U.S. Marines returning from fighting Chinese forces at the Sudong Gorge, a battle that the commander of the Seventh Regiment viewed as the beginning of World War III." Courtesy of National Archives
Captain William Barber, commanding officer of Fox Company, Second Battalion, Seventh Regiment. Courtesy of Sharon Waldo
Chinese soldiers captured by UN forces in November 1950. Notice their quilted uniforms. Courtesy of National Archives
The BAR man Warren McClure prior to shipping out to Korea. Courtesy of Warren McClure
Graydon Davis (right) before Fox Company marched up to Toktong Pass. Courtesy of Michael Davis
Bob "Zeke" Ezell at Camp Pendleton in the spring of 1951, when "Fox Hill" was a cold memory. Courtesy of Bob Ezell
Sergeant John Henry, the veteran machine-gunner attached to Fox Company. Courtesy of John Henry
Fortunately for Fox Company, Ken Benson had learned how to load a weapon with his eyes closed. Courtesy of Ken Benson
Wayne Pickett (right) and an unidentified fellow POW after their release from a Chinese prison camp. Pickett spent a total of 999 days as a POW. Courtesy of Wayne Pickett
This photo of bazooka man Harry Burke was taken during some R&R in Japan. Courtesy of Harry Burke
Lieutenant Robert McCarthy, who commanded the Third Platoon of Fox Company. Courtesy of Robert McCarthy
The photo taken by Ernest Gonzalez with a Chinese camera from his fighting hole on Fox Hill. Courtesy of Ernest Gonzalez
Lieutenant Elmo Peterson (left), commander of the Second Platoon, and one of his squad leaders, Sergeant Joseph Komoroski, on Fox Hill. Courtesy of Bill McLean
What the Navy Corpsman Bill McLean dubbed his "home on the hill." Courtesy of Bill McLean
There was plenty of sniper fire, but during the daylight hours the Marines of Fox Company did not have to face Chinese assaults. Courtesy of Bill McLean
As Chinese forces closed in on the Chosin Reservoir in early December 1950, First Division Marines broke camp to begin the "breakout" to Hagaru-ri. Courtesy of National Archives
Lieutenant Colonel Raymond G. Davis, one of three Medal of Honor recipients who was on Fox Hill. Courtesy of National Archives
Lieutenant Chew Een Lee, on October 1], 1950, at Inchon. He was the point man for the brutal overland trek of the Ridgerunners. Courtesy of Chew Een Lee
Exhausted Marines slept where they fell following the Battle of Fox Hill. Courtesy of National Archives
In subzero temperatures, Marines had to improvise ways to heat C-rations and brew coffee. Courtesy of National Archives
Between Fox Hill and Hagaru-ri, members of Baker Company, First Battalion, Seventh Regiment, took Chinese prisoners in the hills. Courtesy of National Archives
Private Dick Bonelli, still recovering from a near-fatal bullet wound and frostbite, is greeted by Captain W. F. James in the hospital in Japan. Courtesy of Dick Bonelli
The official Medal of Honor portrait of Private Hector Cafferata. Courtesy of National Archives
Bob Kirchner receives a Purple Heart from Captain James in December 1950 at the Yokosuka Naval Hospital. Courtesy of Robert Kirchner
Captain Bill Barber, with family members surrounding him, is awarded the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman on August 20, 1952. Courtesy of Sharon Waldo
This photo of Walt Hiskett was taken in August 1965 when he served as the chaplain with Fox Company in Vietnam. Courtesy of Walt Hiskett
NOVEMBER 29, 1950, 3 A.M.-IO P.M.
The Chinese offensive was over. The corpsmen were still working on Captain Barber's wound in the med tent when he sent word that what was left of Lieutenant Peterson's Second Platoon was to take back the hilltop. Peterson, with two bullets in him, told Sergeant Audas to take one man from each foxhole on the west slope and organize a detail to clear out all of the enemy still remaining inside the company perimeter. They swept the hill from the road and prepared to counterattack toward the crest. Marines ran among the "dead" and wounded administering the coup de grace. No more Chinese came down the saddle, but the steady enemy fire from the hilltop combined with sniping from the rocky knoll and rocky ridge to keep things lively.
Audas gave the order to charge. Private First Class Harrison Pomers jumped from the snow and emptied his eight-round clip as he tore up the hill. Fifty feet from the crest he saw an enemy rifleman aiming into the flank of Audas's detail. He ran at him with his bayonet. The man shot him. The bullet went through Pomers's neck and lodged in his spine. He felt as if a train had run him over. He couldn't hear a sound, and for the first time in days he felt warm. He lay on his back, staring up at the night sky, and said a prayer. Dear God, forgive me all my sins and please take me quick. I have no fear. Thank you.
Pomers was unconscious when the two corpsmen reached him. One dragged him into a gun pit while the other cupped a handful of snow and scrubbed the blood from his face and neck. When he was injected with a syrette of morphine, the pricking stab awakened him. He couldn't feel anything on his right side. His right leg and arm were useless. Private First Class Gerald Smith, who had been considered a new boot just a few days ago, watched the corpsmen carry Pomers down to the med tents. He pondered an irony: he was the only man left standing from the "last stand" fire team that had once consisted of the veterans Hector Cafferata, Kenny Benson, Pourers, and himself.
Smith was a gung-ho Marine, but this was not an inspiring thought.
Up between the two tall rocks Private First Class Bob Ezell had regained most of his senses, but not his mobility-his legs had been chewed up by the grenade. He tried to crawl but hadn't moved far when he heard Private First Class Gleason's voice down the slope.
"Get some mortar fire up by those rocks-there might be some Chinamen still up there."
Ezell hollered for all he was worth. "Jesus, no? There are Marines up here?"
Ezell turned to Triggs, who was unconscious-his chest heaved like a bellows. Ezell "kicked" off the crest with his elbows and tobogganed fifty yards down the slope on his stomach. He landed at the feet of the "Big Polack"-Sergeant Joe Komorowski, six-footthree, 250 pounds-who picked him up as if he were a child and carried him to the aid station. Before Ezell passed out, he mumbled that Triggs was still alive up by the rocks. "No mortars," he said.
"Don't worry, we'll get him," Komorowski said.
Over the next several hours Ezell drifted into and out of consciousness. At one point he awoke outside a med tent and saw Triggs sprawled on the ground cover beside him.
Inside the tent, Walt Hiskett and others had stopped praying and were instead listening intently. Hour after hour, those still conscious waited for the flap to be thrown open by a squad of enemy soldiers. Would they shoot the unarmed wounded, most of whom were barely clinging to life? Hiskett guessed they would. But as it gradually grew quiet outside, his hopes rose. If we could just get through 'til dawn.
Then, a sign. One by one, from top to bottom, narrow streams of sunlight poured through the bullet holes in the canvas. Hiskett let out a deep breath. He needed no more confirmation that God had saved his life.
Amid the chaos of the firefight on the eastern slope, Private First Class Garza had managed to drag Corporal Belmarez close to the aid station. He had been rough, and the effort had caused the frozen scabs of coagulated blood on Belmarez's legs to crack open. His wounds were now leaking like water mains. It had still been dark when Garza had stopped and used his hands as makeshift tourniquets. He screamed for help and squeezed Belmarez's thighs and buttocks to keep the pressure on.
No one came. Garza spent the next four hours holding his friend's chopped and sliced legs and buttocks together to prevent him from bleeding out. Now, as dawn broke, two Marines appeared. Together they managed to deliver Belmarez to the med tents alive.
"Hell you think you were doing out there in the middle of a firefight?" one of them asked Garza.
"He's my friend," Garza said. In fact, Belmarez was the only man who knew that Garza had lied about his age on his enlistment form. Garza, the human tourniquet, had just turned sixteen.
Around 6 a.m., as the sun appeared over the mountains, the gunfire and explosions subsided, and Ernest Gonzalez and Freddy Gonzales could make out a muffled Chinese conversation a little way off and to the west of their hole. Ernest, who had cleared the blood, dirt, and broken shards of eyeglasses from his eyes, tossed a grenade. It didn't explode. He heard more talking. He pulled the pin on their last grenade, pried off the frozen spoon, and threw it again, high. This one detonated, and the conversation ceased.
The explosion, however, stirred up a Chinese soldier who had been playing possum some yards to their east. He charged and leaped for their hole. Freddy shot him in the head, sending his cap, with its earflaps, skittering across the snow. The man had been carrying an American-made forty-five-caliber Grease Gun, but when Ernest slithered out to recover it he found it empty.
The two men hollered down the hill in the direction of Lieutenant McCarthy's old bunker command post, no more than seventyfive yards away. No one answered. Thinking themselves surrounded, they pooled their ammo for a last stand. They had between them no grenades, two bayonets, and five rounds. Again a Chinese bugler played taps from somewhere near the saddle. They sat in their hole listening to the mournful tune, awaiting the final rush that-inexplicably-never came.
The sky was clear and the frozen moisture in the air sparkled like diamonds refracting in the sky. Dappled shadows flickered across the folds of Fox Hill. Ernest Gonzalez and Freddy Gonzales locked eyes and together said an Act of Contrition. They slid over the downhill lip of their foxhole. They had monkey-run no more than a few steps before a machine gun from below tore up the snow in front of them. They turned and dived back into the hole.
"Gooks definitely got the hill," Ernest said. Freddy picked up a cartridge and nervously passed it from one hand to the other.
One hundred yards below them Dick Bonelli cursed. "Jesus Christ almighty, I didn't mean to do that. My hand is just kind of palsied out, stuck on the trigger from firing all night."
Sergeant Audas nodded.
"Think those were Marines I just shot at?" Bonelli said.
Captain William Barber had been at Iwo Jima, so he understood the cruel trade-off of men for territory. More than 6,800 Ameri cans had been killed securing that tiny, eight-square-mile atoll. When Barber landed there on February 19, 1945, there had been 212 Marines in his company. When he was ordered to leave Iwo on March 26, he commanded ninety-two men. It was the way of warfare. He did not have to like it.
Sergeant Audas reported a new body count of about 150 Chinese dead at the top of the hill and another dozen or so down near the road. The company had lost five men, including the sniper's victim, Haney, whom the mail carrier Billy French had tried to rescue. Twenty-nine more Marines had been wounded, including Lieutenant Peterson for the second time.
After two nights of repulsing Chinese assaults, the 246 ablebodied Marines and corpsmen had been reduced to 159 "effectives," most of them frostbitten. Barber knew better than to show it, but doubt crossed his mind. He wondered if Fox Company had one more day-or night-of fight left in it.
After receiving Audas's casualty report Barber stumped across the hill to inspect his survivors. His cracked pelvis had been dressed with sulfa powder, bandaged, and splinted with two pine boughs. He used a large tree limb as a crutch. As difficult as it may be to believe in this more cynical age, the dramatic sight of their bloody, shambling CO making his way along the company perimeter, barking out orders while leaning on a goddamn tree branch, breathed a new spirit into the Marines of Fox.
It was another cold morning, with the temperature hovering in the minus-twenties. Near the lower northeast corner of the hill, Barber directed Lieutenant Dunne of the First Platoon to round up a four-man scout team. The captain wanted them to reconnoiter the East Hill, two hundred yards down the MSR. The Marines had yet to be attacked from that direction-which was the only direction from which no attack had come-and Barber needed a feel for the Chinese presence there. Two of the volunteers were the cooks Phil Bavaro and John Bledsoe. They'd do anything to get their blood flowing.
Bledsoe and Bavaro followed a blood trail that led east from the road. About fifty yards out they came upon two wounded Chinese huddled on the lee side of a snowbank, in an icy pool of their own congealing blood. The Chinese soldiers were terribly shot up, and the two cooks suspected they were the ones who had done it. The wounded men's quilted uniforms were pocked with bullet holes, and their hands were swollen to the size of catcher's mitts. Both had lost their caps, and their ears, lips, and noses were cobalt blue. One of the men's feet had burst from frostbite. Even in the frigid open air, the little depression smelled foul. Bavaro was reminded of a story he'd once read in National Geographic about how a mortally wounded lion draws a circle around itself with its own blood, waiting for a hyena to catch the scent.
Bavaro unhitched the canteen from his belt and jerked his arm forward. The universal signal: Want water? Neither man changed his expression. Then Bledsoe waved his MI in their faces. Their cracked lips parted and their watery eyes seemed to plead. Bledsoe mimicked the firing of the gun. Their mouths turned up again. Bledsoe shot them both.
The recon patrol crept as far as the base of the East Hill, where they saw several Chinese scampering up the slope. Upon their return Bavaro reported to Lieutenant Dunne that they had taken no enemy fire and had seen only a few enemy soldiers. Dunne passed the word up to Barber. The captain trained his binoculars on the East Hill. There was no sign of movement. He was perplexed. He knew that Lieutenant Colonel Lockwood had been pinned down trying to reinforce him from that direction. The Reds had to be there. Why hadn't they fired on his patrol?
Down near the road, Jack Page noticed Harry Burke sitting off by himself on a tree stump. Page, as a heavy machine gunner, and Burke as a bazooka man shared an awareness of being a part of the Marine rifle company team without being particularly of it. And in Burke's case, two of his best friends from Minneapolis-the ammo carrier for the machine-gun unit, Charlie Parker, and Corporal Johnny Farley-were now among the growing number of American dead. The "Minny Gang" was shrinking fast.
Page asked Burke to join him. He wanted to check out the site on the road from where the Japanese Nambu had opened up on them last night. The two crept out to just west of the large hut and found the machine gun set up in the middle of the MSR. There were no bodies or blood trails. The Chinese crew must have abandoned the gun when Page had given them a good burst. The Nambu was still in fine working order and they hefted it back into the perimeter.
In their hole on the east slope Corporal Gaines and Private First Class Hutchinson had again rearranged their parapet defenses, laying out their spare rifles, grenades, and extra clips. Gaines plucked the spade stuck into the lip of the foxhole and held it in front of his face like a Halloween mask. He grinned at Hutchinson, his eyes crinkling through two bullet holes. He guessed the holes had come from the persistent Thompson submachine gunner.
"Did the Yanks really sweep Philadelphia?" said Hutchinson.
"Beats me," said Gaines.
By 7:30 a.m. the pale yellow sun vanished into a Rembrandt gloom. Storm clouds shrouded the surrounding peaks. It was the coldest morning since Fox Company had climbed Toktong Pass. Somebody said that somebody else knew somebody else with a thermometerthis was how news usually circulated at the front-and the mercury had quit falling at twenty-five below. Probably broken, the Marines figured. It felt colder than that.
Except for the warming stoves in the med tents, no fires had been lit yet, and men who were not out collecting weapons stood in their holes blowing into their gloves and stamping their feet. Gaines and Hutchinson were doing just that when slugs skittered across their parapet, upturning their neat rows of weapons and ammo yet again. They hit the dirt, and the curses were barely out of Gaines's mouth when he felt something, like a bee sting, pinching his leg. He reached down and pulled out a spent round that had penetrated his three layers of clothing but had barely broken the skin on his calf. He popped the bullet into his backpack as a souvenir.
The commotion at their hole attracted the attention of Gunnery Master Sergeant William Bunch, a tough veteran of World War II. He approached their position, ignoring their cries to stay low. As he placed his shoepac on the lip another burst swept the area and he was hit in the hand. Bunch let out a howl. He dived into the foxhole and the three Marines spent the next fifteen minutes scanning the south hill, three hundred yards away, for the sniper's position. But they could not spot him, and Bunch finally hopped out and headed back toward the med tents.
At 8 a.m., Marines along the hilltop saw two long columns of Chinese soldiers marching single file down the crown of Toktong-san's rocky ridge, toward the rear of the rocky knoll. Jesus, another battalion. When the enemy file moved to within five hundred yards of Fox Hill it disappeared from the skyline over the north side of the rocky ridge. Captain Barber ordered his two bazooka units to assemble on the middle of the hill, near the mortar emplacements just above the tree line.
When they arrived Barber stood on his crutch-the tree limband pointed to the rocky ridge. "Can you reach it?" he said.
Harry Burke was barely listening as Corporal Donald Thornton, the second gunner on the bazooka team, answered with an enthusiastic "Yes, sir." At twenty-one Burke was a seasoned bazooka handler, having been assigned to a rocket team shortly after he had enlisted in the reserves in 1948. He was from the tiny town of Clarkfield, Minnesota, and figured there had to be more to the world than crossing the South Dakota state line on Friday nights to drink beer and sing moony songs in cowboy bars. He wanted to travel, although North Korea was not exactly what he'd had in mind.
He had been driving home from a reservist camp in Virginia when news that the war had broken out came over the radio in his Studebaker convertible. Burke was elated. Given his experience, he had assumed he'd be ordered somewhere, most likely sunny California, as a bazooka instructor. Instead, almost three months to the day later, he landed at Inchon.
At weekend training camps in Minnesota, Burke had fired his bazooka in some frigid temperatures. But they had been nothing like this, and now he had his doubts. So far the fighting had been so close that there was no need-or time-for Burke to even load his tube. Now, as Thornton was assuring Captain Barber that their shaped-charge bazooka warheads could reach the ridges, Burke was reading the written warning etched on his tube: "Do Not Fire Below -20 Degrees Fahrenheit."
Barber said, "Let's send them a couple of rockets to let them know we're still fat and happy."
Burke and Thornton angled their tubes nearly vertical for maximum range. The assistant bazooka men loaded the rockets. "Fire," Barber said.
For some reason-Burke guessed it was the extreme cold-the propellant gases in the rockets not only ignited in the tubes but stayed lit as the rockets exited. They shot up spraying trails of flames and fell far short of the ridge. Thornton and Burke were knocked back flat on their asses. Thornton's eyebrows and whiskers were singed. Burke's thick eyebrows were actually aflame. A corpsman jumped to him, piled snow over his face to put out the stinging "brushfires," then slathered his brow with clots of semi-frozen Vaseline.
So much for that bright idea, Harry Burke thought as he lugged his tube back to his foxhole. At least he could use the worthless thing as a club the next time the Chinese attacked.
Not long afterward, Colonel Litzenberg managed to make radio contact with Barber from Yudam-ni. Although this was only seven miles north of the Toktong Pass, the peaks surrounding the Chosin Reservoir were playing havoc with radio waves, and the Marines up north were having the same problems as Barber's communications crew with the batteries. It occurred to Litzenberg that, if not for the roadblocks the Chinese had thrown up across the MSR between Yudam-ni and Fox Hill, it would have been easier to keep in touch with Fox Company by runners.
But now that he'd finally gotten through to Fox, Litzenberg informed Barber that Hagaru-ri had been lightly reinforced by units from Koto-ri farther south. About three hundred men-a combined force of U.S. and British Royal Marines, as well as seventeen American tanks-had fought through to the Hagaru-ri perimeter, but the village was also nearly encircled by the Chinese. Though Colonel Alpha Bowser in Hagaru-ri now commanded perhaps three thousand fighters, he was in no position to reinforce Fox.
Bowser had also asked the CO of How Company, Captain Benjamin Read, to redeploy his howitzer unit back into the village, Litzenberg said. But Read argued that moving his big guns any farther south would take them beyond the range of Fox Hill. Read asked to remain outside the perimeter in an exposed position. Bowser reluctantly concurred. This brought a smile to Barber's face. Good man, that Read.
Now, still on the radio, Litzenberg hesitated for a moment. Barber sensed that he was pondering a hard decision. After an uncomfortable silence he came out with it. He offered Barber the option of leading Fox Company off the hill and fighting his way back down to Hagaru-ri. "Your call," he said.
Barber had discussed this alternative with his XO, Clark Wright, only moments before. Moving his wounded was a major consideration, but so was tactical strategy. "Well, hell, we're already here," he had finally told Wright. "If we're ever going to get the Seventh together in one piece anywhere, north or south, it's going to involve fighting for this damned hill anyway. It's probably better to keep it while we've got it."
Now he reiterated these thoughts to Litzenberg, who wondered if holding Fox Hill and keeping Toktong Pass open were becoming a suicide mission. The colonel asked one more time if Fox Company would-if it could-fulfill its mission. The answer would become seared in the legacy of the U.S. Marine Corps: "We will hold, sir," Barber vowed. For both men, there was nothing more to say.
Barber put down the receiver and called his officers together to give them, as he laconically put it, "the latest dope from Division." The Chinese had invaded in force, he said. And not only were the Fifth, Seventh, and Eleventh taking heavy casualties at Yudam-ni, but Marines in Hagaru-ri and farther south in Koto-ri were also cut off. Scout planes had spotted eight enemy roadblocks between Koto-ri and Hagaru-ri. There was no need to reiterate their circumstances on Fox Hill. "Because of all this there's no possibility of relief for us," he said.
He leaned heavily on his crutch and took the measure of each man in the small circle around him, knowing that he had just told them their chances of surviving the next twenty-four hours were greatly reduced. They had a pass to keep open, and the lives of thousands of Marines depended on them. "We can expect heavy attacks tonight," Barber stated. But we have nothing to worry about as long as we fight like Marines."
At Yudam-ni, Colonel Litzenberg spent the morning sussing out contingency plans for an evacuation. The eight thousand or so Marines ringing the reservoir had been hit hard the previous night by as many as fifty thousand Reds, and the men were bone-tired and battle-weary. The First Division's supply officers calculated that the Chosin garrison had roughly three days worth of food, fuel, and ammunition remaining-less if you factored in the Eleventh Regiment's dwindling artillery shells.
The safety of these Marines was topmost in Litzenberg's mind, but he could not keep the fate of Fox Company from creeping into his thoughts. Sooner than later (he hoped) General MacArthur and General Almond would have to admit that their grand push to the Yalu River had been effectively crushed by the Chinese offensive, and Litzenberg was certain that the order to abandon Yudam-ni would arrive at any moment. He was just as certain that the enemy knew the key to the entire division's survival was Fox Hill.
Litzenberg suspected that the events of the last two days had provoked the Chinese military leaders to revise their strategy. Now, they didn't want merely to drive the Americans out of North Korea. They wanted to annihilate them, so they would never come back.
It had been hours since Litzenberg had gotten through to Captain Barber, but he was confident that nothing had dramatically altered the picture Barber had painted for him earlier. With the Marine Corsairs and Aussie Mustangs patrolling the skies, the Chinese would not dare attack in daylight. Tonight, however, was a different story. They would throw everything they had at Fox to sweep it off that pass.
And if they succeeded? What if Barber and his men were not even alive tomorrow morning? Litzenberg thought the odds were grim and grimmer, and he conferred with his counterpart, Colonel Murray of the Fifth Regiment, about precisely such a possibility. If the Chinese broke through and commanded Toktong Pass, they decided, their regiments would be surrounded and probably wiped out. Their only chance would be to destroy their own vehicles and artillery and fight their way south on foot, ridgeline to ridgeline, avoiding the road. Toktong was too strong a chokepoint for the transport of rolling stock. If it fell into enemy hands the Americans trying to blast past the roadblocks on the MSR would be cut to pieces from the overhanging ridges. The two colonels assumed that an overland retreat would result in at least 50 percent casualties. Neither cared to dwell on the likelihood of losing more than four thousand Marines.
i'here was one other hope. Litzenberg put it to Murray. What if they used the cover of night to dispatch a stripped-down rifle battalion overland toward the pass before the remaining Marines trapped at Yudam-ni left and set off down the meandering MSR for Hagaru-ri? This rump battalion could serve two purposes. First, if Barber was still holding out, he would certainly need the reinforcements. Second, if Fox had been wiped out, the flanking maneuver might result in a big enough surprise attack to recapture the heights from any occupying Chinese.
Murray liked this "backdoor" scheme, and Litzenberg sent a runner to find Lieutenant Colonel Ray Davis, the man he wanted to lead the march. Davis, the commanding officer of the Seventh Regiment's First Battalion, had already proved his mettle three days earlier by rescuing his own "Hard Luck Charlie" Company from Turkey Hill, and earlier in the war he had captured the Fusen Reservoir with only three Jeeploads of Marines and a dozen shotguns.
Litzenberg was relieved that Davis was still in the vicinity. Turkey Hill was two miles south of Yudam-ni, and when Davis had set off to save Charlie Company the colonel had left it to Davis's discretion whether to return to the reservoir with his survivors or continue the five miles south to link up with Barber on Fox Hill. Davis had taken too many casualties on Turkey Hill to continue a southern assault, however. Now Litzenberg was going to send him back again, in the same direction, and this time the route would be much harsher.
Bob Ezell woke up in the east med tent and tried to rub his legs. But his hands, which had turned pearly-white, were numb and swollen to the size and texture of small footballs.
"Here, gimme." It was Private Bernard "Goldy" Goldstein, lying next to him. Ezell extended the two things attached to his wrists. Goldstein's left hand had been shredded by a grenade, but with his good right hand he began massaging Ezell's hands to bring back some circulation. Gradually the blood returned, and though they remained grotesquely swollen, Ezell finally got some feeling back. He ran his hands over his legs, bandaged from hip to ankle. He thought of his baseball career. Over.
"Corpsman said the cold saved your life," Goldstein said. "Kept you from bleeding out."
Ezell didn't know what to think. Would he have been better off dying up by those rocks, better off to have gone down fighting? Was that better than being bayoneted, helpless in an aid station, when the Chinese finally overran the outfit? Was it better than never playing ball again?
His self-pity evaporated when the tent flap opened and he watched two corpsmen carrying in Private First Class Cecil Bendy, an assistant mortarman who had just been shot in the head by a sniper. No, no, Ezell wouldn't have been better off dying. It was good here. It was warm. He would walk again. He'd make it off this hill. He might even play baseball-just not the outfield.
The corpsmen lowered Bendy into an empty space where Private First Class Alvin Haney had recently died. Haney's body was the latest to be added to the growing pile of American dead just west of, and downhill from, the aid station. The frozen corpses, wrapped in ponchos and covered by half tents, were stacked three feet high by fifteen feet long.
When he watched them carry Haney out, Warren McClure remembered a conversation he'd had with Haney a week earlier, over chow in Hagaru-ri. Haney had told McClure that his goal in Korea was to win the Medal of Honor, "for the Corps."
Now a corpsman stepped carefully among the prone bodies in the tent handing out morphine syrettes. McClure, though still in excruciating pain, declined. He was afraid any more medication would put him under so deep that he would stop breathing. Next, boxes of Orations were passed around, but again McClure begged off. He knew his lung was punctured, but what else had the bullet torn up in there? He was afraid that a piece of food clogged in his innards might pose difficulties for the docs who would open him up when he got back to a real field hospital. When they got him back. Ha!
Both med tents, erected on slopes, were truly uncomfortable. It was only with painful squirming, and by digging in the heels of his shoepacs, that McClure was able to keep from sliding down on top of the man beneath him. He was fucking miserable. Yet, like Ezell, each time he began feeling too sorry for himself, he needed only to look to his right. There a young Marine whose name he did not even know was paralyzed with a bullet in his spine. The kid, who appeared to be no more than sixteen, was conscious, and to pass the time McClure spoke to him, comforted him. Once he'd tried to sit up to wipe the kid's brow. But he couldn't stand the pain. It bugged the hell out of him.
Just past 9:30 a.m., McClure's fire team leader, Private First Class Robert Schmidt, entered the tent to check on his condition. The scare from last night was fresh in McClure's memory and he begged Schmidt to bring him a weapon, any weapon: a carbine, maybe a forty-five-caliber pistol. He thought it likely that the same frightening scene would play out again tonight. Schmidt was sympathetic but told McClure there was nothing he could do. The riflemen on the line needed every weapon they had. As he turned to go, however, Schmidt slid his K-bar from its sheath and buried it in the ground next to McClure. "Best I can do," he said. They smiled at each other, and Schmidt left the tent.
McClure wobbled the knife from the dirt with his good left hand, turned on his right side, and with all his strength buried the thick blade up to its hilt. He counted his luck that the earth beneath the tent had softened from the warming stoves. He hooked his right armpit around the knife's handle as a brace against sliding. Better. His heels relaxed. But even this small exertion exhausted him, and he was asleep before the company XO, Lieutenant Clark Wright, entered to explain Fox Company's dire situation to the wounded. Just as well. By now McClure hated the guy.
The sun had crested the eastern peaks when Lieutenant Peterson's mopping-up detail stumbled across Ernest Gonzalez and Freddy Gonzales crouched in their hole. They had already been added to the KIA list posted below, and the Marines who found them, huddling in a corner of their foxhole, stared popeyed at the two "ghosts."
Ernest and Freddy, equally astonished that Fox still held the hill, goggled hack. Near the site where Ernest had tossed his grenade at the chattering Chinese a Marine stepped over an enemy officer lying across a field phone. There was a German-made Mauser machine pistol next to the dead man, and the Marine presented it to Ernest as a gift. Ernest checked; it had no bullets. Before he left to find some grub, Ernest pulled out the camera he had scrounged at the bottom of the hill the previous evening and took a picture from their foxhole.
On his way down the hill Ernest ran into Kenny Benson, who had trudged back up at dawn after medics had swabbed his eyes. Now Benson decided to join Gonzalez and pay a visit to Cafferata. The two parted ways at the aid station, and after Benson filled a tin cup with hot coffee he raised the flap of Hector's med tent. Hours earlier every stretcher had been occupied. Half a dozen empty spaces now dotted the ground-men who had died from their wounds, including his fire team leader, Corporal James Iverson. The last time Benson saw Iverson, he had been lying unconscious beside Cafferata.
Hector was wearing a pair of boots taken from a dead corpsman. They were too small, so someone had chopped the toes off. Benson sat down next to him and offered him a sip of coffee. Hector was sweating like a wheel of cheese.
"Bense, my feet are terrible. If I gotta spend much more time here I'm gonna shoot 'em off." Pain was etched on his face, and Benson heard something in his voice he would never have expected-fear. As he rubbed the warmth back into his buddy's feet Benson recognized a familiar NCO lying wounded across the tent.
"Hey, Hec," he said. "Remember Sergeant D.J.?"
How could Cafferata forget? Just hours before ascending Toktong Pass, Sergeant D.J. had ordered Hector to break his arm. It had all started when the distraught noncom received a Dear John letter from his wife-hence the nickname D.J. As Cafferata's fire team had gotten warm around barrel fires in Hagaru-ri, Sergeant D.J. approached Cafferata and informed him that he was going home.
"Sure, Sarge," Cafferata had said. "I'll call you a cab."
"No, Moose, I'm serious. I want you to knock me out and break my arm.
Cafferata was stunned. Was this a joke on the new boot? One look in the man's eyes and Cafferata realized he was serious.
"Jesus, Sarge, I can't hit you. How about if I just squeeze you unconscious?"
That is what Cafferata had proceeded to do. After the sergeant passed out, Benson laid his arm across a snowbank while Cafferata clubbed it with the stock of his rifle. The sergeant came to and howled in agony.
"Cafferata, you clumsy son of a bitch, it didn't break!"
In truth, the bewildered Cafferata had held back on his swing, as he did when the sergeant insisted he try it again. The same thing happened. The sergeant was debating whether to have Cafferata shoot him in the leg when an officer approached and the entire idea was abandoned.
Now, as Cafferata lay in the god-awful med tent, his face scrunched up and he shot a quizzical look at Benson. He seemed to forget, for the moment, his aching feet. "What about him?" he said.
Benson rolled his eyes. "He's two stretchers over. And get this. Took a bullet in the leg."
Both men grinned. The memory had just the effect on Cafferata's spirits that Benson had hoped for.
At 10 a.m., Captain Barber learned that Hagaru-ri had been hit hard the previous night. The fighting had been touch and go for several hours, but despite waves of attacks by a full Chinese division the supply depot, airstrip, and field hospital remained in the Marines' hands. Barber was also told to expect a supply plane within the hour.
He recalled yesterday's drop in the east valley and the two Marines taken out by snipers. Today, he decided, he would chance the drop on the open space below the crest of the hill. It was vulnerable to sharpshooters on the rocky knoll but had the advantage of being closer to the tree line. He ordered a detail to tear strips from the parachutes and form them into a large circle just below the crest of the hill. The middle of the circle was marked with an "X" using the company's air panels.
At 10:30, the R4FD Marine cargo plane, Lieutenant Bobby Carter again flying number 785, appeared over the southern horizon. He came in low on the deck, took scattered small arms fire from the rocky knoll and rocky ridge, and after a test run jettisoned his first bundles. Each parachute landed inside the circle. On Carter's second pass, unknown to the Marines on the hill, enemy machine gun fire tore through the aircraft's flimsy skin. Its radio operator was wounded in both legs. The plane's crew chief, Master Sergeant John Hart, applied tourniquets to the operator's bleeding legs while Carter made two more runs over the target. Despite the activity just outside his cockpit he hit it every time.
The drop included cartons of hand grenades, M 1 clips, belts of thirty-caliber machine-gun ammunition, and 60-mm and 81-mm mortar rounds. Fox Company was once again loaded for bear-but still hungry, for no C-rations were to be found. To some men this didn't matter. Dick Bonelli, for instance, had settled into a daily routine that did not include eating. He had lugged the light machine gun back up the hill and set the weapon in a depression with rocks on three sides. He may have been living in a hole in the ground, like an animal, but he refused to eat like one. Instead he spent the daylight hours collecting spare weapons and ammo before visiting the med tents to grab a cup of coffee and talk.
Pulling back the tent flap shortly after the airdrop, a big smile on his face, he shouted, "All of you goldbricks, it's survival of the fittest, so get off your asses and join the party." He proceeded to regale the wounded with yarns about the tittie bars of New York City, outrunning MPs during a drunken shore leave in Lisbon, buying phony identification cards in order to drink in the taverns ringing Camp Pendleton, or having been court-martialed for stealing a rickshaw in Kobe.
Bonelli's clowning was effective. Years later, wounded men who'd been dazed by morphine at the time and had trouble re calling events on Fox Hill easily remembered Bonelli's bad jokes and lousy stories. After Bonelli left, Hector Cafferata fingered an M l he had scavenged and turned to the Marine lying next to him. "Don't know who that guy is," he said, "but he's damn lucky we need every man we got."
As on the previous day, the supply drop was followed by the approach of a two-seater chopper that flitted and darted to avoid the enemy fire. Its pilot, Lieutenant Floyd Englehardt, was bold enough to land in the open on top of the hill and push out his supply of radio and field phone batteries. But before he could even think about evacuating any of the wounded, slugs punctured the little chopper's windshield and fuselage. Englehardt got out of there fast.
At 11:30 a.m., a tremendous explosion rocked the area near the Third Platoon's command post. No one was killed, but Private First Class Edward Gonzales-one of the Texas Gonzaleses-was buried alive under a huge mound of snow and dirt. He was unconscious when corpsmen dug him out and carried him to the med tent.
No one could tell if the detonation had been caused by a faulty mortar or howitzer round-both the company's own 81-mms and the Hagaru-ri battery had been intermittently shelling the rocky knoll and rocky ridge throughout the morning-or if perhaps a satchel charge dropped by one of the infiltrating Chinese during the previous night's firefight had somehow been ignited by the subzero temperatures. At any rate, Captain Barber ordered Sergeant George Reitz to man up a detail to clear the perimeter of all unexploded ordnance. Reitz found volunteers hard to come by.
As Reitz and his squad grid-searched the hill they discovered no unexploded satchel charges, but they did run across plenty of dud American hand grenades-at least, Reitz prayed they were duds. They littered the battlefield, especially near the eastern crest, their pins pulled, some still with spoons and some without, their fuses like damp firecrackers. It seemed as if half the grenades tossed by the Americans had failed to explode, owing to a combination of the cold and old age. The grenades had been manufactured at least a decade earlier; they were Army surplus from before World War II.
Each time the men on Reitz's team saw one, they would call the sergeant over. The American grenades had seven-second fuses, and it was impossible to tell how far a fuse had burned down, if at all, before fizzling out. Reitz would approach the explosive on his hands and knees, bring his empty right hand back, and then swing his hand forward, clutching the grenade and heaving it a hundred feet or so over the slope in one continuous swoop. None exploded, but that did not stop Reitz's Marines from backing away and ducking for cover on every throw.
Sergeant Reitz wondered why Barber had chosen him for this assignment. In the Corps a company commander was expected to know each of his charges personally, from the grizzled gunnies to the raw boots. He acted not only as their military leader, but also as a combination psychological counselor, financial adviser, umpire, religious confessor, and surrogate father figure.
Reitz, like Bob Ezell, had been a semipro baseball player in the States. Was that why he'd been chosen to toss the grenades? Reitz couldn't imagine that Barber knew much about his background. The captain had only just joined the outfit. Or, Reitz wondered, was he that good?
Throughout the day the Second Platoon Marines on the west slope continued to dig in as sniper fire from the West Hill across the valley pinged around them. Poke your head up, draw a shot. By 1 p.m., however, Private First Class Gray Davis decided he was going to die anyway-of starvation-if he didn't get something to eat. Somebody had to have some extra C-rations.
He hopped from the hole he still shared with Luke Johnson, ducked the slugs that flew over his head, zigzagged back to the tree line at top speed, and crouched behind a thick sapling to catch his breath. Jesus. He wondered what happened to you when you got scared half to death twice. As he disappeared into the pines, he heard Johnson yell, "Bring some ammo, too."
He worked his way up the gulley toward the med tents beneath pewter skies on iron ground, using the trees that grew horizontally out of the hill like the rungs of a ladder. Midway to the aid station, his hands bleeding from the rough, cold bark, Davis stopped to chat with a couple of buddies from the Third Platoon. They were shocked to see him because his name had appeared on the KIA list near the command post. "Hell you talking about?" he said, and double-timed it up the slope.
Near the med tents he found the list and saw the name of Roger Davis, Allen Thompson's assistant machine gunner from the First Platoon. This gave him pause. Weighed down with food and ammo, Gray Davis returned to his hole. Luke Johnson noticed that he seemed preoccupied.
In fact, Davis didn't say a word for the next hour. He was brooding not only over Roger Davis's death but over all his comrades who had died to hold this god-awful hunk of rock. He and Claude Peoples, another Florida kid and one of the two black guys in the outfit, had enlisted together. He remembered back during the dicey summer campaign, on the retreat to Pusan, when Gunny Kalinow- ski, his face covered with soot and dust like everyone else's, remarked, "Now we all look the same."
Every head had swiveled toward Peoples. Claude was a stoic guy who rarely smiled, a sort of sphinx without a riddle, Davis thought, but he had grinned then, as if at some personal joke. Now Claude was dead-as was his former platoon leader, Sergeant Peach, who seemed to know it was coming.
On the LST sailing to Wonsan, Sergeant Earl Peach had pulled Davis aside and said, very calmly, that he wasn't coming back. Peach was a veteran of World War II "from the great state of Kansas" (as he always put it), and his wife had died of an illness several years before. He had told Davis that lately she was appearing to him in his dreams every night, telling him that they would be together soon. He would sit up in his bunk and reach out for her, slamming his head into the upper bunk every time. Then at Sudong, Peachy had tried to save a wounded Marine and had his head cut in half by machine-gun fire. He had been awarded the Navy Cross posthumously. There were too many dead, Gray Davis thought.
Just after Sudong a new boot had been assigned to the outfit, an overweight kid who obviously couldn't take the punishment. He'd just been transferred out of the rifle company and into the motor pool when they had taken incoming from a Russian T-34 tank. Davis watched the fat kid dive under a truck just as a shell hit the front end. He came out without a scratch, but when anyone tried to talk to him all he could do was mewl and blubber. They gave him a Section Eight. Yeah, he was crazy, Davis thought now, crazy like a goddamn fox.
As suddenly as it had come over him, Davis's pensive mood was broken by the arrival of Lieutenant Peterson, who was distributing Chinese-issue white blankets taken from the packs of the enemy dead. Peterson had multiple wounds to his shoulder and sternum, and his uniform was bloody and in tatters. The heavy Australian rifle he carried completed the bizarre picture.
"Where'd you get the cannon, El-Tee?" Johnson said.
"Dead gook," Peterson said. "Just wanted to let you know that we'll be kind of thin on this line tonight. Lotta wounded. Lotta empty holes."
Then Peterson produced a pint of whiskey from inside his field jacket, passed it to both men, and jerked his chin toward the Chinese on the West Hill. "What they doin' out there?"
Davis and Johnson exchanged brief glances. Hell you think they're doing?
"They're firing at us, sir, and I believe you better get down in the hole," Johnson said. He and Davis prided themselves on having the deepest foxhole on the west slope.
Peterson ignored their warning and gingerly assumed a sitting position on the lip of the foxhole, his legs dangling inside.
Davis said, "Lieutenant, what do you think happens if the tables are turned? You know, a couple, three Marine battalions attacking a company of Chinese holding this hill?"
Peterson smiled but did not deign to answer such a silly question. Instead he pulled out a pair of 6x30 Zeiss binoculars and scanned the surroundings left to right-over the West Hill, up the rocky knoll, and beyond to the rocky ridge.
"Machine gunner up there," he said, pointing to a position about four hundred yards away atop the rocky ridge. "Looks like he's sighting in on us."
Davis and Johnson threw the white blankets over their shoulders and scrunched farther down into the hole. Peterson didn't seem bothered. It was if he were eyeballing girls on the beach. "Yup, definitely sighting in on us."
Machine-gun bullets beat the ground and the scrub around the foxhole. They tore through the trees behind the three Marines, cracking branches large and small. The gunner must have emptied an entire canister.
"Over now," Peterson said, "he's done." He placed his binoculars back in their leather case and began the painful act of standing up. Davis and Johnson watched him limp a bit up the hill before he stopped. Over his shoulder Elmo Peterson said, "Your question? Tables turned? Over in half an hour."
He continued up the slope and sat down on the lip of the next foxhole.
At 3 p.m., two U.S. Air Force C-82 Flying Boxcars soared over the southern horizon. They flew much higher than the Marine cargo plane and made one run apiece, both missing the "X" of air panels near the crest with their drops. The supplies landed in a column that ran several hundred yards down the center of the west valley. Most of the parachutes failed to open, and the Marines watched cases of hand grenades smash apart and scatter in all directions. They cursed the Air Force pilots, who had neither the balls nor the aim of their Marine counterparts.
"They're supplying the enemy," Captain Barber said as he watched the Boxcars disappear. But he knew someone was going to have to go out and get that ammunition. Lieutenant Peterson stepped up.
Barber said he didn't expect Peterson's detail to recover every single crate. "Concentrate on blankets, stretchers, medical supplies, and C-rations," he said. "Ammo after that."
This recovery run would be much more hazardous than that of the previous day, when the Marines merely had to worry about a few snipers on the far South Hill. Peterson sent the men in his detail out one by one, unarmed except for knives. As each approached a multicolored parachute, mortar and machine-gun covering fire from all over Fox Hill blasted the enemy lines.
Despite the fusillade, the Chinese opened up from the ridgeline and folds of the West Hill, from the rocky knoll and the rocky ridge, and from a small patch of woods that wrapped around the base of the West Hill near the MSR. One of the men providing covering fire was Gray Davis, who had been assigned a light machine gun. Davis had protested that he hadn't fired a machine gun since boot camp. Good enough, Peterson said.
Now, hunched over in the emplacement, spraying the West Hill and the little woods for all he was worth, Davis felt as if he were back in the stands at a Florida State game. Marines ran through the broken field like tailbacks. Directly in front of him Lieutenant Joseph Brady-the mortar unit commander, who still had grenade fragments in his back and hands and who indeed had been a star halfback at Dartmouth-dashed toward a box of 81-mm rounds, cradled a shell under each arm like two footballs, and scatted back across the valley as if the bullets pocking the packed snow at his feet were tacklers.
Several men got back safely, dropped off their haul, and went looking for Davis. They were not happy. They felt that his covering fire had strayed a bit too close to their scalps. "Then cover your own ass next time," he told them.
Up at the command post, tabulating the haul, Captain Barber was incredulous and then enraged. Peterson reported that his detail had managed to bring in stretchers and blankets as well as ammunition: belted slugs for the thirty-caliber machine guns, several mortar shells, and boxes of forty-five-caliber bullets that could be used in the captured Thompson submachine guns. There were also a few C-rations, although not nearly enough.
But when his men-under fire, Peterson emphasized-had crowbarred open crates searching for medical supplies or, most important, more food, they had found helmet liners, unusable fifty-caliber rounds and howitzer shells, barbed wire, and forty-seven-year-old Springfield rifles and their stripper-clipped, World War I-era ammo. Inexplicably, they had also discovered five-gallon cans of fresh water that had frozen to ice.
Ice. Just what we need up here.
When Barber regained his composure he decided it was too dangerous to send another detail out to the supply drop while it was still daylight. He had been lucky. Despite the Chinese barrage, none of his men had been hit. He couldn't afford to press that good fortune. Plus, there was more urgent business to tend to.
He called together the officers and platoon leaders who were still standing and told them he'd managed to get through to Division headquarters. Up on the east side of the Chosin, he said, the Army battalions were getting their heads handed to them, and the Fifth, Seventh, and Eleventh Marine regiments at Yudam-ni had been surrounded for almost twenty-four hours. Interrogations of Chinese prisoners revealed that three enemy divisions-more than 30,000 soldiers-to the north, northwest, and southwest had closed on the shrinking American perimeters along the fourteen-mile stretch from Hagaru-ri to the reservoir, with more on the way. For all intents and purposes, he said, the American push toward the Yalu was over.
Barber told his men that he was proud of them, that Fox had held out longer than the Chinese had expected. He added that though he didn't have it officially, he was certain that a combined "pullback" of what was left of the eight thousand Marines up near the Chosin was imminent, and that holding Toktong Pass would make the difference between a successful breakout and a massacre of Americans.
The men around Barber fell silent. Each knew what this meantfor himself, for Fox Company, for their friends and comrades up north, for General MacArthur, and for the United States. It was all on them now.
Barber broke the silence. "Pass the word. Tell every man to conserve whatever C-rations he has left. It's all the food we're likely to have for a while. And I want booby traps and trip flares placed all around the perimeter."
Although the Chinese high command was perplexed that its strategy of isolating individual American units and chewing them up with superior firepower was proceeding more slowly than expected-both Charlie Company and Fox Company, after all, should have been eliminated by now-General Sung Shih-lun assured the leaders in Peking that the final outcome was certain. And, at almost the same time that Barber was meeting with his officers on Fox Hill, General MacArthur was following up his report to the United Nations with a communique to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington.
He began with the same wording he had sent to the UN-"We face an entirely new war"-but added a separate coda. "It is quite evident that our present state of forces is not sufficient to meet the undeclared war by the Chinese," he wrote. "This command ... is now faced with conditions beyond its control and its strength."
It was not a coincidence that, during a press conference the next day, President Truman refused to rule out the use of atomic weapons in North Korea. In fact, hours earlier the U.S. Air Force's Strategic Air Command (SAC) had been ordered to prepare to dispatch several bomber groups to Asia carrying "atomic capabilities."
As it became more and more evident that the United States' forces in North Korea were facing a rout, Marine battle command ers were anxious to recast this national humiliation as similar to the British "spirit" exhibited at Dunkirk in the early days of World War II. It worked. After covering news conferences in Washington, D.C., American journalists echoed the Marines' "gung ho" proclamations in their copy-missing the irony that gung ho was actually a Chinese phrase (loosely translated as "to work together"). In one case, sympathetic war correspondents, visiting the rear areas, asked the commander of the First Division, General Oliver P. Smith, about the Chosin withdrawal. They subsequently converted his rambling response into a stirring battle cry. "Retreat, hell," he was quoted as saying. "We're just attacking in another direction."
Smith's brio was not lost on Litzenberg, who now issued the following directive at Yudam-ni: "In our order for the march south there will be no intermediate objectives. The attack will start at 0800 on 1 December. Objective: Hagaru-ri."
As their third night on the hill approached, the weary Marines of Fox Company began placing bets on what time the Chinese would come. They also wondered how the enemy, clad in their thin canvas sneakers, managed to keep their feet from falling off in the subfreezing temperatures-no campfires were visible on the surrounding hills-and whether frostbite would slow them down as the hours passed. Though the sun had intermittently broken through the clouds, the day had been the coldest so far on Toktong Pass. Evening shadows were settling over the hill at 5:30 p.m. when Kenny Benson moved up behind Bob Kirchner's position. He had recovered his BAR and was also carrying an old Japanese Nambu automatic rifle (the version with a banana clip extending from the top). "Lieutenant Peterson says to fill an empty hole," he said.
Kirchner nodded to a gun pit about ten feet away. There was a dead Chinese soldier lying in it.
"I ain't touching that," Benson said.
"Oh fer Christ's sake." Kirchner crab-walked to the hole, lugged the corpse out, and laid it along the rim facing the West Hill. "The next one's yours," he said. "Make your own cover."
Farther down the slope Gray Davis and Luke Johnson had been joined in their foxhole by Private First Class Clifford Gamble. The three Second Platoon Marines chewed the fat for a while-there was not much else to chew-until a glint of reflected sunlight far to the northwest caught Gamble's eye. He rapped on his friends' helmets and pointed in the direction of a mountain pass about six hundred yards away, on the far side of the West Hill. Three companies of Chinese troops-each company five men across and twenty-five rows deep-were parade-marching down the MSR.
Jesus, it's like watching a movie, Davis thought. The three Marines followed the columns until they disappeared into the piney woods that wrapped around the southwest base of the West Hill. There seemed to be an endless supply of Red reinforcements.
At the same moment Lieutenant Peterson was making his first evening rounds. He too saw the enemy columns disappear into the fir trees. When Peterson reached Davis and Johnson's foxhole they all watched a fourth column, and then a fifth, follow the first three into the trees. That made a battalion. Peterson took out his field phone, unfolded his topographic map, and relayed the information and the coordinates of the woods to Lieutenant Campbell up at Barber's command post. Campbell in turn radioed How Company's howitzer battery at Hagaru-ri.
Within five minutes a registering round burst over the woods. Peterson cradled his field phone. "On target," he told Campbell. "Fire for effect."
A minute later multiple salvos of proximity-fused antipersonnel rounds exploded over the small forest. Marines on the west slope watched in wonder as rounds burst fifty feet above the trees. Thousands of pieces of shrapnel rained iron on the Chinese. The variably timed airbursts exploded in groups of six, at thirty-second intervals. The artillerymen walked the entire grid pattern from one coordinate square to the next. The shelling lasted twenty minutes. When it was over the Marines could see no movement in the trees.
Fish bait, Gray Davis thought. He was still a Florida boy, after all. A few moments later, just to satisfy his curiosity, he loaded a tracer into the barrel of his M I and fired it toward the trees. The muzzle blast gave him spots before his eyes, and he had no idea in which direction the bullet went. Luke Johnson, who had repeatedly warned his foxhole buddy that firing a tracer from a rifle was a stupid idea, looked on with a satisfied smirk.
As night fell, Colonel Homer Litzenberg sat on the cot in his small tent command post at the southern end of Yudam-ni. He and Colonel Murray had just adjourned a meeting with all of their battalion commanders, at which assignments were handed out for what was unofficially being called the "breakout" from the Chosin Reservoir. As the officers filed out Litzenberg asked Lieutenant Colonel Ray Davis to remain behind.
"With our trucks and artillery, the enemy assumes we're roadbound," he said.
Davis nodded. He was standing over Litzenberg, who was unfurling an old Japanese map.
Litzenberg said, "We have a good chance of catching him by surprise with an overland move."
Davis's head moved almost imperceptibly.
"I want you to work up a plan to do just that and bring it back as soon as you can. We've got to get going on this."
Davis glanced up from the map and nodded again.
Ray Davis may not have been a man of many words, but Litzenberg considered him far and away his most ferocious battalion commander. He needed such a warrior right now. Contradictory orders were flying into Yudam-ni-the Chosin garrison had actually been instructed by the Army's General Almond to break west eighty miles to attack the flank of the Chinese who were destroying the hapless Eighth Army after Litzenberg received orders from the Marines' General Smith to attack southward toward Hagaru-ri- but Litzenberg had plans of his own. The foremost involved this steely, hawk-nosed Georgian who, one fellow officer noted, would look as natural in bib overalls as in dress blues.
Davis was tall and laconic, a graduate of Georgia Tech who carried himself with an unassuming countenance that concealed a combat readiness not found in every officer, or even in every Marine officer. Davis liked to tell friends, "Above all, I see myself as a man of action." He was among the rare military men who relied on neither gruffness nor bluff to inspire their charges, but instead on his poise at the center of any fray. This was an attribute that early on caught the attention of the notoriously belligerent Marine Colonel Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, who had trained Davis at basic school.
Davis's war experience went back to World War II, in which he had led Marine units against the Japanese across Guadalcanal, New Guinea, and New Britain. His skill as a leader increased with his rank, and as a major in late 1944 he had commanded a Marine battalion at Peleliu, one of the most vicious of coral island campaigns. He had been shot during the first minutes of the landings at Peleliu, but he refused to abandon his command. When a Japanese banzai charge shattered his outfit's defensive lines, he personally led the counterattack despite his leg wound. For this act of bravery he was awarded the Navy Cross. In the summer of 1950, remembering the kid from basic who had shown such leadership qualities, Puller handed Davis his first frontline rifle battalion and told him to report to Colonel Litzenberg in California and prepare for Korea.
Davis had been serving as the inspector-instructor of a reserve battalion in Chicago when Puller tapped him. He accompanied his men by train to Camp Pendleton and was dismayed when, upon arrival, his unit was abruptly disbanded and randomly assigned to various other battalions. Davis resented how his "family" had been broken apart in that predawn episode.
After a few days in California, however, mostly he went about the business, in military parlance, of standing up Litzenberg's First Rifle Battalion. This included not only stopping his Jeep near every work detail or idle group of Marines to shanghai "volunteers," but also "borrowing" wayward trucks in order to scrounge supplies from the train depot in Barstow. Soon his trucks were also filled with disparate Marines ready and willing to fight in Korea-wherever the hell that was.
At Pendleton, Litzenberg had tacitly approved of Davis's unorthodox recruiting methods, and now, at the Chosin Reservoir, the colonel had a stack of "after action" reports detailing how Davis, not content with studying an ongoing battle from a battalion commander's standard position in the rear, invariably "stayed on the low ground" at the front of his column whenever his unit engaged in a gunfight. Litzenberg also had firsthand testimony regarding Davis's fearlessness during the rescue at Turkey Hill. He wondered if there would be anyone left on Fox Hill for Davis to rescue.
Davis listened intently as Litzenberg spoke about the chances of relieving Captain Barber and Fox. He told Davis he had not been able to make contact with Barber since earlier that morning, and he was certain the company would be attacked again tonight. He warned that Fox's chances were so slim that if Davis did make it to Toktong Pass via the backdoor route, he might very well be walking into an American graveyard. Litzenberg added that if he managed to reach Barber by radio, I just might have to tell him to bug out before you even get there."
Davis said nothing.
At 6:30 p.m., Captain Barber ordered his XO, Clark Wright, to form up another supply recovery detail while the 81-mm mortars and the howitzers at Hagaru-ri bombarded the Chinese. Wright's unarmed Marines ran full speed out into the valley carrying empty stretchers, filled them with ammunition, and returned without drawing fire.
The men were glad of the exercise-some had reached the point where being taken out by a sniper was preferable to hunching down in a foxhole waiting to slowly freeze to death-but Barber found the lack of enemy activity strange. He decided to press his luck and sent Wright and his men out for another run. Still no fire. Barber had no idea what it meant, but he was not a man to spit in fortune's eye. This was, however, enough for the night; the enemy could have whatever remaining scattered grenades they could find. His "effectives" might be hungry and cold but they would not lack weaponry and ammunition.
As a result of the airdrops and the captured weapons, each American foxhole now resembled an international gun show. At least that was Dick Bonelli's thought as he eyed the armaments lining the parapet of the hole near his light machine gun emplacement up on the east crest. Walt Klein and Frank Valtierra had covered the rim with two Thompson submachine guns, an 8-mm Mauser rifle, a forty-five-caliber American-made Grease Gun, a German-made machine pistol with a sack of ammo, and a 1903 Springfield rifle complete with stripper-clipped ammunition rounds. Their M 1 s were crisscrossed across a box of grenades.
"Startin' a war?" Bonelli yelled.
Klein hollered back, "You remember what the El-Tee told us."
Once, out on a recon patrol near Hagaru-ri, Klein and Lieutenant McCarthy had stumbled upon a field covered with mounds of human feces. Somewhere along the march the lieutenant had picked up an old Chinese-made Mauser rifle. He took Klein aside, pointed to the frozen feces, and explained that in his opinion they were up against a hell of a lot more Reds than Division allowed. Then, brandishing the Mauser, he advised Klein never to pass up an opportunity to add an extra gun to his gear.
Now Klein cupped his hands to his mouth and yelled to Bonelli, "You know, about how you can never have enough firepower?"
Bonelli had no idea what he was talking about.
NOVEMBER 30, 1950
At 2 a.m. on November 30 the moon was suddenly obliterated by storm clouds. The hill was cold and dark when the whining loudspeaker system again screeched across its folds and pleats. The sound this time emanated from somewhere west of the cut in the road, behind the pile of five large rocks near the southwest base. The voice was that of an American, or someone purported to be an American. He identified himself as Lieutenant Robert Messman, an artillery officer from the Eleventh Marines. Messman announced that he had been captured two days earlier by the CCF near the Chosin, and he asked Fox Company to lay down its weapons and surrender.
"Just walk off the hill," the voice repeated over and again. Unlike the Chinese officer's conversational tone the previous night, this American voice sounded like someone reading from a script. "If you give yourselves up you will be treated fairly, in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, given food, and taken to shelter."
The idea that one of their own had turned traitor was too much for Fox Company. But because of the large rock pile no one could get a shot at the son of a bitch. Even after the 81-mm mortar crew sent up an illumination round, the American captive-if he was indeed an American-remained hidden. Up on the west slope Fidel Gomez fired off a short burst from a captured Thompson in the general direction of the five rocks, but that was mostly for show. It was, however, a good show-Marines all over the hill stood and cheered. "Messman" was not heard from again.
Five minutes later about a dozen men closest to the road on the left flank of the Second Platoon, including Gray Davis and Luke Johnson, watched as a squad of Chinese soldiers crept down the MSR. They settled in behind the pile of five rocks and began moving through the brush toward the American line. Hours earlier the Marines had squirmed several yards back from their holes and camouflaged themselves beneath the captured white blankets. They were so well concealed they appeared to be nothing more than lumps on the snow-covered hill. Lying prone and still, they allowed the Chinese to reach their old foxholes before they opened up. They cut every man down.
Farther up the west slope Bob Kirchner and Kenny Benson had fallen in with some more Second Platoon Marines who had gathered the sleeping bags of the American dead, stuffed them with snow and pine boughs, and placed them out in front of their foxholes. Then, on Lieutenant Peterson's orders, five American corpses were dragged from the "dead pile" and arranged in a sitting position in a semicircle near the sleeping bags, as if keeping watch. Soon enough Kirchner, Benson, and their squad saw the silhouettes of another Chinese squad creeping out of the deep ravine that bisected the west valley.
The enemy divided into two units. One attacked the decoy sleeping bags, running them through with bayonets several times. The other slipped behind the sitting corpses. It took several moments for the Chinese to realize something was not right. They stood, whispered to each other in nervous voices, and fell on the dead men with knives and bayonets. When their weapons failed to penetrate the frozen corpses, they understood the ruse. They instinctively swiveled toward the American lines. The Marines opened up with their rifles and BARs.
Standing near the command post tent, a sergeant named Robicheau-a last-minute addition to John Henry's heavy weapons unit on loan to Fox-listened to the firing on the west slope. They were coming again. But for some reason, call it a hunch, instead of looking toward the saddle, Robicheau made his way down the hill until he reached the bottom of the stand of fir trees.
He unpacked his night-vision binoculars and scanned the level ground across the MSR. In front of the woods at the base of the south hill, about 250 yards away, he saw three infantry companies massing into attack formation. More than five hundred men jogged in place and pumped their arms and knees while their political commissars urged them into a frenzy for "Mother China." To Robicheau they resembled nothing so much as a high school band preparing for a halftime show.
Out in front, like majorettes, were the grenadiers and sappers, their sacks of potato mashers slung over their shoulders, their satchel charges in hand. Next came the riflemen, with bayonets fixed, shouldering their Mausers like a horn section. Finally came the drummers, their booming automatic weapons, mostly Thompson submachine guns and Russian burp guns, pointed and at the ready.
By the time Robicheau raced back up the hill to inform Captain Barber, the Chinese were already on the move. Their jogging in place turned into a brisk trot. They performed a right flank maneuver and lanced across the snow-covered field. Their five lines stretched about seventy-five yards, with ten paces between each two lines. Then the trot became a cattle stampede. By the time they reached the road, the full frontal attack extended from just east of the larger hut to the west end of the cut bank on the MSR. This night they blew no bugles or whistles, and they held their fire in the minute or so it took them to cross the level ground between the South Hill and Fox Hill.
Barber watched them come. He assumed the advancing troops were the remnants of the five companies that had been torn up by howitzer shrapnel in the woods skirting the West Hill. He studied his defensive perimeter. From his vantage point looking down the hill, slightly to his left, were his heavy machine gunners and, to their left, the lowest foxholes of the First Platoon Marines, perhaps forty yards back from the road. To his right were the men from the Second Platoon who had ambushed the enemy squad from beneath their white blankets. They were now back in their holes and had again pulled their blankets over them. Though Peterson and his men were closer to the road by twenty yards than the men on the east slope, they were a bit more protected by the steep cut on the west end.
As usual, Jack Page's heavy machine gun was the first to let loose. He slapped the hatch shut, double-primed the gun, and squeezed off two long bursts followed by a shorter burst. He toppled the first row of Chinese, who were just stepping onto the road. Jim Holt on the other heavy gun followed Page's cue, as did the two light machine gunners on either slope of the hill. Then every Marine rifle and BAR in between opened up.
It was a slaughter.
The bodies of the first two rows of attackers lay fanned out across the MSR in the same formations in which they had charged. As the third, fourth, and fifth files became entangled in the corpses, many Chinese turned and ran. But the 60-mm mortarmen lifted a brace of illumination rounds-220,000 candlepower of light turning night into day-while the 81-mm mortars tore into the rear of the Chinese ranks.
Those who had fled turned to charge again. They were mowed down. The few Chinese left alive tried to take shelter beneath the wall of the cut. They were showered with rolling hand grenades. Finally, at Lieutenant Campbell's radioed request, the 105-mm howitzer unit in Hagaru-ri provided the death stroke. Salvo after salvo of proximity-fused rounds burst over the South Hill behind the devastated companies, cutting off any route of escape.
Abruptly the field fell nearly silent-the only sound the intermittent pop of a dead Chinese soldier's ammunition exploding, the result of a small fire started in the padded cotton of his uniform by a scalding American bullet. The smell of sulfur (like rotten eggs) and ozone hung heavy in the air. The Marines at the top of the hill, bracing for an attack across the saddle, turned to watch as the last tear-shaped star shell arced 250 feet before fluttering quietly beneath its parachute to the bloody snowfield. To some the landscape was eerily reminiscent of the final scene of a movie from a decade earlier starring Errol Flynn-Custer and his 202 dead troopers strewn across the Montana grasslands of the Little Bighorn. Now, there were four hundred bodies, and they were not blue-clad American cavalrymen but white-clad Communist Chinese regulars.
It was 2:41 a.m. The battle had lasted ten minutes. One Marine, Private First Class John Senzig, had been killed. Another, grazed by a bullet, refused medical attention. The attack across the saddle never came. It was a fitting birthday present for Captain Barber, who had not mentioned to anyone that he had turned thirty-one at midnight.
At daybreak there was a palpable sense of relief across the hill. Small groups of men huddled over fires-joshing, laughing, teasing one another. Some brewed coffee and shared their last C-rations. On each corner of Fox Hill the Americans had similar thoughts. Why didn't they come across the saddle last night? Have they had enough?
The men were disabused of the latter notion an hour later, when Captain Barber visited the two med tents with a stark request: any wounded man with the strength to walk and squeeze off a round should return to his position on the line. If you could squeeze, you fought. Barber instructed his platoon leaders to pair wounded Marines with uninjured men-or at least men as uninjured as they could find.
Sensing the unease in the med tents, he softened the harsh dictum with a pledge. "Here it is, men. Things are pretty bad. But I've seen them worse. One more thing-we're not pulling off this hill unless we all go together. Nobody stays unless we all stay. I led you onto this hill and I'm leading you off. That's it."
Among the gaunt Marines who tried to answer the captain's call was Private First Class Harrison Pourers. The entire right side of his body burned with pain, but Pomers rolled to his left and attempted to stand. A corpsman rushed to his side.
"Think you're goin'?"
"To fight," Pomers said. "I can still use my left hand."
Now that he had parachute silk to re-bandage him, the corpsman took a chance and slit open Pomer's shirt and long johns. "You've got a hole as big as a fist in your back," he said. "Your spinal column is exposed."
Pomers rolled back over. "I could use some more morphine. My right hand is killing me."
The medic was already applying pressure to Pomers's right hand. "We're out," he said.
"Squeeze it harder," Pomers said.
"If I squeeze any harder I'll break your fingers."
"It's useless anyway, doc. Go ahead and break them."
Hector Cafferata turned to Pomers from a nearby stretcher and tried to lighten the mood. "Boy," he said, "is my mother gonna be pissed off if I get myself killed here."
"Ha," someone else said, "more like is your mother gonna be pissed if I get myself killed here."
From across the room Howard Koone yelled, "Don't nobody worry about that. We're all going to be home for Christmas, remember?"
Around 7 a.m., the Marines stationed on the lower east slopes were flabbergasted to see two enemy officers sauntering dreamily up the MSR. They were dressed more appropriately for a Gilbert and Sullivan performance than for a war zone, in flowing parade-ground capes lined with scarlet silk, bright red fedoras, and black kneelength boots polished so brilliantly they reflected the sun. The two Chinese stepped over and around the frozen corpses of their countrymen as if they were so many piles of debris. When they ambled to within twenty-five yards of the larger hut, Corporal Page yelled, "Halt." At the sound of an American voice they swiveled and instinctively reached for their sidearms. Page's heavy machine gun cut them in half.
The blast of Page's Browning invigorated the enemy sharpshooters; suddenly the Americans were awash in incoming fire from the West Hill, the rocky knoll, and the rocky ridge. It was as if the Chinese on the heights were trying to atone for their failure to attack during the previous night's massacre. A bullet knocked a mug of hot cocoa right out of John Henry's hand, and when Harry Burke, his face still singed and smudged with dirt and Vaseline ointment, raised his head to see if Henry was all right he nearly had it blown off. The hell with this.
He ducked back into his foxhole and removed his gloves in order to light a cigarette. He placed them on top of a log on the lip of the depression. Both gloves were immediately blasted back into the hole, one landing in his lap, the other on his helmet.
Reports of snipers streamed into Captain Barber's command post. On the crest a slug spun Private First Class Gleason's helmet 180 degrees as he hunched behind Corporal Dytkiewicz's old light machine gun. The bullet left an entry hole and an exit hole in the side of his steel pot without giving him a scratch. Farther down the west slope a bullet blew the cigarette from between the platoon sergeant Richard Danford's fingers. Danford was humbled, if uninjured. Not far away, automatic weapons fire felled a small tree in front of the foxhole occupied by privates first class Childs and Jackson. They both ducked as it crashed across their pit.
The tree, snapping at its base, sounded quite a bit like the report of an M1, and before Childs and Jackson knew it an NCO whom they did not recognize was standing over them chewing their asses for wasting ammunition. Childs cursed under his breath as the sergeant stalked off, turned back toward the enemy lines, and came face-to-face with a Chinese soldier not twenty yards away sighting down the barrel of a Thompson submachine gun. Childs ducked at the same moment the man fired. A bullet creased his helmet at dead center, knocking him unconscious. Jackson tended to Childs while the wounded Lieutenant Brady rushed from his foxhole and heaved a grenade at the Chinese soldier, who was slithering back into the ravine that cut through the west valley. He could not tell if he got the man.
This was enough for Captain Barber. He instructed Lieutenant Campbell to request another howitzer strike, again with antipersonnel rounds, on the West Hill, the rocky knoll, and the rocky ridge.
Men along the west slope heard the priceless shells before seeing them. They whistled overhead and culminated in a string of large black puffs of smoke detonating about fifty feet above each target. One Marine likened the Chinese across the valley and the saddle to "ants scrambling away from an ant hill that's been kicked over." The Americans could hear clearly the cries of the dying and wounded and watched as those still able ran for cover on the reverse side of the West Hill or clawed their way over and in back of the knoll and the ridge.
When How Company ceased firing eight minutes later, only a few diehard snipers remained. Even this annoyance was too much for Barber. His men were wounded, tired, cold, and hungry. He lifted the radio receiver and prayed to get through to the air base. Connection. He requested an air strike on the same three positions.
At 9:30 a.m., three F4U Marine Corsair fighter-bombers appeared high above Fox Hill. The Marines recognized them as the "Checkerboard" squadron by the black-and-white squares painted on their engine cowlings. The lead fighter broke off and flew an observation run over the rocky knoll and rocky ridge. All sniper fire ceased-the Chinese had learned a lesson from the Australian Mustangs-while across the valley Americans stood up in their holes.
Barber carried no radio that allowed him to talk to the pilots directly on their frequency, but he managed to communicate the targets to them through a cumbersome series of relayed messages to the air base. Within seconds the Checkerboards broke their vector. The first plane strafed and rocketed the rocky ridge just north of the rocky knoll. The second loosed a five-hundred-pound bomb. The third dropped a canister of napalm behind the knoll.
The Corsairs pulled up, turned, and swooped down for a second run, and then a third. The knoll and the entire ridgeline were aflame. To the Marines the scene resembled an exaggerated version of the bonfire the Chinese had lit during their second night on the hill.
After the third bombing run several Marines noticed a highwinged Navy trainer observation plane circling a valley about six hundred yards beyond the West Hill. The depression between the mountains was the terminus of the same lower pass through which Private First Class Gamble had spotted the Chinese battalion marching the previous evening. The Corsairs broke off their attack on the knoll and the ridgeline and screamed west. The men of Fox Company could not see what-or who-was in that valley, but they could certainly make an educated guess as the planes fired their last rockets and strafed the area with their "death rattlers." When the Corsairs turned for home they overflew Fox Hill and waggled their wings. A roar rose up to meet them.
Meanwhile, down by the road, John Henry decided to use the Corsair runs as cover to take out two or three persistent snipers who had been pouring bullets into Jack Page's heavy machine-gun emplacement for the last hour. They were the same sharpshooters who had spilled his cocoa, and he was angry.
Henry didn't anger easily. Even when his father had taken him out behind their home in Chattanooga eight years earlier and whupped his ass with a strap for making his mother cry, he had taken the beating stoically. He figured he probably deserved it. Henry had been a seventeen-year-old freshman at Michigan State at the time, 1942, and his father expected him to graduate, follow in his footsteps, and become an electrical engineer. Instead Henry had left Michigan, had come home to Tennessee, and had signed up for the Corps. When he brought the enlistment papers home for his mother to sign, however, she wept so hard, right there in the driveway, that his father had to "rectify" the situation. Or so he thought. A week later, back up at school, Henry passed the test for Army aviation cadets and was enrolled in the Army Air Corps' pilot training program. This time his parents didn't try to stop him. Despite the fact that he had piloted or copiloted five flight tests in the States, he was shipped out to the Pacific as a turret gunner. He joked to friends that the average life span in his line of work was approximately minus-three seconds. He had managed, however, to make it through the war unscathed.
The Marines remained in Henry's blood, and he and his brother had both enlisted when war broke out in Korea. Given his experience and sagacity, he rose fast through the enlisted ranks, and when his heavy weapons unit reached Hagaru-ri he expected to be assigned to an outfit up on the Chosin. Instead he was attached to Captain Barber's Fox Company, and he'd be lying if he said he wasn't disappointed by having to babysit at some backwater bottleneck.
But John Henry was a big enough man to admit when he was wrong, and he had certainly been wrong about Toktong Pass. Among the peaks rising on all sides of him, one in particular, far off to the west-a high, wide plateau surrounded by perpendicular cliffs-reminded him a little of Lookout Mountain back home. He wondered what his mother would think if she could see him scrounging up volunteers to go kill snipers in the frozen mountains of North Korea.
Now, with the Corsairs still circling, Henry and two of his ammunition carriers crawled across the MSR as the fighter-bombers kept the enemy at bay. The three Marines set up a classic V ambush and waited. Sure enough, when the Corsairs disappeared over the horizon Henry and his men saw three heads pop up from behind a snowbank midway to the South Hill. They cut loose with BARs and killed all three.
Private First Class Warren McClure had slept for twenty-four hours. It must have been a healing sleep because when he awoke at 10 a.m. he found he could not only sit up but stand without too much painfor a moment, anyway. He sat down again. His throbbing right hand and right arm were useless; he could live with that. He was alive.
C-rations were being passed around the med tents, and though he was still wary of "chunking up" his innards, his hunger drove him to palm two cans of peaches from one of the boxes. With difficulty he used his left hand to open one tin with a can opener. He shared the peaches with the paralyzed Marine lying next to him, spooning them into the kid's mouth. His next order of business, he decided, would be to recover his gear.
On the northeast corner of the hill Private First Class Lee D. Wilson of the First Platoon was cold and thirsty. There were fewer boulders to crouch behind here, and the icy gale funneling through the pass swept the area with particular ferocity. Wilson thought about making a small fire to melt snow, but the snow around his hole was a grimy mixture of blood, human excrement, and fouled earth. At any rate, he assumed that the cleared perimeter was safe enough to traverse to the spring near the road. He laid his M I across his foxhole, stuffed a grenade in a pocket of his field jacket, and took off down the slope, along and behind the American firing line. Midway down the hill, as he neared one of his platoon's light machine-gun emplacements, a squad of Chinese snipers in the woods at the base of the South Hill opened up. Wilson ate dirt.
At a lull in the sniping he rolled over and crawled into the machine-gun nest. The crew told him that the sharpshooters had been firing at anyone near their emplacement all morning in an attempt to draw return fire and expose the gun. Wilson was a veteran of World War II whose steel nerves were held in awe by the new boots. And right now he was livid. Jesus Christ, and nobody thought to warn me when I came strolling down the hill? The laughter from the machine-gun unit pissed him off even more. He asked what the fuck was more important, the life of a Marine or a hidden machine-gun emplacement. The machine gunners' silence was an answer he did not care for one bit.
Wilson crawled from the nest and zigzagged back up to his hole at the top of the hill. He grabbed his M I and a Thompson sub machine gun he had liberated from a dead Chinese and inched his way on his belly down the east slope. He slithered about midway to the East Hill, made a hard right turn, and reached the MSR. He dashed across the road and threw himself into a snowbank. With pantherish grace he darted from one snow mound to another until he reached the tree line at the bottom of the South Hill. He slipped from tree to tree. He was perhaps twenty yards to the right of the snipers. He stood and emptied his M 1 at them. To make sure, he also emptied the Thompson.
Lee D. Wilson walked back across the level ground and crossed the MSR as if he were ambling to chow. He stopped at the spring, filled his canteen, and resumed his walk up the east slope. When he passed the light machine-gun emplacement he stopped and stared without saying a word.
Captain Barber wore a scowl as he limped in a circle in front of the command post. It was 2 p.m. and he had been promised an airdrop three hours earlier. His men, he knew, might make it through another night without food. But they badly needed ammunition. He had sent out a detail to scavenge among the dead Chinese in the road, but the men had not recovered nearly enough. If the enemy came down the saddle again tonight the Marines would have to beat them back with snowballs.
Half an hour later another helicopter braved the hilltop to deliver fresh batteries for the company's radio and field phones. Like its predecessors the chopper was sniped at so heavily there was no possibility of evacuating any of the wounded. When Barber loaded the new batteries into the SCR-300 and radioed about the supply drop, he was told that a cargo plane was on its way. By 5:30 p.m., another three hours later, it had yet to arrive.
At the same time, on the northeast crest of the hill, Walt Klein and Frank Valtierra were engaged in a spirited gunfight with a Chinese rifleman positioned on top of the rocky knoll. In the exchange both sides barely missed each other several times. From his machine-gun nest twenty paces away, Dick Bonelli peered over a rock and watched this ruckus in disgust and annoyance. Can't anybody around here shoot straight?
Since he had settled into what he called his rock "fort," not a single officer or NCO had come around to check on his machinegun emplacement. He hadn't even been assigned an assistant. He liked it that way. It left him to his thoughts. The sky had partially cleared, and from his position on the hill he could look down through the clouds blowing in and see the fading sunlight glinting off the ice of the Chosin Reservoir.
Down through the clouds! He had never been on an airplane in his life, and he figured this was as close as he would ever get. He gazed toward Toktong-san in the silvery half-light and realized for the first time that the big, bald mountain didn't so much rise from the reservoir as rear from it, like some great startled bear. He muttered to himself, "I'm nineteen years old and I wouldn't give you two cents for my life right now."
He said a prayer and went back to squaring away his ammunition belts.
A thick cloud cover settled over Toktong Pass, making this the darkest night yet. Captain Barber ordered what was left of his trip flares set out across the saddle and hoped for the best. There was nothing much else to hope for. His company was down to surviving, more or less, on guts and nerve. And though he had no doubt that the men still had both, neither would amount to much against a fourth night of attacks. If he knew this, he was certain, the Chinese knew it as well. But he was mistaken.
The Battle for Toktong-san, as well as the stiff resistance shown by the Marines up and down the MSR, had forced General Sung Shih-lun and his staff to reappraise their strategy. The Chinese Communist offensive had fared well on the east side of the reservoir against the U.S. Army troops, but not as well in the west. They had underestimated the grit of the U.S. Marines, not least the stubborn stand by Fox Company. It had gone on too long, and Toktong Pass was still open.
Sung decided to change tactics. He would continue his probes into Yudam-ni from the west, but at the same time further concentrate additional forces to destroy the U.S. Army units on the east, and sweep down overland into Hagaru-ri behind what was left of the survivors, avoiding the pass. Once Hagaru-ri was in Chinese hands, he could pick off, at his leisure, whatever Marine units remained at Yudam-ni. As for the small contingent at Toktong Pass, if his snipers didn't finish them, they would be dead from the cold, or starvation, or both, before long.
On Fox Hill, the morning's sensation of relief had given way to anxiety. Captain Barber, still hobbling on his improvised crutch, made rounds just after nightfall in an attempt to tighten the lines anywhere possible. It was futile. There was too much ground to defend, and there were not enough men to defend it. The best he could do was to direct the Second Platoon Marines closest to the road on the southwest corner to pull back from their holes in the brush near the pile of five rocks and position themselves within the stand of fir trees. Fat lot of good that would do without more ammo. Where the hell was the supply plane?
Barber had just completed his perimeter inspection when he heard the low rumble of an Air Force C-119 approaching from the south. He ordered a detail of men up to the crest, where they surrounded the drop zone, turned on their flashlights, and pointed them to the sky.
The pilot's first observation pass appeared textbook-perfect. But-perhaps because of the gunfire that erupted from the rocky knoll and the rocky ridge-on his second pass he seemed to want no part of the hilltop. He dropped the supplies in the valley about three hundred yards southeast of the hill. Chickenshit Air Force.
It was a long walk in the dark, but at least Fox Hill itself provided cover from the snipers to the west. Clark Wright's recovery detail reached the supplies without trouble. As the Marines tore open the bundles, searching for C-rations, a feather-light snow began to fall. Again, no food had been dropped. By the time Wright's grumbling men returned with stretchers loaded with ammunition, the snow showed no sign of letting up, and the new snow cover was already an inch deep.
The Marines did not mind this. The snow clouds seemed to trap at least some of the day's heat-they guessed it was no colder than ten-below. The new snow on the ground also hid the contorted faces of the Chinese dead.
At 6 p.m., Gray Davis, still sharing a hole with Luke Johnson down on the southwest corner facing the West Hill, shook the snow from his M 1 and test-fired it. He aimed at a brazen squad of Chinese assembling in the drizzle of flakes behind the pile of five rocks, not thirty yards away. He did not hit any of them. Damn mountains, playing tricks with his eyes again. The Chinese popped up from behind the rocks and began marching, single file, directly in front of him. Davis wondered if these drones were given drugs by their officers before a fight, or perhaps were even brainwashed. This was just too easy.
The BAR man in the next foxhole opened up first, dropping two or three men. Davis stood, sighted, squeezed-click. Misfire. He racked the bolt and squeezed the trigger again. Click. Jesus! He threw down his gun and yanked the pins and spoons on two hand grenades. They exploded in the middle of the clustered enemy. Five Chinese turned tail and ran. Another six to eight lay dead in the snow. He picked up a carbine and began firing at the retreating men. He was certain he hit a couple but none of them fell. Damn carbines.
After the brief firefight Davis peered into the chamber of his M 1. A wedge of ice blocked the bullets from entering the chamber from the clip, and the blot face had just enough snow on it to prevent the firing pin from hitting the primer. He cleaned it out. Loose snow, he figured, must have fallen in there from the recoil when he had test-fired the rifle. Damned if you do and damned if you don't.
By the time Captain Barber made his final inspection of the perimeter at 10 p.m., four to five inches of new snow had accumulated on the hill.