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Fred "Fritz" Sinclair Jr.
Boerne, TX -
"No one was supposed to be able to take out a rocket launcher because they could be moved too fast, but we did exactly that. I believe they thought we had some new technology, but the fact is, it was good training and little bit of luck that brought an end to that truck."
- Fritz Sinclair
My name is Fred Sinclair, Jr., the son of Fred and Bonnie Bell Sinclair. I was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, on September 8, 1925, a direct descendent of Major Frances Triplett, commander of the Virginia Militia at the Battle of Cowpens during the American Revolution. I attended Herff Elementary and Poe Jr. High. I graduated from Brackenridge High School in San Antonio in 1944 and attended Del Mar Jr. College in Corpus Christi and the University of Texas.
I served in the Navy in World War II, and was attached to the Marine Corps in the winter of 1943-44. When war later broke out in Korea, I served as a survey sergeant in the 10th Field Artillery Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division of the U. S. Army in the 1951-52 winter campaign in the Korean War.
The Shell-Hole Surveys
Have you ever heard of a shell-hole survey? I have been a surveyor all my life and I have surveyed just about everything that doesn’t move and some things that do, but probably the most unusual surveying I have ever done was a series of shell-hole surveys I helped do during the Korean War. Let me tell you about it. You knew I would.
In early September of 1951, I was a sergeant in a counter-mortar radar unit (CMRU) assigned to the 10th Field Artillery Battalion. The battalion headquarters was behind a hill somewhere a little west of Chowan and a valley lay between the hills that protected our headquarters camp. The hills were occupied by our infantry and another valley separated those hills and the hills occupied by the Chinese army. Scattered along the back edge of the first valley were our artillery batteries. About halfway between those guns and the hills occupied by our infantry we had set up our first CMRU emplacement after we had arrived in the combat zone. There were 15 men in our radar unit, one being a radar technician, and we operated the set in two teams of seven men, 24 hours on and 24 hours off. I had one team and another sergeant, Graham, had the other.
On this day my crew was at the radar site when we heard a walking mini-barrage from six guns working its way across the valley toward us. This was to be our baptism of fire and none of us had any wish to join that church for we had been in the combat zone for less then two weeks.
What I am writing about here is where a battery or batteries of artillery fire their guns at the same time and then lift the barrels a small amount and fire another volley and the shells keep landing closer and closer to a given target.
I believe the Chinese had targeted our radar set because it was a new thing on the battlefield and proving to be a very effective defense against the mortar, especially in their nighttime attacks. Apparently the Chinese had an azimuth (direction) on us, but not the range (distance). They were using the walking mini-barrage to find us.
In the early summer of 1951, the United States Army began training 15 counter-mortar radar units (CMRUs) of 15 men each at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. I was an army reservist and I had volunteered for duty. I had been in the Artillery School of Surveying at Sill taking a month long intensive course in artillery surveying, during which we were totally immersed in the problems of artillery surveying for 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. When I finished the survey school, I volunteered to be trained for the new CMRUs.
The mortar is a simple device. The 60mm mortar--the one I was trained on while attached to the Marine Corps when serving in the Navy in the winter of 1943-44, had a smooth barrel of about 2.4 inches in diameter which could be connected to a base plate by a universal joint on the lower end of the barrel. The barrel was held up at an angle by a bipod, and had an aiming device attached. The angle and direction of the barrel could be changed by various devices when aiming the gun.
The mortar shell looked somewhat like a pregnant rocket with tailfins on the bottom and a detonation fuse on the top. The fuse was activated by removing a cotter pin, as with a hand grenade, and the explosion of the shell was set off by impact with the ground. The bottom of the shell contained a propelling charge in what somewhat resembled a shotgun shell. The propelling charge was fired by gravity when the shell was dropped into the barrel. When assembled, the gun weighed in at about 60 pounds. When taken apart, any of the three parts and a bag of ammunition loaded into a backpack could easily be carried by one man. So a mortar crew usually consisted of four men. The gun killed by the blast and could kill in about a 30-yard radius, if I remember correctly. The gun had a range of about 2,000 yards. To fire the gun we would pull the cotter pin and, being careful to have our head below the top of the barrel, we would drop the shell into the barrel, tailfins down, and gravity did the rest.
I am too lazy to Goggle this stuff so I am working from memory and some of it may be wrong. I don’t know what size mortar the Chinese were using in 1951, but I have some idea it was the 60mm. The Chinese had very little artillery in 1951, and what they had, mostly 78’s, were not very powerful, so they relied heavily on mortars in their infantry attacks to make up for the lack of artillery. Because our artillery could decimate the Chinese infantry in a daylight attack, the Chinese infantry chose to attack at night. A nighttime attack required some light so they could see what they were doing, so they only attacked on nights when something approaching a full moon came up after 2200 hours (10 p.m.). This gave their soldiers at least two hours of darkness to move in close to our infantry and set up their mortars before they began the attack.
The problem from our infantry’s side was that the mortars were almost impossible to locate at night. Thus was born the need for a Counter-Mortar Radar Unit to locate mortars during nighttime attacks, and we were assembled and trained to meet that need. I believe CMRUs were only used in the Korean War and not in any other war, so if there is to be any small mention in military history of what we did and how we did it, it must be recorded in the history of the Korean War and thus I write these stories.
The training in the States for the non-coms for the CMRUs was mostly classroom stuff where we learned how to set up the sets, operate them, and how to do the calculations and plotting necessary to come up with the location of a mortar.
The concept was simple. The mortar fired a round at anywhere from about a 45 degree angle to a 60 degree angle. The shell came down at approximately the same angle. If you use radar to locate the shell in time and space as it goes up and again as it comes down, you can calculate the distance back from the first point to the location of the gun that fired the round. The Army, as was common at the time, furnished us with a special slide rule to do the required calculations.
After about a month of such classroom training and the organization and equipping of the units, we and our equipment were put on a troop train and sent to a departure camp near San Francisco where we were soon loaded onto a troop ship, shipped to Japan, and after that to Pusan on a large ferry ship. From Pusan we went north on a Korean troop train to a training camp just north of Seoul which had been prepared to receive us.
The training camp was ran by a major and a small staff and the man knew how to train troops. Everything we did in that camp or in the fields near the camp was under combat zone rules. We were required to carry our weapons at all times, to stay in uniform at all times, to eat in the open out of field utensils rain or shine. We fell out and into formation every morning at 0500. After breakfast we trained with only short periods of rest and a half hour for the noon meal until 1800 hours for six days a week. We learned to set up and take down a 15-man squad tent. We learned to build bunkers and dig foxholes.
We fired our weapons. We mounted the radar sets in the rear of 4X4 trucks and drove into the fields of nearby Korean farmers, ran off the farmers, set up our antennas, and located mortars over and over and over again. The mortars used in training were mostly fired by me and a small crew. I had been trained on the 60mm mortar during World War II and I knew how to set one up, aim it, and fire it. A small crew of three men and I spent a lot of our time carrying a 60mm mortar and mortar shells up to the top of a Korean hill and firing dummy shells into the nearby fields so the CMRU teams could learn to locate a real mortar.
We also spent one day in our training with an infantry platoon on the front slope of a hill facing the Chinese Army to experience artillery being fired over our head. What we learned there is that the American infantry did not trust the American artillery one damn bit. When the guns started firing shells over our heads, the infantrymen all got out of their open emplacement on the front slope of the hill, walked to the rear, and got into a bunker, leaving us to wonder just what the hell was going to happen to us. But there were no short rounds or proximately fuse shells fired that day, so we survived.
Making a long story short, we went into that camp a bunch of civilians in uniform. We came out as battlefield-ready soldiers. As I said, the Major knew how to train soldiers and if our units had any success it was due to his training methods. We believed him to be gay because he kept one of the most beautiful Korean houseboys you have ever seen. But we had become "cool", and if you are cool you don’t notice such things. Besides, that was his business and none of ours.
When we finished training, each unit was assigned to a different artillery battalion in different divisions across the battle line from one side of the Korean peninsula to the other. We were assigned to the 10th Field Artillery Battalion, which at the time was beyond any question the best field artillery battalion in the world. I have reason to believe we went there because we were the best of the 15 counter-mortar radar units.
As I was saying, the walking mini-barrage must have been intended for us because it sure as hell found us. When we first went on line a few days before during an attack by our troops on a Chinese-held hill, we successfully found the position of our own mortars in the attack. One of our mortar crews was fired on by our artillery because the infantry had flanked the Chinese and were firing from that position and our fire direction center thought it was enemy fire. The night before this first barrage, Graham’s team, during an attack by the Chinese on one of our hills, had successfully located four Chinese mortar positions which were all knocked out by our artillery. I believe the Chinese knew we were bad news for their mortar crews and they decided it was worth risking six guns and the lives of the gunners in an attempt to find and destroy us and the radar set.
We could hear the damn stuff coming a little closer each time the guns fired. We had never been under artillery fire before and we began to panic. After a while, one man took off running to the rear and another soon followed. At that time we were still using foxholes instead of a bunker, and our 4x4 with the radar mounted in the rear, the jeep, the generator, the fifty caliber machine gun, and the antenna were all out in the open.
Hiding my own fears, I begin to talk to the four men I had left, trying to calm them down as I had been taught to do in leadership training. I managed to get all four into their foxholes and I crawled into mine. Soon there was a very loud series of explosions about 50 yards in front of us that put the fear of God into our souls. A few minutes later, what seemed to be a million artillery shells seemed to fall from the sky straight into our midst and the sound of the explosions was unbelievably terrifying. I scrunched down in my hole and shook with fear. I had an almost uncontrollable urge to climb out of that hole and start running, but my training took over and I stayed put. After a while the next volley hit about 50 yards to the rear, and after that another about 100 yards away. Suddenly the fear left me and I became calm and collected. I had "seen the elephant" and I was still alive. I was never again afraid of artillery fire. I was respectful, of course, but never afraid--not of artillery fire or, for that matter, of just about everything else.
I climbed out of my hole and began to take stock of our situation. The huge artillery bombardment we had seemingly survived turned out to be a wiggly line of six artillery shell holes about 50 yards long along the front edge of our camp site. These were not the huge deep holes you see in a World War I movie where the hero was at the bottom of the hole hiding from the Germans and holding a revolver in his hand. No sir, those holes were about 12 inches deep and about 36 inches in diameter, and each had a debris tail about 15 feet long. The shrapnel had apparently gone backward and to the sides as each shell hit the ground, for our antenna, our 4x4 truck, our jeep, our generator, and our .50 caliber machine gun had no damage whatsoever. Not one small scratch.
Three of my crew were wandering around the site in an apparent daze and for some reason looking up into the sky. One man, Johnson, whose foxhole had been in line with the shell holes, was setting on the side of his hole in apparent shock. I could see that the front of his shirt was in tatters that hung from his shirt collar. I walked over to see if he was hurt and saw that a shell had landed about three feet from his hole. When I looked at his back, he was naked from the belt up and only his shirt collar remained, but he had no wounds. He had been lying face down in his hole and the blast from the shell had torn the shirt from his back but left him otherwise unharmed. (At least in the body.) I sent him to headquarters in the jeep to see a medic and get a new uniform. He was shook up for a month or so after the incident, but seemingly recovered over time.
About an hour later our two runners returned shame-faced and apologetic. They swore to God they would never run again. I believed them and did not report them. Running in a combat zone was a court-martial offence and they could have gotten brig time for it if I had reported them, but I had come close to running also, so I had more empathy for them than another man might have had.
That night at about 2200, the moon came up and the Chinese infantry attacked the hills to our front occupied by our infantry. We went on line and we and the artillery took out another four mortar teams. The next morning after Graham’s team had taken over the radar camp, I was doing sack time in our squad tent when the Captain in charge of the fire direction center walked into our tent. I yelled for attention and we all stood up and saluted. The Captain returned the salute, put us at ease, and asked, “Is Sergeant Sinclair here?” I said, “Yes Sir. I‘m Sergeant Sinclair.” He said, “Get your gear and come with me.”
When I walked out of the tent, the Captain was sitting in a jeep with a wire cutter post welded to the front bumper and with a radio, an aiming circle, and a long surveying rod in the back. He was unarmed. What was unusual about this was officers did not drive in a combat zone. Also, we were required to be armed at all times we were out of the squad tent, but here was the Captain sitting in the driver's seat of a jeep with no side arm on his belt and no helmet on his head. I climbed into the seat beside him and we drove off into the valley between us and the hills occupied by our infantry. I could hear ahead of us the sound of a walking mini-barrage. The Captain drove around the barrage and turned toward the rear of the busting shells. I thought maybe the Captain had lost his mind, but we soon stopped at a shell hole and he told me to get the aiming circle from the rear of the jeep.
The aiming circle was a crude surveying instrument with a magnetic needle and a four-power telescope. The horizontal plate was graduated in miles instead of degrees, and the ones shown on the Internet now are much superior to ones we were using in the 1950s. The aiming circle was used to lay (aim) artillery hopefully in the right direction. While somewhat crude, the aiming circles were easy to use and could be set up rapidly. I had learned to use the aiming circle in the survey school at Ft Sill.
The Captain and I walked to the shell hole and he ordered me to set up the aiming circle in the center of the hole. While I was setting up the instrument, he was examining the debris trail left where the shell hit the ground. When an artillery shell hit the ground it left three debris trails--a long one in the direction of the gun that fired the shell and two smaller ones on each side at about a 30-degree angle to the long one. The Captain set up yellow pencils at the end of each debris trail and ordered me to determine the magnetic azimuth of each of the trails. While I was doing that, he dug around in the debris with a belt knife to find the parts of the shell he needed to identify the caliber and the range of the gun.
Each different type of artillery shell had a series of rings at the base that were unique to the caliber and the particular type of gun from which it was fired. Thus, if you could find a piece of the base rings, you knew the caliber and the range of the gun that fired the shell. When I finished determining the azimuths of the debris trail and gave the information to the Captain, he had me hold the line rod in the center of the hole while he talked on the radio. I am not sure what he was doing, but I believe he had moved two forward observers to the rear of the hills they were on and had them shooting azimuths on the line rod so he could locate where the shell had hit. All this time we could hear the mini-barrage walking away from us toward our radar camp.
Soon he had all the information he needed from the first hole, so we got back in the jeep and again headed toward the sound of the barrage. When we found another shell hole we repeated the process, but this time much faster because we both knew what had to be done. After the second hole, we did a hole in less then five minutes. I don’t remember how many we did--possibly as many as ten or as few as six. After a while he gave me a thumbs up and I put the aiming circle and the line rod in their cases and got in beside the Captain where he had been talking on the radio. Soon he started the jeep and we headed back toward headquarters. The Captain wasn’t a very talkative man, but about halfway in he started talking. “I think we have them,” he said. “I had some stuff from the sound station and one or two flashes, but we had to have an azimuths to go with the other stuff. It all looks good. Anyway, I have called a Division Time-on-Target on where we believe the guns are. If you listen real carefully you will hear the “whoump” sound a TOT makes when it hits the ground. If you are close, the ground shakes like from an earthquake.” A few seconds later we heard that “whoump” sound and a beautiful smile spread across the Captain’s face as though he had just heard the opening bars of a Chopin masterpiece.
A Division TOT meant that all of the artillery in a division--including the big guns in the rear, fired on the same target in such a sequence that all of the shells landed in approximately the same place at approximately the same time.
When we reached our squad tent I jumped out of the jeep, rushed inside, and called Graham on the field telephone to find out if he had been hit. He said everyone was okay and that the mini-walking barrage had stopped about 100 yards from the radar set just before he heard the “whoump” sound
What did it all mean? What it boiled down to was that our Captain and the Chinese Artillery Captain on the other side had been playing a game with each other. The Chinese Captain had an azimuth (direction) on the radar set but not the range (distance), so he was using the mini-walking barrage to try to find us to destroy the radar set and kill as many of us as possible. To counter him, our Captain had to find the Chinese Captain’s guns so he could destroy the guns and kill the gun crews before they could destroy his radar set and kill us.
Our Captain had a range from sound and other sources, but no azimuth. So, using the data from the shell-hole surveys, he arrived at a mean of all the azimuths we had taken and used that together with the other information he had to locate the guns. He didn’t have to know the precise location of the guns. If the center of the TOT landed within 250 yards of the actual location, the guns would still be destroyed and the gunners killed. So you might say it was a “sudden death” game, winner take all. Our Captain won. He scored first. That “whoump” sound was the end of the walking mini-barrages in our sector. We were shelled many more times, but with only one gun firing three shells before it was towed back into its tunnel.
You might think I am flaunting my bravery here, but there was no bravery on my part. I had been ordered out on that battlefield to help with those shell-hole surveys by a Captain in the United States Army while I was in a Combat Zone, and if I had refused that order I just might have spent the rest of my life in an army brig. No, if there is a hero here it was the Captain. My understanding is that he was West Point and he could have stayed in the Fire Direction Center and ordered someone else to do the shell hole surveys, but he didn’t. Instead, he left that secure place and came out on the battlefield where he was needed because he wished to stop those barrages. He knew a way to do it, and he did stop them. Wars are not won by generals. Wars are won by such men as our Captain. I am bragging a little here to my fellow surveyors. I don’t think many of them have ever done a shell-hole survey.
The Russian Rocket Launcher
I would like to say I got it all by myself, but I didn’t. It was just good military teamwork of the type we Americans are good at.
On a night in November 1951, our division sector on the front line in Korea was under attack by the Chinese. I was in a bunker carved into a hillside about halfway between the infantry and the artillery, operating a counter-mortar radar set. The console was about the size of a modern computer and the electronics were somewhat similar. The antenna was outside in the open, and as it turned back and forth it bounced a radar beam off a small mound in front of the antenna. I had my hands on two knobs, one on each side of the console screen. One knob ran a small dot on the screen horizontally and the other ran the dot vertically.
A mortar fired a shell up into the sky at about a 60-degree angle, and the shell made a large arc through the sky and came down at about the same angle. Mortars were good for shooting over hills or into foxholes or trenches. They were standard for all infantry and guerilla operations because both the gun and the shells were light and could be carried and moved with ease.
Our radar set was configured to catch the mortar shell as it went up through the radar beam and as it came down through the radar beam. As I operated the set, I held one hand on each knob and watched until I saw a blip on the screen indicating that a shell had gone up though the radar beam. I would say, “Time” into my headset, and my assistant back at the fire direction center would start a stopwatch as I pushed in on the two knobs to stop the reception. By turning the knobs I then moved the dot on the screen over the blip and read off the azimuth and distance into my headset. I then pulled the two knobs out, waited for the shell to come down through the beam, and repeated the process. My assistant, using a slide rule, calculated the distance back from the first point to the location of the mortar to provide the fire direction center with the coordinates of the mortar. Our artillery gunners did the rest.
On this particular night I was operating the radar set in the bunker as a battle raged on the hills in front of us. Suddenly, I saw a large blip appear on the screen. I pushed in the two knobs, got the azimuth and distance, and waited to see if something came down. When it didn’t, I spoke into the mike. “Let me talk to the captain.” The captain was in charge of the fire direction center and he allocated the available cannon fire during a battle. It was about two minutes before he came on the line. I told him what I had seen.
He said that an observer with our infantry had already reported receiving rocket fire. Using the coordinates he got from me and the coordinates he got from the observer, he could project a line back to where the rockets came from. Making a good guess, within minutes of the time the rockets were fired he called down a full division of artillery fire. Time on target.
At daybreak the captain sent up a spotter plane and, sure ‘nough, we got it. That huge Russian truck and all its 24 rocket barrels, together with its Russian crew, were scattered all over the landscape on the side of that Korean hill.
That was the last time the Chinese fired rockets at the Third Division. No one was supposed to be able to take out a rocket launcher because they could be moved too fast, but we did exactly that. I believe they thought we had some new technology, but the fact is, it was good training and little bit of luck that brought an end to that truck.
In the Korean War in late 1951 and early 1952, after the peace talks had started, our artillery batteries were given so many shells each day to fire at the Chinese army as ‘harassing fire.” Since we did so, the Chinese had to also. “Harassing fire” is where an army has its artillery fire artillery shells at the enemy for no other purpose than to annoy, demoralize, or terrorize the enemy’s troops. True, there were occasional casualties; we lost an MP directing traffic at a road crossing to harassing fire. The shell landed on top of his helmet. So what can you say?
The Chinese had much less artillery then we, so in one sector we occupied in the early days of our stay, their army used only one gun for harassing fire. It was a 78mm, a World War I relic that was very useful in their fight against war lords. The Chinese soldiers dug a tunnel into the side of a hill to protect the gun and each day the gun crew periodically rolled the 78 out of its tunnel, put what we called screamers (noise makers) on three shells, fired those shells over our heads, and then very quickly rolled the gun back into the tunnel. They repeated the process four or five times each day.
The screamers made a high pitch sound that sounded somewhat like a siren gone mad. The sound was one very long scream that could be heard for at least a mile each side of the bullet’s trajectory. Because of the screamers we could hear the shell as it left the barrel. Since the Chinese gun crew fired for maximum range to get the maximum effect from each shell, the sound lasted quite a while.
Our counter-mortar radar crew was situated halfway between the artillery and the infantry. It was neither "fish nor fowl." It was a special unit of the army, but not with the army. Seemingly bait for a Chinese night patrol, we whiled away our time playing cards, reading, and arguing with each other over anything and everything. We ate our C-Rations of ham and eggs, beans and wieners, spaghetti and meatballs, ham and lima beans and a few crackers out of cans opened with a small GI can opener. Sometimes we ate them cold and sometimes we warmed them on a small stove. We drank our C-Ration coffee, smoked our C-Ration cigarettes, watched the jet planes work--strafing and dropping napalm (a beautiful sight if there ever was one). We stood guard at night in two-hour shifts, watching the constellations rotate around our head and standing in order to stay awake. We stood in a particular place so a patrol would have to kill the guard and in doing so make enough noise to wake the others who were asleep on the ground in the bunker, fully-clothed with boots on, rifles stacked against the wall. And dirt! Everyone was dirty with no way to become clean.
We seemingly only existed to come alive on moonlit nights for a short period of time to operate a radar set and speak numbers into a headset. As for our counter-radar crew, it was simply impossible not to turn our heads and look up over our shoulders to watch and listen when the noise from a fired shell started. It was also impossible not to watch and listen as the shells pushed their way through the resisting air, for the shells reached the peak of their long arc either directly over our heads or off to either side.
When the enemy’s harassing fire started, our officers ignored the problem for a week or so and then started answering the 78 with one gun fired at the entrance to the tunnel immediately after the 78 fired three rounds. But our gunners were too slow or their aim was bad, because every time they fired at the 78, a few hours later the Chinese gun would again fire three rounds with screamers attached. After a week or so of one gun returning fire from the 78, our leaders started using a full battery of guns to return fire and try to silence the 78. When that didn’t work, our gunners went to an occasional battalion TOT, hoping to catch the 78’s gunners at a weak moment. But some time after each TOT, the 78 would fire its allotted three rounds and then go silent for awhile. Our officers called up the jets and the pilots dutifully fired rockets at the entrance to the tunnel. But, of course, that did no good whatsoever.
After a few more days of counter battery fire, the jets returned and dropped napalm at the tunnel entrance. But it was all a waste of time and effort, for shortly after the jets left after napalming the tunnel, the 78’s gun crew rolled out the gun and three more shells went screaming across the heavens. Shortly after the napalm was dropped, we moved on. I have no idea what happened to the 78 after we left. But during the efforts to silence that gun, I began to respect or even admire that gun and its gun crew. I sometimes think of that gun as still waiting patiently in its tunnel these many long years later--waiting for a new gun crew to come and roll it out so it can once again fling a scream of defiance across a sunlit sky.
The Jet Planes
Iccobucci and I were at the radar set. The others had gone to the headquarters camp for a hot meal and we were having a cold lunch out of C-Ration cans when I first heard the sound of a jet plane flying low. I looked eastward across the wide valley we were in and there was a jet plane about 300 yards from us flying at about 100 feet above the ground and headed for the saddle between the two hills south of us. Our headquarters camp was protected by the hill to the east, and we would drive up through the saddle and turn left to reach headquarters.
The jet plane was headed directly toward the saddle, and when the airplane came near the hills the pilot fired two rockets from beneath the airplane’s wings. As the two rockets burned their way toward the saddle, the pilot lifted the nose of the airplane. As the airplane rapidly gained altitude, I followed it with my eyes and saw two more jet planes high in the sky. One of them was in the process of pealing off to start the long curved descent that would bring it on the same path through the air that the first plane had taken.
About 20 yards east of us was a .50-caliber machine gun inside a three to four-foot high ring of dirt-filled ammunition boxes approximately ten feet in diameter. The machine gun was on a dual service mount, so it could be fired while standing. There was a box of ammunition in a metal box attached to the mount, but the gun was not loaded.
Iccobucci and I, seemingly without thinking, both made a mad dash for the gun so as to be the one to fire it. I got there first. I stood behind the gun and began trying to load it. Iccobucci, an Italian-American from New York City and the best friend I had on the crew, came up behind me, grabbed me by the arms, and threw me to the ground. He got behind the gun and prepared to load it. I had 20 pounds and 6 inches on Iccobucci, so I got off the ground, sucker-punched him in the jaw, grabbed him by one arm, and, turning, threw him out of the machine gun nest. Again I got behind the gun and began to try and load it, but I was trying to work too fast and I couldn’t get it loaded. Iccobucci got up off the ground, walked up to the gun, pushed my hands out of the way, loaded the gun, pulled the bolt back, sent a bullet into the breach, and stood back out of the way so I could fire the gun.
By the time I took hold of the two handles and turned the barrel to the east out across the valley, the jet plane was only 300 yards from me and about a hundred feet high and flying level. I had never fired a machine gun at an airplane before, but I had shot many a Texas dove with a shotgun, so I knew I had to lead the plane and I knew I had to aim high. I did all that and I fired a long burst of .50 caliber shells at the jet plane. The tracers indicated that I was right on. To this day I firmly believe I put holes in that jet plane, but I didn’t bring it down.
Our artillery batteries were scattered along the base of the hills to the south of us. Either between the batteries or with the batteries there was a series of anti-aircraft guns that I did not know was there. While they were not ready for the first jet, they were for the second one. As the airplane approached the base of the hill, there suddenly appeared a bunch of flack (black bursts of anti-aircraft fire) above the plane. I believe the plane was too low for the anti-aircraft fire to be effective, because the bursts were all well above the plane. Nevertheless, when the pilot saw those bursts he turned the nose of that airplane straight up, switched on his after burners, and went up as fast and as high as he could possibly go. He then circled around, found his two buddies, and all three airplanes flew off to the west.
I turned to Iccobucci and asked, “Were they Chinese?” “No,” he answered. “They were ours. Navy. I could see the markings.” I replied, “Shit, we are in big trouble.” About 15 minutes later, a spotter plane--a light single engine, low altitude/high wing single pilot aircraft used for observation, flew over the site flying very erratically, banking first one way and then the other, as if the pilot couldn’t decide what to do. I have been told that everyone within 500 yards of that plane on that day who had a weapon of any type--pistol, carbine, rifle or grease gun, fired it at that airplane. So there were others besides Iccobucci and me who had a need to fire at that airplane. We just had a larger gun.
I was also told that when the jet planes were flying low they were moving so fast the pilots could not truly see the ground; that the ground was just a blur of color to the pilots and for that reason the spotter planes had to be with them to put them on target and to make sure they were doing what they were supposed to do. What had happened in this case was their spotter plane was late and the jet pilots decided to go to work without the help of the pilot of the spotter plane. I don’t know if any of this is true, but it would explain how and why those airplanes attacked a valley with so many trucks and jeeps with big white stars painted on the hoods.
I believe what saved the situation from being even worse than it turned out to be was the anti-aircraft bursts. The Chinese did not have anti-aircraft guns, at least not in our sector. So when the second plane’s pilot saw those anti-aircraft shells burst above his cockpit, he probably knew he was in the wrong bar and he took off as fast as he could go.
The Chinese used heavy machine guns of the type I was firing to return fire from the jet planes. I keep saying jet plane because I like the sound of the words, but the P-51 Mustang propeller aircraft from World War II were mostly used for strafing the Chinese troops and watching them work was entertainment for us. It was sort of like having a real life version of Hell’s Angels in our back yard.
When a flight arrived and started to work, the “bachelors”, as we called them, flew very low, right down on the ground with the Chinese troops. We could hear their guns chattering away. On the other hand, “the married men”, as we called them, flew so high that their fire couldn’t possibly have had any effect on what was happening on the ground. There were never more than two bachelors in any flight, so most of our intrepid pilots apparently held to Falstaff’s axiom that “Caution is the better part of valor.”
The Chinese troops were trained and disciplined. They waited until the last plane of the flight came down so as not to give away their position, and then fired their machine guns at that airplane. We saw the tracers forming a half arch in the sky and heard the faint sound of the chatter of the Chinese machine guns.
Several days after the incident with the jet planes, Lieutenant Beatty, the officer in charge of our radar unit, ordered me to report to the Colonel’s tent. I arrived expecting the worse, sat around outside for 30 minutes or so, and was finally ushered into his presence. I threw him a highball, stood at stiff attention, and for fifteen minutes he ate me out for shooting at an American airplane. The Colonel was an expert at doing what he was doing, as most such officers are, so he let me have it with both barrels. But all the while he was giving me hell he had a big smile on his face, which always indicated that the officer or noncommissioned officer doing the chewing had been ordered to issue a reprehend, but disagreed with that order. When he finished, he gave me a friendly handshake with his left hand closed over our two hands and we parted the best of friends. But I can’t help but wonder what he would have done if that million dollar airplane and its carrier-trained pilot had been scattered in small pieces across the ground of that Korean valley.
The first plane’s rockets fired at and hit a truck turning from the main road from Seoul into our headquarters camp. The eight replacements riding in the rear of the truck and the driver were killed instantly. After their long trip from home, the replacements never set foot in a combat zone. They were certainly listed as non-combat deaths. The jet plane pilots made an awful mistake when they attacked us that day, but we really can’t point fingers, for it would not be long before we, the 10th Field Artillery Battalion, the best of the best, at Dagmar, would also make an awful mistake. It happens far too often in war, for even the best of men are fallible.
A Thanksgiving Dinner
At about 0400 in the morning on Thanksgiving Day in 1951, the soldier on guard duty shook me until I woke up. “Graham is on the field phone," he said. "He wants to talk to you.” Graham was a tech-sergeant and my immediate superior. Fully clothed in army issued pants and a shirt with large pockets, and with my boots on, I slipped out of my sleeping bag, got to my feet, and picked up the receiver. “Pack it up and bring it in. We’re moving,” Graham stated without explanation.
I made some obscene remark and hung up the telephone. I lit a cigarette and poured myself a cup of yesterday’s coffee from a can on top of the camp stove in the bunker, put on my helmet and field jacket, and began to wake the others. By 0500 we had the generator and its trailer hooked up to the small truck, the radar antenna strapped to the top of the field-made rear cabin, our .50 caliber machine gun disassembled and placed in the truck, and our sleeping bags, stove, and other meager belongings stored in the cabin where the radar set was mounted. Armed with carbines, I, with Gonzales driving and Iccobuccie in the rear, mounted the jeep and with De Palma and the others following in the small truck, we drove down the hill and back to the headquarters encampment of our artillery battalion.
By the time we arrived, Graham had the squad tent down and packed into the large truck with all of our other gear. We ate our breakfast out of C-ration cans and soon we were in a convoy made up of our artillery battalion and a regiment of infantry. Slowly we wove our way westward through the Korean hills for several hours on a series of dirt roads. In the valleys we drove through small abandoned farm fields grown over with weeds, and saw an occasional stone hut that had been reduced to rubble by artillery fire to prevent them being used for cover. On the crest of the hills we could see the small burial mounds where the Koreans had placed their dead.
When dawn broke, it became a cloudy, cool day with an occasional light drizzle. At about 0900 we forded the Imjin River and pulled off the main road and into a wooded valley with low hills on either side. At the upper end of the valley, we saw a huge rounded hill with a knob on top that dominated the sky. It would not have taken Freud to tell us that we were looking at a perfect image of a woman’s breast with an erect nipple. The road in the valley leading up to the hill was bordered by abandoned farm fields, and the tops of the hills on either side were covered with pine trees with the tops pointing skyward much as the pikes of an ancient army. The convoy came to a halt, we dismounted and stared at the huge hill, and someone said, “That’s Dagmar Hill.” Dagmar was a young woman television comedian of that time, and Dagmar’s body was the stuff of which dreams are made. There was never a hill more aptly named than Dagmar Hill.
We gathered around Lieutenant Ball to try to learn what was going on and he obliged. “We are relieving the Canadian’s on Dagmar and we are trying to do it without the Chinese realizing we are relieving. Our generals do not trust the limeys to hold Dagmar, so they sent us to hold it. We are doing this on Thanksgiving Day because the Chinese won’t believe we will do anything on a national holiday. If the Chinese learn we are relieving, they will attack, hoping to take advantage of the confusion. So be careful to do everything right and to do it as fast as possible. Our colonel is the best commanding officer in the U S Army and he will expect the best of us.” Ball could sound stupid without even trying.
We mounted and drove up the road into the valley. After a while, we pulled off the road to the left and into the remains of a dried-out bean field. Pheasants arose at our arrival and flew off into the distance. A small deer broke cover, scrambled up the slope, and disappeared over the ridge line.
Here we stopped and began to establish a headquarters camp. As we were putting up our squad tent, we could see our infantry, which had dismounted, trudging up one side of the road toward the top of Dagmar while the Canadians came down on the other side of the road. We could also see the cooks with their tents up, busily preparing dinner. A battery of our artillery began to set up in an abandoned cornfield across the road.
After we got our tent up and our gear unpacked we had nothing to do, for we had not yet been given our field position. I walked to the edge of the road, sat down on a large rock, lit a cigarette, and watched the gunners set up artillery in the field across the road while the two columns of infantry streamed up and down the road. The Americans loaded down with rifles, ammunition, grenades and back packs stared down at the ground as they walked, their faces set and the stress already beginning to set in. The Canadians walked briskly and their faces were beginning to relax.
After a while Graham came over, lit a cigarette, squatted on the ground next to me, and watched with me. “These jokers are the Colonel’s favorites,” Graham said of the gunners. “They are good, you know.” “Ya, I know,” I answered. “That is why I am watching.” “The cooks are preparing us a Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings,” Graham said. “The Colonel has the bastards working like dogs. He said we were going to have a turkey dinner if it hair-lips Harry Truman.” Graham dropped the butt of his cigarette on the ground and carefully ground it out with the toe of his right boot. “I was up most of the night. I am going to get some sack time,” he said, walking back toward our squad tent. “I am right behind you,” I said.
Around 1300 someone came to the tent and announced chow was ready. We got up and began to move toward the mess tents. As we went, the battery across the road fired a tentative salvo. We got in the mess line, and, as we passed the serving tables, the men working the mess line piled each tray with turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. Graham, standing in line, grinned and remarked, “Our mess is the best in the world. The old man will not put up with sorry cooks. He wants us to have the best and that’s what we have.” No one disagreed.
The battery across the road began to fall into rhythm and the salvos came more quickly. In the distance we could hear the other batteries accepting the challenge and trying to keep up. We moved into the enlisted men’s mess tent, sat down at a table, and began to enjoy our food. A man from the fire direction center came in with his tray and sat down one table away.
“The fuckin’ Chinese didn’t buy it,” he said to no one in particular. The tent fell silent. “They attacked when we had half our infantry up and half the Canadians still there. They pushed our infantry off the hill.” He took a mouthful of dressing, chewed and swallowed. “The fuckin’ radios ain’t working and the telephone wire isn’t up. We have lost contact with the troops.” He took a swig of coffee and looked around, enjoying the attention he was getting. “The Chinese are looking straight down our throats from up on that hill and they can see every gun we got and every tent The captain says if we can’t retake the hill in the next thirty minutes, we are going to bug out.”
Graham and I finished our meal, lit cigarettes, walked out into the square formed by the tents, and stood not far from the Colonel’s personal tent. We looked up at knob on top of Dagmar and our artillery shells were falling on it like rain from a hurricane. The entire knob was one big explosion after another, with each explosion throwing up a huge cloud of dirt. We stood there and tried to decide what to do. “We better find Ball,” Graham suggested.
About that time, a jeep slid to a halt in front of us in a cloud of dust and an infantry Captain--his face haggard and his uniform, helmet, and body caked with dirt, dismounted and screamed at Graham, “Where’s your fucking Colonel!” The Colonel heard the commotion and came out of his tent. The Captain rushed up to him and, standing at least six inches taller, he bent over the Colonel forcing him to look up. Their helmets almost touched and their faces were no more than four inches apart. “You son-of-a-bitch!” screamed the Captain. “You have killed 16 of my men." “You dropped off,” whispered the Colonel, his voice pleading. “No, you bastard,” spoke the Captain, his voice firming and pride kicking in. “We held on the front slope, and we are going to keep holding. You are only firing at the nipple. Now stop your fucking guns! I have to get those bodies off Dagmar.”
In Korea on Thanksgiving evening in 1951 when the debacle on Dagmar was over, the battle for Dagmar continued unabated. The hill was the highest in the area and thus controlled the terrain in all directions. Dagmar also blocked the route the Chinese had used to take Seoul when they first entered the war. The British and the South Korean Infantry had taken Dagmar from the Chinese in October and the Chinese very much wanted it back in November.
A regiment of American infantry and our field artillery battalion had replaced the Canadians on Dagmar on Thanksgiving morning with orders to hold the hill at any cost. The battle that had started Thanksgiving morning on November 22, 1951 lasted four more days, with the Chinese army pounding the hill with artillery and mortar fire and launching infantry attack after infantry attack both day and night. For a short period at night one time, the Chinese held the summit. But when the battle finally ended after four days, the summit of the hill, the ridge lines on either side, the front slope of the hill and the ridgelines, and the valley below as far as the eye could see were littered with hundreds and hundreds of dead bodies of Chinese soldiers, and our infantry held Dagmar. On November 27, 1951, the day after the battle ended, the North Korean and Chinese peace negotiators returned to their seats at the peace talks in Panmunjom, Korea. They had been gone four months. Many soldiers of the Third Infantry Division who had fought at the first battle of Old Baldy in September of 1951 also defended Dagmar in the November battle, and many of them died there.
On that Thanksgiving evening, the men of our Counter Mortar Radar Unit were in our squad tent among the other tents housing Headquarters Company of the 10th Field Artillery Battalion. We had not been part of the battle, and our new field location had not yet been given to us.
The tent was about thirty two feet long and sixteen feet wide. There were two twelve-foot long vertical tent poles holding up the center at about six feet from each end, six-foot long vertical tent poles at all four corners and at intervals along each side, tie-down lines at intervals along each side and at each end, and entry openings at each end. Next to the bottom of each of the two vertical tent poles in the center was an oil burning metal stove with a stove pipe going up and through the top of the tent.
The tent had been designed for a twelve-man infantry squad, thus the name, but our fifteen men could fit in it in comfort. There was two feet of extra canvas at the bottom of the walls that we called "the flaps.” The flaps were supposed to be dug into the ground so as to seal the tent from the weather on the outside, but digging the trench to put the flaps in was difficult and time consuming. If we dug the flaps in and the earth froze as it often did in Korea, the only way to move the tent would be to cut off the flaps. So we put the flaps on our tent on top of the ground on the outside of the tent with only enough rocks and soil on top to keep them from blowing upward during a windstorm. Someone could enter the tent by crawling under the flaps and not have to go through the openings at each end. There was an electric light at the top of each of the two center poles with electricity provided by a large, oil-burning generator that went with Headquarters Company.
Sergeant Graham’s cot was at one end of the tent and my cot was at the other. We were waiting for Taps to be broadcast over the loudspeakers to turn out our lights. The poker cards had been put away and the stories, brags and arguments concluded for the day. In the distance we could hear our artillery batteries as they fired salvo after salvo towards the battle raging on the hill and the big guns to our rear as they joined in. We could also faintly hear the machine guns chatter in short, fast bursts of fire. Such sounds had become part of our environment, and we paid no more attention to them than one would pay to the sound of automobile traffic along a busy street.
I was preparing to slide into my sleeping bag when something caught my eye and I looked up. There, standing in the center of the tent between the two rows of cots, was an infantryman. Graham must have seen him at the same time, because we both got to our feet and approached him from opposite ends of the tent. The others followed, and we gathered around the infantryman.
He was a white man about six feet tall, dressed in dirty trousers and a filthy field jacket over a shirt with large pockets. His helmet and face were streaked with mud, and different types of vegetation hung from various parts of his helmet, his uniform, and his body. He held a Garand rifle in one hand, and a half-empty cloth bandoleer of ammunition clips hung over one shoulder under his field jacket.
His age was indeterminate. Infantry soldiers who had been on the hills and the ridge lines for any time appeared to be five to ten years older then they actually were. After their first battle, the facemask that all infantrymen maintained to conceal their inner self from others melted away and their face muscles relaxed. Lines extended across their foreheads, wrinkles appeared at the edge of the eyes and mouth and on their necks and cheeks, and their faces took on a permanent quizzical look, as though they could not decide who or what they were. As Graham and I approached this infantryman, he turned to Graham and began to speak in a monotone as though he was speaking to us through the twilight. He said, “Fellows, I need to sleep here tonight. I will go back up in the morning. I promise you that. It was hell up there and I ran. I didn’t come down the trail. I came down the side of the hill and have been hiding in a cornfield all afternoon. But it’s drizzling now and I am cold and tired. Let me sleep here tonight, and I will go back up in the morning. I won’t get in trouble. The Sarg will cover for me. He has for others. I will go back up in the morning. I promise you that.”
“No problem,” Graham said without hesitation. “We have a man in the hospital and you can sleep on his cot.” Graham took the infantryman by the arm, led him to the empty cot, and sat him down on the side. Graham offered him a cigarette and took his Zippo lighter from his pocket, lit the man’s cigarette, and placed the package of cigarettes and the lighter beside the man on the cot. The infantry man took a deep draw on the cigarette, inhaled, and blew smoke from his mouth.
“Are you hungry?” asked Graham. “We have C-Rations and hot coffee if you wish some.” “Yes," he said. "I am starving and I need to eat.” Iccobucci spoke up. “To hell with the C-Rations. I have some pepperoni and bread. I’ll make him a sandwich.” He turned and went to his cot and started digging in his barracks bag for his hoard.
As the infantryman sat on the side of the cot waiting for his sandwich, he started talking again as if to himself. “I will go back up in the morning. It was hell up there. About half of us were in the Canadian trench when the Chinese hit us with artillery and mortars. Then their infantry swarmed the hill, blowing bugles, yelling as they do, and firing short bursts from their burp guns to make us seek cover. Mortar shells were raining down on our positions, but on that steep slope their infantry could only move at a crawl. We were slaughtering them. And then, our own artillery shells began to burst over us, and I ran. I will go back up in the morning.”
Iccobucci brought the sandwich and a canteen cup of red wine and placed them in the infantryman’s hands. The infantryman sat the wine on the ground at his feet and began to eat. I grabbed Iccobucci by the arm and said, “You bastard, you have been hiding sausage and wine from us.” He replied, “How about that whiskey you've been sipping on when you thought no one was watching? We know you've got whiskey. We all know that you've got whiskey.”
While Iccobucci and I were arguing and questioning each other’s ancestry, the infantryman finished his sandwich and downed the red wine from the canteen cup in one long swallow. He then picked up his rifle that had been leaning on the edge of the cot, placed it on the ground beside the cot, put his helmet on top of the rifle, removed his filthy field jacket, placed it over the helmet and rifle, and lay down across the cot--bandoleer still across his chest, boots on, covered with mud. He muttered to himself one more time, “I will go back up in the morning.” And immediately fell asleep.
Sammy DePalma found a blanket and covered him. Soon Taps came sweet and clear across our camp and we turned out the lights and went to our cots. The next morning when Reveille blasted over the loudspeakers and we rolled out of our cots, the infantryman was gone. He apparently left the way he had come, by crawling under the tent flaps. We never saw him again, but I am sure he went back up that hill just as he said he would. I can only hope he survived that war. I sincerely hope he survived that war.
Every man in that tent was fully aware that sheltering the infantryman was a court martial offense--for Graham and I for certain, and probably for all of the men in that tent. But absolutely no one spoke up against what we did that night, and no officer ever became aware of what we had done. It was our secret and we kept it that way until now when I tell it to you.
The historical parts of this story have been pieced together by this writer from accounts of the battles for Hill 355 (known as Dagmar by American troops, Gibraltar by British troops, and Kowang-San by the valiant Chinese troops who were there) and the surrounding hills and ridge lines. The accounts were posted by others who were there, on a website called “Imjin Buddy Bunkers." There is no other source. These are forgotten battles in a forgotten war.
"Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness.... When experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
- George Santayana
The contents of this memoir are copyrighted