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Wilfred "Will" Diaz
Los Angeles, California-
"Korea was an experience where the young kids who had joined the Marines, myself included, grew up to be hardened and determined military combatants. Pride was evident throughout the troops and we felt that we were part of an organization that would not give up or give in, even when confronted with overwhelming forces. Trust between the men was so strong that it gave each Marine a comforting mental feeling that no matter what, the guy next to him was his guardian angel."
- Will Diaz
My name is Wilfred Diaz of Los Angeles. I am called Will. I was born July 27, 1929 in Manhattan in the year of the stock market crash. I am the only son of Trinidad and Marina Hernandez Diaz. Both parents moved here from Puerto Rico in the early 1920s. I have one sister, Marina, who is one year younger than me. My father was a food mart owner. Mother was a housewife. I attended Flushing Public School No. 130 and Bayside High School, graduating in 1948.
I grew up during the Depression and World War II. We were more fortunate than most because of my dad's store. Our family was able to have a new car and buy a new home in a suburban area of Flushing, Queens. On Sunday December 7, 1941, the family was at dinner with the radio on in the living room. We were all enjoying our favorite program, 'The Shadow.' At the commercial break, an announcement was made of the attack on Pearl Harbor. We all looked at each other and asked, "Where's Pearl Harbor?" Nobody knew, though my dad said that it might mean war. Though no member of the family served in the military, I have vivid memories of those war years. I remember saving certain materials for pick up for the war effort, buying ration coupons, and conserving vital materials. In addition, with my family I helped Dad on Sundays to sort and count war stamps collected each week from his store.
Just prior to graduating from high school, I got my first job ushering at RKO Keith Flushing, and advanced to supervisor (Captain of Ushers). Being an usher in a movie palace, the propaganda films involving the Marines (like Guadalcanal Diary) worked for me. After work one day (November 07, 1948), I joined up. I had no friends that joined up at the same time. I decided to join the Marines because I hated the idea of being drafted into the Army and couldn't see myself in a sailor's uniform. I told Dad first that I had joined. He took it well, but insisted that I never get a tattoo, which I never did. We told Mom together, who felt that I would probably have been drafted anytime soon. She accepted my enlistment, although sadly.
I went by rail to boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, traveling via Washington D.C., then overnight to South Carolina. I knew no one. We were all traveling as strangers.
We were picked up at the railroad station and were trucked into the base. As we entered, a voice (probably the driver) cried out, "You've had it now!" We were driven to a large circular auditorium where we sat and waited for our names to be called out. We were to acknowledge our names and to give our religion, then run out through one of three doors. As I exited the building--or should I say ran out of the building, I saw those who were called before me were lined up and at attention. Seeing the painted footprints on the sidewalk, I fell into the next available spot. When the platoon (Platoon 248) was completed, we marched to a flat warehouse type of building. There we removed our civilian clothes (which were shipped home), had our heads shaved, showered, underwent a quick exam, and were issued our first military outfits. They included dungarees, oversize cap, sneakers, and a sack of basic toilet articles we later had to pay for. We marched off, trying to keep in step with each other, to our new barracks. After being assigned a sack and a place to put our new supplies, we went to the mess hall and had our first mess meal and had our first meal in boot camp. Later we were given a few instructions (boot camp style), and ordered to hit the sack after being shown how to make it up. Lights out!
Our drill instructors were Sergeant Maynard, Corporal Funk, and Corporal Young, who was actually the senior DI of the three. I don't recall their previous service records, though I did later meet Corporal Funk in the hospital in Japan. He was badly wounded and arrived in the ward in great pain. I was able to talk to him for a short while when he was in better shape, but I don't know the outcome of him and how badly he was wounded. I believe all three DIs were World War II veterans. At the time, I did not see any black recruits in the South Carolina boot camp. I doubt that during this time period any black recruit would have been sent down to a southern base.
Parris Island, South Carolina, is hot and humid and an actual island. The only thing that bothered me were the sand fleas which loved to crawl all over our faces and into any opening available to them. Boot camp was ten weeks long. We were taught all the basic military subjects from saluting, marching, hygiene, laundering, Marine dress, introduction to the issued equipment (including the M-1), memorizing our serial numbers along with the General Orders, the Corps' history, military courtesy, guard duty, and the introduction, handling, and firing of all weapons. As to educational and/or documentary films, we may or may not have viewed any of these films. For the life of me I can't remember seeing any in boot camp.
The daily routine was basically as follows:
Naturally, all of the above occurred on various days. Each night the Fire Team was assigned, which meant taking turns and walking about the squad room during the night. Our spare time was usually spent polishing our shoes and writing home, strongly ordered by the DI. We were never awakened in the middle of the night by the DI. We went to church each Sunday with no problem from anyone, including the DIs.
The DIs were strict, but we learned fast how to avoid their wrath. There was a lot of yelling and, "Don't brush that sand flea off your face!" None of our DIs used any corporal punishment. We were lucky no one of our platoon ever got into any trouble while in boot camp. I personally went into the Corps expecting boot camp to be Hell, but was surprised to make it through with no bad experiences. We had no troublemakers in the platoon, nor did I see any other platoon being disciplined. We were a good team and wound up an Honor Platoon, which was the goal of us all. We all appreciated our DIs. I feel that those three guys had to be the three reasons I'm alive today.
Did I have fun in boot camp? Like I mentioned above, I expected a tough time there and this being the first time I was on my own and away from home, I'd have to say that it was a learning experience for me. But we found ways of having fun and some hearty laughs (without the DI's present, of course). The hardest things I remember from my time in boot camp was the homesickness I felt the first night there, and getting my shots, especially the tetanus shot, from which I almost passed out. The blood sample shot was another I hated.
The food served in boot camp was plentiful and wasn't bad. It wasn't terrific, either, though the Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners were pretty good. During the week the menu varied, but we did have "SOS" for breakfast on a regular weekly basis. Food was bulky, especially the hamburger steak, which was the first meal I had in boot camp.
The tear gas experience, which only lasted a few minutes, was one of the most unpleasant parts of boot camp. The only test I remember taking while in boot camp was the Morse code test, which apparently I passed because I wound up going to radio communication school in California.
When boot camp was completed, we had a graduation ceremony and were made PFCs. As an Honor Platoon, we were allowed to wear our Marine Corps emblems permanently. I feel that I can speak for the entire platoon when I say we felt proud in being called Marines and marching to the Marine Hymn during the ceremony. Unlike here in San Diego, most of us didn't have any relatives attend the ceremony. We quickly took off for home to "show off" for ten days. I think we all felt that we had grown to be men and would be able to handle ourselves in most situations. We went in as young adolescents and came out as "kings of the world."
During the ten days at home, I visited with family and friends. I also dropped in at the movie palace that I had worked at. My mom asked me to go with her to Radio City Music Hall in uniform. I would also try to make it a point to go to one Broadway theatrical production whenever I was on leave or had time off. It was no different then and it's no different today. After my leave, I returned to Parris Island by Greyhound, which was the first time I saw segregation first hand.
No longer a recruit, I was billeted in different quarters and had the freedom of the base while there to await my reassignment. About two weeks later I got my orders, which were to attend the radio school previously mentioned. We traveled via a troop train to California, taking five days to make the trip. The base was called Camp Del Mar. It was across from the main gate of Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California. It was a perfect base, right off the Pacific.
Training at Pendleton
The base was the home of four schools: communications (radio, teletype, etc.), telephone line school, repairs (of the communications equipment), and at the other end of the base, Am-track school. I was sent to Communications to train as a radio operator. This was about a three-month course which included learning Morse code, typing, teletype, learning the different equipment we might be using, the correct lingo to use over the mike, and the correct and quickest way to write the messages received. This was basically like going to a regular trade school. We even had night classes for those who had difficulty with Morse code and typing.
Of course, we had the usual inspections and parades and had to stand guard duty at least once during our stay there. I got my dress blues while there. We had plenty of time to study or relax or spend some time on the beach, which was within walking distance of the barracks. Liberty was available (when not on duty or in a class) each night and on weekends. Being new to California, I investigated everything and everywhere, including Oceanside, San Diego (and its zoo), Long Beach, and, naturally, Los Angeles. San Diego, being the closest major city, had several interesting sites, though I can remember that it did have a seedy section and if I stood at the end of the main street, I saw nothing but a mass of white caps and uniforms of sailors. With no freeways, it took much longer to get to the different cities than it does currently--three hours to L.A. by bus as compared to one hour today. Being a movie and theatre buff from my youth, Hollywood was a favorite place for me to visit. Like any tourist, I took every tour available. I also went to as many of the famous radio shows that I could, including Bob Hope, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Red Skelton, Eve Arden, Edgar Bergan and Charlie McCarthy, and the Lux Radio Theatre. This was before the surge of television shows. Theatre was limited in LA, especially for a New Yorker, though I did see a couple plays while there. I enjoyed visiting and staying in Hollywood. It was very neat and clean and quiet (not like today). Most hotels where we stayed were reasonable and pleasant except for my one time in San Diego, where I had to stay in the worst fleabag joint I've ever been in. It was a closet! It never happened again.
The weather of Southern California was great, especially for us northeasterners. With regards to cold weather training, we didn't get any. We also had no infantry training while at the school. In fact, the weapon issued to us was a .45mm pistol, which we had to qualify on. Initially, the weapon was hard to handle. The weight caused my hand to shake and the loud noise was frightening. But with great training and suggestions from our instructor, it became a favorite of mine and I later made high expert on it with ease at Camp LeJeune.
My job during my time in the Corps was in communications, mainly as a voice radio operator. Our training was mostly in classrooms, though we did do field training along the beach in full gear and equipment. In fact, once we interrupted the crew of "The Sands of Iwo Jima" that was being filmed on the beach. We were on our final field trip a day or two before graduation, dressed in full gear and with our equipment. We followed our usual route along the beach. There was an area that had more vegetation than most of the surrounding beach. We were accustomed to seeing the palm trees and the sea grass, but as we passed that spot, we saw some wrecked military equipment strewn about and a huge pillbox among the trees. All this had not been there previously. As we continued on our trek along the beach, there was a sudden huge puff of sand blown up alongside of our column. There was no warning and the blast was noiseless (compressed air). Apparently the pre-filming crew was making craters for the film and we had arrived unexpectedly. The film crew stopped everything until after we passed on. They actually began filming that Friday, the day of our graduation. Incidentally, if you ever get to see the "Sands" film, the pillbox on the beach is the one that John Wayne climbs up and throws in a satchel bomb. Speaking of John Wayne, though I never did meet him, I always liked his work. This was the second time he played a Marine. As to the film itself, I felt the battle scenes were okay but on the whole, it was a bit corny, made by a B film studio--Republic. Their best film was "The Quiet Man", also starring John Wayne.
After our schooling, we all had leave and I took my first flight in an airplane home. (The real term I should have used is that it was another great adventure.) What a thrill it was to get onboard a DC10, which was commonly used at the time, climb uphill to my seat, hold my breath as the twin engines revved up for five minutes at the end of the runway, taking off from Long Beach and flying for a half an hour and landing in Burbank. Another takeoff and flying all night bundled up in two blankets with my ears popping and finally landing in New Mexico just as the sun was rising. I went by way of Long Beach to Burbank to Albuquerque, where I had breakfast in the terminal because there was no food on the plane. Flying to our next stop, St. Louis, I bundled up with my face glued to the window in order to see this vast country from the air. Then with a roller coaster ride over the city of New York, we finally landed at LaGuardia in New York. Another learning experience! Total time from the moment of boarding the plane in California to disembarking in New York was 24 hours. Since then I have flown almost every year, the last being a 10 1/2 hour flight to Paris. But the first flight remains a thrill. I'll always be thankful for that $99 un-chartered flight. The next time I flew home was the following year. It was a few months before the Korean War and the total flight time was 12 hours (a big change).
My orders were to report to Camp Pendleton upon my return, where I was assigned to the 11th Marines (the artillery branch of the 1st Marine Division), there to wait for word of my new duties. There were many vets of World War II when the Korean conflict began and we younger men couldn't wait to get in and have our battlefield experience like the older Marines. I remained with the 11th Marines until after I returned from Korea. After that I continued working and training as a voice radio operator.
All the communication personnel, including the telephone line men, were billeted together and worked in the same building. I tried to learn a little of the telephone guy's job, which helped some in Korea, where at times we had to do each other's work. But for the first six months with the 11th Marines, I was given a job in the battalion message center, which was actually a glorified term for mail room. As strange as it seems, it was one of the best jobs I had while in the Marines. No inspections, no parades, no hard work, no work clothes. Just sort out and distribute official messages to the CO and the other high ranking officers in the battalion headquarters building where we were located. Once every ten nights or so I had to "stand guard" with the officer of the day. That duty consisted of a short drive around the battalion perimeter at night, stopping at the mess hall for a tankard of hot coffee, and finally, back at the headquarters building, making up two cots for the OD and myself. At one time while on duty with a Warrant Officer who must have been in his late 50s, I was surprised to see that he was covered with tattoos over his entire body, including his fingers. They were fading and appeared to run or melt into each other. It was then that I was glad that I made that promise to my dad. I remained at the message center for about six months, then I was assigned to the Rocket battery, still as a radio operator. Though I was now in a new barracks, I continued to report back to the communication shack. I remained with the rocketeers until the outbreak in Korea.
1st Provisional Marine Brigade
I was sent, temporarily, to driving school on the base for two weeks. It was while there that we heard the news of the North Korean invasion. In fact, we were on our free time in the evening and listening to the barrack radio when the news came over the air. Of course, none of us knew anything about Korea or even where the country was located on the map except that it was in the Orient. We didn't take it seriously for the first few days, though we began to hear rumors. Being a news junkie all my life, I tried to keep up with what was happening. It wasn't until after we had a Division field parade that, on our return to the barracks, we were told that the Division was going to be sent to Korea. Almost immediately I was transferred back to the company headquarters with the rest of the radio and telephone personnel. Prior to being shipped to Korea, all the radio and telephone men of the 11th Marines were ordered to gather at company headquarters for assignments. We were told that we were to be split into small groups and formed into what was called Forward Observer Teams.
We were then told to check the assignment listings posted outside the entrance. I found my name under 'FO #3 C-Btry', along with eight others. Most of us were split into three teams, each consisting of two radiomen, six telephone linemen, and headed by an officer. The remainder were to be part of a central communication unit. We then met with the members of our respective teams. Sadly, after all these years, I am unable to recall all the names of those who served in my team except Pfc. Brundage, Pfc. West, and 1st Lt. D. Booker, our team leader. After introducing ourselves and with a few words from the Lieutenant, we were to continue to remain as a group from that day forward and start preparing for our departure.
I must take this time to write a few words about Lieutenant Booker. The Lieutenant was originally second in command of the Rocket Battery of which I was part of for a very short time, so I was quite familiar with him before becoming part of his team. He was short and not very handsome. His summer uniform was a little off-color, but extremely neat. He had the reputation of being one of the strictest officers of the 11th and I did my best to stay as far away from him as possible during my short stay with the Rocket Battery. Imagine my shock seeing his name as the leader of our nine-man team. Today I can honestly say that the rumors and the initial impression I had of the man were completely false. He was, in my opinion, the finest officer I knew in the Corps.
We were now part of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade, an advance unit of the 1st Marine Division. We young guys were cocky and excited and raring to go. After all, we kept hearing of the glorious history of the Corps, plus being around those Marines who actually fought at Iwo or Guadalcanal. We just couldn't wait! "By G_, we're Marines! We'll show those dirty little b-------!!!"
We left Pendleton by what was laughingly called a "bus" (a large trailer truck which had been turned into a bus), arriving at the San Francisco docks about two hours later. The men of the Brigade boarded two troop ships while the artillery, vehicles, and heavy equipment went on separate ships. My team boarded the U.S.S. Pickaway and we were assigned bunks at the very tip of the bow of the main deck. Though stacked three high, I was lucky to get the lowest. We didn't set sail until the following morning, so we were allowed onto the dock to phone home. At the time we were activated for Korea, I was unmarried and not seriously involved with anyone. As I recall, we were not allowed to inform anyone of our pending departure and it wasn't until we had boarded our ships in San Diego that we were allowed to leave it that evening and notify our families. The lines at the phone booths on the dock were a bit long, but we had no choice but to wait our turn. When I made my call, I did my best to make it sound like it wasn't a big deal. I think it put them a little at ease, though, without admitting it, they had to be a little apprehensive.
We left the port of San Diego about the 14th of July (I looked it up) and dropped anchor off of San Clemente for the night. This was my first ocean voyage so I spent many hours, day and night, viewing the sea. That night I watched fluorescent sea creatures swim around the ship. The next day we up anchored and joined a huge convoy. I tried to count the vessels around us and stopped at a hundred.
We spent our days, in between meals, with exercises, lectures, checking our radio and telephone equipment and learning the business of forward observing. Lieutenant Booker would find an empty corner of the deck and train us in spotting for the artillery, which was what forward observing was. We had to learn the different types of shells used by the artillery and which and when to use each. We also had to judge long distances and learn how to use the special field glasses we had. He also taught us how to read a map and use a compass to enable us to pinpoint targets. We also learned the correct terms we had to use on the radio or the telephone when setting up a target. Even though this was Lieutenant Booker's primary job, he wanted us all to learn this work in the event that he got hit.
As I said, this was my first voyage on the sea, but I was and am fortunate enough not to be prone to any kind of motion sickness. I've enjoyed all the sea voyages I made, both in and out of the service. I can't say that about half the men on board, including my fellow radioman, who had the top bunk. Once we left San Diego, he stayed in his bunk for two days, sick as a dog. But life on board ship for me wasn't bad. We had some free time each day and I was able to find a solitary spot under a gunwale where I could write letters and read. The ship had a lot of pocket books available to us and I was able to read H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds in my private hideaway. A statement that I will never forget, stressed during one of the lectures by a high ranking officer, was, "As Marines, you can trust your buddy on your right and your left. Remember, Marines never leave a wounded man behind!" These few words brought such confidence to all of us, it helped relieve any anxiety we may have had.
Originally we were to sail to Japan and wait for the full division to arrive, but the news from Korea got worse each day and the order came for us to head directly for Pusan. The US Army had been pushed by the North Koreans down to an area around Pusan, now called the Pusan Perimeter. We were able to follow the news from the ship's mimeograph single sheet daily newspaper. We made directly for Pusan, arriving mid-afternoon on the 2nd of August. As we sailed into Pusan harbor, I was fascinated to see a large hill or mountain with homes on its slope so close to the city. Though docked and many went ashore, our team was to remain on board until after midnight, when we disembarked and assembled in a warehouse on shore. By then the sun had risen and a new day was about to begin.
As previously stated, I was attached to the 11th Marines, which was and is an artillery battalion. I was assigned as a radioman and a member of an FO team. At the time of the Pusan Campaign, the 11th Marines consisted of three batteries. Each had three 105mm Howitzers, which would increase when the Division arrived later. Each battery was signified by the names Able, Baker, or Charlie, and each had an FO team which took turns on the front lines. Our team was with Charlie or "C" Battery, so we were Team #3.
That first morning after we landed in Pusan, we joined up with Charlie Battery. We left our first bivouac area about five days after our arrival. Only a few native Koreans were visible in the dock area, and not until we boarded trucks and rode through the city and out into the countryside did we actually see the citizens of the country. Being in another country was a new experience for me and I tried to observe and take in as much as I could. The first thing that struck me was the unpaved roads throughout the country. It wasn't a pleasant ride in a truck near the end of a convoy with the weather as hot and dry as it was, being covered in dust thrown up by the vehicles ahead of us. More than the dust was the foul odor that hit us once we left Pusan. Korea was still a backward country at that time and rice was their principle crop. Every farmer in the world grows crops with fertilizers and I will leave to your imagination what was used in Korea then. I know that this system of farming has changed since then. With our help, Korea has modernized. Just look about your home and you'll see all the products that are produced in that country. (I myself drive a Korean car.) The trucks in our convoy hauled an 105mm Howitzer artillery piece. The troops in the vehicles sat on equipment, including the ammo for the gun. We stayed with our battery whenever we were off the front line or marching with the infantry. This was to continue throughout my time in Korea.
Except for boot camp, the weapon that I personally carried while in the Corps was my .45mm pistol. The exception was just before entering Seoul, when I picked up and carried a rifle I found as a second weapon. As a member of a Forward Observer Team, we were not expected to engage the enemy personally as an infantry unit would. When needed, we were assigned to such a front-line unit in order to spot targets for the artillery.
I remember one event that happened to pop into my mind just before I fell asleep the other night. A group of us were traveling at night by truck in the Pusan area early in the war. We sat on top of the bed of the vehicle, which was loaded with crates of shells and canisters for the 105mm Howitzer that was hitched at the rear of the truck. Over the ammo was the gear for the artillery piece and the handlers, then came our personal gear and finally, us humans. The column was trying to locate an area to stop for the night when it turned off the main road and went down a narrow one that ran through several fields of rice paddies. The convoy followed the road that made a sharp right turn. When our truck entered this turn, one of the wheels slipped off the road and tilted to the right. The driver tried his best to straighten the vehicle without luck. We all jumped off and within seconds the truck rolled over on its back into the muck of the rice paddy. I don't recall if I had the radio or my pack with me when I left the vehicle, but one of them was now buried deep in s---. To add to the insult, we had to dig out all the stuff after the truck was pulled out and this took most of the night. The next day was spent cleaning our gear.
While in the Pusan Perimeter, there were four battles that I was involved in, two at Chindong-ni and two at the Naktong River. We would take the ground from the enemy, turn it over to the army, and the enemy would overrun them. We would then return and recapture the same ground. It happened twice. Things changed drastically after the Inchon Landing. Our second battle at Naktong was so brutal for the enemy that the river turned red with the blood of the retreating North Koreans, and very few made it.
We were driven about 40 miles out of Pusan when we finally pulled off the main road and drove into a long plain and set up camp. The routine for all of us was to dig a foxhole whenever we stopped for any length of time. I spotted several large mounds scattered about the area we were in and, believing one of these would make for perfect protection, I began to dig into it until the stench hit me. I then realized that this was a graveyard and we quickly found another location.
My first job after my foxhole was dug was to do a radio check by calling the communication center (com center). There were many nervous guys that first night in what was thought to be the war zone, and even though we had our password, there was a great deal of firing throughout the night. Several men were accidentally wounded by fellow Marines. The following day, Lieutenant Booker was nowhere to be seen. I heard later that all the officers were being chewed out by the CO, General Craig, and his staff for what had occurred the night before. While he was gone, several members of the news media, mainly NBC and United Press, showed up and asked us to pose with some nearby weapons that had been left unmanned. We cooperated and I manned the bazooka while the others posed as machine gunners and loaders. We forgot about it until months later when we started getting copies of the still photo from all over the United States. For years it was used as an introduction to the "News from Korea" on a local New York television channel.
Chindong-ni - Hill #342
We had some contacts with GI's during this trip as we were driven by truck convoy through Masan to our final sphere of operation, Chindong-ni. The dusty road led us through hills to get to our destination, and as we rode down the last hill, the traffic began to back up. The vehicle I was on suddenly stopped, but the truck following didn't--or couldn't--stop in time and plowed into the muzzle of the 105mm we were hauling behind us, disabling the truck. An army MP who was working traffic showed up and ordered the truck to be pushed over the side, which would have been a long drop to a dry river bed below. A Marine officer rushed up, countermanded that order, and told the MP in no uncertain terms that we do not throw away or waste good equipment. The truck was saved. During that first month there, we were to see several examples of the army doing exactly what that officer feared the MP wanted us to do with our truck and its equipment.
The Brigade stayed put for several days, but it wasn't long before we were to find ourselves on the real front lines. The members of the Brigade had their first contact with the enemy at Chindong-ni, a tiny village located in a valley not far from Masan. We went by truck via the main and only road over hills until we arrived in the area. The tiny village, which consisted of just a few houses, was situated on the left of the road and in the center of the valley. When we arrived in the area, "C" Battery moved into position on the dry river bed off the main road. We passed a house where an old Korean male was seated at the doorway. I thought he was dead because he did not move and stared straight ahead without blinking an eye. His face was sagged, his mouth was open, and he looked bloody. The air in the valley permeated with the stench of death when we arrived, mainly from the dead animals. That evening, I noticed this same Korean lying on his side, and I still felt that he was dead. The next day, when we returned from the line, I was surprised to see him back in the same position he was when we first drove by. He was alive. I inquired why he looked so bad and was told that he had leprosy. He was not seen after that.
On the right of the road, heading west, were mainly fields of rice paddies with one or two bloated dead cows sprawled about them. Hills circled the large valley and a dry river bed ran through it on the left. The Brigade was set as follows: the infantry on the hills with the artillery stretched along the dry river bed with "A" Battery at the north end, "B" Battery in the center near the village (which was where the command post and the artillery computing center were located), and finally "C" Battery in the rear. The hills to the west and in front of Able Battery were considered the front line.
When we arrived in Chindong-ni, the infantry was already engaged in combat. Our FO team stayed with C Battery until that night (August 6), when it was ordered to the front line with the 5th Marines, which was on a high hill. I set up the radio and the telephone men began laying their lines. Now was our chance to see if we knew our spotting techniques. We took turns going up to the ridge line with Lieutenant Booker, where we tried to locate the enemy's mortar position that had been harassing us, and to also try to find their FO. When daylight broke, we were finally able to spot the enemy's observers and called in for an artillery strike, putting a temporary halt to the mortars. Later that same day, a large group of what appeared to be civilians in typical Korean white came down the road towards our lines. Checking them with field glasses, we could easily see that they had covered themselves with a white sheet in a jokingly poor attempt at disguise. We could also see the outlines of their weapons. Again we called for artillery and hit them with a volley of artillery, killing many. There may have bee some civilians among them, but we had no choice. After the smoke cleared, those who weren't killed or wounded retreated. From what I read and hear, I don't think those involved in the Nogun-ri incident were in the same situation that we were. We remained at the front for about two days before being relieved by another team from either A or B Battery. This was the routine we followed until after the Inchon Landing.
Besides the mortars mentioned, the enemy had a single, large caliper artillery gun that sporadically fired rounds over our heads into the Chindong-ni Valley. The word in the Brigade was that the gun was left behind by the Army as they raced towards Pusan. When we were on the front lines, we would turn around to see where the shells landed. Normally the shells landed harmlessly in the rice paddies and away from the Brigade, but one unlucky round caused serious damage. Personally I watched a shell land on a gun in Baker Battery. Back at C Battery, I later learned that two men were killed, several were wounded, and the 105mm was destroyed.
It was surprising how quickly we got used to combat and death, but one of my most frightening moments came when I was back with C Battery. They set up a mess area within walking distance of our battery and everyone took turns going for their meals. I headed to the mess tent for lunch and, like most of the men, paid little attention to the shells landing in the far-off paddies. Suddenly one landed on the road nearby. We scattered and I rushed back to my foxhole. The enemy fired these rounds about every three or four minutes, so we had time to get to a safe place for some protection. I laid face down in my foxhole as the next shell landed even closer. The sound of the blast was so loud, it sounded like it was next to my hole. I'll admit that I prayed like I'd never prayed before. One or two more landed near us until the shelling moved back to the rice paddies. The fear disappeared immediately and we went back to the chow line. On my way there, I noticed a crowd by a stone wall off to the right of the tent, and I went to investigate. Questioning one of the men in the crowd, I was told that about five ROK soldiers had jumped over the wall to escape the shelling and one round landed right in the midst of them, killing them all. I decided to turn around and go back to the chow line. On looking down on the ground, I spotted a one-inch piece of human scalp by my foot. I could tell it was from a Korean by the hairs. I didn't do or say anything to anyone, but continued on. We had become so hardened in just over a week after arriving in Pusan that we all went back on the chow line.
The enemy attempted an attack of the Brigade from the rear a couple of days after our arrival at Chindong-ni. We had been off the front line and back with Charlie Battery just a short time when firing began on the hill just above our position. Our 105's were then turned around, took aim, and fired directly at the top of the highest hill. Later our FO team was ordered to what was now a second front. The hills actually were a series of three, each higher than the previous one. We had to climb them with our equipment in the worst heat imaginable. Several men were disabled due to heat exhaustion, including one of our men. I set the radio up at the base of the second hill while Lieutenant Booker went forward to the third. The front line was just over that hill. After just a short period, I was called to join the Lieutenant with my radio. Due to snipers in the area, I had to keep low until I got to the top. There I relayed target information back to the com. The small arms firing from the enemy and my team relaying target information continued throughout the night. In the morning, our battery swung its guns around and began firing point blank at the hilltop. We were told that the North Koreans had tried to circle around and attack us from the rear. The team was ordered to pack up and join the infantry at the top. We walked to the main road, crossed it, and began climbing.
There were two smaller knolls we had to ascend before reaching the top of the highest hill, which was the front line. This was Hill #342. We were ordered to set up behind the second hill while Lieutenant Booker, our team leader, advanced to the top. The area between the two hills was open for enemy fire. It was while there that I saw my first dead Marine. He had apparently been killed in his foxhole during the previous night. I checked my equipment and radioed into the CP that we were up and ready. We remained there for hours and the heat became unbearable. Many men were affected by it, including a member of our team who stood up and ran toward the top. Luckily he made it without being hit and was brought back by the Lieutenant and a Corpsman. He had to be held down while we poured water on his chest to try to cool down his body before he was taken off the hill. Shortly thereafter, we were ordered to the top. As I ran across the open space, my helmet fell off my head and rolled down the slope of the hill. For the next hour and a half, I felt vulnerable and unprotected, and I continued to beg for another helmet until someone finally brought me one.
We spent the remainder of the day spotting targets for the artillery and keeping the enemy in place with our shells. We got orders late in the evening that the infantry (5th Marines) was to advance the following morning after a fifteen-minute artillery barrage starting at 8 a.m. The US Army was to attack from the opposite side at the same time, thus trapping the enemy in between. All night we transmitted target information either by radio or phone to the computing unit at headquarters. They, in turn, calculated the data for each battery, and the guns kept up the harassing shelling as requested by our team leader. Lieutenant Booker also asked for flares to be fired overhead while he spotted target areas for the morning's attack. It was also planned that after the 15-minute barrage, each battery of the 11th Marines was to take turns laying what we called a "walking barrage" ahead of the advancing troops. All this had to be planned ahead of time, which Lieutenant Booker did by pinpointing areas for the artillery. Smoke shells were fired by one gun until the team leader was satisfied, and then the spot was given a code name or number, which Booker could request when needed. The computing unit had to calculate the data for each battery because they were located at different areas in the valley. The US Army was probably doing the same at the other end of Hill #342.
During the night, the flares lit up the terrain. Lieutenant Booker, observing the area ahead of the line, gambled that the North Koreans might try to flee down the side of the hill, so he targeted the slope and the North Valley and set up code names or numbers for each area he had spotted. We remained busy throughout the night, transmitting information between Booker and the computing unit. At 8 a.m. the artillery began the barrage with all the guns of the 11th Marines firing continually for fifteen minutes. There was a pause and the troops advanced onto the ridge of Hill #342. Lieutenant Booker then called for the start of the walking barrage. Each battery lobbed shells 50 yards ahead of each other as the troops moved forward, all under the direct order of our team leader. The effect on the enemy was devastating. The North Koreans that survived fled down the slope which Booker had targeted the night before. Excitedly, the Lieutenant ordered the pre-set targets to fire. He also requested the type of shells to be used. Australian pilots flying silver Mustangs joined in the mopping up of the enemy as they fled to the valley. We called one of the Aussies "Cowboy" because he would always do a roll after his dive.
The whole attack was over quickly and the US Army met up with our troops. An Army sergeant came over to us and with congratulations said, "Man, the gooks are stacked up like cordwood out there!" He was a black soldier and part of an all-black battalion. Not long after that we were relieved and returned to C Battery. According to records of both the Marines and the US Army, the North Korean units were the 13th and 15th regiments and the enemy casualties were estimated to be 400. The infantry unit on Hill #342 was the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Marines. Though the Brigade had only been in Korea just a few days, in my memory this was our first victorious battle.
A few days after this battle we packed up, got on our truck, and moved forward. We advanced for about 40 miles, stopping midway to unhook the 105 we were hauling, swing it around, and fire it in the middle of the road. Aircrafts were flying in the direction we were going. The word quickly spread that a North Korean convoy was caught in the open just ahead of us. We got back on our truck and continued forward. We passed a few of the destroyed vehicles aside of the road. Suddenly we stopped, waited for about a half an hour, turned around, and returned to where we had started. To this day, I believe that the higher ups felt that we went too far, too fast.
First Battle of the Naktong
The next battle was at the Naktong River. Some of the Brigade was transported by rail, but I went by jeep in a convoy. We drove by night, stopping in Pusan for a couple of hours rest and a hot meal, then continued on. The fight was short and we didn't get on the line. In fact, our FO team wasn't on the front line after Chindong-ni until the Inchon Landing. While with C Battery, I asked to help out the gunners and at times loaded the shell into the 105mm or pulled the lanyard, firing the weapon. I even asked to learn how to aim the cannon.
Chindong-ni - Again
We suddenly had to return to Chindong-ni because the Army had lost some of the ground we had captured previously. Still under fire, we spotted a wounded man on the field in front of us. One of our officers asked the Army unit to go and rescue the man. Refusals were the answer the officer got. Then, at gunpoint, he ordered two men to assist him and Pfc. Brundage, from our team, in retrieving the wounded man. They all returned safely and Brundage, who related this story, showed us his helmet. It had taken a hit from a sniper. He pointed out how the bullet entered the helmet, circled within it, and exited out the same hole. A lucky Marine.
The weather, as previously mentioned, was very hot and dry. This had become a major problem at Chindong-ni so we had to--or rather, were ordered to take salt tablets daily. To add to the heat, there weren't any shade trees to be seen anywhere. This hot, dry spell was to last all month except for a huge storm that hit us hard. I found out later that it was a typhoon. We were on terraces on the side of a hill in Korea when the typhoon hit the Japan Sea, and we got rained on badly. I sat on the side of that hill and looked down on the rice paddies, watching the rain and wind make it appear like ocean waves were heading towards us.
Second Battle of the Naktong
There was resentment between the Marines and the GIs in Korea in that first month we were there. We felt the Army guys had the better equipment, plus hot food was brought to them while we, just a few yards away, ate out of tin cans. Finally, unlike General Schwarzkopf in the Gulf War, we were given very little credit for our accomplishments by MacArthur and the US Army. Any time that we passed each other there were cat calls and name calling from either side. But more serious than that was the loss of trust in the GIs.
When we arrived at the Naktong for the second time, an attack was planned. In the morning the artillery of both branches laid down the most gigantic barrage I had witnessed until then. The Army's 155mm and the Marines' 105mm guns blasted away for almost a half hour. The troops, the artillery, and the aircrafts turned the river red with blood as the enemy tried to escape. After the infantry pushed the enemy back across the river, our unit moved forward and set up our position just behind the front line. We had not been there long when two GIs straggled down the hill in front of us. Another member of the team and I questioned the two on why they happened to be coming from the Marines' front line. They told us that they were originally in an outpost when the North Koreans crossed the Naktong and began to advance inland. They notified their headquarters and waited to be relieved. Instead, their unit fell back and left them behind. They told of hearing the enemy crawling around them all night and how, undetected, they were able to get back to our lines. We gave them some food and water and they returned to their unit.
Prior to Korea, I was unfamiliar with death except going to funerals of distant relatives. With just a few exceptions, I seldom saw death at close range in the war either, partially due to my job with the artillery. The first dead North Korean I saw was during our second Naktong River battle. We found a decaying, dead enemy soldier at the spot where we were about to set up our equipment and build our foxhole. Apparently he had been killed in the first battle of the Naktong.
Inchon to Seoul
The second Naktong battle was the final one for the Brigade, after which we returned to Pusan to the same warehouse alongside the USS Pickaway, the same ship that brought us to Korea. Though we used the warehouse as our living quarters and slept on cots, we ate and showered onboard the ship. Our sea bags were stored in a separate warehouse and it was there that we replenished our clothes and supplies. I believe we remained on the docks of Pusan for about five days. This was our chance to relax. As a matter of fact, movies were shown onboard the Pickaway, and I do remember the film I saw on the ship. It was Warner Bros.' "The Daughter of Rosie O'Grady," starring Gordon MacRae and June Haver, and introducing a teenager named Debbie Reynolds.
Our next move was to be driven back to Masan where we boarded LSTs along with our vehicles, artillery, and heavy equipment. These ships were not made for carrying troops, so we were relegated to cots on the top deck. These ships, by the way, were manned by Japanese sailors and, unfortunately, I never did find out the name of the vessel I was on. Our amphibious vehicles (called "Ducks") were held below deck. They were used to land us on the shores of Inchon.
We set sail late that day. Thankfully, it didn't rain, so we slept comfortably in the open for the two nights we were onboard. The next morning I found that we were at sea and surrounded by another large convoy with ships of all kinds, including the battleship Missouri. Our destination was unknown other than that we were going to make a landing higher up the coast of Korea. It wasn't until later that day that we were told where and when the landing was to take place, plus the fact that we were no longer the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade. We were now part of the 1st Marine Division. The FO team, though still a part of C Battery, 11th Marines, was permanently attached to the 5th Marine infantry.
The following morning our ship sailed up what appeared to be a wide channel and into a large bay filled with all sorts of vessels. I could make out several destroyers, cruisers, troop ships, LSTs, and many small crafts circling around the larger ships. As the line of ships traveled down the channel, I could hear the sounds of shells and explosions ahead of us. Upon entering the bay, we could see the black smoke coming from the city of Inchon. The warships around us constantly fired shells into and around the city. Corsairs dove down, dropping bombs and napalm and firing rockets into Inchon. Once in a while I saw flashes of light coming from the hills on our right. This was the enemy firing back at the ships. We could also see the water spout up as their shells landed harmlessly. I saw one round hit the deck of a destroyer, but couldn't make out any damage on the ship. The bombardment was so heavy that the smoke and fire turned a bright sunny day to dusk.
We didn't disembark until late in the day, when we boarded one of the Ducks, rolled down the ramp, and floated out into the bay. We circled the ship several times while the remaining Ducks exited the LST and, together, we sailed toward shore. We landed on the island of Wolmi-do. As I recall, it got dark soon after we landed and it started to drizzle. We remained on the island overnight and we moved out at sun up. It was a sunny morning when we crossed the bridge into Inchon and marched through what was left of the city.
At the outskirts, we stopped at a field by a crossroad. While there our team leader, a new lieutenant whose name I can't remember, asked that I do the daily radio check. Unfortunately, this time the radio didn't work and we were unable to locate the problem. The team leader had my partner and me return to the island where the technicians were set up to have the equipment fixed. (I've racked my brain for days trying to remember his name but unfortunately have not been able to recall it. I've even tried to locate him on the 11th Marines roster. The copy I have doesn't list the unit or team each man was attached to.) It was a lonely, eerie feeling walking back through Inchon, just the two of us. I kept praying there were no snipers about. We finally got a lift from a Major in a jeep. Wolmi-do was bigger than I thought and we had to circle the island before we found the tech. I was hoping we would get a new radio and could return to the unit, but they decided to repair it and that took another two hours. While there we ate from our C-rations and waited and waited. It was almost one o'clock when we got the radio and headed back to the crossroad. Again we found ourselves alone in the deserted city, wishing for a ride. A couple of jeeps sped by us without stopping, including our "friend" the reporter, Marguerite Higgins. A truck stopped and took us back to the field.
We were gone almost four hours and our outfit had moved on. I didn't know which direction or which road they had taken. As my partner and I tried to find our team, several Korean children appeared from nowhere and surrounded me begging for food. Unfortunately, all I had with me was a candy bar and some chewing gum, which I gladly gave them. A news photographer grabbed the shot, which I've yet to see. I continued to ask everyone in the area where the 5th Marines were until finally a corpsman pointed to some hills off in the distance which looked to be at least twenty miles away. Fortunately he was going in that direction in his ambulance and, taking the road on the left, drove us to the foot of the hills. I spotted a fellow radio operator, Pfc. LaPlante, who I knew was attached to the 11th Marine Com Center. He pointed to the top of the hill in front of us when I asked for the location of the 5th Marines. It was almost 5 p.m. when we reached the summit, only to discover that it was the wrong battalion. They, in turn, directed us to our right and after a long hike along the down side of the hill, we came across an Army infantry unit. We returned to where we had started and because of the approaching darkness I made the decision to go no further, over the objection of my partner. I had to explain to him that it would have been stupid to walk around in the dark without knowing the password among these green troops. (We were considered veterans now.) I set up the radio and got the okay from Com Center to stay put until morning, thus ending our second night of the Inchon campaign.
Throughout the night, our artillery fired shells over us, plus lit up the darkness with flares. By now we were used to the noises and the bright flashes, so the two of us were able to relax until daybreak. As it started to get light, I heard someone call out from the top of the hill which was only about five yards above our foxholes. There were six enemy tanks coming down the road just below our front. I went forward to investigate and to see if I should call in a target. By the time I reached the top and looked down at the road, I saw nothing but six burning tanks. In a matter of a couple of minutes, the Marines stationed around that road had destroyed every tank and annihilated about 200 North Korean troops that were following the tanks. I was amazed at the speed of the action and how quickly it ended. We could see the excitement of the men about that hill. For many, this was their first close contact with the enemy.
After we cleaned up and had some chow, my partner and I continued the hunt for our unit. We searched in the other direction on the hill until we came to the end. There we were told that the 5th had moved forward down a road that was pointed out to us. Again the two of us hiked down a lonely road, reaching what looked like an industrial town called Ascom City. There we finally caught up with the battalion. The column had stopped while a Marine tank blasted away at a camouflaged nest on the side of a tall smokestack. Anyone concealed in it had no chance of surviving the fire power of that tank. I had to explain to the rest of the team why we couldn't get back to them. I remember saying that, "You guys moved too far too fast!" I was to learn quickly how true these words were.
When the tank had finished its work, the captain leading the column started us marching forward. In all my time in the USMC, I was never in a forced march like that one. That long, forced march towards Kimpo airfield carrying the same equipment couldn't be called an "impossible" task, but it certainly sticks out in my memory as one of the toughest. The officer, who carried only his weapon, moved so fast that it was difficult for those of us who had heavy equipment on our back. Our radio was carried in two sections. One was nothing but batteries and weighed about 25-plus pounds and the other was the guts of the radio with tubes and wiring. It weighed much less. My partner and I had to pull out of the line every few minutes to switch packs, then rush up to our spot in the column. We continued moving without stopping for what seemed like hours. We were close to Kimpo airfield before we pulled off the road and halted. We all just laid on the ground to catch our breath. We stayed there overnight and I believe we had hot chow brought to us while there. What I remember about that night was a Marine getting wounded when he lit a cigarette. I always gave mine away.
The next day we moved into Kimpo and could see some wrecked enemy planes about the field. I heard some Corsairs that landed on the field. We set up in what looked like a schoolroom alongside the airfield. I don't think we remained there overnight, but waited until late when Amtraks arrived (we were about to cross the Han River). As we lined up alongside of the LVTs (amphibious tractors) in the dead of night, we were assigned to a vehicle and boarded it. We weren't overly packed in, but we were unable to sit and had to stand. The rear ramp was raised and we were confined within and waited to move out. Instead, the LVT just sat there without moving for over an hour. The heat inside was getting unbearable and after what felt like hours, the ramp was lowered and we were allowed to exit the LVT and rest around the vehicle. Just before daybreak, we boarded the LVTs again and after a short wait began moving forward. Those vehicles made a lot of noise and if there were any sleeping North Koreans within miles, I'm sure they were fully awakened by then.
We could feel the tractor rambling down the road for a long stretch, then we felt ourselves floating as we crossed the river. Bullets began hitting the sides of the armored LVT as we crossed. When we got on land again, the vehicle continued on for what felt like several miles before it stopped and lowered the ramp. Upon exiting, we ran across some rice paddies, trying our best to avoid stepping into the paddy itself. We continued on and up onto a hill, where we paused when we neared the summit. I remember turning around to see where we came from and was unable even to see the river. We had traveled quite a distance inland. While on this hill and using binoculars, I spotted two North Korean soldiers moving across the rice paddies below us. A machine gunner beside us opened up on them and even though they were so far away (they looked like ants), he was able to hit both. In fact, I chanced to see the fatal tracer bullet leave his weapon and watch it land on the back of one of the enemy.
The next few days were spent trekking up and down hills on the way to Seoul. They were usually given names and/or numbers, but I don't remember any that I was on identified as such. We would stop on a hill and call for artillery on targets we thought were enemy strongholds. Looking back, I think that we were racing to get to the capitol as fast as we could and give the enemy no chance to regroup.
The only time I was fired upon during this movement was when my partner and I were called to advance to an outpost on the other side of a hill. As we rushed down to the point, shots hit the ground around us. Then we were told that we and our radio weren't needed. Needless to say, I was a bit upset that we were put in unnecessary danger. (We had to race back up the hill.)
At one hill, two incidents occurred that I should relate. The first was soon after we had climbed up to the side of a hill and dug our foxholes. I turned to look back down the hill and could see Marines all over the area, which was not unusual. I noticed two men, one with an automatic weapon, stop and point their weapons into a hole at the bottom of the hill. Two North Koreans emerged with their hands above their heads, but the officer suddenly turned and ran. He didn't get more than six feet away before being struck down by a hail of bullets. The other poor fool stood for a moment, looked confused, also tried to run, but suffered the same fate. I felt sorry for the second guy, who was obviously bewildered. He couldn't have gotten anywhere because Marines were all over the place. I was also surprised that no Marine was accidentally hit. The second incident on the same hill involved some visiting brass that came to observe later that same day. A General and his aides climbed up near our foxholes. One of his lieutenants, who obviously was unfamiliar with front line protocol, foolishly walked up to the skyline and was felled by a sniper. He was lucky to receive a non-fatal wound on his side.
Every now and then we advanced alongside or just behind a tank. Once after the Inchon Landing, we had a tank fire on a suspected sniper's nest. At one rest stop, I met up with one of the men who made the trip to boot camp with me and who was also from Flushing. He went into tanks and he described having to escape from his disabled vehicle using the hatch at the bottom of the tank. Whenever and wherever we stopped for the night or for several days, I always felt protected and didn't have any fears of a surprise attack. Of course, that was different in the Chosin Campaign, but I was not to take part in that battle. We Marines were, and no doubt still are, a bunch of confident guys. It may sound like bragging, but it's true.
We finally were on the last hill where we could see a straight road into Seoul. The capitol city was several miles ahead of us and clearly visible on the morning of September 26, 1950 as we descended the last hill. There was no resistance because the enemy had retreated. I noticed a large building as we came off the hill. I found out later that it was an all-girl school. As we passed the school, I found a pin on the ground, which I still have. It must have belonged to a student.
The 5th Marines, which we were attached to, headed towards the capitol at a fast pace. Our advance halted when we reached the outskirts of the city. There we rested for about one hour. We then cautiously entered the streets of Seoul by staying close to the buildings on either side. We were on a straight road that made a 90-degree turn to our left when suddenly I heard the distinctive sound of a North Korean automatic weapon. The lead Marine scout of the right column fell wounded as he stepped out into the open. I could see the bullet holes that struck the building behind him. Immediately two men were sent to circle around and get to the shooter or shooters from the side. Those in front were exchanging fire with the enemy and no one was able to retrieve the wounded man until a Marine ran forward and covered the downed man with his own body. He continued to give covering fire until he was fatally hit. From my position I was able to witness the entire episode. The firing ceased just as quickly as it began and the two Marines returned having accomplished their mission. The wounded man was carried back to an aid station. Suddenly we were all ordered back to the outskirts of the city, thus having to leave the body of the dead Marine behind. It is my belief that again we had moved too far, too fast. That night we camped on a high plateau overlooking the smoking city.
The next day, September 27, 1950, we backtracked through the same street and were there as the body of Pfc. Eugene Arnold Obregon was retrieved. Pfc. Obregon was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his sacrifice. For many years I wondered at the identity of this Marine, and only found out from a television show last Memorial Day which described the events above. I verified the information and was satisfied that the facts and my recollections were the same. I found mention of him on the website of the 1st Marine Division Association's list of Medal of Honor recipients with dates and information. Los Angeles is building a statue honoring him and other Hispanic MOHs. I was invited to two ceremonies at the site where I met his mother and sister. At the last one, I was told that I was the last witness to the events in Seoul. The History Channel also did a program on him and other Hispanic Medal of Honor recipients on Memorial Day a few years ago. I was asked to participate, though I was only on for a couple of minutes. The saddest part about Obregon's death is that the Marine whose life he saved felt so guilty that he drank himself to death years later. I was very angry when I was told this. He should have done some good with his life in honor of the Marine who saved that life at the cost of his own.
We marched through the streets of Seoul without any further enemy resistance. Except for a few prisoners, we saw very little of the enemy. But we did see their handiwork. At a tiny park, we saw the bodies of several bound civilians who had been forced to kneel and were shot at the back of their heads. One was a young girl who couldn't have been more than twenty years of age. Later we passed a T-34 North Korean tank that was still smoldering with a charred body laying across it. The streets get wider as we neared the palace. We turned down a street that was lined with official government buildings and at the far end was the aforementioned building. It was about there that we met up with "Chesty" Puller's 1st Marines, and together we advanced toward the palace. We came to a halt a few yards from the main building and stood waiting for what seemed like 30 minutes.
The rumor was that the flags of the United States and South Korea were to be raised on separate poles at the palace at 3 o'clock. After standing for such a long time with the heavy equipment on my back, I decided to sit on some green grass that was just a couple of feet away. As I sat down, I felt what I thought was a rock and reached for it. To my surprise, it was a North Korean hand grenade minus the safety pin. I quickly dropped it but as I turned to run, it went off. As luck would have it, all the major pieces flew in the opposite direction. I was showered with tiny particles, most of which were no bigger than the 'periods' at the end of a sentence. I did get a few larger pieces, however, and lost about an inch off my middle finger. The bone was untouched but my fingernail was gone. (The missing skin is now unnoticeable unless I point it out.) There was no damage to be seen to my trousers, but pieces of shrapnel had imbedded themselves just above the knee of both of my legs, a fact which I had to point out to the corpsmen who came to my aid. My first thoughts (and I'm not kidding) were that I would be sleeping on white sheets that night. (I was wounded just before 3 p.m. on September 27, 1950 in Seoul and by that evening I was onboard a hospital ship.) I turned to the three shocked corpsmen who were behind me in line and unable to think of anything memorable to say, I meekly whispered, "Help!" They quickly went to work on me. Navy Corpsmen are highly regarded and respected by the men of the Marine Corps. Many wore Marine uniforms with their naval insignia.
Besides the minor wounds, a larger piece of shrapnel had landed just above my left eye, where it was to remain for over ten years. Navy doctors later determined it was best to leave it in place, believing it would work itself out, which it did. The palm of my left hand received most of the tiny shrapnel. That was the extent of my wounds except for a slight cut on my right cheek and something that was to show up later. I was then tagged and put in an ambulance along with a wounded newsman. We had to wait for the ceremony to be over before being taken to an aid station.
Treatment & Recuperation
After arriving at the aid station which was on the opposite side of the Han River, we were transferred to another ambulance and were driven back to Inchon by a new route. It was still hard to believe how long it had taken us to make a similar trip by foot between Inchon and Seoul. At Inchon the tide had receded and many of the ships that had landed us there originally were now stuck in the mud. On the dock, we waited to be taken out to the hospital ship and while there, I asked a passing doctor for help in removing my graduation ring off my injured finger. As he slowly removed the ring, he mentioned that he was really a dentist and was there to help out. Soon we were taken by water craft out to the ship.
Onboard ship, I was placed in cabin C5 on the main deck, which accommodated about fifteen patients. A nurse was constantly on duty. After a shower and a shave, I changed into hospital pajamas, robe and slippers, and was assigned a plush bed. The morphine given me by the corpsmen had begun to wear off and I felt some discomfort, but didn't have the need for any pain killers due to exhaustion. That night I slept between white sheets. Sleep overtook me within minutes.
My wounds were checked and the dressing changed daily by the personnel on the ship. I remained in this particular ward for two days until being transferred to one on the next lower deck which held a larger group of walking wounded. On the first morning, I looked in the mirror and saw that I had two black eyes. Though I was sore over parts of my body, I felt pretty good. While in the second compartment, I was able to walk about the ship. I wrote home while on deck and informed my parents of the events that had happened and that I was okay. This was a fortunate thing because my letter arrived home ahead of the telegram from the War Department and was a great relief to the folks.
Around the third or fourth day on the ship, I began to feel as if I had a piece of lint or grit in my right eye. I wasn't bothered by it at first, though I did bring it up at the final doctor's exam on the USS Consolation and was told that he couldn't see anything there. He also said that I was to be transferred to a field hospital in Inchon, then after a short stay, I would be returned to my outfit. This was disappointing news to me. I was sure I would at least get to Japan.
After being on board for seven or eight days, I went ashore with a group of other wounded where we were picked up by a vehicle and driven through Inchon. As we drove through the city, I stared out of the window remembering that lonely walk just a few weeks ago. Expecting to be dropped off at any time, I was surprised to see us traveling the route we had taken on our march towards Seoul. When we pulled into Kimpo airfield, I thought, "By God, I'm going to Japan! This must be a mistake, but I'm going to keep my mouth shut." The next thing I knew, we flew from Korea to (I believe) the island of Kyusu. There we were transported to an Army hospital, the name of which I don't remember. The first thing I noticed was the neatness of the countryside and the paved roads of Japan.
The Marines were all assigned to one ward to await transfer to a naval hospital. I found the place a bit pretentious for a military establishment. For instance, there was a mess hall that was more like a civilian restaurant with small tables, table clothes, and vases with a flower on each. Our food was brought to us by young Japanese girls. While there I was only examined once by a doctor, and by that time my eye had gotten worse. Again, I received a similar reply of not seeing anything there after asking him to check it. At the same time, a medic changed the dressing on my hand, which unraveled the minute he stepped out of the ward. I ended up doing the job myself.
For a week I waited for my name to be called so I could get to a naval hospital. I was very unhappy there until on a Saturday, almost a week to the day of my arrival, my name was called. I was flown to Tokyo where we were bused through the capitol city and on to the Navy hospital in Yokosuka, arriving as usual--late in the evening. After being fed in a regular mess hall, we went to the main entrance and into a corridor where a corpsman at a desk was waiting to check us in. When my turn came and after finishing the basic paperwork, he asked if I had any other problems. Having waited so long to hear someone ask that question, I informed him of my eye problem and hoped he could see that it was now watery and inflamed. Thankfully, I was then escorted to the Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat ward.
The next morning after breakfast I was examined by the doctor in charge. The first thing he said to me was, "You've got something stuck in your eye." What a relief to hear that, and I thanked him. He also checked my hand and prescribed that I soak the finger while still wrapped in bandages in warm water with Epsom Salts. He said it would help heal the skin. He then made an appointment for me at his eye clinic for later that morning.
They first deadened the eye with drops, which also caused temporary blindness. Then I sat at what was called the Visual Field Test table, where a bright light was beamed into my right eye. The doctor had to use four pieces of equipment to remove what was there. He first used tweezers, then a magnet, a needle, and finally a scalpel, which was the most unpleasant of all. Even though I couldn't see out of that eye, I still felt him scraping at the outer layer of it and the eyeball itself being moved about. When it was finally over, the doctor, hoping that he had succeeded in getting whatever it was out, put drops of Novocain and a padding of gauze on the eye. I was given a patch to wear, which made me look distinguished. I felt fine when it was over and went back to the ward. There, the corpsman on duty painlessly plucked out the tiny shrapnel from the skin of my legs.
Everything seemed okay until after 'lights out', when I awoke in pain. The Novocain had worn off and I had the worst throbbing pain I've ever had in my life. It felt like someone was squeezing my eyeball like a sponge. Getting out of bed, I rushed to the nurse on duty and begged for something to relieve the pain. She was unable to do anything because all such drugs were kept under lock and key and only the doctor could open the cabinet. I had to wait for him to make his rounds. Twenty minutes later she came to my bedside with water and a tiny pill which put me to sleep in about ten minutes. The next morning the pain was completely gone and except for the soreness of my hand, I felt great. I walked around wearing that black eye patch like a badge of honor. As the padding was removed a week later, the good doctor looked at me and said that there was something in the other eye. I was devastated, remembering the ordeal I had gone through. He made an appointment for three o'clock, but I chickened out and didn't show up. Of course, I got chewed out the next morning and he ordered me to be at the clinic on time. Nervously, I kept the appointment and was prepped as before. The doctor took but a second to remove what was in my left eye. This time there was no pain or discomfort and again I had to wear the patch for another week, which I proudly did.
It amazed me that after the daily arrival of very badly wounded men, including one of my own DIs, I would see many of them up and about in just a few days--and then running around a week or so later like normal. There were several that had their jaws wired shut due to head wounds. Many friends were made while in hospital. The one Marine I remember above all had been stung in the eye by a hornet. He was the clown of the ward and we hung out together, along with a sergeant who had been hit in the back of the head by an enemy round. The latter had arrived in very bad shape, but within days was up and running around with us, even though his jaw had to be wired shut and he was only able to speak through clutched teeth. The three of us found humor in many things while we recuperated. We were joined by a Royal Marine who was the only "Brit" in the ward. He enjoyed being included in the USMC birthday party when a large cake was brought into the ward. As far as going on liberty, I never did while I was at the hospital, though a couple of the guys in our ward were able to do so. I had them buy me a camera and bring back some frog legs. (They tasted like chicken.)
One morning I went through the routine of filling a bathroom wash basin with the usual mixture, as recommended, and poked my damaged finger into it. Hot isn't the word I should use here--scalding is more like it. Pulling my finger out didn't ease the burning sensation because the bandages still held the liquid. I did a wild dance around the lavatory until I was able to remove the dressing by force. I was more cautious from then on.
When the finger had healed enough, they X-rayed the hand and I carried a copy of the film back to my doctor. While heading back, I checked the photo and counted over 75 tiny pieces of shrapnel in my hand. There were a few much larger which would require surgery. The next day I was on the operating table and was given local anesthesia. A screen was put up covering my arm so I couldn't see a thing, but I had to inform them, quite loudly, that I felt the first cut. Another local was given and this time all went well. They removed three large pieces of shrapnel from my left hand and stitched up the incisions. I was given a pill and allowed to walk back to the ward, where I was given a private room and took a nap with no discomfort.
During my stay in hospital, we had a variety of entertainment which included Kabuki performances, Japanese swing bands that always played Glenn Miller's "In the Mood," and, of course, Bob Hope. (During my time in Korea, we didn't have the privilege of being entertained by the USO.) With regards to the Bob Hope show, I don't know who was to blame, but I didn't like the fact that the big brass were given the first five or six front rows while all of the hospital patients had to fend for themselves. Many patients had to sit in a high loft in the far rear. A lot of them were even turned away and unable to see the show. This is something I always thought of when the Bob Hope Armed Forces shows were aired on television at Christmas time.
The hospital had a large recreation room where we could sit in plush chairs and read books and magazines and play games, etc. Red Cross ladies served coffee and doughnuts. There was also a piano that was played by a young Japanese who walked with a limp. He came every day, not only to play music but just to talk to us. I believe he gave himself the name of John, though it wasn't his real name. He was a veteran of World War II and was badly wounded on Iwo Jima, but he was on the other side. He was treated so well by the Marines and Navy Corpsmen that this was his way of payback. He also spoke excellent English and played good jazz on the piano.
A ceremony was held in the auditorium on October 19th where we were awarded our Purple Hearts by Rear Admiral McLean. Around Thanksgiving I was released from the naval hospital and sent to Kyoto by overnight rail to where a camp had been established. It was at the camp that I received my winter gear and a new weapon before returning to Korea. Thanksgiving was spent in Kyoto, where I was able to see some of Japan. Though I was only there for about ten days to two weeks, we had a lot of free time and I took every advantage to tour as many of the sights that I could. The temples, the shrines, and the pagodas were great to see and I especially enjoyed the giant Buddha and the deer park in Nara. I took a lot of pictures with my miniature cheap camera. All of these tours were offered free to us. I went sightseeing along with two Corpsmen who, like myself, waited to rejoin our outfits in Korea. I though of them as Marines.
A moment here to express my feelings of admiration of the Navy hospital and its staff. You may recall my feeling of helplessness when I was stuck in an Army hospital in Japan for a week. I just couldn't wait to get into a Navy Hospital. I saw miracles happen where men came in such terrible conditions and within days they were either sitting up in bed or walking about. In the entire time I spent in the Eyes, Ear, Nose, Throat ward, there was only one death, and that was of a land mine victim. The ward, incidentally, had about twenty-five beds and a couple of private rooms.
Back to Freezing Korea
Of course, we knew what was happening in Korea and the predicament the Marine Division was in, especially when the Chinese entered the war. We all wondered where and how we were going to rejoin our outfits. The answer came quickly when we boarded a troop ship and sailed to Hungnam in North Korea where the division had just arrived from the Chosin campaign. As I was being trucked to Hamhung where the 11th Marines were encamped, I asked if everyone in the outfit had made it back okay. The bad news was that Lieutenant Booker, our original FO team leader, was killed while leading an attack up a hill. Hearing this was a sad moment for me. He was a good field officer. I am unable to recall the names of the team leaders who came after Lieutenant Booker, but I do remember Colonel Murray being the CO of the 5th Marines and Colonel Nichols was the CO of the 11th Marines.
Everyone else except my radio partner, who was wounded soon after I was, got back from the Chosin Reservoir in good shape. The entire division was back on board ships in a matter of days and as we sailed from Hungnam, we watched all the equipment, including a great amount of ammunition that had been left behind, being blown up in a gigantic explosion. We were sent back to the Pusan area where large tents with pot belly stoves had been set up and were waiting for us in what was called the Bean Patch. It was here that we, and many of the United Nations forces, spent Christmas and New Years and most of the winter, trying our best to keep warm. The New Year was announced with the blaring of all the ships' horns in the harbor at midnight.
While there, the Division was re-supplied with new equipment and winter clothing and, of course, allowed to rest and recoup after the Chosin campaign. I discussed the events of the previous weeks with the vets of Frozen Chosin. They said that the Division was within sight of the Yalu River when the Chinese entered the war. They attacked at night en masse, with the sounds of cymbals and bugles. As for the Marines, no matter what they were classified as, everyone became an infantryman. They fought all the way back to Hungnam from the Chosin Reservoir. Forward Observer Team #3 survived okay except for Lieutenant Booker. The freezing weather was a major hardship for the troops. Many a man came back with frostbitten toes, noses and fingers. One infantryman related a story to me of when he came upon a Chinese soldier. They both took aim at each other and both weapons froze. The enemy ran off laughing.
Except for on Christmas and New Years, we were served dehydrated and powdered food, but it was hot and not C-rations. At one time, one of the men from our tent brought back a duck which we cooked in a pail on our pot belly stove with noodles and spices supplied by the mess tent. The soup was delicious and a perfect meal for this kind of weather. During the several weeks we stayed in the Pusan area, I came down with dysentery (prior to having the duck), which hit me in the middle of the night. As usual, I was turned around in my sleeping bag and had to struggle to get out and put on some warm clothes, rush down a long row of tents to get to the latrine, while praying I'd get there in time. I didn't, it was miserable, and that's the last word I should say about that night. The next day I went to Sick Bay and was given some liquid that must have been over 100 proof. I suffered with this germ for about five more days.
I spent almost the entire first quarter of 1951 in Korea. We hunted the enemy in what was becoming guerilla warfare. The Division soon began its trek up the center of Korea. We advanced northward by foot and vehicle, mostly trucks. What I remember most was climbing up and down the hills and mountains as we advanced. We hunted the enemy, who had turned to a more guerilla type warfare. Though we called for artillery fire, the enemy kept escaping. There were times when we would take a position, only to leave it knowing the enemy would return to it. Sound familiar? The joke was now that USMC stood for Uncle Sam's Mountain Climbers. Morale of those about me seemed to be very low. One of my team members, Pfc. West, I believe, claimed that when he got out he wouldn't join anything--including a church, because they might go on a crusade.
Our team was in the field for two or three days at a time and when the column stopped for the night, we made a two-man tent to protect ourselves from the snow. It was almost useless to try to dig a regular foxhole due to the frozen ground. Several times we got into a snow storm and we protected ourselves with all the equipment we had. We had on about twenty pounds of winter gear along with our regular supplies, including the radio I carried. I remember waking up one morning under a makeshift tent to find about two inches of snow over me. Surprisingly, it was warmer under it. The weather started to change for the better when the first troops were relieved and sent back to the States. The tent cities were moved up as we advanced and we were happy to return to them.
Although we had to call for artillery and air strikes on the enemy, we had very little close contact with them. Once we were trucked to the base of a steep hill or mountain where, with a column of infantrymen, we climbed up to the top. Along the way I passed the bones of a North Korean soldier who was killed the year before. I was carrying the battery half of the radio, which was the heaviest part, and found it difficult making it up to the top. I had to stop and switch with my partner. We never had to make use of this equipment at this time. This was one of the times that, on descending the reverse side of the mountain, I caught sight of the trucks that had let us off on the other side. They were there waiting for us on the road below. My thoughts were (which I can remember like it was yesterday), "What the devil are they doing there if this is enemy territory?" It was about this time that the word spread that we were fighting guerillas instead of regular units, but we felt they were North Korean and not Chinese.
We saw more Korean civilians now than we had seen in 1950. Once a helicopter landed in a field nearby and within minutes it was surrounded by the villagers. They had never seen a chopper on the ground before. The locals seemed to be in good shape. The kids came around and we always handed out something. Often the tents were placed near a village and some of the men went in and bartered for various supplies. Most of us stayed in the encampment trying to avoid entering the nearest town, though one of our team members did venture in and returned saying that he had a native meal which was actually dog meat. I spent my time conversing, writing home, receiving my mail and care packages, reading, or just resting.
One day a Master Sergeant popped in, called out my name, and said that I had 30 minutes to clean up and change into new dungarees and fall out. "Why, Sergeant?" I asked. "Because you're getting your Purple Heart," he said. "But I already got my Purple Heart," I exclaimed. "Well, you're getting another one," he answered as he turned and left. Thirty minutes later, General Smith pinned a second Purple Heart on my chest for the wounds I received in Seoul back in September. To add to the humor of it, twelve years ago I got another Purple Heart in the mail from the Navy Department for the same wound. That totals out to three medals for me, while the poor Marine who was stung in his eye had to fight like hell just to get one.
More troops were shipped back home and arrived to a big reception in Seattle. The first group went to San Francisco. All this was beginning to depress those of us who remained behind. To add insult to injury was the fact that when we got the Stars and Stripes newspaper, it reported all the exploits of the Army while the Marines were not mentioned. Some of the actions written up had involved the Marines only. For me and those around me, we found everything was somewhat uneventful at this point in time. In fact, I noticed that the morale was getting low and a little tense. There was even a fist fight between two men of my tent.
A few days ago as I reviewed my Korean experience, I came to the realization that my total time spent in Korea was just six months plus three months in Japan, which was mostly in hospital. Because of all the events, incidents, the invasion, plus the different fire fights that I was involved in or was witness to, I had the impression of being in Korea more like a year or so. The average time for those of the Brigade, who were the first Marine ground units to arrive in Pusan, was about nine months.
None of my FO team members were wounded during this campaign. In fact, a couple of them had been sent home with the two groups mentioned. The last action that I was involved in took place not far from our tent city. We went on our last hunt for the enemy in the hills. This time we had casualties. The weather had warmed a bit. We climbed another hill and as we traversed around the top, the enemy opened up on the leading Marine, hitting him in the chest. I set up the radio to call in artillery, but our team leader realized that we were too close to have them firing over us. Instead, the radio was turned over to the air observers, who guided the planes overhead to the enemy on the other side of the hill. A series of four-propeller planes individually dove, opening up with their machine guns and rockets, and dropped napalm. Since I no longer had the use of my radio, I was volunteered to help carry the wounded man down the hill to await a chopper. We put together a simple stretcher with two field jackets and two tree limbs. It took at least an hour to get to the base of the hill because the tree limbs broke twice during the decent. When we finally reached a small rise at the bottom, exhausted, the four of us sat around the wounded man. The planes continued to dive on the other side of the hill and we paid very little attention to them, being accustomed to this type of air action. The four planes, having exhausted their ammo, circled once, flew off, and were replaced by four others.
The second group of four planes showed up and began circling overhead while we rested. One of my team members came down from the top and picked up the orange panel that had been placed a few yards from where we sat. "Panels" were cloth sheets of about eighteen inches square which were colored either orange or yellow and could be seen at great distances. They were worn on the backs of the leading and trailing men in a column or laid on the ground to signify friendly troops. At times, several were placed together to signal directions. As the team member with the panel disappeared behind the trees, I heard one of the aircraft start on a dive. It sounded too close and, turning to look, I saw a plane diving directly at us. He opened up with his guns and immediately I rolled backwards into a gully I had noticed previously. The plane continued to fire and completed his dive. I hugged the side of the gully, praying that they wouldn't use their rockets or drop napalm. The Marine came back down and started waving the panel as the second plane began his dive and started firing. He suddenly stopped in the middle of his dive. Each plane followed the same routine without the use of their weapons, then flew on. We had left the poor wounded man on the rise and luckily he wasn't hit, but I'm sure one pilot thought he had hit a friendly. I was furious and I let them know it when I got back to the top of the hill. Except for the time we were bombarded by the enemy at Chindong-ni, this was the scariest moment of my time in Korea. Thankfully I was rotated home soon after. Forward Observers always worry about correctly guiding their prospective units, aircrafts or artillery, to the proper targets. We were fortunate in Korea and I feel sorry for the FO team in Kuwait whose members weren't as lucky.
Outside of myself being injured at Seoul, the only other person in my unit who was wounded during my time in Korea was a fellow radioman who oddly enough was hit by a link that had dropped from one of our aircrafts as it was firing its guns at the enemy. These links held the rounds together like a belt (watch the machine gunners loaded their guns in the movies).
Another day while at the tent city, I heard the sound of a siren off in the distance. The sound began to get louder and louder. Suddenly, five jeeps came racing by. The two jeeps in the front and the two in the rear were filled with white-helmeted MPs and in the center vehicle was General MacArthur in his typical pose, pipe and dark glasses included. What I resented was the fact that he made no attempt to acknowledge the Marines. He flew by and stared straight ahead.
I'd like to take a moment to mention Chaplain Sporer who was well-liked by the men. I had known him in Camp Pendleton and remember going on a long walk with him and a group of others from the base to the Mission of San Luis Rey near Oceanside. In Korea, he was always cheerful and available to all of us. He also stuck up for the common soldier, Marine or Army, and no matter what religion we were, we were always welcome. At one time he angrily complained about the lonely foot soldiers that were freezing on the cold ground while the Army brass were celebrating in a warm building. This made Time magazine and boosted his popularity with the men, though I don't think the higher ups were too happy. Chaplain Sporer held services in Korea whenever possible, which wasn't often, especially after the Inchon Landing. When I arrived in San Diego from Korea, he was there with the dignitaries to welcome us. Everyone on board knew him and was pleased to see him. Sadly, Monsignor Sporer passed away two years ago.
Daily Life in Korea
Except when the Brigade took part in the Pusan Campaign, the units I was attached to had little or no other contact with the US Army. The only time that I can recall being near any forces of other countries was also in Pusan when the division returned from North Korea in December 1950. As far as the ROK troops, I believe the division fought with a South Korean Corps and an Army outfit alongside of it (as part of the X Corps) in the Chosin Reservoir episode while I was in hospital. From what was told to me when I rejoined my outfit in North Korea, the Marines felt abandoned at times as they made it back to Hamhung. The ROK troops, though, were hurt very badly by the attacking Chinese.
Our summer uniforms in August/September of 1950 were:
In the winter, our uniforms changed to:
All the winter gear was issued to me in Japan prior to my return to Korea. The only item that needed improvement was the boots, otherwise I was fairly satisfied with what I had to wear. The one period of the year that I felt uncomfortable was in the rainy season. I returned home hating rain for years. I still do. Sleeping in the rain at night was the one thing that I hated above all and for years after, I avoided going out in it as much as possible. The extreme cold weather had no effect on my weapon, due to the fact that it was always so close to my body, day and night. Others did have problems with their weapons freezing.
Whenever I saw North Korean soldiers, alive or dead, they wore what appeared to be a light tan quilted type uniform. The weapon commonly used by the enemy was an automatic gun with a distinctive sound, plus some old fashioned Tommy-guns which were grabbed by our troops whenever they could get their hands on them from the captured or dead soldiers. As far as their fighting ability, I only saw them retreating, though I'm sure they had some successes. From what I heard from the men after the Chosin campaign, the Chinese succeeded only by throwing in their troops en masse. Most of the fighting was done during the daylight hours, though there were night battles, especially when the Chinese joined the war. We felt that our fighting skills were far more superior to that of the North Korean or the Chinese, especially the Marines. I never heard of any of our men surrendering or being taken prisoner.
The civilians, north or south, I found, were no problem to us and we never received any injury from them. They came up whenever we were near a village or town and, as I said earlier, the kids came by asking for treats. Like GI's everywhere, we enjoyed pacifying them. There was one person we hated to see, though. He was the 'Honey Dipper.' This farmer roamed his field with a large bucket on his back and a long handled scoop, spreading fertilizer over the paddies. The stench was so strong that it was detectable as far as a half a mile--even further if the wind came from his direction. This occurred in warm weather and I don't need to relate what was used in Korea for fertilizer at that time.
Bathing was not on our regular schedule. Our helmets served many purposes, including as a basin for washing up. Each morning when possible, we all washed, brushed our teeth, and shaved. Except for moustaches, no beards or goatees were allowed. This order came down from the top. I grew a moustache, which I kept for 10 years after leaving the Marine Corps. Early in the war, the Brigade once rested along a stream where we were able to jump in the river, bathe in clear water, shave, and change uniforms. There were also shade trees on shore, a relief from the heat. Though we were naked, the women of the nearby village came forth and volunteered to wash our clothes in exchange for a can of C-rations. A female reporter named Marguerite Higgins of the New York Herald drove by and was not pleased at seeing naked men and local women so close, and she wrote about it. Portable showers were set up for us whenever possible and we took turns in groups to clean up. We had a Korean interpreter with us who (believe it or not) was named "Kim." We enjoyed each other's company and when he was not needed, he spent his time with our team. One time he found a Korean bath house and arranged with the owner for us to take a "hot" bath. We were almost boiled alive in the vertical tubes that we had to stand in. The engineers set up bathing spots whenever and wherever they could. One was a series of overhead pipes that sprinkled water down on small groups of men. Another time, a deep, pool-sized hole was dug with a bulldozer and filled with water so we could bathe. It was great except for the unwanted leeches that got in it. Though I feared them, I got in the pool, bathed quickly, and then rushed out. Sure enough, I found a leech crawling up my leg, but was able to remove it before it could clamp itself onto me.
Fleas were another problem in the beginning. I learned early to stay out of the native homes and was thankful for the stream that got rid of mine. Hornets with long stingers were not too much of a problem, but one patient I saw in the hospital in Japan had been stung by a swarm that penetrated his clothing, including his leather gloves. Unfortunately, one stung him in the eye, which probably cost him the loss of it. Other predators that were found in Korea were cobras. Luckily they avoided us completely, though we all heard one in the brush a few yards away. It made a loud squealing sound and some of our men tried to locate it.
Our food was mostly C-rations which consisted of baked beans, franks and beans, chicken and noodles, chicken and rice, spaghetti, and pineapple and fruit cocktail--all in cans. There was also a can that contained instant coffee, sugar, salt, pepper, gum, etc. Each box had within it a small chocolate bar and a pack of cigarettes. Being a pipe smoker for a time, I always gave away the cigarettes and tried hard to pass off the chicken and rice, which was disliked by all of us. One time Kim cooked us a terrific stew. We each gave him a can from our C-rations and he went into a home and came back with spices, garlic, and hot peppers, along with a rice cake baked by the owner of the house. He gave us the best meal we had in a month. He also brought back a pure white cake from a native home. Even though we appreciated the thought, it was very bland and tasteless. When off line, we had hot food from a mess tent, most of which was dehydrated food and powdered milk. The best meal was at Christmas, when we had a fresh turkey dinner.
Mail got to us fairly regularly and I received several "care" packages from home which were mostly food (always a freshly baked cake included) and reading material. There was only one box that I know of that never got to me and that was a box of candy. One care package sent by my mom included a homemade pound cake, a package of spaghetti, and a can of Bultoni Marinara sauce. I boiled the pasta in my steel helmet and heated the can on the potbelly stove. My mother always laughed every time I mentioned how I cooked the pasta. That night we had one of the best dinners we ever had in Korea. I don't ever recall being short of food.
I know of no one who received any bad news from home. Throughout my time in Korea, the team always seemed in good humor when off the line. I can still remember one of the jokes I told the guys while there. The holidays spent in Korea were Christmas, New Year's and Easter. My birthday was spent stateside.
Return to the States
When it was my turn to be rotated home, two groups had already been sent stateside. It was in April of 1951 that I received my orders. Of course, it pleased me tremendously for a couple of reasons. First, I was one of the last members of our team to leave Korea. Second, three other Marines and I had been strafed by our own planes just a few days earlier. My last few hours with my unit were spent packing up and changing into new fatigues, then being driven to a nearby man-made airfield where we boarded a DC-10 for a short flight to the Pusan area. There we were taken to the warehouse where our sea bags had been stored and though I spent hours searching throughout the building, my bag was nowhere to be found. All I had was what was in my back pack, so I had to start back dressed only in new dungarees. It took three years after my enlistment was over for that sea bag to arrive at my front door in Flushing. I never found out where it had been. It had been opened and some personal items were missing. My opinion is that it was removed from the warehouse and sent to Japan or to the States after I was wounded.
The ship that brought us back was the USS Sgt. Sylvester Antolak. We returned by way of Japan, where the ship docked for two days. Everyone was given liberty except for those of us that had no uniforms. We were stuck onboard. It took several days to cross the Pacific. The trip back was relaxing, with no bad weather and no seasickness problem--a big difference from our sailing the year before. The ship was blacked out until it left the Japanese waters about a day out of Japan. My guess is that they were still worried about the Chinese and the Russians. I don't recall if movies were shown on deck, though I do remember that recordings were played over the loudspeaker. I can still hear in my memory Mario Lanza singing, "Be My Love" and the big mambo hit number by Perez Prado.
The ship was set to arrive in San Diego. As I said, the previous two ships went to San Francisco and Seattle, respectively. The only other memory I have of the trip was meeting one of the men who was in hospital with me in Japan. He was returning to the States after receiving his second wound, which was what might be described as a "million dollar" wound. He had been shot in the back while wearing his pack. Luckily, the pack slowed the entrance of the projectile and it just went under the top layer of his skin. What was strange was that he didn't feel a thing and only discovered the wound when someone spotted the blood on his back. This recollection did not come back to me until I was writing this memoir.
We arrived in San Diego on April 29, 1951, which I believe was either a Friday or Saturday. The dock was filled with hundreds of cheering people, including the Mayor and high-ranking brass. Bands played and welcoming speeches were made, but the only one I remember being there to greet us was Chaplain Sporer. He made a little welcoming speech at our arrival. As we disembarked, the Red Cross ladies gave us donuts and we received a packet of goodies from the city which had passes for free meals, free transportation, free movies, free everything. We were then bused to the San Diego Marine Depot where we were billeted for almost a week. After getting a new uniform and getting paid, I went into the city. The first thing I did when I went into San Diego was go to the Grant Hotel, the finest hotel in the city at the time, for a free steak dinner, after which I just walked about the city happy to be back in civilization. On Wednesday after getting my new orders and leave papers, I flew home. MacArthur and I got to New York around the same time. He was given a ticker tape parade, while I grabbed a taxi and went home. I enjoyed surprising my family by popping in on them unexpectedly, even though I had phoned home when I landed in San Diego. We spent many hours that night just talking.
After my leave was up, I was assigned to guard duty at a naval mine depot in Yorktown, Virginia. Though the base was spread out throughout a wooded area, there were only about a dozen buildings with mostly naval personnel and civilians working there. The Marines on the base consisted of only about 25 men plus a few officers. It was four hours on and eight hours off, plus one weekend on and one weekend off type of guard duty. It was a bit lonely in Yorktown. The nearest town for liberty was Newport News, which wasn't an exciting place. Historically we had the battlefield across the road where the Revolutionary War ended. Williamsburg was also nearby, but hard to get to without transportation. At one time, I had to be on duty from twelve to four, midday, in the middle of July. It was so hot and humid I came back to the squad room ringing wet. The only advantage of being in Yorktown was that I was able to make trips to Richmond, Washington, and home. One other thing was that the food was terrific. This lasted for about six months.
After that I was sent to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where I was attached to the Beachmaster outfit. Still a radioman, I now had the new single unit radio, which was extremely light and compact. While in Lejeune, I made two trips down to Vieques, Puerto Rico, and had liberty in San Juan. On this trip, I bumped into a friend, Patrick, who had been an usher in the same theater where I had my first job. He was now a fellow Marine on the same ship going to Vieques. It was quite a surprise and we spent our time in San Juan together. A few years later, after I left the Corps and began a career as a photographer, Patrick's was the first wedding I shot. Since then I've photographed hundreds.
One exercise on the Vieques trip had us boarding the pocket aircraft carrier USS Block Island in Norfolk, which first sailed into New Harbor for a weekend, where I was able to make a surprise visit home. We sailed past the Statue of Liberty on Sunday and spent a couple days at sea. Off the coast of Virginia, we boarded helicopters and demonstrated to the big wigs on shore how choppers could be used for ferrying troops about. Back in Korea, helicopters had been used mainly for picking up the wounded and dropping off supplies. (Soon after this demonstration, they started using helicopters to transport troops.) During the demonstration, I made sure I sat by the open door of the aircraft and had my camera with me. Another memorable experience.
Finally, I had less than a year left in my enlistment and had the opportunity to make the Mediterranean cruise which left out of Lejeune every six months. But due to bad luck again, I came down with the mumps on the very day we were to leave. I ended up in the hospital again and in quarantine for several weeks. After returning to my empty barracks, I again found some of my clothes missing and had to be reissued new equipment. I remained at Lejeune until I was discharged on September 10, 1952, just short of four years from the time I enlisted. During the last few days before my discharge, I spent several days going through physicals and tests. I also met up with PFC West, a former member of our team in Korea. He also was being discharged.
After I was discharged, my plans were to return to California for schooling. I had to wait until February 1953, so I got a temporary job during the holidays at the Gorham Store by Rockefeller Center on 5th Avenue in New York City. Of course, I took advantage of the GI Bill. Actually I went to two schools. The first, because of my love of the theatre, was at the Pasadena Playhouse where I studied all aspects of the subject from behind the scenes to performing on stage. Having had a lisp all my life, including during my time in the Corps, and having to go to special classes in my youth, nothing could change the vocal defect. Fortunately, one of my instructors at the Playhouse who taught speech took each student aside privately in his office and gave us some pointers for improvement. While he listened to me, he explained what I was doing wrong and how to correct it. This was a new procedure for me and believe it or not, with a little bit of practice, the following day the lisp was gone.
Though my group was the smallest of all the classes in the school, most of the guys in it were vets and had similar experiences as I did. I've never regretted my time at the Pasadena Playhouse. My classmates have remained close friends ever since and meet yearly, including New Years Eve. Since retiring, I do some volunteering at the Playhouse such as giving tours almost on a monthly basis. I enjoy also helping with the young people's Head Start matinees, which give students from many Southern California schools a chance to see a live play. Recently we had Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett starring in "Fences", which was a big hit with the kids. They especially liked the Questions and Answers with the actors after the show. All this is free for the kids and is one of my favorite things to do every six weeks or so.
I followed the Playhouse by learning photography back in New York. This became my livelihood from then on. I worked as a photographer and a sales representative for photo equipment. I was a member of the Professional Photographers of America and Wedding Photographers of America. My collection of cameras kept expanding for years until I began selling some on Ebay. I retired some six years ago, but I haven't stopped taking photos, especially when on trips both here or abroad.
I made my final move away from New York soon after John F. Kennedy was elected as President of the United States. Though I've been all over the USA, Hawaii, the Caribbean and Europe, I've never been back to New York City outside of transferring between planes at Newark. My decision to move west was caused, first, by the breakup with the girl I was seriously going steady with. The final straw was being stuck in the city for three days during one of the worst snow blizzards we had ever been in. I packed up my Volkswagen Bug with everything I owned and headed down Route 66, sleeping in the car and only stopping at the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas. The trip took me six days and I enjoyed seeing the country by car.
The main change I found in myself after I left the Corps, and especially when I moved to California, was that I lost the shyness I had and began to get involved in discussions of daily topics and speaking up with my opinions. These are things I would never have done or said earlier in life. The confidence I gained in the Marines, particularly in boot camp, served me well, not only in Korea but in civilian life, which I easily adapted to.
About three years after my discharge, my left hand began to swell due to some of the shrapnel that started to move around. I was unable to use my hand without the feel of pain. I went to the VA Hospital, where a large piece of metal was removed. I was told that I should have reported to the VA as soon as I left the service. Still having a number of tiny shrapnel in my hand, I qualified for some disability, which I get to this day. Every so often I have to run down to the VA and have more metal removed. There's plenty still there.
I try to go the reunions of both the 1st Marine Division Association and that of the Brigade, especially when close to home. Outside of a fellow radioman by the name of Wiley, who remembered communicating with me over the radio, and another who carried Lieutenant Booker's mortally-wounded body down a hill during the Chosin campaign, there has been no one else present that I was familiar with. (Incidentally, I receive a Christmas card each year from Wiley and his family.) It's still fun to go to these reunions and I enjoy making the field trips to Camp Pendleton and the Marine Depot in San Diego. Seeing the new equipment and tactics, plus the graduation of the new Marines, is always fascinating.
I never married. Marriage never entered my mind after the long affair I had with a little green-eyed, red-headed soprano I left back in New York. Though I dated several young ladies, one more serious than the others, none could replace her. To this day I cannot listen to the aria, "O mio bambino caro" without thinking of her. This is all I'm prepared to say on the subject. I will concentrate the remainder of this memoir on my thoughts on the Korean War.
I agree that the UN forces should have made the move to stop the invasion of South Korea by the North, and I feel it brought about a halt to further expansion of communism. But I do not agree with MacArthur's plan of continuing the fight up to the Yalu River. He should have gone no further than the capitol of North Korea and stopped there. As far as keeping troops there now, I feel that the situation is easing up between the two Koreas and possibly it may not be long before they can be brought out--but not until a formal peace treaty is signed.
When we think of the conflicts of the twentieth century, what comes to mind is World War I, World War II, Vietnam, and recently the Gulf War. The Korean War is remembered mostly by Marines and veterans of that war. Like Vietnam, it's one we really didn't win and that's why I feel it has the title of "The Forgotten War." Someday I'd like to visit Korea. From the photos and films I've seen, it's now a modern and prosperous country, which is another reason I think the depressed North is making overtures of peace with the South.
As far as the MIA's, I feel that after all this time I don't think there can be more that the USA can do. I don't say we should put an end to seeking information, but there is the realization that there's not much left to discover what happened to them.
There are stickers on the rear bumper of my car that state that the driver is an ex-Marine and a vet of the Korean War. I've gotten many compliments, including finding a note on my windshield which thanked me for my participation in the conflict. Korea was an experience where the young kids who had joined the Marines, myself included, grew up to be hardened and determined military combatants. Pride was evident throughout the troops and we felt that we were part of an organization that would not give up or give in, even when confronted with overwhelming forces. Trust between the men was so strong that it gave each Marine a comforting mental feeling that no matter what, the guy next to him was his guardian angel. This was a little different from what I saw of the other branches of service around us.
It doesn't matter what age we may be of if we're in or out of the Corps. When the band strikes up the Marine Hymn, we will always stand up with pride because...once a Marine, always a Marine! I have never--and will never--regret my time in the Marine Corps.