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"Only then did I finally realize this wasn't another big maneuver, but was a place where a Marine could become suddenly dead."
- Charlie Carmin
PFC Carmin on the road from Hagaru to Koto Ri,
the frozen Chosin, TIME, January 1, 1951
With Seoul secured, the Marines boarded ship to land at Wonson. Carmin was still with Battalion Headquarters, still arguing for a transfer to a rifle company. The Regiment moved northward to meet the Chinese Communist in the mountains near the Chosen reservoir. Carmin, a part of the Battalion Headquarters, was still requesting a transfer to a rifle company. In the high snow sheathed mountains of North Korea, fighting the hordes of Chinese who sought to trap the Marines, Carmin was still trying to get a transfer to a rifle company." The article was authored by SSgt (can't make out name--believe it is Mike Shutak), U.S.M.C, Combat Correspondent. This story misquoted me. I did not volunteer to be a stretcher-bearer. I was assigned or ordered to be a stretcher-bearer. I volunteered to be a rifleman in a rifle company.
Shortly after the interview, I celebrated my twenty-second birthday. With no beer or alcohol for a celebration, I mixed some C ration cocoa with water, and soon had ice cream. Using two C ration crackers, I made a cake. My foxhole buddy and I had a birthday party. That night the Chinese hit us in earnest.
From here on, things are pretty hazy. I'll relate some of the things I do remember. I remember several patrols going out to try and get to Fox Company of the Seventh Marines. Fox Company was fighting to hold a hill that dominated the road from Yudam-Ni to Hagaru-Ri. Fox Company had to hold the hill in order for the Fifth Marine Regiment and Seventh Marine Regiment to make their way to Hagaru-Ri. Fox Company 7th Marines held the hill against great odds and suffered heavy losses.
Funny things happen in combat situations--at least, to the men doing the fighting they seem funny. A story told in Item Company was about a tall scholarly Reserve Marine from Georgia. He was nicknamed Schoolteacher for his mild manner and thick glasses. Schoolteacher's glasses were always fogging up at critical times, but he persevered. A few Reserve Marines came to Korea with their personal weapon. Schoolteacher's personal weapon was a long barrel thirty-eight pistol. (The Marine Corps frowned on this practice and it was later banned.) It was snowing hard and visibility was poor when Schoolteacher's patrol flushed five or six Chinese. The Chinese ran up a narrow draw with Schoolteacher in hot pursuit. Schoolteacher and the Chinese disappeared in the blowing snow, with the remainder of the patrol following in trace. Occasionally a pistol shot rang out. The men following would then stumble across dead Chinese. After four or five shots and a like number of dead Chinese, Schoolteacher came trudging back down the ravine rejoining the patrol. One of the Marines asked him if he had killed all of them. Schoolteacher replied, "Hell no, my damn glasses fogged up on me or I would have."
On the night the Chinese hit full force into Item and How Company, Item Company and fill-ins from the battalion headquarters and Service Company stacked up the Chinese, thanks to Lieutenant "Bull" Fisher's skillful deployment of his company and its attachments. Item Company's defensive position was on the military crest of a small hill facing to the North and overlooking a fairly flat plain that stretched for about a thousand yards toward a large hill mass. Lieutenant Fisher used terrain contours in deploying his Marines.
Automatic weapons covered major avenues of approaches into the position. Dead space to the front was covered by indirect fire from the 60mm mortar, 81mm mortar and artillery registrations. Although barbed wire and steel posts were not readily available from the supply system, Item Company found enough to construct a low barbed wire fence across a portion of their assigned frontage. Five-gallon cans of gas rigged with C-4 and White Phosphorus grenades were buried in the snow just beyond the barbed wire. Tin cans with rocks were hung on the low fence as noisemakers to alert sentries when someone was in the wire. Machine Guns and Browning Automatic Rifles were assigned final protective lines of fire across the front, with each rifleman assigned a sector of observation and fire.
It was stressed that no matter what happened, no one would get out of his hole. Orders from Lieutenant Fisher said, "If overrun, stay in your holes and shoot the bastards in the back." It was a moonless night with a light snow falling when the Chinese made a light probing attack to the right of Item Company and the position I occupied. The probe was to the right of the roadblock, and in the vicinity of First Motor Transport, Service battalion and How, Battery of the 11th Marines just North of Hagaru. At about 2300 (11pm), ration cans rattled on the barbed wire in front of Item Company. A bugle sounded in the distance.
A short time later the stuff hit the fan. Marines threw grenades, and assaulting Chinese replied with a hail of Russian potato masher grenades. Whistles blew as a signal for the Chinese assault. Illumination was called for. Some of the illumination rounds failed due to the extreme cold. As the flares that worked drifted down, hundreds of Chinese appeared out of the dark snowy night. They had crawled across the valley to within 75 yards of our foxholes. Only the sound of cans rattling had alerted us.
The first wave of Chinese ran forward throwing grenades, many of them getting entangled in the barbed wire. Many Chinese grenades did not go off due to the severe cold. More than one Marine rifleman found dud grenades in the bottom of his hole after an attack. The first wave was followed by a second wave of Chinese firing automatic weapons and rifles. In the flare light it looked like the entire valley to our front was filled with waves of Chinese. Buried cans of gasoline were ignited, which furnished more illumination; and a red or green flare was fired as the signal to Item Company to fire their final protective line of fires. (The FPL is fired only when your position is in danger of being overrun.)
Chinese, slowed by the low barbed wire, were caught in enfilade fire from Item Company's machine guns and automatic rifles. They lost many men in this deadly fire, but continued their assault. Marine riflemen killed attackers at the edges of their foxholes. Item Company began to set off buried cans of gasoline, causing more casualties to the Chinese. Still out of the darkness, under the eerie light of flares and tracers, appeared waves of Chinese soldiers advancing forward. Those in front threw grenades as our fire mowed them down. The next wave followed, firing rifles and burp guns as they charged. These waves were followed by several more waves of men who threw grenades. Some Chinese did not have weapons, and picked up the weapon of those who had been killed in the preceding wave. The assault was continuous and seemed to last for hours, but in reality I think most of it was over in an hour. The remainder of the night was spent returning sniper fire involving small groups of infiltrators.
At the same time, Item Company was under attack. How Company on the left flank of Item was also under heavy attack by a large force of Chinese. Some Chinese overran a platoon in How Company and broke onto the airstrip being constructed by engineers. Marine engineers, working under floodlights, were trying to get the strip completed. It was reported they stopped working to help elements of how and Item Company run down and kill Chinese who had broken through our lines. After the field had been cleared, engineers crawled back on their equipment to finish the needed strip.
The next morning after the Chinese attack was over, seven hundred dead Chinese lay in and around Item Company's position. Some positions had been overrun, but Marines stayed in their shallow holes, turning to shoot enemy soldiers in the back as they ran by. Many men found un-exploded ChiCom grenades lying in the bottom of their hole or on the small parapets of their foxholes. I believe Item and its attachments lost three or four KIA and five or six WIA during this night's action--very light casualties considering the volume of fire and closeness of the fight.
We were all very cold and miserable during this time and felt our equipment was very poor for the conditions we were living in, until we looked over the Chinese dead in front of us. None of them had shoe packs or socks. Many wore only tennis shoes, and others had their feet wrapped in rags. All of them had frozen feet that were swollen and black. It was hard to believe that those men could even walk, let alone assault our position.
Sometime during this period, a Corsair strafing up the valley in front of us was hit by small arms fire. The pilot banked around and crash-landed about a thousand yards in front of our lines. Without any command, many of us left our holes and ran out to the plane. On the way out to the plane there was a small ice covered stream to cross. Figuring it would be frozen solid; I jumped from the bank onto the ice. The ice broke and I went in water up to my waist. Since it was very cold I charged out of it quickly. By the time I arrived at the plane I was solid ice from the waist down. My clothes had frozen so quickly I hardly felt the cold. Among the first to arrive at the plane, I was surprised to see a Technical Sergeant, or Master Sergeant, was the pilot. He was standing by his plane with a parachute over his shoulder smoking a cigarette. Making a very dumb remark, I told him, "Watch it, there are gooks (Chinese) all over the hills".
Finally a chopper came in to pick up the pilot and we all trudged back to our holes. I don't believe we received any incoming at all. Later in the day, a 106 or a tank destroyed the plane. Forty-five years later I described the incident in a magazine article and received a letter and phone call from the pilot of the plane. He was a Marine enlisted pilot named George Welker. We talked on the phone several times and exchanged letters and mementos. I have found out he stayed in the Corps and flew jets in Vietnam, retiring from the Marines as a Major. I hope to meet him again at one of the division reunions.
Close to my hole, a bulldozer had scrapped up some dirt to make a gun emplacement. During the day we would scrounge wood to build a warming fire. We also built fires in our foxhole to thaw the ground so we could dig a few more inches. While our hole was burning, we would stand around behind this pile of dirt and try to thaw C-rations. Four or five of us were bating the breeze and looking at the fire when all of a sudden we realized we had a stranger in our midst. A Chinese soldier was standing among us trying to get warm. Recovering from our surprise, we gave him a smoke and someone later escorted him to S-2 (Intelligence section).
Leaving my weapon at the dirt pile, I started back to my hole to get cleaning gear to clean my rifle. Halfway to my hole, snipers opened up and bullets began kicking up dirt and snow in my vicinity. Running like hell to my hole, I got my cleaning gear and ran like hell back to the dirt pile and my weapon. Snipers dinged at me all the way, but fortunately missed me completely. From then on my weapon was always within arm's reach.
No one who saw it would forget the evening George Company and British Marines came into Hagaru. I happened to be up by battalion trying to scrounge cardboard envelopes that came around C ration cases. We used the cardboard in the bottom of our hole for insulation from the cold. We could hear a fire fight to the south along the road coming from Koto-Ri. It was snowing, and out of the snow appeared a bunch of beat-up Marine six-bys coming like a bat out of hell. They received fire all the way into our lines. It was another sight never to be forgotten.
That evening, we heard that First Sergeant Rocco Zullo of George Company had been hit bad. First Sergeant Zullo was another name many Marines will never forget. The First Sergeant was a big man, and is still a fighting Marine through and through. He is a Marine whose example I tried to follow over the years. Some forty years later I had the privilege of meeting the First Sergeant at a reunion. Since then we exchange greetings a few times a year. First Sergeant Zullo retired from the Corps and continued life as a history teacher. I'll bet there were no discipline problems in his class.
This was the same night Major Meyers led an attack up a huge mountain to the east of Hagaru-ri. Next morning, I remember climbing it to help bring down some wounded and dead. How those Marines had been able to climb those ice-covered slopes on a pitch-black night under heavy fire was beyond my comprehension. The mountain was so steep ropes had to be tied between trees in order for men to pull themselves up the ice-covered slope. How they managed this and still fired their weapons was a tribute to their guts and fortitude. Near the top of the mountain were a blanket of dead Chinese, Army soldiers, and Marines. All of them were intermingled, lying frozen stiff in the positions they were in when they died.
One morning, just at daybreak, we spotted a group of five to six men coming down toward our lines in the dim light. A light snow was falling, but we held fire. We knew there were stragglers trying to get to our position. As they drew closer, we could tell they were Americans, and we went out to meet them. The group consisted of several soldiers, and one Marine who said he was an artillery liaison attached to the Army. The Marine was the only one with a weapon, and it was a .45 pistol frozen in his hand. He stated they had walked through the whole damned Chinese Army that night.
It was a sight to see when the Fifth and Seventh Marines came into Hagaru. Old beat up Six-Bys were loaded to the top with equipment. Dead Marines were tied on top of loads, across hoods, and on fenders of all vehicles. There was not a vehicle without numerous bullet holes. Some of the walking had to hang onto a vehicle to keep going. Our Battalion Weapons officer, a Major, was standing at the roadblock. A light snow was falling and since Marines don't cry, I saw melted snow running down the Major's cheek. Mine too.
While at Hagaru, my foxhole buddy and I spotted an Army six-by truck three or four hundred yards behind our hole. The truck had a fifty-caliber machine gun mounted on a ring mount. No one was using the machine gun, and we decided we needed more firepower for our foxhole. By now we had accumulated two M1 rifles, a Thompson Sub Machine Gun, one Browning automatic rifle, one Russian Rifle, one Model 1903 Enfield, one Chi Com carbine, plus grenades and ammunition for all of the weapons. After searching the truck and not finding a ground mount tripod for the fifty, we decided to take the entire ring mount down to our hole. We worked all day, taking the fifty off the ring mount and the ring mount off the truck. By evening we had the machine gun in our fox hole ready to go.
Night came, we received some fire, and I tripped off the old fifty-caliber. It fired one round and the firing pin broke. Having been to school a couple of times on the fifty-caliber machine gun, I disassembled it at first light. After much work I finally got the bolt out of the receiver, but couldn't remember how to break down the bolt. We went on another little safari and found another deserted truck with a fifty-caliber machine gun, took the bolt out of it, and returned to our hole. After some tinkering, we got the new bolt and firing pin in, set the headspace, and we were ready to go. After all of that work, I never had a good chance to use the fifty before we moved out. Prior to moving out, we disassembled it and threw the parts to the winds.
That night, a soldier was put in our hole. It was tight quarters since we had been digging a two-man hole, but we figured, "what the hell, a little more body heat won't hurt us even if it was a soldier" Sometime around midnight we heard people crunching through the snow behind us. On challenging them, they gave the password and asked if there was a soldier in the hole and we stated, ''Yes''. Much to our amazement, they were Army cooks with a big pot of hot coffee and gave us one canteen cup full to share among the three of us. Some of the Army units making it into Hagaru had field stoves set up in back of six-bys. One morning the Army cooks started making pancakes. The Army unit lined up for breakfast and every Marine in the perimeter could smell coffee and pancakes. Those Army cooks were okay cause after feeding their men, they just kept on cooking until they fed every Marine they could.
That day orders were passed to strike our warm-up tents. Loading everything we could onto trucks and trailers, we prepared to move south toward Koto-ri. There were a lot of Army vehicles in our perimeter with no driver, and we loaded them too. Everything else we burned or destroyed, including my fifty-caliber machine gun. I believe the First Marine Division came out of the reservoir with more vehicles and weapons than we went in with. I know some of them were newer.
On or about 6 December, Headquarters and Service Company Third Battalion First Marines left Hagaru late in the evening. My unit was just on the outskirts of Hagaru and was halfway across a small stone bridge when the Chinese opened up with machine gun and rifle fire. Red and green tracer bullets were going under the bridge and over the bridge. It was an impressive sight if you didn't happen to be on the bridge. Another Marine and I standing near the middle said," To hell with this," and quickly made our way through the vehicles and off the bridge towards a burning hut. We were lying down in the snow facing outboard with our feet as close to the fire as we could get them and we waited for the Chinese. It was a poor position but we figured what the hell, if we had to die, we would die with warm feet. We were expecting the enemy to try and blow the bridge in order to block our exit, but they failed to do so.
At daylight firing ceased, except for some sniper fire and the column started moving toward Koto-Ri. It was about ten miles to Koto-Ri, and the day was one long firefight, especially for rifleman flanking the road and for point companies who assaulted the many roadblocks. Marines moving with vehicles would receive sporadic fire, but kept moving. A few miles outside of Koto-Ri, it started to snow. It was getting dark and visibility was poor. The column started to receive heavier small arms fire from surrounding hills. I had positioned myself behind a tank, trying to keep warm from the exhaust. All of a sudden the tank took off down the road. I ran hard trying to keep up with it for incoming fire was cracking close to me. Finally, I said, "To hell with it," and walked the remaining mile or two under sniper fire into Koto-Ri. Colonel Puller was at the perimeter smoking his stubby little pipe, and although under sniper fire, appeared cool as a cucumber. His example made all of us slow down and sort of swagger on in like we weren't scared to death.
On the race into Koto-Ri, I had lost my unit. Finding three or four other Marines in the same boat, we banded together to form our own fire team until we could rejoin our proper outfits. Finding a spot outside of a farmer's hut, we prepared to bed down in the snow. Several of us did not have sleeping bags, but we did have two parachutes. We laid one chute down on the snow and pulled the other one over us. We snuggled together to keep warm. We didn't realize it was in the area of 28 degrees below zero, and no one knew what it was if you counted wind chill. About the time we laid down in the snow this old Korean papasan came out of his house and made motions for us to come inside. We did so and spent the night in a North Korean hut on a nice warm floor. Most, if not all huts, in North Korea had only one room with dirt floors. Half of the room's floor was raised above ground level by building a second floor made of straw and clay. This created a space in which the Koreans built a fire keeping the second floor nice and warm. It was the Korean version of radiant heat and was very effective.
Next morning a couple of us hit the supply dump and left the old farmer a couple of cases of C rations. When we left Koto-Ri, it was a dark gloomy morning with a light snow falling. As we saddled up, I saw activity in the vicinity of the Regimental command post. A dozer had dug a long trench in the frozen ground. Men from grave's registration were placing some of our dead in the trench, taking care to lay them down gently and in neat rows. As my group departed the village we saw a dozer start to cover up the gravesite. I have checked over the years and am certain that those Marines are still buried in the village of Koto-Ri. We had moved out of Koto-Ri just a few miles when I looked back and saw smoke rising from the town. I hoped the old farmer had decided to follow us out of the area as many of his neighbors did.
Spending the day hunkered down in the snow, we received sporadic sniper fire. Word filtered down that we had to wait for engineers to build a bridge. About dusk, a sergeant or lieutenant came down the column and spotted our little group. I was ordered to take our fire team and tie in with a rifle company on our right flank. By this time it was dark and starting to snow. We figured if we just kept going uphill, we should run into the Rifle Company. After walking for about thirty minutes and making no contact, I noticed we had veered off the ridge. We seemed to be in a draw or gully. Calling a halt, I told the men I thought we had come far enough. It was dark, we didn't have a password, and I felt we should stop and set up a perimeter till daylight. Everyone thought this was a good idea. We formed a circle with our feet inboard, lying on top of one parachute and pulling the other over us, huddling together to keep from freezing.
Shortly after establishing our position, firing began on each side of us, with bullets passing close overhead. Red and green tracers from machine guns on both sides of the gully cracked over head. We now knew where we were. On one side and above us were the Marines we were sent to tie in with. On the other side were the Chinese. We were in the middle, praying the Chinamen wouldn't attempt to cross the gully. After a very cold, uncomfortable night, daylight finally came, and the Chinese withdrew. As it became lighter, we could see and hear Marines above us preparing to move out. We hollered up at them and told them we were Marines. They wanted to know what the hell we were doing in front of their lines. We informed them we had spent the night protecting them. One of them invited us up and gave us some coffee.
After our morning coffee, we moved back down the ridgeline, rejoining the main column. We spent most of the day sitting along the road waiting for engineers to complete the bridge. At dusk, our column started to move down the mountain. Moonlight reflecting off snow and ice let us see for twenty or thirty feet. As I was walking down the road watching for slick spots I looked into the face of a dead Chinaman who had been killed on the road. Every preceding vehicle and tank must have run over him, since he was as flat as a pancake. Yet his uniform, body, and face were easily distinguished. He looked just like a paper doll.
As we moved down the mountain, we could hear heavy small arms fire coming from our front. The column came to a halt for several hours. At dawn we began moving again, arriving at the bottom of the mountain in mid-morning. Just at the bottom of the pass and outside of the village of Chinhung-Ni, we saw what our holdup had been a few hours ago. Numerous trucks and jeeps had been destroyed. Under trucks and scattered around the area were many dead American soldiers. They had been ambushed and suffered severe losses. Passing through the ambush site and village of Chinhung-Ni, we came to a railroad track and the column halted. As the morning sun began to warm us, we all felt much better. It seemed much warmer down in the valley than it had on the Chosen Reservoir plateau. Word was passed we were to be picked up by trucks for transport to Hungnam to board ship. Our ordeal was about over.
While we waited for trucks and soaked up some sun, those having rations began to eat. A small observation plane, I believe a Piper Cub, came flying down the canyon. This was the same area where the hydroelectric plant was located. Electrical wires supported by large steel towers were still stretched across the canyon. Unable to see the wires, the pilot flew into them, causing the plane to fall several hundred feet into a rocky stream bed. I have always wondered if the pilot survived. Shortly after this, we boarded trucks for a long dusty ride into Hamhung. We didn't mind a bit. It was warmer for one thing, and we knew we were going aboard ship soon. Even a flat-bottomed LST would look good to most of us.
Years have passed. People have asked me what the worst part about being in the Chosen Reservoir was; my reply, "dropping your trousers to take a crap with the winds of Manchuria tickling your curly hairs and blowing on your balls".
I don't remember the ship we went aboard, but it was very crowded with troops sleeping not only in troop compartments but also on weather decks, gun tubs, passage ways and even in the engine room. Being an old salt, two other Marines from another unit and me quickly found a shower with hot water. We immediately had a good soaking, but had to put our filthy clothes back on. By this time Marines had filled every available space, with most of them asleep. Looking for a warm place to sleep, I located the engine room and we lay down on its steel grates for a nice warm sleep. Sailors did not harass us like they usually did; no complaints about bodies blocking passageways and weather decks like usual. On the trip to Pusan the chow line aboard ship ran twenty-four hours a day. A Marine could get one meal a day, and if he stood in line all of the time, he might get two meals.
I believe we were aboard ship for two days before landing in South Korea at Masan. Leaving the ship, we boarded trucks for transport to our assembly area. It was cold in South Korea but it seemed balmy compared to North Korea.
Arriving in Pusan, we boarded trucks for a ride to the bean patch at Masan. The bean patch was a large flat field used previously by the Fifth Marine brigade when it landed in July of 1950. It was a large cultivated field on the outskirts of Masan, with enough room for all three Marine infantry regiments plus attachments. It was an ideal site for the division to rest and to replenish. Rest was needed badly by all hands. We also needed supplies, equipment and fresh troops to fill the thin ranks of our division. When we dismounted from our trucks, some squad tents were already set up; those that were not went up in short order. This was the first shelter from the elements most of us had been under in several months. Mess halls were set up, and hot chow served. Granted it was beef and grease, pork and grease, powdered eggs and powdered milk; but it was a feast compared to frozen C rations. At Christmas we had a full turkey dinner with all the trimmings. The cooks did an excellent job, but many of us could not do the meal justice because our stomachs had shrunk from the months of eating C rations.
Sometime after Christmas we jumped off on the push up through Central Korea. Things have gotten hazy for me but if I remember correctly; when we left the Masan bean patch we boarded a Korean train. I know we rode a long distance on top of locked boxcars. It was very cold, and we wondered why we had to ride on top of the boxcars. Sometime during the day, the train made a stop. Being good Marines, we thought we would see what was so important in the locked boxcars. On opening the doors of one car, we found boxes of new parkas and other cold weather gear. Many of our parkas were badly torn and very dirty, so we surveyed our old parkas for new ones, picking up a few extra socks and mittens as well.
After a long day on top of boxcars we left the train, debarking in the area of Andong, South Korea. Third Battalion Command group established its command post near a small village in this area. After erecting necessary command post tents, another Marine and I took a walk down to where some Army troops were bivouacked. It was getting dark as we passed a brightly-lit tent, with a group of soldiers talking inside. Spotting a fifth of scotch circulating among the group, we said, "Hi", to them very nicely. The soldiers were friendly and invited us to have a drink. We gratefully accepted, since our Suntory's whiskey had long since disappeared. The jug was full, so we each tipped it up for a good long pull. After we had taken a drink, half of the jug was a goner. The soldiers looked at us with some unfriendly looks. We hastily said, "Thanks a lot", and departed the scene. I'll bet those soldiers never offered another Marine a drink.
On another little safari, a couple of us found a small Saki still in a shed. Saki was dripping out of a large wooden press. We drank a couple of canteen cups and it didn't seem to have much alcohol in it, so we weren't too sure if it was Saki and left the area. At Andong I finally got my wish and was transferred to a rifle company. Assigned to Item Company, I joined a rifle platoon as a rifleman. Item Company’s position was on a hill just above the battalion command post. The company had defensive positions established on the hill and was assigned a sector for patrolling in the countryside. Company warm up tents were set up at the bottom of the hill; so men not manning the perimeter or on patrol had a warmer place to sleep. Shortly after joining Item Company, I was sleeping in the platoon warm up tent. It was time to go on watch. I crawled out of my sleeping bag to pull on my boots and parka to prepare for the cold Korean night. As I was putting on my shoepacs, I was balancing on one foot pulling my shoepac onto the other foot. Losing my balance, my foot came down on top of an empty dry ration can, cutting the bottom off of my big toe. It was very painful and I was med-evaced to Naval Hospital, Yokuska, Japan. Navy doctors grafted some skin from my thigh onto the bottom of my toe. After several weeks in the hospital I was sent to Camp Otsu for re-conditioning and a return to Korea.
At Otsu, I ran into my friend Beamen. He had been shot in the arm in the reservoir. We had some good liberties talking about all that had happened to us, lying a little and drinking lots of Ashai beer. I also saw my old DI, SSgt Gardner. After surviving Wake Island and four years in a Japanese prison camp, he was once again in a war. We talked and I wished him luck. Years later, I heard he had been killed in a car accident in California. Rejoining Item Company in late March or early April, just in time for Operation Ripper, I was assigned to be a Browning Automatic Rifleman (BARman). This was a weapon I felt was as good as the M1 rifle. It weighed twenty pounds, but could deliver a larger volume of fire then the M1. Item Company was on a long ridgeline when I rejoined them. The first night back, there was a severe thunderstorm. Rain fell in torrents and our foxhole soon filled with water. If the communists had attacked that night no illumination would have been needed. Lightning made the night almost as bright as day. The thunder made more noise than an artillery barrage, while electricity danced a blue light down our rifle barrels. I think most of us were as scared that night from lightning striking all around us as we were when attacking an enemy position. The storm passed and day dawned bright and clear.
With the arrival of dawn we heated coffee, trying to drive out the chilly wetness that permeated our bones. While my coffee was heating, I field stripped my BAR, wiping the parts dry and applying a thin coat of oil. As I started assembling my weapon, word was passed to saddle up and move out. The Browning automatic rifle, unlike many rifles, will fire on the forward motion of the bolt. When assembling the BAR, the bolt has to be to the rear in order to insert the trigger housing group. Once the trigger housing group is locked in place, the trigger is pulled, allowing the bolt to go forward. The magazine of twenty rounds is inserted, and as long as the bolt stays forward, the weapon cannot fire. Being in a hurry, I quickly assembled my weapon. Inserting the trigger group and magazine into the weapon, I pulled the trigger. My foxhole buddy was sitting in front of the muzzle of the BAR. The second I pulled the trigger, I knew I had made a mistake. Both of us were very lucky that morning. The BAR has an operating handle used to pull the bolt to the rear prior to firing. My left knee was in front of this handle, and as the bolt and operating handle slammed forward carrying a round toward the chamber for firing, my knee stopped the forward motion of the bolt. I had come very close to killing my foxhole buddy.
From that time on I never rushed the assembly and loading of the BAR. Item Company moved out on a forced march toward the Hawchon reservoir, a distance of ten or twelve miles. Word passed down the column we had to beat a Communist force to the top of a hill near the reservoir. After marching eight miles, I found my foot had not fully recovered from its previous injury. Med-evaced again, it was a very unhappy Marine who left Item Company for the USS Repose (hospital ship) which was sailing up and down the coast of South Korea.
Rejoining to Item Company a month later, I was just in time for what I believe was Hill 902. Item Company and the rest of third battalion moved out by truck early one morning. After an all day truck ride, we dismounted at dusk. We had just enough time for a quick can of rations before being ordered to saddle up. Item Company was on the move again, but this time by shanks mare (on foot). It was pitch black, but we could tell that we were moving into some very rough country. The rattle of small arms and crunch of artillery shells could be heard to our front.
Shortly after midnight engineers met us to lead our column single file through a minefield. Word passed down the column for us to make sure we stayed on the footpath. From time to time small craters could be seen where a mine had been detonated. Proceeding up a narrow canyon for two or three thousand yards, we began to ford a small stream and to climb another hill. By this time, the moon was out illuminating the area. Half of the company was across the stream when a Chinese 76 recoilless rifle opened up. Several rounds came down the canyon into the area we were fording. The sound of the 76 rounds, screaming down and impacting in the narrow canyon, made for a tight pucker at the bottom end and made every one look for some cover. One round hit a big rock in the stream bed very near my buddy and me. It did not go off, but ricocheted and made the damnedest whistling sound. I hollered at one of the men and said that SOB sure acts like it's hunting someone.
Finding a small crater left by an exploded land mine, I took refuge from the shelling. A land mine crater isn't very big, but I was doing my best to get all of me into it. Parts of my body I couldn't get into the crater, I tried to squeeze up into my helmet. Holes were never deep enough, or helmets big enough at times like that. After walking all night, we relieved another company from one of the other regiments. Having been on the move all day and all night, we hoped for some sleep and rest after the relief had been affected. We soon found out that there would be no rest for Marines of Item Company. After a short break and at the crack of dawn, we jumped off in an assault up a long, steep, rocky, ridgeline.
As we progressed up the ridge, terrain kept getting rougher and steeper. Our advance was slowed by occasional small skirmishes with enemy outposts. One of the companies across the valley from us, which I believe was How Company, began taking a lot of mortar fire and we heard later they had lost 60 or 70 men that day. Item Company took a lot of small arms fire, but little mortar fire. We continued our assault all day and had not reached our final objective by dark. Evidently, the battalion commander ordered our company commander to continue the assault up the ridgeline; for we continued our attack, making a night assault into some very heavy machine gun fire. The Chinese or North Koreans had placed several heavy Maxim machine guns on the ridge to our front. They were well dug in and protected by riflemen, but they made one mistake in the placement of their machine guns. The guns were shooting straight out from the hill instead of shooting down the slope. This created what is called dead space. Using this dead space, we crawled to within a few yards of the machine guns and threw grenades into the enemy positions, flushing them out of their holes and bunkers.
By this time I was a fire team leader and a new man had been assigned my BAR. This was his first time in the assault under enemy fire and I had a hell of a time to get him to fire at muzzle flashes of the enemy guns. My squad leader, a corporal named Porter, was a reserve Marine from California. Porter and I were leading the assault on our side of the ridgeline. All of a sudden a bunch of grenades sailed down on us from enemy positions in front of us. Shouting, "GRENADES," I jumped to my left over a rock, hitting the deck in a small depression. Grenades exploded all around us with the concussion ringing my chimes real good. Scared and dazed, I started to run back down the hill when I realized I had dropped my rifle. Stopping and turning to go back up to retrieve my rifle I heard Porter calling what I thought was, ''CARMIN, CARMIN''. Calling back I was okay, I continued up the hill looking for my rifle. As I drew closer, I could see Porter on the ground and heard him calling,'' CORPSMAN, CORPSMAN''. Recovering my rifle, I ran to Porter and he was saying, ''MY NUTS, MY NUTS''
Porter was newly married, leaving his wife after a short honeymoon to come to Korea. For this reason he was very worried about getting hit in the testicles. With bullets cracking all around and grenades going off close by, another Marine and I pulled down his trousers in order to assure him his family jewels were intact. Porter was reassured for a while, but later thought we were lying and hadn't given him the straight scoop. After making sure Porter's jewels were okay, and seeing we were only a few yards from the top of the ridge and near a bunker, we crawled on our bellies up to the bunker. Here two men from my fire team joined me. The remainder of Item Company soon occupied the hill and we set in our hasty defense. My platoon sergeant assigned my fire team a sector where the gooks had started some holes. We were lucky. All we had to do was clean out the holes a little.
I remember this incident so well because when I saw all of those grenades landing around me, I figured I'd had it. Next day I discovered a few small fragments in my leg and picked them out. Porter was not so lucky for he had fragments in his thighs and near his testicles. After the hill was secured, our Corpsman said we needed to get Porter down the hill to the battalion aid station. Another Marine in my fire team [believe his name was Kind] and I put Porter between us and started down the hill. By this time the moon had either set or was under a cloud because it was pitch black again. Porter was hurting and worrying about his nuts, and we knew there was no one between battalion and us. No one knew how many of the enemy we had by passed in our initial assault, or if some of them had slipped around our flanks in the darkness and confusion. Porter was in a lot of pain and moaning, even after two shots of morphine. He was still worried about his family jewels. We kept telling him he was okay and had moved about half way down the hill, stopping every few yards to rest Porter and to listen for enemy movement.
In one of those stops we heard someone coming up the hill. Laying Porter down by a mound of dirt just off the trail, we told him to be quiet. We were all relieved when we found out it was two wire men from our battalion communications section. They told us that a stretcher party was just behind them, so we stayed in place until they arrived. We placed Porter on a stretcher and started him back down the hill to battalion aid. Kind and I started back up the hill to rejoin our platoon when we realized we didn't know the password. Moving up the hill very quietly, we could hear the company digging in. After getting as close as we could, we hollered up and identified ourselves.
After our return, we moved to our assigned position to dig in for a counter attack. In about an hour we received a heavy counter-attack and had several hundred rounds of artillery and mortar fire called in to within 50 yards of our position. The cannon cockers and mortars did a good job, for we only had two or three short rounds. One of the short rounds went in the hole of our artillery forward observer, killing him and wounding his radio operator. We also received some incoming 60-mm, mortar fire. Hearing the enemy mortar rounds being dropped in the tube, we counted the thuds of the shell hitting the bottom of the tube. By listening close, we could hear the rustling sound of the mortar shells just before they hit. It was much like the sound of wind rustling the leaves of a tree. We would then get down in the bottom of our hole and count the explosions before standing up again.
My position was on the side of the hill and a .30 caliber machine gun was just to my right rear near the top of the hill. This machine gun was busy all night for the gooks made several attempts to come back down the ridgeline to retake the position we occupied. I don't remember how long we stayed on that hill. I know it was several days for during that time our only re-supply was ammunition and a few rations. I believe we were issued one can of heavy rations each day. For drinking water we found a shell hole, which had exposed a little spring; and we dipped our water from it. Some of us called this hill "Starvation Hill", but I believe it was Hill 902.
After a week or more on Starvation Hill, we were relieved by a fresh company, and happily departed the place. We had walked a mile or two and were nearing the bottom of the hill complex. Coming to a narrow dirt road, we moved down it for a mile or so when we came onto several parked trucks. The trucks were loaded with crates of fresh apples and oranges; and as we passed by, each Marine was given one apple and one orange. I have never tasted anything better or sweeter than the fruit we received that day. We moved back into reserve after this fight to fill our ranks with replacements and to have a few beers. Each man was allotted two beers a day. It wasn't enough for anyone to get a buzz on so we would play poker for beer until one squad won the entire platoon beer ration. The squad I was in had some lucky poker players, and we often won the platoon beer ration. Finding a deep well in back of our tent, we lowered the hot beer into the well for a few hours. Once cold or chilled, our squad had a good time singing old songs and drinking beer.
While in reserve someone slipped into the battalion mess tent and liberated some fruit cocktail, sugar and yeast. Requisitioning a five-gallon water can, we made raisin jack. Sitting the can in the sun for about a week, the mixture had some alcohol content and we increased it somewhat with shaving lotion. Many tall tales were told of an evening as we rank our concoction. One story was about a calm slow talking southerner. This Marine never seemed to get shook up no matter how hot things were. We were assaulting a hill. His foxhole buddy was up the hill throwing grenades, and had run out of grenades. He came tumbling down the hill very excited to his unflappable buddy saying, "Gimme some more grenades, gimme me some grenades". The calm Marine looked up the hill and said, "Well hell, here come some now", as some big Chinese Bell grenades sailed down landing by them. When the grenades went off, it blew both men down the hillside. Neither was hurt bad, but they couldn't hear a thing for several days.
It wasn't all drinking and playing while in reserve. We also ran training exercises and patrols to get our new men shape for the hills of Korea and the combat that we knew was in our future.
On September of 1951, we jumped off in an assault that continued until just before I rotated in Oct of 1951. When I rotated, Item Company was on a big ridgeline close to the east coast of Korea. There was a big valley out in front of us, and a stream ran through the valley. When we first moved onto this ridge, it was getting dark and we were given orders to dig in. No sooner was the order given than there was an explosion just a few yards from my position. A Marine from another squad detonated a mine with his entrenching tool while digging in. Word was passed to probe the area for mines before digging in. It was a very dark night but my foxhole buddy and I felt around for trip wires, probing our area very carefully before swinging our entrenching tool. Even so, we held our breaths with every swing of the shovel, and our breath came very quickly whenever the tool hit a rock.
We dug a very shallow slit trench, barely big enough for both of us to fit into. Later that night, a fire-fight broke out with some incoming small arms fire, striking around our position. This made us wish we had dug a bigger, deeper hole. Come first light, the first thing we did was deepen our foxhole. After digging our hole deeper, we began to check our immediate area for more mines. We soon discovered both sides of the ridge in our immediate area had many mines. Most of the mines were the "Bouncing Betty" type that we marked, dug out and later disarmed.
A "Bouncing Betty" mine had a propelling charge in it that would shoot the main charge into the air six or eight feet before it detonated. Later in the day we were ordered to string a single apron barbed wire fence in front of our squad position. Since the area to our front had not been probed for mines, none of us cared to be the first to move into the area. Orders were orders; so out we went, cursing every step of the way. Finding more mines, we requested an engineer team, but our request was denied. So we continued to string the wire. One end of wire would be tied to a stake, and one man would pick up the roll of barbed wire, throwing it as far as he could. The ball of wire would unwind for several feet before coming to a stop. The process would be repeated until we had a rickety single apron barbed wire fence across our squad front.
Our enemies were dug in on the other side of the river on a long ridgeline several thousand yards from our position. Yet, we could hear them of a night talking and digging their bunkers and caves. Occasionally we could spot one during the day and snap off a long-range shot at him. They would reply in kind. The gooks would shoot their 76 recoilless at us whenever we were on the forward slope, improving our fighting holes. We would hear the initial report of the gun and dive into our holes or run for cover on the reverse slope. We always tried to have one man in a covered position trying to spot the location of the enemy gun. When a gun was located, a 75 recoilless rifle would be zeroed in to knock the enemy gun out of action. This type of action became a part of Item Company's daily routine.
Numerous air strikes were also called in on large concentrations of enemy troops and weapons spotted across the valley. The Corsair pilots did an outstanding job of placing their bombs and napalm right on target. Often they would fly so low we could see the pilot clearly and they would always give us a big wave.
By Oct of 1951 I had been in Korea for about thirteen months and was wondering if I had to get shot in order to go home. During this time I had spent about a month and a half in the hospital in Japan, and about three weeks on the USS Repose. I had seen many of the men who made the Inchon landing and the Chosen reservoir killed or wounded. Many had been rotated back to the states. By this time, there were only three men left in Item Company that had made the Inchon landing and had not been seriously wounded. I was one of them.
One afternoon while I was digging an evacuation trail on the steep reverse slope, my Platoon Sergeant hollered at me to grab my gear and report to battalion. I was being rotated. It was one happy Marine who gathered his gear, and it didn't take me long. All I had was a sleeping bag, a pack and my rifle. Saying good-bye to my foxhole buddy and wishing him luck, I started the hike to battalion with two other Marines. After thirteen months of combat, we were the last of the original Battalion that had landed at Inchon. Three happy Marines moved down the evacuation trail, passing behind a 75 recoilless rifle position. Just as we were behind the position, the Gooks hit it point blank with one of their 76mm rounds. We received a good shower of dirt and other debris; but this only hastened our departure, for we ran at top speed the mile or so to battalion. In our opinion this was no time to get hit or killed.
At battalion, we turned in our packs and rifles, which none of us cared to do. We were only about a thousand meters behind front lines and none of us felt too good about giving up the rifle we had carried for so long. We had formed a close attachment to our weapons, and still felt we might need them, no matter where we might be in Korea. Orders were orders, so we reluctantly surrendered our weapons, but were allowed to keep our ponchos and sleeping bag.
Late in the day, those of us being rotated, boarded trucks for the trip to regimental headquarters several miles to the rear. It was dusk when we arrived at regiment and were directed to a dry rice paddy to spend the night. We had just crawled into our fart sacks (sleeping bags) when we found we had been placed about fifty yards in front of an artillery battery. We didn't get much sleep that night because the battery fired throughout the night. Next morning we boarded trucks for a four or five hour ride to a little village and beach on the east coast of Korea. Here we were searched for weapons and ammunition before moving through a delousing station.
Delousing was done by Navy Corpsmen equipped with garden sprayers filled with DDT powder. The nozzle of the sprayer would be inserted up our sleeves and trouser waist, spraying our armpits and crotch with powdered DDT. The last thing would be to spray our head with DDT, which we didn't like at all. After going through the delousing station, we boarded a small landing craft for a short ride to a ship in the bay and our trip to Kobe, Japan.
Coming out of Korea with a few little grenade fragments in my legs, a very salty attitude, and a strong desire for a good time, I felt life could be pretty short if your luck ran out or the good Lord quit smiling on you. I wasn't a super religious man at this time, but I was gradually beginning to believe that my life had been in God's hands many times, and I was thankful to be alive. The old saying, ‘there is no atheist in the foxhole," holds true, at least in my case. I continued living pretty fast and loose, but believed strongly in God, beliefs that have grown stronger over the years.
Next morning we were tied up to a dock in Kobe, Japan. In Kobe all of us received 100 dollars pay and were granted dungaree liberty. We hit the beach again, only this time looking for beer, a steak, and girls. Sometime during the two or three days we were in Kobe we were issued a Class A Marine green uniform. All of us managed to go through the hundred dollars we had been paid, leaving Japan with only a few dollars in our pockets. The Ashai (Japanese beer) and the Nissans (Japanese women) were a welcome change from the boondocks of Korea. With most of our money gone, we were glad to set sail for San Francisco, California, and the land of the round eyes (American women).
Semper Fidelis - Charlie Carmin
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