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P. Michael Pezzella
Forest Hill, Maryland-
"As I have become older, I think of Chosin more often. Every day something reminds me of what happened back then. When I see an auto with a Marine Corps emblem on the back like mine, I wonder whether he was there. I also wonder if the young men now in uniform will ever have to go through such an experience. "
- Mike Pezzella
Marine Corps Reserves
My name is Phillip Michael Pezzella of Forest Hill, Maryland. I was born January 8, 1930, in Baltimore City, Maryland, the son of Angelo John and Carmen Guercio Pezzella. I was named Phillip after my fraternal grandfather. My mother disliked the name Phillip and called me Michael, which was her brother's name. Angelo was my father's name and my birth certificate actually reads “Phillip Michael Angelo Pezzella”.
My father was born 1902, in Piedimonte, Sicily, a small town at the foot of Mt. Etna in 1902. When his father died, an uncle who was a gem merchant brought the family to Central America and later entered the USA at New Orleans around 1911. His mother died shortly after and he was taken to New York where he stayed until the mid 1920s. He then moved to Baltimore with a brother. Some relatives lived in New York, but I have no information about them. My mother was born in Cefalú, Sicily, and her family came to America through Ellis Island, and then to Baltimore where my grandmother had relatives. Both parents came to America because there was little opportunity for advancement in Sicily.
My father was a very successful interior decorator who specialized in making draperies, slipcovers, and bedspreads. My mother sewed and ironed the materials. In later life Father gave up his business and went to work for a department store as a slipcover cutter. In 1938, when I was eight years old, my parents separated and then divorced because of my father's serious gambling problem. My mother went to beautician's school and became a hairdresser, later a beauty shop chain manager, and then opened her own shop in Washington DC in the early fifties. She gave up the shop after remarrying several years later.
I grew up in Baltimore in a neighborhood of various middle class European backgrounds. In my block of porch-front row houses, there were German, Scottish, Irish, and Jewish families. This was my home until I married in 1955. I moved from Baltimore to Harford County, Maryland in 1968, and this is where I presently reside.
I was an only child, and I believe I was a well-behaved child. I grew up in the home of my grandparents and often had an uncle or an aunt living there, so I had much supervision from all of my relatives. I saw my father usually one a week and did love him, though I realized his problem. My mother worked and my grandmother and grandfather generally supervised me. I was close to them and all my family. I was most particularly close to my grandfather.
I attended grade school at a nearby elementary school, Baltimore City School (I believe #32). After junior high I attended Baltimore City College, which at that time was a public, all-male academic high school. It was considered an outstanding school in the city. I graduated from high school in 1948 and then attended the Baltimore Junior College, graduating in 1950. I generally enjoyed school and liked my teachers, especially my history teacher, who influenced my career as a teacher later in life.
In high school I was unable to go out for football because I had an after-school job that I did not want to give up. Through most of high school I worked behind a soda fountain at a local deli. It was a good job and paid well--35 cents an hour! After a year I worked part-time as a construction helper. I was also a golf caddy. I must say honestly that this work did affect my schoolwork a bit, but I needed the money.
The extracurricular activity I most enjoyed was the City College Glee Club and Junior College Choir. I did some solo numbers with both of them. We performed at other schools and Senior Centers for the most part. I played with a "sandlot team" in the Rec League and managed to join the Track and Field Team as a shot-putter. I played football in Junior College and was on the Track and Field Team. Evidently I did fairly well because I was recently inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame of the Baltimore City Community College, which is the new name for the school.
The Depression was a difficult time that I remember vividly, although my family was not too adversely affected by it. My grandfather had a shoe repair shop and did fairly well. We were more fortunate than some in our neighborhood. My grandmother often gave ironing to do to one of our less fortunate neighbors and also shared bowls of spaghetti with them. We lived near a railroad and the freight trains often carried more passengers than the passenger trains. Since there was a grade and the trains slowed, men would get off and wander down through the neighborhoods offering to work for a meal or sandwich. We very frequently had our yard cleaned or other jobs done in exchange for food.
We were in my uncle's car for our Sunday drive to the Italian store that sold Italian Ice and Cannoli when the announcement came over the car radio that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. My uncle said, "My God! We are at war." Even though we were Italian, I cannot recall any verbal abuse because we were at war with Italy. The war did have some effect on my mother's family. My aunt's husband became an officer in the Army Air Force and was sent to New Guinea. He was wounded and returned to the United States. I had an uncle in the Army Air Corps, two cousins in the Army, and my cousin Biagio Pezzella was in the Marines during World War II. The latter gave me some of his uniforms, but he never spoke much about his part in the war.
My school had U.S. war bonds and stamp drives, scrap aluminum drives, "Bundles for Britain". I was a civilian defense messenger and participated in air raid drills and other exercises. The names of alumni who were killed were posted in the school. I do not recall anyone in my school neighborhood that I knew personally being killed in the war.
“Bundles for Britain” was a program in which schools and other community centers collected food, clothing, and other items to help the people of Britain who were suffering from air attacks and shortages of food, medicines, and other things. I was too young to be in World War II and I cannot say I had any burning desire to be in it, but I enjoyed the idea of being proud in a uniform.
During this time, defense personnel were the Air Raid Wardens in each neighborhood. Wardens made sure that the curfew during the blackouts was observed and that no houselights were visible from the street. Blackout curtains were used in most homes. “Messengers” were kids who ran the messages from the command post (a neighborhood home) to the Wardens who patrolled the streets during the blackouts. Some friends and I went to the downtown area to join in the street demonstrations. I was released from this part-time job when the news came of the end of the war.
I joined the Marine Corps Reserves in September of 1947 at the age of 17. I felt that I was going to be drafted at some time in the future, so I wanted to be a Marine. I had a close friend who joined and influenced me. He was later killed in action in Korea. Three others from my group of friends joined at the same time I did. They were Alfred E. Schudel, Joseph Kaufman, and Jack Collerran. (We are still close today and see each other regularly.) My folks were not too disturbed that I joined, because I was in the Reserves.
Drill nights were usually once a week and some weekends. Although I had no boot camp training, all the things taught in boot camp were taught there. These included marching (also called "close order drill"), weapons training, map reading, and infantry tactics. We also had gunnery practice and took weekend trips aboard a Navy Destroyer Escort that was moored at the reserve center. My local reserve unit trained at Fort McHenry, Baltimore. Trips on the Chesapeake Bay and up to the Philadelphia Navy Yard were common. Since this was an Engineer Battalion, military engineering skills were taught after a period of "basic" training. Engineering skills included bridge building, heavy equipment operation, demolition and explosives handling, etc. Summer camps were held at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina. Summer camp was a period of intensive training in all the areas mentioned, and included more time at the rifle range and other weapons and hand grenade ranges. Instructors were regular Marines and also our own reserve NCOs and officers. I considered the training as intensive as possible considering the time constraints. I believe I took it very seriously. There seemed to be a strong desire to become as good as regular Marines.
War Breaks Out
When the Korean War broke out I knew very little about Korea. I learned most of what I knew about the country and the war from the newsreels in the local movie theaters. They were an important news source in those days. I really did not think we Reservists would be sent off to war. If we were put on active duty I thought, we would take the place of regular Marines who would be sent off to do the fighting. I did not have any desire to go to war. I was, in fact, somewhat frightened at the prospect of getting into the war. I did feel, however, that if it was necessary, I would do what I knew thousands of others had done during World War II--fight to protect our country.
My mother was very emotional, almost hysterical, when we were activated. Many friends thought as I did--that it was a chance to see California and other places in the United States. We had lived through the period when we beat the Germans and Japanese whom we knew were powerful enemies. We had no idea a country most of us couldn't find on the map would give us much resistance once we moved in there. From the time we were activated and during training, we talked about what the newspapers were saying. Within the Marine Corps, word got around from the base newsletters and word of mouth as to Inchon and other operations involving Marines.
When my Reserve battalion was activated, I was not assigned to boot camp. Because of my Marine Corps Reserve experience, I was considered "combat ready." We were separated into what was called the Second Replacement Draft. Less than 100 of the men from the battalion from Baltimore were included, and hundreds of other reserves from all over the country made up this group. I had been a part of an earlier replacement draft, the First, but I was removed for additional training. The story I heard was that we had the son of a congressman in our ranks who joined the Reserve just a few weeks before his unit was activated. He called home to tell his father that he was going overseas and his dad hit the ceiling because he rightly felt that his son did not have sufficient training to be sent into combat. As a result, most of the 1st Replacement Draft was held back for the additional six weeks. Only World War II experienced officers and a few others were in the First Draft, and that was because company commanders and officers were desperately needed. I was given six weeks of Advanced Infantry Training at Camp Pendleton, California, which was like a boot camp situation. The training was very intense and grueling, both physically and emotionally.
The first day we opened a section of Quonset huts that had not been used since World War II. The area was known as Tent Camp 2. Classroom training was usually map reading, watching combat films, and infantry formation basics. Non-classroom training was rifle range, grenade range, assault on defended positions, assault in towns and villages, and anti-tank weapons training. We saw Tarawa combat films and Iwo Jima combat films, both of which showed heavy casualties. The films were a bit frightening, but showed the bravery and determination of these men. This inspired us.
Everything was regimented--meals, personal hygiene, training, free time, taking care of the barracks, and lights out. Reveille was at 5:30 a.m. We marched to the chow hall (about one mile), marched back to quarters, marched to rifle or other ranges, and then marched back to chow hall for lunch or had lunch in the field. (We were fed fairly well if we were not too particular. Lots of potatoes and beans were served with pot roast type meals.) We marched to field exercises, the obstacle course, and back to quarters. We marched to evening chow and back to quarters. We spent long hours in the field and had night exercises about twice a week or guard duty. Lights out was at ten. We had some weekends free, and there were often interdenominational church services that we attended with no interference from our DIs.
The NCOs were pretty strict. They had the mission to prepare us for combat. Our drill instructors did not use corporal punishment, but I dropped my rifle once and had to sleep with it across my bunk. One fellow had to stand at attention on top of the Quonset hut with full field pack for two hours for some minor infraction. I do not recall any platoon discipline. I only know of one individual who was removed from the training. He was sort of a general foul-up who was finally removed when he dropped a live grenade at the grenade range. The NCO picked it up and threw it so no one was hurt.
I can't recall having much fun in the training camp except the usual barracks type jokes such as unhooking bunk springs and such. But I also can't recall that I was sorry I joined the Marines, even though I was often very exhausted and angry. We were angry because we were so exhausted, so we took out our frustrations on the bayonet dummies, the obstacle course, or in some similar way. Our officers were often surprised, and they praised us for our determination. I had never been away from home that long, and I missed my girlfriend Pat (later to be my wife) very much.
We were tested on rifle marksmanship, the machine gun, and other weapons. While within a gas chamber, we were required to remove our mask for a short period of time. It wasn't too bad. I had no cold weather training, but there is no question that the rest of the training that we were given helped save us at the Chosin Reservoir. The discipline and the sense of responsibility to our fellow Marines kept the division together when we should have been destroyed. I left Camp Pendleton for Korea feeling that I had been trained as well as any Regular Marine Corps personnel. Some of us, myself included, were almost happy to board ship and get out of there to escape the "hell" we had endured for six weeks. Again, I do believe it paid off later when we were in combat situations. I also believe that we were as well trained as any troops who went into combat for the first time. I feel the reserve training and advanced infantry training at Camp Pendleton were extremely important and helped keep me alive in Korea. I reacted automatically to numerous situations as I had been trained to do.
On to Korea
I went directly to Korea following training. In preparing for departure, we sent home personal items of civilian clothing and such and only carried our sea bags and packs with uniforms and equipment. Since our departure was from Camp Pendleton, California, we did not have the opportunity to see family or girlfriends. Some had their wives there so they could say goodbye in person. The rest of us wrote letters and made phone calls. My girl was upset by the information that I was going overseas, but at that time we were not engaged, so it wasn't too emotional.
We left San Diego for Korea about the middle of October, exact date uncertain. The ship was the USS Jackson, a Navy PA (Personnel Attack Transport) or quite simply, a troop ship. I believe it held about 800 men. Marines were the only troops aboard, and I believe it also carried military supplies in the cargo holds. I had been on a similar ship when we were transported from Baltimore to North Carolina for summer camp.
I didn't get sick, but I did get headaches. During a three-day period, we hit the tail-end of a typhoon and were in very heavy seas. We could not go on deck because it was too dangerous and there was the distinct possibility of being washed overboard. Most of the men were very seasick. I was knocked unconscious when the ship dipped down and I slipped on a passageway that had vomit on the deck.
Many of the men I had trained with, particularly those from the Baltimore reserve battalion, were on the ship with me. We had some movies on deck for entertainment, weather permitting, and an amateur show in which guys sang or played guitars. I was lucky enough to get galley duty, so I didn't have to stand in line most of the time to get chow. Normally, we no sooner had breakfast than we got in line for lunch, then back in line for dinner. I don't recall anything that could be called "eventful" taking place on the trip other than the bad weather.
We did not go directly to Korea, but landed in Kobe, Japan--about 14 days later, as I recall. We disembarked and then were transported to a place called Otsu. We left for Korea a few days later on smaller Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs). The trip was overnight to Wonson, North Korea, and the date of our arrival at that port was sometime around November 5 to November 7, 1950. At first the waterway into the port and beach was rather scenic with small green islands around us. We could also see that the country was hilly and there were some rather tall hills in the distance. As we approached the beach, we could see white phosphorus shells bursting in the hills. We had been alerted to watch the water for floating objects. Wonson had been one of the most heavily mined harbors in the world, we later learned. We had originally been scheduled to take part in an amphibious assault on the town, but by the time the Navy had cleared the harbor of mines, land forces had advanced and taken the city. The Army's Seventh Division and a Republic of Korea (ROK) Division had taken the town before the amphibious assault could be mounted. There were still small pockets of resistance around the town when we landed, but for the most part it was secured.
I believe sometime in the early morning the LST landed directly on the beach and we exited through the open doors on the front of the ship. We were directed to an open area where small tents had been set up. We spent the first night in a field outside the town. There was shooting during the night, but it did not involve us. Unfortunately, someone had fouled up and we did not have rifle ammunition. We foraged for ammo among the troops who had been there. It was cold, but not exceptionally so, probably in the low twenties and teens.
The next morning we were lined up and a number of officers came down the line and gave us our assignments. I was assigned to the Headquarters Platoon of Item Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. For the time being I was to act as a "go-fer" for the Company 1st Sergeant. It seems that the fact that I had some college education was reason to keep me in the company headquarters staff.
We were transported to the regiment by truck and by marching. As we traveled to get there, we saw people gathering wood and materials from the destroyed areas. For the most part they were old people or women. They ignored us and we ignored them. The regiment was located in a small village just outside the town where it was being re-supplied after moving and fighting its way north from Seoul. Incidentally, Marine Corps legend Col. Louis "Chesty" Puller, the most decorated man in the Corps, was the Regimental Commander of the 1st Marine Regiment. Our Company Commander, Joe "Bull" Fisher, had served with Chesty on Guadalcanal in World War II. He had risen through the ranks to 1st Lieutenant, and though a company was normally assigned to men with the rank of Captain, Chesty gave Joe Fisher the job. He may have been the only 1st Lieutenant in the Division to have been assigned to a company. There was another officer named Needham. I noticed he wore a high school ring of the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, which was the arch rival of my alma mater. Both were all male institutions. I asked him about it and we talked about Baltimore and the two schools. The other officer I recall was Lieutenant Hall. All four of our platoon lieutenants were later wounded at the Chosin and our company exec was killed in action.
I didn't know a single man in my unit when I arrived. It was kind of scary at first, but I soon became familiar with the three-man bazooka (anti-tank weapon) team I was assigned to bunk with. My first duty was perimeter guard that night. The next few days I rode shotgun for the company Jeep driver when he left the company area on an errand. There were some patrols to locate the enemy. I also stood guard duty at night or manned the radio in the company headquarters and acted as a runner or go-fer for the First Sergeant. It was probably a week or so later when some North Korean POWs were led by us and I first saw the enemy.
I liked being around the company command post and working for the first sergeant. I got to see and hear things before most of the others in the company did, and I really admired my CO and the rest of the officers. They were real fighting men in every sense of the word. I was more afraid of being afraid than anything else. If I was too afraid I would forget my training, and that was a sure way to get killed. I wasn't happy about the situation, but I don't recall being more afraid than normal. The men of my company had seen action at Inchon and Seoul. They didn't really teach me the ropes, but I learned a lot from watching them.
We moved from the Wonson area into the Chosin Reservoir area by truck on a steep, single lane, winding road up the plateau area. Our patrols encountered some enemy resistance, but they vanished quickly into the hills. We suspected they were Chinese and not North Koreans, but no prisoners were taken or bodies found. Our officers were sure they were Chinese and that they were there in strength, but Tokyo kept sending down the word that these were only a few stragglers who had volunteered to help the North Koreans. Nothing more than one man being wounded by an enemy sniper and another wounded in a brief firefight while on patrol happened at this point in time. We met very few civilians heading south. There simply wasn't enough room on the narrow road for our convoy and civilian traffic. When we began moving north, it was a bit colder, but not that much. When we reached the plateau of the Chosin Reservoir, the temperature dropped dramatically and the winds picked up. I was told the temperatures exceeded twenty degrees below zero.
During the advance north we set up one night in a type of compound, possibly a school with a large yard in the center, with an Army light tank unit. The tanks were parked in the school yard and we set up a perimeter defense around the area. An Army General showed up and we heard him yelling at the tank commander to get his "***ing" tanks out of the yard and put them on the perimeter with us. They quickly followed his orders. Later that night on guard duty, I tried to talk with a man on the tank. He responded in a language that I couldn't understand and I was about to shoot him as an infiltrator when a voice from inside the tank yelled that he was a Korean attached to the tank unit. The Army had the incredibly stupid policy of including Koreans in their unit who could not speak English. I was upset to say the least.
My unit (Item Company) and two other companies of the Third Battalion, First Regiment--Howe and Headquarters Companies, reached the town of Hagaru-ri and were trapped there by the Chinese. The Marines who made it farthest north, I believe, were a company from the Seventh Marines. They were about fourteen miles from us. The First Marine Regiment was close behind them and to their southeast flank.
We had two major types of rations: the individual C-ration and the three-in-one C-ration that was designed to feed three men. We preferred the three-in-one because it seemed to be tastier. Once we arrived in the Reservoir area, heating the rations became a major problem. They either ended up burned on the outside and frozen on the inside from being placed in the fire in the can. If we could melt some ice or snow in a pot or helmet, we just might be able to thaw them enough in the hot water to eat them before they froze again. I believe I existed for at least two or three days on cookies and cocoa powder in hot water.
The morning after arriving at our company's position on the perimeter of Hagaru-ri was filled with activity. Our company commander had acquired some explosive charges from the engineers and we used them to start holes in the frozen ground so foxholes (fighting holes) could be dug. We strung barbed wire and set up booby traps even though we all thought it was a useless exercise at the time, since we would probably move out within the next few days. The CO also registered the mortars to cover lanes of attack. I believe it was this first afternoon when an enemy patrol, later found to be Chinese, began advancing toward us probably unaware we were there. Our machine guns opened up on them at about 1000 yards. At that range rifle fire was useless, but two of our medical corpsmen jumped up and began firing their M-2 automatic carbines at them. The first sergeant yelled to them to stop wasting ammunition and get down. We all had a good laugh.
The terrain worked against us. We simply did not have sufficient manpower to hold all the high ground around us. At its farthest point north, our company was surrounded and cut off by the Chinese. This was hilly country and the road was in the valley between the hills. They were stretched too thin to cover the high ground around the road, and that's where the Chinese attacked from. I only know what I have read about their first encounters with the enemy. There are a number of books which cover this in detail. Chosin by Eric Hammel and Breakout by Martin Russ are two of them.
During the night of November 28 or 29, we received the first massive Chinese attack. It was intense. I was awakened in a section of a small stone barn where we had sought cover until our turn on guard duty. The attack began about 10 p.m. and was about ten feet from my hole. I jumped in my position with my foxhole buddy. It was actually a short trench about eight feet long on the side of the road block we had set up. As I looked out in front, I could see tracers going out and coming in from the plain or valley in front of us. In the flashes of mortar fire I could see the enemy advancing in groups along our front. I didn't, but quite a few members of my company had Chinese jump into their holes. Others were killed within spitting distance.
Our CO and the First Sergeant jumped in with us and the CO directed fire of the machine guns at the thatched roof of a farm house about 500 yards in front of our positions. The gun tracers set the roof on fire and we could see the silhouettes of the enemy with the flaming roof behind them. They were perfect targets, but it seemed we couldn't kill them fast enough. They kept coming and when they were within range, they were cut down. They seemed to just keep on coming anyway.
How many are in a horde? A lot of Chinese. Reading later, I understand that we were attacked by a Chinese regiment, reinforced by units of a second Chinese regiment. They wore padded, quilted uniforms, and very often the hats they wore were sewn to the hood on the uniform. They had fur-lined tennis shoes on their feet. Their supply sergeant must have had an awful time since they carried a variety of weapons. Some carried Thompson sub machine guns, some carried Mauser rifles and Mauser automatic pistols, and some had weapons of Chinese manufacture. They were good fighters in the sense that it seemed they wouldn't give up, no matter how many casualties they suffered. I suppose they were subject to strict discipline to do as they did. I had an M-1 rifle and bayonet, two grenades, a utility knife, and ammo. After the Chinese attack, I picked up a Thompson sub machine gun from one of the dead. The Chinese had gotten the Tommy guns from the Nationalist Chinese.
A short time later, the First Sergeant grabbed me and another guy to carry ammo to the company on our left, Howe Company. They were close to being overrun and were low on ammo. In the excitement of the moment, we lifted a large box of ammo and, with him in front and me carrying the rear, we started across the road toward Howe Company. Mistake! We should have opened the box and strung bandoliers on our shoulders and then began running. We hadn't gone ten steps when the area was lit by a star shell and I was startled by flashes of tracers between me and the man in front of me. He also realized that we were under fire, dropped the box, and took off to the ditch on the other side. I dropped where I was and turned toward the direction of the fire. As I lay there, bullets tore up the ground around me and I could feel the dirt and ice stinging my face. I felt a jolt in my left leg that felt like it had been hit by a sledgehammer. I think I screamed. Then the firing stopped. A bullet creased my left leg below the knee, opening it to the bone, but fortunately not breaking the bone. As I lay there, I felt no pain. Though I thought I had been hit, I wasn't sure of how bad. Later the First Sergeant told me that it was fortunate the Chinese had opened up on me because they were unaware the gun was there and it could have done some damage. I was not amused.
A Corpsman witnessed what happened from behind a small stone barn where the ammo supplies were. (These were the same supplies that our company jeep driver had driven down the road under fire to get and, as a result, later received the Silver Star for his actions.) He thought I had been riddled by the fire because he saw the tracers hitting around my body. He yelled out, "Are you hit?" and I answered, "I think so." With that he came running out after me and I was able to get to my feet. It wasn't too painful and I could walk. We both made it to the ditch on the side of the road. He looked at my wound as I tried to point my M-1 toward the enemy and cover us. He told me I had been hit and bandaged the wound.
An ambulance was behind a building beside the road where I was shot. At first I refused to get in the ambulance because I could still walk, had little or no pain, and most of all, I knew that the ambulance would pull out onto the road just yards from where I had been shot. A strong voice shouted from behind me, "Get in the ambulance!" I never found out who it was, but I followed the order. There were other wounded, some on stretchers, and the ambulance took off for a very short ride to an aid station in a two-room schoolhouse about one hundred yards down the road. Within 15 minutes after I was shot, my wound was being examined.
The corpsman who bandaged my wound was Black. I was startled because he was the first Black I had seen in Korea. He later became known to the men in the area and I understand that he was later decorated for bravery. I did not serve with Blacks in my company in Korea, and there had been no Black recruits in any of the early reserve outfits that I trained with. I found out that after we left for Korea in October, Blacks were integrated into the units. When I arrived in Japan after being evacuated from Korea, at one of the hospitals a Black soldier was in the bunk next to me. We shared food and got along fine. I had no problems whatsoever serving with Blacks later on.
The doctors in that aid station were the most heroic men I had ever seen. All the Navy medical corpsmen deserved medals. They went out under fire to bring in wounded, as did the one who came out to me. Then there were the doctors at the aid station who took care of me when I was initially evacuated. At the aid station about a hundred yards or so behind our lines, I watched the doctors operating while bullets came through the wall above their head. They didn't stop what they were doing or take cover. Since I still carried my rifle, I was told to guard the door and shoot anyone who came through. One Chinese infiltrator had been killed by a Corpsman as he stuck his "burp gun" in the window just minutes before. We thought there may be more outside and they would attempt to come in. Later I went outside to guard the aid station, and I remained on guard throughout the night. My wound had been bandaged and my leg was wrapped in a blanket to keep the area warm. The next morning, the doctor gave me permission to return to my foxhole, but I was to return every day to change the bandage. When I returned to my company at daybreak, I notified the sergeant.
The attack had left hundreds of Chinese dead in front of our positions. We sat on the edge of the foxholes, watching the F4U Corsairs strafing the Chinese as they attempted to retreat up the hills surrounding us. The napalm bombs burst among them and, even though they were over 1000 yards in front of us, we could see the terrible carnage the planes were causing. I almost felt sorry for those who were victims of the strafing air attacks and the napalm bombs.
During the rest of the day we repaired the defenses of barbed wire and booby traps and cleared away the enemy dead near our positions. As I looked out in the front of our lines, enemy dead were stacked up in some places. There were literally hundreds of bodies. Some of the enemy had made their way up to our foxholes before being killed. One was in a foxhole and was missing a face. I asked the Marine who sat there what happened. He said the Chinese soldier had jumped in with him, so he reached back and grabbed his entrenching tool (shovel) and kept hitting him until he didn't move anymore. The Chinese dead were frozen and appeared to be wax figures. It was very strange since there was no red blood from deep open wounds. They looked somewhat like anatomy dummies and not real people.
There was a second major attack three or four days after the first one, but my memory is a bit hazy on that period. Fortunately, I was in a defensive perimeter the entire time after returning to my company from the aid station. We did not venture out after the first attack. There were tanks near us and they were useful, but they had trouble on the icy road. As I recall, a tank moved up to the roadblock and fired at the retreating Chinese. I was alongside of a tank when it fired its 90mm gun. The blowback blew me into a ditch.
I remember seeing the first dead Marine after the first Chinese attack was over. I believe it was our company executive officer, Lieutenant Mattox. I didn't inspect the body and in the heavy parka the hood covered his face. As I recall, I was just numb seeing all this, partly from the extreme cold and partly because I really felt that I would never make it and never see home or my loved ones again. I figured I was already dead, so why worry? I had My Military Missal (that was its title) with me, and I read it every day. I still have it framed along with my medals and dog tags.
While in the Command Post a day or two after the first attack, the message came that a company commander, Captain Cook, was killed the night before. I knew him well and was quite upset to hear about it. The Chinese overwhelmed his position and his company had to fall back. He was killed leading a charge to retake the hill. This is what I was told and I have read as well. He was an officer in the Baltimore 11th Engineer Battalion Reserve unit. I saw him on drill nights and other occasions. He was admired by his men and seemed like a good officer, but I never got to know him personally. I later learned that several others I had trained with were killed, and these included two from Baltimore. I felt bad about it, but there was too much going on to have time to mourn, such as trying to deal with the cold weather.
I had never experienced such intense cold. I wasn't prepared for the extreme cold and its effect on humans and equipment. I was fortunate that I had been issued cold weather gear--parka, sweater, woolen socks, long johns, and shoe packs (a worthless item). I was also wearing a field jacket under my parka, but I was still freezing and the cold was painful. To this day I do not know how I survived that kind of cold. By cold I mean that it was minus 20 to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
From time to time the wind blew hard, but there were periods of little or no wind. There was also light, dry snow, although it was not deep in our location. Weather affected our weapons, food/water supply, bodily functions, vehicles, our bodies in general, and our mental state. The spacing changed on our machine gun heads and they would not fire automatically. When that happened, the gunner had to get out in front of the gun, twist the barrel and adjust the spacing while the enemy was advancing and shooting at him. Artillery shells fell short because of the effect of the cold on the barrel of the guns and the propellant charge. All lubrication had to be removed from rifles and other small weapons because it became gummy and caused malfunctions. Fortunately, the Chinese hand grenades often failed to explode. Liquid water did not exist. Rations were frozen solid. Urine became ice crystals as it hit the ground. We tended to our bodily functions quickly or our butts would have ice crystals on them. It was a bad experience, but since we weren't eating much, we didn't have to go often. As to the vehicles, all water was removed from radiators and the vehicles were kept running as much as possible. Weather didn't seem to affect the air support. It definitely saved us.
Our bodies were in pain, constant pain. Everyone had frostbite to some degree. I found out later that I suffered frostbite of the toes, but luckily mine was not a severe case. Many Marines lost toes, feet, fingers, and hands. With regards to our mental state, we didn't worry about being killed as much as freezing to death. I think most felt as I did. We were numb--just plain numb. We tried to get out of the cold temperature when we could through the use of any kind of shelter, such as barns and farmhouses. Later more tents were air-dropped and set up. They also dropped rifle and machine gun ammo, rations, and mortar rounds. They were easily recovered, but in the haste to get supplies to us some mistakes were made. A box of blank ammunition was among the boxes dropped. My comment was, "What do we do with this? Scare the hell out of them?" There were also boxes of Tootsie Rolls. The story is that the Tootsie Roll was the code name for .50 caliber ammunition, but somebody didn't get the word. At reunions of the Chosin Few, Tootsie Rolls are always distributed as a comic reminder of that. We existed on those supplies and felt that, if necessary, we could hold out indefinitely if supplied by air.
Marine advantage over the enemy in the Chosin was their training, their traditions, and their esprit de corps. The disadvantages were the natural elements and the stupid leadership of the Tokyo Army Headquarters that allowed us to be placed in such a vulnerable position even after our commanders protested. In contrast to this kind of leadership, the leadership of our Marine officers at the Chosin Reservoir was the finest in the history of American Arms. I cannot praise our Marine Corps leadership enough, especially when I hear that many Army units were victims of extremely poor leadership and men died or were captured because of it. While at Hagaru-ri, some soldiers from the 31st Army Infantry Regiment made it to our lines. Their unit was decimated in a Chinese ambush and they made it to our lines on foot. They were in terrible physical condition and a few of them had to be cut out of their frozen boots. I saw black feet and hands, and I am sure they were later amputated.
As I mentioned earlier, my company remained in place as part of the perimeter defense of Hagaru-ri and its vital airfield. After being treated for my injury at the aid station, I returned to the company and resumed my position near the roadblock. Each day I walked the short distance down the road to the aid station. While visiting the aid station one day, I remember there was an older Marine gunny who had a severe wound in his back. I could actually see his lung expand and contract.
On the fourth or fifth day when I returned to the aid station, the doctor noticed infection due to the extreme cold that did not allow blood to flow to the extremities of the wound. He ordered me to the airfield that had just recently been completed for evacuation by air. Helicopters were not used very much in the Chosin Reservoir because of the type of terrain and the wind in the flat areas. Keep in mind these helicopters could only carry one or two wounded and were somewhat unstable in the mountain areas. I saw a helicopter crash, either the victim of enemy fire or malfunction. I was watching it descend and it suddenly turned upside down and crashed some distance away from me.
On December 5, I was evacuated by a C37 that landed at the airfield built partly during the attack on Hagaru-ri. The air ride was exciting. It was my first time in a plane. We were informed that we could receive enemy fire and one plane had crashed at the end of the runway. I sat opposite the open cargo doors and had a great view of the surrounding high hills as we took off, although I was quite frightened. We landed in Hungnam and were transported by truck to the hospital at the port city of Hamhung.
At the hospital at Hamhung, they were burning clothing, including sweaters from the Red Cross supplies. This made me very angry because we could have used those sweaters to keep warm at the Chosin. A few days later I was sent to a ship in the harbor that took us overnight to Japan. (Only stretcher patients went to the hospital ship, and I was ambulatory.) In Japan we boarded trains for Yokosuka Naval Hospital where I stayed until the beginning of February. They operated on me to close the gash that the bullet had made in my leg. It was closed with steel sutures, but it didn't seem to heal well. That may have been a result of the cold. I saw one quadruple amputee at Yokosuka. He was a really young guy and it shook me. I only saw one friend from Baltimore whom I had served with in the Reserve for several years. His name was Bob Altenburger and we still meet socially today. He was on his way home from Yokosuka with severe frostbite of the toes. I saw several others in the hospital that I had trained with at Pendleton, but I do not recall their names. I recall that they were from a reserve outfit from Jackson, Mississippi.
There was a dance hall with lots of pretty Japanese girls near the hospital at Yokosuka, and when I had liberty from the hospital, I went there. About six or seven weeks after arriving at Yokosuka, there was an earthquake. It damaged the electrical system on our ward and I was transferred to a Casual Company. This plus the arrival of more casualties from the offensive in Korea caused many of us to be transferred to a Casual Company (recuperation center) at Otsu, Japan. At Otsu, my wound opened up and I developed cellulitis. I was concerned that I might lose my leg, but it healed well. No one of the medical personnel stands out except a nurse who was very nice to me. While at Otsu, I visited Kyoto, which was a very interesting, historic town with many old temples. I usually went with one or two other guys, but once in a while I took off on my own.
My family received a telegram because of my injury. Later I was told that when she received the telegram, my mother required a doctor and medication because she was so upset. (Italians get very emotional.) I wasn't able to call home once I got to Japan, but the Red Cross came in and cut recordings of our messages home. I sent my girl Pat a recording of me talking to her and telling her how much I missed and loved her.
I didn't return to Korea and I wasn't unhappy about it. Physically I felt that if I had been sent back I could have handled the rigors of combat, but after that experience I wasn't about to volunteer or request to go back. When they decided to send me stateside in April, the wound had pretty much healed before the two-week ocean trip. At Treasure Island, California, I was given the choice of reporting to Bethesda Naval Hospital or going home on leave. Naturally, I went home. My accrued leave was for four weeks and I took every day of it.
I stopped first in Washington, DC where my mother lived and had her beauty shop and rooming house business. When I came in the door, it was a very emotional scene. My mother cried, I cried, and the customers cried. After spending the day with her, I went on to Baltimore to see my girl (future wife), my father, and my grandparents. I had lived with my maternal grandparents in Baltimore after my mother and father divorced. In each case, the scene was the same.
Since my wound had completely healed and I had been checked out prior to going on leave, I reported to my new duty station, Marine Barracks at Eighth and I Streets in Washington, D.C., the oldest post in the Marine Corps and the station of the Marine Band and Ceremonial troops. It was there that I was informed of the death of the childhood friend who had influenced me to join the Marine Corps. His name was Raymond F. Burhorst. He was killed in action in Korea in May of 1951. He was with the 1st Engineer Battalion when his convoy was ambushed by the Chinese. Ray jumped up to man the .50 caliber machine gun in the truck and was hit by a sniper firing from a hill nearby. He died shortly after being hit. I learned the details from a friend who was with him. I was given leave to attend his funeral when he came home, and his mother gave me some of his suits because we were both the same size. I visited with her several times after returning from Korea.
I was assigned to the Marine Corps Institute Registrar Section. The Marine Corps Institute was a correspondence school for Marines. It had a curriculum of high school equivalency subjects, military subjects, and some college subjects, and members of all ranks in the Marine Corps utilized the school. Lessons were provided by mail, as were textbooks and materials. Tests and exams were sent to command offices to be administered. I evaluated applicants for the various courses or curriculum of studies and approved or readjusted their requests. I personally did not take any of the courses because I felt I did not have sufficient time to study. Since I was close to home, I was able to visit my girl and family every weekend. I stayed at that duty station for 14 months.
During that time, I also had ceremonial duties such as participating in weekly parades, funerals, White House functions, etc. They were big affairs involving members of all the services, and they often took place on uncomfortable, hot summer days. I attended funerals of White House Secretary Early (aide to Roosevelt), Admiral Sherman, and many others whose names I cannot recall. I was only at one White House function. There I opened limousine doors for various VIP's, none of whom I recognized. At the Washington National Airport, I was in the Honor Guard for the then Princess Elizabeth and her husband Philip. President Truman greeted them and I suspected by his somewhat slurred speech that he had had a few drinks before the ceremony. We got in trouble greeting an Arab prince dressed in long robes when a Marine in the rear ranks said, "Ain't she sweet?" and we burst out laughing. The commanding officer had a few words for us following that. I also was able to see some of the congressional leaders of the period as we opened the car doors for them when they came to cocktail parties at the Commandant's mansion on the base.
While some guys did go a little wild after returning from war, I don't believe I did. In fact, I think I was more subdued and serious. I know I was edgy, more easily upset, more short-tempered, and less tolerant of what I considered poor behavior than I had been before. Family members said I was less "happy-go-lucky" than I had been. I was more conservative in my political outlook, and I was more concerned about the international threat to America than the average citizen. And, I was more serious about my future.
I thought seriously about re-enlisting because of the opportunities that were offered me. I had passed tests for officer's training. I could have had Embassy duty in several foreign countries. I had an opportunity to attend the prestigious administrative school. I was 22 years old and a Staff Sergeant--soon to be eligible for promotion to Tech Sergeant. That was unusual for that age. I finally decided that I did not want a "service marriage" and I wanted to finish college, so I decided to get out. I was discharged from the Marine Corps on August 22, 1952.
I attended Western Maryland College and received my Bachelor's Degree and later my Master's Degree in Education. While in college I did part-time work in construction, traffic counting, and other odd jobs. The other students were totally oblivious to the war and what was happening in Korea. I became a "day hop" rather than live on campus because the students in the dorms were partying into the night too often and I was there to study. I also declined offers by fraternities because I was not about to be hazed or paddled by some "snot-nosed kid."
I married my girlfriend of six years, Agnes Patricia "Pat" McCarthy, on February 19, 1955 after we both graduated from college. We had four children (Michele, Kathleen, Martin and Robert) and six grandchildren. We were married for 46 years. On June 19 of 2001, Pat died of lung cancer after a four-year battle. I loved her deeply and miss her more now than I did when I was in Korea.
In my first year, I taught seventh and eighth grade social studies at Kensington Junior High, Kensington, Maryland. During my career in education, I was a teacher, Department Head of Social Studies, and Vice Principal and Principal in the secondary schools of Baltimore City. I retired from the Baltimore City Schools in June of 1982 and began a new career with the Federal Government as a Cost Analyst for Chemical Weapons Systems at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Edgewood Area, Maryland. I retired from the federal job in March of 1992.
In my retirement I enjoy as much as I can. I was president of a Marine Corps veteran's organization for ten years until December 2000. I served three years as a Director of the Chosin Few, Inc. I am still active in some veterans organizations. Before my wife became ill, we traveled to Italy, the UK, Ireland, Florida, etc. I still plan to do some traveling.
I have always felt a bit guilty that I did not participate in the breakout from the Chosin Reservoir. However, events proved that if my wound had not been tended to in a hospital situation, the infection from the cold weather might have caused me to lose my leg. I heard that my company took very heavy casualties in the fighting in April, just before many of the original members were due to be rotated back to the states.
I think the United States should have sent troops to Korea, but also should have sent a sufficient number of troops and resources to win the war, not to just achieve a stalemate. We showed too much concern for Red China and Russia and failed to provide for a strong defense and rebuild our military. I also think that MacArthur should have gone north of the 38th parallel, but not as far north as the Yalu River in the winter season with limited supply routes. He should have consolidated his forces, dug in for the winter, and awaited a possible diplomatic effort which included the Chinese to insure that South Korea would remain free and we occupied the industrial areas of the North.
The serious mistakes made by the United Nations and the United States included not employing sufficient resources to win, not being aware enough of the Chinese position on our move to the Yalu River border, not attempting diplomatic negotiations with the Chinese and using possible UN sanctions if they did not cooperate, and giving too much concern to Russia. That country had been decimated by World War II and was in no position to take on the United States in an armed conflict with atomic weapons or conventional weapons. I don't think the United States should still have troops stationed in Korea now. North Korea would not be foolish enough to attempt an attack on the South. If they did, they could count on swift and effective retaliation.
As for the Chosin Reservoir campaign, I really didn't appreciate the horror of it all at the time. I suppose I was so glad I made it that I didn't care to think about it at all. I attribute my survival of Chosin to lots of luck, lots of candles burned by my grandmother, and prayers of the rest of my family and future wife who had her Catholic School friends and nuns praying for me. As I have become older, I think of Chosin more often. Every day something reminds me of what happened back then. When I see an auto with a Marine Corps emblem on the back like mine, I wonder whether he was there. I also wonder if the young men now in uniform will ever have to go through such an experience. I meet regularly with a group of men who were there and we still talk about it. I remain bitter at the politics that put us in that position, and I am angry that the so-called Army Intelligence refused to tell General MacArthur he was wrong about the Chinese entering the war. Their incompetence caused many to die and there was no accountability for it.
I know there are efforts to have North Korea open the Chosin area to foreign visitors, but I simply don't care to go there again. I'm not sure why, but I dread the thought of returning there. Also, fourteen hours on an airplane is like fourteen hours of torture for someone with my 6'3", 260-pound frame. I know that South Korea and its people benefited tremendously from the war and Japan had a threat removed and was able to develop as well. The Korean War was a major factor in the halt of the spread of Communism.
The Korean War carries the nickname "The Forgotten War" because until recent years, that is exactly what it was. Only in the last dozen years could you find more than one, perhaps two, books on the Korean War. Now there are many on the war and many on the specific battles of the war. People of the Fifties couldn't understand how a country most people could not locate on a map, could possibly have caused the United States so much of a problem, so they ignored it as did following generations. The reasons for the war may have been valid and worthwhile, but the execution was a disaster because it was directed by politicians and had poor leadership in the field and at the highest headquarters. The war also did not have the understanding and full support of the American people because it was not properly explained or reported to them.
Korea was a terrible experience, but one that I am proud to have taken part in. As I wrote this memoir, I found that it was good for me to revisit some of the memories I had hidden. I can do that now more easily than I could when I was younger. Until very recently--within the last five to ten years, I never really talked about the war. I didn't feel the desire or need to tell my children about it. Only because they have attended various memorial ceremonies in recent years where I was involved have they heard much about the war. They now know some of my experiences and how I was wounded.
I now receive disability for each hand and foot for frostbite and disability for the leg wound. I was only given a 10 percent disability for the frostbite until a new protocol was instituted by the VA. It was often difficult to get other benefits such as shoes, etc. from the local VA, though I hear from others that their VAs are more inclined to give easier access to assistance.
I feel that my Marine Corps training affected and shaped my life in many ways. Neatness is one thing I carried over from the Corps. I generally like things orderly and relatively clean. Discipline is another thing that has stayed with me. Self-discipline and reasonable discipline are things I have tried to practice and to instill in my children. Patriotism is something I feel strongly about. It is not a blind patriotism, but I feel that this country and its way of life are worth fighting for and making sacrifices for. I have always considered Memorial Day a holiday when we should honor those men and women who served and gave their lives for this country, and I am disturbed that the day has been commercialized and the true meaning has been lost.
I have attended reunions of my reserve battalion, the Chosin Few in Portland, Nashville, Las Vegas, and Quantico, Virginia and Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. I have joined with the 41 Independent Commando, Royal Marines in London and Bournemouth, England. They came to help us at Hagaru in the Chosin battle. I enjoy getting together with these men. We are true comrades who shared similar experiences and have similar interests.
I have had a wonderful experience answering e-mailed questions from high school students in Newnan, Georgia for several years as part of the history teacher, Steve Quesenberry's outstanding project. I have also been honored by being elected to the Board of Directors of the Chosin Few in 2003 for a three-year term. I served as the Liaison for the Cold Injury Committee and was able to assist many men in their appeals to the VA for the effects of frostbite on aging veterans. I am presently involved in the planning of the 2008 Chosin Few Reunion.
There is something about being a Marine that is difficult to explain to others. We are brothers in a real sense. In combat, we felt we could rely on one another no matter what the circumstances. We take pride in what we have done and experienced, and we take the motto, "Semper Fidelis" seriously. You will find that Marine vets usually have an emblem or some identifying logo on their clothing or their cars. This is particularly true of combat veterans. We never lose that sense of pride.