|Back to "Memoirs" Index page|
James W. Elkins
Baton Rouge, LA-
"About 1300 hours, the Chinese who were high on rice wine made a banzi attack on the front of the line. My friend was wounded. I can tell you I was afraid with all of the grenades and mortar rounds bursting and bullets flying around. I kept a watchful eye on my end of the line. At the same time, I pulled the Marine-issued New Testament out of my pocket and memorized the 23rd Psalm. This gave me a peace I had never felt before."
- James W. Elkins
<---Picture of me in Korea, 1951, with an Eti-wa hat on. This is what old men wore with long white robes. With this on, they could go from village to village and have someone feed them and put them up for the night. The jacket I am wearing is a quilted Chinese soldier's jacket worn in the winter. I had the pants but could not get into them. The pants I am wearing were U.S. issue for cold weather. Boots are shoe pack used for the winter months.
I was born in the town of Farmerville, Louisiana, on September 3, 1929. My father was Roye Elkins, and my mother was Tressie Opal (Hunt) Elkins. My father had the distributorship for four large town newspapers in our small town. He also owned his own taxi (the only one in town). On the side, he bootlegged bonded whiskey in our dry parish (county), which was illegal. My mother never worked outside the home until she was 40 or 45 years old, at which time she operated a small cafe.
I have one brother who is six years younger than me, His name is Royce Dean Elkins. I also have one sister who is 16 years younger than me. Her name is Wanda Sue (Elkins) Pace. I graduated from grade school at Farmerville Elementary School and then from Farmerville High School at the age of 16 in 1946.
I started work at age seven delivering newspapers door to door in the mornings and afternoons. I sold papers downtown on Sundays. I did this until the end of my second year in high school. The summer I was ten, I worked in a blacksmith shop as a gopher. The smithy was an absolute genius at his work, and I wanted to be an apprentice. He very wisely advised me to get an education. He made two wooden-body school buses each year, and he allowed me to help him drive nails into the planks on the flooring and in the tin on the side of the buses. I shall never forget this experience. In the summer between my junior and senior high school years, I did construction work. Most of the work consisted of laying plank roads from a secondary road to an oil rig. Also, from the age of 12 1/2 for about 3 1/2 years, I was the projectionist for the local theater at $25.00 per week. I was paid in silver dollars. I started paying half percent Social Security tax at that time. I worked seven days a week. Monday through Friday there were two shows at night, Saturday the shows were from 12 noon until midnight, and Sunday afternoons there were two shows.
I was a Boy Scout and attained the rank of Second Class. Many years later, as an assistant Scout Master, I was given an honorary rank of First Class. The troop I was in during my youth was not very active. However, we did camp out overnight several times. My experiences were really uneventful.
We had family members in World War II. My father's brother was drafted into the army in January of 1942. He fought in North Africa, Italy, and then in France and Germany by way of England. Our high school collected scrap metal for the war efforts. Everybody was involved. We filled up the front school yard with scrap. When it was sold, the money was enough to buy what we called in the service a 6x truck.
Joining the USMC
I voluntarily enlisted in the Marine Corps on my 17th birthday--September 3, 1946. None of my friends went with me. I graduated from high school in May and had to wait until my birthday to enlist. There was only one Marine I knew of in my hometown prior to World War II. When he came home in his dress blue uniform and I saw him, my heart beat faster. I had heard it said by World War I veterans that the Marines were a tough outfit, and I wanted to belong. I found out that a recruit had to be six feet tall and weigh at least 180 pounds. Because of my size, I knew I would never make it. Then along came World War II, and size no longer mattered. I could not wait to become a part of what, in my mind, I considered the best. I never considered any other branch of service. My parents did not object. They wanted me to have what I considered to be best for me. My mother had to sign release papers for me to enlist.
I went to boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. The Recruiting Sergeant took me from my home town in a military Jeep to his recruiting post, and we went by train that night to New Orleans, Louisiana. I passed the physical the next day, and the following morning, a large group of us got on a train for South Carolina. I did not know anyone who traveled with me to boot camp.
Parris Island was located in the lower part of South Carolina, not far from the coast. It was barren land, mostly sand--deep sand in areas. I do not remember any types of insects or other pests in the camp. About ten minutes after we arrived at boot camp, we were herded into a large building and told to strip and put our clothes in our bag or suitcase. When this was accomplished (on the double time), the Sergeant passed around to each boot a small bag with a draw string to put valuables in. He missed me and put the rest of the bags on a bench. I walked over to get one, and on my way back, I found myself on the floor face down. I was hit in the back of the head by the Sergeant. He had his foot on my neck. For the next ten minutes, he cursed me and all of the other boots. The message was, "Don't do anything unless told to do so." Everyone learned a good lesson at my expense. I don't remember the name of my DIs. However, I remember they were World War II veterans.
Boot camp for me was six weeks. I was at Parris Island in September and the weather was pleasant. My platoon number was 342 in early September of 1946. So many draftees and others who had retired were no longer in service, the Marines needed warm bodies to fill the ranks of the 1st and 2nd Marine Division. We learned how to fire and clean a rifle, practiced Judo, and did bayonet practice with bales of hay. We spent many hours on how to obey orders, how to keep discipline, and soaking up the good news that the Marines were the best. We also viewed films and had lectures on venereal diseases. (The message was, "Always be cautious.") If we, individually, could not prove that we were worthy to be Marines, then we would be kicked out before graduation. The only proficiency test I had to qualify in was with a rifle. I was qualified as "Marksman."
We got up at 4:30 in the mornings, had exercises, then cleaned ourselves and our guard bay and wash room. One of the DIs came in at 4:30, flipped on the lights and yelled, "Out of the rack." At times, he flipped a double-decked bunk over. Personal hygiene was great for all. Each morning at roll call, we were checked regarding hygiene. Our training was great. The only free time that I remember was at meal time (church was not offered). Otherwise, if we were in the field or the barracks, we had something to do. The barracks had to be spotless. Everyone was assigned a task to do inside. Lights were out at 9:00 p.m. I do not recall having fun in boot camp. I was there to learn, and I soaked up everything like a sponge. Nothing was hard about boot camp for me. I enjoyed it all.
Earlier, I explained my encounter with a DI the first ten minutes I was in boot camp. We always obeyed orders regardless of how stupid the task was--such as looking under rocks for cigarette butts. The Marines of my platoon kept their mouths shut and did as they were told. We had no troublemakers in our platoon. As a matter of fact, all members of my platoon graduated. I was never sorry that I joined the Marines. I volunteered for the Marines.
Our DIs did not use corporal punishment. However, on one occasion, one of the DIs found a rifle so dirty that he threw it back to the boy instead of handing it to him. It knocked out four of his front teeth. I did not see others disciplined. In my platoon, if we did something wrong, we went to the sand pits, filled our packs with sand, and marched until someone dropped.
I ate very well in boot camp--good Southern cooking. Meals were great. There was a special for breakfast maybe three times a week called S.O.S. with toast and boiled eggs. The only other foods I remember were chicken, potatoes, green beans, and squash. I always tried to sit at a six-man table with boys from north of the Mason/Dixon line. Consequently, I had plenty to eat. There were no black recruits. This was before Truman integrated the services.
When boot camp was completed, we were given the Marine emblem of the Globe and Anchor to put on our uniform caps. There was a parade to commemorate the graduation of several platoons at one time. The officers of the camp were on a grandstand, and we marched past them. When we passed the officers and the command came, "Eyes Right," that was the best feeling I had experienced up until that date. I left boot camp feeling like a Marine and acting like one. It was a feeling that cannot be explained. The Marine Corps took a 17-year-old boy from a small town of 600 and made a man of him. I learned discipline, respect, and to obey orders without question. My training in boot camp was to serve me well in Korea.
I did not go home after boot camp. In 1946, we did not have what was called post-boot camp training. We went into either the 2nd Marine Division or the 1st Marine Division. I went directly to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and began extensive combat training. We practiced ground combat and amphibious landings more than anything else. We had no testing requirements during this time. We got on troop landing craft that had front ramps that let down. The boat went out to a troop ship anchored offshore. The Navy men threw down a large rope ladder about 60 feet long before our boat came alongside. The ladder was wide enough for six men with full packs and weapons to climb the same time. Once everyone was on the ship deck, we got the order to go over the side, and we then went back down to our boat. The most I remember doing this at one time was up and down two times. It was very tiring to do. Then the boat went back to the shore. The ramp went down, and we ran out on each side of the boat, hit the deck, and then crawled ourselves forward--mostly on our elbows. After a day like that, we ate well and slept well.
I took leave after being at Camp Lejeune for four or five months. When I returned, I took no more leave. When I did go on a leave home, people said how nice I looked in my uniform. As best as I can remember, there were only two other boys from my hometown in the Marines about the same time. I knew them, but our paths did not cross while we were in uniform.
I returned to Camp Lejeune by Trailways Bus. My home base while in the 2nd Marine Division was Camp Lejeune. We did have liberty, and a good time was had by all--sometimes too much of a good time. I was on six different ships. We trained in the Caribbean and North Atlantic and Mediterranean Seas. My battalion in the 2nd Division also received cold weather training. I was in Able Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines. We went to Argentia and Newfoundland in the winter of 1947. Snow was everywhere and several inches thick. We tested the same cold weather gear that was used in Korea the winter of 1950. I know, because I was there. I am so glad that I had that training in 1947. Because of that, I knew how to use all of the gear issued. Some younger ones in Korea did not know how to use the shoe packs and had a lot of trouble with their feet. I am convinced that my government knew what was about to happen in Korea at the time we tested the cold weather gear in 1947.
In January of 1948, I boarded a Navy cruiser--the Manchester CL83--and sailed for the Mediterranean Sea. I was one of 600 combat Marines aboard 17 ships which made up the 6th Fleet. When we went over, the Communists were still trying to take over the country of Greece. At night we could see tracer bullets being fired in the hills. We were there to let the Communists know that if they were about to succeed in their conquest, we would intervene. Also, this was when Palestine became the nation of Israel. We would protect America's interests there, if needed.
In February, I was lined over to the aircraft carrier Philippine Sea CV47 in a mail bag with full combat gear. That was a scary experience. I spent five months on this ship. It was hard to believe that I came from a town of 600 and there were 3,500 men on the Philippine Sea. To me, it was like a city.
War Breaks Out
At the time the Korean War broke out, I was a student at Louisiana Tech in Ruston, Louisiana. I had completed one year and had just started another semester. When I heard the news, I told my wife that I would get a call soon. At that time, I was in the Inactive Reserves. I received a letter on October 10, 1950, from the Marines that I was being activated. I was to report to Shumake, Arkansas, for a physical, which I passed.
I was then given ten days to get to Camp Pendleton, California. I met a former Marine at Shumake who had arranged to pick up a car in Shreveport, Louisiana, and drive it to San Diego, California. The car was a 1949 Oldsmobile (like new). They paid us to drive the car to San Diego, which included gas. In those days, cars were sent to the West Coast by individual drivers because they brought about $2,500 more on the market out there.
When the war first began in Korea, I was willing to go and put my life on the line to fight Communism. I realized that all of the training that I had during my previous time in the Marines would be of benefit to me. I will say now and probably a number of times more that I believe that my prior training and prayers saved my life.
I had read about the Inchon landing before I was recalled. I thought nothing about it because that was one of the major things we were trained to do in those days. I had no feelings one way or the other about whether I would like to have been a part of that landing group. I kept up with the news about the war until I arrived at Camp Pendleton, California. We began an intensive refresher course in weapons and tactics. During that time, I did not pay that much attention to the war and what was going on in Korea. I knew I would be there soon. I don't remember being aware of the Chosin Reservoir crossing by the Chinese. The following I do remember very well, however. We were told that we would be given ten days to go home for Christmas. I looked forward to seeing my wife and son. Then all at once, around December 21 or 22, we were told to get all of our gear together, put on dungarees, gather up our full field packs with rifles and cartridge belts, and leave our sea bags behind. We were put on a train and transported to San Francisco. Then we boarded World War II Mars Flying Boats which had upper and lower decks. I know that eleven of these were made in World War II for transport, and I assume that we loaded all of these planes.
We flew to Honolulu and landed at the Naval base. We ate and slept a few hours, and the next day we took off on Navy troop transport planes. We stopped to gas up and eat on Johnston Island, Guam, and the Philippines. We finally arrived at Tokyo International Airport. We then walked to the rail yards, boarded a Japanese Pullman, and went to Kobe, Japan. From there we boarded a Korean ferry boat, "The Koran Maru," and landed in Pusan. By my calculation, that was late on Christmas Eve, 1950.
Overview - My Time in Korea
I estimate that it took us 58 hours from the time we left San Francisco until we got to Korea. We were the first part of the third replacement draft, and I believe that they flew us over because of our previous service and training. I have been told that the other part of that draft came over by boat. It was beginning to get cold when I got to Korea in December. Cold weather gear was issued.
The situation in Korea was critical at that time. The men there had no place to go but back into the sea. When we got to a staging area not far from Pusan, we got off trucks. As we got off, there was someone who said, "You go here," "You go there," and so it went. We began an offensive immediately, which was to mop up guerilla action in the south and then to move north. They did not care what our M.O.S. training was. They just needed warm bodies to fill the ranks. My "baptism of fire" was my first day in Korea. We engaged guerillas in the south. There were enemy machine guns on the side of each hill overlooking the valley and they were slinging lead. I was behind a small tree, and I noticed about one foot from my right side that bullets were hitting the ground from my head to my feet. I was not hit, though. An air strike was called in and the planes bombed both machine gun nests and destroyed them. When the first bomb hit, I saw bodies and pieces of bodies fly up in the air. I felt good about the fact that the planes had put them out of action.
I have said that bullets began to fly on Christmas Day. Some dispute that, but I know that the oldest man who came over with me (28 years old) was killed by my side, and I still say it was Christmas Day. The first day of action I saw dead Koreans and a dead Marine. It did not affect me at all. My impressions of Korea were neutral. I could tell immediately that we were in a war zone because there were only 15 men left out of the company that I joined who had made it out of Chosin in one piece. As mentioned, no assignments were made before I arrived in Korea. There were always Korean laborers around moving supplies. Of the 15 men left out of a company (a company was approximately 300 men), I knew none of them.
Concerning the duty I was assigned, the first time I was in the Marines, I was trained to handle the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR). Later, I became a rifleman with an M-1 Garand Rifle. At Camp Pendleton, I was trained with a flame thrower. I really liked this weapon. In Korea, they said, "You go into machine guns." Later on, the M-1 Garand Rifle was replaced by a lighter weapon, the M-1 Carbine. I carried two boxes of ammo for our gun, as did three other men. This is the way the Marines have always been. Regardless of training, we went where we were needed. The job I was assigned was as good as any other. I never complained. I did not know any of the officers' names when I got to Korea and did not know any while there. I surely don't remember any now.
When my group arrived in Korea, we were not green troops. We had all served previously during the World War II period. Some served in combat, and some like myself on occupation duty. We knew what to expect when we arrived, and we went to work. The 15 men left in my company could not teach us anything. Most of us were older than they. In Korea, I learned not to take chances. I did my job well, and my previous two years of training in the Marines really paid off. The first time we were involved in real heavy action, we killed a lot of Chinese and North Koreans. Our casualties were light compared to theirs. The fact that I had practiced for war for two years previously allowed me to hold up emotionally. Did I ever have moments of fear? The answer is yes. At first no, but as the months rolled on and I saw so many deaths, there were moments when I felt that my time had come.
In Korea there were hills and valleys. The best place to be was in the hills. In the cold winter, with 30 degrees below zero, there was no vegetation for the enemy to hide behind. We were usually on the attack. Each night we had to dig a one- or two-man foxhole. On line, we had fifty percent watch, which meant that one half of our men were awake at one time. Our battalion was on the move except for those times that we came off the front lines after many days of extreme fighting and spent some time in the rear getting rest and eating hot food.
My discharge says I was in south and central Korea. We landed in Pusan and fought our way north of the 38th parallel at a place called the Punchbowl. My unit fought there twice. I know that we were north of the 38th parallel after MacArthur was fired and Van Fleet took over. He is the one that made us stop our advance back up to the Yalu River. We had the enemy on the run and to a man in my outfit, we wanted to press on, knowing full well that many of us would not make it back.
I do not know the names of the hills we fought on. However, my wife kept most of the letters I wrote to her from Korea, and I can tell pretty well where I was by when the letters were written. The areas were:
I started in Pusan (the bottom tip of South Korea) and fought all the way up north of the 38th parallel to the Punchbowl, and then the Hwachon Reservoir area. Our company commander changed twice during this time. I did not know either of them.
In the very beginning we had air support, but that stopped. We always had artillery and tank support, and I might add support from the big guns of the Navy. For a while, we had a Navy spotter with us. I remember 2,000-pound shells from the 20-inch guns on a battleship hitting the top of a hill in front of us, and the hill was no more.
The bloodiest battles we fought were from April through June 1951, and again in September 1951. However, there were many battles of lesser significance. In most battles, we took casualties. Sometimes there were many more than at other times, but such is war. The enemy always suffered many more dead than we did. There were many killed or wounded in my company during the eleven months I was in Korea. I was one of the lucky few who made it. I remember us getting six new men one day and two days later, three of them were dead. Most of the men killed or wounded in our company died April through June and in September during the most intense fighting. I do not know the names or the states of the men killed.
There was no specific time that I felt most in danger in Korea. Any time a battle was raging, we were in danger. I remember one time a sniper evidently had me in his sight. About three times I heard a bullet pass my ear. When a bullet did that, it made a noise like a bullwhip being cracked. It meant that it was no further than ten inches from my head. I remember putting my face in the dirt with my head covered by my helmet and thinking, "Is that next bullet going to be named Jim?"
When we dug in for the night, our machine guns were set up so that there was interlocking fire with riflemen and BARmen in between. Our 60mm mortars were set up behind the hill so that they could lob shells over our heads in case of a heavy enemy attack. If we were told that we would probably be in the same place two or three days, we set booby traps--usually hand grenades with the pins in, but with the back side of the pin straightened a little--below our front lines. A thin piece of wire was attached to the pin before the operation and the other end was attached to a small tree or bush about ten feet away. Anyone coming up the hill and tripping the cord would set off the grenade. The grenades were always far enough down the hill that shrapnel would not hit any of our men. Fighting was anytime--day or night.
We disposed of most of the North Korean army early in 1951, which left mostly Chinese to do the fighting. I must pause here, however, to say that women fought in the North Korean Army. They were trained to fire World War II 60mm mortars, and they were very skilled at their job. These same women were used to cook for the men and served as their concubines. If one became eight months pregnant, she came toward our lines with a white flag, knowing that she would get medical care.
In the early days of the Korean War, the Chinese were armed with World War I and World War II rifles captured from the Nationalist Chinese, Japanese, and from other countries. Before I left, they were using all Russian-made equipment. Any rifle can kill regardless of age if properly handled--including muskets of the Civil War era and even before that. The only heavy machine guns I saw the Chinese use were World War I Russian-made 31 caliber. They were on metal wheels with armor plate in front. They must have been hell to take apart, get up into the hills, and put together again. They were the old water-cooled type. Bullets from our BAR and M-1 Garand rifles were armor-piercing and went through the armor plate around the guns. They also had a 76mm cannon on wheels that they got into the hills the same way. It was a deadly weapon if handled properly. However, the sound of those shells coming in did more psychological damage than any other kind of damage. When they started to fire, we stayed in our foxholes.
Most of the Chinese who were killed appeared to be young peasant boys who were ill-trained and ill-equipped. In my opinion, they were not good fighters. Believe it or not, they wore tennis shoes summer and winter unless they had some good boots taken off United Nations troops. They did not like to fight Marines head-on unless they were high on rice wine and made banzi attacks. I don't think they put up as good a fight as we did. I would say that the Chinese usually hit and ran, while we pressed forward most of the time. However, if the Chinese had one or two well-equipped divisions to throw into battle, they did so and put up a good fight.
They were masters of subterfuge. There were times that they came close to our lines at night and asked for the time. The answer we gave him was always a hand grenade. One night a Chinese soldier, who evidently had been educated in England, came up to our lines and said, "I say, Ole Chap. Can you tell me the time?" Our response was the same as always. There was also a time when the Chinese dressed up beautiful Korean women as Geishas, put them in white robes, and sent them toward our lines, knowing the weakness of Marines for women and booze. They came toward a foxhole with their right hand in the fold of their kimono. Once in the foxhole, everyone was blown to bits. It was theorized that the women carried at least two--maybe three--grenades with the pins pulled, and all they had to do was release their grip and everything blew up. This happened three times before the word was passed along the line (we were set up in a level area in two-man foxholes). About two days later, this happened to me. As I remember, it was early in the morning, and I saw this white object coming toward our two-man foxhole. As it got closer, I could tell it was one of those beautiful women dressed in white with her right hand in the fold of her kimono. As she got closer, I raised my rifle and told her in Korean to "get the hell out of here." The boy in the foxhole with me said, "Elkins, are you crazy?" She kept coming, and I fired. At the same time, I ducked down in our hole and pulled the other boy down with me. Then there was one hell of a bang. There were only pieces left of her. The other boy looked at me with fear in his eyes and said nothing.
There was a time when my outfit was above the 38th parallel and we were completely surrounded by Chinese. We had no food for 72 hours. The water we drank came out of a creek filled with corpses. The corpsman put one drop of iodine per canteen to purify the water. At the end of the third day, the Air Force parachuted in food to us, which we ate. Shortly thereafter, with the help of another Marine group, we broke through back to our own lines. It was a 40-mile forced march. I will never forget it.
I can remember at least three times we were under mortar attack. We always took killed and wounded. In one such attack, I heard a thud about a foot from my right side. I looked over and an unexploded mortar shell had landed. I did not know if it had a delayed action fuse. I just lay there and prayed. I also remember our attacking an enemy position one time and tanks firing in our support. My friend in Baker Company, which was near us, lost ten men to friendly tank fire on that date. My understanding was that the officer who made the mistake was severely disciplined. I do not know that for sure.
I personally had no contact with the Korean military. The only troops who fought along beside us were the Korean Marines. They were very good fighters. I met men from other countries, but I did not fight alongside of them. I remember one cold, rainy day we took over lines being held by the French Foreign Legion. They were a happy-go-lucky group. They had to serve one year in Vietnam (when the French ruled there) and one year in Korea.
To my knowledge, my group was never flanked by an Army outfit. We did on more than one occasion pass a member of the 1st Cavalry Division either going or coming from the front lines. Other than being in an Army hospital for ten days, the only contact I had with the Army was when an Army Military Police outfit came into our camp when we were in a rest area. They sold us Canadian Club whiskey for $50.00 per quart, which they had stolen from the Canadian Officers Corps.
Life in a War Zone
As I mentioned earlier, when the Korean War broke out I was willing to put my life on the line to fight Communism. However, when Truman fired General MacArthur (in my estimation, the best general of modern times)--and replaced him with Van Fleet, who was a "yes man", my attitude began to change. Almost immediately after he took over, he stopped our advance and said, "We will go no farther north." It was to be left to the politicians to work out. At that moment, I felt personally betrayed by my country--first, for the pure hell that I had been through; second, for all of the men who had died for what we were told was a just cause; third, for the fact that my country would not acknowledge that Russian pilots and some ground technicians with rocket batteries were involved in the war; and fourth, after the initial Chinese entry into the war that Russia (Soviet Union) was supplying the arms for the war. At that point in time, I did not give a damn about the war, although I was involved in it for some time after that. I thought the United Nations was a joke. We provided all of the supplies and did 99.9 percent of the fighting. I have nothing but contempt for the United Nations--then and now. The greatest mistake made by my government was the firing of General MacArthur.
The winter I was there was pure hell. It got down to 30 degrees below zero for a while. To give an example, we were pulled off the front line after several days of fighting. We went back to a rest area where we had hot food. Tables were planks on 50-gallon oil drums. They had a huge urn of boiling hot coffee. I filled up my canteen cup, went through the line and got hot food, went about ten feet, put down my canteen cup, took a bite of food which had ice flakes in it, reached for my coffee, and it had about 1/4 inch of ice on top. Some cold, huh? At least the temperature extremes did not affect our weapons. What we had were proven weapons used by the infantry in World War II.
What we wore during the winter while I was in Korea was the following. On our head we had lined head gear which covered the ears. We wore a helmet on top of that. On our bodies, we had dungarees with all-weather pants on the outside and heavy lined parkas that went down just below the knees. Our shoes were shoe packs--rubber type on the outside with double shoe pads inside and two pairs of heavy socks to be changed each day. This was the same gear that the others and I had tested in Argentia, Newfoundland, in 1947. I kept warm because I had been previously trained in how to use the equipment. Our summer clothing was helmet, dungarees, and leather boots.
In the summer, the Chinese wore some kind of grey clothing and tennis shoes. In the winter, they had quilted uniform tops and bottoms and tennis shoes. In the cold winter of 1951 around February or March, it got down to 30 degrees below zero. From time to time after we took a hill, we found Chinese soldiers who had been left behind. They had gangrene from frostbite up to their knees and sometimes above. The comrades of these dead Chinese took their hats, pants, shoes, socks, rifle, ammunition, and food. When we came upon one of these pitiful creatures, they would point to the muzzle of our rifle, then to their head, and we could see in their eyes what they were asking us to do: "Please kill me." Sometimes we obliged, and at other times we left them to suffer. This normally depended on the severity of the previous battle and how many killed we had sustained.
In battle, emotions could run high. I remember one day not long after we had seen the aftermath of the slaughter of an Army unit that we were in the process of taking a hill. I was about middle way up the line of assault when someone brought me a young Chinese soldier who had surrendered. They had given him a cigarette and asked me to hold him until Intelligence could send someone to pick him up. I was so bitter at that point in time, I put my rifle very close to him with the safety off. I wanted to kill him, but knew he was more value to us alive than dead. We stared at each other's eyes for what seemed like an eternity. He never twitched or flinched a muscle. The cigarette continued to burn. I began to smell flesh burning and hear the sizzle. When I finally glanced at his hand, he was holding ashes between his fingers. I felt good. This is what war will do to a person.
Regarding mistakes, there was an incident in which we had taken a hill from the Chinese and secured same. Some Marines on another hill thought we were Chinese troops and called an air strike on us. Two Marine Corsairs came with .50 calibers spitting lead, and each one dropped a napalm bomb. There was a covered Chinese bunker about five feet from me. I dove in head first, right on top of a dead Chinese soldier. His eyes were open and so were mine. The difference was, I was breathing and he was not. Not more than two seconds later, someone jumped in on top of me. I kissed the dead Chinese soldier. I did not know until 1993 who that was on top of me and that it was one of my friends. After the attack, we were ordered to go back down the hill the way we came up. The official history of the incident said there were no friendly fire casualties. That is not true because I saw three dead Marines face down who had been hit by .50 caliber bullets.
We never lived in a foxhole. We were usually on the move, which meant that a new one had to be dug each day. I was never in a trench or a bunker. I was never involved in hand-to-hand combat while I was in Korea. I was never wounded in action, either. However, I was burned in a gasoline fire (my fault) when we relieved the French on line. On that cold and rainy day, I got second and third degree burns on my forehead and right leg. When I was burned, the corpsman gave me morphine for pain, put salve on my burns, and bandaged my head completely except for eye holes and holes to breathe. It was the next morning before they could get my stretcher down the hill. I shall never forget when I got down the hill and was waiting for a Jeep to take me to an Army hospital. An Associated Press photographer came running over and asked me how I had been wounded and how serious I was. He wanted my name and home town. When I told him I had been burned in a fire and that it was my fault, he said, "Damn," and walked off. I sure laughed about that one.
I was in the hospital about ten days. An Army dentist was set up there. He checked my teeth and said I had a cavity. He had nothing to fill it with, so he pulled it. I think he did it only for practice. There were two hospital tents end on end. One was for South Korean soldiers and the other for American soldiers. One South Korean soldier was dying from internal parasites. He asked his officer for a .45 caliber pistol to kill himself. The officer obliged, and the boy killed himself about ten feet from me. I saw corpsmen sew up cuts on men without the benefit of a pain killer. They always did a good job. I have always considered Navy corpsmen as Marines.
We had plenty of contact with the South Korean population. After all, we were protecting them. There were also many North Korean civilians who came south to get away from Communism. We had a Korean interpreter attached to each company, and we had what we referred to as "chigger-bears." They were Korean men who carried supplies such as food into the hills for us.
The only food we had on the front lines were C-rations. The food we had in reserve areas was hot and to my taste. The home-cooked food that I missed the most while I was in Korea was beef or pork roast with potatoes, onions, carrots, mashed potatoes with tomato gravy, small green peas, green beans, butter beans, and steak of any kind. (This was before I got into seafood, which I really love now.) One day my machine gun group found a large sack of rice. We cooked it in our helmets with water and chocolate wafers which we crumbled up into powdered chocolate. It tasted fair, and we did not get sick from eating it. I always had lots of garlic on me. Each Korean hut had a big storage area for garlic. When we captured a town, I stocked up on garlic and used it to flavor my C-rations. This almost got me killed by one of our own men one time. I always smelled like garlic because I used so much of it. One day as we were going up a hill, I moved down the side of the hill a little way to defecate. All of a sudden, I heard an M-1 Garand rifle bolt pulled back and loaded. I looked back, and a Marine had a rifle pointed at my head. In a loud voice, I shouted, "Don't shoot. It's me!" The Marine said, "(expletive) You smelled like a Chink, and I thought you were one." After that, I quit using garlic.
As best as I can remember, I had three showers while in Korea. I showered when we were in a rest area. Sometimes in the summer, we bathed in whatever stream or creek was available. Most of the time, corpses were in the water. We put back on the same dirty clothes. I can remember only twice getting a change of fresh clothes when we had a shower. The old clothes were put in a pile with gas poured over them and set on fire. I believe this was the time when we had so many body lice. We were on line and all of us were itching like crazy. A couple of days later, they sent up two large cans of lice powder for each man, and we were told to use it from head to tie. I remember emptying those two cans over my body and in my clothes. In about ten minutes, I pulled my jacket open and dropped my pants, and all I could see were millions of little white things crawling over my body, beginning to fall off. The next day, I shook my clothes and felt really good.
The following incident is macabre, but was funny as hell when it happened. By this time, death had no meaning for me. (That feeling has not changed over the years.) We were going along a ridge line to take the high ground on another hill. We came upon a dead North or South Korean soldier or Chinese soldier who had been killed by a wound which had knocked a hole in the back side of his head. There were yellow flowers growing along the hillside. The body was placed in a foxhole and covered up to the head. Someone dug up one of the flowers and planted it in his head. I must say, it was a comical sight. My wife and I have gone to auctions for the past several years, and each time a planting pot made like a head, either in ceramic or porcelain, is put up for sale, I am reminded of this scene.
Another time we had set up 50 percent watch. I pitched a tent on the down side of the hill and was going to sleep until it was my time for watch, which would be midnight. Well, all hell broke loose about 11:30 p.m. Everyone but me heard the battle. I have always been a sound sleeper, and I heard nothing. The next morning, my friend grabbed the end of my sleeping bag and gave a jerk and said, "Elkins, it is time to get up." I recognized his voice and raised up in my sleeping bag and hit him over the head with my rifle butt. Fortunately, he had his helmet on. After a few expletives, he said, "I will never try to wake you up again." Then they all began to tell me about the battle I had missed. I still sleep so soundly that a stick of dynamite could go off outside my house, and I would not hear it.
Other than those comical moments, being on the front lines was generally always serious business. In rest areas there was time for laughter, gambling for those who were interested, and time to get drunk if we could get whiskey. There was also plenty of time for joke telling, although there was not a comic in our group. All of the stories we told were about women and what we would do when we got home. We had no "leisure" time. When we were in a rest area, we cleaned weapons, ourselves, and ate good food. I smoked cigars, chewed tobacco, and drank beer and whiskey while in Korea, but I did not gamble. Beer was furnished in the rest areas by the Marines for a price, and we could buy whiskey from the Army M.P.s. I did smoke cigars and drink prior to going to Korea. I began to drink, smoke, drive, and womanize at age 11. I lived in a small town. I never had a driver's license until I registered to vote. Three of my school mates and I enjoyed doing these things together. In later years, we all turned out to be alcoholics. But today, thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous and the Good Lord, we are sober.
There was no regular pattern to getting mail. It was never delivered to the front lines. Sometimes I got four or five letters at one time. Most of my mail was from my wife, and some was from my mother. My wife sent me boxes of cigars. I don't think I received them all, however. It was my suspicion, as well as that of others, that the boys in the rear who handled mail tore some of the covering and if it was something they wanted, they kept it. I asked only for cigars, and this was from my wife. Letters usually arrived in fair condition, but the packages were usually in bad condition. One of my friends used to get powdered soup regularly from his father. He got several packages at one time. He heated water in his canteen cup, poured the powdered soup in it, and stirred. He always gave us a sip. I don't remember anyone getting bad news from home, however, I feel sure that some did.
Religion has always played a big part in my life. I gave my heart to Jesus at the age of eight. I have never doubted my faith, but there were many times that I was not faithful to my beliefs. I did a lot of praying in Korea, and many people at home were praying for me. Church was offered, and I attended all services when we were in a rest area and all memorial services for the dead. I can remember one particular moonlit night when our company was strung out along a ridge line. One of my friends was on point, and I was on the back end of the line. We were 100 percent watch. About 1300 hours, the Chinese who were high on rice wine made a banzi attack on the front of the line. My friend was wounded. I can tell you I was afraid with all of the grenades and mortar rounds bursting and bullets flying around. I kept a watchful eye on my end of the line. At the same time, I pulled the Marine-issued New Testament out of my pocket and memorized the 23rd Psalm. This gave me a peace I had never felt before. My company and Baker company took a lot of casualties that night.
I spent the Marine Corps birthday in Korea in 1951. There was no celebration. I also celebrated Thanksgiving on the front lines. I celebrated my 22nd birthday in Korea, too. It was just another day, although I did write a letter to my wife on that date. I saw two USO shows in Korea. One was Jack Benny and the other was Danny Kaye. All I can remember is that both men were funny. But to a man, we really didn't care about them. It was the women they brought with them that we were interested in. There were no prostitutes in the area where we rested, and the M.P.s would not let prostitutes set up business outside the rest area. (When I was in Korea, the Marines never had R&R, either. We served a straight eleven months and got out of there.) The only American women I ever saw in Korea were in the two USO shows.
We had almost daily contact with the Korean people. Many worked for us. Many times as we headed north, there were lines of old people and children who passed us going south. In secure areas, the children were clean and appeared to be well-nourished. The Koreans lived in mud huts with thatched roofs. There was a place to cook on the outside attached to the house. In the winter, they used the heat from this fire to circulate and warm the house. In the summer, they blocked off the back of the furnace so the heat would not get into the house. They slept on mats on the floor and had rice pillows. The pillow fit under the neck. Some of the huts had small teakwood tables. One corner of the house from the bottom of the roof to a small platform near the ground was filled with dried garlic.
My memories of Korea include what I consider to be atrocities. I remember seeing the aftermath of POWs or civilians who had been doused with gas and set on fire. I also remember the time when we had just gone off line into a rest area and had been there for two days. We hadn't started to relax when the order came to saddle up--the Gooks had broken through the lines where the South Korean Army and some United Nations outfit were joined. The order was for us to drive the Gooks out and close the gap. When we got there, the Gooks had retreated, and this is what I saw: two six-by trucks loaded with dead American Army soldiers. Bodies were all around on the ground, many with eyes gouged out. As we went up into the hills, we saw a young Army soldier who was nude and had his hands tied behind his back. Gas had been poured on his genitals and it was burned off. I suppose the shock killed him. I saw no other marks on his body. I also saw a woman who had been gang-raped by approximately 50 Chinese soldiers. When they finished, they wrapped an 18-inch tent peg with barbed wire and thrust it into her vagina. She was still alive when our interpreter went over to her. There was no hope and no medical help to fix her problem.
Another time we were set up in a dried out rice paddy in two-man foxholes. I noticed a young Korean boy coming toward us. He had in his arms a naked baby girl about six or eight months old. He came up to us, spread the baby's legs, and said, "Presento $10,000 Won." What he was doing was offering us sex with the baby for about $1.00 American money. I was so furious I pointed my rifle at him and said in Korean gutter language to leave. Boy, did he run with the baby in his arms.
Also of note is another incident that has stayed with me all of these years. We had been on line 10 to 12 days engaged in intense fighting. We were relieved and went back to a rest area. Each time we went into a rest area, children and old women came into the camp to barter eggs for articles of clothes. They were particularly fond of our woolen long johns, which we hated and willingly traded. We were set up in eight-man tents. On the second day, I heard a lot of laughter coming from two tents down from me. One young replacement came by my tent and said, "Elkins, come see!" I picked up my rifle--which was loaded with the safety on. When I got to the tent, what I saw revolted me. There was a Marine raping an old woman, and there were others in line. I pushed the safety off my rifle and raised it to kill him. About four other Marines wrestled the rifle from me and took me back to my tent. Their comment was, "You don't want to get in trouble." For many years I wished that I had picked up someone else's rifle and finished the job. In the past few years, I have realized that if I had shot him on top of her, the bullet would have passed through him and killed her, too. Now I am glad that I did not shoot.
Marines in Combat
I don't remember hearing of anyone in our unit who was taken as a prisoner. We were never concerned about being captured. In 1946 in boot camp, we were taught to fight or die--but never to be captured. Most of the men with me were trained in that same era.
As Marines, we never thought of any objective as being impossible. As a matter of fact, an 8 1/2x11 mimeographed sheet was given to members of the 5th Marines which illustrates my point.
Headquarters, 5th Marines
(Click a picture for a larger view)