NOVEMBER 28, 1950 TWELVE MIDNIGHT TO 6 A.M.
Lieutenant Bob McCarthy had been only mildly upset about losing his argument with Sergeant John Henry about the positioning of the heavy machine guns. Now he was livid. Less than an hour earlier he'd reconnoitered the Third Platoon's perimeter across the hilltop. Half the men had failed to challenge his approach. He had been forced to "chunk" a few helmets with his rifle butt. He didn't care how cold and tired the men were. Anything to make them mad, even if they're mad at me. Angry men are alert men.
Now, at 1:15 a.m., he was back in his command post, or CP, reaming out his squad leaders. McCarthy had established the Third Rifle Platoon's CP in an old enemy bunker that his staff sergeant, Clyde Pitts, had discovered about thirty yards below the crest of the hill. The dugout wasn't much more than a pit, and its roof planks were rotting, but at least they would keep out most of the snow, which had again begun falling lightly. Despite his ill humor, the lieutenant thanked God for Pitts. He was a Marine lifer, a veteran of numerous Pacific campaigns during World War II, and a worldclass scrounger. Like Captain Barber, McCarthy was new to Fox Company, having arrived in Koto-ri only a day after the new commanding officer. He'd been the skipper of a weapons company in the States, and he knew guns.
One morning after the outfit had reached Hagaru-ri, McCarthy had ordered a snap weapons inspection. Of the nine fire teams in his platoon, only one had a working BAR. The remainder were so old and sluggish, with recoil springs that failed to react in the cold, that they were practically useless. He immediately summoned Pitts.
"Staff Sergeant, I don't know where they're coming from, or how you're going to do it, but I want eight working BARs here by sundown. Do you understand, Sergeant?"
Pitts nodded, spit a thick wad of tobacco juice in the snow at McCarthy's feet, and responded-well, responded with something that appeared to be an affirmative. McCarthy was barely able to understand the sergeant's words through his cotton-thick Alabama drawl. But he came through. That night McCarthy distributed eight new BARs to his fire teams. He never asked Pitts where they had come from.
Now Pitts was perhaps the most red-faced of all the noncoms seated in a semicircle around McCarthy as he voiced his displeasure over the company's lack of alertness before sending them out to square away the problem. Fifteen minutes later, McCarthy pulled another surprise inspection. Password challenges rang out loud and clear in the thin, crisp air.
On the way back to his bunker McCarthy lingered to talk with Edward Jones, the Navy corpsman assigned to his platoon. McCarthy liked Jones, and the two spoke long enough for Jones to wonder about the lieutenant's familiarity with medical terms. Jones thought that McCarthy-with his stocky torso, Celtic features, and short, brushy dark hair-actually looked like an emergency room doctor, or at least the Hollywood kind. Lew Ayres as Dr. Kildare, maybe.
McCarthy liked the analogy so much that he confided to Jones a personal irony. If he had uttered the word "yes" five years ago, he said, he just might be in that foxhole instead of Jones.
At twenty-eight, Bob McCarthy was one of the oldest Marines in the company. He had enlisted in 1940, after his sophomore year at Oklahoma A&M, where he'd studied to become a veterinarian. The son of a pipefitter in Tulsa, he'd been such a gifted childaccording to his score in a national intelligence test-that the princi pal of his grammar school recommended he skip second and third grades. His mother liked to boast about that. She was the only woman in her bridge club whose child had been jumped two classes. When McCarthy's father was laid off during the Depression, the family used their small savings to buy a farm on the outskirts of the city. The senior McCarthy explained to his family that growing their own food might well be the only way they would eat.
In high school and college McCarthy felt a natural affinity for the sciences, and he excelled in biology, chemistry, and psychology. His mother was still thinking of her son as a future veterinarian when she discovered by chance that Bob had dropped out of college to join the Marines. He explained to her that he felt he owed service to a nation that had allowed him to move so effortlessly up the educational ladder. Much like Captain Barber's family, McCarthy's parents were distraught. Nothing, however, could change his mind.
McCarthy became a seagoing Marine, and by a stroke of good fortune he sailed from Pearl Harbor one day before the Japanese sneak attack in 1941. He subsequently saw action across the Pacific theater from Midway to the Philippines. He was promoted to corporal in 1943 when his platoon leader-again, much like Barber -noticed something special in this intellectual young man and urged him to apply for a slot in an experimental Naval College program being taught at the University of Notre Dame. He scored so high on the entrance exam that he was only one of two enlisted men chosen for the course. After three semesters at Notre Dame he received his college degree and was selected to attend St. Louis University's medical school on a Navy scholarship.
This was where he made his fateful choice. There were-and are-no Marine corpsmen. The Marine Corps is technically a branch of the Department of the Navy, but it is as fiercely self-sufficient as possible. The Corps trains its own engineering units, attorneys, military police, and pilots, and even journalists, weather forecasters, and musicians. The two career options closed to Marines, however, are medicine and religious vocations, as the Navy serves these functions with its own doctors, nurses, medics, and chaplains.
When McCarthy learned that in order to attend medical school he would have to trade in his Marine blues for Navy whites, he politely declined and enrolled in Marine officer candidate school instead. Now, as he hunched next to Jones's foxhole and took in the scene around him, he was certain he had made the right decision. Although Marines bristled at the notion of being mere "adjuncts" to the U.S. Navy, not a leatherneck alive had anything but the highest regard for the Navy corpsmen who risked their lives on the battlefield. But Bob McCarthy knew, deep down, that he would rather lead a charge than clean up after one.
It was 2 a.m. when McCarthy returned to his bunker from his second inspection. He handed his field phone to Corporal Thomas Ashdale, the leader of the Third Squad-who had once studied for the Catholic priesthood-and told him to awaken Sergeant Audas for the 4 a.m. watch. He crawled into his bag in the back of the bunker and was asleep within seconds.
At the same time, near the base of the hill, the company's forward air controller noted faint flares, soft as starlight, bursting in the sky several miles to the northwest. The snow had stopped falling, the clouds were gone, and a bright moon had risen. Unknown to the air controller-unknown, in fact, to everyone else at the moment, including the regimental commander Colonel Litzenberg at Yudam-ni-the illumination shells he was watching were Charlie Company's desperate cry for help.
Earlier, the air controller had managed to raise a weak signal on his own radio, and after watching a second barrage of flares burst in the same area in the northwest sky he contacted the howitzer battery at Hagaru-ri and requested several precautionary rounds, to be dropped on the little West Hill, the knoll two hundred yards opposite the Second Platoon's dug-in positions on the west slope. Captain Benjamin Read, the artillery outfit's commanding officer, replied that because ammunition was scarce he was under orders to fire his six big guns only if Fox Company came under direct attack.
The air controller replaced the radio receiver, uttered a mild oath, and kept his eyes fixed on the night sky for the next five minutes. At 2:05 a.m. he was startled by the rumble of a Jeep climbing the road from Hagaru-ri. This was the second Jeep to break the moonlit hush that had fallen over the pass. The first, a bit after midnight, had rolled down from the north with a five-man wire crew stringing a communications line between Colonel Litzenberg's regimental command post and Captain Barber's tent. The noisy unspooling of the wire had awakened several Marines on the lower slopes, but most of the men stationed above never heard it.
An enlisted man jumped from this second Jeep, threw a large bag of mail over his shoulder, and disappeared into the smaller of the two huts, where the mortarmen and corpsmen were sleeping on the dirt floor. After a few seconds the enlisted man returned to the Jeep and began grappling with one of the other canvas mailbags on the backseat. Twice more the Marine returned to the vehicle to tote bags into the small hut. He was about to enter the hut for the third time when he spun around at the sound of a voice issuing a challenge.
Above him, on the secondary ridgeline about forty yards west of the hut, a Marine from the Second Platoon, his outline partially hidden by a thicket of trees, was yelling at something, or somebody, coming down the road from Yudam-ni. Simultaneously, Staff Sergeant William Groenewald, standing watch in Captain Barber's company command post tent, picked up his buzzing field phone. Lieutenant Elmo Peterson of the Second Platoon informed him that in the bright moonlight he could clearly make out a large group of "natives" emerging from the shadows behind the West Hill and marching down the MSR. Groenewald shook Captain Barber awake.
"Captain, Second Platoon says there's natives coming down the road."
"What time is it?"
"Just past oh-two-hundred, sir."
"Hold 'em until we can question them."
Barber sent his staff sergeant to find Mr. Chung, the Korean interpreter, who was sleeping in one of the huts. Barber's first thought was that this was a stray South Korean unit, or perhaps a group of civilian refugees. He recalled the deserted road on the trip up to the pass. So that's where they all went.
Like Barber, the Americans on the western grade of the hill had no way of knowing that the line of soldiers moving toward them, four men to a row, belonged to the first of five companies in a Chinese battalion of the Fifty-ninth CCF Division. As this point column emerged from behind the West Hill and approached Fox's southwest perimeter, the Marines on the lower west slope could hear them chattering among themselves and their white canvas sneakers shuffling on the dirt road. Seconds later they were surprised to also hear bolts racking on automatic weapons and the tapping of potato mashers on the frozen ground to activate their fuses.
At precisely 2:07 a.m., an anonymous Marine from Fox Company's Second Platoon, his password challenge unreturned, emptied the twenty-round clip of his BAR into the forward ranks of the approaching soldiers. The Chinese returned fire at the same instant.
Corporal Ashdale, on watch near Lieutenant McCarthy's command post bunker, wheeled and shouted, "Here they come!"
The next four hours were a hellbroth of bugles, gunfire, whistles, explosions, clanging cymbals, acrid smoke, and frantic war cries, destined to be recorded in Marine Corps annals as the onset of the Battle for Fox Hill.
Corporal Jack Page, the gunner manning the most westerly heavy machine gun, opened up with several long bursts into the enemy point company, elevating and lowering his aim for maximum effect. Chinese soldiers fell across the road as if scythed. Page guessed that his sweeping gunfire had wiped out nearly two dozen men. The rest scattered to either side of the MSR in small groups, and kept coming.
Private First Class Billy French, the Marine who had delivered the mail from Hagaru-ri, dropped the third mailbag and ran to his Jeep. He grabbed his carbine and ducked under the vehicle as the red tracer bullets of Page's heavy machine gun arced over him, over the two huts, and over Captain Barber's tent command post. French fired at anything that moved on the road while bullets thudded off the frozen ground and grenades exploded around him. He watched one particular tracer from Page's machine gun ricochet off a rock and head straight for him. He pulled his head into his parka like a turtle. The bullet winged over his head and snapped into the backseat of the Jeep. He wondered if you ever saw the round that killed you.
Two privates first class-Lee Knowles and Bob Rapp-sleeping in the trailer hitched to the company Jeep, woke to an unnerving cacophony of shepherds' horns, whistles, rhythmic war chants, and Page's screaming machine gun. These two First Platoon Marines had arrived on the last truck that had chugged up to the pass from Hagaru-ri, and the first thing they spotted, on dismounting, was the empty trailer pulled to the side of the road. They trudged past it toward the hill, searching for a place to dig in, but when Rapp spat and his saliva froze as soon as it hit the road, they had glanced at each other, turned in place, stowed their gear, and climbed in to bed down.
Now, as bullets cracked past their ears, Rapp yelled to Knowles that they had to get out. Knowles threw a bear hug around him and whispered, "Lie doggo, they're all over us." He could see their faces across the road, not ten feet away. An instant later, the First Platoon's Sergeant Kenneth Kipp popped his head up behind Knowles and Rapp on the Fox Hill side of the trailer. From his position on the east slope, Kipp had seen their predicament and led his four-man fire team down to cover their escape.
As Kipp's team poured bullets down the road, Rapp and Knowles grabbed their rifles, heaved themselves over the side of the trailer, and ran fifty feet up the hill. They fell into two empty foxholes, stood up, and turned to fire. Kipp was leading his men back up to their original position when Rapp was shot through both forearms.
As the first slugs ripped through his canvas tent, Captain Barber pushed himself out of his sleeping bag and ordered Lieutenant Schmitt to contact Colonel Litzenberg at Yudam-ni, using the landline laid by the wire team two hours earlier. Barber and the other nine men in the tent scrambled for their weapons and shoepacs-Barber and his executive officer, Lieutenant Clark Wright, put each other's on in the confusion. The captain sensed that the Chinese knew exactly where his CP was situated. Barber was the last man to bolt through the rear flap, and as he clawed his way to higher ground he turned and saw enemy infantrymen pouring down the MSR, already climbing over the cut and beginning to surround the two huts. He heard Schmitt yell that the wire to Yudam-ni had been severed.
The Chinese reached the smaller hut first. Lieutenant Brady, the mortar unit's commanding officer, leaped from his bag and tackled the first enemy soldier through the front door while his mortarmen and Marines from the headquarters unit grabbed whatever weapons and gear were close at hand. They all ducked out the back doorway leading up the hill. At a spot about thirty feet from the hut they gathered with the other mortarmen who had been billeted in the mortar section tent.
Lieutenant Brady was the last out of the hut, and as he joined the group their position was hit by a fusillade of hand grenades. Brady tried to concentrate his men in a defensive perimeter. A grenade exploded, and he was wounded in the hand and back. He dropped to his knees, stunned by the fragments. The two Marines on either side of him were killed, and one of the 60-mm tubes was damaged.
The mortarmen regrouped behind and above the smaller hut. Lieutenant Schmitt and his radioman ran by carrying Captain Barber's SCR-300 radio and a 610 field phone. Schmitt stopped and ordered the surviving mortarmen to haul their tubes, shells, and wounded up to the shallow culvert, no more than few feet wide, that climbed two-thirds of the way up the center of Fox Hill. One crew had difficulty loosening the baseplate of an 81-mm mortar from the frozen ground. Covering them with a BAR, Sergeant Robert Jones, the 81-mm unit's forward observer, emptied a full twenty-round clip into a squad of Reds running at them from the southeast corner of the larger hut. Schmitt finally pried the baseplate from the ground with an entrenching tool and carried it away.
When the mortar teams reached the bottom of the culvert their section leader, Staff Sergeant Robert Kohls, directed them to move all mortar tubes and ammo to the top of the little draw where it ended just above the tree line. Although greatly exposed, the mortars had to be set up with unimpeded fields of fire. This meant there could be no tree branches hanging overhead. As soon as Kohls turned to cover his unit's retreat, a potato masher exploded between him and Private First Class Richard Kline, one of the 81-mm gunners. Kohls's throat was slashed by grenade fragments; Kline suffered wounds in his right arm and both legs. Kohls dropped to the ground; Kline picked him up; and together they limped up the culvert.
The mail carrier, Billy French, firing his carbine from beneath his Jeep, heard voices above him. He rolled out from under the vehicle, jumped to his feet, and shot two Chinese soldiers who had crawled into the backseat. He turned, emptied the remaining bullets in his clip at the charging white-clad figures across the road, and ran up the hill. Somewhere near the tree line he found an empty foxhole and fell into it face-first.
The bazooka gunner Corporal Harry Burke stayed low in the larger hut while he hurried to get into his winter gear and shoepacs. He noticed that the Navy corpsman Mervyn "Red" Maurath was already dressing the wounds of two Marines. Automatic weapons fire punched holes in the flimsy walls of the building. This so concentrated Burke's attention that he realized only belatedly that he had jammed the wrong feet into his shoepacs. He didn't stop to change them, and after stuffing his sleeping bag into the large cooking pot in the kitchen area of the hut, he grabbed his bazooka and ran through the easternmost door. The Chinese were no more than eight feet away. He emptied his .45-caliber pistol.
Six hours earlier Burke had thought it pretty fortunate that he had managed to secure a sleeping space in a warm hut while the rest of the company went away, cold and griping, to dig in among the rocks. Out in the field you didn't get a roof over your head every day. Now Burke, the heavy machine gunner Jack Page, and several Marines who had also sacked out in the large hut laid down covering fire as Maurath and three more Marines carried the two wounded men up the hill and into the trees. Burke followed them.
When he'd climbed perhaps thirty yards he stopped to look back. A Chinese soldier was peeking out of the hut Burke had just abandoned. The bastard was taunting him, daring the Marines, in English, to come back and retrieve their warm winter gear. With a laugh he assured them that they would not be shot. Burke and the men around him emptied their weapons at him.
Below and to Burke's left corporals Robert Gaines and Rollin Hutchinson scooped up their weapons and stray pieces of gear and scampered up the hill. They were from the First Platoon's Third Squad, and they had arrived on the last truck with Rapp and Knowles. It had been so dark that instead of digging in they had merely chucked their sleeping bags to the ground on the lower, southeast corner of the hill between the erosion ridgeline and a jumbled column of rocks the size of large headstones. They had wordlessly agreed to dig foxholes in the morning, spread their canvas ground cover on the snow, and fallen asleep.
Now they were stumbling blindly through the pine trees when they heard someone yell, "Get the hell over here?" They moved right and took up positions behind Private First Class Jim Holt's heavy machine gun. When Page on the other heavy gun had begun raking the Chinese, Holt also had a clear field of fire. But his water-cooled gun jammed, the water frozen to ice, and it remained jammed. Gaines and Hutchinson dropped in behind Holt and racked the bolts of their M 1 s.
Private First Class Phil Bavaro, a cook with Fox Company, jumped up from the grain storage bin in the small hut where he'd been sleeping. He caught a glimpse of his fellow cook, Private First Class John Bledsoe, hotfooting it out the northern entranceway and up the hill. Bavaro, still in his skivvies, snatched up his parka and his M I.
He and Bledsoe had been among the last Marines to arrive on the hill, and upon spotting the smaller of the abandoned huts, Bavaro had made a beeline for it, with Bledsoe behind him. Inside, Bavaro had stripped off his outer clothing, spread his sleeping bag inside the large wooden grain storage bin at the downhill end of the structure, crawled into the bag in his long johns, and nodded off. He was used to sleeping in confined places. His bunk on the troopship had been a gun tub.
Now, as bullets cracked past his head, Bavaro barely reached the door when somebody yelled, "Grenade, Cookie!" Bavaro dropped facedown in the doorway. A potato masher exploded to his left. The shrapnel opened a deep cut on his right thumb and peppered his rifle.
The same voice yelled, "Now, Cookie!" Bavaro dodged to his left, tripped over a fallen tree trunk, and backflipped down behind it. Beside him the supply sergeant, David Smith, whose warning he had heard, was firing his M 1 into a dozen Chinese coming toward them. Automatic weapons fire split the tree trunk, and Bavaro and Smith scrambled farther up the hill. But they were caught between the crossfire of the advancing Chinese and Jack Page's heavy machine gun behind them. They rolled and flopped into a slight depression, so narrow and shallow Bavaro wished he didn't have to share it, even with the man who had just saved his life. A second later the corpsman Red Maurath and three Marines carrying two wounded men squeezed in beside them.
Near the center of the base of the hill the shot-up remains of two Chinese squads regrouped with the intention of taking out Page's heavy machine gun. They knew exactly where it was-the red-phosphorous-coated tracers it fired every fifth round gave away the gun's position.
The enemy infantrymen climbed to within yards of the emplacement before the Marines surrounding Page decimated them with M 1 and BAR fire. Staff Sergeant John Henry shot three men point-blank with his.45-caliber pistol, then picked up a Thompson submachine gun from one of the dead and shot three or four more. Killing people this close, he realized, was a lot more intimate than spraying them from the top turret of a B-24.
The mail carrier, Billy French, thought something was wrong with his carbine. It wasn't knocking anyone down. Despite its smaller round, the lighter carbine was the preferred weapon of officers and platoon leaders, and French had counted himself lucky to have scavenged one back in Hagaru-ri and not to be lugging an MI. But now he and other Marines firing the carbines noticed, to their amazement and chagrin, that their bullets barely penetrated the white quilted uniforms of the advancing Chinese. They just kept coming. Word spread among the Americans on the hill, not for the last time, "Men with carbines, aim for the head."
The Chinese point column on the MSR had once consisted of nearly 150 soldiers. Now, perhaps half still stood. Their number continued to shrink as Marines from the Second Platoon on the lower west slope poured rifle and light machine-gun fire into their rear. Gray Davis and his BAR man, Private First Class Maurice "Luke" Johnson, were among these. Davis was fascinated by tracers. He felt they should be issued to riflemen as well as to machine gunners to help sight the enemy at night. To that end he'd scrounged a clip to save until the time was right. His foxhole mate, Johnson, thought this idea insane. Why don't you just put up a billboard showing them where we are?
Nonetheless, to Davis the time was now right. He had left the tracer clip perched on the parapet of their hole before the fighting started. But now he couldn't find it. He turned to Johnson and stared.
"Damn right," Johnson said. "Threw 'em away when you weren't looking. Get killed on your own time."
A few Chinese tried to avoid the murderous enfilade by taking shelter under the base of the cut bank-the sheer ten-foot wall where the hill met the road. Lieutenant Peterson, running up and down behind his platoon's lines, ordered the Marines closest to the road to roll hand grenades over the precipice. The Chinese were being beaten back, but the Americans were running low on ammunition. Peterson ordered all men to fix bayonets.
Farther east of the cut bank a dozen or so Chinese ducked behind a pile of five large rocks a short distance up the slope from the southwest juncture of the hill and the road. Using the rocks and surrounding brush as cover they maneuvered up the hill toward the tree line. It was an obvious attempt to take out the lower of the Second Platoon's light machine guns. They, too, were zeroing in on the gun's tracers. Finally the Chinese burst into the open. They were met-and cut down to a man-by fire from the machine gun as well as the rifles and BARs on either side of it.
By 2:15 a.m., eight minutes after the first, unidentified Marine from Fox Company had issued his password challenge, the wounded mortarman Richard Kline and his assistant gunner had set up their 81-mm tube above the tree line at the top of the shallow culvert. The company's second 81-mm team hacked out an emplacement a few yards behind them. Captain Barber, his runner, and most of the headquarters unit had also made it up the gully by now. Barber set up a temporary command post in the top row of trees just below the mortar emplacements. The communications officer, Lieutenant Schmitt, joined him. Schmitt and his assistant dumped the company 610 field phone and the SCR300 radio on the ground next to Barber and began cranking the handles in desperation.
Because the mortar team leaders, including Lieutenant Brady and Sergeant Kohls, had been wounded, Barber directed Private First Class Lloyd O'Leary, the most senior member of the 60-mm team remaining, to take command of the combined mortar units. Barber had had his eye on O'Leary since the company's first night bombardment on the road from Koto-ri. The kid had exhibited a natural ability to acquire targets in a hurry, account for his ammunition, and calculate advance firing zones. Barber had also noticed that O'Leary possessed a streak of leadership.
Now O'Leary ordered the three 60-mm teams to dig in about thirty yards east of Kline's position while Kline scrambled around the emplacement putting out luminous aiming stakes at different compass points.
While the Chinese point company was being slaughtered down on the road, the four remaining companies of the enemy battalion broke off the MSR and began a flanking maneuver. This was what CCF military training manuals called "assembly on the objective"the apparent ability to materialize on enemy positions from different directions at the same time. A flying buttress of 500 to 600 soldiers raced up the valley separating Fox Hill from the West Hill. The Americans never saw them reach the saddle. In fact, because of Fox Hill's rugged contours and multiple ridgelines, most of the Marines on the upper slopes and across the eastern grade had not even heard the sounds of the firelight below.
The Chinese assembled at the far end of the land bridge beneath the rocky knoll. A column of grenadiers formed into a skirmish line and began creeping toward the crest of the hill, where the right flank of the Second Platoon met the left flank of the Third Platoon. Behind these 100 or so close-combat breachers were about 400 regulars armed with assorted rifles and automatic weapons. They moved out in silence in rows of forty, spaced ten yards apart. Just as Captain Barber had anticipated, their immediate objectives were the two light machine-gun emplacements covering this corner of the heights.
At 2:20 a.m., at the pinnacle of the hill, the grenadiers sprang from the ground, stumbling into the holes occupied by the Third Platoon's forward fire team. Sergeant Johnson McAfee was bayoneted in his sleeping bag. Corporal Wayne Pickett and Private First Class Troy Williford, off watch and asleep in their bags behind their rock, were dragged like squirrels in a sack back across the saddle toward the rocky knoll. Private First Class Daniel Yesko, on watch in an adjacent hole, leaped to his feet and emptied his M1 clip. He was shot in the hip and crumpled to the ground. Five Chinese soldiers jumped him, clubbed him into submission, and carried him off as well. As he was being dragged away Pickett heard Yesko's muffled screams, "I've been hit! I've been hit!"
Yesko's firing and cries also reached the corpsman Edward Jones. Jones leaped from his hole and began running toward the commotion. He was shot and killed before he was halfway there.
Private Hector Cafferata caught the scent of garlic before he saw them. He and Private First Class Ken Benson were hunkered down in their listening post well out in front of the American defensive perimeter. Cafferata was on watch, his stocking feet stuffed into his sleeping bag, while Benson dozed. He was trying to melt frozen peanut butter in his mouth when he thought he heard gunfire down by the road. Or was it just the wind playing tricks? He was about to wake his foxhole buddy when he saw scores of white-clad figures flashing past their foxhole about thirty yards to his right.
"Bense," he whispered, "they're coming. Wake up. Get your boots on."
Benson had barely gotten to his knees and was struggling with his shoepacs when a satchel charge landed in their hole. He picked it up and heaved. The explosion shook them both. His eyes still ice-crusted from sleep, Benson exchanged a quizzical look with Cafferata. They were kids, albeit tough kids, and this was the first action either one of them had seen. It struck them as a game of some kind. It certainly couldn't be real.
Benson shouted, "Home by Christmas, Hec?"
Benson emptied his BAR clip and Cafferata let loose a salvo with his M 1. It was like being back in the woods in New Jersey, picking crows off a tree limb. The Reds were so close he didn't even have to aim. Within moments he had taken down more than a dozen.
The firing alerted Sergeant Meredith Keirn, the crew leader of one of the Third Platoon's two light machine guns near the crest. He opened up at the same time as Corporal Hobart Ladner, who manned another light machine gun twenty paces to his left. They lit up the saddle, the guns' red tracer rounds casting a crimson tint on the faces of the charging enemy.
Having lost the element of surprise, the remaining Chinese rushed forward with a series of heart-stopping bugle blasts, chants, and whistles. They were on top of Keirn in an instant. His machine gun dropped them so close that the dead began to pile up before his emplacement, face-first, like sandbags, impeding his field of fire. His four ammo cans held 250 rounds each. Within moments he was down to his third, the last few rounds inching toward the loading breech.
As the enemy swarmed over the hilltop the thirty-five men who constituted the two forward squads of the Third Platoon were hard hit. Corporals Harvey Friend and Norman Johnson and privates first class Peter Tilhoff, Paul Troxell, Richard Stein, Dan Stiller, and Charles Stillwell were killed almost immediately. Private First Class James Umpleby, the only surviving member of his fire team, was wounded in four places but continued to fire his weapon until he ran out of ammunition. He then collapsed, unconscious.
Behind and slightly down the hill from Cafferata and Benson, corporals Oma Peek and James Iverson of the Second Platoon were also in trouble. Several squads of Chinese, caught in the crossfire between the two light machine guns, were funneled directly toward their foxhole. Iverson and Peek were inundated by hand grenades and automatic weapons fire; their position was overrun. Iverson was mortally wounded and Peek was knocked unconscious.
Holes were opening all over the American perimeter. Hundreds of Chinese poured through the gash in the broken flank between the Second and Third platoons, and Cafferata and Benson were surrounded. Two enemy riflemen reached the lip of their hole; Cafferata clubbed them with his shovel. One of them dropped a Thompson submachine gun. Cafferata picked it up and emptied it into another approaching squad. Benson, reloading, elbowed him. "Time to go, Hec."
Go? Go where? It had been so dark by the time Fox Company reached the hill that the two Marines had no idea where the rest of their platoon's foxholes were. Then, at the same time, they both remembered a slit trench they had passed on their sortie to cut tree branches for their "nest." It was about twenty-five yards behind and above them, closer to the top of the hill. They grabbed their weapons and ammo, rolled out of the hole, and fought their way back, Cafferata still in his stocking feet. They fell into a trench occupied by privates first class Harrison Pomers and Gerald Smith.
Pourers, a regular Marine, was one of the Third Platoon's fire team leaders. He was a tough kid who had once been a linebacker for the Corps' amateur football team. He was also a former scout swimmer with a seagoing squadron based in the Caribbean. Right about now, he was wondering how the hell he had wound up here, surrounded by Chinese and about as far away from that warm blue water as a man could get. Pomers had met Smith, a raw reservist, just a few hours earlier as he was scoping out the abandoned trench, four feet deep and eight feet long. He'd been so overjoyed at not having to dig out a foxhole that he'd promptly forgotten the new guy's name. He remembered it now, although he had no idea who these two Second Platoon Marines falling into his trench were.
Pomers had removed eight clips from his cartridge belt and lined them up on the lip of the trench. He was already through half of them. After he was joined by Cafferata and Benson, the four stood shoulder to shoulder, firing into the enemy flanks-particularly those now closing in on Corporal Ladner's machine-gun emplacement. It was no use. Ladner and his three-man crew disappeared in a sea of smoky white figures. Ladner and privates first class Benjamin Hymel and Jack Horn were killed. Private First Class Bill Boudousquie was wounded and left for dead. Two Chinese infantrymen trampled over his prone body as they dragged Ladner's light machine gun down into the ravine that ran up the valley between Fox Hill and the West Hill.
A concussion grenade exploded in the slit trench and kicked Pourers into the wall. Another bounced off his helmet and exploded just outside the trench, nearly knocking him out. He could move nothing but his left arm. He wiped his head, saw the blood on his left hand, and frantically reached for his helmet. Miraculously, he found it and slapped it back on. A voice was calling his name. A face came into focus. He recognized a Navy corpsman. "You'll be OK," the corpsman said.
After watching Ladner's machine-gun nest fall, Cafferata, Benson, and Smith let loose a torrent of covering fire as the Chinese surrounded another Third Platoon fire team. The hill itself seemed to tremble. But privates first class John Stritch, William Fry, John Bryan, and Arnold Vey died in the holes where they stood and fought.
The Chinese continued to concentrate their attacks on the machine guns. On the hilltop Sergeant Keirn's nest was finally overrun. Four Marines in Keirn's crew died around him as he knocked six enemy soldiers down with his forty-five-caliber sidearm. He threw his empty pistol at another charging soldier just before his left arm was blown off by a fragmentation grenade.
With the capture of the two light machine guns the Chinese had effectively taken the northwest crest of Fox Hill. They now divided and attacked down the west slope and across the top of the hill. Private First Class Bob Kirchner, out of ammunition near the top of the west grade, bayoneted one man charging his hole, and then another. Still more came. A bugle blared from behind a large rock not ten feet away. Kirchner wheeled and a stray shot took off the tip of the little finger on his left hand. He stared blankly at the bloody stump; the hand seemed to belong to someone else. The squad leader Sergeant Joe Komorowski came flying by his hole hollering for a grenade. Kirchner tossed him one as if lateraling a football. Without stopping the big sergeant pulled the pin, climbed halfway up the rock, and dropped it on the bugler's head.
In the hole next to Kirchner, Private First Class Fidel Gomez and Private Harold Hancock raked a solid wall of charging infantrymen. Neither had been to boot camp, but both had qualified in advance combat training, including marksmanship, at Pendleton. There the targets had been far more distant. The enemy was now no farther than thirty feet away. The Chinese fell like bowling pins. His adrena line churning, Gomez at one point turned to Hancock to ask for more clips. His foxhole buddy was frozen into his firing position. Gomez pushed him. He fell backward, dead, a bullet hole through his left eye. Gomez, a devout Catholic, said a quick prayer for his soul.
Over on the Third Platoon's right flank, at the northeast corner of the peak, Howard Koone saw what looked like red fireworks off to his left. He kicked Dick Bonelli's sleeping bag. "They're coming," he said. Bonelli sprang up, grabbed his M 1, and glanced over his right shoulder. "Ski" Golembieski and "Goldy" Goldstein were already in firing positions. The Chinese crashed through in waves.
"Jesus Christ, it's a New Year's Eve party!" Bonelli hollered as volleys of potato mashers trailing their glowing cloth fuses filled the air. All four Marines in Koone's fire team stood to meet themand all four of their weapons misfired, including Koone's BAR. The firing pins had frozen solid.
"Fix bayonets and throw hand grenades," hollered Koone. He was the first to toss one. Three Chinese soldiers sailed through the air. Bonelli pulled grenade pins and threw as fast as he could, tossing short while Koone threw long. Bonelli bit off one pin and part of his lip stuck to the frozen metal. Koone jumped from the hole and stood on the edge raging like a madman, waving his shovel over his head. "C'mon motherfuckers?"
A Chinese soldier emerged from the dark and Koone plunged the point of the entrenching tool deep into his throat. Jesus! Bonelli thought. Fuckin' Cochise we got here.
All around him Bonelli could hear the gurgling death cries and anguished yelps of the shredded enemy. He did not speak their language, but even in this horrific clamor he was instinctively able to distinguish between those who were yelling for help and those who were offering their final prayers. He turned around. Golembieski and Goldstein were gone, vanished. He swore and pulled another pin. As he let the grenade fly Koone tumbled back into him, hard, knocking him over. The corporal had been hit in the ankle by a burst from a burp gun.
Koone screamed. He felt as if someone had chopped at his leg with an ax. He saw stars, and a hot taste of aluminum seared the back of his throat. He felt like vomiting, but he couldn't get the bile to rise. He tried to get to his feet, but the sudden rush of blood to his brain sent him into a dizzying spiral. He screamed again and again. He wailed so loudly that he scared Bonelli. "Jesus, you tryin' to bring every Chinaman in Manchuria down on us!" Bonelli said.
Alone and desperate, fearful that Koone's shrieks would attract half the Chinese army, Bonelli half-carried and half-dragged Koone out of the hole and down the hill. After a few paces he stumbled across Golembieski and Goldstein, frantically working their rifle bolts. He started to curse them. They cut him off.
"New perimeter," Golembieski said. He was panting. "Lieutenant says all Third Platoon re-form thirty yards down the slope."
Bonelli had no way of knowing that Bob McCarthy had burst from his dugout at the first rifle reports and rallied his reserve fire teams to plug the gaps in the line while ordering the hilltop perimeter pulled back. As Bonelli passed through this new line he thought that it seemed to be holding.
"Back up in a minute!" he yelled to no one in particular and continued dragging Corporal Koone down the hill. Koone felt as if his leg were made of lead and thought his foot was about to tear off. Bonelli was oblivious. He continued to holler: "Back up in a minute!"
Private First Class Ernest Gonzalez did not hear Dick Bonelli's cries, although he was less than twenty yards away. The whizzing, subsonic boomlets snapping over his head reminded him of "pulling butts"-marking targets on the rifle range at Pendleton. But there was one difference: the enemy's gunpowder had a peculiar stench. Gonzalez had been told that the Chinese lubricated their guns with whale oil to keep them from freezing up. It smelled more like whale shit to him.
He wiggled out of his sleeping bag in the slit trench on the centerright flank of the Third Platoon's perimeter. For some reason he checked his watch. It was 2:22 a.m. He squirmed into the foxhole to his right, raised his head above the lip, and saw scores of whiteclad "phantoms" running across the ridgeline.
Gonzalez was an assistant BAR man, Third Squad, Third Platoon, Third Fire Team, and he had been cold and angry from the moment he ascended to the top of Fox Hill. Now he was cold, angry, and frightened. A few hours earlier his squad had huddled at the base of the hill, halfheartedly digging in for well over an hour before finally being assigned positions all the way up at the eastern edge of the crest. Gonzalez was only seventeen and weighed barely more than 100 pounds; he was so thin that, people joked, he was nearly invisible when he turned sideways. When he turned up to face the hilltop and judged the wind he realized that the gale would cut him in half. His nose and cheeks were already affected by mild frostbite, which he had picked up at Hagaru-ri, and a deep gash on his left index finger, the result of a woodcutting accident a week earlier, was refusing to heal. Now they wanted him to act as a human wind sock?
"Fuck it," he'd said to his BAR man at the bottom of the hill. "I'm staying here."
"Get your skinny ass up there," the BAR man said.
Gonzalez muttered a curse, but he moved. It was the murals that got him going.
A year earlier Gonzalez and three friends from East Los Angeles had ventured down to the Marine Armory in Chavez Ravine, where the Los Angeles Dodgers would one day play. They had lied about their age and tried to enlist in the reserves. All four boys had failed the written entrance test, and they then talked about visiting the local Army recruiting office. But Gonzalez was determined-his extended family included veterans from both world wars-and the next day he persuaded his best friend, Charlie Rivera, to join him in giving the Corps one more try. The same recruiting officer who had administered the previous test was again passing out the entrance exam, but he didn't appear to recognize the two boys from the barrio. They passed, and they were assigned to Able Battery of the Second Howitzer Battalion.
Before leaving the recruiting center Gonzalez had studied the murals at the armory-dramatic, heroic depictions of the islandhopping Marines of World War II. The seriousness of the commitment he had just made became etched in his mind.
Gonzalez's unit had been called up on July 18, when President Truman activated the reserves, and on reaching Pendleton he was transferred from the Howitzer Battalion to Fox Rifle Company. He was shipped to Yokahama, Japan, where he trained for nearly a month before arriving in Wonsan on November 7. (That was his saint's day, commemorating Saint Ernest, a medieval German Benedictine abbot who joined the Crusades, preached in Persia and Arabia, and was tortured to death in Mecca.)
"Should have known right then that this wasn't going to turn out well," he said to his buddy Private First Class Freddy Gonzales, another Marine in Fox Company. Freddy Gonzales was not a relative, although he told Ernest that their aunts knew each other. In fact, when Ernest Gonzalez had caught up to Fox just south of Sudong he discovered that there were many Hispanics in the outfit, including three more Gonzaleses in addition to Freddy. Ernest was the only one whose name ended in "z." Something of a rivalry emerged between the southern California branch and the Texas branch, and as a show of independence Ernest and each of the Gonzaleses began responding in a more individual way during morning roll call. "Here," one would say. Another would answer, "Present." A third might merely say, "Yes." Ernest decided his response would be "Hoo," a variation of the Marines' "Hoo-yah."
Near the top of the hill Ernest Gonzalez's fire team had found two abandoned foxholes connected by a slit trench about eight feet long. Gonzalez scooched down into one hole, barely a stone's throw from the southwest corner of the same gnarled thicket Dick Bonelli had eyed with suspicion. His BAR man took the other hole. Their team leader jumped into a third, ten feet to Gonzalez's right. Only then did Gonzalez realize that their fire team was one short. He would have to serve as both assistant BAR man and rifleman.
Now, with the Chinese seemingly surrounding their position, Gonzalez thought, fleetingly, of that man their fire team was lacking. Could use that extra gun now. He knelt in a firing position. His BAR man was already emptying clips into the enemy columns from his hole on the left side of the trench. His fire team leader was doing the same with an M 1 from a hole to the right. Gonzalez lifted his own MI. He had butterflies in his stomach. He had never been in combat before. He was about to squeeze off his first round when he was knocked to the bottom of the hole by a retreating Marine. The American, whom Gonzalez did not recognize, tossed him his rifle. He shouted that it had jammed. He picked up Gonzalez's gun and started firing. Then he jumped the back lip of the hole and took off down the hill.
Gonzalez unjammed the firing pin on the MI and rose to shoot again. He saw a squad of Chinese soldiers, outlined by the moon, crossing the terrain laterally to his left. He fired and a man dropped -his first kill. He wanted to cheer, but something told him not to act like an idiot. He was aiming again when a grenade exploded near his BAR man and knocked him down. Gonzalez started to crawl on his belly and was halfway across the slit trench when the BAR man popped back up. He hollered, "I'm OK!" Gonzalez could see blood gushing down his face.
Again Gonzalez spotted a small cluster of Chinese moving laterally to his left. Again he sighted by the moonlight. He fired and watched another man fall. Out of the corner of his eye he saw flickering white sparks an instant before he heard the shots: a burp gun. The flashes reminded him, incongruously, of summer fireflies back in East Los Angeles. The bullets danced across the lip of his foxhole.
The Chinese sniper had camouflaged himself deep in the tangled thicket on the northeast crest of the hill. Crouching low in his hole, Gonzalez pulled the pin on a grenade, watched its spoon fly over the lip, silently counted to three Mississippi, and heaved it in a high arc. He was fired on no more from the corner of the thicket.
Within seconds two more Marines tumbled into the slit trench next to Gonzalez. One was bleeding profusely from his forehead and mouth. As the second tended to his buddy a potato masher landed between them, wounding them both. Gonzalez felt the shock wave of the concussion pass through his body, but he didn't go down. The two men crawled over the downhill side of the lip and staggered off.
Movement flashed to Gonzalez's right. Two Chinese soldiers charged the foxhole of his fire team leader, dropped grenades, and hit the ground. Following the explosions they jumped back to their feet and raced across the hill, leaving the American for dead. Gonzalez shot at their fleeing forms. He did not know if he hit either one. Now, again to his right, he saw a man crawling from behind a huge boulder not ten yards away. He raised his M 1, fired, and missed. The man-possibly an American; Gonzalez could not tellsprang from his knees and loped down the east slope of the hill.
The combined fire of the Second Platoon higher on the west grade and the re-formed Third Platoon line slowed the Chinese advance. Gunfire and grenade explosions slackened, and standing targets became scarce. Though the enemy held the crest of Fox Hill, there remained small islands of Marines scattered within the Chinese ranks. In one of these pockets, the slit trench on the left flank, Private First Class Pomers regained consciousness. He crawled the eight feet to the west end of the trench and found Hector Cafferata peering over the lip, searching for something to shoot.
"You know, Hec," said Pourers, "I was praying while I was shooting, praying to God that if I had to die, please don't let me shit in my skivvies."
Back down the hill, lost in the trees, Dick Bonelli had no idea where the aid station was. He figured it had to be close to one of those huts he'd seen by the road. As he crashed through the fir trees with Koone on his back he heard a thrashing sound on his right. A figure staggered out of the dark. Bonelli dropped Koone and wheeled, bayonet-first, stopping just short of gutting Private First Class Amos Fixico. Bonelli recognized Fixico as another one of the outfit's Indians, a Ute from Arizona. His left eyeball was hanging near his cheekbone, glistening like a peeled hard-boiled egg. He was one of the ammo carriers in Sergeant Keirn's light machine gun unit, and he told Bonelli about being overrun. He, too, asked for the aid station. Bonelli could only shrug and point his chin down the hill. The three took off, Bonelli and Fixico supporting the now unconscious Koone.
They had gone only a few yards when a challenge rang out. Bonelli answered. "I'm a Marine. With wounded. We need the aid station."
"Gooks down on the road," the voice said. "Better get your ass over here."
It was Private First Class Holt's heavy machine gun unit. Holt's water-cooled gun was still frozen solid. Bonelli was stunned to learn that the bottom of the hill was in Chinese hands. From up on the crest he had not even heard any gunshots. Several Marines from the headquarters unit pulled Koone and Fixico into the emplacement. Bonelli headed back up the hill.
The mayhem all around Ernest Gonzalez's slit trench suddenly eased. Each side seemed to be catching its breath and, as one Marine noted, "waiting for the other to start something."
Gonzalez scanned the horizon for darting figures. He saw none. The gunfire, in fact, had abated to the point where Gonzalez was able to hear snoring-snoring!-coming from a foxhole several yards away on his right flank. He hollered, "Wake up, man? Wake the fuck up!" The snoring continued.
A moment later a bullet slammed into Gonzalez's helmet. He felt light-headed, as if he'd smashed his head on a curb playing street football back home. He drifted into unconsciousness.
Bob McCarthy's re-formed defensive perimeter had held. At 2:25 a.m. his dazed Marines listened as a Chinese bugler far up on the saddle blew a signal to regroup.
By now, at the base of the hill, the Chinese point company's attack had also been thoroughly repulsed. White-clad corpses were strewn across the MSR and the area around the two huts. To the bazooka man Harry Burke they resembled white birch trees turned up by their roots. The occasional moan or whimper from a wounded man, a hideous sound, was the only noise to puncture the crisp night air.
Throughout the fight Captain Barber had been a ghostly whirlwind, roaming the front lines from the road to the hilltop, firing his carbine, rallying his fire teams, hollering instructions. Two of his runners had been wounded following him up and down the hill. He was now back at his temporary command post just below the upper tree line, checking on their condition, when he was handed a partial casualty list.
Most of the scattered wounded were still being identified, but Barber saw the names of the two Marines on either side of Lieutenant Brady who had been killed instantly in the fight at the bottom of the hill: Sergeant Glen Stanley and Private First Class Ronald Strommen. Of the thirty-five Marines in the Third Platoon's forward foxholes on the hilltop, fifteen were dead, nine were wounded, and three were missing. Barber knew the list would lengthen greatly when Lieutenant McCarthy could account for his entire platoon.
Because of the extraordinary acoustical barriers across Fox Hillthe many gullies, depressions, and boulders and the two ridges bisecting the granite hulk (three, including the six-foot-high erosion fold)-practically all of the First Platoon strung out down the eastern grade had no idea that a battle had even been fought. The platoon leader Lieutenant Dunne and Master Sergeant Arthur Gruenberg had established their command post slightly behind their forward squads in a small depression near the top of the tree line. The batteries in Dunne's field phone had gone dead, and he was at a loss regarding the source of the muffled echoes emanating from the other side of the hill.
Farther up the east slope, however, Sergeant Charles Pearson and Corporal Kenneth Mertz of the First Platoon knew something nasty was up when several stray bullets punctured their makeshift pup tent. But where the shots had come from, or who had fired them, neither could tell. The two men had been delighted the previous evening when they had stumbled across a rare level patch of turf just above the tree line on the upper third of the slope. They had shoveled snow to form a small "fort" and tied their large shelterhalf tents together to make a flimsy roof. Watching the Marines digging in around them, Pearson had remarked to Mertz that he had "the luck," and said to stick close by if things got hot. Now, peering through the bullet holes in their canvas shelter, Mertz was certain that things were hot. He just didn't know where.
Similarly, the First Platoon's light machine gun ammo carrier Bob Ezell, dug in just above Pearson and Mertz-only one hundred yards away from the right flank of the Third Platoon-had been screened from the pandemonium by Fox Hill's tall central ridgeline. Ezell had heard muffled sounds that might have been gunshots, and he had seen plenty of tracers arcing over the hilltop. Even though he didn't know exactly what was happening he was fairly sure that, whatever it was, it was heading his way.
At the far end of the saddle, behind the rocky knoll, the captured Marines Wayne Pickett, Troy Williford, and the wounded Daniel Yesko were held in a small cave. For Yesko, this was ironic. One week earlier he had been granted a hardship discharge-"marital problems" was all he would say-and he had been scheduled to fly home to the States via Japan that morning. He had, in fact, been offered an opportunity to remain at Hagaru-ri when Fox Company had left for Toktong Pass. At the last minute he'd opted to spend his last night in Korea with his buddies Pickett and Williford on the hill. He figured he'd catch a ride down to the airfield when the supply trucks arrived in the morning. Now Pickett looked him in the eye, placed a finger to his lips, and thought of his own fiancee in Duluth.
None of the Americans could speak Chinese, but from the tumult about them they sensed the general drift of the rapid-fire conversations. The Chinese regulars wanted to shoot them. They were dissuaded by a tall, elegant captain menacingly waving a Thompson submachine gun. Their shouts echoed off the rock walls of the small cave.
Pickett's mind reeled. It was a given that in any war a soldier might "catch" a wound. He had even calculated the smaller likelihood of being killed. But taken prisoner? The thought had never entered his mind. He was, however, one of the few Marines in Fox Company who'd had prior contact with hostile Chinese. In 1947, when he'd been berthed off China's east coast aboard the cruiser USS St. Paul for four months as a seagoing Marine, the war between Chiang Kai-shek's nationalists and Mao's Communists was still raging. One day during war games two of the fleet's Marine Corsair fighter-bombers had run out of fuel and crash-landed miles from the American airfield at Tsingtao, at the time still held by the Nationalists. Both pilots had bailed out, and one was able to make his way back to the base on foot.
Pickett's thirty-man Marine detail had been sent out to rescue the other. A brief firefight with the Communists had ensued, though no one was killed. The American pilot was eventually recovered through diplomatic negotiations, but not before Pickett's unit found itself on a strand with its back against the East China Sea, facing an overwhelming Chinese force.
"Believe it or not," he now whispered to Williford and Yesko as the arguing continued around them, "they warned us to get out of there or we'd be flooded when the tide came in. And they were right. So we got out of there, no questions asked. You never know with these people. Sometimes they can be friendly, and sometimes they'll just cut your throat."
As if to prove Pickett's point, the Chinese officer who had prevented their execution suddenly ordered a squad of his men to march the confused Marines back across the saddle toward the American lines. Halfway there a light machine gun on the west slope opened up on the little group. The squad retreated, dragging Pickett, Williford, and Yesko back to the cave with them.
Stationed halfway up the western slope, near the center of Second Platoon's line, Warren McClure and Roger Gonzales had been cut off from the Chinese assaults not only by the hill's secondary ridgeline, but also by a wall of large boulders that ran parallel behind their position to the tree line. They could only guess at the cause of the muted ruckus taking place seventy-five yards above them. Nor had they any clue that there had been a fight down on the road.
Before settling into their depression they had fretted for some time over the probability that enemy troopers might use the sinkhole in front of them as cover. But they had finally shrugged off their apprehensions and constructed a shelter by lacing three half pup tents together. When McClure squirmed into his mummy bag he put on a knee-length, alpaca-lined vest that he'd "secured" at the Hungnam supply depot by means he preferred not discuss with Gonzales. McClure suspected that the vest may have been intended to warm the imposing torso of Colonel Litzenberg.
McClure left his bag unzipped and dragged his BAR in after him, the muzzle wedged between his untied shoepacs, the stock resting on his chest. He had adopted this sleeping position since seeing the four Marines bayoneted on the hillside overlooking the Sudong gorge, their sleeping bags turned into body bags when their moist last breaths froze the zippers closed. The new man Gonzales, studying McClure, did the same with his MI. Every so often he would grasp the slide of the rifle and work the action back and forth to keep it from freezing up. Neither man could sleep.
It was just past 2:30 a.m. when word spread among the Marines who had not been involved in the firefights that the Chinese had already attacked Fox Hill from two directions, and were probably coming back for more. McClure and Gonzales were feeding rounds into the chambers of their weapons when they were summoned by their squad leader, Sergeant George Reitz. Reitz ordered them to establish a forward listening post overlooking the western valley.
The two crept out in front of the Second Platoon's perimeter and crawled for twenty-five yards before settling in behind a large rock that, if they knelt, provided cover enough for both. The West Hill now loomed less than two hundred yards away. Peering straight down over the rock, they could spit into the sinkhole, McClure's "deep dip." But they still could not see its bottom. Beyond the hole was the narrow valley with the ravine running up to the saddle.
Voices unobstructed by ridges and folds carried well in the still night air, and as McClure and Gonzales sighted their weapons and rechecked their spare clips they heard their fire team leader, Private First Class Robert Schmidt, request permission to toss a precautionary grenade out in front of his position. McClure did not hear Sergeant Reitz's response, but a few seconds later an explosion rocked a small shelf of rock perhaps twenty yards to the right of their listening post. Shrapnel skittered off their covering rock, and McClure turned and hollered. He said that if Schmidt threw another goddamn hand grenade it would most certainly be the last goddamn hand grenade he ever threw. Schmidt did not reply.
At 2:35 a.m. McClure spotted a Chinese squad of nine men crawling out of the ravine and making for the sinkhole directly below him. The point man, creeping crablike, rose to his knees just as he reached the far lip of the sinkhole. McClure lined him up in the sights of his BAR. He squeezed the trigger. Nothing happened. His firing pin was frozen. He grabbed Gonzales's M 1 and fired. The Chinese point man, hit in the chest, toppled backward. The rest dived into the hole.
Next McClure saw two more enemy soldiers, hunched over and loping down from the saddle. As they neared the deep dip he shot both with Gonzales's rifle and watched them drop over the lip. He handed the M l back to Gonzales, removed his gloves, and untied the five hand grenades he'd fastened with spare shoelaces to his BAR belt harness. The grenades were freezing, like dry ice to the touch. He laid them out on the ground in front of him, put one glove back on his right hand, and shoved his bare left hand into his field jacket for warmth.
A moment later the remaining eight soldiers from the enemy squad crawled over the far edge of the sinkhole. They took off toward the West Hill, loping low to the ground in single file, each man gripping the coattails of the man in front of him. McClure pulled the pin on a grenade, counted to four by thousands, and let it fly. It exploded among them at knee height. As the few survivors scattered, Gonzales popped up from behind the rock and picked them off one by one. Every Chinese soldier they had seen to this point was now down, dead or wounded. McClure studied the large swath of his skin that had stuck to the metal pin of the grenade. It was that cold.
The two Marines decided to let Sergeant Reitz know what the hell was going on out here. McClure turned and "covered" Gonzales with his inoperative BAR, watching him all the way as he crawled back and dropped into the foxhole occupied by Reitz and the fire team leader, Schmidt. He wheeled to look out again over the western valley and barely caught the heels of four canvas sneakers slithering over the far lip of the sinkhole. Although the bottom of the hole remained obscured, he was in a position to see the upper chest, shoulders, and head of any man who stood up. Incredibly, this is what both Chinese did.
McClure pulled another grenade pin-losing more skin in the process-counted slowly to four, and rolled it down into the hole. Seconds before it exploded he saw the Chinese bend over as if they had dropped something. Now he reached for his left glove-enough flesh had been lost to these frozen grenades-and, stretching out to grasp it, accidentally kicked his BAR down into the sinkhole. Jesus, what an idiot. He spotted yet another enemy soldier staggering over the far edge of the deep dip. The man looked as if he had been wounded-his hands were hanging at his side and balled up into the sleeves of his padded jacket. But McClure's gaze quickly moved from his hands to the Thompson submachine gun strapped across his chest.
This time he used his teeth to pull the pin on a grenade, tossed it, and hit the Red in the chest. The grenade bounced off him and failed to explode. The soldier lunged forward as if he had not even felt the impact. McClure tossed another, again using his teeth to pull the pin. He hit the man on his padded earflap. Another dud. The Chinese climbed out of the hole and charged him.
McClure's thighs were as thick as tree trunks, and in Missouri he had been a defensive lineman on the Bigger Diggers, a local semipro team. Now he squatted in his meanest football stance, preparing to tackle this lunatic. But suddenly the man snapped out of whatever trance had swept over him. His eyes met McClure's, and he turned and ran, scrabbling back through the sinkhole and across the ravine.
Without his BAR, and "not knowing just how dead" the Chinese in the deep dip might be, McClure pulled the pin on his last grenade, held the spoon down, and zigzagged back through the American lines in search of another weapon. Working his way up the hillside, scavenging for a working rifle, he ran into his platoon leader, Lieutenant Elmo Peterson. Aside from several perfunctory inspections McClure had never engaged in any conversation with him.
"Where you heading, son?" Even in the heat of battle Peterson resembled a recruiting poster.
"Find a weapon, sir."
"Should be plenty lying around."
McClure's search took him up the west slope and nearly to the top of Fox Hill. About thirty yards away he could make out the two tall, flat-faced rocks that demarcated the northwestern crest. Star shells popped and squeaked overhead, their artificial light throwing the shadowed scene into horror movie relief. Somewhere beyond the rocks a red flare was burning on the ground, covering the terrain where the hilltop met the saddle in an eerie orange glow. The smell of cordite hung in the air, and ten yards beyond the flare McClure spotted a dead Chinese soldier, frozen in a sitting position. He asked Peterson's permission to run out and grab the slain man's gun. He couldn't see a weapon but one had to be there. Before Peterson could answer a bugle call shrieked across the saddle, and the Chinese attacked.
"Here they come again!" Peterson yelled. It was 2:45 a.m.
The Chinese battalion commander had thrown his last reserve company of more than 100 men into the fight, mixed in with the survivors from the first attack. With much whistling, bugling, and beating of drums, about 250 Chinese soldiers again streamed across the saddle in rows, albeit this time, as one Marine noted, "with much less elan."
Peterson snaked on his belly up the hill and hollered over his shoulder for McClure to run down to the company's mortar positions and tell the commanding officer-"whoever the hell's in charge now"-to begin lobbing rounds up onto the saddle. Peterson turned back from McClure and saw a Chinese soldier leveling a Thompson submachine gun at him. Then he pulled the trigger.
Peterson felt a bullet go through his left shoulder and also felt a rush of adrenaline. He lifted his carbine and drilled the Red through the eye.
McClure hesitated when he saw Peterson hit. The handsome "Prof" waved him on. "You hear me, son?" he urged McClure. "Get a move on."
Private First Class Fidel Gomez and the corpsman Bill McLean dropped into the snow on either side of Peterson. Both had M 1 s, and Gomez had picked up a Thompson submachine gun from a dead enemy soldier. Gomez was wide, powerful, and compact, built like a fullback, a position that had earned him all-county honors in San Antonio, Texas. As the three lay prone, awaiting the second attack, Peterson informed them that the left flank of the Third Platoon had been overrun during the first firefight. They needed to hold fast, right here, and plug this gap in the American line.
McLean smiled and pulled a small bottle of brandy from his field jacket. "Well, in that case," he said.
Gomez, who was nineteen, had never tasted brandy. Before enlisting he had tried only beer. In fact, his older brother Anacleto, a veteran of World War II who had fought with the Third Marines through Bougainville, Guadalcanal, and Iwo Jima, had attempted to bribe Fidel with beer into giving up the Corps and going to college. Anacleto, who had been Fidel's father figure since their real father abandoned the family when Fidel was four years old, couldn't stand the thought of his kid brother, the youngest in the family, being killed in Korea. Fidel had ignored him, but he sure had enjoyed the beer.
He took a small swig of McLean's brandy. "Man," he said, "I like this stuff."
Meanwhile, McClure double-timed it through the trees and found the mortar unit at the top of the shallow gulley. He noticed an 81-mm's bipod set atop two industrial-strength C-ration bean cans, its tubes pointed nearly straight up for short-distance bombardment. He relayed Peterson's orders to an 81-mm gunner, pointing toward the saddle for effect, only to be met with a sorrowful stare. "We've only got three rounds left," the gunner said.
McClure pondered this answer-Where the hell had all the mortar rounds gone?-before deciding he had done his job and it would be best to return to his position on the hill's western slope. He turned to take off and nearly ran over Captain Barber and Barber's runner.
"What's your name?" The commanding officer's voice could have scoured a stove. If it was physically possible, McClure thought it sounded octaves lower than on the afternoon of his coming-aboard speech. McClure had never been face-to-face with Barber before. The captain's uniform was no longer starched and pressed-it was tattered. Barber had been out fighting with the men.
"Private First Class Warren McClure, sir. First Fire Team, Second Squad, Second Platoon." Nearly under his breath he added, "BAR man, sir."
He thought he saw a flicker of confusion in Barber's eyes, as if the captain were seeking this lonesome BAR man's missing weapon. But the captain merely said, "Keep it up, son. Keep it up. Get back to your people."
Barber nonchalantly turned up the hill, yelling for his artillery forward spotter Lieutenant Donald Campbell. He planned to radio How Company in Hagaru-ri to ask for a howitzer bombardment of the rocky knoll. That's where the Chinese seemed to be gathering for these attacks.
McClure took off to rejoin the Second Platoon.
The Chinese raced across the saddle with the intention of hitting Fox Company just as they had done thirty minutes earlier. This time the Marines were ready. The Chinese hadn't reached the halfway point before Private First Class O'Leary was directing the company's 60-mm mortars, which still had plenty of shells, to tear into their ranks. Marines liked to joke that the 60-mms were the ultimate "weapons of opportunity"-a play on the wording of tactics in the Corps manual-and was this ever an opportunity. There is no defilade from a 60-mm, and the notes from a lone bugle sounding the charge were cut off abruptly as its owner was blown to pieces.
In the slit trench at the top northwest corner of the hill-still thirty yards beyond Lieutenant McCarthy's new, re-formed defensive perimeter-Hector Cafferata, Ken Benson, Harrison Pourers, and Gerald Smith were again standing shoulder to shoulder, emptying clip after clip into the Chinese right flank with murderous effect. Twice Cafferata caught potato mashers in midair and tossed them back into the advancing throng. At one point he heard a spang-the sound of his M 1 emptying-so the self-proclaimed "world's worst baseball player" grabbed his entrenching shovel with two hands and swung it like a baseball bat, knocking an incoming grenade back into the enemy ranks.
Another grenade landed on the lip of the foxhole connected to the trench. Cafferata lunged backward for it and heaved, but it exploded as it left his hand. The big man cursed. His left hand was bloody and gashed, the fingers shredded. His reaction was simply to reload and continue firing.
Now the night sky seemed to be blotted out by hundreds of hand grenades. Pourers turned to Cafferata. "Where the fuck do they carry them all?" he said.
A flash grenade dropped with a thud on the lip of the trench. Benson reached out and flicked it way. It exploded a few feet from his face, shattering his glasses. He rubbed his eyes with his gloves. He could feel small pieces of bamboo shrapnel in his face. A dull red glow veiled his vision. "Hec, I can't see," he said.
Blind or not, he'd been trained well, and now he squatted in the bottom of the trench and with the efficiency of an assembly-line worker proceeded to reload rifles. Cafferata would empty a clip and drop the M 1 down to Benson, who would have a fully loaded rifle at the ready. With each new clip Cafferata would repeat the same question.
"Can you see yet, Bense?"
"Nope, not yet."
Cafferata, Benson, Pourers, and Smith were all that prevented the Chinese from again splitting the defensive line of the two Marine platoons at the northwest peak of the hill. They held, and Cafferata alone was credited with killing almost forty enemy soldiers during the night. The rest of his fire team, as well as the Marines below him, took care of the rest. The second Chinese charge was turned back. Scattered fighting continued among Americans and stragglers, but the major offensive was over.
Twenty minutes later a runner appeared at Lieutenant Bob McCarthy's dugout command post carrying orders from Captain Barber. The lieutenant was to form a detail to clear the crest of the hill. A dozen men were assembled under the command of Sergeant Audas and ordered to "drop their cocks, grab their socks, and go kick some Chinese ass." Among them was Dick Bonelli.
"What we got going here, Sarge?" Bonelli ducked automatic weapons fire coming from the top of the hill. Several squads of Chinese had dug in along the boulders and brush at the crest, and they would need to be rooted out like weeds.
Audas was a professional Marine, a street fighter from Chicago who had experienced his first military action as a rear gunner aboard a dive-bomber over Guadalcanal. The sergeant looked at Bonelli as if he were mental. "We're taking back the goddamn hill, whattaya think?"
Bonelli spotted Captain Barber trudging up the slope, with McCarthy and his aide Sergeant Pitts. Pitts had a through-andthrough bullet hole in his helmet. The three were completely exposed to the gunfire from the crest.
"Engage'." Barber shouted to the small squad. "Engage up this hill!"
It was as if the theater, not the play, excited the CO. Sergeant Pitts suggested it might be expedient for Captain Barber to take cover.
"They haven't made the bullet yet that can kill me," Barber declared.
Dick Bonelli's jaw dropped.
Sometime just before 3 a.m., near the bottom of Fox Hill, Private First Class Gray Davis-the kid from Florida who narrowly escaped getting Gunny Bunch's shoepac up his butt-saw a squad of Chinese reinforcements angle off the MSR near the base of the West Hill and begin trotting up the western valley. The moon was so bright he could see their shadows on the snow. They were perhaps 150 yards across from his foxhole, and they were headed for the saddle.
He sighted his M 1 on the last man in the file and fired. He saw a tuft of snow kick up fifteen yards short. He made a mental note to adjust his rifle's battle sight to compensate for the misleading distances-at night in the mountains the enemy always seemed much closer-and fired again, this time aiming along the rifle barrel four or five inches above the muzzle. He dropped the man with the second shot.
Davis watched as two soldiers from the group stopped to pick up their wounded comrade. As the three struggled to keep up with the main file, Davis fired again and knocked down one of the good Samaritans. The other bolted to catch up to his squad, leaving the two shot Chinese where they fell. Before Davis could sight and squeeze off another shot the cluster disappeared into the ravine that ran up the middle of the valley.
Watching this scene play out, Corporal Jack Griffith realized that they were going to need more ammunition. Griffith was new to Fox Company. He, Davis, and Luke Johnson had all received their baptism by fire in the earlier gunfight when the Chinese charged from behind the five big rocks and tried to take out the nearby light machine gun. They were all running low on bullets.
Griffith shimmied out of the hole and crawled over the low, secondary ridgeline separating their position from the old command post tent sixty yards down the hill. Dead Chinese were everywhere. He found a cache of ammo, gathered as much as he could carry and drape over his shoulders, and crawled back over the ridge. At the top of the fold he shouted to Davis and Johnson-"Make a hole?"-and took off running as fast as he could. He had just planted his feet on the lip of the foxhole when several Chinese soldiers jumped out from behind the same pile of five rocks-Where the hell did they come from?-and shot Griffith through both knees. He fell backward. Davis and Johnson scrambled to haul him back in.
Luke Johnson returned fire while Davis slit the three layers of Griffith's pants legs with his K-bar. The puncture wound in the corporal's right knee was not bleeding badly, and the frozen blood had already begun to clot-the Marines on Fox Hill were learning that the cold could work in their favor in this regard. But the bullet in Griffith's left leg had severed an artery and, cold or no cold, blood was spurting with each heartbeat. Davis knew the loss of blood was going to send Griffith into shock and probably kill him. The human body has approximately one and a half gallons of blood, and it can lose 30 percent-about half a gallon-before its hydraulics fail. Lose a gallon and that's the end. Davis looked at Griffith's blood pooling in the snow and tried to guess how much he had left.
Johnson continued to exchange fire with the Chinese while Davis formed a tourniquet out of Griffith's belt. This slowed the blood spurting from the artery somewhat. But they needed a medic. Both Marines began hollering for one.
A corpsman appeared from nowhere. Bullets pocked the snow at his heels as he flew past the three men and tossed a morphine syrette into the foxhole. "I'll be back," he yelled. The Chinese fusillade increased, and Davis and Johnson could not help wondering when.
The morphine syrette was frozen solid. Davis debated for a second whether it would thaw faster under his scrotum or in his mouth. He popped it under his tongue, and when it melted he injected Griffith in the left biceps. As a dark cloud blotted the moonlight a stretcher team emerged, belly-crawling over the secondary ridge behind them. One of the corpsmen said he'd heard a rumor that the Chinese sharpshooters were aiming for the legs, looking to cripple instead of kill, as it took two able-bodied Marines to care for a wounded man. The men on the stretcher team were dragging Corporal Griffith from the hole when he held up a hand to stop them.
Wounded but still lucid, perhaps a bit too happy from the morphine, Corporal Jack Griffith confessed to his fire team partners that he had been holding out on them. Considering the circumstances, he said, they were welcome to the six pairs of new, heavy ski socks hidden in the bottom of his pack.
As Captain Barber directed the fight to retake the crest of Fox Hill, he had little idea that the battle was about to enter a second phase on his left flank. A fresh company of Chinese had climbed the West Hill from its back slope, and these men were now entrenched on the ridgeline and in the crenulated folds opposite Peterson's Second Platoon. Staccato incoming fire ensued. "Slow-motion firefights," one Marine called it. These firefights were no less deadly than any others.
Midway up the west slope, Roger Gonzales was frightened and alone. He had no idea where Warren McClure had disappeared to, but he intended to find out. Shortly after 3 a.m. Gonzales jumped from his foxhole, trotted up the hill, and spotted a familiar, if sullen, face: Bob Kirchner was emerging from the trees. He waved to Kirchner. Kirchner barely nodded back.
Kirchner was returning from the command post, where he'd just finished the grim task of identifying the body of his friend Corporal John Farley-by his belt buckle. Farley's face had been blown off during the firefight. A week earlier Farley had shared a delightful secret with his squad, a sort of Thanksgiving surprise. His wife had sent him a mason jar of olives along with a separate letter that read, "For God's sake, Johnny, don't throw away the juice." Of course it was gin, and Farley and his buddies, including Bob Kirchner, had toasted their holiday meal with "Korean martinis." Now his brains were spread about somewhere down in the west valley.
Gonzales knew none of this as he weaved along the edge of the pine tree plantation toward Kirchner. He had nearly reached his position when a sniper's bullet tore through his neck. Kirchner hit the ground and crawled to Gonzales. Gouts of blood spurted from his carotid artery. Kirchner pulled him into his foxhole, cradled him on his lap, and applied snow to the wound. Roger Gonzales asked for water, cried for his mother, and died in Bob Kirchner's arms.
From his position ten feet down the slope Kirchner's fire team leader, Corporal Walt Hiskett, had watched Gonzales drop like six feet of chain. Already stung by his dear friend Johnny Farley's death, now he was enraged.
Hiskett, a twenty-year-old from Chicago, was in the Marines because he had nowhere else to go. When he was six, in the depths of the Depression, his father had walked out on the family. Nine years later, when Hiskett was fifteen, his mother died at age fortyfive. He went to live at a YMCA and dropped out of school. Joining the Marines at seventeen was a step up. Hiskett was nearly finished with his three-year commitment when war broke out in Korea. He was sent to Camp Pendleton and assigned to a "spare parts" company, which is where Marines were put until the officers figured out what to do with them. From there he moved to Fox Company, eventually becoming a fire team leader in the Second Platoon. His two best friends in the company were John Farley and Charlie Parker.
He stood to return fire, using a scrawny tree as cover. From somewhere on the West Hill a Thompson submachine gunner zeroed in on his muzzle flashes and opened up. Hiskett took a slug in his left shoulder. He slumped to the ground while Marines about him blasted the West Hill and hollered for a medic. A corpsman, Bill McLean, burst from the woods and knelt over Hiskett. He spit a morphine syrette from his mouth and jabbed it into Hiskett's arm. It took only moments for the narcotic to work. Suddenly, Hiskett felt like the luckiest man alive-"alive" being the operative word. Unlike poor Johnny Farley and Roger Gonzales, he was still breathing, and by tonight he would surely be medevaced off this hill and sleeping on clean sheets in a warm hospital bed with hot chow in his belly. He hadn't had a bath or a shower in six weeks. He wondered how long it would take the ambulances to arrive from Hagaru-ri.
Down near the road the Marines who had been caught in the firefight around the two huts began stealthily making their way up the hill. The two heavy machine gun emplacements twenty-five yards above the MSR had become the company's new southern perimeter-although Jim Holt's gun was still out of action-and many men had been trapped between the Chinese and Jack Page's nest. "Cookie" Bavaro and his savior, the company supply sergeant David Smith, who had warned him of the grenade when he'd fled from the hut, were among them. They hollered up to the machine gunner, Page: "Hold your fire, we're coming in!" When they arrived Bavaro found his fellow cook, Private First Class Bledsoe, digging a hole on the southeast corner of the gun emplacement. He borrowed an entrenching shovel and joined Bledsoe.
At the same time the corpsman Red Maurath thought it safe enough to bring in his two Marines from the small depression where he was patching their wounds. Maurath, Corporal Harry Burke and his bazooka, and the three Marines from the headquarters unit who had helped Maurath drag the wounded out of the large hut all climbed up the hill.
Sometime between 5 and 6 a.m. a wan gray light began to spread over the crest of Fox Hill, but the false dawn also brought a new cloud cover that obscured the terrain across the hilltop. Thick snow began to fall as the dozen Marines with Sergeant Audas scanned the crest for enemy soldiers. At one point Audas's patrol froze in its tracks as a Chinese bugler somewhere quite near blew taps. The trumpet echoing through the snow and fog made the experience all the more eerie. At the first mournful notes, Dick Bonelli turned to the Marine next to him, Private Walt Klein. "Just how crazy are these fuckin' gooks?" he said.
Klein ignored Bonelli-he was busy sighting his M 1 on an enemy straggler making for the safety of the rocky knoll across the saddle.
All over the hilltop Chinese soldiers lay dead and dying, the wounded pleading for help, praying, moaning, crying, singing their death songs, or quietly freezing to death. Bonelli nearly tripped over an enemy infantryman whose white quilted jacket had been perforated by more than a dozen bullet holes. The man was still alive. Sheer curiosity led Bonelli to slit open the jacket with his bayonet. He was stunned. Beneath his outer layer the man wore a ropy goatskin vest. So that's why the carbines aren't penetrating. Additionally, the man's arms and legs were fitted with tourniquets. Crazy bastards keep coming until they get a death wound.
He called to Sergeant Audas, and word began to spread yet again: men with carbines, aim for the head.
Twenty minutes later several trapped and wounded Chinese diehards, including the bugler who had blown taps, decided to put up a final fight near the spot where Sergeant Keirn and his light machine-gun crew had been overrun. Bonelli, Klein, and several other Marines made short work of them. One enemy soldier, barely in his teens, rushed at Sergeant Komorowski with a knife fastened by rawhide strips to the end of a long bamboo pole. The sergeant clapped him on the head with the butt of his rifle and took him prisoner.
Walt Klein was the first to reach Keirn's light machine gun post. The gun was gone and four dead Marines were sprawled at the bottom of the nest. Incredibly, Keirn, his left arm missing, was still alive. He sat on his haunches behind where his weapon should have been, as if firing an imaginary machine gun. He looked up at Klein with cloudy eyes and asked for a cigarette. Klein lit one and placed it between his lips. A corpsman appeared and unspooled a roll of bandages. Klein thought the corpsman's job was impossible, like trying to plant cut flowers. He stuck another smoke in Keirn's field jacket pocket just before two stretcher bearers carried him down the hill. Keirn died the next morning in the med tent.
When Audas's squad bent to lift the bodies of the four dead Marines in Keirn's foxhole, two wounded Chinese soldiers leaped out from beneath the corpses with their hands in the air. Their ticket out, Audas thought. Military service, no matter how heroic, was traditionally held in low esteem in Chinese culture. Foot soldiers were merely disposable pawns to be used when negotiations broke down, and there was no provision in the CCF for discharge, honorable or other. Once a peasant was swallowed up in the Chinese Army, that is where he stayed until he was killed, was captured, or grew too old to fight. Audas sent the prisoners, including the kid who had wielded the makeshift bayonet, down to Captain Barber.
Here and there random bullets, like the first light raindrops falling on a calm lake, kicked up divots of snow around Audas's patrol. The Chinese were firing from the rocky knoll and, behind it, the rocky ridge running north up to Toktong-san. Unlike the snipers much closer on the West Hill, they hit no Marines. Out of the corner of his eye Bonelli saw a Chinese soldier who was playing dead at the top of the hill rise up from a pile of frozen corpses and point an automatic weapon. Before Bonelli could react another Marine cut him in half with a BAR.
For Captain Barber, this presented a moral dilemma. He was aware that Chinese battlefield strategy included playing dead in order to lure a Marine into proximity and then kill him, and he considered this premeditated murder. But did this tactic give him the right, in order to protect his own men, to summarily execute wounded enemy soldiers? His company was taking a severe beating on this hill, and he could not afford to lose even one more Marine in this way. If the enemy surrendered, that was one thing-although how many men he could spare to guard prisoners was another complicating factor he'd have to figure out later. For now, however, he issued orders to put all "dead" and wounded Chinese out of their misery. Such were the exigencies of war and the burden of command in combat.
Despite having taken back the hilltop, Barber ordered Lieutenant McCarthy of the Third Platoon to maintain his defensive perimeter where it had re-formed down the slope, about ten yards above the tree line. This would give McCarthy's men some cover from the snipers on the rocky knoll and high ridges of Toktongsan. Barber also realized that the Third Platoon was too depleted to dig in again and hold the entire crest. Preliminary casualty reports coming in to his command post indicated that McCarthy's outfit had been nearly halved.
Private First Class Ken Benson, wounded in the face by grenade fragments, groped blindly on his hands and knees.
"You passed out for a minute," said Hector Cafferata. "Nothing but dead Chinks is all you can see." He told Benson how he had noticed an enemy soldier's hand move in a pile of corpses not far from their hole and had bellied out to investigate. "Thought the guy was croaked by the time I get there. So I turn and I'm halfway back here and what's the bastard do? Heaves a grenade at me. Jesus. Thank God it was a dud. Went back out and put two in his head."
Benson was only half-listening. He knew he needed to get to the aid station. Ignoring Cafferata's offer to help, he started off on his own, crawling across the hill. He might have crawled all the way to Hagaru-ri had he not fallen into Private First Class Bob Ezell's foxhole near the First Platoon's light machine-gun emplacement on the upper east slope.
Ezell stuck a lit cigarette into Benson's mouth while Benson related the story of the "battle of the slit trench" in which he, Pomers, and Smith had emptied their rifles and sidearms into the Chinese charging across the saddle until their ammo was nearly gone. He described how Cafferata had batted grenades back with his entrenching tool, and how after being blinded he himself had squatted at the bottom of the freezing fucking foxhole reloading Hector's M 1 while what sounded like cannons blasted in his ears.
"It's really true," Benson told Ezell. "You lose one sense and the rest pick up the slack. After I couldn't see, everything else became so goddamn loud. My nose, too. Because I tell you, I smell coffee brewing somewhere."
Ezell stared at Benson in disbelief. He could smell no coffee, but the man was obviously not lying about being blind. Frozen blood caked both his eyes. Ezell wanted to rip off the bloody scabs but dared not. He was no corpsman. But batting potato mashers back in mid-flight with a shovel? Ezell had to wrap his mind around that one. Back in the States he'd been a pretty good hitter. But grenades? Well, he guessed it could be done.
Captain Barber, making rounds across the hill, happened by Ezell's post as Benson was relating his incredible story. For a moment the CO listened, rapt. He then instructed Ezell to help Benson down to the new aid station, the old mortarmen's tent at the bottom of the hill. Ezell, who like most of the First Platoon had missed the fight, was aghast at the number of dead Chinese he passed while guiding Benson down to the corpsmen. Halfway there Ezell picked up the scent of coffee brewing, too. When they reached the med tents someone handed Benson a steaming cup of joe. He didn't know whether to drink it or dip his freezing hands in it.
While Benson drank coffee, Barber ordered Ezell's light machinegun crew, commanded by Sergeant Judd Elrod, to pack up and move all the way over on the northwest crest, to the old emplacement between the Second and Third Platoons where Corporal Ladner's gun had been overrun and captured. This new experience-fighting the Chinese at night-had taught him a lesson. When they came again, Barber sensed, they'd come by the same route.
Where was everybody? Ernest Gonzalez awoke to bad thoughts, insane thoughts. His mind raced. He was alone on this hill. Everyone else was dead. He too would be dead soon enough. Should he fight? Surrender? Most of Fox Company had heard stories about the commie prison camps. How they bent your mind with drugs, or sleep deprivation, or maybe even the Chinese water torture. No, he decided, he would fight. He sat up and crawled from the slit trench. He heard gunfire down the hill, a bit to his left. A lone BAR, he thought. Somebody was shooting at something. He grabbed his M 1, checked the clip, and took off in that direction.
He edged over scores of dead Chinese soldiers, keeping low. Someone had defecated on the face of one of them. He half-ran, half-stumbled toward the sound of the gunfire. Bursting through a clearing in the trees he saw men. Marines. Alive. The shots he'd heard were from his own BAR man tearing up the saddle, shooting at stragglers. The BAR man turned toward Gonzalez. "Like qualifying on the range," he said.
Gonzalez thought of the rifle practice Barber had insisted on. Then, in a row of wounded Americans on blankets outside an aid tent, he spotted his fire team leader. Blood was leaking from both of his ears. Gonzalez did a double take. He was positive he'd seen this man die in his hole. No, he was alive too, all right-blown up from the two grenades, but alive. Jesus.
"We need ammo. Got any ammo?" A Marine was talking to him. Gonzalez snapped out of it.
Yeah, ammo, sure, back up in the slit trench. He turned and began climbing. He reached the trench and felt around under his sleeping bag. One lousy grenade. He searched the hole, and then the entire trench, for spare clips. There were none.
On his way back down Gonzalez fell in behind Sergeant Audas's detail clearing the crest. He stepped on a lump of-what? It was a Chinese soldier, curled into a fetal position facedown in the snow. The man had a wedge the size of a large slice of pie missing from the back of his head. Gonzalez could see his brain. He rolled him over and saw his eyelids flicker as irregular puffs of steam escaped his mouth. Gonzalez shot him in the chest. This was the last wounded man he would ever kill. He knew it wasn't exactly murder, but it was powerful, bad joss. He'd heard somewhere that joss was what the Chinese called luck.
Catching up to Audas's mop-up detail Gonzalez now came across a bloody Marine-issue sleeping bag at the bottom of a shallow foxhole. He unzipped the bag and discovered the body of Sergeant McAfee, bayoneted where he slept. Not far away he found the frozen body of the corpsman Jones, kneeling, with his hands between his knees, as if he had been executed. For some reason this sparked a memory: the snoring Marine, the fucker who had slept through the firefight. He wheeled and ran, hopped over his old slit trench, and found the foxhole. At the bottom of the ditch was a dead man with a gaping hole in his chest. So he wasn't snoring after all. The poor guy had been breathing through his sucking chest wound. The safety on the man's rifle was still on.
On his way back across the hilltop Gonzalez nearly stepped on another wounded Marine, still in his sleeping bag, bullet holes stitched across his stomach. He hollered for help and a corpsman appeared with a stretcher. They carried the man down to the new CP in the trees. Ernest Gonzalez gave the guy a pat on the head, turned, and took off up the hill searching for the Third Platoon's re-formed lines.
All night on the upper, northeast corner of the hill Corporal Eleazar Belmarez and two privates first class-John Scott and Lee D. Wilson -could only listen in frustration to the sounds of a firefight close by, just over on the far side of Fox Hill's main ridge. Their foxhole constituted the ultimate high left flank of the First Platoon's defensive line, separated from the right flank of the Third Platoon by the ridgeline's solid wall of gnarled granite and the tangled, impassable thicket.
Wilson was a decorated veteran of World War II, and at first he had not been happy to be paired with Belmarez, a new boot from San Antonio. From the moment they had begun digging in eight hours earlier Wilson grasped the tactical problem inherent in not being able to see their Third Platoon linkup, Corporal Koone's four-man fire team. It could make things dicey, and though Wilson knew and trusted Scott, he had no idea what size cojones Belmarez brought to the situation.
As they'd struggled to make a hole in the frozen ground, Wilson's ire rose when he saw his squad leader, Sergeant Daniel Slapinskas, along with Corporal Charles North, jump into an abandoned foxhole about ten yards down the slope to their right. The hole was chest-deep and must have been dug by the North Koreans during the summer, when a man could sink a shovel into this turf.
"Lucky bastards," he'd said aloud.
"Maybe, maybe not," Belmarez said as he'd jammed his spade into rock-hard turf like a jackhammer. "I'd rather be at the top. Higher ground, better fighting ground."
Maybe, thought Wilson, this kid will be OK. His black mood dissipated when Belmarez showed no sign of panic as they listened to the adjoining firefight.
Now, sometime just before 6 a.m., the snow had lightened to a fine white mist as Belmarez strode down the slope to Sergeant Slapinskas's hole and requested a recon mission. Slapinskas nodded and told him to take along the fourth member of their fire team, Corporal North.
The four Marines edged over the snowy ridgeline, keeping the thicket to their right. They were dumbfounded at the mounds of Chinese corpses. Belmarez and Wilson were the first to spot a Chinese soldier pop up from a snowhole and begin running, a light machine gun cradled in his arms. They had no way of knowing it had once belonged to Sergeant Keirn. All four fired and the man fell over. He was dead when they reached him. Wilson test-fired the machine gun. It worked fine.
As the four inched over the crest of the hill another Chinese soldier jumped from a pile of bodies. Wilson cut him down with the machine gun. At the rapid report of the gun, more Chinese began hopping up from scattered heaps of corpses and taking off toward the saddle. Wilson sprayed them, too, until each hit the ground. Were they dead? There was no sense in taking a chance. From that instant the First Platoon fire team administered a coup de grace to every prone body.
Not far from where Wilson had shot the first enemy soldier with the machine gun, three more Chinese rose to their knees, their hands in the air. Belmarez patted them down, noting that they were no more than kids. He ordered Private First Class Scott to take them back to Sergeant Slapinskas's hole. While they waited for Scott to return, Belmarez drew up a plan. They would circle the forty or so yards around the tangled thicket and emerge on the opposite slope of Fox Hill. This, Belmarez said, would give them a clear field of fire to the enemy bunched together on the rocky knoll. When Scott rejoined them and all four moved out, however, they discovered that even at the far corner of the thicket they still did not have a clear sight line to the rocky knoll, which was about 275 yards away.
Belmarez and Wilson, carrying the light machine gun and its bipod, crawled another fifty yards out. North and Scott covered them from the corner of the brush. Once out in the open, Wilson set up the machine gun and began raking the rocky knoll while Belmarez fed the belt. The Chinese at the base of the knoll fell or scattered. But the enemy soldiers on the higher ridgelines soon had a bead on Wilson and Belmarez, and a heavy volley of automatic weapons fire scorched their position.
Belmarez and Wilson dived into a shallow depression, sucked in air, counted to three, and sprinted back toward the thicket, still carrying the recaptured machine gun and its bipod. They fell in behind North and Scott, out of breath, laughing uproariously. Soon all four were convulsed in laughter. Wilson had seen this before, during the last war. It was a form of nervous release.
The caps of the lonely, undulant mountains glowed ruddy one after the other as the angled sun rose slowly on the eastern horizon, its rays reflected blindingly off the snow. Gray Davis could hear wounded Chinese soldiers moaning and praying in the valley separating his hole from the West Hill. At least he thought some were praying-they sounded very different from the yelping cries of the men who still wanted to live. He and Luke Johnson were almost out of ammo again. In covering the stretcher bearers who had dragged Jack Griffith away, they had used most of what Griffith had retrieved. Davis told Johnson he was going to go scare some up.
He crawled over the lip of their foxhole and out into the valley close to where it met the road, trying to keep in among the scrub that ran down to the pile of five big rocks. He was struck-as were so many Marines on Fox Hill-by the grotesque forms of the fro zen dead. He was also impressed by the efficiency with which the Chinese had policed the battlefield. He couldn't find a gun or a box of cartridges to save his life-and now that he thought about it, that had become more than just a cliche.
Then Davis heard whimpering beyond a small, two-foot hump farther out in the valley. He "breast-stroked" about thirty yards through the foot-deep snow until he was face-to-face with a wounded enemy soldier. He was out in the open now, closer to the West Hill than he preferred. Through half-lowered eyelids the dying man-such a little guy-looked at Davis and attempted to extract a potato masher from his quilted jacket pocket with fingers that were frozen and swollen. Davis rose to his knees and shouldered his M I. The snow around him exploded with bullets from the West Hill.
Davis hit the ground and watched for another long moment, almost hypnotized, as the man continued to fumble for the grenade. Then he spotted a Belgian-made automatic rifle and a box of bullets a few yards away. He stood and ran, zigzagging at top speed back to his line, barely breaking stride to scoop up the rifle and ammo. Slugs snapped past his head and thudded into the snow around his feet. Luke Johnson laid cover fire across the slopes of the West Hill. Davis fell into the foxhole, broke open the cardboard box, and began divvying up the cartridges.
Up at the Chosin Reservoir, Colonel Homer Litzenberg had concluded that the Seventh Regiment's best chance for survival was strength in numbers. Twelve hours earlier he had had eighteen rifle companies at his disposal, ready to push on to the Yalu. They were now down to a battered fifteen-with two of those surrounded on hills several miles away, their future effectiveness in doubt. Litzenberg had to find a way to reunite Fox with his remaining forces at Yudam-ni.
He reached Barber by radio as the captain was overseeing the erection of the new company command post tent about fifty yards east of the shallow gully that ran up the center of Fox Hill. Litzenberg asked Barber his thoughts about quitting the hill and fighting his way north.
Barber had been worrying this bone for a while, and he considered the idea impractical in the extreme. He had taken too many casualties to move anywhere, and his ammunition stores had nearly run out. Lieutenant Peterson reported that his Second Platoon was down to between three and six bullets per man. Moreover, his small band of Marines was the only obstacle holding open the back gate from the Chosin. If the Chinese took these heights there was little chance Litzenberg's troops would get out alive.
The captain kept that thought to himself, however, and without explicitly citing the number of his wounded, lest any Chinese monitoring their radio frequency overhear, he indicated to Litzenberg by mentioning "tactical necessities" that he could not abandon his position.
Litzenberg's cryptic reply signaled that he understood Barber's meaning and intent, and before signing off Barber ended the exchange on an upbeat note. Just get us some airdrops, he said, ammo and food, especially grenades-and we'll hold this piece of real estate until the enemy drops from exhaustion.
Litzenberg could do better than that. Following his conversation with Barber he immediately radioed Lieutenant Colonel Lockwood in Hagaru-ri and ordered the formation of a composite force from the Marines remaining in the village-cooks, bakers, clerks, drivers, and communications and intelligence people. He wanted every soldier in Hagaru-ri with the exception of the artillery gunners and a small rear guard to get up that road and reinforce Fox. It was time to implement the Corps rule "Every Marine a rifleman." He called Barber back to tell him that relief was on the way.
After dropping Ken Benson at the aid station, Bob Ezell returned to his light machine-gun emplacement on the east side of the hill. The crew was gone. He asked around and learned that Captain Barber had ordered the gun dug in between the Second and Third Platoons on the northwest crest near the two tall rocks. Ezell had never been on that side of the hill, and it took him several minutes to orient himself and crawl across the crest. He used the scores of Chinese corpses as cover from the constant sniping; there were so many they reminded him of sagebrush in the desert.
He had just spied the two giant domino-like rocks a little above him when someone came tumbling down the hill. Sergeant Judd Elrod practically rolled into his arms. He had been shot in the same hip that had taken a Japanese bullet seven years earlier at Tarawa. But the force of the impact had been blunted by his binoculars case. Elrod, who had also been wounded in the fighting around Seoul, handed Ezell his smashed binoculars. "Ain't gonna do me any good," he said.
Ezell noticed that one of the glass eyepieces was shattered. He bent to help Elrod up, but the sergeant waved him off.
"Get your ass up to the emplacement," he said. "I can get down to the med tents by myself."
By the time Ezell reached the light machine-gun nest yet another Marine was down. Private First Class Dick Bernard, an ammo carrier, had been hit twice within ten minutes by sniper fire. The first bullet grazed his right leg. The second broke his left femur. Ezell barely had time to take in the situation before someone yelled, "Duck-he's got a grenade."
Ezell wheeled and spotted a Chinese soldier emerging from a depression thirty yards away, where the deep ravine running up the west valley met the saddle. The man had a long, stringy mustache that fell below his chin; he reminded Ezell of the evil mastermind Fu Manchu in the movies. He instinctively put three slugs into the man's chest. It was the first time Ezell had fired his rifle since Camp Pendleton. A moment later, two full enemy squads charged from the same depression. The machine gun knocked over about half of them and the rest dropped their weapons, threw up their hands, and surrendered. Ezell figured they must have been short a po litical commissar. One Marine wanted to shoot them, but another didn't like that plan: "If we shoot 'em, nobody else will ever surrender."
So the prisoners were rounded up and led down to Captain Barber's tent. Once again the Americans were struck-and disgusted -by how young the Chinese seemed. Who the hell is sending fifteenand sixteen-year-old kids out to fight a man's war?
A corpsman, carrying a rolled stretcher, passed the enemy prisoners and their Marine guards as he ran up the hill. Ezell noticed that the sniping trailed off considerably while the Chinese were in the open area between the two tall rocks and the tree line. As soon as they disappeared into the woods, however, it picked up again. If he'd known that was how their minds worked he would have made the Chinese carry Dick Bernard down to the med tents. Instead, using the rocks as cover, the light machine-gun crew rolled the private onto the litter and Ezell joined the corpsman and two more Marines at the corners. They counted to three and took off, running as fast as they could and nearly bouncing Bernard right off the canvas stretcher.
Near the command post Ezell bumped into Freddy Gonzales. Freddy was Roger Gonzales's cousin, and Roger and Ezell had played summer ball in San Pedro. But Roger's real forte had been track and field. He was a thirteen-foot pole-vaulter and a low-twominute half-miler. Before the war Ezell and Roger Gonzales had shared their secret hopes: making the major leagues and competing in the Olympics, respectively.
"What do you hear from Roger?" Ezell said.
Freddy Gonzales lit a cigarette and scuffed the snow with the toe of his shoepac. "KIA during the night."