"If we are marked to die, we are enough."
NOVEMBER 2 TO 4, 1950
Only the officers knew that the dark railway tunnel a few hundred yards up the road marked the official entrance to the Sudong Gorge. The enlisted men didn't carry maps, but they sensed it. Over the past several miles the broad rice paddies and vineyards, the neat rows of persimmon trees, and the tiny farmhouses with their empty oxcarts had disappeared and had been replaced by the stark granite hills of upper North Korea. "Injun Territory," one of the Marines said. A few others forced a grim laugh. To most of the Marines, hostile terrain had begun as soon as they'd crossed the 38th Parallel and started the long slog north. Still, that dark tunnel looked ominous.
They were Fox Company, and just before they rounded the sharp bend in the road and humped into the tunnel they spotted Dog Company engaged in a firelight, maybe half a mile to the west, along the slopes of one of the broken-tooth mountains. They found this strange. By this point in the war-more than four months since Kim Il Sung's invasion of South Korea, and six weeks after the United States' successful counterattack at Inchon-the North Koreans could be counted on to cut and run at the first sign of Americans. But Dog Company seemed to be meeting serious opposition, and some of the Marines in Fox Company began to wonder if the regimental commander's warning hadn't been the usual shinola; perhaps the Chinese had indeed crossed the Yalu River and entered the war.
In any event, that was Dog's problem, at least for the time being, and as Fox emerged from the north end of the tunnel and into the dusk, the sheer hills on either side of the company loomed high and tight.
It was a good place to call a halt, and the outfit's enigmatic commander, Captain Elmer Zorn, decided to bed down the column for the night. One of the actions that had Zorn's men often glancing at him warily was calling in an air strike uncomfortably close to their own position. On another occasion he mistakenly radioed for artillery support on Fox Company's own coordinates. The sun was dipping over the stout, charcoal-colored western hills, and an eerie gray mist shrouded the forbidding taller mountains to the north. Fox was still four miles south of its objective, the tiny crossroads hamlet of Sudong, but Zorn's men had slept hardly at all for two days. The CO considered the odds: with the First Battalion out in front, and the Third Battalion following close behind, he expected no trouble. Before assigning night watches, however, Zorn did take one precaution. He ordered the leaders of his three rifle platoons to have each of their men take a good long look at four Marines from the First Battalion who had been bayoneted in their sleeping bags twenty-four hours earlier. Their cold bodies, laid in a small depression between a creek bed and the dirt road, were still wrapped in their bloody mummy bags. Sergeant Earl Peach of the Second Platoon spat. He'd seen worse, on Tarawa and Iwo. Still, he never got used to the sight.
As darkness fell and the temperature dropped, Fox was strung out perhaps four hundred yards along the road, with sentries snaking up the overhanging ridgelines. All the scuttlebutt about the Red Chinese spooked the company, and scattered small arms fire and an occasional howitzer report punctuating the cold air from up ahead didn't help. At midnight a rumor started that a North Korean tank was prowling the area, and this put everyone's nerves on edge. But there were no incidents.
Not long after sunrise, a few Marines spotted the column of soldiers exiting the tunnel, seventy-five yards south of their bivouac. These were definitely troopers, maybe 200 all told, marching in twos with a brisk, jaunty step-far too crisp for them to be the weary Marines of the Third Battalion's rear guard. And they were wearing unfamiliar uniforms. But Fox Company had been relieving numerous South Korean infantrymen all along the road north, and these were most likely more of the same. The Americans had taken to calling their allies ROKs, after South Korea's official name, the Republic of Korea.
Corporal Alex "Bob" Mixon, a forward artillery observer attached to Fox from the Second Battalion's 81-mm mortar unit, was the first to see them-and the first to sense that something was not right. They were no more than forty or fifty yards away when he hollered, "Halt. Who goes there?"
The answer was a fusillade of automatic weapons fire. Mixon dived behind a rock. When he emptied the clip of his carbine into the two columns, they broke to both sides of the road and assumed firing positions. Mixon was impressed by their discipline-a trait heretofore lacking among most of the Reds he'd encountered. Now Mixon could hear Captain Zorn running toward him, yelling, "Hold your fire! Friends! Friends!"
But the bullets snapping over Bob Mixon's head were far from friendly, and as he shouldered his carbine and squeezed off another clip he watched Fox Company's civilian interpreter tackle the captain and pull him down into a ditch on the side of the road.
By now the Chinese-as Mixon had concluded they were-had set up two heavy machine guns on either side of the tunnel entrance and were pouring fire into the company's mortar squad strung out along the creek bed. Half a dozen Marines fell instantly. Mixon was debating what to do when a helmet popped up beside him. It was Sergeant Peach, who had crawled through a culvert under the road.
"Gotta keep 'em off those mortar men," Peach said. He began picking off enemy soldiers with his m 1. Mixon reloaded and joined in with his carbine, aiming especially for the machine gunners. When they had both run out of ammunition they fell back to Captain Zorn's ditch. The captain was on the field phone, ordering several fire teams to take the high ground and secure the main ridgeline on the east side of the gorge. Simultaneously, a large unit of Chinese broke off from the gunfight in the valley and began scrabbling up the steep hills.
A BAR man from the Second Platoon watched them: maybe a hundred or so soldiers no more than three hundred yards away, climbing a parallel peak. They were hopping along the ridgeline like jackrabbits, and he was so impressed with their agility and the sharp cut of their uniforms-hell, even their backpacks looked impossibly squared away-that he initially thought they might be some hotshot Marine outfit he didn't recognize.
But when his squad reached the top of the ridge they were stopped in their tracks by the disconcerting sight of a lone Chinese officer standing atop a giant boulder and dragging casually on a cigarette. At the Americans' approach he flicked his butt in their direction, jumped from the rock, and disappeared over the reverse slope. The Marines had been too stunned by his presence to shoot him. When they reached the boulder they found field telephone wires running down the cleft in the ridgeline. A couple of men unsheathed K-bar knives to cut the wires, and someone said, "The bastard's been watching us the whole time."
From the top of the hill the Marines of Fox Company could again see Dog Company, fighting for its life far to the west. Not a few men wondered what the hell was happening.
Meanwhile, down in the creek bed, one of the wounded Marines cried for help. A Navy corpsman squatting next to Captain Zorn made a move to rise from the ditch, but the company's gunnery sergeant shouldered him back to the ground. Because of the Chinese machine-gun fire, any attempt at rescue seemed futile. But Sergeant Peach decided to chance it. He scooped up the corpsman's medical kit and took off. Zorn and the few Marines behind him opened up with covering fire. Peach made the creek bed. The Americans near Zorn whooped with admiration. Peach was unlashing the med kit from his shoulder when he was stitched across the face by machine-gun fire. The top of his skull seemed to lift off his head, as if pulled by invisible wires.
Captain Zorn ordered a counterattack, and the remaining Chinese fled up the hill, leaving perhaps fifty of their dead strewn across the road. The rest of the day became a long, tense standoff as the Marines and Chinese regulars attempted to outflank each other on the ridgelines. Sniper fire and the occasional pop of small mortar rounds echoed off the hills. Zorn radioed Division and then ordered Fox Company to dig in for the night as he and his staff laid plans for a dawn attack.
But by sunrise the Chinese had vanished, and the Marines of Fox were left to wonder if this disappearance was permanent, or if they had just taken part in the opening salvo of World War III.