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Bill G. Wright
Huntsville, Alabama -
"I was in the last group of about 4,000 men assigned to the 40th Infantry Division, thus we were always referred to as “fillers”, which made me feel like some kind of pie ingredient."
- Bill G. Wright
My name is Bill G. Wright. I was born March 12, 1931 in Mobile, Alabama, a son of William W. and Mayme Hardy Wright. My father was called "Bill", but I am not a junior. The initial "G" in my name stands for "Glenn." My maternal grandfather was also named Bill, thus the reason my mother named me Billy (Bill). I had two brothers--one named Fred and the other Harold--and no sisters. One was born in 1928 and the other in 1936. Both were born in the United States. My parents were not immigrants.
I spent my childhood in Mobile. I considered myself as a well-behaved child. I did not seek out fights with other kids, but would not back down to hostile kids. I was close to my parents and brothers. However, when my parents divorced when I was in high school, I saw less of my father the rest of his life.
My father worked for Malbis Bakery as a bread delivery man. My mother worked some at Malbis Bakery wrapping cakes. Later she worked as a Sales Associate with the Sears store in Mobile. I think the Great Depression adversely affected all families. My father was able to keep a job during the Depression, although it did not pay much money. I do not recall being poor bothering me since all the neighbors were also poor. My neighborhood was a "blue collar"-type neighborhood. However, most neighborhoods in those days were "blue collar"-type neighborhoods. The streets were dirt, thus dusty in dry weather and muddy in wet weather days.
I attended grade school at Oakdale Elementary and high school at Murphy High School in Mobile, Alabama. Both were public schools. I graduated from high school in May of 1948. I neither liked nor disliked my teachers or schools. I just accepted it as something that had to be done. I cannot recall any teachers that had an impact on my life one way or the other. After military duty I did enjoy college and made good grades at the University of Alabama.
I started to work at age 11 helping my father on his bakery delivery truck for Malbis Bakery. At age 14 I began delivering newspapers (the Mobile Press-Register) to customer's houses. I did not balance work with studies--I just made bad grades. Because I worked after school, I did not play any sports for my high school. However, I did play sports in the city leagues at night. I played football, baseball, and softball. I was a guard in football, catcher and outfielder in baseball, and an outstanding pitcher in fast pitch softball. I had no extracurricular activities since I had to work. I was in the Boy Scouts for a short period of time and reached the rank of Second Class Scout. A Mr. Foster was our scoutmaster. Scouting had no impact on my later Army days.
I heard about the outbreak of World War II on the radio. It was on a Sunday afternoon. I was 10 years old. My family was mostly affected by everything being rationed or just non-existent. We had to stand in long lines for virtually everything, and there was lack of transportation at times. I had three uncles and several cousins that served in the military. All three of the uncles were in the Army. Two served in non-combat jobs and the other in a combat job. All survived the war. Our Boy Scout troop collected scrap metal for the war effort. We also solicited door-to-door pledges from residents to buy War Bonds. No veterans visited our schools during the actual war years. However, after the war ended, a lot of them returned to high school to complete requirements for graduation. I do not recall recruiters coming to our high school, although I am sure they must have. I was only age 14 when the war ended. We had a neighbor who lived one block from us that was killed in the Battle of the Bulge. His name was Joe Holland and his death particularly bothered me because he was a single parent with a young daughter. The daughter had now lost both parents and she was still in grade school. Her grandmother raised her. It still bothers me today when I think about it.
I recall the end of the war, but do not recall any wild celebrations since we did not have anything to celebrate with--just a lot of neighbors talking about how great it was since the war was over. Again, I was only age 14 when World War II ended. I have always envisioned myself as being a paratrooper in the 82nd or 101st Airborne, making a combat jump at Normandy.
Basic Infantry Training
I was drafted and inducted into the U.S. Army on January 9, 1951, at age 19 and was sent to Camp Cooke, California, which today is Vandenberg Air Force Base. I took four months of basic infantry training there. Camp Cooke was located near Lompoc and Santa Maria, California. It was a sandy area on the Pacific Ocean--all flat land. It reminded me so much of beaches near my home on the Gulf Coast. Camp Cooke was a left-over infantry training camp from World War II and had been activated when the Korean War started to train the 40th Infantry Division. The 40th Infantry Division was the activated California National Guard.
We were initially given Army uniforms and equipment and given very short hair cuts. After that we started a series of arm shots, and were given bed blankets and sheets. I was assigned to the 1st Platoon of Company A, 224th Infantry Regiment, 40th Infantry Division. Our living quarters were small single beds lined up on each side of the old barracks building. Each morning we had to make up our beds to exact military specifications.
The only training instructor I recall by name was a Corporal Roy Wollum, who I worked with later in Korea. Most of the national guardsmen later proved to be good soldiers, but in my opinion Company A was overloaded with 17-year old corporals and age 40’s-looking sergeants. The older ones were World War II veterans.
Our training covered basic matters like how to properly wear uniforms, recognition of different ranks, how and who to salute, use of various weapons, close-order drills, physical fitness workouts, long marches, hand grenade throwing, rifle range participation, how to use a gas mask, how to clean a rifle, etc. There were very few, if any, films. Virtually everything was demonstrations by the instructors.
We were awakened about 5 a.m. each morning by our drill sergeant. There were generally long lines to use the bathroom facilities each morning. We had about 30 minutes of exercises first thing, then breakfast. The food was not gourmet cooking, but it was adequate. Most of us were not accustomed to good food anyway. There were a lot of hash-type foods, potatoes, and bread.
We had very little free time except from about 6 p.m. until about 9 p.m. Church was offered on Sundays. Most did not take advantage of going to church. I did and each Sunday saw the Regimental Commander (a full colonel) there with his wife. Most of our instructors were not the church-going type. We could go to the enlisted men's club during that time unless we had some night classes or a night march. Beyond that, we had no fun in basic--not me or anyone else that I was aware of. Most difficult for me during the training was just being away from home and having too many cadre that were extremely young. I had never been away from my hometown, except for spending one summer in Houston, Texas. I was in the last group of about 4,000 men assigned to the 40th Infantry Division, thus we were always referred to as “fillers”, which made me feel like some kind of pie ingredient. There were no black recruits because the Army was not integrated during the time I took basic training.
The instructors were very strict, but we all recognized they were just doing their job. There were no troublemakers in the platoon. I think having seen a lot of Army movies during World War II cushioned us to accept the rigid regimentation we could expect in the Army. There was no corporal punishment, other than push-ups and cancelled weekend passes (which was no problem since we had no money to leave the base most of the time). I was the ideal type soldier. I grew up in a disciplined home, a disciplined era, and disciplined schools. Basic training was not difficult for me since I had been accustomed to a hard physical life growing up in my hometown of Mobile, Alabama. I scored high on all physical training tests. We had to qualify with several types of weapons--rifles and pistols. I had never fired a rifle before since I was a city boy, but I made “marksman” scores at the rifle range. The secret was good eyesight and steady hands.
Shortly before our four months of basic training ended, we were advised our division was going to be deployed to Japan. We were to be occupational troops since Japan was still under occupational control from World War II. Also we were to undergo advanced infantry training in Japan. Once it was announced that we were being deployed to Japan, the 17-year old corporals headed for the exits. When we left for Japan, most if not all of the 17-year old Corporals were given administrative discharges because of their age (and went back to grade school). Their parents came forward with birth certificates to get them out. I believe some of the older sergeants received some form of discharges because of age (but I am not sure).
I recall we were promoted from "Recruit" to Private after basic training and had a company-size photo taken which we could later buy. No doubt I was in better physical condition, stronger, more agile, and probably more mature, but basic just by itself did not adequately prepare one for combat. That would come later in advance infantry training.
At the conclusion of basic training, we were given ten days leave. I had my mother take money out of my savings account and mail it to me so I could purchase a round-trip airline ticket. We had enough guys from the Mobile, Alabama area that we were able to charter an airplane for the trip. Friends who knew me asked me about Army life. I had seven days at home and those days really went by fast. I did not wear my uniform while home except when we left to go back to the airport. The hardest part was seeing my mother cry when I left the airport. I would be gone 1-1/2 years.
Nothing eventful happened on the way to advanced infantry training. We first reported to San Francisco, California and were there a few days prior to loading on a troop ship for a two-week trip to Japan. There was a belief that if one threw a coin into the water as the ship went under the Golden Gate Bridge, it would ensure that person would return. I did not throw a coin into the water but a lot of the guys did.
The 40th Infantry Division was the California National Guard that had been activated when the Korean War started. However, when we left for Japan I would estimate that 75-80 percent of the division now consisted of top notch draftees and regular Army soldiers. Lot of the officers were recalled reservists with World War 11 experience. Many of our draftees came from the western states and these guys made good soldiers--perhaps it was their outdoors type life that contributed to this, but they were good. None that I knew had served previously in Korea.
Advanced Infantry Training
I left the USA for Japan in May of 1951. I am not sure of the name of the ship, but it might have been the USS Breckinridge. It was a military troop ship. I am not sure how many men it could carry, but I do recall it being very crowded with virtually no empty space on the top deck. I do believe it was all Army personnel on this ship, other than Navy personnel assigned to it. There probably was some cargo stored below which we could not see or access. The bunks were stacked four or five high. I had a top bunk so I did a lot of climbing.
It was the first time I had been on any type of large ship. I did not get very sick except drinking some hot tea made my stomach queasy. I did not drink any more hot tea after the first time. A lot of the guys did get sick and the latrines were always full with guys vomiting. In my opinion we had no rough weather--just the normal rocking of any ship on any given day.
The trip took 14 days. There was absolutely no entertainment on the ship. A lot of guys played cards (for money), which I watched them do. I was not a card player. A few guys had guitars and played while others of us just stood around and watched. The ship deck was so crowded there was no room for activities. We could barely walk around and were lucky to find any place just to sit on the deck. Months later when I was on the front lines in Korea, it always seemed that we never had enough soldiers to man the front lines, particularly at night. I wondered what had happened to all those troops that were on the crowded Navy ship coming over to Japan.
I had no duty on the ship. I believe Navy personnel had all the duties of kitchen KP and guard duty. There was also no training on the ship. There was not enough room even if they wanted us to have training--not even physical fitness exercises. This was a negative when we arrived in Japan because we were out of shape. Nothing eventful happened on the ship going to Japan. I knew lots of people on the ship since our units stayed together--that helped a lot. The ship made one very short stop going to Japan. It stopped somewhere in the Aleutian Islands to take on fuel and supplies. We did not debark from the ship. It was too cold for that even if we were allowed to.
When I arrived in Japan I was transferred from "A" Company to "H" Company and the non-commissioned guys were of a higher caliber than those in "A" Company. The first base I was assigned to in Japan was Camp McNair, located in the middle of nowhere near the base of Mount Fujiyama. Initially I was assigned to Sgt. Don Fiedler’s 75mm recoilless rifle and .50 caliber machinegun platoon. Later I was transferred to Sgt. Leon Christenson’s platoon and Sgt. Tim Creedon’s .30 caliber machinegun squad. Our 40th Infantry Division underwent extensive advanced infantry training. Our training day was ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week, or seven days a week if we were on maneuvers. Unlike basic training, this training was difficult for me and everyone else. We were constantly on long marches carrying heavy equipment. It seemed that we were always walking uphill and never downhill. We were well-trained in use of all infantry weapons and hand-to-hand combat techniques.
After a couple of months at Camp McNair, the regiment relocated to Camp Haugen located at the very north end of Honshu Island. Just like the previous training camp, it was also located in an isolated area. We were particularly being trained at Camp Haugen in amphibious beach landings. We did a lot of climbing of 90-foot towers that simulated the nets on troop ships.
I recall one experience where we practiced an amphibious landing at a beach near Yokohama, Japan. We loaded into landing craft and climbed the nets of the ship with full combat gear on. This was probably the most difficult part of any training I had in the Army. The hot weather that day added to the difficulty also. We later climbed back down the nets into landing crafts to practice assaulting the beach. After we went ashore, a storm swept the beach area, which made it impractical to return to the ship by landing craft and climb those nets. We were then loaded on trucks and driven to a Navy base where the ships were now docked. When we boarded, we were tired, hungry, wet, and covered with muddy sand. As we went through a small Japanese village, the trucks stopped briefly. Suddenly I heard someone calling me by name. I was wondering who it could be since I did not know any of those Japanese people. I looked around and spotted a sailor sitting relaxed in a rickshaw attached to a bicycle being peddled by a Japanese civilian. He was dressed in a spotless, well-ironed, starched, white uniform. As I looked even closer I recognized him as a friend I had gone through high school with. In fact, he had tried to persuade me to join the Navy with him. We talked briefly before the trucks started moving again. As our truck slowly pulled away, I thought, “I should have joined the Navy.”
By autumn of 1951 there was some slacking of the rigid training schedule. Each Wednesday afternoon was designated as recreation time. We could play softball, touch football, volleyball, etc. Everyone had to either participate in some sport or at the least be a spectator. Since I had been a fast pitch softball pitcher prior to Army days, I selected softball and was our Company H team pitcher. We played other company teams and won virtually all of our games. This seemed to give me some recognition and respect in Company H that I had not previously realized.
One night when I was at Camp Haugen, I went to the Enlisted Men’s Club. When I left the club to return to the barracks, one of my Company H buddies was outside the club sitting in a Jeep. He asked if I wanted a ride back to the barracks, which was about four blocks away. I said, “Sure” and got into the jeep. After he drove away, I asked how he got authority to use a Jeep since I knew he did not have much military rank. He told me that he didn’t—that he just stole it back at the club when I got in the Jeep. I told him to stop and let me out. I did not want to get involved with a stolen Jeep. He said he was just going a short distance and would leave it. He drove out to an old airport and parked it where other Army vehicles were parked. We then walked back to the barracks. I ended up walking about four times as far as I would have if I never got into that Jeep with him. I should have known better since this guy, although he was well-liked, was the biggest “goof-off” in the entire company.
Overall, during the eight months I was in Japan for advanced infantry training, we had very little contact with the Japanese people. Japan was still under military occupation from World War II. Also, we were always located in isolated, remote locations away from the heavily populated areas of Japan like Tokyo and Yokohama. Our limited contact was with the Japanese that worked on our bases and those that lived in very small villages near our training camps. There was no sight-seeing. My overall impression of the few Japanese we came in contact with was they were polite people, hard workers, and very disciplined. Some of the men told us they served in the Japanese Army during World War II, but they all fought against the Chinese--none ever fought against Americans. I saw very little devastation from World War II--just one place that was supposed to have been a submarine port during the war. I never had a Japanese bath. We were not allowed to eat any Japanese food because at that time it was very unhealthy--certainly not like eating Japanese food today in our country. However, even today I cannot bring myself to eat any Japanese or Korean food.
While in Japan we had virtually no information as to what was going on in Korea or the rest of the world. Any information came from my mother in her frequent letters to me. The worst part was her telling me of friends or former high school students that had been killed in Korea.
When leaving Japan for Korea, I felt that we were as well prepared as humanly possible. In this regard let me divert some. When the Korean War first broke out the regular Army divisions that were sent there were, in my opinion, ill-prepared for combat. They had been poorly trained and equipped, and with World War II over were not expected to fight any more wars. Then when they went into Korea ill-prepared and lacking good equipment, they incurred substantial casualties. The replacements coming in were quickly-trained draftees with nothing more than basic training, thus they added little to improving the efficiency of the divisions they were assigned to. Conversely, the 40th Infantry Division and the 45th (Oklahoma National Guard) Division received the 15 weeks basic training plus eight to twelve months of advanced infantry training in Japan prior to going into Korea.
By December 1951 we had been in training for about seven to ten months. We were now a well-trained Army division. We had come a long way since the days of the 17-year old corporals back at Camp Cooke, California. On Christmas Eve Day, 1951, we were informed that the company commander would address the entire company early that afternoon. We expected him to wish us a Merry Christmas and give us the rest of the day off. Instead, the Company Commander informed us that our division would be replacing the 24th infantry division in Korea and preparations for the movement would start the day after Christmas. We were instructed not to write home and tell anyone of the pending move to Korea.
Our training in Japan had been long and difficult. It was now over—we were headed for combat in Korea. I did not want to get into the war. I knew nothing about Korea and felt no obligation to defend its people. However, I accepted it as an obligation to my country and trusted the politicians that perhaps we were doing the right thing. It was only about 50 years later at a reunion of the 224th Regiment that I best understood it. Our guest speaker said that the significance of the Korean War was only now being fully recognized in that it sent a message to aggressive communist countries that we would militarily fight communism--which either stopped or curtailed the spread of communism throughout the world.
New to Korea
We left Japan for Korea on a troop ship. The trip took about two or three days. We arrived at Inchon, Korea, on February 3, 1952 around 8-10 a.m. I was 20 years old and it was in the middle of winter. We were on deck for about 15-30 minutes. We could not have stayed much longer since someone said the temperature was 15 below zero. Our rifles strapped to our shoulders had turned completely white from the frosty cold. We did not have proper clothing for that type cold. My first impression of the country was that Korea was a cold, dreary-looking place and not worth fighting a war for. We were aware that the Inchon battle had previously been a major turning point of the war, but the enemy had been driven much further north than Inchon by the time we arrived there.
We were loaded on trucks, taken to a railroad station, put on train coaches, and then taken to a squad tent type camp. It probably was a quartermaster-type facility. When I arrived in Korea I was still with the same unit I had been assigned to in Japan. I was in a heavy weapons company that consisted of machine guns, mortars, and 75 MM recoilless rifles. This was a .30 caliber, water-cooled, machinegun squad, machinegun platoon, Company "H", heavy weapons company, 2nd Battalion, 224th Infantry Regiment, 40th Infantry Division. It was located on the central/eastern part of Korea, just slightly north of the 38th parallel in the Iron Triangle. My basic job was to be the Assistant Radio Communications member, but we all were trained to do various jobs like machine gunner, assistant machine gunner, ammo carrier, etc. I neither liked or disliked my job. I would have preferred to still be a civilian, but I knew that would not happen any time soon. I considered myself a good soldier, but it would not be a career of my choosing.
This was the type war at this point in time in Korea where one seldom saw the enemy unless one had binoculars. Both sides stayed low in bunkers, kept adequate distance, etc. It was mostly a war of killing with mortars and artillery, or by our forces with jet aircraft using napalm. While we were in the Quartermaster camp getting ready to go on line, as part of our physical training we climbed, walked, and ran the hills in the rear area. These were hills where previous battles had occurred. We saw several dead bodies of the enemy laying on the ground. Sometime later we removed enemy dead from bunkers and stacked them in piles. The piles must have been six feet high.
We stayed at the first base for two or three days before we moved up to the front lines. During that time we received the proper winter clothing, particularly proper boots. Later we were taken by trucks to base of the hill where we then walked/climbed to top of the hill where the 24th Infantry Regiment was located. The 224th, like all infantry regiments, were basically spread from the east coast to west coast of Korea near the 38th parallel and mostly in a defensive mode to stop any further attempt by the North Korean/Chinese armies to invade South Korea. Of course, the defensive line was not like a straight line, but weaved sometimes below or above the 38th parallel where the high ground was located.
We saw very few South Korean civilians since the area of so many miles from the front lines had been designated as "off limits" to all civilians unless they were employed by the U.S. military. Those that did not move out voluntary were physically removed. The intent, of course, was to prevent civilian casualties. The troops of the 24th Infantry Regiment that we replaced occupied bunkers along the defensive line. We waited along a trail while they vacated the bunkers, then took over bunkers they just vacated. Troops of the regiment we replaced passed us along a mountain trail as we moved up to the front lines. They were a beaten and battered-looking group of troops. They did not speak, smile, or in any way acknowledge us. They looked at us, but it was a wild and dazed look. I could not help but wonder if we would soon look like them.
By the time the 224th arrived in Korea, the battle lines were fairly well established and we took over bunkers that earlier Army units had built, although they were very primitive. I thought the bunkers were reasonably safe unless hit directly by an artillery shell. Bunkers were a problem on warmer days in that ice and snow would melt and get into the bunker--then at night would freeze. We had no problems that I experienced with non-humans. The only furnishing were sleeping bags. Some might have oil burning stoves rigged up, but they could be dangerous. We did not refer to them as foxholes. I believe this was more of a World War II term and related to a quickly dug hole in the ground, while bunkers were fortified with tree logs overhead. A trench was a connector from one bunker to another bunker to walk very low in. In Service Company I had a cot to sleep on in a squad tent.
In front of the bunkers barbed wire had been strung in multiple rows with items like empty rationed cans attached to make noise when the enemy tried to get over or under the wire. Some mines had been placed under the barbed wire. These were fairly effective, but not a full guarantee the enemy could not penetrate these defenses. We also had people on guard 24 hours a day, every day. Conversely, mines were also a danger for our own troops. By the time the 224th arrived in Korea, the prior US infantry divisions had fought back and forth over Korea many times and laid many land mines that were un-mapped. We dared not veer away from well-established trails--not even a few feet--because of land mines.
The first few days like all the others were basically boring. We didn't have that much to do--perhaps clean our rifle, take turns watching in the distance for any enemy with binoculars, and warming C-rations to eat. The nights were by far the hardest. We took turns sleeping a couple hours, then standing guard duty in one spot for a couple hours, then back to sleep in a bunker and sleeping bag for perhaps another two hours. We slept fully-clothed and with boots on. We only slept because we were fully exhausted. While on guard duty at night we first got a fix during daylight hours where all bushes, boulders, and tree stumps were located. Then at night we became somewhat disoriented and we started seeing those objects moving and imagining they were the enemy creeping up on us. At the same time, we were cautioned not to start shooting unless we were absolutely certain it was the enemy since this could start a chain reaction along the entire front line.
I held up fine emotionally being on the front line. I just tried to be careful on things over which I had some control. There was always some fear on the front lines, but I never felt that I had excessive fear. As a child my mother always said I was too fearless. I was armed with a carbine rifle, which I liked since it was smaller and not as heavy as the M-1 rifle, but was just as good. Also, we all carried a couple of live hand grenades attached to our ammo belt.
We were vastly under-staffed with officers in our company and I think the entire regiment was that way. We always had a platoon sergeant and never a Lieutenant who was the platoon leader. Our first Company Commander was a Captain and we all liked him, but he soon rotated back to the United States. After that we had a Captain who was an alcoholic and who put all of us in unnecessary danger. He was older, totally incompetent, and so out of shape that he could not climb the hills. Fortunately, he did not stay very long and was removed from his position. To best of my knowledge, we had no prior combat veterans. I am not sure a prior combat veteran could have helped very much unless they had fought in a very similar war under mountainous and cold conditions. It was strictly on-the-job training. Our training could have been better if we had had more steep hill/mountain climbing in snow and ice. Also, the rifle range training was focused too much on accuracy in shooting about 100 yards away, which was not important in Korea. We needed more automatic weapons for short range shooting. I can't confirm this, but often heard that when guys in rifle companies went to Japan on R&R (rest and recreation), they used their own money and bought shotguns and ammo to bring back to Korea.
Two weeks after arriving on the front line, we had orders to support an assault on a hill occupied by the enemy. This was the first major combat for the 224th Regiment in Korea. Our attacking force was about 200 infantrymen, supported by fighter jet aircraft, artillery, and tanks. (Helicopters were used to evacuate wounded soldiers and not as fighting aircraft.) Tanks had a limited role in Korea because of the mountainous terrain. They were effective in offsetting and destroying enemy tanks as long as they stayed in the valleys. However, when we attacked the enemy hill, the soldiers of "L" company (the designated rifle company to take the hill) stayed behind the tanks as they advanced to the base of the hill. From that point on the riflemen were on their own. Our .30 caliber machinegun squad led by Sgt. Tim Creedon participated in this assault. Sgt. Don Fiedler, also of “H” Company led his .50 caliber machinegun platoon. The attack began promptly at 7:00 a.m. We had to leave our position on the main line of resistance about 4:00 a.m. to be in position by 6:30 a.m. Our job was to provide supporting machinegun fire for the riflemen as they approached the objective hill. The entire attacking force battled not only the enemy, but also snow, ice, and sub-freezing temperatures. The temperature that day was five degrees.
It was a costly battle. At day's-end, eight Americans had been killed and at least 50 were wounded. I remember when the attack was terminated about 1:00 p.m. As we walked back to our position on the main line of resistance (MLR), we merged with lots of the returning riflemen from “L” Company. Many of them were limping with leg wounds. I noticed as we were returning that Don Fiedler was also limping badly. Fifty years later at a 224th veteran’s reunion in Washington, D.C., he told me why he was limping. He said that he and Tim Creedon had gone out the afternoon before to survey the route we would take and where we would position our machineguns for the attack. Don said he had slipped on some ice, had badly injured his ankle, and had problems walking. He realized he would have difficulty walking back to the MLR, particularly getting back before dark, so he spent the night there by himself. All of us in Company “H” that participated in this battle were awarded the "Combat Infantryman’s Badge.”
I thought that this first major combat for the 224th, assaulting the enemy-held hill, was expecting too much given the adverse weather conditions that day. There was snow, ice, and enemy holding the high ground and shooting down or throwing hand grenades. One Distinguished Service Medal (second highest award for valor) was awarded that day, along with several Silver and Bronze Stars. My understanding was that we would not occupy the hill, but just destroy their bunkers with assistance from combat engineers.
I saw the first dead American soldiers shortly after we participated in assaulting this enemy-occupied hill. They were being brought out on stretchers and covered. As to seeing bodies of the dead Americans being removed, I realized this was a real war and any of us could be the next to be on one of those stretchers. Life is a fragile thing and in a fleeting moment can be taken from us. I was not affected by seeing dead North Koreans or Chinese--they were the enemy. The enemy wore a thick padded like clothing, both upper and lower attire. They did not wear steel helmets--only a thick padded type cap with a visor.
The enemy weapons which had been captured were very primitive looking. Their hand grenades were called "potato mashers" and they were not as effective as our hand grenades. Our greatest danger from grenades was them using American-captured hand grenades against us. Both the Chinese and North Koreans were very accurate with their mortars and inflicted lot of American casualties. The most casualties in the 224th occurred in the above hill assault. In one day eight Americans were killed and at least 50 were wounded--all in just a few hours.
There was always a possibility of being taken prisoner, particularly with the rifle companies that sent night patrols out almost every night, but no one in Company H was taken prisoner while I was there. Most American prisoners were taken in the early months of the war; namely, from the 24th Infantry Division, the first American Army division to arrive in Korea.
On the Front Lines
There was no significant action immediately after the action just mentioned. There were mostly just mortar attacks from the enemy. Our company generally stayed in one position about two weeks, then went into a reserve area for a few days, and then moved to a different place on the front lines. This was because the mode of operation was generally to have two battalions on the front line, one in reserve just behind those two battalions, and rotate the battalions every week. There was hardly any leisure time. In Korea it was a 24-hour work day.
At times we were in reserve just behind the front lines. When in reserve we occasionally patrolled the rear area hills where previous battles of the war had occurred. Our task was to pull dead bodies of the enemy out of bunkers and stack them in piles. This was the only time I ever saw the enemy up close while I was in Korea, except one other time when we guarded North Korean prisoners of war at Koje-do--mostly younger guys perhaps in their twenties. I will discuss Koje-do later. The enemy was of various ages, but to us mostly appeared old. Some of them were women, too.
At times we were told that South Korean army forces were located to one side of us, but we could not see them and I had no contact with the South Korean military. I was always amazed to see so many South Korean full colonels on the roads, hitchhiking a truck ride. We sometimes stopped and picked them up, but had to put them in the truck bay. We never felt comfortable with the South Koreans next to us on line since they had a reputation at that time of just pulling out at night, thus leaving a flank open. I did not see any other foreign troops in Korea. We had virtually no contact with the South Korean civilians. We only had contact with them en route to Koje-do, and limited contact while there. We did hire some South Korean civilians that did rear area labor type jobs. The civilians were no problem for us. They had endured a lot of misery during the Korean War.
The North Koreans and Chinese were mostly night fighters since at that point in the war the Air Force could annihilate them in the open valleys during daytime hours. We had artillery all the time, day and night. Since this was mostly a stand-still war during the time the 224th was in Korea, each side pounded each other with mostly artillery and mortars. At night it was like a July 4th fireworks display. One could hear our artillery shells flying over and seconds later explode and light up the enemy-held positions. However, the flip side was that occasionally these artillery shells would malfunction and fall on our own positions and inflict American casualties. We did not experience any hand-to-hand combat in Korea, although we had a lot of training for that in Japan. The hand-to-hand combat was more common in the first year of the Korean War before the defensive lines had been established mostly along the 38th parallel. The two combat incidents I experienced were both daytime. Again, the enemy had a reputation of mostly nighttime attacks, although our company did not experience them while I was assigned to Company H. The artillery barrages by us were around the clock, almost non-stop. The enemy was conservative with their ammo, and thus tended to launch mortar/artillery barrages during daytime hours. The enemy had a reputation of being on some form of "weed" (opium) prior to an attack, thus they were more suicidal in their attacks. I have heard others say they could smell them coming before they could see them.
One day PFC Pat McCarthy and I were sent back down from our outpost position to pick up the daily rations for our squad. The other squad members began placing more logs on top of our machinegun bunkers for better protection from mortar attacks. (I thought it was an ill conceived idea that our platoon was on top of bunkers in broad daylight adding logs that day; however, higher-ups might have directed our officers to take the action they did.) Pat and I were returning with the daily rations and had gotten about 15 yards from our bunkers when the enemy opened up on our squad with machinegun fire--namely on those placing more logs on the bunkers. Pat and I dove for the ground and crawled the 15 yards to the nearest bunker. In this quick and sudden attack, our Radio Communication member, Edward Podmajersky, from New York was killed. Sgt. Leon Christensen, the Platoon Sergeant from Montana, and Cpl. Alex Villalobos, a machinegunner from Texas, were both seriously wounded. That day was the closest I ever came to being wounded in Korea. Bullets were kicking up the snow just feet from me.
Edward Podmajersky and I were good friends. In addition to other duties, I served as his assistant radioman. He was a friendly outgoing type person. He was 23 years old, about 5'10", 170 pounds, smiled-a-lot single guy. He was a very athletic type, having played on the Company H softball, flag football, and basketball teams back in Japan. I do not know anything about his next of kin. We received word from the Company Commander that only he was to write the next-of-kin about his death. He was carried out with other soldiers under his arms. He was still alive at that point while being taken to the nearest aid station. I was told to stay on the radio/telephone and to take all calls. A few minutes later I received a radio/telephone call from the medical people wanting to know if he had been given a morphine shot. I told them I did not know, but would ask others. At that point the caller told me not to bother--he had just died. I did not tell anyone else--I wanted them to hear about his death from more official sources. My immediate action was that I was stunned, not just for Edward but about the two others that were seriously wounded. One of them never returned--he was sent back to the United States. Just one or two days prior to this event, our company was in a reserve area and I recall Edward saying that when he returned home, the first thing he was going to do was to buy a long, gold chain and stand on a busy street corner in his hometown and just twirl it. This statement lingered with me for many years. His death did not adversely affect me with my responsibilities as a soldier or with my future relationship with others. Possibly there has been an adverse effect that I just don't recognize.
One day we were on the front lines when the squad leader came to me and told me I was being detailed (loaned) to Service Company, a rear area unit. I ask why since I had not requested anything like that, nor had I done anything wrong that could justify this action. He told me that he did not know anything about it other than company headquarters had radioed him telling him to have me at the bottom of the hill the next morning where a truck driver would pick me up. I was to report to a Lieutenant Spencer in Service Company.
When I met with Lieutenant Spencer, he told me he was a platoon leader of a Special Services group. Their function was to coordinate any activities within the regiment that related to morale and entertainment of troops when they rotated off the front line to a rear area. This included USO entertainers, PX type supplies like beer and snacks, outdoor movies, books for reading, rest and recreation trips (R&R) for troops to Japan, and softball games. Lieutenant Spencer told me he only had two permanent troops to do all of this, but he had been given regimental permission to have three troops detailed (loaned) to him from front line units to help with this task, and I was one of the three. He further told me he had played softball against me in Japan and he had requested for me by name to help run a softball program. I could not believe I had just come off the front lines as a member of a machinegun squad and someone now wanted me to run a softball program.
One of his two permanent members was a guy named Roy Wollum from Texas. I was glad to see him since Roy was one of our cadre in “A” Company back at Camp Cooke, California. Not only was he my favorite Corporal back then, but he was my only favorite Corporal. I believe that Roy had attended Texas A&M and played football there. Roy and I worked well together in Special Services. The other permanent member of the Special Services platoon was Ray Buckland, also from Texas. Ralph Parish from “C” company and Byron Goodspeed from “B” Company were the other two detailed to Special Services.
The job was more than just running a softball program, although we did field a softball team for opposition to the front line companies when they rotated to the rear area for rest. I did the pitching for our team. Lieutenant Spencer, who I believe had played some professional baseball, played short-stop, and Roy Wollum played third base for our Service Company team. But mostly my job was to ride shotgun on 2 ½ ton trucks to further back rear areas (Chunchon) and be responsible for picking up PX type supplies and delivering them to front line battalions. It certainly was better than being on the front lines, but it was not without risks since there was a constant danger of snipers in isolated rear areas. There was also always risk of mountain landslides along the rear area routes, poor mountainous roads that were all dirt with no side railings or barriers. At times I felt in greater danger than being on the front lines.
Another job I had was to occasionally go to further back rear areas and escort USO entertainers to the forward areas where they had a show performance. I then escorted them back to their rear area after their performance. Of course, when we arrived at the show site the “brass” took over and served as their escort. No, I did not get to escort Marilyn Monroe when she visited Korea. Her trip was long after I had left Korea. You can bet only generals and possibly full colonels were the only ones to escort her. I only saw perhaps two white women while I was in Korea and they were USO performers. Most of the performers were male soldiers who performed singing, dancing, or comedy acts. None that I was aware of were top-name performers. After their performances, I escorted them back to Chunchon.
I was somewhat religious in Korea, but not overly religious. I certainly did not subscribe to the religious thinking that, "If it is your time to go--you can do nothing about it." Sometimes the Chaplains had a religious service on the backside of the front line hills.
Korea is a peninsula surrounded by water on three sides, thus its winters consist of a very wet type of cold. The higher mountainous type of terrain makes it even colder. Any vegetation, including trees, had already been blown away by the time I arrived in Korea. We were in trenches that connected bunkers. Mortar fire from the enemy was the greatest danger in Korea, thus it was very important that the bunkers be reinforced with tree logs, which were in short supply.
The cold weather tended to start in about October each year and lasted until about the next May, thus there were very long winters. Sub-zero temperatures with strong winds were very common. When on the front lines, our bunkers were the only protection from the frigid cold. Some guys more technically inclined than I had rigged some bunkers with makeshift stoves that burned an oil-type fuel. However, these were risky since a danger of explosion existed, plus carbon monoxide danger. The summers, although short in duration, where very uncomfortable as well. The dirt roads in hot summer weather were dust-choking with all the Army trucks coming and going. I could handle the cold probably better than the average soldier, even though I grew up on the gulf coast in south Alabama. Lots of the guys from the northern United States who were accustomed to ice and snow had more problems than I did. Still, enduring the difficult weather conditions, whether cold or hot, was one of the most difficult aspects of my time in Korea.
Underneath my helmet I wore a hood that attached to a thick jacket. We all had long john type underwear, two or three shirts or sweaters, fatigue type pants, then a parka type overcoat. Our boots were a special built insulation type boot that were good for preventing frostbite, but were difficult to walk in. They were called "Mickey Mouse" boots. I could stay warm enough when moving, but when still it was difficult to stay warm. One problem was climbing the steep hills, working up a sweat, then having the sweat freeze. Even today when I walk outside in frigid weather, I always think of Korea and the cold. The extreme weather could also adversely affect our machine guns and rifles, thus it was important that we clean them frequently. Our water-cooled gun barrels were filled with anti-freeze, not water.
When we went into a reserve area, there were field showers set up where at the entrance we were given clean clothing and a towel. After a shower we left our dirty clothing with the quartermaster troops running the showers. We might average a shower every three to four weeks. We could shave more often using our steel helmets to boil water for shaving. We mostly melted snow for shaving water.
We were limited to one-half canteen of water a day for drinking purposes. I do not recall any "best food" in Korea. Occasionally we were in some areas on the front line where we would be close enough to the base of the hill that we were able to take turns going to the bottom of the hill where our company mess hall trucks had hot meals for breakfast and lunch. If we were not close enough to justify the long hike, it was C-rations only. The C-rations in general were horrible. I mostly ate only the C-ration fruits, crackers, and any cookies or candy bar. The food in the reserve area was generally good, although it was not gourmet cooking. (I mostly missed a good vanilla milkshake from the States.) I was only ill once in Korea and that was no doubt from eating contaminated "C" rations. A lot of that food probably was left over from World War II. I was only sick for the one day. I was not a smoker, drinker, or gambler prior to Korea and only drank some beer while in the Army. I did not smoke or gamble in the Army.
In basic training my two favorite buddies were Bevlon Locke from my hometown of Mobile, Alabama and Edward Ross from Flomaton, Alabama. Bevlon said he knew some of my family, although I did not previously know him. He was 26 years old and I was age 19. Edward Ross and I just seemed to have similar personalities. In Japan and Korea I tended to be friends with Tom Frisch, a National Guardsman from California. I believe Tom and I bonded well since we were two of the youngest in the entire company. I was 20 and Tom was only 18. Tom stayed in trouble with the First Sergeant a lot, but I liked his calm, relaxed type personality. When I was later detailed to Special Services, there was only four other enlisted men and I considered all four of these guys as my close friends. Roy Wollum from Texas and I probably worked more jobs together than I did with the other guys in Special Services. Also he and I played softball together on the Service Company softball team. I spent July 4th in Korea. It was just another day for me in Korea. I had my 21st birthday on the front lines. It was not a good one since our platoon had one killed (Edward Podmajersky) and two others seriously wounded two days earlier.
Robert (Gooney Bird) Wilson was the closest to keep us laughing since he always stayed in trouble with the Company First Sergeant. I liked Robert a lot, but in Japan he was like the "Company Clown" and would have never won any award for "Soldier of the Month". In Korea we always had a lot of large crows that hovered around seeking left-over food. Some guys called them Gooney Birds. We had strict orders not to shoot at them, although the temptation was there. One day we heard a couple of rifle shots on the backside of the bunkers. As we carefully approached to see what was happening, we discovered that Robert had taken a couple of M1 rifle shots at some birds. Needless to say, Robert was in trouble with the sergeants, but he was accustomed to that. Afterwards, we always called him "Gooney Bird."
I considered war very serious when on the front lines because of the constant danger. In fact, this was the hardest aspect of being in Korea for me--the awareness of constant danger, whether on the front lines or in a rear area. The only front line humorous incident that I recall involved Robert Wilson. When we were taking advanced infantry training in Japan we were housed in barracks. Late one night long after all lights were out, I heard a noise and I looked up and saw Robert running to his bed. With all clothes and boots on, he quickly got under the bed covers and pretended to be asleep. The Company First Sergeant and some of the Platoon Sergeants had private rooms near the entrance of the barracks. I found out later someone had gone into the First Sergeant's room when he was sound asleep, all zipped up in a sleeping bag on his bed. That someone had picked up the side of his bed, dumped him out of it, and laid the bed on top of him--all while he was sleeping. Since he was in a sleeping bag and a bed on top of him, he had to holler for help to get out of that mess. Since I was a light sleeper, I believe I was the only one in the barracks that knew who the perpetrator was. The next morning we were all questioned if anyone had seen or heard anything. All of a sudden I had a memory elapse--I could not remember seeing or hearing anything. Several days later I told Robert what I had seen. He said, " I told you I was going to eventually get him." They never found out who committed such a senseless crime.
I regularly received a letter once a week from my mother and occasionally I received a letter from my brothers and once from my father. The mail arrived in good condition. While in Japan I received a couple of packages from my mother. She mostly sent some fudge candy, which I shared with a few of the guys. The candy was always dried out. I don't recall or know of others receiving packages from home, but I am sure that some must have. I am not aware of any bad news in the letters, but I am aware of two guys that received notifications through the Red Cross of their fathers' deaths back home. Both were sent home. One of them was my friend, Bevlon Locke. He had only been in Korea about four months when he was sent home because of his father's death.
I met a total of four guys I knew in my hometown while I was in Korea. Two of them I met when they were processing in as replacements in Korea. At that time I was in Service Company and all new replacements came through Service Company. The other two I located when our regiment was in Pusan, Korea, en route to Koje-do to guard POWs. I don't recall how I found or even knew about the first one, but he directed me to the second guy. I had no relative that served in Korea.
More About Robert - A Balancing Act
He was a tall, rangy, thin guy, with long arms. Someone gave him the nickname, "Gooney Bird". His real name was Robert, but most everyone called him "Gooney Bird". I preferred to call him Robert. The year was 1951 and I met him when we served in the same Army Infantry Platoon in Japan. Robert was not an ideal soldier. He had an easy-going, pleasant type personality, and was well-liked by those he served with. However, he would never have been selected "Soldier of the Month".
Robert did not like being in the Army, and he did not like the Company's First Sergeant. He stayed in trouble with the First Sergeant. I was an opposite to Robert, but he seemed to take a liking to me, so I always did a "Balancing Act" being friends with him, trying to keep him out of trouble, and also keeping myself out of trouble with the First Sergeant.
One night I was leaving the Enlisted Men's Club and as I walked out the front door, I saw Robert sitting in the driver's seat of a Jeep. He asked if I would like a ride back to the barracks. I told him I would and jumped into the Jeep. As Robert took off driving the Jeep, I asked him how he received permission to use a Jeep. He told me that he didn't--that he just stole it when I got in with him. I told him to stop and let me out--I did not want to get in trouble about a stolen Jeep. He said he was only going to drive a short distance and leave it, so I stayed in the Jeep. Robert drove out to an old Japanese airport where other Army vehicles were parked and left it there. We then walked back to our barracks. I walked about four times farther than I would have if I never took the Jeep ride. We did not get into trouble about borrowing the Jeep.
As previously mentioned, Robert did not get along with the Company's First Sergeant. The First Sergeant would not promote Robert, and after more than a year in the Army, Robert was still a Private. One night when everyone in the barracks was asleep, I heard a noise and commotion. Because I was a light sleeper I probably was the only one in the barracks that was awakened by the noise. I looked up and saw Robert, in full uniform, running towards his bed. He did not even take time to remove his boots--he jumped into his bed and pulled the covers over himself.
Meanwhile, I was hearing a commotion coming from the First Sergeant's private room. Soon I saw the First Sergeant standing in the hallway and looking around where everyone was asleep. I still did not know what the commotion was about. The next morning all the Sergeants were asking if anyone had seen or heard anything unusual during the night. I remained silent. Soon I learned that some unknown person had sneaked into the First Sergeant's private room about midnight. While the First Sergeant was asleep and zipped up in his sleeping bag, this unknown person had picked the cot up from one side and dumped the First Sergeant out. The First Sergeant was now zipped up in his sleeping bag with a cot on top of him and in a dark room. The investigation failed to determine who had done such a cowardly act! After about two weeks the incident faded away. It was only then that I told Robert what I had seen and heard that night. Robert's reply was, "So what. I told you I was going to get even with him."
In February 1952, the entire Regiment would be transferred to Korea to serve in combat. Robert and I were assigned to a machine gun platoon in an infantry unit. It was then that I saw an improved change in Robert's attitude towards the Army. Perhaps it was because of a less disciplined atmosphere--such as no more Saturday inspections, concern about dress codes, and saluting officers. Or perhaps it was a change to increase odds of self survival in a combat environment. Whatever it was, Robert's performance and attitude would have made any First Sergeant proud.
One day we had incurred casualties so the First Sergeant came to the front lines to serve until replacements arrived. He told us he was not there to lead, but to follow, and would take directions from the Section and Squad Leaders like everyone else. It would be his first experience on the front lines in combat. He selected me as the one he would share a bunker and night guard duty with. As a result of several discussions, I got to know the First Sergeant better. I realized he was actually a "good guy" that at times had to be a "bad guy" because of his rank and position in the Army. He told me he was nervous about being on the front lines and asked that I not let him get hurt. I assured him it was normal to be nervous and I would do my best to prevent him from getting hurt.
Meanwhile, I realized there could be friction between Robert and the First Sergeant, so I asked Robert to be friendly with the First Sergeant, stating we had to be on the same team while on the front lines in a combat situation. Robert did everything I asked of him and before the First Sergeant left us to return to Company Headquarters, he and Robert appeared to be friends for the first time. Robert had improved so much from our training days in Japan.
In my discussions with the First Sergeant there were two things I never told him: (1) I was also nervous on the front lines, and (2) the person who dumped him out of his cot back in Japan was Robert. Eventually all three of us would leave Korea and return to the United States. The First Sergeant returned to his home in the State of California. Robert returned to his home state of Washington, and I returned to Alabama. I left the Army and re-entered civilian life. No more Balancing Acts for me.
In late summer of 1952 our entire regiment of about 3,000 men was dispatched to Koji-do, where 50,000 North Korean prisoners of war were rioting. The 224th would be there for two months quelling riots and guarding prisoners. Koji-do was a small island located south of Korea--about a 40-minute ship ride from Pusan, Korea. I remember it as having some steep hills just like Korea, with a large flat valley. It was a very primitive type place and covered with prison compounds and barbed wire fences. Most of the more serious riots started about one year before the 224th was sent to Koji-do. The riot problem was caused by over-crowding of prisoners and riots amongst different factions of the captured North Koreans. Many prisoners were killed by other prisoners.
The situation was so bad that, at one point before our arrival, the POWs had captured the American Commanding General, Brig. Gen. Francis Dodd, and were threatening his life. Dodd had gone to the entrance of a prison compound to discuss problems with some of the prisoner leaders. About that time a detail of North Korean prisoners was returning to the compound. Some of the prisoners reached out and grabbed General Dodd and dragged him into the compound. The few American security there with him were outnumbered and did not use their weapons for fear of shooting General Dodd. This event occurred May 7, 1952 and General Dodd was released May 9, 1952. General Dodd and his Assistant Commander were later demoted.
The more serious rioting went on for about one year before the situation calmed down. The security at Koji-do was initially understaffed by non-combat type troops. Later, experienced Army combat regiments were rotated about every two months from Korea to Koji-do to quell the riots. Our regiment relieved the 187th Airborne Regiment, which had been brought in from Japan. I believe that all of the serious rioting had been quelled by the time the 224th arrived there. More compounds had been built and a smaller number of prisoners was in each compound. The compounds were double-fenced with tanks parked outside of them. I believe most of the riot prisoner leaders had either been killed by this time or isolated from the mass of prisoners. When there were problems, our troops went in with full combat gear and used physical force when necessary to curtail the riots.
I was still detailed to Special Services from Company H and did not get involved with the day-by-day guarding of compound prisoners, although we did have about two to five prisoners every few days that we guarded while they did labor type work in our area. We stood perhaps 20 yards away from them with loaded rifles. We had no problems with the few prisoners we had responsibility to guard as they worked.
My duty hours were probably 16 hours a day. Being in Special Services, we took over a PX Commissary type building where we sold supplies to troops. We awoke about 5 a.m. each morning and after breakfast would start our duties related to running the makeshift commissary. We had a lot of picnic-type tables and benches outside the building and started selling beer about 6 p.m. each day, seven days week. The troops would sit at these tables and drink beer up to about 9 p.m. each night. We then closed operations and headed for our squad tent for the night. Each tent had about six cots. We stayed there very little other than sleeping because we were mostly working in the commissary building which was just a short distance away.
During my stay in Korea there were very few Korean civilians allowed within so many miles of the front lines. When the 224th was dispatched to Koji-do, we were able to mingle with Korean civilians in the Inchon, Korea area. These people had suffered from the ravages of the war and life was a daily constant struggle for them. Desperate people do desperate things to survive. Most of the natives lived in very primitive looking houses that were made of grass and mud. Some had flattened beer cans, sealed them somehow into sheets of metal, and made huts with the sheets of metal. Others dug caves in hillsides and lived in them. Many of the children, particularly at Koji-do, had bloated stomachs from malnutrition.
During the summer we were at Koji-Do Island guarding POW's, thus our dress was more casual. A lot of the time we wore just our undershirts and fatigue pants and a soft cap. However, those actually guarding POW's wore full combat type attire.
Occasionally we patrolled the surrounding hills to our camp just looking for any suspicious activities. On one patrol we came across a group of teenage Korean boys. They were harmless—just refugees from the war living in the hills and trying to survive. We observed a very young boy with them. He was thin and wore just rags. The teenage boys told us that his parents had either been killed in the war or had become separated from him. They said he came to Koji-do from Korea with other refugees and had just recently been tagging along with them. They said his name was Chon and he was 6 years old.
We took him with us, although we were not supposed to. The South Korean teenagers agreed with us taking him. We found a Korean tailor in a nearby village and paid him to make Chon an Army-looking uniform. Chon now looked just like us. We were not allowed to take him into our mess hall to eat, but we brought him three meals a day back from the mess hall and he started to gain weight. We gave him small jobs to do just to keep him busy. He shined a lot of boots.
One day a Major came into our area and asked who the boy was and what he was doing with us. We explained the situation to the Major. He told us to immediately take him back into the hills and return him to the South Korean teenage boys. Being soldiers, we knew to obey a direct order, so we did what the Major told us to do. However, the next day Chon reappeared at our squad tent. We took him back in, but this time we hid him any time we saw the Major in our area.
Eventually we received orders that the entire regiment was to return to Korea for more frontline combat duty. This gave us a problem as to what to do with Chon. We did not like the idea of sending a 6-year old child back to the hills to fend for himself. At the same time, we knew that we could not take him on the ship with us back to Korea, nor could we take him into a combat zone. One of our squad members came up with the idea that we could hide Chon in a duffle bag, sneak him on the ship with us, and once we arrived in Pusan, Korea, try to find an orphanage that would take him. So that is exactly what we did. We were transported from Koji-do to Pusan in a barge-type ship. The trip was only about 40 minutes. Once we arrived in Pusan, we found an orphanage that agreed to accept Chon. We said goodbye to him and left. We would not see him again.
From Pusan, Korea, I flew by airplane to Japan. I went to Yokohama, Japan, on five days of R&R. Every soldier was given one R&R trip and I do not know of anyone who refused it. It was a welcome relief to the stress of being in Korea. It was the first vacation of any kind I had while in the Army in the last 1-1/2 years. I went to an Eddy Fisher (one of Liz Taylor's husbands) performance and I also got to see the Harlem Globetrotters play basketball.
I hated to see R&R end, but when I got back to Korea, I received my military orders in just a few days to rotate back to the United States. I had been oversees for a year and a half. I was now 21 years old. I had been overseas 1½ years. Eight months of this time was in advanced infantry training in Japan, seven months in Korea, and two months at Koji-do. It was now time to go home.
The Long Journey Home
I received my orders in mid-October 1952 to rotate back to the U.S. from Korea. Along with other rotating soldiers, we would be driven by truck to Inchon, Korea. For safety reasons the timing was scheduled so we would load on the transport ship late at night. We waited while replacements coming into Korea unloaded from the landing craft. Once they had unloaded we were then told to remove our helmets, all weapons, and ammunition and lay them on the ground, and then load onto the landing craft which would take us to the troop transport ship. It was only then that I fully realized I would be going home. I was leaving Korea, but taking a lot of memories of that country back with me.
I was sent to Japan for a physical and various processing of paper work. I would be given the standard speech about signing for an additional year, making the Army a career, applying for an officer’s commission, etc. I respectfully declined all offers. The trip by troop ship back to the United States took two weeks. It would be a very long trip for me. I had served in three different companies in the Army and thus knew a lot of people, but there was not one person on the troop ship going back to the United States that I knew. There was very little to do but go up to the deck and watch the ocean. That got boring.
We docked at San Francisco, California. The docking was scheduled to be just after dawn. Many of us had lined the ship deck several hours in advance. As customary with all returning troops from the Far East, a military band was on the docks playing patriotic music. I particularly remember them playing, “California, Here I Come.” A young lady sang the song, “My Hero.” After that, an Army officer gave a welcome back speech and thanked us for our service in the Far East. It was an impressive welcome back program. We then debarked from the troop ship, loaded on to ferry boats, and were taken to nearby Camp Stoneman, California, where we were reassigned to various Army bases in the United States. I was reassigned to the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, located at Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky, pending a discharge from the Army. The train ride from California to Kentucky took three days. I had hardly any duties at Camp Breckinridge, so I spent a lot of time looking out the barracks windows, watching recruits do close-order drills.
I was discharged from the Army on November 21, 1952. The ceremony was similar to graduation from high school. We were called up one at a time. An Army captain smiled, shook our hand, and thanked us for service to the United States Army, while presenting us with discharge papers. It was the first time I had ever seen an Army Captain smile.
When I walked out the auditorium with discharge papers in hand, a soldier was there hawking rides for $5 to Nashville. I told him I would take a ride to the train station. The only train to Mobile would arrive there about 2 a.m. the next morning. When the train left Nashville, the coach I was seated in was virtually full, but many hours later as the train neared Mobile there was only myself and an elderly couple seated at the opposite end. It was now 2 o’clock in the morning. As the train slowed its speed approaching the Mobile train station, I was now hoping someone from my family would be there, although I had earlier told my brother in a telephone call I would take a taxi home. I was not disappointed. Standing on the train depot platform were my mother, father, two brothers, a sister-in-law, and my 5-year old nephew. It had been a long journey, but I was now home.
Post Army Days
After my discharge from the Army I worked for a few years. At the same time I was taking a few college courses at night at a local college. I had no trouble adjusting to civilian life after leaving the Army. I took one week off and returned to the same job I had when I was drafted. I was like all others leaving the Army. I took one week off and returned to the same job I had when I was drafted. Like all others leaving the Army, I was placed in a standby reserve for three years. I attended no meetings and received no pay, but each year the Reserve sent me a questionnaire to complete for updating their files. One of the questions was, "Are you or have you ever been a member of the communist party or any other organizations with an objective of over-throwing the U.S. government?" They also required that our signature be "notarized," which would cost us 50 cents. I signed the form, but never had it notarized since I did not have a spare 50 cents. So much for having fought communism.
Eventually I quit my job and enrolled as a full-time student at the University of Alabama under the G.I. School Bill--something I probably could not have afforded otherwise. I graduated two years later with a Major in Accounting. Most of my working career was with various Federal Government Agencies; namely, the Air Force, NASA, and the Army. I had thought back in 1952 when I was discharged from the Army as a soldier they would never see me again, but the last 21 years I worked was with the Army as a civilian. I was employed with the Army’s Anti-Missile Program in Huntsville, Alabama for five years with the Inspector General’s Office, then sixteen years as a Cost Analyst in the Contracts Negotiation Office. I retired in 1989.
In 1995 I attended the dedication of the Korean War Memorial in Washington D.C. This was a very impressive and moving ceremony--I truly enjoyed it. It was one of the highlights of my life. I had never previously marched in any veteran’s type parade, but I did march in this parade and enjoyed every moment of it. Veterans from virtually every American military organization that participated in the Korean War were represented in the parade. Veterans from most all other United Nations countries and South Korea participated in the parade as well.
Today, I still live in Huntsville, Alabama, with Barbara, my wife of 50 years. We have one daughter, two sons, and nine grandchildren. I have spent a lot of retirement time playing golf, trying to stay young by working out at a fitness center, and taking some classes (non-credit) at a local university. Six of my nine grandchildren live nearby, so I have spent lot of time in retirement with them, following them in their various activities—and just watching them grow.
I do not think that going to Korea changed me in any way that two years in civilian life would also have changed me. I never had anyone tell me I had changed. Prior to my own experience, I did not know many people who had served in actual combat. As to the few I did know, I did not ask any questions about their combat experience because we were led to believe they just did not want to talk about it. I never talked much about my experience--not because I had a problem with it other than seeing Edward Podmerjersky killed. I always felt that other people did not want to hear about it, particularly men who had never served in a combat role or even in the military. They seemed to feel guilty. I always found that women were more interested in listening to war experiences than men. My biggest surprise and disappointment was that my father never asked me anything about my combat experience. He never served in the military.
Whether we should or should not have been in Korea in the first place is a tough question. We were committed at that time to stop communism, but we were not militarily prepared to stop it. MacArthur should have stopped at the 38th parallel. He underestimated the Chinese entering the war or the recognition that we would have to fight their type of war and not our type. He also over-estimated our military readiness, although he was in a position to have ensured our military readiness. It was a mistake to have rushed one U.S. Army division into Korea where they were virtually annihilated. They were improperly trained and disciplined and lacked proper equipment, namely the kind of equipment with the capability to destroy enemy tanks. More time should have been taken to get more troops in position and then have a full scale amphibious landing like we eventually had at Inchon. The enemy would have then been trapped and they would have panicked. Once I was back in the United States, watching the war from stateside, I was not discouraged by the way it was progressing since it was mostly a defensive struggle. It ended about the way I thought it would.
The Korean War is a forgotten war because it was squeezed between World War II with its famous battles of D-Day, Battle of the Bulge, Iwo Jima, etc., and the TV war of Vietnam. It was so near the end of World War II that Americans wanted to forget wars and move on with their civilian lives. Also, I believe that the long-lasting TV series of M*A*S*H left an impression upon Americans that it was just a fun war where everyone was just having a good time. This was hardly the truth with over 33,000 Americans killed in Korea (over 55,000 world-wide). Still, perhaps the Korean War was the military action that stopped the spread of communism in the world. I think we should have some troops in Korea today, but I also think that South Korea should man the 38th parallel and take the brunt of any future attacks. (I still shudder when we enter any kind of war.)
I have not been involved with any military societies like the American Legion or VFW. I always viewed them as something for World War II veterans or guys that just can't "turn loose" of a prior life. Over the years I have worked around people that occasionally asked about my Korean War experience. As I mentioned previously, women were more interested in details of my experience versus any interest men had. I worked 21 years as a civilian for the Army. Most of the Army career military people I worked with had never served in combat. A couple of them said they were in the Army and I had been in the infantry. I only spent 22 1/2 months in the Army and nine months of that time was in Korea/Koje-do in a hostile atmosphere. My mother was always interested in my story about the six year old Korean orphan boy, and several times she asked me to tell her friends about it.
I believe that World War veterans, and to a smaller degree even Vietnam veterans, have been given more respect than Korean War veterans. In my hometown we have a Veteran's Day parade each year and they seem to alternate each year honoring either World War II or Vietnam War veterans. I can only recall one year when they recognized Korean War veterans.
When I returned to the States, I did not attempt to locate Edward Podmerjerski's family since I remembered the Company Commander saying he would be the only one to write the family. Also, in those days, it was difficult to locate anyone. I do believe our government is doing everything reasonably possible to locate MIA personnel after 53 years since the end of the war. Our efforts have been limited by poor cooperation of the North Koreans until just recent years.
I have found several that served in Company H, 224th Infantry Regiment by surfing the internet and have put some in contact with others. I have in the last five to eight years stayed in contact with Tim Creedon and Don Fiedler, both of whom were my Squad/Platoon Sergeants in Japan and Korea. Also, I saw both of them several years ago at a 224th reunion held in Washington, D.C. Both of them were gentlemen type leaders that had respect for those they commanded, but at same time were very effective leaders.
With regards to "heroes," I think of a hero as someone who has performed over and above what is normally expected of anyone in that position and military rank. I believe that far too often the military awards too many medals for valor that is just normal performance in combat. Other times it is a matter of who has the best writers in Company Headquarters. I served with many guys that performed to what was expected of them in combat.
As mentioned much earlier in this memoir, I was awarded the "Combat Infantryman's Badge." I also received various service medals like the Korean Service Medal, Japanese Occupational Medal, United Nations Service Medal, etc. I suppose I attach a great significance to them, but they can bring back some bad memories, and they were earned at the sacrifice of taking prime years of my life that I would have preferred doing something else. I did not think Korea was worth fighting for. No doubt it was for the South Korean people, but the United States had to pay too large of a price to liberate it. I remember Korea as an experience in my life that challenged me physically, mentally, and emotionally. Later in my life as I faced difficulties in life, I have been able to remember that if I could handle Korea, I could handle anything else.
Basic training served a useful purpose, but nothing compared to advanced infantry training in preparing us for Korea. Advanced infantry training provided us an opportunity to understand how each unit of the Army would mesh together in combat as a unified Army. Also, we trained together for many months with the same guys as a team. Guys just having only basic training did not have this edge. They were sent to Korea as individual replacements and initially among strangers.
I have not revisited Korea since I left. I have at times had desires to revisit, but then I would expect it to be the same as I left and I know it isn't. Seeing super interstate highways would blow my mind. When I was there in 1952, it was a "hell hole", except it was mostly cold there. Should a student or some other person interested in the Korean War read this memoir sometime in the future, I would want that person to know that the reality of Korea was not like it was portrayed in the TV series M*A*S*H. It was perhaps the most significant event of the 20th century to stop the spread of communism.
Appendix - Galahad Newsletter
The following article is reprinted in PDF form on the KWE courtesy of Ron Gorrell of the 224th Infantry Regiment Association.