The first vehicles taking the most seriously wounded Marines from the Chosin Reservoir and Fox Hill into Hagaru-ri had already arrived hours before Fox Company's dramatic entrance into the village. A converted schoolhouse served as the UN forces' field hospital, where British Royal Marines removed injured men from vehicles and passed out hot coffee and cigarettes.
Warren McClure was helped down from his Jeep and left standing alone in the street among rows of stretchers. To his left was the field hospital. To his right was a mess tent. The Marines around him seemed dazed, wandering aimlessly, staring blankly. McClure was also cold and confused, having eaten nothing but three halftins of peaches in six days. The smell of hot pancakes drew him like a magnet. He followed his nose and stumbled through the flaps of the mess tent.
A cook immediately assessed his sorry condition and attempted to steer him back across the street to the hospital. But McClure argued so stubbornly that the cook finally relented. He sat McClure in a corner at a picnic table and placed a gallon tin of peaches and a tablespoon before him. "Eat all you want," the cook said. "We're only going to end up burning everything left over before the Chinese get here."
Across the street Colonel Homer Litzenberg's Jeep pulled up to the field hospital. Lieutenant Colonel Lockwood approached Litzenberg to welcome him to Hagaru-ri. Litzenberg climbed stiffly from his Jeep without acknowledging Lockwood. All over the frozen ground were wounded men awaiting triage and identification. Among them was Captain Benjamin Read, How Company's commanding officer, who had paid for his refusal to move his guns back inside the safety of the Hagaru-ri perimeter with a sniper bullet through the knee.
Litzenberg exploded. He sought out the head corpsman and ordered him to eliminate the red tape and move the wounded inside on the double. It was "Litzen" at his most "Blitzen."
Inside the makeshift medical center, overwhelmed doctors and corpsmen rushed from station to station. Dick Bonelli opened his eyes and saw a roof over his head. He had no idea where he was. A crude mural above him depicted American planes machine-gunning Korean women and children. He looked around. Photographs and portraits of Kim, Mao, and Stalin hung from every wall. Bonelli had no way of knowing that the First Marine Division's commanding officer, General Smith, had ordered that none of the propaganda be removed from any North Korean structure. Not that Bonelli would have cared. His chest felt as if it were exploding, and he reached out to a corpsman who passed by wearing a bloody apron.
"Easy there, pal," the corpsman said. "You've got a shitload of broken ribs. Bullet bounced around inside you pretty good." Bonelli called out for a weapon, any weapon. The corpsman drew his fortyfive-caliber pistol and let Bonelli feel the stock. Handling the weapon put Bonelli at ease. He slipped into unconsciousness again. The next time he awoke was in Osaka, Japan, where he was being given the last rites by a priest.
Not far away, beneath a bullet-pocked photograph of Joseph Stalin, corpsmen cut away Bob Ezell's dungarees and shoepacs. The grenade had left his legs looking like ground meat, but only one wound-a deep gash in his right thigh-appeared life-threatening. Luckily for Ezell, the blood had frozen and coagulated almost immediately. His feet were another story. Both were black with frostbite and covered with ugly red blisters.
Another corpsman was looking warily at Eleazar Belmarez, who was in a cot next to Ezell. The medic suspected that Belmarez's shot-up legs were in worse shape than Ezell's, but Belmarez was delirious and refused to relinquish either his M I or the several live hand grenades attached to his field jacket beneath the two bandoliers of ammunition crisscrossing his chest. Finally one corpsman gingerly examined Belmarez's wounds while a second hung back. After a brief consultation they concluded that he was in no danger of dying and decided to leave him for the Division docs to deal with.
Walt Hiskett led Amos Fixico into the field hospital and remained at his side while a medic unwrapped the filthy bandages that had covered his head. His left eye was swollen shut and his right eye was a small slit beneath the shrapnel wounds. "Walt, I can see a little out of this one," he said. Hiskett had his own shoulder wound treated and joined Fixico near a coffee urn in the corner of the building. He poured two cups.
A British commando took one look at Howard Koone, trussed up in a red parachute, and asked a buddy to lend a hand. "Here, Harry, they've got this fucking Yank all tied up like a Christmas present." After they cut Koone loose he was carried inside, his snapped ankle was reset, and someone handed him a few Tootsie Rolls. He passed them out to the men around him. He hated Tootsie Rolls. He drifted off to sleep and woke up on a cargo plane bound for Japan. His parka was gone. In its place someone had wrapped him in a clean wool blanket.
Dick Gilling walked the seven miles overland from Fox Hill and stumbled into an outlying artillery command post staffed by Marines from How Company. He had never found the MSR, and when he entered the compound he looked like a snowman. A corpsman attempted to remove his boots but Gilling stopped him. "Don't. My feet are frozen solid." The medic complied and instead pumped Gilling full of penicillin before transporting him to Hagaru-ri.
On it went. Lieutenant Bob McCarthy's leg wound was freshly dressed and he was wheeled to a corner of the makeshift hospital. He pulled a small leather notebook from his field jacket and began writing down his recommendations for battlefield citations. The first two names he jotted were Captain William Barber and Private Hector Cafferata. McCarthy planned to nominate both for the Congressional Medal of Honor. He smiled to himself as he wrote down Dick Bonelli's name. He'd never thought much of the wiseass New Yorker; now he planned to put him up for a Silver Star. McCarthy was airlifted to Fukuoka, Japan, the next day.
Aside from a small rear guard set up outside the perimeter, the ambulatory survivors of Fox Company were the last Marines to enter Hagaru-ri. They surged into the mess tent. To Ralph Abell's great surprise, hot coffee, pancakes with syrup, and buttered noodles with beef stew awaited them. It was their first hot meal in seventeen days. Abell was speechless as Marines clapped him on the back, congratulating him for his accurate prediction about precisely what chow they could expect if they made it to the village.
Outside the mess tent Gray Davis slouched in a snowbank, too tired to move. He had come down from Fox Hill the same way he went up, and this time he felt he had earned a little rest without some gunny threatening to direct a shoepac up his butt. Somewhere in the distance a radio was playing, and Davis heard Billy Eckstine's "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" for the first time. He thought it was beautiful, and it became his favorite song for the rest of his life.
Around 2 a.m., the company was led from the mess hall to warming tents. Phil Bavaro found a corner near a stove, peeled off his shoepacs, shoe pads, and socks, and baked his mangled feet as close to the fire as he dared. Like most of the rest of the company, he slept for the next twelve hours. Before nodding off, however, he filed away a cooking tip. He had watched a wounded Marine in the next cot slap a slice of the doughy, Marine-issue white bread onto the side of a field stove. When it fell off, it was toast on one side. Wait'll I start serving toast next time we're in the shit.
Someone helped Gray Davis out of the snowbank and into a warming tent. He collapsed onto a cot, but had trouble staying asleep-every fifteen minutes he would sit bolt upright. This happened all night. Finally the reason hit him: the tent was too warm for the kid from Florida. His body, he realized, had become too accustomed to the weather on Fox Hill. Jesus, don't that beat all?
The evacuation to Japan began at daybreak. Over the next four days more than four thousand wounded Marines and Army troops, a third of them victims of frostbite, were flown out by an international airlift staged from Hagaru-ri. Bob Ezell was put on a Greek C-47 and Dick Bonelli was strapped into a tiny Piper Cub. Elmo Peterson's cargo plane ran off the runway on takeoff and crashed into a small creek. No one was seriously injured, but Peterson had to wait another twenty-four hours before being flown out. He was evacuated on the same plane as Bill Barber and Hector Cafferata.
At just past 9 a.m., Warren McClure stumbled from the mess tent toward the field hospital. He recognized Eleazar Belmarez, unconscious, being carried on a stretcher into the hold of a cargo plane. McClure ached for his own turn. But in the med tent a corpsman mistook the three-inch-long, scabbed-over tear where the bullet had exited beneath McClure's shoulder blade for a "flesh wound" and directed him to return to his company. McClure flagged down a passing doctor, who put a stethoscope to his chest. Without a word the doctor motioned him toward the line of walking wounded awaiting evacuation. Around him stretchers were stacked four deep on both sides of the passageway that led to the airfield.
As McClure inched closer to the door he could hear a C-47 revving its engines on the muddy landing strip. He had almost reached the exit when a Marine two places in front of him dropped a live grenade and fell on it. The Marine's body absorbed most of the explosion, but McClure was knocked backward. Accident? Suicide? McClure, dazed and numb to the point of apathy, stepped over the corpse and walked out onto the tarmac. He boarded the C-47 in a trance, found a place to lie down in the hold, and woke up in Fukuoka.
By 11 a.m., Phil Bavaro had made an uncomfortable decision. Fox Company was down to about sixty effectives, and he knew they would soon be ordered to join the fight to break out of the encircled village of Hagaru-ri. He hated to leave the outfit in the lurch, but his feet were so inflamed that he told John Audas he had to see a corpsman. The doctor who examined him glanced at the shrapnel wound on his thumb and waved him away. Bavaro nearly collapsed. "It's my feet," he said.
The physician cut off his shoepacs, took one look at Bavaro's misshapen and discolored feet, and tied an "EVAC" tag to a button on his parka. Bavaro waited for most of the afternoon on the long evacuation line, occasionally catching glimpses of Fox Company Marines who had been wounded weeks ago disembarking from planes. They were reinforcements.
It was dusk when his turn to board finally came. He limped out onto the tarmac but was halted just as he was about to climb the clamshell into the hold of a cargo plane. "We're full," a corpsman on the loading detail told him. "Next one's tomorrow morning."
Heartsick, Bavaro turned to gimp back to his tent when he heard the pilot yell from the cockpit, "Got room, send up one more." Bavaro scrambled toward the nose of the plane, the pain in his feet miraculously eased. He settled into the copilot's seat next to the gray-haired World War II veteran at the controls.
"Pretty rough up there?" the pilot said.
"Could have been worse."
"Well, put on your seat belt. And don't touch anything!"
The pilot gunned the engine, released the brakes, and shot down the runway. Bavaro watched a mountain at the end of the runway looming larger and larger. There's no way we clear it, he thought. He said nothing. The pilot threw the cargo plane into a steep bank. Bavaro, peering straight down, could see the muzzle flashes from Chinese snipers issuing from the trees across the heights. OK, we clear the mountain, but there's no way I don't get shot.
When the cargo plane skipped over the mountaintop by a few yards, the pilot turned again to Bavaro, who was ashen. "See anybody you know down there?" he said.
A detail from the Marine Graves Registration Unit collected all the dead Americans who had been transported down from Fox Hill and both sides of the Chosin Reservoir. Their dog tags were sortedone for the official files, one to be buried with the body-while bulldozers gouged several trenches in the frozen soil, six feet deep by six feet wide. The bodies were stripped and laid side by side in the holes, each man wearing only a dog tag around his neck. Their uniforms were burned.
The few Marines who attended the service thought the bodies didn't even resemble the friends and comrades they had known and fought with. It was if they were burying rows of white wax figures. The bulldozers covered them with dirt, and the sites were marked on maps for future recovery.
At roll call on December 5, sergeants Audas and Pitts inspected the approximately sixty Marines of Fox Company who could still fight. They announced that the Seventh Regiment's three battalions would lead the next day's breakout from Hagaru-ri to Koto-ri, and Fox had the point.
To the Marines, "the pogue Army generals" MacArthur and Almond had failed to get them all killed on Fox Hill, and now they were determined to get it right. There wasn't a damn thing any of them could do about it. Audas told the men that anything left behind would be incinerated; this meant that the food storehouses were fair game. Ernest Gonzalez ran over and scrounged a large carton of powdered chocolate. He immediately mixed a small portion of it with the melted snow in his canteen.
At 6 p.m., the ready, able, and effective Marines of Fox Company, still under the command of Lieutenant Abell, gathered after chow to find that the outfit had been supplemented by nearly one hundred replacements. Most were new boots flown in from Japan; others were Marine airmen from cargo planes and technicians and clerks cannibalized from regimental and battalion headquarters units.
One of the replacements was Bob Duffy, an enlisted man who had been a part of the Marine crew dropping supplies on Fox Hill. He had sought out several Marines from Fox when they had reached Hagaru-ri, and he did not wait to be conscripted into the company. When an officer announced that men were needed to fill out the ranks of several units, Duffy stepped up and volunteered for Fox. He would fight with the outfit through the rest of his tour in Korea.
Replacement officers, however, remained scarce. Lieutenant Dunne still led Fox's First Platoon, but the Second and Third platoons were commanded, respectively, by an artillery officer and a bewildered young reserve lieutenant who a day earlier had been the First Division's assistant historian. Everyone was told to be ready to move out at dawn.
One of the replacements, Private First Class Everett Jensen, was a veteran of Fox Company who had developed frostbite after Sudong and was transferred to the motor pool at Hagaru-ri. Jensen beamed when he saw Gray Davis, his buddy from the Second Platoon.
"Hey, Gray," he said, motioning over his shoulder in the general direction of Fox Hill, "what the hell happened up there?"
The two spoke for a while before the paucity of survivors dawned on Jensen.
"How's Iverson doing?"
With each response Jensen's voice became softer, until it was almost inaudible. Jensen tried half a dozen more names before both Marines became too choked up to speak. Jensen cried. Davis did not. After a moment they walked toward the bivouac tent in silence. Behind them the supply dumps were already beginning to burn.
There would be more, much more, bloody fighting to come before Fox Company and the First Marine Division reached the safety of the sea near Hungnam on December 11. But as one Marine wrote in his journal, "That is another story."