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Ray L. Walker
USMC 1090705: 1948 - 1952
"When I went to Korea my concepts were shaped by the movie actor, John Wayne. When I left Korea I doubt I thought in those terms anymore. Reality has a way of making Hollywood's version of heroes and war seem a little shallow."
- Ray L. Walker
Understanding Marine Operations
In 1948 only 70,000 Marines were allowed to serve on active duty because Louis Johnson, our nation’s Secretary of Defense, reduced the size of the military in keeping with the then large military budget cuts. When the Korean War broke out, that was about how many there were. By the time the First Marine Division, Reinforced, landed at Inchon, the Corps had put together almost 25,000 Marines in Korea, no draftees. That included Marine Air, artillery, weapons companies—all of it.
A weapons company handles large mortars--81mm and up, 75-mm recoilless rifles, .30 caliber and .50 caliber
machine guns, and 3.5 bazooka anti-tank weapons. Weapons companies are assigned to battalions and directed by the
battalion commander in support of companies in assault or for battalion defense.
A Marine Division consists of three infantry regiments, as well as one artillery regiment. An artillery regiment is directed by the division commander in support of the infantry regiments. The 1st Division included the 1st, 5th and 7th Marine infantry regiments, as well as the 11th Marine artillery regiment. Each infantry regiment has three battalions. Each battalion has three rifle companies. Each rifle company has three rifle platoons and a mortar platoon. Each rifle platoon has three squads. Each squad has three four-man fire teams and a squad leader. Each fire team has one fire team leader, one scout-rifleman, one BAR man (Browning automatic rifle) and one assistant BAR man. The assistant keeps the magazines loaded and protects the BAR man’s sides and rear. The fire team leader is usually a corporal, with a buck sergeant being the squad leader. In the Brigade, a/k/a 5th Marines, we had three battalions—1st, 2nd, 3rd. Each battalion was supposed to have three companies. In the 1st battalion we only had two—A & B (no C); 2nd battalion had D and E, but no F. Third battalion had G & H, but no I. So it is pretty logical: 1st Battalion—ABC, 2nd Battalion—DEF, 3rd Battalion—GHI. Without those third companies it makes it very difficult to conduct safe operations, normally two in assault and one in reserve.
Attached to Marine battalions were Navy corpsmen. Amongst Marines the Navy is the good-natured butt of jokes and a certain amount of patronization, but not the corpsmen. They are at the head of line for honor and respect. Any Marine that has been in combat will praise the corpsmen. We treat them as Marines, even though they are in the Navy. They carry the rank of Hospitalman 1st Class, 2nd class, 3rd class or Chief, abbreviated as HM1, etc., and they are always listed at the end of each unit listing and unto themselves. They are assigned to H&S units and also to rifle companies. So the largest listing will be in H&S. Then there are things like Charlie Co., 1st Medical Battalion. Wherever Marines fight, corpsmen are next to them. They are the ones that crawl out under enemy fire to retrieve the wounded. Their casualty rates are high and their Medal of Honor awards, from World War II through Nam, are quite high considering their total numbers. From a Marine standpoint, these people are the most honored and important people in any Marine infantry unit.
Joining up with the Brigade
I originally left the mainland in December of 1948 for Hawaii and Guam aboard the USS Thomas Jefferson out of Hunters Point, San Francisco. That was my first trip aboard a ship, a Navy troop transport, but I was never seasick. I had no duties, other than working in the scullery on occasion. It took well over a week to get there. I don’t recall much about that trip. I was scheduled to go to Guam but developed German measles aboard ship and was put off at Hawaii and placed in Aiea Heights Naval Hospital. When discharged from the hospital I was stationed at Kaneohe Naval Air station, and was sometimes on temporary duty (TDY) to Haiku radio station, which drew its small guard detachment from Kaneohe on a rotating basis. Later in 1949, and until August of 1950, I was stationed at Pearl Harbor, where I served under Col. Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller in a guard company, both on the main gate and later on Jeep Patrol out of the Provost Marshall’s office. Able Barracks covered the main gate, and Baker Barracks covered the Jeep Patrol and Provost’s office.
When the Korean War broke out, I was sent to Korea, flying from Hawaii to Tachikawa air base in Japan, then flying in an Air Force C-47 from Japan to a dirt strip at Masan, near what was called the Bean Patch, some few miles north and west of Pusan. Col. Puller went back to the States to Camp Pendleton to form the 1st Marine Regiment, and he and that newly-formed regiment later joined up with three other regiments in Korea as the 1st Marine Division. Col. Puller was the commanding officer of the 1st Regiment; Lieutenant Colonel Murray was C/O of the 5th Regiment; and Col. Litzenberg was C/O of the 7th Regiment. Brigadier General Eddie Craig was C/O of the Brigade and LtCol. Murray was directly under General Craig.
The people who had been in the Brigade from Guam to Pendleton and then to Korea all knew Craig well and thought very highly of him. I never met him until 1988 when I emceed the first Brigade reunion and was privileged to award him a memorial of the Brigade’s high regard for him. He died several years ago in San Diego.
By the end of July 1950, the 8th Army was about to get kicked off the Korean peninsula. Gen. Walton Walker, commanding general of the 8th Army, was begging for all the help he could get, but they couldn’t hold the North Korean army back. The Marine Brigade landed at Pusan on August 2nd and went into combat on August 7th. Between August 7th and September 6th, the Brigade stopped the North Korean army cold, defeated it, and turned their route into a blood bath wherein the Naktong River literally ran red with blood. The Naktong is a major river system that runs from the northwest to the southeast, generally, and was the primary natural defense system for Pusan.
The 5th Marine Regiment formed as the 1st Provisional Brigade in Camp Pendleton, CA in July 1950. A brigade is a reinforced regiment; i.e., carries its own Marine air, and an artillery regiment, the 11th Marines, and all necessary supporting forces, such as tanks, much like a division would need, except less of everything compared to a division. The Brigade set sail on July 15 aboard the APAs Pickaway, Clymer and Henrico. These APAs carried the infantry. The 1st Marine air wing’s VM33 squadron sailed on the carriers Badoeng Strait, later joined by the Boxer. Some troops sailed on LSDs Ft. Marion and Gunston Hall, AKAs Alshain and Whiteside. APA and AKA are naval designations for troop transports. An LSD is a landing ship, probably carrying the artillery and tanks. The Henrico developed engine problems on the first day of the trip and had to return to San Diego to repair. It left a day or two later and caught up with the convoy. All landed at Pusan on August 2nd and went on line August 7th, the anniversary of the Guadalcanal landings in World War II.
The 1st Provisional Marine Brigade was made up of over 6500 men (all regulars, and no draftees or reservists). The Brigade, most of whose fighting force were Marines from the West and Southwest who had trained at Camp Pendleton and Guam, went into combat in Korea on August 7th, and fought the first Naktong campaign until August 18th or 19th. The Brigade got a large number of casualties, and pulled into reserve in the Bean Patch about August 19th. The Bean Patch was a rest area near Masan, a small Korean village, where the Marines absorbed the first replacement draft, which I was in. These Marines, along with the 8th Army, which was made up of the 1st Cavalry, 2nd Infantry Division, 24th Infantry Division, and the 5th RCT, were responsible for securing the Pusan Perimeter during the early days of the war. At this point in time, there were no foreign troops other than Americans, in the area. The Turks and Dutch didn’t get to Korea until after the Inchon Landing and retaking of Seoul. Several weeks into the war, MacArthur called for a Marine division and the Marine Corps began to pull Marines from guard companies to furnish replacements for the Brigade. By late August and September, they were activating reserves to form the 7th Regiment as well as replacements.
When the Brigade arrived in Korea, the army was on its last legs. If we had not arrived when we did they would have been pushed out of Korea like the British at Dunkirk. We stopped the North Korean army cold in two major battles at the Naktong River near Yongsan. My unit’s actions at both Naktongs were on a hill named Obong-ni Ridge. W called it Red Slash Hill, also called it No Name Ridge, all the same piece of ground. During this time we took numerous hills and turned them over to the army only to find that the army abandoned the hills under fire and we had to retake them. In one instance, a young army lieutenant came running off the hill that we had just left, as the first enemy fire erupted, and asked our officer where our lines of retreat were. He was told we had no such line of retreat and to get back on the hill and defend it.
In one situation in August we had to retake ground the army had lost and we were heavily engaged. Two machine gun crews were cut off by North Korean troops and Captain Fenton, Baker Company commanding officer, was in the process of getting a platoon up there to get them out when orders came from General Walker to immediately leave to help the army plug a hole that the North Koreans were pouring through. Captain Fenton asked for an hour to get his trapped men out. The request was denied and we abandoned six Marines. The Mythology of the Corps is you never abandon your men under any circumstances. I’ve seen entire companies committed to a firefight to get one man back. In the Corps, abandoning men under fire is a capital crime. It just isn’t done. But Captain Fenton, with tears flowing, ordered his company to load up and leave. When they got back those men had not only been killed, but also emasculated, obviously tortured.
I am more compassionate or understanding than many of my comrades with regards to the army that served in Korea during those early days. I’ve raised some hostility towards me at times when I’ve argued the army’s case. After all, these kids were Americans, poorly led and equipped. They hardly stood a chance. None of us would have done much better had we been in the army instead of the Marines. My bitterness and contempt is reserved for the Department of Defense, and MacArthur, who was in charge of seeing to it these men were trained and equipped. Because of the ineptitude and disgraceful conduct at high levels we had to abandon six Marines to the mercies of a terrible enemy. I still get pretty emotional when I think about that incident. But S.L.A. Marshall’s book, The River and the Guantlet, defends our position, so I’m not just blowing wind and being overly parochial when I say the army in 1950 was a disgrace to the flag.
There were a few outstanding army leaders at the time, but too few to make a difference. Col. Mike Michaelis and his 27th Regiment, the Wolfhounds, come immediately to mind. Lt. Smith of Task Force Smith is another. General Dean, taken prisoner while personally firing a 2.36 bazooka at enemy tanks; Lt. Col. Don Faith of Task Force Faith at the Reservoir. But these were too few and far between. It does show what brave men can do when properly trained, even when poorly equipped. It was a terrible time for all, but for the army kids it was a tragedy that even the Greeks would have written about in 400 BC.
Very early on, and before I had arrived on August 20—so this is hearsay but told by many—two army divisions, the 1st Cavalry and the 2nd Infantry—were on either side of the Brigade. The army had relieved 50 percent of their men to go back to the field kitchen wagons for hot chow. The Marines were in their foxholes eating C-rations. Three tank columns hit them; three tanks at each army division and three at the Brigade. The army retreated and lost their artillery. The Marines knocked out their three tanks and killed most of the accompanying North Korean infantry. The Marines took off in pursuit of the retreating North Koreans and started to get artillery fire from the rear—the artillery the army had abandoned. The Marines returned and retook the artillery. These type incidents were so common in August and September that it left a very bitter taste. As a result I know an awful lot of Marines from the Brigade who will not belong to any organization that also has army members.
The POWs are a special case. Since many were taken prisoner after they had thrown their weapons aside and ran, many people accused them of cowardice. And by the time the war was over only one Marine opted to stay with the Reds, along with a large number of army POWs. When I was on the board of the Chosin Few in 1983/87, we had a special POW committee. We tried very hard to get these POWs to come aboard. They frankly feared the result. It took us a long time to achieve any results with them at all.
The 5th Regiment, or Brigade (synonymous terms), was in rest at the Bean Patch until the latter part of August. On September 3rd the Brigade would embark on what is called the 2nd Naktong campaign. Just prior to that second campaign, however, on August 18th, a bunch of Pearl Harbor Marines, me included, boarded a MATS (Military Air Transport Service) Constellation and flew to Tachikawa Air Force Base in Japan. We were all volunteers—all anxious to go to Korea. It was made clear that at some point we’d all go, but it was mentioned that if you wanted to go now, fall in line in front of the administration building after chow. It was a long line. I can’t imagine anyone in the Corps, regardless of age, that doesn’t know what they’re volunteering for when they go to war. Of course, the green kids have not experienced it so their knowledge comes from history, movies, and war stories told by those who were there before. Sure, I knew what I was volunteering for, as well as I could "know" it. At 18 it was a great adventure, and fantasy ruled the mind. We were all John Waynes. On the plane, we had sandwiches and snacks, milk and Coke. We carried our rifles and packs. No other supplies other than our sea bags (which carry all of our clothing) were stored in the hold of the plane. There were only Marines and pilots aboard, and the plane was roughly three-fourths full. There were at least 50 or 70 of us, I think.
Arriving as part of the first replacement draft, I served in Korea from August 20, 1950 until December 11, 1950, under a very fine commanding officer named Captain John Stevens. He was C/O of Able Company. I was with Able Company from the time I arrived to Korea until I was shipped out due to injury. On the 20th of August we boarded Marine DC-3s and flew to Masan, Korea. When we arrived at the Bean Patch, the members of the Brigade were already there, taking R&R. That August, we were issued two cans of Schlitz per night (the military perspective was that it was a morale booster), and we listened to the war stories of the men who had been through the first Naktong battles. I don’t recall anything that was said, other than don’t ever fall asleep on watch. We also got our gear in order. I wasn’t much of a drinker, and really didn’t care much for beer, although I did drink one of the two issued. I swapped the other for either cigarettes or something—I doubt I gave it away.
The government soon stopped giving out the beer rations. I suppose some guy wrote home that he was given a beer ration, and as a result the good ladies of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) put a stop to polluting our young men and making "drunkards" out of them. The WCTU’s suggested replacement for the beer was grapefruit juice, which froze solid up north. Alcohol was and is the great bugaboo of the religious right. WCTU was able to lobby Congress and organize a vocal minority of mothers who were told their young sons were being led into the life of the dissolute—a life of drinking and whoring. Of course, few objected to the killing. This only deepened my disrespect for religion, which I already had a great antipathy towards.
One afternoon while at the Bean Patch, a small lamb-sized animal got into the middle of the area. We all started chasing it. I did a flying tackle and caught it, a Saber-toothed deer. One of its long incisors cut my hand. I have no recollection of what we did with the deer. I suspect it got eaten, but I really don’t recall. At age 18, I was totally unaware of where I was, what the Brigade was, or what they had done up to that point. From that time to the time the Brigade disbanded and became part of the division, about September 6th, I have little memory. Every day was like another. Some action for rifle companies, some for me, but nothing stands out in my mind, other than heat, salt, water, rain, and dead Marines. I was assigned to the 60-mortar platoon, carrying those heavy mortar shells. The little 60mm mortar is the company commander’s personal "artillery," and is under his direct command.
My first day of combat was 120 degrees in the shade. It must have been August 22 or 23. The second day I was disabled due to heat. I got heat stroke and was out on the ground for at least an hour. After that I learned to take the salt tablets and drink water. From there on it was tolerable. Since mortar squads work close behind the rifle companies, I was not involved in any close combat action. I was subjected to counter battery fire, i.e., incoming mortar and artillery fire, although none came close enough to really cause concern.
In those first days, I was just adjusting to the general work of war, integrating within a new unit where I knew no one, and figuring out which officers knew their stuff—they all did—and which enlisted were able to give good tips—many did. In the Brigade all officers were World War II vets, all staff NCOs and above were World War II vets, and many of lower rank, even some Pfcs., were World War II vets. When you are green and untried, these people bring a lot of confidence to the arena; they know what they are about and they instill in you a feeling of confidence. They act calm when the action around you would normally cause the untried to question whether they should fight or run.
At age 18/19, I really wasn’t very interested in how Koreans lived or died. Most Korean villages I saw that first two weeks were blown apart or burned. Without meaning to be too crude, when a shell blows a hooch apart and there’s this dugout space under it and off to the side a "honey hole," and a ton of literal shit blown all over the place, one doesn’t ask questions about what one observes. Anyway, I saw many homes, from a large and impressive farm home, to small huts. The warming tunnels dug out underneath the houses were an obvious way to deal with heating, since they didn’t have chimneys. There were places where North Korean troops fought within the village and when we would go in we would check these huts out to make sure we didn’t get a surprise.
Fire fights last for short periods of time. Beyond that, "war" is lots of time spent waiting, time spent cleaning weapons, getting mail, and BS sessions. The Brigade was in a pretty small area of the Perimeter for four weeks. I know we had to retake ground that we had turned over to army units previously. I also know that the majority opinion of the Marines was that the army was inefficient, poorly led, and generally did a poor job. I know I saw army personnel but I don’t know where or why—some in trucks passing—once a few trucks stopped and some Marines got in fights with them—1st Cavalry, is my memory. Generally, I spent my time in Korea mostly in a fog, paying little attention to any details that did not involve me in close quarters. I don’t ever recall being scared more than three times, though I’m sure at other times I must have been. The only times I recall being scared was when incoming artillery came very close to me near Seoul, once during a mortar barrage while clinging to the bottom of a foxhole, and when I got hit up north.
From the 23rd of August until September 6th we fought in several actions. Somewhere around the 3rd of September we fought the second Naktong, destroying the entire North Korean 4th Field Army. When MacArthur told General Walker to release the Marine Brigade so it could go to Inchon, General Walker begged MacArthur to let him keep the Brigade and to send an Army unit to Inchon. The issue was so up in the air that withdrawing the Brigade became a political issue as well as military.
Walker wanted the Marines to stay in the perimeter because he was worried that the army troops alone would get overrun. The army wanted to use new army troops coming from the States to make the Inchon landing alongside the 1st Marine Regiment. General O.P. Smith, Division CO, said he would not do that, and he got us out of the perimeter. The Marines were always under army command in Korea. In the Perimeter it was 8th Army, under Gen. Walton Walker. From Inchon onward to the Reservoir, we came under X Corps and General Almond. So the Brigade commander, Gen. Eddie Craig, took orders from General Walker and the 1st Marine Division’s General Smith took orders—at times—from General Almond. I say "at times" because Smith ignored most of the really dumb orders, thank god, or we would have been destroyed just like the army’s 7th Infantry was, following that idiot’s orders to go to the Yalu.
With Inchon ahead of it, the Brigade was supposed to have withdrawn sooner than it did. However, the North Korean army launched an attack around September 3rd and the Brigade had to deal with that first before boarding ships for Inchon. We were very short on manpower and in the last week or so we ended up in one-man foxholes. We would string wire between holes at night, since the gooks would on occasion creep down the line and catch someone in a hole asleep and kill him. The idea of the wire was to pull on it occasionally to make sure the other guy was awake. Several got knifed in their foxholes.
When we were on the front line, we had to keep clean as best we could, which was usually only when we were near rivers. I brushed my teeth by rubbing them with my undershirt (skivvy shirt) with some salt on it. When we were in "reserve" we were within 500 yards of those who were in assault, and at times watched the action through binoculars. The only actual reserve we experienced was at the Bean Patch early on. Once I got there the only other time we weren’t on line was the return to Pusan to go to Inchon, then the return to Inchon to go to Wonsan.
I never saw a USO show that I am aware of. In fact, I know there were none until Bob Hope showed up, I’m told, at Wonsan. We never saw him. I think most of that kind of thing came after Chosin and well into the next year. I don’t recall ever being where such a thing could have even taken place. As to receiving mail, I vaguely recall getting a letter. We were still using World War II V-mail, a rather strange kind of reduction onto some kind of paper that was smaller and lighter than regular mail. I haven’t the foggiest who sent it—it may even be that someone let me read his letter from a girl friend. I just don’t have much recall of any of the letter stuff, and I know there were no packages I ever saw. All that kind of thing was rather sporadic. I was in Korea for right at 120 days, 4 months, so 4 months out of 68 years is just not written in the stony part of my memory.
My memory of the hardest combat for me was in the Brigade down south. As far as Chosin went, it was just terribly cold. Although I got wounded up there on November 28 and evacuated by air on December 6 to the USS Consolation hospital ship in Hungnam, I still recall the southern campaign as the most difficult—for me. It was 120 degrees in the shade, damn little water, and there were lots of North Koreans. There was not enough manpower to have two men in a foxhole most nights and keep an eye on those little guys wearing those black pajamas crawling around, trying to find your foxhole. No, by comparison, my war was far more "entertaining" down south. Small groups of North Korean soldiers crawled down along our lines--I suppose they were looking for defense perimeters—and on occasion killed someone in a foxhole. They wore loose netting over the pajamas and would sometimes have small branches in there as camouflage. I never spent any time assessing their age. They were armed with a knife and grenades – and I suppose they carried a pistol, but I really don’t know nor did I pay much attention to it.
War for each one is measured by about five square yards. That is your world and you haven’t the foggiest what is going on 50 feet away during a firefight. I lost friends in both places, but one thing about 40 below—you don’t bleed much—and corpses don’t smell. In 120 degrees you bleed a lot and corpses smell forever and ever—that’s a smell I can never forget. I saw my first dead Marines in the second Naktong campaign, and it shook me up pretty bad. Since there was only one Marine regiment there at the time, it was my regiment, and they were from my battalion. I knew nothing about them other than they were dead, laid out on ponchos, wearing Marine utilities. Army dead did not upset me. Marine dead are my brothers. We wear the same uniform.
When we pulled off line on September 6th and went to Pusan, we got up to strength with replacements, so we had all three companies in the battalions. The thing about replacements, the original troops generally never let you get too close, and then when the replacements have been there awhile, they treat the next batch of replacements the same way. The reason seems to be that those groups that were together originally formed close friendships and many of those friends got killed. It is a very painful experience. But if Joe Doaks got killed and you hardly knew him, it was less painful. So you stop getting close to people that may well be dead by dinnertime.
That’s why the guys I served with at Pearl, Ruben "Bob" Fields of Harlan County, Kentucky, and Tommy Morris, White Horse Shoals, West Virginia, were more important to me in that regard than were the guys in my squad, almost none of whom I remember by name. And Fields and Morris were in different companies and I only saw them on day one, then after Inchon, then Bob dying at Chosin. In my platoon, during the Pusan Perimeter days, I had two close friends, Trinidad "Tommy" Lopez from Dallas, and our only black, Richard Dinkins from South Carolina, and they were in different squads. Then at Chosin I had an assistant BAR man, Vic Middlekauf from Roanoke, whom I forgot about and would never have recalled except he looked me up in 1984. He was my 3rd assistant, I think—and I cannot recall by name or memory of a face who the other two were—not a clue.
Normal infantry combat consists of shooting at an enemy you never see, at distances over 500 yards. Close combat is seldom, and very, very few ever experience that. Chosin was a little unusual in that there were so many Chinese, but yet I actually saw fewer than five armed enemy. (Down south I only came in contact with one live, armed North Korean, and never saw any other live North Koreans unless they were prisoners.) I know I surely killed a number with the grenades that morning--months after the Naktong campaign--at Chosin, but I can’t confirm that. I assume that at other times what rounds I fired killed or wounded an enemy, but I can’t be sure of that either.
As I have listened to the BS over the years, I have figured that if every story told were true, it would mean that there were no Marines killed in the Korean War, and we killed the total population of Korea several times over. Also, there would have to be twice the number of Marines in the Brigade or division than were actually there. During the two weeks of Chosin close to 900 Marines died. Some 35,000 Chinese died, most at the hands of air dropped napalm. I’m sure we accounted for a large number. I’m told there were 1400 dead Chinese in front of Hill 1282 where I got wounded. That fight started around 8 p.m. and lasted until 6 a.m. It was fought by 240 some men of Easy 7 and two squads of Able 5.
From observation and experience, I would say that Chosin involved a greater percentage of combat participation than anything that preceded it, and that Marine officers lead from the front and their men were more likely to fire their weapons than not. Since Marines work in four man fire teams, it is easier for the fire team leader to make sure his three men are working and not mooning the clouds. And I can’t speak for the army, but I think Richard Gabriel’s stats (No More Heroes, Copyright 1987, Hill & Wang, Publishers) apply to a greater degree to them than to us. But I think Marines "need" to appear bigger and better and tell wilder stories; i.e., they take a 12 inch fish and grow it to 3 feet. Others, army like, may take a fishless trip and recount many fish. So you’ve got to be tongue in cheek about it when it gets sounding hairy. The truth is depressing enough without all the heroics.
As I have said, combat for the individual is contained within about five square yards and everything outside that area is unknown until the survivors discuss it. I think if I had been 25 to 30 years old I would have been more aware of many things, and if I had been in World War II and then in Korea, I would have been far more knowledgeable about where I was and the who and why. At 18/19, green as a virgin in a convent, it was all beyond my ken. If I had been part of the Brigade going back to their days on Guam in 1948/49, i.e., a long-term membership in the group, I would have been better informed, and more in tune with what was going on. I’ve lived here in the Nashville area for 35 years and know my way around pretty well, but when I’m asked for street names in directions I have to go look it up. I know how to get there; I just never paid attention to the highway designations or street names. I think I tend to isolate myself from my surroundings and the people occupying those spaces, until and unless knowing becomes very important. In the chaos that exists in military operations it is even more difficult to keep up with it. Col. John Stevens recalls almost nothing at all of his time in Korea. With him I think it is too painful. With me it is just that it never seemed very important to know those things. I concentrated on doing what I was told, and staying alive.
I do recall a number of prisoners, all stark naked, squatting in formation, maybe 20 or so at a time—and I recall some Chinese prisoners up north whose feet had swollen and burst through those little plastic shoes they wore. I don’t recall that I ever handled a prisoner, nor had much to do with that side of things. I know that we had large numbers of prisoners at times, and I’d see them either as I just described, or marching to the rear under guard. Who took them, where or how, I don’t know—just wasn’t anything that interested me at the time.
On the 6th of September the Brigade boarded three APAs at Pusan and sailed directly to Inchon. We encountered a typhoon named Kieza on the way there. It was a hell of a storm, and there were lots of seasick puckers. I looked out of a forward porthole and the ship looked like it was going down a mountain of water and the waves were up high in the sky. I recall seeing the sea about 40 degrees above us as it crashed down on the ship. It was pretty spooky, but the navy ships seemed to handle it well. I don’t recall how long it lasted--at least all day, I think. At the same time we were heading for Inchon, the 1st Marine Regiment out of San Diego was making its way by ships to Japan and then Inchon. They and the 5th Marines made the Inchon landing on September 15, 1950, When they jointly arrived at Inchon, the 1st and 5th united to become the 1st Marine Division, with Major General Oliver P. Smith as the commanding officer. At this point, the 1st Marine Division was one regiment short. Six days later the 7th Marines arrived at Inchon—after the landing—and we then had the full complement of the 1st Marine Division, made up of the 1st, 5th, 7th, and 11th Marine (artillery) regiments, as well as our air wing.
At Inchon, there was a very large fleet of ships participating in the invasion. There was a battleship, many cruisers, lots of destroyers, and a baby-flattop (I think the Boxer) launching airplanes. They fired their cannons all day, from early morning throughout the day, up to just as the assault waves started in. There was also all-day air bombardment and strafing by navy and marine aircraft, F4U Corsairs, those pretty blue gull-winged fighter planes, as well as other aircraft. Ships were firing rocket barrages, everything they had, non-stop, all day. When the assault wave started in, only the fighter airplanes were working, strafing the beach, napalming farther inland, and generally raising hell all over the place.
Colonel Taplett’s 3rd battalion of the 5th Regiment landed on Wolmi-do Island at 5:30 a.m. September 15. Wolmi-do was connected to Red Beach by a paved causeway. The 1st and 2nd battalions of the 5th Regiment landed at 5:30 p.m. on Red Beach and the three battalions of the 1st Marines hit Blue Beach. The entire operation was timed to coincide with the freak tidal situation. The tides dropped some forty feet within about 15 minutes, so once we landed we would be stranded on the beach. The remaining two battalions of the 5th Marines hit Red Beach on time, and the three battalions of the 1st Marines hit Blue Beach.
I wanted out of the mortar platoon and in a rifle company, and got that wish as we detached and headed for Inchon. I had done very well with the BAR when I was in boot camp and at the rifle range, and thought I would do a better job with that than carrying those shells. I never did like hard labor.
At Inchon there were three landing areas, Wolmi-do island at 5:30 a.m., by the 3rd battalion 5th Marines under Col. Bob Taplett, followed at 5:30 p.m. by the 1st and 2nd battalions 5th Marines hitting Red Beach and the three battalions of the 1st Marines hitting Blue Beach, along with a 7th Infantry tank unit. There were some attached ROK Marines and interpreters, as well as Navy and Marine air units and a number of naval ships, both troop ships as well as combat ships. Red Beach was broached by using two ladders at the front of the LCVP to get a foot on the wall while the LCVP was bumping against the seawall. The 1st Marines at Blue Beach had large portions of the seawall blown open and were able to get in using Amtracs, the amphibious "ducks," in these openings.
The word "landing," when used in the context of a military operation, usually is identified as "administrative" when it is like the one we did at Wonsan, i.e., an unopposed landing, but usually implies an opposed landing. It is a little more ambiguous than "waves." The term "wave" comes from the alignment of the Higgins boats (LCVPs) in a horizontal plain approaching a hostile beach. Troops off-load from the troop ships by climbing down the rope network hung over the side and into the Higgins boats or LCVPs, those little tubs whose front door drops and everyone rushes out.
Those LCVPs gather in a number of circles, about four to the circle, awaiting the naval commander’s flag that tells them to head for the beach. Then each LCVP pulls out of the circle in a preordained fashion and aligns with others from other circles until you have the horizontal "wave" of boats, each wave following the one in front of it. If there had been only four circles of four boats, then there would be four boats aligned in a wave and there would be four waves in assault. If there were more than that, then there would have been more than four boat circles.
My platoon off-loaded from the USS Henrico, a troop carrier, by climbing down the rope nets hung over the side. Standing in the LCVP were some navy personnel who held the bottom of the net out to help the troops get into the landing craft. The Henrico was gently rocking in the sea but the LCVP, being smaller, rocked at a greater rate than the ship, making the entire process one that required a lot of concentration. We carried a full field pack on our back, ammunition, canteen of water, and weapon. Because I was a BAR man, I carried 12 loaded magazines, each with 20 rounds of 30.06 ammunition, the l3th magazine loaded into the BAR. The BAR weighed about twenty pounds empty, so the whole weapon rig was probably about thirty pounds, including guns and ammunition.
Once in the LCVP I could only wonder what it was going to be like climbing the ladders to get over the 13-foot seawall, wondering how effective the enemy defense would be. I felt certain that the all-day bombardment of the beach had surely taken care of most of the enemy positions. At this point I had been in combat for about three weeks around the Pusan Perimeter, mostly in the Naktong River battles, where we defeated a pretty large North Korean army, so this was not my first go at a fire fight.
As we approached the seawall, the two ladders were readied, one on each side of the front of the boat. The Coxswain, the guy running the boat, hit the wall and kept the power going so that the boat would hold against the wall as we tried to clamber out. I recall him yelling at us to "get the fuck out of my boat." He was worried about getting a mortar shell landing in the boat. Well, so were we. Climbing that ladder with one hand and holding the BAR with the other, the boat rocking to and fro, wasn’t easy to do.
From the top of the boat, which was maybe six feet from the deck, the seawall rose another few feet. The ladders rose about three feet over the prow of the boat and maybe a foot above the seawall. I got one foot on the wall, then the other, then made a fast dash forward and to my right and hit the deck. The seawall at Inchon measured about twenty to twenty-five feet, a good guess, from the sea floor to the land. The tides rose and fell some forty feet, I am told, so that at low tide the mud flats extended out at least a half mile or more from the sea wall. At full tide the sea was about fifteen feet up the wall. As I recall, the ladders we used were some seven or eight feet high, rising from the bottom of the LCVP, which rode on the water. I would assume the sea bottom was another eight or ten feet beneath the craft. These are all guesses, but probably close.
As to the intensity of the moment, it is hard to say. That is a state of mind. An amphibious landing is a maelstrom of confusion, noise, looking for your fire team leader and squad leader, and trying to figure out if there is enemy fire headed your way, and generally, where the game is being played.
Immediately forward of the landing area at Red Beach was a long snaking trench, maybe 15 yards or so from the seawall, and on one end was a cement bunker and machine gun. Behind that trench line and bunker sharply raised a hill, maybe some 200 feet high, which we named Cemetery Hill. Able Company 5th Marines had the largest number of casualties in the entire landing caused by these two enemy positions. It was during the taking of the concrete bunker at 6:00 p.m. that my platoon leader, Lt. Baldomero Lopez, was killed on the beach at Inchon. I had been the first BAR man out of the boat behind him.
Lieutenant Lopez was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. I had a great respect for him and we all thought he was the best of the best. The sacrifice that Lieutenant Lopez made at Inchon was an example of that loyalty to his men that was and is the hallmark of the Marine Corps. At the time of Inchon I had seen him several times aboard ship, but had never spoken to him personally. I thought he was a good-looking guy with a really beautiful smile and all those white, white teeth. He had served with these guys before Korea, so they all knew him. During the first few minutes of the assault on Inchon, Lopez was tossing a grenade into the trench or bunker when a gook shot him in the arm and chest with a burp gun. He dropped the grenade, yelled, "Grenade," and tried to retrieve it. Unable to get his arm working he scooted forwards and caught the grenade with his elbow and tucked it under him, thus protecting those around him. I saw none of it. This is what I was told and what I have read. We heard about it within minutes.
At a ceremony in Land O’Lakes, Florida to dedicate the Baldomero Lopez Veteran’s Nursing Home, Col. John Stevens, who was company commander of Able Company at the time Lopez died, noted that Lopez did not have to go to Korea, but chose to do so to be with the men of Able Company. Able Company was the lead landing company on the right flank of Red Beach at Inchon. This was where the greatest enemy resistance was encountered, and thus the bulk of the division’s casualties at Inchon occurred there.
Lopez, leader of the 3rd platoon, was recognized for his willingness to die so others could live. Stevens also remarked that Lopez was the executive officer of Able Company in 1949, and was responsible for getting the company combat-ready. His teaching ability saved untold lives, including that of Stevens. As far as I am concerned, Lopez gave that last measure of loyalty and devotion to his Corps and his men. That evening we lost a great guy that everybody liked.
At the time Lopez died, all the people around me were lying fairly flat against the ground, and we began tossing grenades into the trench. A few of them came back at us, so we would pull the pin, let the spoon fly, count 1-2-3 and lob it over. There was supposed to be a 4.5-second fuse on the grenade. I don’t recall anyone getting hurt with the grenades coming back at us. Actually, a grenade doesn’t do the kind of damage the movies depict. Lying flat, it explodes and fires shrapnel upward in about a 35-degree angle. So one could be lying very flat and a grenade lands 15 feet away and not be hit.
When we landed during high tide at Inchon, the tide was already turning low. Within an hour the water had disappeared, leaving us stranded on the beach. As the tide was going out—like a toilet being flushed—several LSTs, very large boats that carried supplies and tanks, came charging into the seawall and literally sank down into the mud. The one that hit the wall behind me had some very nervous sailors firing their 20-mm cannons and machine guns, some at us, and some over our head. I turned around and unloaded twenty rounds in their direction with everyone yelling at them to cut it out. Fortunately they stopped. I didn’t hit anyone that I know of, but I’m sure the sailor in whose direction I emptied my BAR magazine had to change his clothes. Friendly fire just ain't friendly.
I also recall a Marine with a flamethrower almost at the top of Cemetery Hill. Within about 30 to 45 minutes we had secured the beach. There was no more organized resistance. Except for Able Company, Inchon was secured with very minor casualties by late nightfall. Anyone who entered Inchon after September 15th did so in safety and not in a combat assault, therefore was not involved in the "Inchon Landing" nor in "waves." My company suffered the most casualties on Red Beach. I think the entire landing was nineteen killed in action. For that type operation, the casualty rate was pretty low. By 7:30 p.m. all was in our hands and fairly quiet. A light rain began to fall around 6:30 or so. I crawled under a parked truck and went to sleep. It had been a busy day.
I know it is hard to understand, but for me memories of Inchon are those of climbing down the ropes into the LCVPs, watching the air and naval gunfire bombard the beach, and maneuvering up the ladder to get a foot on the seawall while the LCVP is bumping up and down against the wall. I also remember the LSTs coming in as the tide went out, with a gunner on the LST pumping 20mm rounds into the beach and my firing at him to get them to quit, and the flame-thrower guy on the top of Cemetery Hill. I recall a short grenade exchange with a few North Koreans in the trench in front of us, Lieutenant Lopez being killed, a soft rain about dark, and sleeping under a truck to avoid the rain. I had landed on the beach at about 5:45 p.m. I was sound asleep under the truck a little after 7:00 p.m.. If the enemy had made a real effort and put in a large defense force, we would have had a lot more KIAs. I don’t think they thought a landing there was possible. Inchon was lightly defended because of that, but we surprised them. MacArthur’s stroke of genius won the day. The next day Marine air and infantry destroyed most of the reinforcements the North Koreans sent from Seoul.
Firefights the next day were several miles inland. Our regiment left Inchon and went on to Ascom City. Afterwards we took Kimpo Air Field. I don’t think the battle there lasted more than 30 minutes. Word was the defense was a bunch of green kids, a North Korean air police unit. As far as Kimpo, my only memory is of a building that was probably a hangar, but far away from me. I don’t think my platoon had too much to do with the actual firefight, at least I don’t recall anything. I recall our aircraft landing there maybe a day later or even late that same day. From Inchon to Seoul was something like thirty miles, and we were in that area for about two weeks. We were halfway to Seoul when the 7th Marines arrived at Inchon on the 2lst of September, made an administrative landing (i.e., no combat involved), and arrived outside Seoul about the 22nd. The 7th then fought their way into Uijonbu, a small town near Seoul. Meanwhile, after taking Inchon, the rest of the Marines in the Division moved on towards Seoul.
Seoul was divided into three areas of responsibility. My 5th Regiment assaulted that big mountain to the west and north of Seoul. I think we had the easier fight. The 7th Regiment hit to the east of Seoul, but the 1st Regiment got the dirtiest and hardest fighting in the city proper. The North Koreans defending Seoul were excellent, tough, and hard to dislodge. The division secured Seoul, I think, on the 24th, although there was still some fighting through the end of September.
A private first class is not in possession of much in the way of tactical or strategic information, but I assume from what I have read since about the war that at any one time there were over 5,000 North Korean troops within a mile of us as we neared Seoul. I actually laid eyes on fewer than five or six alive and maybe ten times that many dead. Firefights were mostly at ranges of 600 to 1000 yards against camouflaged defensive positions. We might know that there is a machine gun just above the large boulder and to the west of the tree with the top shot out of it, but chances are that we can’t see anything in the way of people. I was told that was where the gun was, and I would fire a tracer or two to get the angle, then fire short two and three-round bursts in that direction.
When you go into a forward assault against a hill, the air and artillery are bombing the hell out of it until you get too close for that, then you charge up the hill and shoot whatever moves. Often as not the enemy has run over to the other side. But frankly, I had little of those close up and scary confrontations—a few, but not many. Most of my "kills" were estimates, and a lot of the day-to-day stuff is lost to memory. Even at Chosin, though I dropped over fifty hand grenades on the Chinese, I saw fewer than five of the enemy. I never saw the killing zone in front of me—it was just too dark. I was wounded in the darkness of the night and I was evacuated for medical treatment before dawn the next morning.
Weeks prior to being wounded, I had my 19th birthday, October 3rd, on an outpost north of Seoul. My foxhole buddy was Charles Jones. As we sat there, with the war "over," I got bored. Just below us was a dirt road. All day long for two days young girls, 14 to 18 or so, kept walking down the road, dressed in white sailor tops and blue skirts. They were the first females that actually looked like females that I had seen while in Korea. I made a half-hearted joke with Jones that I was going to go get a birthday present. When one young girl came along by herself, I grabbed my BAR and walked down the hill. What I had in mind was fantasy born, but when I said, "Oi, Ittiwa," or "Hey, come here" in Korean, she figured out what I might have in mind. Her eyes got as big as saucers and she started bowing and backing up. I took one look at a very scared kid and felt like a first class jerk. Whatever arousal I had managed that propelled me to the road shrunk back to zero. I pulled a can of C rations out of my jacket and a candy bar, handed them to her and patted her on the head and went back up the hill. Jones said, "That was quick." I said, "Hell, she’s just a kid." I think she was probably 16.
Since I’ve always felt that my sexual habits and fantasies were pretty normal, I concluded from that, normal males cannot rape. Fear in the victim is a very big turn-off. My experience in police work later confirmed that opinion. We were told when we got to Korea, that rape was a death sentence offense. A member of the Korean government told us many years later that he liked Marines because there were no incidents of rape amongst them, which was not true for the army. The locals captured several G.I.s that had raped their women. They castrated them, and hung them in a tree with their genitals hanging out their mouth, which seems reasonable to me. But what in the hell motivated me to fantasize and get me to go down that hill, is a mystery to me today. I know I did it. I think I must have thought she would be willing—and anyone with an ounce of sense would know she wouldn’t be. I later recalled a statement my mother had made many years before, "A stiff prick has no conscience." Well, I think I proved her wrong.
I’ve heard stories about prostitutes being available around Seoul after the fighting was over. I think that was a 1st Marine or 7th Marine activity at that time. I not only ever saw anything like that, I’m sure we weren’t within walking distance of anything like that at any time I was there. Frankly, I never saw but one female in Korea that I thought looked like anything I would look at, and she was that youngster I just mentioned. She was a pretty girl. Most of the women we saw were old farm-women, well into their late years. I assume the more feminine girls were hidden. Since my unit didn’t actually enter Seoul, but skirted it to the northwest, we never saw such things, I guess.
Seoul to Wonson
After we took Seoul, and sometime shortly after the incident I just mentioned about the young female I had met on the road, we moved out and returned to Inchon, probably around the 10th of October. Ruben "Bob" Fields and Tommy Morris (D/2/5) looked me up and we partied on the beach—stole a fifth of whiskey from the chaplain’s jeep, bought a bunch of Chocolate Toddy’s (a canned chocolate drink that was popular in the 1950s) and Hershey bars and proceeded to get drunk and sick. I ended up puking over the sea wall.
Fields and Morris had served with me in the Pearl Harbor guard company in 1948/49. Bob, whose father was Obie Fields, was from a coal-mining, moonshine-making family in Harlan County, Kentucky, and Tommy Morris, likewise, though he was from White Horse Shoals, West Virginia. They were both at least two years older than I was, and a good bit more muscular. My contribution to the "team" was I could attract the girls, and I had a smart-ass mouth. We would go down to the Portuguese bars on Fort Street in Honolulu, drink beer, flirt with the waitresses, and start fights with the navy. At that time I would have been lucky to survive any fistfight I started, since I usually pissed off navy types that were much bigger than I was. At 17 I weighed 155 pounds soaking wet. Both Bob and Tommy were about 190. I got the fights started as part of our evening’s entertainment, and they protected me, so I at least got a few licks in without getting killed in the process. It was a goofy time and they were both good-hearted country kids. They taught me to "hate" their shit-kicking music – played it all the time – but for whatever reason they became close "buddies" in what to me was a strange world I’d never been exposed to before. When the Pearl Harbor Marines were sent to Korea, all three of us went, but we ended up in different units. Fields later became a casualty of Chosin.
The Marines issued Scrip (which is military money) to us when we went back to Inchon, and we used it in the PX they had brought in in a big semi-trailer. I think I was making $90 a month while in Korea. The Scrip I got was probably $10. I recall having several thousand Won with Rhee’s picture on it, and I recall swapping cigarettes for eggs. In the Perimeter days we could swap one pack of any cigarette for ten eggs. By the time we got to Seoul it was more than one pack and they wouldn’t take Old Gold or Phillip Morris. They only wanted Lucky Strike, Camels, and Chesterfield, in that order. I recall that because I thought the whole thing amusing. I noted that where we packed a dozen eggs they packed ten, and only later did I realize that made sense because they were on the metric system. I know inflation occurred in this tobacco currency. I think at times it would be three or four packs, maybe more, for ten eggs. The eggs were packed in a straw cradle so that the eggs sat next to each other just like our cartons.
I think we were only in Inchon two days before we boarded ship for Wonsan. While in Inchon, we stayed aboard ship at night. One morning as I went to brush my teeth and wash up, the navy sounded General Quarters. Bells began to ring, and whistles and horns began to blow. As I gained the upper deck I asked a sailor what in hell was going on. He said we were under attack. I thought he was nuts, but I went topside to see what was going on. He told me to get inside because he was bolting the hatchways. I said I would just as soon not be inside if they get blown up. So I stood bare-chested on deck, looking to see what was going on.
A small, slow-flying aircraft appeared, flew over the ships and dropped what looked like a mortar shell or small bomb. It landed harmlessly in the water--didn’t explode--and the plane turned about and headed back inland. I thought, ‘now that guy’s got balls.’ A few ships fired at him but missed. Where in hell he came from and where he went I never knew. We owned all the country north of Seoul almost to Pyongyang, so he had a long flight wherever he went.
We set sail about October 15. We spent two weeks going up and down the coast while the minesweepers cleared the minefields outside Wonsan harbor. We played cards, shot craps, and cleaned weapons and gear. Tommy Lopez, Richard Dinkins and I spent a lot of time on the forward end of the ship and fantail, looking for mines and taking shots at them. All three of us were BAR men. We didn’t see many because the navy anti-mine ships got most of them. We did hit one. Other than these pastimes, there was nothing to do during the wait except sleep a lot. I got bored.
We finally landed on about October 30. The ROK Capitol Division had taken the area so we didn’t need to make an amphibious assault. How nice. We walked up the road to an abandoned schoolhouse and ate hot food and spent the night. In the morning we boarded a train and went up country to about Hamhung, then began the trek up every damned mountain between there and the Reservoir.
The climbing took natural adaptation. I was always in good shape and physically active, fairly athletic without being obsessive about it. But I had spent 14 months at Pearl Harbor on guard duty and not involved in any strenuous activity during that time, other than weekly calisthenics, but they weren’t too demanding. In Korea, you developed the ability to climb as you went. At 19, I could bench press 180 pounds easily, weighed about 160 pounds, and left Korea probably near 180 pounds, strong as an ox. I don’t think boot camp some 20 months previously played much of a part in my ability to adapt to the climbing we had to do in Korea; but being 18/19 certainly did.
The Chinese Enemy
The Chinese had only one possible advantage over the Marines: manpower. They lacked decent cold weather clothing, wearing mere plastic shoes in 40 below cold. Their infantry depended on grenades, rifles, automatic weapons and mortars. They had no artillery, no tanks, no air cover, and little or no food. They also had almost no radio type communication; instead, they used whistles and bugles. We had massive air cover, artillery, mortars, tanks, lots of superior firepower, plenty of food, excellent cold weather clothing, and fairly good radios. The Chinese were excellent infantry. We were a tad more creative and decisive, but we were able to kill and wound them at such a greater rate than they could answer, and then the cold killed thousands of them without ever being hit by a bullet.
I firmly believe that if the Chinese and the Marines had each had the same assets, we probably would not have gotten out of the Reservoir. Thanks to Almond’s arrogance and sycophantic servility to MacArthur, we were totally surrounded and outnumbered almost five to one. Given even odds, the Chinese would have won. I doubt you’ll find many Marines below flag rank that will agree, but I bet Gen. O.P. Smith, were he alive, would agree, and the regimental commanders would agree. They knew the score. We were just damned lucky, and the army was at even a greater disadvantage, both in terms of manpower and in terms of firepower, as well as lacking internal discipline. Their officers were 80 percent ineffective if not cowardly. A few were outstanding, just not enough of them.
Chosin Reservoir Campaign
Sometime around November 2nd or 3rd, we assaulted a hill—"hill" being some 1200 or so feet high, not something you reach the top of in a few minutes. In North Korea, the mountains took all day to climb, hills took twenty minutes or so, and if you had to fight your way up it took a mite longer. Artillery fire, mortars, and then the infantry often precede assaults. The strength of the enemy determined the method used, as well as what you have available at the time. Often we would call in air strikes if an assault got bogged down. An enemy machine gun or two would get an air strike or mortars, but we were not always able to get air when we wanted it. In this particular case we charged up the hill in a straight up-the-hill go at them, firing at an enemy that quickly abandoned the forward slope and their nice foxholes and ran to the other side. When we gained the hill they started mortaring the hell out of us. I jumped into a deep, abandoned Chinese foxhole, and a mortar hit close enough to cause one hell of a headache. I recall going to sick call afterwards where Corpsman Parker gave me two APCs (government aspirin). I remember thinking or hearing that the Chinese had gridded the holes, marking them for mortar strikes. I knew that if that were the case, we had been lured into the situation. I curled up in the bottom of my hole and found myself suddenly praying prayers I learned as a child—and making my deal with God or gods. When that mortar hit so close, I said "Hail Marys" until I caught myself and said if I survived I would make an open-minded attempt to look at religion and God with new eyes. I spent many years at it and ended back where I started, a non-believer.
From there to Sasaru-ri on the east side of the Chosin the Reservoir, was just a boring and laborious trek up and down the mountains. Marines always occupy the high ground, on foot. The army travels in truck and jeeps with their guitars and loud music blaring from their radios. The result was they got the hell shot out of them on a regular basis.
We made a number of patrols on the way up and also while at Sasaru-ri. On one patrol before we reached Sasaru-ri, my fire-team scout, Silverthorne, who was ahead of us by several yards, came around the bend in the mountain trail, and quickly unslung his rifle. The others and I ran up to see what was happening. There was a Chinaman squatting, taking a crap, pants lowered. What got Silverthorne’s attention was the crossed ammo belts across his back and chest. The Chinaman dropped his "Grease Gun", a World War II cheap .45 automatic like a Thompson submachine gun. He grabbed it and started to turn toward Silverthorne who then fired a shot from the rifle. I got there and unloaded all 20 rounds from the BAR, and between us the guy was pushed several feet down the path. When the Chinaman had first turned toward Silverthorne he had pulled the trigger and Silverthorne heard the bolt go forward just as he shot the guy. When we looked at the "grease gun," we found that the ejection port was open and when the guy dropped the gun snow had gotten into the mechanism, blocking the forward moving bolt as it struck the cartridge, thus failing to fire. That was a close one for Silverthorne.
Within seconds Lt. Bob Snyder was yelling, "Walker, get your gun up here." I ran to where Snyder was. We were way up a mountain trail and could look down into the valley at least 3000 feet below us. We could see a hut, and a third of the way up the opposing slope was this guy in black trying to climb out of there. We all started firing at him. Eventually he got hit. We picked him up and turned him over to intelligence. Seems there was a radio station in the hut and the antenna was up topside of the hill on the opposite side from us.
The next few days were more of the boring climbing and climbing. One morning we got up, colder than ever, and smelled the strong odor of garlic. We figured it had to come from a large Korean force near us. So we got very restless waiting to see. Finally a large ROK force went by on a road down below us. Amazingly, we smelled them an hour away—at least four miles.
November 10th we celebrated the Marine Corps birthday with cake and song. We stood in snow up to our knees, ate birthday cake, and sang the Marine Corps Hymn loud enough to be heard in Peking. We did it where we were, didn’t go anywhere to do it, right where we were dug in. I don’t know where the cake came from—probably helicoptered in from the coast. I’m sure any Chinese within earshot were dumbfounded when they heard us singing.
Eventually, around November 20th or so, we got to Sasaru-ri. We thought we would make a few patrols, clean our weapons, the war will be over, then we would be going home. On Thanksgiving we were at Sasaru-ri on the east side of the Reservoir in a very large flat field area. We had Thanksgiving dinner there. I think that was around November 23rd. I don’t recall much about it other than we did have turkey cooked in the field by the mess cooks. We had all the stuff everyone has on Thanksgiving--hot turkey and dressing (which got cold unless you ate it fast), cranberry, and all the trimmings.
Hot food was a rarity. Generally, our food consisted of C-rations, but somewhere else up north, before this, we stopped in a schoolyard and they set up hot kitchens. I think that happened two or three times while I was there. Hot food generally would be powdered eggs reconstituted and SOS (i.e., "shit on a shingle"—a sacred euphemism for the universally liked chipped beef on toast, floating in some kind of sauce). I longed for avocados, tomatoes, lettuce, and mayonnaise. I really had fantasies about those. I craved them; when I got stateside and on my own that’s what I "pigged out on." I still like those items better than a steak.
Jeez!! It was cold. Forty degrees below zero and blowing snow; I am told the wind chill was 100 degrees below zero. There was quite a bit of snow—up above the knees in places, but only a little in other places. I would purely guess it was a dry snow because of the altitude and my familiarity with Montana and northern Wyoming winters at those altitudes. It was difficult to navigate 6000-foot Mountains in the snow. Sometimes we found paths up the mountains, sometimes not. The division had tanks, bulldozers, jeeps, and trucks. All were hazardous to handle on those icy roads, and some were lost that way. I don’t recall details about these things, other than I saw all of them at one point or another, and rode out in a jeep from Yudam-ni to Hagaru. I watched the bulldozers work on the small airstrip at Hagaru, and I flew out of that strip soon after I arrived, maybe two or three days later.
Weapons froze; everything froze at times in the bitter cold. And the Chinese had the same problems. With the small arms the grease would get too thick in the cold. Most of the automatic weapons required a heavy bolt to be activated by an internal spring that forced the bolt to go forward rapidly, striking the seated bullet and firing it. If the grease was too thick, add in freezing air, everything slowed down and the bolt might not go forward with enough force to fire the bullet. Also, any moisture—like what would come from placing your weapon inside the sleeping bag with you—would freeze the gun’s action and it would fail to fire. That happened to me, and I assume some others. It didn’t occur to me that keeping my BAR safe inside the sleeping bag would disable the gun. It did.
I learned specifics about the famous Chosin Reservoir campaign years after the fact, through the Marine Corps History. At the time, I knew very little about Chosin. In fact, unless there was some very unusual activity that made permanent news, place names were not anything a 19-year old private first class would know. I never heard the name Chosin until I got home afterwards. When I was there I hadn’t the foggiest idea where I was and what the name of anything was. Few of us at my level had any idea how bad the situation was. Without reading about it, after the fact, there is no way that I would have known that I was on Hill 1282, that John Yancey was the platoon leader I came under the morning of November 28, that it was Easy Company 7th Marines, or that the entire division was in critical trouble.
I certainly knew that I was in trouble that morning when Chinamen came up and over the crest of the hill, and were mere yards to my right. Still, a platoon or two being under severe attack is usually a probe to find a weak link in the line, so I had no reason to think that what we were experiencing was anything like what was going on all over. I certainly never knew we were surrounded by anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 Chinese troops.
At a Chosin Few convention in San Diego back in 1985, another Marine and I were sitting at a table being interviewed by a newspaper reporter. She opined about God and divine intervention at the Reservoir. As I recall, her comment was, "That morning the Chinese attacked, you must have prayed to God for help." To which my tablemate replied, "Lady, that morning I thought god was a Chinaman." To which I silently concurred.
It has been my experience over these years that serious wartime incidents affect people in very different ways; some turning to God when they had a very passing relationship previously; others turning away from God and finding it difficult to imagine an intelligence reputed to be both prescient and all powerful, the epitome of good, creating a world where such horrors can take place, especially the terrors visited on innocent children. Despite the consensus that there are no atheists in foxholes, I would demur. I have met a few; some before the war who didn’t change their mind, and some who became of that mind because of the war. I am probably closer to the latter than the former. I think we unfortunately are closer to our savage ancestors, human or otherwise, than we are to our ideal. The Pope has been praying for peace since there was a Pope; peace we have little of. The famous and charismatic Bishop Fulton Sheen once said that in some 4000 years of human history there had been less than 400 years of peace.
With all due respect to my army friends, the Marines came out of Chosin in as good shape as they did because they were Marines. We had the best-trained, best- equipped and best-motivated military organization on earth at that time. If the government had permitted, we could have gone to Peking. Whether that would have brought on World War III, I leave to the political analysts. But from a pure military situation, we could have sent the Chinese reeling, and pretty much did. I think we killed some 35,000 out of the 100,000 they sent in, and probably another 30,000 of those poor souls froze to death. We lost about 900 dead, and almost 12,000 either wounded or suffering frostbite.
The army kids were less fortunate. Their leadership in 1950 was almost non-existent, with a few notable exceptions like Col. Don Faith. But these kids with the 7th Infantry Division had been occupation troops in Japan, used to soft living and officers who never demanded military training or discipline. I was relieved on my position on the Pusan Perimeter in September by a young army kid who lacked a helmet, had one bandoleer of ammo, and didn’t know what a thermite grenade was. He was hard pressed to understand what I was telling him about perimeter booby traps we had set around our position. Asked where his company commander was, he opined as how "that 20-year old 90-day wonder is back there about five miles watching this through binoculars." They just lacked leadership in both experienced officers and NCOs. Whereas, all our Marine officers were World War II vets and almost all the senior NCOs were, too. We even had a number of Pfcs from World War II. So green kids like me were surrounded by old salts. And that’s why we survived Chosin in the numbers we did and the army kids didn’t.
On the morning of the 27th we did a five-mile patrol. We entered a large field with a farmhouse at the far end, the field surrounded by trees. As we approached, a person ran off the porch and headed for the woods at high speed. I was at the tail of the column and Lieutenant Snyder yelled, "Stop him." The person was by this time closer to me than anyone else, and I took off at high port, running. It was obvious that I would never catch him so I fired a burst over his head. The person dropped to the ground, enabling me to get what was a very pretty young girl. I picked her up and marched her back to the column. We had a Japanese officer as translator. I listened and saw he was flirting with her, I thought. Then he said her parents sent her running because they thought we would rape her. We went to the farmhouse and talked to the parents. The Jap was told to tell them we were United States Marines and we don’t rape.
My platoon returned to Sasaru-ri about midday. My feet had sweated up from the long patrol. As soon as we returned, the 7th Infantry units relieved us. By trucks we moved from Sasaru-ri on the east side of the Reservoir to Yudam-ni on the west side. We arrived late at night, maybe around 9 p.m. The trip was cold, twenty or so degrees below zero. The sweaty socks froze my toes during the long trip. When we arrived we camped out in the valley. We were provided straw and used it to lay our sleeping bags out. I placed my poncho tent-half on top of the straw, removed my shoe paks, changed socks, put the shoe-paks under the sleeping bag to thaw out, got in the bag, left it unzipped, put a blanket over me, and placed my BAR on top of my body under the blanket, bad choice.
The 7th Marines manned the mountains to the east of the valley. They had been there several days. I proceeded to get some sleep. Within about thirty minutes green tracers coming over the top of the mountain awakened me. I knew those were gook tracers because ours were red. Suddenly Gunny Millar was coming around waking everyone and yelling, "The 7th is being overrun, let’s go; we’re going up the hill."
I got out of the bag, tried to put on my shoe paks, but couldn’t get them open enough to get my feet in them. I got my field pack and retrieved my boondockers, leather high-top field shoes, put on an extra pair of socks, and hurried to get with the others going up the hill; got separated from my squad. We stood on the path going up the hill for at least an hour. I kept stomping my feet to try to get them warm, to little avail. Finally I got to the top of the hill. Someone was directing traffic, and placed me by a tree. I asked where the gooks were and he pointed down the hill in front of me and said, "All you want right down there." There was no one to my left. I think I was among the last up the hill and I don’t recall anyone else real near me. I could hear Chinese yelling and talking down below. I pulled the slide back on the BAR and aimed down the hill and pulled the trigger. The gun wouldn’t fire. It had sweated up in the sleeping bag and had frozen.
I went looking for another weapon. There were several rifles and carbines on the ground. None were operable. I noted several Chinese coming over the hill to my right maybe twenty yards away. They didn’t notice me. Then several more came. I thought we had lost the hill and were about to be overrun. I removed the firing pin and bolt from the BAR, tossing the firing pin in one direction and the bolt in another. I then grabbed the BAR by the barrel and proceeded to try to break the stock, to no avail. I didn’t want the Chinese to be able to use that BAR later.
While I was batting the BAR against the tree, Pfc. John Kelly of Easy Company, 7th Marines came over and asked what I was doing. I told him there were no working weapons available. He said he knew where there were some grenades. He left and returned in a minute or so with a case of grenades. We took our K-Bars, the Marine issue knife, and pried the top off the box of grenades. We spent about an hour or so tossing them down on the Chinese below. We ran out of grenades just before dawn. I could tell it was just starting to go from pitch black to a little lighter. Kelly went to get some more grenades. As he started to leave I saw what I thought was a grenade we had dropped, lying just forward of where we had been. I walked over to it to pick it up. As I got within a few feet of it I noticed it was sparking, and suddenly realized that it was a Chinese concussion grenade. It had been too dark to see it clearly. Their grenades were what we called "potato mashers." They were a canister with a wooden handle attached to them. If it had been lighter I would have seen it well enough not to walk up on it. When I realized what it was I started to back up. I saw it explode as I threw my right arm up in front of my face. I caught some of the metal casing in my right ulna, breaking it—though I didn’t know it was broken at the time. The blast threw dirt, snow, and pieces of metal into my face and picked me up and tossed me about ten feet back. I landed on my back, screaming like a Banshee. It was one of only two times that I can remember actually being afraid in Korea. I was afraid my face was blown off, and I was afraid of dying.
Our platoon corpsman, Parker, suddenly showed up and bent over me. All I could say was, "My face, my face." It felt like it had been blown away. He knelt over me and took an ampule of morphine from his mouth and gave me a shot. Parker said, "You’ve just got a little cut above your lip. You’ll just look like a big bad Marine. Just lie still and I’ll tell you when you can go down to the aid station. We’ve got a group going down shortly." I laid there for maybe thirty minutes. As dawn broke, I was put with maybe six others, as well as an officer who was wounded in the face and mouth. They had him with his arms stretched over a tree branch trying to keep him upright so he wouldn’t choke on his blood. He turned out to be John Yancey, 1st platoon Easy 7th’s platoon leader. I became good friends with Yancey in 1984, and remained so until his death just a day or two before Memorial Day 1989, in Little Rock. He definitely was fearless and I think rather psychotic. He liked war and exceeded at it better than anyone else around him. His men adored him. But their common comment when talking about him was, "He fucked with your mind." He was very unusual.
Yancey was shot in the cheek with a .45 while leading a counter-attack. It popped his eye out. With one eye hanging, he killed the Chinaman that shot him, put his eye back in the socket, and led another counter-attack. A bullet entered his left cheek, exiting his right cheek and taking out a large number of teeth. He spit out the teeth and led another counter-attack. A small piece of shrapnel lodged in his upper palate that he couldn’t dislodge. He spit blood and led another counter-attack. He sustained 57 bullet holes in his field jacket, entry and exit holes. By his sheer guts Yancey was able to prevent Hill 1282 from falling to the Chinese—and luckily so. The 5th and 7th Regimental command posts were at the base of the hill. If the Chinese had taken that hill we would have been in deep doo. We wrote him up for a Congressional Medal of Honor. The Corps begrudgingly awarded a Navy Cross.
Good military men appreciate recognition for truly courageous acts under fire, and thoroughly resent medal awards when they are made for any other reason. I talked to a CMOH winner who said he thought every Marine at the Reservoir should have gotten a CMOH. His reaction is an attempt to show that he doesn’t want others to treat him as a hero. He recognizes that there are, in fact, others whose actions didn’t get noticed; and if they had, they would have been eligible for the CMOH. But in truth, not everyone there deserved a medal of any kind.
With regards to my own injury, it took several days before I discovered my right arm was broken, that a small piece of the grenade casing had penetrated some six inches of my clothing, and it had buried itself in the fleshy part of my left chest. Numerous small pieces had cut my eyelids and fingers on my right hand, and my toes were navy blue from the tips down to the second joint. On December 1, they put my arm in a sling, handed me a .45 pistol, and placed me as guard in the back of a hospital jeep. There was one other sitting wounded and two on stretchers. We headed for Hagaru, a four-day trip to cover some 14 or so miles of Chinese roadblocks. I remember it was a very frustrating ride, and my knees cramped in the jeep. We sang the popular tunes of the time, songs like Mona Lisa, Irene, and Slow Boat to China. I have no memory of the names of those who were with me in the jeep, or what happened to them.
Reflecting back on my wait to go to the aid station, I remember that by the time I got to the station it became evident that something bigger than usual was going on, but I don’t recall questioning what it was. I do recall that during that jeep ride from Yudam-ni to Hagaru I kept cussing whoever was in charge of the convoy because we were going so slowly and my knees hurt from being constantly bent. I recall being angry, thinking that surely they could get this damn column moving better than they were. I didn’t know they were fighting their way through some eleven roadblocks.
As I have said, all this information as to specifics came later. The Marine Corps History states that two platoons of Able 5 went up 1282 to assist Easy 7. Many of the Easy 7 people live right here in Nashville so it is through them that I learned much of what happened on 1282 the morning I got hit. I vividly recall going down the hill to the aid station, and there was this lieutenant being aided by a man on either side of him. He looked like someone had hit him in the face with a shotgun full of birdshot. That was Yancey. I also recall the name of John Kelly who came to my aid that morning, bringing a box of grenades. He lives in Columbus, OH and we have met a number of times since 1983. So it is that collection of people, written history, and personal memory that weaves it all together, but done many years after the fact. The same goes for the Bean Patch of earlier days. I never heard that term at the time. I recall being there, since that’s where I first joined with the Brigade, but it was only many years later that I learned it was called the Bean Patch. The original Brigade people who had been there before I came referred to it as that among themselves, but I don’t recall that term being used in my presence.
Having briefly discussed the Chosin that I learned about after the fact, I now go back to the Chosin I learned about when I was actually there. At Hagaru-ri I saw my Pearl Harbor buddy, Bob Fields, one last time. A mutual friend named Marburger was unloading dead and wounded off a truck. When he spotted me he recalled that Fields and I were friends from Pearl Harbor days. Marburger and another guy brought him over to where I was at the aid station. A small piece of shrapnel, probably from a Chinese concussion grenade, had entered the left side of his head and got into the brain. He lay unconscious in my arms, with his right arm stiff and outstretched, moaning. I got a corpsman to look at him, and based on triage procedure they said they couldn’t help him—he would have to make it to a major hospital. He lasted a few hours. When he died I got the graves detail to come and get him. I think he is buried in a mass grave at Hagaru, but I’m not sure. I cannot recall what emotions I felt at the time. Anything I would say about that would be a guess.
I sat in Hagaru for at least one day. On the 6th they triaged the wounded to see who would fly out. The doctor spotted my chest wound and thought it was a bullet into the lung. It was only a small hole in the flesh, but he green-tagged me and I got the last plane out of Hagaru. I was glad to get out of Korea. We flew to Hungnam, and I was placed on the USS Consolation hospital ship. From there I was transferred to the USS Randall, which sailed to Yokosuka. I stayed several days at the naval hospital there and was then taken to Haneda Airport where I was flown to Wake Island. When the airplane developed trouble, we commandeered a civilian PanAm aircraft, deplaned the civilians, and were flown to Hawaii. I was placed in Tripler Army Hospital, then flown to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland, CA. I think I was there on Christmas Eve—I remember getting a leather billfold from The Great Gildersleeve—a radio personality. I was then entrained to Camp Pendleton’s Santa Margueritta Naval Hospital.
Because of frostbite, it took awhile for the dead tissue to drop off and for the flesh to regenerate. It also took a while for the broken arm to knit. Sometime late in February I was discharged to Casual Barracks. My last duty station was in a guard company at Long Beach naval base. I ended up Corporal of the Guard in the Brig, and was discharged in August of 1952.
Making a Difference in Korea
In an attempt to be as honest and objective as possible, I believe that if the Marines had not landed in August of 1950, the army would have been defeated and kicked out of Korea by September. If the Marines had not been at the Reservoir, there would have been no survivors of the Chinese assault. Simply stated, without the Marine Corps, America would have suffered an embarrassing and bloody defeat in Korea. The Corps made it possible for all that came after the Reservoir. The army sent green unprepared troops into Korea in July. Until General Maxwell Taylor took over in 1951, they were a disorganized poorly led army, with a few good officers and NCOs but not enough to do the job. Mass retreats, "bug outs," occurred too often. When the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade arrived August 2nd, we were the best-trained and led troops the United States had available at the time. By comparison, we were an NFL team and the army was a high school team. But what they accomplished, given the god-awful odds they were up against, is a story in individual courage and stamina that is too often ignored by Marines. When you study what happened in August and September you may come to understand why there is so much enmity and distrust between Marines and army folks who were there in that time frame. This is especially true of POWs taken at that time, and even later.
Once Gen. Matt Ridgeway took over the army, it shaped up. From 1951 to the end of the war the army played a major role, the Marine Corps a smaller role, in terms of manpower and in terms of casualties. Other than Inchon, the entire Korean War should have been an army war. Marines are primarily trained for the extension of naval power through the medium of amphibious landings. It is because of this difference in use that the Marine tactics are so different from army tactics, and why Marines have three automatic rifles per squad and the army only one. The army exercised control at higher levels, the Marines at lower levels. A Marine company could call in air support or naval gunfire at its level. The army could not. We taught them that lesson in Korea. They now use close air support. We developed that tactic in the 1920s and ‘30s in Nicaragua and Haiti, and used it dramatically in World War II and Korea—also in Nam.
Marine philosophy is: without regard to the number of estimated casualties, if the objective can be secured until reinforced, Marines will assault. We therefore take larger casualties at the beginning but fewer afterwards. We depend on commando-like assaults, naval gunfire, and close air support. Then, once the beachhead is secured, we turn the operation over to the army. That’s how it is by the book. If we did not think in these terms, we might be unable to establish a beachhead and hold it. In that case the entire operation would be defeated and the casualties would be total.
The army, on the other hand, depends on the insertion of massive forces, heavy artillery and strategic bombing. If estimated casualties are too high, they do not assault; they bring in artillery and bombers to soften it up. They take a longer view. They can afford to. An example of the differences and their effects is historically proven in the Guadalcanal campaign in 1942. The 1st Marine Division developed secure beachheads, airfields, and turned it over to the army’s Americal Division. The army took its time, and lost more men to snipers and disease. Then the Marines had to return to get it all back in shape again, since the army did not insert enough troops to get the job done using their tactics. I think this is a fair assessment of the major differences in use and effect.
The difference in army and Marine performance in the 1950 era was due in part to differences in boot camp and other training; but there is more at work here than just that. Since 1950 the army has massively increased training and performance, created specialized forces that emphasize esprit, such as Rangers, Green Berets, etc., while the Marines have never but once had specialized units. The World War II Marine Raider battalions were quickly done away with after Guadalcanal, the theory being that Marines are all "specialized" troops. We wear no shoulder patches, nor do we have "exciting" names, such as "Screaming Eagles," just "Marine," etc.
It is my opinion that the youngsters who elect to enter the Marine Corps over other branches are operating from a very different mindset; they have basically a very different character and psychological makeup. The army offers "careers." If we are honest and objective we have to conclude that the army approach is "saner." They appeal to pretty well-balanced kids with fairly normal egos who look on the army as a means to an education, a rounding experience.
In the aftermath of World War II, with the draft still in place and no war on the horizon, the army was touted for its great duty stations as occupation troops in exotic lands like Japan, Korea, and garrisons in the Philippines and Germany. It offered a soft life with little discipline. The Marine Corps always avoided this type of inducement. The Corps emphasized then and now--The Few, the Proud, the Brave. The Corps has always played to the testosterone-driven audience, to the young boys with romantic focus on masculinity, a desire to achieve glory-- even if only by association, and the wearing of the uniform. The Corps attracts young men who have a serious need to prove themselves. I wouldn’t argue with an evaluation that suggests these kids have some degree of an inferiority complex as it addresses their masculine self-image; thus the great need to prove their status as males; nothing new here. Most young boys have that gnawing wonder, when it comes to kill or be killed, do I have what it takes. Many outgrow that feeling as they proceed through their teen-age years. For those who don’t, the Marines offer the great proving ground.
The Marine Corps met my needs in that regard. I was always considered a "pretty boy," and as a male that is about the worst compliment you can get. I tended to be a bit of a loner since I was in so many different schools, because there was not a lot of time to make long-lasting friendships. Whenever I moved, I had to prove myself all over again. I never was physically aggressive and itching for a fight. I preferred not to do that. But at that age it was unavoidable. I didn’t do real well in that regard; I had just never learned how to fight. That started to change in the last part of the 9th and through the 10th grade. I was in a boarding school, Xavierian Brothers, and several of the brothers took me under wing, so to speak. One of them about my size made me put on the gloves—16-ounce gloves so not very damaging when you get hit--and proceeded to punch me around until I responded.
When I joined the Marine Corps I learned in a hurry, since they didn’t use 16-ounce gloves. I lost a tooth and got a few bloody noses, but I learned to strike first when threatened. Of course, the training with the pugil sticks—a pole about five feet long with large pads on either end like an elongated dumbbell--helped. You had to wear a football-type helmet to protect your head. They threw two of you in a ring and you had to use the pugil sticks like a rifle to beat your opponent to the ground. With that and mild exercises in Judo, there was lots of physical contact. You learned or you got trounced badly and often.
Once I mastered the rifle and BAR I felt that I was superior to any opponent with those, because I was very good with them. I could—and still can—hit a moving target at a fair distance with a pistol, a rifle or a BAR. I always had quick reactions, a good aim, and for reasons unbeknownst to me, I have never feared an armed opponent if I was armed. I always believed I was a better shot than anyone I came up against; and I still am. It is a natural and athletic gift, is about all that I can say. That realization gave me the self-confidence I sought. I was better than most of my peers in doing that that the Marine Corps considered the necessary talents of the perfect Marine.
It also stood me in good stead as a civilian police officer when I confronted a number of armed men in holdups and in other kinds of threatened violence. I had learned to master the art of controlled violence, so that you always keep an upper hand over the opponent, keep your cool, and don’t get in trouble. From Marine days I learned to deal with emergencies, sudden danger, and not lose the ability to rationally think my way to a successful result.
So from a very-unsure-of-himself teen to a very self-confident teen, at 18 and 19, war was the ultimate challenge of all I had learned and all that I thought of myself. I survived, did well, didn’t lose my head, and in some ways actually enjoyed the experience. Other than the two incidents mentioned earlier in this writing, I don’t recall any time in Korea when I was scared or miserable. It was the ultimate proving ground and fulfilled all the expectations and hopes I had when I enlisted.
In 1950 the army in Korea was led by officers who were by army standards well-trained. The enlisted lower ranks were the soft undisciplined occupation troops. World War II veteran staff noncommissioned officers (NCOs) were few and far between. The majority of all army troops were those folk who certainly did not enlist because they sought the adventure of war. Their motivations were far saner – and the war was just not psychologically digestible. Army officers in Korea performed so miserably that in many cases court martial would have been justified. Enlisted troops lost heart, resented the fact they were there, and were ill-equipped by character and motivation to endure the war.
Marines, on the other hand, were made up of a professional officer corps whose lives were devoted to leading troops in combat; enlisted who found a war, any war, to be the very thing they sought from the first day of their enlistment. At guard companies and embassies around the world, the Marine Corps’ greatest problem was turning down volunteers for Korea so that they could maintain duty stations around the world.
Another striking element in those Marines in Korea was that most of the enlisted who came from activated reserve units had never been to boot camp. They were "Weekend Warriors." Two weeks or so a year they showed up at their local armory for a drill and school. Most of Easy and Fox companies, 7th Marines, were made up of these kids. You will read of their unbelievable exploits against impossible odds; you will read that the 8th Army to the west of the Marine positions at the Reservoir was much, much larger than the Marine units to their flanks, yet they lost 4,000 dead; Marines lost close to 900. Army officers quit their posts, enlisted threw down their weapons and ran away; while the Marines—and all those Marine reservists who had never been to boot camp—hunkered down and delivered a massive defeat to the Chinese who came against them.
I know that generalizations are always unfair to some individuals in the group; that there were some Marines who failed to perform and some army folk who performed well and bravely. It is the exceptions that prove the rule, in this case. I believe that more was at work here than just the same kind of men, from the same schools, same culture, and the only difference was training. I think the perfect analogy would be between those who go out and excel in sports and those who don’t, or only goof around at it. There is a basic difference in the men.
The entire raison d’Ítre of the Marine Corps is to act as the commando arm of the navy when the navy is ordered to enforce American will on foreign soil. The Pacific war was a Marine war because it was a naval war and required amphibious landings, for which the Marines were massively trained. But the Corps’ major function would be places like Panama, Grenada, Haiti, Nicaragua, Somalia, and Kuwait, where they had a large Marine unit off-shore as an invasion threat, thereby keeping Iraqi divisions tied down to defend what never came. Schwarzkopf’s land war was rightly an army show.
The word "corps" suggests the limiting size of the units. A corps is usually two to four divisions, along with their own air and artillery. I think four or five corps equals an army. So the Marine Corps, from day one, was never meant to be an army, or to conduct mainly land wars. The Marines are strictly a naval strike force; get in, hit ‘em and get out; or get in, establish a beachhead, secure it, and turn it over to the army and go find another.
The current problem is that each branch of service wants to get a piece of every action going. The army is jealous of the Marine Corps and seriously wants to disband it and absorb it into the army—and the navy doesn’t seem to realize the effect of that. Marine means "from the sea," and unless the Corps reinvents itself it will become part of the army and a great loss to the nation. We are a sea power and we need to intervene on a selective basis in many parts of the world, without the need to conquer and occupy. The Marine Corps should be America’s 911 call. If I were president, I would retire fifty percent of all Marine generals and 75 percent of all colonels, and return the Corps to a two-division sea strike force. Let the army have the long-term land wars; use the Corps as a commando strike force. That, in fact, is what the British Marines are, and they are very, very good.
Lasting Impressions of Korea
Thinking back on Korea, I remember that the place smelled of manure, was all dusty dirt roads, farm country, and poor; but the people all seemed very clean. The climate was too hot and too cold, very different from south to north. There were beautiful mountains and streams all over the north. The topography down south reminded me of California, sort of barren hills. The north reminded me of Colorado and Montana mountain country. I really had little in the way of impressions. From my perspective I was sent where I was sent and obeyed orders and was glad to leave, with little desire to remember any of it.
I wrote a literary piece called "Essay on Toilets," which recounts a vivid memory I have from Korea. I mention it again now in this memoir. Not long ago, my youngest daughter took a trip into the Peruvian outback. The videotaping of a local toilet convinced me that I would not soon follow my daughter’s adventures in the area with any of my own. The sight of the toilet took me back almost 50 years to my five-month experience in the Korean War of 1950. As I said, the very first thing one noticed in Korea at that time was the ever-present smell of manure, mostly human. The farmhouses were constructed with dirt floors, but underneath that was a tunneled area wherein they added firewood so they could warm the floors in the cold winters. And to one side was an area where they kept their toilet, the droppings accumulating in a large space that could easily be accessed with a "honey pot," a hand-held device with which they transferred the manure from home to their fields and rice paddies. We, of course, added to the general stench by using an entrenching tool and digging a shallow hole into which we placed our manure. I can distinctly recall the practice: dig a little hole near a tree, hang your rear over the hole, and hang onto the tree.
You, I am sure, have heard of military latrines in the outback, or boondocks as we called it. This is a well-constructed set of non-flush toilets akin to what one will find in our wilderness parks; quite sanitary and filled at times with lye to disperse odor and diminish bacterial growth. Well, during my five months in Korea we never stopped long enough to construct such a latrine. So for us it was dig, squat, hang onto the tree, and recover your dignity as best you can.
Sgt. Cotton was taking care of business that way one day when a sniper placed a shot between his legs as he squatted. Poor Sgt. Cotton suffered from constipation for quite awhile afterwards. I do recall he changed positions very rapidly and with bare bottom in plain view proceeded to clear the area, grabbing hold of his pants as best he could and trying not to trip over them as he ran for cover; A much undignified exit. The sniper didn’t fire another shot. I’m sure he spent the rest of the day in uncontrollable laughter, unable to sight his rifle. My memories of those toilet-less days is filled with remembrances of the camaraderie, the good humor and warmth we all felt toward one another, even given the absence of this most important piece of civilized living.
The Realities of War
As is often the case, the reality of war destroyed the fantasy of the glory of war. Some men can deal with it, some cannot. Some cannot because they are cowards; some cannot because they are too sensitive and too civilized and unable to make the move across the mental boundary that separates the cerebellum from the limbic brain. I knew one of the latter. He was the son of Lewis "Chesty" Puller. I used to baby-sit him and his sister at Pearl Harbor. He was maybe four or five years old at the time. Later, he was terribly injured in Vietnam, losing his legs and parts of his hands. He became an alcoholic, and ultimately committed suicide on the day I rang his phone off the wall, trying to get back to him after a very depressive conversation. He was the last person in the world that should have joined the Corps. He was far too gentle and decent a man, and could never match his father’s mythological existence. It has always been of great interest to me why some men can hold onto all the civilized virtues of compassion and decency and yet perform nobly and bravely in the insanity of war; men whose backgrounds vary from wealthy Ivy League to the more mundane levels of decent people, some even from dysfunctional families.
The movies have given the public a very false picture of war. My kids saw the movie Saving Private Ryan. They wanted me to see it. I only go to entertainment and I don’t need to see that stuff. They said it was so realistic. Everyone says that. Ha! Are you kidding? Realistic? On what damn basis do they know what is realistic? What they mean is the graphical depiction of war and its horrors, weeks compressed into an hour and a half, seem to them what it must be like and they are horrified. They should be. That shit is horrible and they ought not make those movies. It is quite unrealistic. What they all miss is the interaction of ordinary men and how they deal with the days of boredom interspersed with days or hours of terror. I am tired of seeing actors who all appear like John Waynes in a war. My memory is of very ordinary kids doing very extraordinary things. Many had barely started shaving, were homesick, and were very normal and nice kids in abnormal circumstances. And the movies ignore our terrible foul-ups, missed opportunities, and wrong-headed decisions at the top level.
If you survive the first 24 hours of combat and your first firefight, you’re in—you’re a veteran. You learn more in that first 24 hours of stress than you ever learned in boot camp or anywhere else. The simplest analogy I can think of is: if you’ve never been swimming and you fall in the ocean and don’t drown, you’ve just learned to swim. You’re a swimmer. The same goes for combat. After a week it becomes ho-hum. Some things you laugh at are so bizarre that sane people stateside would certify us all for the loony bin, but at the time it seems very funny
You see living people reduced to fly-blown corpses. You guide a line of tanks coming down the road on which there are six or so North Korean dead soldiers--guide them so their tank tread hits the right spot on the skull so the brain is dispatched like a flying saucer. The tank wins that gets a brain to go the farthest, and all of us stand there laughing, laughing as the tanks play Tiddly-Winks with North Korean brains.
I recall grossing out the youngest among us by asking, "Drop some of your chicken and rice?" while pointing to several pieces of brain matter scattered about. To sane civilians who sleep between clean sheets that’s a goddamned insane and criminal act; to us it was very funny. I don’t think it is funny today. If you respect the dead enemy as a human being, deserving the common decencies, how in God’s name can you kill him? I will tell you how: you dehumanize him; you inure yourself to the madness by becoming a little mad yourself. And when you get home your biggest problem in front of your kid sisters and mother is to avoid saying, "Pass the fucking bread." There’s no meanness in you, there’s no killer instinct just buried waiting to leap out. There’s just you, and you are in a sane, clean sheet environment. You return as naturally as can be. The human mind is merciful. You forget all that crap. It just disappears because the problem now is to get employed, get laid, get drunk, and get a life.
Now, take all these clean-sheet civilians whose idea of horror is watching some idiot Rambo movie or coming upon a car accident, and put them in front of a big screen to watch Private Ryan. They are not reacting like we did in the real thing—of course not. Their perspective is from a point of sanity. Our perspective was from a point of madness, temporary though it may be, but madness, nevertheless. And because we are very adaptable human beings, we adapt as easily to killing in large numbers as we do to empathizing with crippled kids and the poor and disadvantaged of the world. We are at base root a very clever chimpanzee, a competitive and ruthless predator when required, and a loving father and concerned citizen when required, just like our cousin the chimp.
If you were to take GI Joe from his wife and family on Monday and send him to war, bring him back on Wednesday, send him again on Friday, bring him back Sunday, send him on Tuesday—on Wednesday he’ll be in an insane asylum.
So Private Ryan is like watching an XXX rated movie. It may stir your juices, but it sure as hell doesn’t give you a clue as to the real thing. And the poor jerks whose entire view of sex is based on porn is not very different from those clean-sheet civilians whose idea of war is based on Private Ryan, just that the latter don’t end up dwelling on it. It’s just a movie.
For all of us who served in Korea, the major story that got all the attention from press and military historians was the actions in those first five months. After that the war ground down to just a lot of unheralded nasty actions that got little publicity. A few got movies done, and strangely enough, the first five months got only one very poor movie. The movies that got attention were Pork Chop Hill and Heartbreak Ridge, neither of which involved Marine Corps action. Then there was Inchon with Gregory Peck as MacArthur—and it was roundly panned. Pork Chop was pretty realistic. Heartbreak Ridge didn’t deal with that action at all; it involved Clint Eastwood in the Grenada action. Vietnam got even worse movies. Oliver Stone’s Platoon was a farce, Apocalypse Now was even worse. So Hollywood lived up to its history of being terribly inaccurate. Then Saving Private Ryan gave realistic graphics and a very improbable story.
I am a history buff and firmly believe that Americans have less interest in history, their own or anyone else’s, than any nation on earth, and that is part of the cause of our foreign policy blunders and seeming inability to formulate a policy that has a life longer than one administration. Anything that encourages interest in history is worthwhile. However, I believe that any published "war stories" should be as accurate as possible, and that the source of the information be legitimate. Many folks will do strange things to gain their "15 minutes of fame," and aged veterans, many years removed from the action, tend to recall things in what I would term an historical disorder, as well as placing themselves in operations they never participated in. Maybe many years ago the tale was told, and retold, and then to wife and kids retold again, and eventually believed by the teller. It is unfortunate for them, sometimes when they go public—say run for mayor—that some snoopy reporter digs up their "war" record and finds that the politico’s public relations brochure is far afield from his actual military record. It is my intent, to the extent possible, to either prevent or correct intentional misinformation on the part of Marines that someone may enter into the public record. I can’t deal with any other branch of service, since it is only the Marine records that I have access to.
In the Korean War only 190,000 plus or minus a thousand, actually experienced combat, i.e., being shot at and shooting back. Yet, from June 25, 1950 until July 27, 1953, in 37 months of war, somewhat less than 500,000 Americans were in Korea. The news stories and the books and periodicals covered in detail the actual battles that most of the Korean War vets were not in. After the war it becomes, "Dad, what did you do in the Korean War?" Well, a lot of guys cannot say, "Son, I did diddly-squat. I stayed fifty miles behind the lines and repaired trucks." So "war stories" grow.
The Missing in Action
Sometimes I think about the 8,000+ missing in action from Korea. Frank Kerr, the originator of the Chosin Few, and two others, visited the Vice Premier of North Korea at the North Korean embassy in Toronto around 1984/85. Kerr presented around 369 names of known POWs at the time of repatriation that were not returned to the United States. The vice premier stated that the Chinese took them to China in 1956 when they left Korea. Asked why, the vice premier stated that these men had technical knowledge. At that time, the United States had just developed counter-battery radar that would map the trajectory of incoming artillery or mortar rounds and plot the course for return fire, placing return fire down the enemy gun. This was provided to several army units and was, in fact, captured by Chinese forces, along with the men that operated the equipment. So the story sounds possible. The vice premier went on to say, I am told, that these men may still be alive in China—they were placed in villages in the boondocks, probably married locals, and are kept out of sight. That part I find implausible, but possible. In any event, I know that "we" contacted the State Department and after many annoying conversations were finally told, by a thoroughly annoyed upper level officer, "What do you want us to do, start a war with China?" And so it goes—8,000 unaccounted for. Most were probably buried in mass graves up north of the 38th parallel, murdered in POW camps, etc. And we have Most Favored Nation trading status with China—to whom we have sold missile guidance technology and now are told spies gave them nuclear missile technology.
The Korean War permanently affected the lives of the families of POWs. But every war we’ve had this century has caused these problems. World War II has still some 25,000 MIAs, and Korea has over 8,000. Those 369 POWs I just mentioned that we knew were alive in July 1953 were never accounted for. But the families must accept the fact that we will never know for sure what happened to them. There are stories of Korean POWs being taken to China and to Russia—and I believe that is what happened. Politics and America’s inability to force the issue—at this late date it is beyond solution. I know the Chinese buried bodies where they found them, when they controlled our formerly held ground. The logistics to finding each and every MIA is insurmountable.
Reunions and Vet Organizations
I think that when I went to Korea my concepts were shaped by the movie actor, John Wayne. When I left Korea I doubt I thought in those terms anymore. Reality has a way of making Hollywood’s version of heroes and war seems a little shallow. If nothing else, it sure matures kids in a hurry. You lose a lot of the "silliness" factor that’s so typical of teens, even into the early 20s for many. Until then, death was what happened to old folks; you were immortal and impervious to death. Still, for me, John Wayne didn’t really wear off until about 1983.
I recall in 1952 attending the John Wayne movie, Sands of Iwo Jima in Long Beach, California. I wanted to see what I thought of it—whether it was realistic or not. Not. But Wayne’s the hero—a Marine named Sgt. Stryker. I was wearing my uniform and ribbons. Of course, I was proud to wear the uniform. I doubt I was the subject of much attention in a movie in a largely service town like Long Beach, but even at 19 I enjoyed the reflected "glory," even though I didn’t think much of the term "glory." As one matures those ideas change radically. Although I still enjoy his movies, I don’t place him on quite the pedestal I did as a kid.
After I was discharged from the Marine Corps in late 1952, I never looked back—except once. In 1957 or so I got in touch with Tommy Morris who was living in Cincinnati at the time. He had married his Kannaka girlfriend from Hawaii and returned to Ohio. We discussed Bob Field’s death, and how life was getting on for both of us. I’ve not been in contact with him since. After 1958, I married, moved from California to Little Rock, Arkansas—my wife’s home—and then to Tulsa and Chattanooga, and then Nashville, where I have been since 1964. From the time I married until 1983, I never thought further about the USMC or Korea. I never joined a veteran organization, had no nightmares or flashbacks, nor emotional experiences related to Korea, ever, until that first reunion in D.C. in December of 1983. I was perfectly happy pursuing strictly civilian pursuits, and never thought of myself as a veteran. I was far too busy earning a living, getting married and raising kids. That was a full-time job for both my wife and me.
In 1983, my mother sent me a news clip regarding the organizing of the survivors of the Chosin battle into the Chosin Few. At the time, I was 52 years old—a time in life when you suddenly think about the past—and when my mother sent that clip I got curious. At that time I had met several of the Easy 7 people here in Nashville. I called Frank Kerr in Boston, who started the idea, and since then I have been involved, in one way or another, with this subject. Several of us from Nashville went to the reunion in D.C. It was the first time I had thought about that war in any detail, though I had read Ferhenbach’s This Kind of War several years earlier. Kerr is a very charismatic guy and I took a liking to him.
I can’t speak for anyone else’s attitudes about that first reunion, and I don’t have a clue as to whether anyone else had been inactive in vet groups prior to this. I met Colonel Taplett, the battalion commander of 3/5, and he and I seemed to be of the same mind when it came to memorials, which was a major topic of discussion. We were both opposed, especially when they wanted to put us on a memorial committee.
I was rather enthused about the idea of the organization. It was not just another veterans’ organization—this was to be exclusively restricted to those who were actually on the ground inside the "trap." The fact that membership was opened to many others caused a lot of controversy and led to many, including Taplett, leaving. The mishandling of money led to my leaving. We did get a lot of news coverage in the D.C. newspapers. The net result was the big reunion in 1985, in San Diego. We had 2000 in attendance, including wives. We had Tex Beneke’s band, and quite a whoopdeedoo. The major topic there was Felix deWeldon, the sculptor of the Iwo Jima Memorial, offering a sample of a proposed statue for a memorial for 3 to 5 million dollars, and from there on it got terrible—money, money, and pettiness.
Robert Speights of Austin, Texas, and I organized the first Brigade conventions with a simple promise: no officers, no dues, no memorials—just get-togethers once a year. He sends a note as to when, where and how much. The rest is up to the members. Attendance runs from 180 to 300 souls. I emceed the first one in San Diego in July of 1988, and had the distinct honor to present our Brigade Commander, Gen. Eddie Craig, with a memento of appreciation from all of us. I have not attended one since, but Bob has kept it together and still does them. I agreed to go to the next one in St. Louis in September 1999, since that’s close to Tennessee.
I have many friends within the Chosin Few organization, but I do not find veterans’ organizations to be of much interest. I do enjoy those things I attend where I can meet with old friends, but they are numbered on my hands and a toe or two. But for the most part I do not attend many reunions—in fact, only four since 1983. I much prefer fly-fishing to war stories retold for the umpteenth time—unless it’s a good friend telling it; then I listen. My opinion is that some egos are way too large for their brains, and some are so small they need glory by association.
I had a close friend, John Yancey, who had been in Carlson’s Raiders on Guadalcanal. He said his first and only attendance at a reunion convinced him there wasn’t a competent combat Marine on the podium—and he got his first Navy Cross on the Canal and his second on Hill 1282 at the Reservoir. There are 37 men here in Nashville that were on that hill and served under him, and I don’t think but one belongs to a vet group, though some of us drop in on a meeting once in a while to see who’s there.
In war we have large numbers of very young men, kids often, who have nothing in common with each other except age, geography, and military enlistment. Once the killing starts each must depend on the other for his life. This bred a closeness that would never under any other circumstance have brought these men together in a common interest. Marines are forged in boot camp and in myth; young men absorb it to feed their self-image, to prove themselves. For each man his war is a series of five square yards of hell, and the men who share the adjacent five-yard squares are his life support and become closer than a wife. There is a bonding that is so intense that only the word "love" in its most platonic and idealistic meaning, is descriptive.
In a perfect or near perfect marriage there is a similar bonding whose intensity is developed in the early stages by sexual love and ideally develops into also the deep love of a bonded friendship. In imperfect marriages the initial sexual love diminishes and the couple found they have little in common; their differences, though masked by sexual lust, now become determinative of their future conflicts, resolved either in divorce or self-sacrifice of one’s personality.
I draw an analogy between the bonding that takes place in combat and the bonding that takes place in sexual lust. Unless there is more in common that is shared, that bonding may well break apart. To draw that analogy farther along, consider a marriage that suffers a long separation at an early stage. The couple often meets again as strangers. The combat veteran experiences the deep bonding and then a very long separation, until drawn to a reunion and a desire to recapture that camaraderie. Often middle-aged men stray to young women to recapture that sexual intensity of their youth. In both cases the reality is destructive of the fantasy. There’s an old adage that says, "You can never go back." It is true.
So now we have our aged war veterans returning to reunions to recapture that camaraderie. The nature of reunions is seductive, like the young girl that flirts with an old man. Too often the reality destroys the fantasy. Being a very efficient, brave, competent Marine does not guarantee a pleasant dinner companion, or even a civilized human being. Many Marines who were, in fact, on the ground in Korea, even at Chosin, did little that was worthwhile; they were just there. Many were idiots at the time, but being 18 and 19, it doesn’t show up as badly as it does in an adult.
My personal, unverified and unscientific estimate is that battles are won or lost by 25 percent of the troops engaged. The rest make up a lot of the casualties but little of the firepower. In the army the combat effectives were literally about ten percent. The rest were a mere gang of the disorganized. With Marines, the odds were much better, but nowhere near 100 percent effectives. Many of the best of the best were killed or died of their wounds. The only outstanding cadre amongst us were our officers and senior NCOs, and I have said before, it is because of them that we did as well as we did in Korea.
When I was on the board of the Chosin Few I recall distinctly a conversation between a group of us, wondering why we were so able to do well in Korea and yet today found ourselves thinking of others amongst us as total jerks. My comment was: They were jerks then, too. We just didn’t have the luxury of time and condition to consider it. The fact they wore a Marine uniform gave us reason to overlook otherwise unacceptable personality traits; but today, after a very long separation, we lack the common need to bond to protect our lives.
In my very humble opinion, morality and ethics are a genetic trait. Like conscience, you either have it naturally or you don’t. I recognize that under certain very unusual and traumatic events some men are internally changed for the worse. The strongest can be broken on the rack of terror, but it is a terror that exceeds the normal insanity of the battlefield. Otherwise, I hold to my conviction that some men are structurally sounder than others as a result of genetics. Please, this has nothing to do with race or ethnicity. Every gene pool has its share of fools and scoundrels. It is very individualistic. So not only am I not surprised by the conditions I find in veterans’ groups, I would only be surprised if that were not the case.
Now, as additional proof of my thesis, you will find that the above situation does not exist, certainly not to this degree, amongst associations that are restricted to graduates of the military academies. These men started out with more in common than not. Those that rose to high rank have a greater degree of personal behavior traits that are determinative of their conduct throughout their lives. When these men are additionally bonded in combat, their interconnections with their brothers remain strong for their lifetime.
For all the above reasons, I hold our officers that I served under to be the finest people I have ever had the good fortune to know or be connected with. And when I find amongst my own former enlisted comrades men with these traits, I value them above all others. My lifetime efforts have been to be worthy of reciprocal feelings. This has to do with a sense of personal honor. I learned the value of that during my short-lived experiences as a Marine and have attempted to hold onto that as my life’s goal. I am passionate about a few things, and this is at the top of my hierarchy of values.
In 1983, I was curious as to who might still be around. It was interesting. I am not active in any veteran’s organization. And the facts of the matter are that I arrived in Korea and joined as a replacement a group that had been together quite awhile. I made several friends in that group, all of whom are dead—have since become friendly with our then company commander, John Stevens, who lives in San Francisco. There is no one amongst the Brigade or division people alive now that I knew then. Some units later in the war maintained their group for a long period of time. My five months is not much compared to some who were there for over a year or more. So the camaraderie is not there for me any longer.
Korean War Veterans – A Generalization
The most universally common attitude amongst Korean War vets is that they have little interest in either the history or events prior to and after the war. It was really just a continuation of World War II, a sequel, if you will. It was fought with mostly the same people, same weapons, same tactics, same type terrain.
I really don’t recall having an attitude when I came back, nor when I was discharged—and don’t recall that Korean vets generally had an attitude or exhibited hurt feelings that we weren’t massaged by press and public. Most just came back and went to work. The World War II vets were a bit miffed about life being interrupted so soon after World War II. Many stayed in reserves and got called up. The draft didn’t even raise much of a hackle in the country. We were used to the draft for World War II and so it was no big deal. And folks still felt at that time that the country was always on the side of God. McCarthy got a lot more press than did vets or the latter part of the war. What with the Rosenberg Atomic spy case and Klaus Fuchs, the British traitors Guy Burgess and McLean, Americans felt that fighting the Reds in Korea was necessary and we would win. It wasn’t life threatening to the nation as was World War II.
I do believe that the Korean War vets were far more mature and stable as a generation than the Vietnam vets. Take the Wailing Wall, please; a memorial to victim-hood. I despise it. It’s like a never-ending funeral. I don’t say that to those Nam vets that like it—I’m not that rude—but it is a miserable edifice to wasted lives and reminds me of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. I’ve told my Jewish friends, for god’s sake, the temple was destroyed over 2000 years ago. Get over it and get a life. And to Nam vets I’d say the same thing. As to the Korean memorial, well, I really have no "feeling" about it, one way or the other. I think it was a gross waste of money to satisfy wounded egos.
I’ve often drawn the analogy of a father who risks his life to save a child from a burning house; he gets severely burned and disfigured but he saves his child’s life and feels well-rewarded. The nation is but an extension of that family, and when the nation is in jeopardy and you are called to do your duty to support your values, you do so without expectation of a reward. What would you think of a father who ever after never ceases to remind his child of his heroism, is hurt if she or he doesn’t build a small memorial to his efforts? Yet that father is more nobly brave than any military hero—or at least as brave. It is that built-in genetic altruism we all possess that makes us rush to the aid of the injured, and if it is a child we will put our lives at serious risk to save them--even a stranger’s child. So I really get sort of tired of the claptrap that veterans’ groups put out--the bruised egos because they don’t have a parade or some ceremony every time an anniversary comes along. My advice is—Forget it. Get a life.
Korea – Overlooked by Historians
I am neither shocked nor dismayed that few if anyone thinks about the Korean War. I guess the 50th anniversary celebration set for 2000 will be far more advertised and broadcast than anything related to Korea has heretofore been done. Why is Korea known as "the forgotten war"? That is easily explained.
In 1945 World War II ended and the military went home. By 1950 the economy was just starting to recover from the war years. Veterans were pretty much fully employed. In June 1950 the North Koreans invaded the South and President Truman ordered Gen. MacArthur to intervene. In 1949 Secretary of State Dean Acheson stated Korea was outside our sphere of influence and we would not defend the South if the North invaded. No one was more shocked at our involvement, I guess, than North Korea and Soviet Russia.
Coming on the heels of World War II, the Korean War was an irritating interruption to the optimistic view the nation had at the time. We won a major war and saved democracy around the world; we now suddenly were brought up short with the realization that Communism might still be a serious threat, both to our recent victory and to our optimistic outlook for the postwar economy. As far as the American public was concerned, Korea was an unknown land of little importance. Where in the world is Korea; a small peninsula in Asia? Can’t we just ignore it? It can’t possibly be the threat that Japan and Germany were—and America is the mightiest military power on earth; surely it won’t take but a few weeks to tame this small communist upstart.
We suddenly found out that the "mightiest military power" was totally unprepared to fight such a war; the nation was not spiritually prepared to fight such a war. And the results, after 37 months and 34,000 American deaths, were humiliating. In the beginning of the war the only troops available were the regulars and active reserves. A draft didn’t start until well into 1951. From its beginning in June of 1950, to the armistice in July of 1953, troop rotations were on an individual basis rather than a unit basis as had been the custom in World War II. This broke unit cohesion. In World War II the entire division or regiment went on R&R in Australia; and initially they trained together, went to war together, and came home together. In Korea no unit ever left until it was over, but the individuals rotated out on a time-in-country basis, and the same thing happened in Vietnam. I think it affects morale and camaraderie, like an NFL team that always had different players for every game.
It is also important to note that the Korean War is the first war in which America did not win an ultimate victory, although we did prevent a communist takeover of South Korea. So it was a partial victory, but from America’s standpoint, a humiliation by a peasant army, China and North Korea. At the end of the war there was merely a sigh of relief in America. There were no parades, no show of national pride or support for the veterans. We just came home, and when discharged we went about building our lives. "It is over, forget about it, and let’s get onto living the good life"—that was the mood of the times. It became a political football, giving rise to Sen. Joe McCarthy’s rampage against the Constitutional liberties.
The returning veterans were just glad to be out of it. Some stayed in the military, a military dominated by World War II veterans. Most were discharged and proceeded to get married or return to wives and families, and they just got on with their lives. Society said little about the war, and we just ignored what we had done. After all, how could we measure what we had done against what the majority of World War II veterans had done? We were poor cousins by comparison.
It has taken many years for historians to recognize the importance of the Korean War. It was the beginning of the end of the communist empire. World War II and Vietnam overshadowed a very important war that for the first time confronted communism and succeeded in restoring freedom to a beleaguered ally that has eventually developed a first class economy. The Korean War set the stage for the ultimate failure of the Soviet Union, assisted in making a rapprochement with China possible on honorable terms. The fact that the Korean War has been called "The Forgotten War" is unacceptable. History is the template for future decisions and this war should be fully explored and its impact made clear to the nation’s school children and to all who want to know the facts. It ranks as the bloodiest war America has been in since the Civil War, measured in numbers of combatants involved and the casualties on all sides within the 37 months of fighting, and in the fifty years since a tenuous armistice.
Now aging veterans, like aging folk everywhere, tend to reenter the past, looking for a justification for their lives and sacrifices. The young never live in the past; their concern is the future—as it should be. But Americans seem to have a very pragmatic view of life, and they are just not much interested in history, theirs or anyone else’s. The National Enquirer and the Star each have a greater readership than any history magazine or book. Close examination of ideas is not in the American character.
There are a number of excellent books on combat veterans’ experiences in the Korean War. Some focus on the military and political culture at the time, others focus on the individual experiences of those who fought the war. The two best of the latter are Breakout by Martin Russ, just released, and to which I contributed—and Colder than Hell by Joe Owen. Both of these books cover the personal experiences we lived through, and are the best of their kind that I have read.
The United States Today
American culture for the past 50 plus years has emphasized the young and the new. All of our popular communication systems glorify youth and sexuality, encourage the young to discount their ancestors’ values, and then they repeat the same mistakes over and over again. The foreign policy situation in this nation since Kennedy's presidency has been short-sighted and ambivalent. Our major enemies—today China and even Russia—take a much longer view of history and foreign policy. The Chinese are very much aware of history and are guided by it, and very successfully so.
Vietnam was a long and tragic experience. There was massive incompetence at top levels of both the military and political establishment. That war generated so much divisiveness among the people, that they attacked returning veterans as "baby-killers." Vietnam caused the fall from office of President Johnson, cast a smirch on the presidency of Richard Nixon, and eventually brought forth guilt feelings over the treatment of the Vietnam vet. It has sustained its memory due to all the above. The Korean War vet was not harassed and was not greeted with parades. The Korean War vet, who was given a second-class GI Bill and far fewer benefits than his World War II brother, disappeared from the national consciousness. Very soon the Korean War was overshadowed by the troubles in Vietnam.
The sixties generation is now running the nation. It is the least "educated" generation in our history; uneducated in the importance of values and history. They haven’t a clue. Our only hope is to replace them with a generation of well-educated people. Our founding fathers grew up on the Greek and Roman classics, were well-grounded in world history, and developed a philosophical state of mind that has made all that followed possible. We are living on the last measure of the philosophical protein fed to the national character 223 years ago.
Geopolitics is an international chess game. We are playing like it was a checker game. We are losing, and losing badly. Like Rome before us, we have set our national sights on the accumulation of wealth and hedonistic pleasures; have become contemptuous of the "Barbarians," thinking that our technological superiority places us in an invulnerable position. Our economy is awesome, and that alone is blinding us to the pitfalls that await us. Economic advantage is certainly desirable. Even in the latter part of the 5th century AD the Romans had the strongest economy in the world. They had by that time lost the moral will to do what was necessary to defend it and were conquered.
United States Involvement in Korea
I absolutely believe that the United States should have gone to Korea in 1950. Korea was an arrow pointing at Japan. Communist agitators in Japanese trade unions were causing great concern. This was the first major confrontation between the United States and the Reds, and it was an opportunity to defeat them and discourage further expansion of their rule. China had just recently been lost to the Reds and we really could not afford another domino to fall. By the time of Vietnam, it was quite a different world scene. We could have avoided that war by keeping our word with Ho Chi Minh, and even after the French defeat it would have been of little consequence to us to have stayed out. Korea was Soviet backed from the beginning. Vietnam was not. The Vietnamese were motivated by a hatred for their colonial masters and a fervent nationalism. The North Koreans were motivated by a hatred of the West and a desire to promote the Communist ideology.
Given the political realities of the time, I believe that MacArthur should not have gone north of the 38th parallel. He grossly overestimated his ability to woo political opinion both nationally and internationally. Had Teddy Roosevelt been president at the time it might have been a ‘doable’ feat. MacArthur also badly underestimated Truman.
The United States made some serious mistakes, when it comes to Korea. Most of those mistakes occurred during the five year period prior to the war, and were made by congress as well as the administration. Acheson’s comment that Korea was outside our sphere of influence or concern, guaranteed a war. We grossly underestimated the ability of the north to wage war. And the nation was never built up to support the war at the potential costs of victory. We erred in granting sanctuary over the Yalu into Manchuria. We failed to realize that China was committed to all-out war to keep its "cordon sanitaire." Intelligence failed to accurately estimate our ability to defeat Communism in Asia, and everyone overestimated the Soviet Union’s ability to respond if we took on China and released Chiang Kai Chek to invade the mainland. But this is Monday morning quarterbacking. Also, Syngman Rhee was not a very practical politician and his rhetoric scared the hell out of the world.
Something good did come out of the Korean War. South Korea is a shining example of what free-market capitalism can do when freedom is permitted. Even though South Korea has not been a bastion of individual freedom, given their history, they have come a long way. Unfortunately, I think that as long as North Korea is a threat, the United States has a moral obligation to keep the peace by having troops stationed in Korea today.