THE BATTLE FOR TRIANGLE RIDGE, REFERRED to as “Operation Showdown” among American forces, began on October 14th and was designed to straighten out the MLR by removing the Chinese forces from the gap in the U.S. lines (referred to as the Missouri Line). General Van Fleet, commander of the 7th Army, viewed this attack as a means of pressuring the Chinese and Korean leadership to more seriously pursue the peace talks at Panmunjom that had recently broken down. The Battle for Triangle Hill (referred to as the Shangganling Campaign by the Chinese in books and movies) was the largest and most costly Korean War battle during 1952. The operation involved elements of the 7th Infantry as well as the 2nd Republic of Korea (ROK) Division against the Chinese 15th and 12 Corps.
Triangle Ridge was a V-shaped range of hills in the Kumhwa Valley. Pike’s Peak was the northwest ridge, to the northeast was Jane Russell Hill, and off a short distance north of her was the towering hill that we referred to as Papasan, a 1,062 meter high mountain, because it dominated the valley. Papasan, like other hills in this valley, contained a number of tunnels in which the Chinese Army housed their troops, artillery, and supplies. Throughout this region there were complexes of caves and old gold mine shafts—remnants of bygone times. Historians for the Chinese Army, as a result of the eventual outcome of the battle and their victorious retaking of the hill from the South Korean Army, highlight this campaign as one of the most influential victories that impacted their military development. In 1956, a Chinese film, “Battle on Shangganling Mountain,” honored this engagement.
FOX COMPANY ASSAULT ON JANE RUSSELL HILL
Our time to move against the Chinese forces had come and Fox Company was assigned to attack Jane Russell Hill; we were going to go up the right slope. We were told, euphemistically speaking, that we would be “reinforcing and relieving” a unit that had been chewed up by the Communists’ attacks. This description neglected to inform us that most of the hill was actually in Chinese hands—at least the parts that counted—i.e, the top.
The march up the hill was silent and long. Our column snaked up the steep and winding slope that was nearly devoid of vegetation. The air was filled with the heavy smell of cordite from exploding shells that still rained occasionally from the skies, bursting at random across the landscape. As we worked our way up the steep trail toward the crest of the hill, we passed a few straggling GIs from another company sitting alongside the trail on their way down the hill. They had gone up the hill earlier and had taken heavy casualties in the process.
At one point, our column stopped for a brief break to rest our legs and backs, which were laden with ammunition and water. We saw coming down the path two seemingly downhearted captive Chinese soldiers with their hands above their heads. I was surprised by the height of one of the soldiers who appeared to be about 6’4” and well nourished. “Whoever told us the Chinks were short!” someone yelled out. The prisoners were from a regular Chinese infantry company that had substantial military experience. The shorter of the two prisoners, we later learned, was a veteran of decades of military service in China; he had been carrying the same weapon in the same company for nineteen years—as long as many of the American GIs had been alive! This was a rather unsettling concept for our young minds to contemplate. What kind of people were we up against?
Battles are rarely as neat, clean, and unambiguous as those depicted in movies—they are, in reality, dirty, confusing, and often chaotic events without a sense of direction or purpose. Our mission on Jane Russell was clearly of this sort. In the briefing we were told that we were going to “reinforce in assault,” that is, we were going to go into positions that were partially occupied by other Americans. Our tasks were to relieve and reinforce them and go on to take the remaining part of the hill that was still in Chinese hands and hold until relieved. Other than a few men leaving the hill as we climbed up the trail, I didn’t see anyone else. Our company was basically the entire show on the hill.
“Secure the hill” we were told. Easily stated, simply explained, but it was not as easy to see or to clearly accomplish. Before we were far into our mission we were taking fire from the crest of the hill that was owned by the Chinese (and a pretty aggressive lot at that). We moved up the reverse slope of the hill in a skirmish line as far as we could go, trying to remain out of the intense fire from the Chinese machine gun that was peppering our lines whenever we presented a target. We located a point beyond which only Chinese was being spoken and dug in near the top of the hill.
It was impossible to hold the north face of the hill because of the commanding elevation of the Chinese positions on Papasan (on the map called Hill 1062) that allowed them to annihilate any positions they saw on the military crest of our hill, the point at which American infantrymen usually prefer to take up residence in times like these. Most of our platoon remained on the reverse slope while a few observers were in locations on the military crest to serve as lookouts for additional Chinese assaults. There was a trench line across the front of the hill that served as nighttime positions when we would likely come under assault from the enemy infantry; otherwise we stayed in trenches on the back slope to reduce casualties from shelling.
We dug foxholes in the rocky soil because the trench line was not deep enough to provide protection from the shells that came in from Chinese positions on Papasan. On the far left of the platoon’s positions they were experiencing additional problems in the form of hand grenades that were being lobbed over the ridge line from a Chinese bunker on the other slope of the hill. Every so often someone would yell out, “Duck, there’s a grenade!” and we would see one of the Chinese hand grenades roll down the slope. There were two common types of Chinese grenades. One looked like a potato masher with a round pin in the handle. The Chinese would put their fingers in the pins and lob them—one motion would send the grenade flying and pull out the pin at the same time. The grenades would explode about four or five seconds later, if they did not misfire. Fortunately for us they had a high failure rate. The other grenade type was larger and more rounded, somewhat like a gourd but with a similar pin arrangement.
One of our platoon leaders, tired of having these grenades roll down the hill making everyone run for cover, decided it was time to get rid of that nuisance. He instructed our platoon sergeant, Sgt. Casper, to try and get men over there to knock out the bunker. In the afternoon, our squad leader sent Sully and me up the ridge to reconnoiter and discover where the grenades were coming from. We crawled up the slope of the hill, taking our time and keeping as low to the ground as possible to make it up the knoll without being observed by the Chinese across the way. When we reached the top and looked across the valley toward Papasan for the first time we were stunned with its appearance. It was a very high hill that towered over our little knoll like a big brown dirty giant. We made our way as stealthily as we could across the top of the hill overlooking the trench line to try and get a good look from the spot on the ridge from where the grenades seemed to be coming.
We couldn’t see much of the lower trench from our vantage point, as we laid side by side with our heads about a foot apart so we could talk quietly, looking for the best way to make our way to the Chinese positions. Sully, pointing down the hill, turned to me to say something but before he got his words out a Chinese sniper bullet crashed into his head and blood gushed from the ugly hole between his eyes. He was silenced instantly. In a state of shock and excitability, I half pulled and half dragged Sully’s lifeless form across the hill top yelling, “Medic! Medic!”
One of our medics, the reliable Corporal Buckley, who had a pronounced stutter when he tried to talk, was there quickly. Buckley had risked his life many times on that hill to attend to the wounds of others. The stress of battle wore perhaps more on him than the rest of us because his job often called for exposing himself to enemy fire to reach wounded men. It is interesting that Buckley’s hair turned almost completely white over night on that hill—a situation that I had heard of but had never seen before. In Sully’s case, there was nothing Buckley could do. When he reached him, it was too late; he apparently died instantly.
I was badly shaken. My friends were not supposed to die—certainly not someone like Sully whom I knew so well and who had so much to live for. Sully had become a very close friend in the few weeks that I knew him and to see him end up this way was a severe jolt—one that crept up on me later at moments when I tried to fall asleep or at times when nothing else occupied my thinking. For a while I had a strange mixed feeling about the situation. On one hand, I was troubled that I had lost someone so close to me. But, on the other, there was also a feeling of relief—not relief that Sully was dead, but a sense of relief that it was not me. I was experiencing intense guilt over the fact that I had lived and that Sully was dead. What I was feeling at the time was that I was glad I was still alive and that the sniper, in his decision to fire at one of the two heads, had chosen Sully’s rather than mine. These were very troublesome thoughts—thoughts that would remain with me for years—always carrying with them a cold, chilling sensation and a strange sense of wonderment.
But, on the hill there was no time for worry or reflection. We had to try to knock out the Chinese bunker before the enemy soldiers killed everyone in our platoon. The next attempt to get a closer look at the Chinese positions took place about an hour later. When Sully and I were lying on the ridge line earlier, I had seen a trench running along the hill toward the Chinese positions. I told Sgt. Casper that I thought I could get to the bunker by crawling along the lower trench. He wished me luck and assigned a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) team to provide cover to my rear from the crest.
I crawled down into the trench, which though shallow, provided cover from the direction of the sniper that had shot Sully. I crept along opposite to our platoon’s positions—toward the place that the grenades were coming from. About thirty yards ahead the trench took a slight jog to the left; I paused and took a look around the bend to see what I could observe. I found myself staring into an open cave only a few yards away.
I waited for a few minutes, slowly loosening the pin from a fragmentation hand grenade. I had a good view of the trench now. It ran toward the cave and up toward our platoon’s positions. I could see how the Chinese had been able to lob their grenades so easily at us and how our return fire had been so ineffective at getting back at them. For an instant I took my eyes off the cave entrance to survey the trench line running away from the bunker door. When my glance returned to the doorway I was shocked to see a person standing in the doorway, dressed in his quilted Chinese uniform holding a large “potato masher” grenade in his hand getting ready to loft it toward our platoon’s positions.
The Chinese soldier appeared to be just as stunned as I was—when he saw me moving my rifle into firing position. We stared at each other in utter amazement for what seemed like ages! Suddenly, he jumped abruptly back into the cave before I had a clear shot with my M-1. Recovering from my surprise, like the neophyte hunter who freezes when he spots his first deer (referred to as “buck fever”), I emptied the clip of the rifle into the cave and lobbed in the hand grenade through the cave opening.
As the grenade exploded I quickly made it back over the crest to the safety of our platoon’s digs. I felt relieved to be back over the top in the relative safety of our side of the hill. Strangely I also felt a bit relieved that I had not had to fire directly into the face of the man that I had stared at so long in the trench. The image of his face was still burning in my memory. I don’t know if the grenade I threw into the cave had gotten any of the Chinese inside but maybe at least it would give them a headache!
More importantly, my little visit to the cave provided a more clear and effective plan for getting at the cave doorway. Our third attempt proved to be highly successful. Three of us made the attack, this time from the far left side of the platoon’s positions adjacent to where the Chinese bunker joined a trench that had been visible to my observation before it was so rudely interrupted by the appearance of the Chinese infantryman. The plan was pretty simple. I volunteered to go into the trench first and toss two grenades into the cave; when they exploded, the other guys were to rush into the trench firing an M-2 carbine (which threw out 750 rounds per minute) into the doorway. Then we would all three enter the cave.
The plan was not perfect because we failed to take into account some basic laws of physics, but it worked well enough. The first part of the plan proved a bit more difficult than anticipated because of the concussion of the grenade traveling through the narrow trench. When I crawled down the trench to the left of the cave (which was deeper and narrower than I had experienced on the other side of the cave) the concussion from the two grenades that I tossed in knocked me against the wall and sent my steel helmet tumbling down the hill out of reach. When I recovered, my friend, Carlos Coleman, from Oak Hill, West Virginia, was already following the smoke into the trench and firing incessantly into the cave. As he approached the cave he received a spray of bullets into one of his pants legs from a burp gun from somewhere below. Fortunately all he received was some frayed trousers; all of the bullets missed his leg. When his ammo gave way the second rifleman, Tommy, who was later to die on the hill, took over.
The cave was quiet as our weapons fire ceased. We heard nothing from inside the cave and timidly entered into the cluttered room that was high enough to almost allow us to stand erect. We saw only some motionless forms that had once been human, now misshapen from the concussion and the onslaught of slugs from the automatic weapons barrage. The bunker was ours. The grenade lobbing into our positions was stopped at last. As we explored the cave we found a number of interesting things, particularly some unusual weapons. One of the souvenirs was an American-made .45-caliber pistol, perhaps a weapon that the Chinese had obtained from an American soldier (or it could have been a remnant of the World War II weapons that were provided to the Chinese Army). After I captured this weapon from the Chinese I felt that it no longer belonged to the U. S. Army but was really my souvenir. I did not, however, negotiate this fact with the government. Instead, I decided that I would send it home. About thirty years later I donated it to a museum in my hometown of Charleston for their exhibit on the Korean War.
I also captured a rather unusual rifle that I was later told was a Czech built, bolt-action weapon that was quite long with a long, sharp bayonet attached to the end. Unfortunately this weapon was later lost and I was unable to bring it back home. Also in the cache of unique weapons were a couple of burp guns (the favorite weapon of the Chinese and also of American souvenir hunters) and an unusual machine gun on a wheeled platform that resembled the old Maxim machine guns from the U. S. Civil War period. It contained several barrels around a central ring. Because of its weight and because it was non-operative we left it. Coleman also found a small personal diary in the cave that he kept. Many years later, I asked a Chinese colleague from Hong Kong, Fanny Cheung, to translate the notebook into English for Coleman. There was not much of interest or any personal information about the soldier in it. He was apparently trying to learn how to write and was practicing his writing in Chinese.
THE FIRST NIGHT ON JANE RUSSELL HILL
Our defensive lines were thinned now. As a result of the shelling we had taken a lot of casualties throughout the day. Sergeant Casper placed us in positions along the trench about twenty yards apart. In each foxhole, he assigned an American and a ROK (South Korean soldier). Our company had, prior to coming up the hill, received about thirty ROK replacement soldiers to fill vacancies. We knew little of what was going on around us beyond our position perimeter.
I was assigned to a foxhole with a young South Korean man named Kim, probably my own age or younger, who could neither speak nor understand English. I knew only a few words of Korean, and none of them useful in polite conversations or in important military communications. We were uncertain as to what was going on around us and both of us were anxious as to what to expect during the night. We watched the field to our front, not really being able to communicate well our innermost concerns as we peered into the confusing night of battle.
We were on full alert so neither Kim or I slept a minute all night. We spent the time scanning the slope in front of our foxhole for movement. Nighttime on the front was scary in the best of circumstances, but under threat of imminent Chinese attack with no one to talk to, it was beyond frightening. My new friend and I talked in whispers trying to learn something about each other’s language and culture. Parachute flares exploded overhead in an almost continuous parade throughout the night, floating slowly to earth and casting eerie shadows across the battlefield below. We compared words for things you could point to in the frail light such as “flare,” “rifle,” and so forth. We also found that we had a common language in which we could communicate—math. We gave each other math problems to work and as it turned out, his skill at algebra was a clear step above mine. We were, however, not able to share many of those inner feelings that creep up on you when you feel cast in a sea of danger.
The ear-piercing whistling sound of incoming 76 mm rounds both terrified the infantry soldier and initiated a chain of reflexes that resulted in an automatic dive for safety in a trench or to the ground if no deeper sanctuary was nearby. One had only a matter of seconds to get to cover when the screaming sound was first heard. The shorter the amount of time one heard the shell’s scream the closer it came. It is commonly believed that “You never hear the shell that directly hits you!” So we took slight comfort in hearing the sound and thus the ability to avoid its consequences. At least it was a warning to take cover.
The Chinese Katusha rockets, on the other hand, had a rather different sound and provided little warning (it was more like a “whoosh”). The most terrifying aspect of rocket attacks was the fact that they usually came in waves, a sequence of bursting shells along a line. The rocket gunners firing onto Jane Russell Hill had almost perfect and deadly aim on our trench line and periodically sent a salvo into our midst. The devastating rocket fire prompted our leaders to move the line to the reverse slope during all but direct attacks on the hill. This evening the entire force remained on the frontal slope because of imminent counter attacks. As a result we suffered a number of casualties from intense rocket fire.
At one time during the evening, the Chinese artillery also fired some white phosphorous shells (WP shells). This horrible variety explodes with a beautiful white/blue burst of flame that looks somewhat like a more sinister version of 4th of July fireworks back home. White phosphorous, however, brought no expressions of joy or awe from the close observers, only terror. Unlike shrapnel from high explosive shells, white phosphorous particles would stick to one’s skin and could burn all the way through the flesh. The best way to put out the flame was to pack the hole with mud and smother it. I was much more afraid of white phosphorous shells than the mortar or artillery high explosive fire.
One artificially comforting aspect of the intense shelling we were receiving this night on Jane Russell Hill was the thought that as long as the shells fell on our positions we would not have to face a direct assault from the Chinese infantry. In the night when the shelling stopped, or rather was strategically moved to our rearward slope, we knew that an infantry assault was imminent and we became more watchful when things became quiet.
Our company mortar platoon performed extremely well all evening projecting flares, lighting the slope toward the valley. We were comforted, as we waited in our trench line, by the fact that we could see what might be coming up the hill toward us. The parachute flares gave off a strange, eerie glow as they drifted toward the ground. After a few moments another flare was sent aloft lighting up the night sky.
After what seemed like an eternity of waiting we heard the eerie sound of bugles playing in the distance—a sound that Americans learned to associate with a direct frontal assault by the enemy. The sound of shrill whistles could also be heard on the slope below, sounding the troops into desired formations. We waited, peering into the night at the shadows manufactured by the drifting antics of the flares winding their way earthward. We watched for the visible shadows to move and take form in the sights of our rifles. Finally I could see on the finger of the knoll below our positions the Chinese counterattacking force rushing upward toward our positions. The shadow figures came toward us, the bugle blaring, as our lines opened fire into the moving figures below. The machine gun and rifle fire from our lines must have been horrendous as seen from the valley floor looking up toward our positions. None of the Chinese soldiers reached the top. The shadowy figures disappeared into the night and we returned to our shadowy world to wait and see what fate offered next.
The remains of the night were spent in a period of relative quiet after their counterattack failed to unseat us from the hill. For the moment, at least, in this deadly game of “king of the hill,” we were king—we would need to see what happened next. Early on the second day on the hill my job as a rifleman with the 2nd Platoon took on an expanded element as I was assigned to forward lookout duty. Before daylight my squad leader instructed me to go to a somewhat protected spot on the military crest (near the top of the hill facing the enemy positions) to look for enemy activity and to sound a warning to our troops on the reverse side in the event Chinese infantry engaged us. As the first light of morning began to provide a more clear focus on old Papasan Hill, the ominous mountain that peered down on our humble knoll, someone on my left detected some movement over 1,000 yards away in the valley floor and began to fire. As I looked in that direction I could make out figures moving stealthily across the front toward a ravine at the base of Hill 1062. I fired an initial shot (I had learned the trick for obtaining an estimate of the range to a target by placing a tracer cartridge into the chamber of the rifle; one could actually see where the bullet hit). The figures kept moving as the tracer shell struck against a rock in front of them, ricocheting abruptly in a different skyward direction. I yelled for others behind me to begin firing at the figures now moving faster across the valley floor and continued to fire at the Chinese soldiers. In a few moments a BAR man on my right also opened fire into the group of figures. Others who had awakened from their sleep to join in the action soon joined us. In a few minutes the entire section was alive with firing into the force below. In less than two minutes a wave of 60 mm mortar shells were also hitting the target when our mortar men got the range. It is very difficult to imagine how anyone could have survived the firepower that was soon laid into the small section of real estate at the base of Papasan. We did not see any further movement at or away from the area when the rain of fire trickled to a halt.
We learned the next day that some of the positions on our line had been overrun and other GIs had withdrawn during the night to positions to our rear. The platoon leader, a very well liked and trusted officer, was killed. We were later to learn that one of the officers in our company, a lieutenant, became so frightened that he could not speak and would not come out of his foxhole. The condition that he experienced is referred to in the field of abnormal psychology as a “hysterical aphonia” or a psychologically based inability to speak. He was only able to speak in whispers and unable to “give commands.” After we left Jane Russell Hill, he was transferred back to the rear. During his wait for a transfer he became the mailman, a low level of duty for an officer. His condition today would have been diagnosed as a Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
INCREDIBLE KENTUCKY WINDAGE OR A LUCKY SHOT
Given our success with intercepting and eliminating the Chinese patrol, I received a new assignment, officially this time, as a sniper. Another rifleman (a Connecticut Yankee named Mike Yancik) and I were sent across the top to a new sniping position on the military crest of Jane Russell Hill, a couple of hundred yards to the right of the position from where we found the earlier bevy of Chinese infantry. Here, because a finger of the ridge took a sharp rise then flattened in front of us, we did not have as clear a picture of the valley floor as we did from our prior position. However, we were in somewhat of a more protected spot from incoming fire. We also now had a good view of the opposite side of the finger and, of course, a broad perspective of Papasan that loomed ahead and over us. For most of the morning we laid motionless behind a rock that had a tree stump resting slightly on it. Because our position on this knoll was visible from Papasan, we were still somewhat vulnerable to sniper fire if our position were given away to the Chinese positioned on the distant heights. Remaining motionless was important as dawn’s light turned to day. We waited patiently for some movement on the ridge ahead much like deer hunters might await their unsuspecting prey from a tree or a deer stand. The day dragged by without much activity. We watched a couple of hawks or vultures circle in the blue-sky overhead; we watched the sun trace its reliable arc across the noonday sky. This was a relatively easy life because we were escaping the constant digging taking place on our “home side” of the hill to improve our positions.
As we watched the ridge line on Papasan in the distance we noticed some movement about two thirds of the way up—slowly at first, their pace seemed to increase as the two Chinese soldiers moved rapidly toward the crest of the hill. The range was a bit too distant for an “iron sights” sniper to reach effectively. The figures running steadily up the hill appeared to be only an inch or so high on our visual field. I decided to try a shot and, with an air of confidence I said to Yancik, “Watch this!” In one quick twist of the knob on the sight of my M-1 I ran the setting as high as it would reach and raised the rifle to a position a few inches above and to the right of the first racing figure and pulled the trigger. This move was often referred to as “Kentucky windage” but it really was sheer guesswork. The sound of the lone rifle shot seemed extremely loud to us in our somewhat tight nest and we pressed ourselves against the ground all the while keeping our eyes on the quilted figures working their way to the top of the hill. In a few seconds, one of the figures stopped then tumbled to the ground where he remained motionless. Yancik yelled, “You got him! You got him! What a shot!” I couldn’t believe my eyes. The man actually dropped. Could he have simply stumbled? No. He laid there inanimate for the remainder of the day.
There was considerable discussion around the company over the next few days about this rifle shot. I guess I just let it go because I was getting some pretty good acclaim for the deed, although, at first, I tried to say that it was just a lucky shot. But the other guys seemed to want to believe that this was an incredible, intentional shot. (If they had only known about the mediocre marks that I had made on the rifle range back in basic training then this reputation would not have gone very far.) But for a brief moment in time I was hailed as a kind of “Sergeant York” of Fox Company in terms of marksmanship. For all I really knew, the poor guy could have died of a heart attack simultaneous with my single rifle shot!
There was a downside to the acclaim that I experienced, however. It was shortly after this event that I came to be hounded by one of the other riflemen in the platoon to do him an odd favor. Al Dyckoft (not his real name), a somewhat uneducated if not outright stupid man, kept asking me to shoot him! “Shot me!” he would say, mispronouncing the verb. He kept pleading with me to shoot him in the leg—to give him a million dollar wound when no one else was looking. “Would you just shot me in the leg without hitting the bone?” he would say. We had all heard of the frightened soldier who shoots himself in the foot in order to get evacuated to the rear, but this was a new twist. I had difficulty avoiding him. He would find out where my position was and crawl to it with a very whinny voice and ask, “Shot me, please.” He told me he had a wife and kids and wanted to make it back to Ohio. I had never encountered anything like it before and tried to ignore it. But, he kept coming. Finally, I told him, “No, I can’t do it. I’m not that good a shot and I might put it through your heart instead.” He finally got the message that I wasn’t going to shoot him and he left me alone. That was the best outcome for him because he had been working another angle to get off the front with Captain Vaughn. “Please let me be your jeep driver back in company rear. I used to be a chauffeur in civilian life,” he told the captain. Fortunately, he was more persistent with the captain than he was with me and shortly after we got off Jane Russell Hill he was transferred to the Battalion motor pool. This transfer was best for everyone concerned; he was pretty worthless in combat.
SHORT SUPPLY OF FOOD AND WATER
We had taken with us on the hill two days of rations and water. After the third day there was no relief in sight and food and water became scarce to nonexistent; we began to get very hungry. Because we had no communications to and from Battalion, we were unaware of the reason for the lack of supply. The Chinese had broken though to our rear areas, or had brought the approaches to the hill under intensive artillery fire, so that no supplies could be brought forward. Our hunger and thirst grew as time wore on and we began to scavenge through the packs of the men who had died. Another one of my buddies shared some rations that he had found in a somewhat bloodied field pack. This seemed like an unseemly thing to do, but rather necessary under the circumstances. I had some difficulty eating C-rations out of cans that had blood and dirt all over them but there was nothing we could do about it. The path to survival is sometimes an ugly one indeed.
The fact that we were cut-off from the rear also meant that we could not get wounded men off the hill. On the third night one of the men from our squad who was gravely wounded cried out in pain throughout the night causing frightening and terrible feelings of uneasiness among the others. There was no morphine to ease his pain. We listened to his anguished cries throughout the long night. Mercifully, he died of his wounds before the sun came up.
THE ABANDONED GOLD MINE AT THE BASE OF THE HILL.
The Chinese Army was well blessed with a labor force that was impervious to harsh working conditions—digging seemed to be their strength. The Chinese People’s Army included many men from peasant farms who were not unaccustomed to hard work. They dug enormous underground living and fighting positions deep into the earth. Some tunnels have been discovered on abandoned Chinese positions that could sleep hundreds of men. The Chinese forces developed a double system of tunnels. In addition to their main line positions they also constructed a network of tunnels behind the current positions in the event they had to fall back under enemy attack. The tunnels were dug deep into the earth, assumedly to be able to protect the troops from nuclear attack—a situation that they considered likely given the loud threats that had been made by General MacArthur and President Truman earlier in the war about the possibility of using nuclear weapons. The Chinese apparently took this talk seriously.
Once the Triangle Ridge complex was secured, an American patrol into the surrounding valley near where we kept seeing the enemy infantrymen made an interesting discovery—a series of tunnels including a deep mine shaft, a remnant of an old gold mine, beneath the Chinese hill. The Chinese had effectively operated out of these caves during the Battle for the Hills and returned to them during the daytime in order to avoid artillery barrages and air strikes. Needless to say, a demolition team from the 13th Combat Engineers soon placed explosives in the shaft and detonated them in order to close off access to these safe havens of future enemy operations.
AIR POWER IN THE BATTLE FOR THE HILLS
I have had little to say so far about the role of air power in the Korean War. We occasionally saw high-level flights of fighters or fighter-bombers heading northward—this was where the air war was largely directed. We generally did not see much of the Air Force or Navy. Most of the air assaults were made on targets far away to the north of the front lines. However, in this period of time we had the occasion to witness some of our airmen at work, close to the ground, with air strikes.
It was occasions like the Battle for the Triangle, when there was daytime ground movement of Chinese forces, that the fighter air war was most effective. Much of the tactical air war in Korea was directed against “assumed” targets where bridges, wagon paths, or trench lines appeared to be occupied or used by the enemy based on aerial photoreconnaissance maps. So often “Old Joe” was simply holed up in caves and tunnels deep under ground, safe from the blazing guns and napalm showers from the fighters or artillery fire. The Chinese infantry simply waited until cover of darkness allowed them to move about undetected.
The night skies of mid-September and October 1952 were a little different in that, from the air, ant size targets could be detected crawling around the slopes moving to or from home bases in caves on Papasan or the T-Bone. One afternoon from our trench post we watched with great excitement as a formation of four Saber jets made a bombing and strafing run against Chinese troops trying to reach the safety of a cave on Papasan. The jets made two passes on the area and the third time through dropped napalm into shadowy crevices along the valley floor—an impressive sight as the flames from the tins of jellied substance leaped into the air.
It was also during these close air-ground operations that the possibility of accidental strafing was a genuine concern. From the air, infantrymen looked somewhat alike and it might be difficult for a jet traveling at several hundred miles per hour to make a ready distinction between friend and foe. American ground forces carried with them brightly colored plastic panels to mark their positions and to point the direction of the enemy to the fighter pilots above. The air-ground engagements that I witnessed were generally effective and only on one occasion did I know of an accidental bombing of our forces by a Navy jet.
On days like those on Jane Russell Hill, there was often no clear line between Chinese and American forces. Old Joe would hold one part of a trench and we would hold an adjacent niche. Overall, we typically had more of a problem with long-range artillery fire than we did with the air-to-ground operations, in large part because these were rare and generally well directed. Artillery operations in Korea, like any war in which there is a stabilized main line, were a constant and dreaded activity. GIs quickly learn the difference between incoming vs. outgoing rounds and when to duck for cover. But, artillery sometimes misfires and short rounds are a constant fear for infantry troops.
After five days on Jane Russell Hill, three of which were without food, we left the slope down the same windy, steep grade that we had come up several days before—a number of us with shrapnel wounds that needed to be treated by the medics at company rear. The weakened state of the company occasioned some to question the worth of the week’s expenditures in human life. This piece of barren real estate had clear nuisance value for the Chinese if not real military significance, sticking out the way that it did like a thorn in the side of old Papasan that towered so powerfully above it. Holding our little hills like the Russell peaks seemed as though we were challenging the Chinese at their strongest point—announcing to them that we can take what you throw at us and not give you this ground! The actual military value, however, was not apparent to the average rifleman.
We were relieved from our positions on Jane Russell and were noticeably happy to leave although the departure was not uneventful. We had to dodge through an area of the road that the Chinese artillery had zeroed in with 76 mm’s. Once a squad of ROKs had made its way up the knoll to the trench line we hurriedly moved south, dropping to the ground periodically with the familiar sound of incoming artillery rounds. As we made our way off the hill, we passed a column of fresh troops on the way up heading for our old positions. We razzed them a bit as we passed warnings to them of all the terrible things waiting ahead for them. The truth was that we were very relieved to be off the hill and heading to the rear for a rest.
After we came off Jane Russell, Carlos Coleman and I became close friends and spent a lot of time together when duty allowed. Even though he was almost six years older than I, we seemed to hit it off well. After our little adventure on Jane Russell, and the fact that he was from Oak Hill, West Virginia, near where my family had originally lived, seemed to cement our friendship. I also liked it that Carlos was a pretty gung ho type. He was even more of a volunteer than most of us since this was his second tour at the front. He had been in Korea for about fourteen months when I arrived in the company. He spent nine months with the 2nd Division when the front was stuck down around Taegu, and he was with them when they pushed the line north of Seoul to where it stabilized. He volunteered to go for a second tour from the replacement center when he was rotating back to the States. When we returned to Sniper Ridge we hung out together in the trenches and once we even slipped off into town at one point (when we were back in a rear reserve) for a little excitement. He was game for anything!
When we came off Jane Russell hill and went back into reserve, our ranks had been thinned considerably and there were a lot more cots available than there were men to sleep on them. We only had four men left in our squad so other guys joined us—we had plenty of room. Our large squad tents would usually sleep eight to twelve guys depending upon whether we had a full complement and how long we were going to remain in that location.
Buckley, our platoon medic, sporting his newly developed spotted white head, was not assigned to a particular squad but usually took a bunk wherever he chose. He was so well liked (and everyone wanted to be good friends with the medics for obvious reasons) he could find a welcome place anywhere. After we moved off Jane Russell Hill, he stayed in our tent for a while.
Once settled into our tents, the idea of having some beer and laying back was foremost on everyone’s mind. That evening our PX beer rations became available. There was plenty of beer because there were more cases of beer than there were soldiers. After the traumatic days on Jane Russell Hill we felt an overwhelming need to re-hash what had occurred. The spontaneous recapitulation of the events was aided substantially by the beer ration, which went down smoothly and appeared to mellow out the group. As darkness came, we drank by candlelight. We always placed candles on tin cans that were affixed to the high poles that held up the tall squad tent.
Buckley sat for a long time, deep in reverie, with his back leaning against the tent pole. As the evening wore on the candle tilted slightly at one point and melted wax began to drip off the candle, falling inconspicuously on his newly whitened head. After a time he recognized that there was a foreign substance sticking on his head—he ran his hand through his hair and, not realizing what it was, was shocked and complained out loud yelling with his characteristic stutter, “GGGGod DDDamnit!! NNNow mmy head has lumps on it!”
The author (left) and Carlos Coleman cleaning up some spoils of war after capturing the weapons on Jane Russell Hill, October 1952.
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF THE DELINQUENCY REPORT
The next day Sgt. Casper came to my squad tent and told me that he was happy with the way I had helped the platoon secure the hill and said that he was promoting me to corporal and, if I wanted, he would like me to replace one of the squad leaders who was killed on the hill. Surprised with his offer and feeling pretty proud that he had confidence in me, I readily agreed. I was a bit hesitant to tell him about the situation with the delinquency report on my records and the recommendation from the Repple Depot that I be reduced in rank to private for my misdeeds there. He told me to report to the commanding officer for further briefing.
When I found Captain Vaughn, the company commander, he asked me to come to the command tent for a meeting. He looked sternly at me and indicated that he had looked over the delinquency report that I had been given and the recommendation that I be busted down to private from my present rank of private first class.
“I have torn up the delinquency report you had from Seoul,” he said, “and I am tearing up the recommendation that you be reduced in rank. You have been promoted to the rank of corporal at the recommendation of your platoon sergeant.”
He congratulated me on my actions on the hill and said that he was proud to have me as a squad leader. He said that my promotion to corporal had already taken effect and that he wished Army regulations allowed my promotion to sergeant right away, but I would have to wait for three weeks to get the next promotion.
Then he added, “That is, if you can just behave yourself now that you are away from the front for a few days!”
I liked Captain Vaughn and we got along well. He seemed to have confidence in my ability as a potential squad leader and let me know it. A couple of weeks after we got off Jane Russell Hill, he was transferred to the Division Reconnaissance Company, known as Recon. This unit spent a good bit of time in the rear areas but occasionally was used at the front for reconnaissance—usually traveling in jeeps or half-tracks. Captain Vaughn called me over one day and asked me to transfer with him to the Recon Company. He indicated that he was trying to put together a special Recon unit and wanted to recruit some guys who were not afraid to take risks.
I felt honored that he thought enough of me to extend this invitation but I was reluctant to accept. I thought it would involve too much rear echelon duty and also I was a bit over sensitive to the fact that I had never had the opportunity to learn how to drive a car—something that might be required in a mechanized unit. I reluctantly declined saying that I thought that I should stay in the infantry. This may have been an enormous career mistake because the kind of duty could have been very interesting. But, I felt that the infantry was my destiny. My friends thought that my mind had drifted somewhere to the south side of lunacy when they heard my decision to stay in Fox Company.
Shortly after my corporal stripes were sewed on they had to be removed to make room for my new sergeant stripes. In just a few short weeks I had been transformed from a private with a proclivity toward trouble to a staff sergeant squad leader.
THE FIRST SQUAD
I liked being an infantry squad leader in the U. S. Army but I am afraid I had a lot more motivation for the job than I had experience or training for it at the time. But the guys seemed to accept me anyway. They were all older than me in years but that did not seem to matter to them; actually, in combat everyone looks pretty grungy so it is difficult to know exactly how old anyone is anyway. I wanted to be the type of leader that led by example rather than just bossing others around, and I vowed to myself that I would not send anyone else to do something in action that I would not or could not do myself.
I also decided that I was not going to give the guys a bunch of “spit and polish “crap but only the essentials. I was not always able to live by the last resolution because that is not the way of the Army.
Although it might appear so from the outside, American Army units were not alike. An infantry unit is more than the sum of its parts—more than just a collection of individuals. However, the unit, whether a squad, platoon, or company, takes on a distinctive character depending upon those components. An incident, an opportunity, a challenge can help to form an infantry unit’s personality.
Our squad, with many new men, jelled quickly into a high morale organism that was “all for one and one for all.” One event that I think served to develop our bond happened when our company was marching back from a brief stint on Sniper Ridge to the rear area and as usual we were hungry. Infantrymen are marked by excesses—they are either starved, sexually deprived, or in extreme danger. Extremes seem to provide the circumstances that generate the necessary glue for unit cohesiveness—and on this day we were extremely hungry.
As we marched along, a column of trucks from another company was making its way through our formation of marchers—two columns of men moving along both sides of the narrow road, ten yards apart. The trucks were not moving very fast.
One truck that crept along between our columns was filled with crates of assault rations. Two of our guys, without saying a word, leaped up on the vehicle and “borrowed” a large crate of rations. In a flash, and without skipping a step, the container was opened, with the aid of a trusty bayonet, and its contents distributed to the guys in the squad with a few leftovers for others close by. In another flash, can openers appeared from our belts along with the trusty Army spoon and we went about the job of reducing one of our deprivations. The new guys assigned to the first squad seemed to hit it off well. The laughter, the lively step, and more than a few raunchy limericks were constructed for the rest of the march. Even the new guys, not yet tested in battle, seemed to feel a part of the group.
The author’s new squad, November 1952: Front row, left to right: Watcott, Schoen, Daggett, Field. Back row, left to right: Pinkham, the author, Kenway. Photo taken by Dale Moss.
One of the best additions we had to our platoon after Jane Russell was another former paratrooper—Frank “Vito”` Field. Recently arrived in Korea, he was a transfer from the 11th Airborne Division. Fortunately, Vito was assigned to my squad. He was certainly one of the main reasons for our squad’s combat effectiveness over the next months and I am sure one of the reasons that I made it back from Korea. Other new members of the company included Ray Daggett, Don Schoen, and Del Kenway. They all blended well into the squad and made outstanding contributions to our success over the next months.
Dale Moss smiling as usual.
This squad became one of the most gung-ho collections of soldiers in the Battalion. Over the next few months any dangerous or questionable mission, through numerous combat patrols in the frozen valley, we were the first to step forward in unison to volunteer. There seemed to be a chemical reaction that occurred in the squad members that led us to volunteer to walk down one of the riskiest paths available in the Battalion. Those in Battalion and company headquarters were quite willing to give us the venues we wanted.
REFLECTIONS ON THE TAKING OF HUMAN LIFE
It is safe to say that when I volunteered to go to Korea, I gave little thought to the fact that I would be killing others. Obviously I knew that in war an infantry soldier is expected to kill the enemy. But, the admonition “Thou Shall Not Kill” was also well engrained. At ages seventeen and eighteen, I had neither the skills nor inclination to question the philosophical justifications for what I was expected to do. Without any clarifying discussions, I came to accept, but not fully understand, that it was not only OK to kill the enemy in war, it was expected.
It was the infantry’s duty to kill others before they killed you or your buddies—that is the code of the infantry. If the code was broken, you faced extremely negative consequences—yours or your buddy’s death or the humiliation of a court martial by your country. A poem I memorized in high school, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, frequently entered my mind because it resolved my dilemma by clearly pointing out my role:
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismay’s ?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Some one had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die,
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Other methods are used in the military and society as a whole to reduce the concern over taking a human life during wartime. The enemy can be characterized as subhuman or simply as targets. In Korea both officers and enlisted called the North Koreans “Gooks” and the Chinese “Chinks.” Such attributions helped me to frame the enemy soldier as different and not human.
When enemy soldiers are seen a distance away through the sights of a sniper rifle, the bombsight of an airplane, or the computer screen for a drone, they look microscopic and less human. It is much easier to fire a shot at a diminutive target than life-sized people. I encountered this directly when I faced the Chinese soldier in the bunker right after Sully was killed. I quickly saw him as a real person, not just a target “Chink.” Both the Chinese soldier and I hesitated before acting, but I recovered first and survived. He died.
Army chaplains were available to talk if a soldier sought them out. However, I was not raised in a religious family and did not seek such support. Instead I found comfort that I was still alive and able to continue on with my surviving friends.
Shortly after the war I attended and graduated from Guilford College, a Quaker school in North Carolina. I learned how Quakers believe that it is wrong to take the life of another, even in wartime. Both in the classroom and out we had numerous discussions about pacifism, as well as my experiences in Korea. I gained a great appreciation for Quakers and their worldview, especially their tolerance for someone like me with such different experiences and beliefs. But, even after four years at Guilford, I still believed duty came first for soldiers.