back on the road and the march ended shortly after. While everyone else was crapping out, we had to take everything out of the turret and try to find out why the brake locked up. We could not find the problem. Sometimes it worked and other times it didn’t. The next morning we joined the convoy and started climbing up a long mountain pass. It was the right brake that was not working all the time. On going up, the drop off was on the right. When the brake did not work, we took a piece of the mountain with us. The road was a dirt road and had one hairpin turn after the other. It was kind of interesting--we could look down and see all kinds of tanks on the road below us.
When we finally reached the top, the drop off was then on the left side. If the brake did not work, the tank could go over the edge of the road--a drop of several hundreds of feet. Everyone was out of the tank and standing on the engine doors except the poor driver. The driver slowly drove the tank into the first turn and applied the brake. Nothing happened. The driver put the tank into reverse and grabbed a handful of brake. We all jumped off the tank. The tank stopped with its left track hanging over the edge. The driver was white. He backed the tank up and drove it over to the side of the mountain and refused to go any further. We were ordered to move the tank, but we told them to go to hell. If they wanted it moved, they could move it themselves.
When on a road march, the convoy cannot hold up if a tank breaks down, so the convoy took off, leaving us to our devices on the mountain pass. We set up our stove, made ourselves some hot chow and coffee, and watched the world go by. Sometime later, a Jeep with an Army officer stopped to find out what was wrong. After we explained to him the problem, he told us that he was responsible for security of the pass and that there were about 1,500 guerillas roaming around in the mountains. He said that if we were still there when he got back, he would take us down to his camp for the night. He told us to strip off as much of the armament that we could. It would not be there in the morning.
Eventually a mechanic from Service Company came up and found that the linkage was jammed and he fixed it. To play safe, we let him drive the tank down the rest of the way to the valley floor. He scraped the side of the mountain all the way down. As soon as we hit level ground, he took off. There we were, all by ourselves. The convoy was long gone and we had no idea as to where we were going. Since there was only one road, we took off figuring that we would run into the rest of the tanks sooner or later. We were breezing along when suddenly the tank slowed down and went off the road. We had run out of gas. Without anyone noticing it, our tank commander got down from the turret and flagged down a passing Jeep. We did not realize at first that he was gone. We sat there for a while and made a sign that we hung on the tank: "For Sale Cheap." We started to stop the Jeeps and trucks that went by and asked if they had any extra gas (they usually carried extra in GI cans). One Jeep that stopped had an Army Captain in it. When we told him that we were out of gas, he asked for our tank commander. We told him that we did not know where he was. He then asked where we were going. Again, we told him that we did not know. He asked where we came from. Again, we answered him the same. At this point, he blew his stack and started swearing. We told him that we could not help it. He finally left us to our devices and I think that he left with a low opinion of Marines.
We finally scrounged up enough gas to get the tank moving again. We came into a fairly large town (I think it was Wonju), and went flying through an intersection. Standing in the intersection talking to an Army MP was our tank commander. We stopped the tank about a block up and he climbed aboard. We went about a hundred yards and again ran out of gas. Fortunately, a truck from our Battalion passed by and got us enough gas to get going. Our outfit was set up a short distance up the road. After a long road march, we usually ran the tanks at an idle for awhile to cool down. We ran out of gas again. We had a late supper that night.
We were set up on the outskirts of Wonju. They said that the Army had taken and lost it several times. There was little still standing--mostly just foundations. One day we went out on a mission with a large number of tanks. Since we were in the Battalion Commander’s tank, we went along more as observers than as participants. We came into a town called Hoengsong and came to an intersection where the road broke of into a "T". On the corner on the left was a building that had no walls. There were just posts and a roof. Lying on the floor were the bodies of about half a dozen Army soldiers. There was one in particular that I remember. He was lying parallel to the road, dressed in Army wool khaki. He had small Tech Sergeant stripes and no shoes. He seemed to be lying there so peacefully. I remember thinking that I wonder how his family would feel when they found out he was dead. Hoengsong was nothing but a sea of metal corrugated roofs.
We turned to the right and, following the other tanks, drove over half of a Jeep that was abandoned in the road. We finally turned left up over some small rises and joined the other tanks on a hill. We were buttoned up and since I was riding as loader, I could not see what was happening. There was quite a bit of machine gun fire and the tank next to us let go with a couple of rounds. We eventually moved out and circled around the town. I remember seeing a body out in a field that had been stripped of his clothing. I read later that an Army artillery outfit had been ambushed by the Chinese and lost over 500 men. The Chinese apparently chased any survivors in the hills and killed them. There was a stretch of road outside of Hoengsong that was littered with burned out trucks, Jeeps, tanks, and artillery three deep on both sides of the road. While we were there, our infantry came up and borrowed our picks and shovels so that they could dig foxholes in the frozen ground. I understand that some used hand grenades to get a hole started. Later that night, I talked to some of the guys in the other tanks. They said that they caught the Chinese in a draw and killed quite a few. One of the tanks had its antenna shot off. Good thing that they were buttoned up.
On to Chunchon
We moved up north of Hoengsong through the town of Chunchon. Chunchon was close enough to the coast that it was in the range of the battleship Missouri’s 16-inch guns. The town was pretty much devastated. I remember seeing a casket sitting in a destroyed building and further on, the bodies of a man, woman, and about a one-year-old baby lying alongside the road. At this time we were moving fast and following behind the infantry. We moved so often I lost track of the days and the months. We finally ended up about 15 miles behind the front lines. By this time I had been transferred into flame tanks. Since our range of the flame gun was only a little over 100 yards, and since this part of Korea was mostly mountains, we didn’t have much to do. That would soon change.
On the night of April 22, I was supposed to stand watch at 4:00 in the morning. I was sound asleep in my sack when someone woke me up, shaking me and saying, “Martin, Martin, get up. We are surrounded on all sides and have orders to stop anyone coming down the road in front of us. We are to take them prisoner and wake up our relief to guard them.” The Chinese had launched their summer offensive. They had hit the front lines with tens of thousands of troops and had broken through the ROK 6th Division on our flank. The ROKs broke and ran. There was only one road leading to the front, and they had to come though us. I ended up standing guard with a loaded rifle on two South Koreans. I was finally relieved, joined with the roadblock, and stopped stragglers. The first thing that we did was unload their weapons so that they didn’t shot somebody. Then we herded them into a large field. There was some talk of taking their weapons away and sending them back up to the front. We ended up with hundreds of them. We sat and watched trucks racing back and forth on the road in front of us, bringing up ammo and bringing back dead Marines.
We were set up next to a river and had to dig foxholes in the dry riverbed. It was all rocks so it took us hours to dig them. A day or so later, our tank was part of a tank infantry patrol that was to go up the road and see what we could see. We were told that a tank roadblock ahead of us had been engaged the night before. We went out several miles into no mans land and found nothing. Apparently the Chinese had pulled out of this section and had moved off to our left. Eventually our infantry pulled back and, where two days ago we were 14 miles behind the front lines, we were now on the front lines. There were about two ridgelines in front of us and the infantry had set up their mortars alongside us. They kept the entire ridgeline lit up all night long with flares.
We got the word to move back to the juncture of two rivers. We got there early in the morning and sat there most of the day, watching almost the whole division’s infantry regiments pass by. After the infantry passed, we moved out again and ended up driving at night without lights. I remember crossing over a log bridge, guided by a flashlight. As we left the rear guard, our tanks were blasting away at Chinese coming over the ridges.
There was a shortage of trucks to transport all the infantry, so the trucks shuttled back and forth. Eventually we took a bunch of the infantry on board the tanks and as we were passing by an Army 8-inch self-propelled howitzer, they let loose. Although we were some distance away, the muzzle blast was so strong that it almost blew the guys off the tank. A sheet of flame extended out at least six feet from the end of the barrel.
After this point, things happened so fast that they became somewhat of a blur. I remember instances, which I will relate, but I cannot place them in any chronological order as to time and place. We moved around every day, usually stopping at night on ground that the infantry had taken that day. We crossed the 38th Parallel about five or six times. We were mostly in the field and saw very few towns or civilians. I was promoted to Corporal sometime around April, and then to Sergeant on September 1, 1951. Most of the Inchon men were being sent home and they were running out of NCOs, so I was promoted.
After serving as loader and driver of F22, I was promoted to tank commander of F22. F22 was the newest tank in the platoon. The original was knocked out in Seoul by a satchel charge. A North Korean ran out from a building and, while the infantry watched, threw a satchel charge on the tank and disabled it. No one was hurt, but the tank had to be replaced. F22 was a good tank, but it had one fault. It kept throwing fan belts. Every time we stopped, we had to open the heavy engine doors and check the fan belts. We never did find out what the problem was.
My crew consisted of Jim Greenwood, assistant driver; Don Hurst, driver; Jack Carty, loader; and me. Normally a tank has a crew of five, which included a gunner. The flame tanks had the ammo removed from below the turret deck and it was replaced with two 150-gallon tanks for napalm. The tank commander doubled as gunner. For the life of me I cannot remember just how long we spent together, but we had some real good times. We spent a lot of time training and teaching the new guys how to drive the tanks and how to fire the weapons.
A good part of my job as tank commander (TC) was to train the replacements. As I said, this included teaching them to drive the tank, fire its weapons, and perform maintenance. We taught the finer arts of driving by driving up and down embankments and revetments that the artillery had used to protect them from incoming fire. I remember starting with one group by asking who had driven a stick shift car. Most cars at that time were stick shift so I thought that at least I would not have to teach them the art of using the clutch and gas pedal. Surprisingly I found that several had never driven a car before. I had to sit down and explain from scratch how to shift.
Although shifting gears on a tank was similar to that of shifting gears in a car, there were some major differences. In a car, one usually started off shifting into one gear, got moving, then put in the clutch and shifted to a higher gear. In a tank, we usually started out in second, got the tank moving, and then shifted into neutral. We then double clutched (pushed the clutch in twice) and tried to shift up into third. It usually was hard to get into third. We had to pull back as hard as we could and grind it into gear. Because the tank was so heavy and we could not get up much speed in second, many times the tank almost came to a complete stop before getting into third. Once we were in third, we could get the tank moving relatively fast and it was no problem to get it into fourth. Very seldom did the terrain allow us to get up into fifth gear. We needed relatively flat, rolling country to allow us to get into fifth gear. There was nothing like rolling down a road in fifth gear. We could tell by the sound of the tracks and by watching the dirt flying off in front from the tracks. It was driver’s heaven, and I loved it.
Because the tank was so heavy, once we got it going, it took a long time to stop it. We learned to slow down and use the engine to brake. We normally double clutched down into a lower gear before using our brakes. Also, we learned to take our foot off the gas at the right time. An example of this was when driving over large bumps or small hills. If we keep our foot on the gas, the tank tended to jump over the obstacle and come down with quite a jolt, bouncing everything around and shaking up the crew. The tank had a balance point where its weight was balanced fore and aft. The trick was to take one's foot off the gas when this point was reached and to let the tank settle down gently. Naturally, the slower that one was going, the easier it was.
After we had been in Korea for about six months, we got a replacement Master Sergeant by the name of Turnage. Turnage and I, along with most of the platoon, did not get along too well together. He liked to go by the book and we resented the fact that we had more experience than he did or that we had been in Korea longer. One thing I did like though was every time he ran across a situation where he wanted to see if a tank could do it, such as climbing steep hills, going over ditches, etc, he called on me. Since I had the newest tank in the platoon, he called me and asked, “Do you think that your tank can make it?” I answered that there was only one way to find out, "Lets try it.” I traded places with my driver and we then saw what we could do. On one occasion I inched the tank up a steep artillery embankment until I reached the tank's balance point and had it rocking back and forth at the top. Fun and games.
One day we took the tanks out to teach the new guys how to fire the 105-MM tank gun. The 105 had a horizontal sliding breach which slide open to allow the shell to be inserted into the barrel. It was opened by a handle on top of the breach. After a round was inserted and the breach block closed, the gun was automatically cocked and ready for firing. At that point the loader said, “Up," letting the gunner know that the gun was ready to fire. The gunner said, “On the way” and squeezed the trigger. If everything went right, the gun fired, the loader opened the breach block, and the casing was ejected.
The 105s that we had were called semi-fixed rounds, meaning that the projectile was not crimped to the casing that contained powder bags that propelled the projectile. Some of the bags could be removed to control the range. The later tanks that had rifles rather than howitzer used fixed ammo. Since we did not do much firing over the months, and since our rounds were carried in the turret, they were subject to getting water inside the casings. We had problems with some rounds not going off, causing a misfire. With a misfire, there was always the danger that the fuse was burning slowly and would go off at any time. When this happened, the normal procedure was for the loader to reach up on top of the breach block and activate a cocking lever. If it still didn’t fire, we waited five minutes, opened the breach, removed the round, and prayed that it did not go off. Normally a Lieutenant was responsible to unload the gun. Nice job.
One day I was teaching some new guys how to fire the gun. I was standing outside behind the loader's hatch when one of the rounds did not fire. After waiting a while, I told the loader to re-cock the gun. Instead of reaching up and re-cocking the gun using the re-cocking lever, the loader instead opened up the breach block and then closed it. If the round had gone off, it would have killed all of us. I reached down into the turret, grabbed the guy by his shoulders, pulled him up, and said, "You stupid SOB. You could have killed all of us.” We re-cocked the gun and it still did not fire. We got out of the tank and had the Lieutenant clear it.
It was interesting to watch the guns as they were fired. If we were quick enough, we could actually catch sight of the round as it left the barrel and follow it to its target. On the same day that I was climbing down off my turret, the tank next to me let loose and I caught the full muzzle blast in my left ear. I could not hear out of that ear for over a week. Later I went swimming in a river and came down with a fungus infection in that ear. Our corpsman treated it by putting hydrogen peroxide in my ear. This went on for several days until apparently all the fungus was gone. When he put in the hydrogen peroxide, I went through the roof. Pain was so severe that I had tears in my eyes. He immediately rinsed my ear out with water, and when he checked it he said that I had a punctured eardrum. I had heard that one was not accepted into the military with a punctured eardrum, so I asked him if that meant that I could go home. He looked at me with a disgusted look and said, “Look buddy. There are guys running around here that are in worse shape than you. You’re not going anywhere.” It was worth a try. I found out later that I might have had a ruptured eardrum when I was a kid.
As I had mentioned earlier, there are many experiences that I cannot place in chronological order as to time and/or place since we moved around so much, so I’ll just relate them as I remember them.
At one time during the winter of 1951, we did not have anti-freeze for the tanks so we had to get up every two hours or so and run the engines to keep them from freezing. Fortunately, we alternated and did this in shifts so that the same guy did not have to get up each time. Try to imagine getting inside of a freezing tank. It was like getting inside of a refrigerator. After driving for a while the tracks warmed up. When stopping for the night, we cut down trees and drove the tanks up on them in order to keep the tracks from freezing to the ground.
The Koreans fertilized their rice paddies with human waste and it was common practice to store this waste in a 55-gallon drum, known as a honey pot. It was sunk into the ground in front of their house. We were set up somewhere near Hoengsong near a couple of houses that had been leveled. The ground was covered with a light coating of snow. While standing in a chow line, I stepped to one side and the next thing I knew I was looking up at the guys next to me. I had stepped into a honey pot that was covered by the snow. Needless to say, I didn’t come up smelling like a rose.
Although it is hard to explain to someone who has not been there, I should mention at this point that after I had been separated from civilian life and had lived with the same bunch of guys for months under combat conditions, I tended to think different than a civilian. My sense of values changed. What may have been important in civilian life was no longer important in Korea. I tended to become inured to dead bodies and to destruction, and tended to accept them as the norm. It took me several years to re-adjust to civilian life.
In addition to the bodies that I saw in Hoengsong and Chunchon, I saw some on several other occasions. One day as I was riding in a Jeep, we stopped on the road. Down in the ditch alongside the road were two bodies. Another time we drove through a dry riverbed and there were several bodies off to one side. We passed through there several days later and they were still there. I assume that they were civilians.
We were set up once in an area that had been having incoming artillery every other night. We set up on the off night. Fortunately we did not get any incoming. We were set up next to a stream and around a bend in the road where one of our ammo trucks must have hit a mine. There was loose ammo scattered around in the field across from us. Further down from us, the road crossed over a small bridge. For some reason, I got the feeling that there was a dead body under the bridge. Some buddies and I walked down to the bridge and sure enough, there was a body under it. We pulled the body out of the stream and up onto the bank. It was a male civilian who had been shot in the neck. Further down from the bridge there were Marines bathing in the stream.
At one time, for some reason I can’t recall, I visited Division Headquarters and saw the bodies of several Marines covered with ponchos.
Moving around as much as we did, we went on many road marches. Once when we were moving from Pohang to Wonju, the tanks traveled most of the way by train but the rest of the way by road. Traveling in a convoy was somewhat exiting. We usually had no idea where we were going, so we just followed the tank in front of us. It was not uncommon to get split up from the main group. If we broke down for any reason, the convoy kept going. Hopefully someone at the end of the convoy would get us up and running again. Since many of the small bridges in Korea would not support the weight of the tanks, we often had to ford rivers and streams. More than once we got water coming into the tanks. I swear that at times we drove through three or four feet of water. To keep from stalling out, the trick was to keep the engine running fast and don’t let it idle. At least one tank got stuck mid-stream and had to be towed out.
On one road march, apparently sometime after the Chinese offensive of April 22, we had to stop because of a road washout ahead of us. We eventually pulled off the side of the road and waited several days before we moved out again. A friend of mine from the Marine Corps League gave me a book on armor in Korea, and on page 60 I found a picture of F22 leading a string of tanks stopped on a road. This had to be a picture taken at that time and I think that I was driving F22 at that time. If so, my head can be seen sticking up out of the driver’s hatch (on the right side of the tank). I might have been the guy standing on the road. Who knows, I might be famous.
On road marches we had to be on the lookout for low-hanging wires that had been strung by the communication guys. Sometimes they were in a hurry to string them and did not get them up high enough for us to clear them. This presented a serious problem. There was a chance that they could get hung up in the .50 caliber machine gun that was mounted on the top of the turret, swing it around, and hit us in the face. There was also the possibility of being strangled by them.
One time while I was TC, we were moving along slowly, with everyone (including the driver) watching for low hanging wires. I happened to look down and saw that the tank in front of us had stopped. I hollered to the driver to stop, but he could not react in time and we hit the tank in front of us. No one was hurt, but we knocked off the dust deflector in back of the tank. The deflector was designed to deflect the exhaust up instead of down towards the road. There was no time to re-attach it, so we moved it to the side of the road, knowing that someone would pick it up later. I took over driving our tank and had to eat dust for several hours.
I loved to drive the tank. More than once I changed places with the driver and drove it myself. There was nothing like the thrill of racing down a road in fifth gear. We had no trouble with traffic. Trucks and Jeeps used to climb up the side of the hills to get out of our way. I couldn't blame them.
When the Division was back in reserve, it spent a lot of time on maneuvers. This was to keep everyone sharp and to train the replacements. One day we took part in the maneuvers with the infantry. This involved me driving our tank up the side of a mountain. I had had very little experience with driving at that time. When we reached our stopping point, we sat there while the infantry practiced their marksmanship by shooting the branches off trees with their machine guns. At the conclusion of the exercise, I turned the tank around, loaded up a bunch of infantry on the outside of the tank, and started back down the hill.
The M4 tank transmission had five speeds forward and one reverse. It had a clutch and gas pedals and was steered and braked by the use of two levers coming up from the floor. Shift configuration was in the shape of a double H (HH), with first and reverse on the left, second and third in the middle, and fourth and fifth on the right. Top speed in first gear was about two miles an hour. I started down in first gear and when I thought that I was going too slow, I decided to shift into second gear. In order to shift from first to second, I had to depress a button on the gearshift lever which lifted a pall off a ledge (to keep the driver from shifting into first or reverse by mistake). I then had to shift to neutral, move the shift lever over to the middle, and shift up into second. By the time that I had gotten out of first and into neutral, the tank had picked up speed and I was going too fast to get it into second.
Since this was one of my first driving experiences, I did not know what to do. What I should have done was shift into third, use the tank engine to slow down, and then double clutch down into second. Instead, I braced my feet on the bulkhead in front of me, wrapped my arms around the two brake levers, and pulled back for all I was worth. The tank had picked up too much speed to stop it, and it gradually picked up even more speed. The infantry on the outside of the tank was having a ball. They thought that I was a hot rod driver. The assistant driver was climbing up out of his hatch getting ready to jump when we hit relatively level ground. We finally stopped a few feet from a tank that had stopped in front of us. For a while I though I would have a choice of either going around that tank or hitting it. Needless to say, I went down the hill the rest of the way in first gear.
After dropping off the infantry, we took a different route down the rest of the hill. This involved going down a series of terraced rice paddies. There was about a six-foot drop from terrace to terrace. I slowly drove up to and over the edge of the paddy until I felt the front of the tank starting to drop. I grabbed the brakes and let the tank settle down nose first. When the nose hit the ground, I gave it the gas and drove away to the next step. It was a lot of fun, but in retrospect it was a shame that we tore up the terraces that the Koreans probably spent years to build.
Psychological Warfare and General MacArthur
One time the tank that I was in was pulled back to the Division CP. An Army psychological warfare team wanted to mount a loudspeaker on a flame tank. The theory was to take the tank up to the front lines with a Chinese POW inside, fire the flame, and then the POW would try to talk his comrades into surrendering. We were back at Division for about a week. We lived like kings with nothing to do, and we had an Army Lieutenant chasing down our mail.
On the day that we were to rejoin our outfit after having the loudspeaker mounted, General MacArthur made his last visit to Korea before Truman relieved him. His entourage, consisting of four or five Jeeps loaded with brass and MP’s, stopped off at Division CP before going up towards the front. I think that General Ridgeway was with them at that time. I was about 40 feet from them as they drove by. After visiting the CP, the group headed up the one road to the front. Since the roads were narrow, dirt roads, we had to wait until they returned before we could move out. It was late in the afternoon when we finally left. On our way, we saw a couple of bodies off the side of the road. It looked like their legs were stripped to the bone. We figured it was dogs.
We joined our company, which was occupying ground that the infantry had taken that morning. I had purchased a small portable radio that we carried with us. As we listened to the radio broadcasting from Japan that evening, we heard that General MacArthur had visited the front and that the stench of dead bodies was sickening. We walked out of our tents and started sniffing, but could not smell anything. Unfortunately, the next day I was transferred out of this tank and did not get to go up with it when they tried out the loudspeaker theory. They did return with two prisoners. One looked like he was a 15-year-old kid. The other was a wounded enemy soldier that they found lying out in a rice paddy. The speaker approach never did work, but we sure enjoyed our stay in the Division CP.
I went out on several fire missions, and can recall three of them. I have already mentioned the one at Hoengsong when I first got into flame tanks and had no idea where I was at. The third was in June 1951 somewhere around the Punchbowl in Central Korea. I don’t remember too much about the first one. I was riding as the loader and it was freezing cold. We drove down the road with our hatches open. Most of the air to cool the engine came through the open hatches. Combining this with the breeze generated from the forward movement of the tank, I froze. I was wearing wool-lined overalls and a woolen tanker jacket. The overalls had zippers on the pockets and my hands were so frozen that I did not have enough feeling in them to grasp the zippers to open them. I finally got them open and jammed my hands inside to warm them up. I never did see what was happening. I was too cold to care. The tank commander was blasting away with the .50-caliber machine gun at something. Later we pulled off the side of the road and I heard birds singing. A short distance away, people were getting killed, and here was a bird singing as if nothing was happening. That really gave me a strange feeling.
Another mission took place sometime on 6 June 1950, somewhere around the Hwachon Reservoir. We got up one morning at about 2:00 a.m. and, as part of a section of three flame tanks, joined up with a company of M26’s. We drove down a road until we came abreast of a valley on our left. It was located between several mountain ranges. Most of the M26’s turned off the road and went up the valley. One M26 leading the way and the three flame tanks proceeded up the road, turned left, went off into a field, and turned to face the road which had turned left in front of us. We sat there with our hatches open doing nothing all morning except watching the show. It was almost like watching a demonstration of firepower.
We had some artillery rounds impacting behind a hill in front of us. I don’t know if it was incoming or outgoing. Later, rockets were fired from behind us. I think that there might have been some artillery also. As I said, we sat there all morning, listened to the radio, and heard the infantry requesting more fire from the tanks in the valley. The tanks replied that they were under enemy mortar fire and that their loaders were passing out from the fumes. These tanks were actually behind us, but off quite a distance from us. It was just about lunchtime and one of the guys from the tank in front of us was out of his tank trying to exchange C rations with us. Just then several incoming mortar rounds landed near us. The guy made a mad dash for his tank, jumped up on the turret and into his hatch, which he immediately closed. We were buttoned up so the mortars did not bother us. After lobbing in a few--one landing about a 100 yards from us--they gave up.
We finally got the word to move up to the road in front of us. The lead tank, the M26, went about 20 feet when it hit a land mine. The blast broke his right track and tore off one of the road wheels. It was quite a blast to do that much damage. I had just put my head down into the turret when the mine went off. I stuck my head up and there was dirt flying all over. Fortunately, no one was hurt, although the M26 tank crew was a little shook up. A buddy of mine, Don Chaney, was assistant driver. The blast went off underneath him. The M26 was driving in the tracks of previous tanks when it hit the mine. This was common practice since the theory was that if other tanks had gone over this path, it was considered safe to drive in them. The North Koreans and the Chinese became pretty sophisticated in laying mines. They put them deep enough that it took several vehicles passing over them before they went off. They used Russian box mines, made almost entirely of wood, making them hard to detect.
The flame tank next in line then had to create a new path around the disabled M26 (I was in the third tank in line). This was kind of scary since the M4 flame tank had a thinner hull then the M26. Had the flame tank hit the mine, it probably would have resulted in the hull coming up and someone would have been hurt. This did happen to a dozer tank that went off the side of a road to miss a Jeep and hit a mine. Several guys were seriously hurt. Fortunately, we had no further problems with mines.
The three flame tanks moved up onto the road, around a bend to the right, and then sat parallel to a ridge that was the objective of the infantry. We got the word to fire at will. My tank commander (can’t remember his name) was somewhat chicken and did not want to stick his head up out of his hatch. I had no qualms. Although I was riding as loader, he let me do all the firing. I fired the .30-caliber coax machine gun and also several rounds from the 105. Since the tank was parallel to the ridge and the turret was facing it, in order to fire the .50-caliber machine gun that was mounted behind the commander's hatch, I had to hang my butt over the edge of the tank. I walked my fire across the top of the ridgeline with both the .30 and .50 caliber machine guns. Frankly, I was having a ball.
We finally got the word to cease firing, watched as the infantry moved out across the valley in front of us, and started up the ridgeline. Later a flight of Corsairs came over and strafed the ridge. They dropped bombs and napalm. We were close enough that I could see the smoke from their .50-caliber machine guns. We were lying out on the engine doors getting a suntan when a corpsman came up. He asked how things were going and I told him that from what I could tell, it looked good. He said he was coming back from the aid station and that he had caught a piece of shrapnel in his rear end. He asked if I was the guy who was firing the .50-caliber machine gun. When I told him yes, he said that that was too dangerous for him. Here I was having a ball and he had gotten hit and he thought what I was doing was too dangerous. We heard later that the infantry had taken the ridge with only a few casualties. They said that the supporting arms contributed a lot and that there were a lot of dead gooks lying around.
The closest I came to getting seriously hurt was when I was involved in a truck accident while riding shotgun on a beer run to pick up our company’s beer ration. Most of the Marine truck drivers that I came in contact with drove like a bunch of idiots. Maybe they had to drive crazy in order to drive on the Korean roads. The area of Korea that we were in was very mountainous and the roads were all dirt. The truck drivers drove as fast as they could around all the numerous hairpin curves in the mountain roads. Since the roads were all dirt, the trucks kicked up a cloud of dust and we had a hard time seeing anything in front of us.
Two buddies and I were riding in the back of the 6-by, serving both as shotgun guards (there were some guerillas in the mountains) and as a working party to load the beer. As I mentioned earlier, we sat on slats that were pulled down from the sides of the bed of the truck. I was sitting forward on the right side of the bed just behind the cab. Our crazy driver came barreling down the mountain raising a big cloud of dust. When we hit level ground, the dust cleared and we came up on an Army truck parked in the road. The road was only wide enough for two trucks. We came up on it so fast that our driver did not have enough room to maneuver around it. All he could do was yank the wheel to the left so that we did not hit it head on. We hit the Army truck. I happened to look up just at the moment that we hit. I saw the back of the Army truck and the next thing I knew, I was flying through the air and rolling around the bed of our truck. We had caught the right corner of the bed of our truck, where I was sitting, on the left corner of his tailgate. The force of the crash tore off the side of the bed that I was sitting on. I remember rolling toward the edge of the bed toward the side that was no longer there. Fortunately, I rolled back. Had I gone off the edge, I probably would have ended up under the wheels.
As it was, I had the breath knocked out of me and had my knee banged up. The two guys in the back of the truck were not hurt and came over to me. As I was lying on my back, they shook me saying, “Martin, Martin. Speak to us.” Since I had the breath knocked out of me, I could not answer them for a while. They were quite relieved when I finally got my breath back. The truck driver came around to the back to see what happened to us. He thought that he had killed us all. My knee did not bother me much so we went on, picked up the beer, and returned to the CP. The truck driver ended up getting a court martial for damaging government property--the truck. I never did turn into sickbay and my knee only seemed to bother me a little when I tried to do sit-ups. Later after I returned home, I had problems with my knee locking up and eventually had a torn cartilage removed from it. I like to refer to this as my "war wound"--my sacrifice for my country.
I remember the first beer ration that we got. We had been in Korea about six months when they started issuing a beer ration. Although I came from a beer drinking German family, I never really cared for it. I suddenly developed a taste for it. The first ration was 32 cans per man. There were some guys who did not drink beer, so we either bought it from them or traded for it. As I recall, we were drunk for several days. We had a large pyramid of empty beer cans stacked up in our tent.
Towards the end of my time in Korea, I became friendly with a Sergeant in Service Company. He was a mechanic who worked on the engines of our tanks. When he finished working on a tank, he and I took it out to road test it. We grabbed a six-pack of beer and took the tank out for a test drive. We had a lot of fun riding around the countryside, knocking down trees, riding through houses, and climbing up and down riverbanks.
At the time that I was transferred from HQ Company to the Flame Platoon, apparently the transfer orders got delayed. Several others and I were temporarily in limbo. We were no longer carried on the HQ rooster and not yet carried on the Flame Platoon rooster. For a period of a week or so, we had it made. No guard duty, no work details, etcetera. Since it was still winter and a bit cold, we scrounged up a tent and spent our time staying out of everyone’s way. One night while we were playing cards, Corporal Welter, who was on roving guard, came into the tent to warm up. He wasn’t in the tent for five minutes when we heard a voice say, “Corporal Welter, are you in there?” It was the Officer of the Day. Welter was subsequently demoted to Private Fist Class. Eventually we were picked up on the Flame Platoon rooster and our days of freedom ended.
The last several months before I finally went home were very boring. Apparently the peace talks were on and little was happening. We had been used to moving constantly, and now we were mostly staying in one place for long periods. About all I could think about was going home. Every day I read the posted casualty reports, hoping that there weren’t too many. Incoming replacement drafts replaced the casualties first and then whoever was eligible for rotation. Finally I got the word that I was to be rotated in late November. It turned out that I was in the last draft (the 10th) of guys going home who had been in North Korea.
I don’t think that I got any sleep the night before leaving. I got up at 4:00 in the morning, said goodbye to all the guys, and loaded into the back of a 6-by. We drove for several hours before reaching the beach where we were to load aboard our ship. The LST that was to take us off the beach and to the transport ship broke down and we had to wait most of the day for a ride to our ship. At one point we had to unload our packs and give up all of our warm clothing, sweaters, woolen shirts, and even the pair of woolen pants that we were wearing under our windproof pants. We were left with a woolen blanket to keep us warm. We had to go through a decontamination process. As we walked along, we were sprayed with DDT powder under our arms and up our legs.
The ship that was to take us to Japan, the USS Noble, was waiting offshore. Since the LST was not operational, Higgins boats took the troops out to the Noble. A Higgins boat was a landing craft designed to transport troops from ship to shore during an amphibious landing. When fully loaded, they held about 40 men and rode very low in the water. It was getting dark when we finally got our turn to load into the Higgins boat. It was about a half-hour trip from the shore to the boat and we had spray coming over the bow. We finally pulled alongside the Noble and the only way to get aboard was by climbing up a cargo net. That in itself was not too difficult, but we had to time ourselves with the rise and fall of the two crafts. Since the Higgins boat was considerably smaller, it rose and fell a good distance. We had to grab hold of the net at the peak of the rise and start climbing. I got on the net and started climbing up toward the top. As I neared the top of the net, two strong sailors reached over the side of the ship, grabbed me under both shoulders, hoisted me up over the side, and pointed to a hatchway, saying, “The chow is over there.” I never loved the Navy more.
The trip to Japan was uneventful, but one thing that was strange was that at no time did anyone take a roll call. They probably figured that if we had missed the ship, that was our problem. It took three days to get to Japan. At the dock, we recovered our sea bags, which we had left behind when we went to Korea. We were then transported by train to Camp Otsu. This was the same camp where we had been before going to Korea. Naturally, many of the clothes that we left behind in Japan no longer fit. We were told that if anything did not fit to just throw it in a corner in the hallway and it would be picked up later. We could draw a new issue back in the States.
We were in Japan about two weeks before leaving for home. During this time we spent most of our time going on liberty. There was a curfew in Japan for all military. We had to be off the streets between midnight and 6 a.m. Anyone caught on the streets during this time spent 30 days in the brig. On liberty we flagged down a cab and rode into Kyoto. The cabs looked like 1936 Ford 4-door sedans and ran on charcoal fumes. They had a charcoal burner in the trunk and had the fumes piped into the engine. When we went down a hill or came to a stop, the driver shut off the engine to save fuel.
We spent most of our liberties in two different places--the Mimatsu Cabaret and the 333 Club. These both were large dance halls that catered to the military. The Mimatsu Cabaret had a very large dance hall and two bands that alternated in playing. When we entered, a Mama-san met us and offered us one of her girls for companionship. We spent most of the nights drinking and making up for lost time.
One day while starting out on liberty, I went into a Japanese store and bought a tea set for my mother. The price was about $10.00 total. I put down a deposit of 100 yen, which was about $3. I asked that it be put in a crate, and said that I would pick it up and pay the balance later. On my way back to the camp and after having a bit to drink, I picked up the set and forgot to pay the balance. I stuffed that crate into my sea bag and despite rough handling, got it back home unbroken.
Eventually we ran short of money with which to go on liberty. Since it was December and quite cold, we wore overcoats over our uniforms. In order to get some money, we went over to the pile of clothing that had been thrown in the corner of the hallway. Each of us took some article of clothing and stuffed it under our overcoats. We then sold the clothing to the cab driver. In Kyoto, there was an Army NCO club where we could buy bottles of whiskey cheap. One night we bought four bottles of whiskey at the NCO club, and then bought glasses of soda at the cabaret. We drank a little soda, added a little whiskey, and drink some more. Eventually we got down to drinking pure whiskey. This may sound like we were a bunch of alcoholics, but remember that I was only 19 years old and had just spent almost 13 months in Korea. We deserved to have some wild times--at least we thought so. I remember raising a toast to the boys that were still in Korea. With each drink we said, “To the boys in Korea. May they freeze.”
At camp we were pretty much left to our own devices. Eventually we went through loading procedures, lining up alphabetically, etc. On our last night of liberty, since we knew that we were going home soon, we stayed out all night past the midnight curfew. The next morning we took a cab back to the camp and went strolling up to the guard on duty. Regulations were that he had to pull our liberty passes, which meant that we could not go on liberty again. The guard knew that we were going home and broke out in a big smile as he asked for our passes.
We loaded aboard the transport ship the USNS General John Pope in Kobe, Japan. I don’t recall how we got to Kobe, but it was probably by train. The trip across the Pacific was uneventful. Mostly we were left alone. I spent a lot of time spit polishing my shoes. Naturally the trip back was more enjoyable than the one going over. No one was allowed up on deck after dark. That was probably a safety feature so that no one fell overboard unseen. However, the night that we entered San Francisco Bay, everyone was up on deck. We crossed under the Golden Gate bridge at almost exactly 12:00 midnight on December 20. We were not scheduled to dock until 8:00 the next morning, but no one slept that night.
We finally docked at about 8:00 in the morning. Usually the Marine Corps was very exact about loading or unloading ship. When loading, our name was checked off of a list and we normally unloaded in an orderly manner. My bunk was located next to the galley, which had large double doors in the side of the ship where supplies were taken aboard. These doors were opened, a ramp was put in place leading down to the dock, and someone hollered, “Grab your gear and let's go.” There was no assembly, roll call, or anything. I grabbed my gear and headed out through the doors and down the ramp. There were about 2,500 guys aboard the ship and I was among the first to get off.
Alongside the dock was a warehouse that was loaded with civilians who formed an aisle that led off to the right and out of the building. When I got to the bottom of the ramp, a lady handed me a pack of cigarettes and said, "Welcome home." Try to picture my emotions. After 15 months of being told what to do, etcetera, all of a sudden I was walking through a bunch of civilians, not knowing where to go and with no one seemingly in charge. When I got to the outside of the building, I saw a bunch of buses parked on a road on my left and a Gunny Sergeant waving his hand saying, “Over here.” When I went over to him, he told me to hurry up and get aboard. When the bus was full with about 30 guys, it took off. The Gunny told us that we were going to Treasure Island and that special arrangements had been made to process us fast so that we could get home for Christmas. He told us that we were the third or fourth busload and that we should stick with his group or we would be sent to the back of the line of the 2,500 guys leaving the ship. He told us that it normally took two weeks to process, but they were geared to process us in one day. He said that we were entitled to draw a full issue of clothing, but if we did, it would delay our processing. He suggested that we draw just what we needed for our 30-day leave. He also asked us to each draw an overcoat, since they had too many in stock.
There were four stages that we were supposed to go through. I don’t remember what they were, but we were supposed to get a full physical. Instead, we got what was known as a "short arm inspection". Things happened fast and by 12:00 noon we had completed the processing, picked up our travel orders and pay, and went to recover our sea bags. Our sea bags had been off-loaded onto 40-foot long open trailers. These trucks were driven to a large parking area and the sea bags were thrown over the sides of the trailers onto the ground. With 2,500 sea bags to chose from, we had fun finding ours. I had packed the china set that I bought in Japan in my sea bag, and dreaded to see what it looked like after the rough handling of the bags. I eventually found one corner of the crate crushed, but nothing broken.
After having drawn our orders, money, and sea bags, we were free to go. Sleeping arrangements were made available in barracks, but a bunch of guys and I decided that we wanted to get away from the base as soon as possible. The problem was, how were we to get into San Francisco? We were able to hitch a ride in the back of one of the 40-foot open trailers. Picture five or six guys in uniform, riding in the back of the trailer holding onto the sides while the truck driver took us from the base into the heart of San Francisco. The driver stopped at an intersection and called out, “We're here. Everyone off.” We jumped off the trailer onto the street and walked over to the sidewalk.
I don’t know if culture shock is the right word to use, but again try to picture our reactions. We had been overseas for 15 months, had been in Korea for 13 of those months, and had gone many months without seeing any American civilians at all--and American women in particular. All of a sudden, we were plopped down into the middle of the streets of San Francisco with civilians all around us who were paying no attention to us and going about their normal everyday affairs. Normally it took two weeks of processing before one was released. That gave us enough time to adjust to the fact that we were back in the States. We went from docking at 8:00 in the morning to downtown San Francisco by 2:00 in the same afternoon.
Special efforts had been made to get us home for Christmas. Extra planes and trains had been scheduled. I could have gone home by plane, but for some reason decided to go by train. We bought our train tickets and then found a hotel room for the night and went out for a walk. When we got back, we sacked out in real beds--the first bed that I had slept in in 16 months. The next day we boarded the train for home. The train was made up of about 95% servicemen who were going home. We did not have bunks and I tried to sleep in the upright seats. I was so keyed up that I don't think I got any sleep in the four days it took to get to Chicago. We had several Army MP’s aboard and they had a little trouble with some drunken Marines. They handled the situation very well.
I had made the mistake of telling the folks at home the wrong train station that I would be coming in on in Chicago. After waiting for a long time, I called home and they told me to catch a cab and take it to Madison Street and Austin Boulevard where someone would meet me. I grabbed a cab and went there, where I was met by my two brother-in-laws, Marvin and Babe. Both had served in combat in World War II. The first thing that they did was to take me into a tavern and buy me a shot of whiskey to welcome me home.
We drove to my parents' house at 419 Marengo Avenue in Forest Park and I walked up the front stairs at 11:30 on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1951. Everyone was waiting at the top of the stairs. After kissing everyone, at least my sisters, we went into the kitchen. We drank beer, smoked cigarettes, and talked all night. I never did get to bed. I was told afterwards that I consistently swore and flicked my cigarette ashes onto the floor. We did not have ashtrays in Korea.
On Christmas Day, I went with my brother Al and sister-in-law Doryse into Oak Park to buy some flowers. The last thing that I remember was waiting in the car. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in a strange bed. Apparently I had come home, went into the bathroom, and fallen asleep. They had to take down the door to get me out and had put me in bed. I slept for almost 24 hours.
After my 30-day leave, I reported to Quantico, Virginia, and was released from active duty on February 10, 1951. It took almost two weeks to get released and I spent most of my time dodging working parties. I did go on liberty once in Washington, DC. We got a ride by a woman whose son was a Marine. She said that he was a good boy, but unfortunately was presently in the brig. We got a free ride so we didn’t argue with her or ask her for details.
After I had been out for several months, I heard a rumor that unless one had had 24 months on active duty, one could be drafted. I found out later that this applied only to those going in after I had gotten home. After having been in the Marines, I certainly did not want to risk being drafted into the Army, so I re-enlisted in the reserves. My re-enlistment was backdated to the time I was released so that I would not lose any service time. I made Staff Sergeant in September 1956 and stayed in the reserves until August of 1957 just before I got married.
The Reserve Battalion that I joined was a Special Weapons Battalion made up of a 75MM Recoilless Rifle Company and a 4.2MM Mortar Company. I ended up as acting 1st Sergeant of the 75MM Recoilless Company. I attended three summer camps, each time flying out to Camp Pendleton in California. At camp one year we fired most of the weapons that were used in an infantry platoon. In addition to firing the M1 on the rifle range, we also fired the .30 caliber machine gun, the 75 Recoilless, the 4.2 mortars, and the infantry flame thrower.
Since I was a Sergeant, I was one of the first in line to fire the flamethrower. The target was three 55-gallon drums. Someone forgot to tell me to aim at the bottom of the drums and I aimed at the center. Unfortunately, the napalm splattered all over and caught the surrounding grass on fire. As the fire spread, a group of regulars who were firing machine guns below us secured firing and came racing up with entrenching tools to try to put the fire out. They were not successful and the fire department had to be called out. It took them five hours to put out the fire. No wonder the regulars had little use for reserves.
Before we were to fire the 4.2s, the regulars were to show us the proper procedures. We were all lined up behind the firing pits with boxes of ammo stacked behind us. Our officers were sitting in bleacher stands further behind us. When one of the regulars dropped a round into one of the mortar tubes, nothing came out except sparks. Someone hollered, "Short Round," and all hell broke loose. Guys were dropping to the ground and others were running over them into the stacked ammo boxes. The officers were diving under the slats in the bleachers.
Eventually the round ejected from the tube and went out about 20 yards, but fortunately did not go off. A 4.2 round apparently has a safety feature that it must leave the tube at a certain velocity before it is armed. A 4.2 is a large projectile, about five inches in diameter, and has a bursting radius of about 100 yards. Had it gone off, somebody would have gotten hurt. What had happened was that the tube was not cleaned properly and the powder bags picked up some Cosmoline and did not fire properly.
We still had to fire the mortars so, again because I was a Sergeant, I was elected to be the first to join the regulars in the pits to fire one. Naturally the regulars, along with myself, were a little shook, but nothing happened and the firing went off without any further problems. Eventually a guy from Demolitions came out, walked over to the round, put it up on his shoulder, went out a distance, and blew it up with an explosive charge.
After leaving the reserves in August, I got married in September of 1957. Kay and I have four children, three boys and one girl. We now have two granddaughters, too. I never really liked the cold weather in the Chicago area and that winter in Korea really turned me off to cold weather. In 1971 we packed up and moved to Florida, where I still reside.
In later years I was able to make contact with my former loader, Jack Carty. Through a posting on a Marine website, I was contacted by another former member of the Flame Platoon, Jerry Ravino, who had served with the platoon in 1952 and 1953. Jerry told me that he wanted to write a book about our platoon and dedicate it to his platoon leader who was killed in Korea. Jack was a sports writer in civilian life. I put Jack and Jerry together, and between the two of them they wrote a book about the history of our platoon, "Flame Dragons of the Korean War", which was published by Turner Publishing. This book is now out of print, but has recently been released in paperback version under the new title, "Hearts of Iron: The Epic Struggle of the 1st Marine Division Flame Platoon: Korean War 1950-1953. A lot of my experiences are covered in the 1950-51 portion of the book. The book is published by Turner Publishing and is available on Amazon or from Barnes & Noble, among others.
I don’t really know why, but it took me several years to really adjust back to civilian life. In the 18 months that I was on active duty, I had done more and seen more in that short time then I had done before or since. I enjoyed the Marine Corps and am proud that I had the opportunity to serve in it and to repay my country for the privilege of being a US citizen. There isn’t a better group of fighting men on this earth then the Marines, and serving in the Corps is like becoming a life long member of an exclusive society.
It has always bothered me somewhat that I did not go through boot camp, but no one that I have ever run across has held it against me. I am also somewhat sorry (although I should be glad) that I did not see more actual combat in Korea. I was always so close to what was happening, but seldom personally involved. The closest I got to getting seriously hurt was on that beer run. I did learn to accept responsibility for my actions and to take things as they come. There is so much that happened to me that depended on where I was at any particular time. Little that happened was under my control--call it fate or call it acts of God. A good philosophy that I learned is, “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and you will never be disappointed”.