1st Marine Regiment
1st Marine Division
U.S. Marine Corps
In 1947, at the age of sixteen and a junior in high school, I enlisted in the Marine Reserves. My mother, at the urging of my older brother, signed papers stating that I was seventeen. My brother was my Reserve Company’s First Sergeant, and a Marine veteran of the Second World War.
I was attending college in 1950 and was home for the summer working at a local hardware store, when my Reserve Company was activated on the 26th of July, 1950. Having been in the reserves for three years, and having taken part in the weekly and monthly weekend training along with completing three summer camps, I had been promoted to Corporal.
We arrived at Camp Pendleton during the first part of August, and our Reserve Company was disbanded and mixed in with the Regulars to fill the units of the First Division. I was assigned to G/3/1 and in a few days I would realize how lucky I was to have ended up with a great group of Marines.
Even though our Reserve Company had trained as an infantry unit, we did not have a machine gun section. You guessed it! I was assigned as a gunner to the machine gun section of G/3/1. The other NCO’s, and officers, pitched in and brought me up to where I needed to be with regard to being a Machine Gunner.
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In San Diego, on August 15, we boarded the USNS General Simon Buckner headed for Japan. During our ten day voyage, we learned how to tear down and reassemble our weapons. Once we mastered this, our senior NCO’s would tear one weapon down and reassemble it with a part missing. We were then blindfolded and had to tear it down, figure out which part was missing, find the part in a spare parts box, reassemble the weapon, and load it with ammo. After which time we removed our blindfolds and fired a few rounds off the side of the ship—little did I know in just a few weeks this training would pay off.
We finally arrived in Japan, where we went through more training to get us ready physically and mentally—for combat. We were then taken to Kobe, Japan, where we boarded LST’s headed for Inchon, South Korea.
We were to be part of the Inchon Invasion scheduled for September 15. However, we ran into a storm while sailing in the Sea of Japan. I remember the water coming over the bow and splashing over the trucks that were tied down to the deck. Next, you could see the bow come up out of the water, and her flat bottom slapping down on the water; the whole ship groaned, creaked, and popped. Needless to say, I was one scared nineteen year old; however, we made it on schedule.
Once we arrived, we watched as the thirty foot tide receded from the harbor and out from under our LST. That was an eerie feeling, watching the water that we were once floating in vanish from beneath our vessel, leaving us setting in the mud; now we were happy that we were on a flat-bottomed ship.
Now that we couldn’t move, we had a bigger problem—the Navy ships shelling the coastline. They were lobbing shells over our heads and if they fired a short round, we could have easily been hit. This went on all morning and into the afternoon.
Finally, the tide began to return, so we loaded into our Amtracts; which were stored in the belly of the LST. The LST lowered its ramp and we drove off into the water. Our mission was to head to the mouth of a creek, or storm drainage area, to secure it so the Seabees could come ashore with their equipment the following morning.
Corporal Barnes, our lead wireman, was hit and killed as he was cutting some barbed wire. Since we were receiving very little fire, we figured we were being shot at by a sniper. Just ahead of us was a smokestack with a hole in it about three-quarters up. We quickly set up two light machine guns, and zeroed in on the hole. After watching several tracers disappear into the hole, we stopped firing for a few minutes. The enemy fire had stopped, so we proceeded cutting the wire and moved further ashore.
What a first night! Little did I know, worse nights were a head.
The following day we got a good scare as we were advancing forward on foot. As we were moving along a trail on a hillside, suddenly we heard what sounded like machine gun fire. Immediately everyone hit the ground. The sound then lessened some, so we looked up and saw a female pheasant flying off her nest. Not being a bird hunter, I didn’t realize they made that kind of noise when they took off. Needless to say, it wasn’t funny at the time, but afterwards it was a little humorous.
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On our way to Seoul we had to cross the Han River, but all the bridges in our area had been blown up during the early days of the war. So, they had to bring up some DUKW’s to ferry us across. Talking about being surprised! The driver of our DUKW was a hometown buddy of mine. He was in our Reserve Company, and when they disbanded us at Camp Pendleton he was assigned to the motor pool. Finally, we reassembled on the other side and proceeded toward Seoul—on foot.
As we entered Seoul, the street fighting that we encountered was almost indescribable. There were trees—in the parking strips—that lined the streets, which the enemy used for cover. We quickly set up our light machine guns and cross fired into the trees, as well as the storefronts. More than once did a body fall out of a tree, and as we slowly made our way through the city, we found bodies in the doorways of the storefronts. That day I burned out the barrel of my gun, but I was able to quickly replace it due to the training we had received aboard ship.
After we had secured the city, General MacArthur and President Truman agreed that we would proceed north across the 38th parallel, so back to Inchon we went. At Inchon we boarded LST’s. This time we sailed around to the east coast of the Korean Peninsula. Before boarding, Captain Westover, our company commander, and three other captains—all with World War II and Korean service—were transferred to Quantico, Virginia. They had been selected to be instructors for an updated officers training program.
Captain Carl Sitter became out new commander. He turned out to be another great leader.
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We arrived at Wonsan Harbor, only to find it completely laced with Russian mines. Withdrawing from the harbor, we had to lay off the coast for three days so Navy frogmen and minesweepers, could clear the harbor. When the harbor had been cleared enough for us to go ashore, we discovered our air support was already using the airport and other facilities in the area. As we disembarked, the pilots had fun waving at us as we marched by the buildings they were now using as barracks.
After disembarking, our objective was the town of Majon-ni, which was southwest of Wonsan. We were behind the North Korean troops as they were retreating north, and we had some problems with them. With the arrival of November, it became colder day-by-day as we traveled further north. One day I bathed in a stream that ran through town and had snow and ice along its banks. Needless to say, it was a quick bath.
By now we had seen our share of action and casualties, and were in need of replacements. A few days later the entire company reorganized. Guys were moved around to even out our squads; I was moved to a new machine gun section, in a different platoon.
Our company received orders to send a platoon to ride shot-gun in a convoy to take prisoners back to Wonsan; they were to bring back our winter gear. My old platoon drew the short straw and I waited in Majon-ni for their return. Unfortunately, only a few of my original platoon made it back. After dropping off the prisoners, and heading back with our winter gear, they were ambushed. Several were killed and wounded, but most of the trucks were able to turn around and make it back to Wonsan. Now our winter gear had to be airdropped to us.
A few days later, we received orders to go to Wonsan and Hamhung to start our journey further north. For most of the trip we rode in open rail cars, which was better than walking. On the way to Koto-ri we had a nice hot turkey dinner out in the open on a cold, snowy Thanksgiving Day. We finally made it to Koto-ri with no trouble, but it was getting colder and the snow was getting deeper.
A day or two after arriving in Koto-ri, the British Royal Marine Commandos arrived during the darkness of night. By morning, Task Force Drysdale had been assembled. It consisted of 205 men from G/3/1, 235 men from the British Royal Marine Commandos, 190 men from Baker Company of the 31st Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army, and 83 miscellaneous personnel totaling 712 men, along with 65 vehicles. The task force was named for Lt. Col. Drysdale, the ranking officer of the British Commandos.
We were told the Chinese had started their movement south, and we were urgently needed at Hagaru-ri, which was eleven miles north of Koto-ri. We were to help maintain the perimeter, so those troops further north could work their way back to Hagaru-ri. Here we would regroup for our fight south to Hungnam.
At about 0945 hours, Task Force Drysdale left Koto-ri, expecting some resistance, but it turned out to be a lot worse. The British Commandos, along with the U.S. Marines, took turns going up the hillsides while their trucks stayed on the road. We began receiving reports that the Chinese were setting up roadblocks.
Roughly at 1130, Drysdale was informed that seventeen tanks from D Company, 1st Tank BN would be available to him at 1300 hours—with another twelve, two hours later. He decided to regroup all his forces and wait for the seventeen tanks. We needed these tanks to help break though the roadblocks. At 1350 hours we began our push to Hagaru-ri with the seventeen tanks leading our convoy; bringing up the rear would be the other twelve tanks. Due to pockets of resistance, weather, an icy road and roadblocks, our progress was extremely slow. Vehicles were sliding off the road, only to be towed or pushed back on the road.
Around 1615 hours, not even halfway to Hagaru-ri, the head of the convoy came to a complete stop. About mid-way of the convoy, we got hit hard from the flank resulting in many killed, and some captured. Unbeknownst to us, the Chinese had severed the convoy, but most of the British Commandos and Marines from G/3/1, along with the lead seventeen tanks, were still intact at the front of the convoy.
With orders to proceed at all costs, we continued to Hagaru-ri. We climbed into, and onto whatever vehicle was close by. Sometimes we had to stop, because the lead vehicle was disabled, or to take care of the wounded. For those of us who could, we immediately set up along side the road and provided cover fire for those who tried to find out why we had stopped. After the problem was taken care of, we quickly mounted our and vehicles and continued our journey. Before reaching Hagaru-ri, these stop-and-goes happened several times.
Lt. Col. Drysdale and our Gunnery Sgt. Rocco Zullo were among the wounded; Captain Sitter had now taken over as the CO of Task Force Drysdale. By now the temperatures were ranging from twenty-five below in the day, to forty below at night.
Finally, reaching Hagaru-ri and having taken care of our wounded, Task Force Drysdale was disbanded. Then we, G/3/1, received our new orders—get a few hours rest, and sleep if possible, because in the morning we had a hill to retake. It was important that we controlled this hill, for the safety of our perimeter. Before I tried to get any sleep, I cleaned my gun. However, I made the mistake of lubricating the parts like I normally did—by morning my gun was frozen and unusable.
As we were moving out to retake the hill, I was told to stay and re-clean my gun—this time not using lubricants. After finishing, I caught up with my squad about a third of the way up the hill.
After running into some resistance, we were able to take control of what was known as East Hill. It was now the 30th of November and we were expecting a counterattack, so we dug in the best we could—considering the ground was frozen. We were fighting the Chinese, dressed in the cotton padded uniforms and split-toed sneaker type shoes; they liked to attack at night—in hordes.
Attack in hordes they did, blowing their bugles and whistles. I remember thinking this night would never end, or it would end quickly. We were overrun; we were throwing their hand grenades back at them. We were holding our position, as bodies began to pile up in front of, and around us. I had called in mortar support, which we never received.
During the night, Captain Sitter crawled up to our position to explain to us why there was no mortar support. He had all the mortar men, headquarter personnel, and any other man he could come up with, busy rounding up and capturing all the Chinese that had broken through our lines. Then he went on to tell us that the Korean troops had retreated leaving our right flank exposed; he warned us to be careful.
Finally, dawn began to break, which was a pleasant feeling. The Chinese had a tendency to leave their dead and wounded behind. On many occasions the wounded would lay there and shoot at any target they could see. We later found out that a few men in another area had been wounded in this manner.
One morning, a couple of us went down the hill to get something to eat. We managed to bring back a case of fragmentary grenades, and some illuminating grenades. During the day, we spent some time removing all the tracer rounds from our machine guns ammo belt. This would keep the Chinese from zeroing in on us during the night. This time we were determined that we would not get overrun again—and we weren’t. On the 1st of December they made their second attack, which wasn’t as bad as their first; however, there was still a lot of action.
We would throw a grenade over the hillside—in front of us—along with an illuminating grenade every thirty to forty minutes. These would light up the draw between our position and theirs. Our tanks down on the road took advantage of the light and would fire rounds into the draw.
If you were fortunate enough to still have a sleeping bag at this point you didn’t dare get in it during the night, for fear of being caught in it if we were overrun again. With the extreme cold, and being in it twenty-four hours a day, frostbite had now become a factor.
On the morning of December 4th, I went down to get something to eat. As I was returning to relieve another Marine, so he could get something to eat, I found myself falling down every few steps. Every time I fell, I laid in the snow trying to muster enough strength to get up, and get up the hill. The last time I fell, not knowing how long I had laid in the snow, I tried to crawl up the hill. Then one of our new replacements, a staff sergeant, came along and rolled me over, asking me what was wrong. Even with his help, I still fell. So, he told me to wait there and he would go get a corpsman.
Shortly afterwards, a couple of corpsman arrived and were able to get me to a tent. They told me the doctor would be in to see me later. Even though it was cold in the tent, it was the warmest I had been in days, so before I knew it I had fallen asleep on the floor.
A few hours later the corpsman and doctor woke me up, and then I explained to them what had happened. The doctor told me to take off my shoes, so he could look at my feet. Both of my big toes had turned black on the ends. He then wrote out an evacuation tag and tied it onto one of my coat buttons. I tried to tell him that if I could warm up a bit that I would be okay. He said, “No.” He then went on to say that everyone was going to have their feet inspected and those like mine would be classified as unfit to walk, and flown out. Continuing, he said we would be more of a hindrance than help when time came for us to fight our way out.
He went on to inform me that he would take care of letting someone from G/3/1 know my situation. I was taken by a corpsman to the air strip to be flown out on the next available flight to Hungnam. When we arrived, there was a plane sitting there with its engines running. Since I could still walk—somewhat—there was room for me. All the stretcher patients had already been strapped in, so they strapped me in one of the bucket seats. Several more walking wounded came aboard then they closed the door, taxied out, and took off for Hungnam.
Finally, arriving at a field hospital in Hungnam, I was told they would probably fly me to a hospital in Japan the following morning. I ended up in an Army hospital located somewhere in southern Japan. After evaluating my condition, a couple of doctors came by later in the day to give me their diagnosis. They said my hands would heal just fine by themselves, but both of my big toes would have to be amputated.
Not liking what I heard, I requested to see a Marine Liaison Officer. Not knowing where one was, they continued to insist that my toes needed to be amputated. However, I continued requesting to see a Naval or Marine person to obtain a second opinion.
The following day a Master Sergeant, from the Marine Corps, came to see me. After a couple of days of talking back and forth, he had some good news. He had arranged for me to go by myself, by a civilian train, to a town that had a naval hospital.
On the third morning of the trip, the train stopped and two corpsmen came and took me to the Yokuska Naval Hospital. I was classified as a stretcher case, but they told me they would start me on a treatment to try to save my toes; this sounded a lot better than amputation.
They kept me in bed with my feet wrapped in cotton, inside plastic bags. Three or four times a day, nurses came in and shot hot saline solution into the plastic bags, saturating the cotton. Once a day, they removed the plastic bags and cotton to inspect my feet and toes. Then they re-wrapped them in cotton and placing them back in plastic bags, repeating the same procedures.
Several days later, some corpsmen came into our ward and started to take out some of the other frostbite stretcher patients. We were told these guys were being flown stateside, because their beds were needed for incoming wounded and even worse cases of frostbite. Returning, they said they had all the stretcher cases the plane could handle and now they were taking ambulatory cases with frostbite. Again they returned saying there was room for only one more, only if this person could get out of bed and walk over to them. Needless to say, I hit the floor in a run; the corpsmen said I would do. They told the rest of the guys, in the ward, that they hoped to load another plane the following day. Those on stretchers were stacked four high, in the middle of the plane; I was given a bucket seat.
A few hours after take-off, we landed at Midway Island to refuel and a box lunch was provided for everyone. When we were back in the air, they told us we were headed for Hawaii. Landing at Hickam Air Force Base, we were off loaded and taken to Tripler Naval Hospital for a good nights sleep. However, due to an engine problem, we stayed an extra night.
Finally, we were able to get airborne again, landing at Travis Air Force Base during the middle of the night. From Travis, we were bused to the Oakland Naval Hospital.
Neither my parents, nor my future wife, knew that I had left the front lines. Needless to say, they were shocked, and relieved, to know that I was back in the States and not seriously wounded. However, the word gangrene didn’t sound too good to anyone either.
The doctors got me started on some physical therapy, which hurt like hell. For thirty minutes, four times a day, I had to soak my feet. I had to use two different pans; one with water as hot as I could stand, and the other with ice water. I had to switch my feet back and forth from the hot water to the ice water, which was extremely painful.
Since it was nearing Christmas, they were trying to let as many men as they could to go home for the holidays. After promising the doctors that I would do my therapy at home, they let me go. I arrived home on December 20, 1950—for Christmas.
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In January of 1952, I was released from active duty and returned to inactive reserve status.