Robert Harbula

1st Marine Regiment

1st Marine Division

U.S. Marine Corps

In June of 1948, at the age of seventeen, I joined the U.S. Marine Corps. In July 1950, I volunteered to go to Korea; I was in George Company, 3rd BN, 1st Marines, 1st Marine Division.

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Along with the Army’s 7th Infantry Division, a South Korean Marine regiment, the 1st Marine Division made up the newly formed Tenth Corps. They loaded us onto ships in Japan. Sailing up the Yellow Sea, we landed at the port city of Inchon on the 15th of September—catching the North Koreans by surprise.

After securing Inchon, we moved twenty miles inland to the capital city of Seoul, which was the main access route for the NKPA to get back north. As the U.S. Army, along with their ROK counterparts were finally breaking out of the Pusan Perimeter, the NKPA began to head north. With Seoul secured, the NKPA was taking an eastern route around the city. Instead of attacking east, we were ordered—by General MacArthur—to leave Seoul for Inchon. There we boarded ships and set sail for the east coast. We, the Marines, were to land at Wonson, North Korea; the 7th Infantry Division would land at Iwon, North Korea.

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Apparently, someone forgot to check the harbor conditions at Wonson. It was heavily mined. So, we had to wait out at sea another ten days while the Navy took care of the mines.

We finally landed, unopposed, on the 26th of October. Having been informed that the 15th Division of the NKPA was setting up guerrilla operations in the area, we were ordered to Majon-ni on the twenty-eighth.

By now the weather was changing; it was becoming extremely cold. It was too cold for just field jackets, and we had no gloves or anything to put over our ears. We were told that winter gear would soon be arriving in Wonson, in time for the upcoming campaign.

A large number of NKPA had been captured by the 3rd of November, and there was no facility in Majon-ni to handle them. Lt. Beeler and his second platoon were ordered to escort the prisoners back to Wonson and to pick up our winter gear.

The machine gun squad that I was in, led by Sgt. Bob Hurt was also assigned to go on this mission. Fifty men, including the drivers, loaded onto ten trucks and made an uneventful trip to Wonson. However, some of the guys had hoped the North Koreans would have tried something. Some had a bad taste in their mouths after seeing many dead G.I.’s with their hands tied behind their backs; along with women and children massacred in the hills around Seoul. But, they had no such luck.

After turning the prisoners over to Division we collected the winter gear, which consisted of heavy parkas, boots, scarves, and gloves equipped with wool liners, and headed back to Majon-ni. As we neared a summit of one of the numerous mountains, we had to cross a road and make a sharp turn to the left. I was sitting on the tailgate of the third truck, along with two ammo carriers. When suddenly, from behind a boulder, stepped several NKPA’s opening fire on us with Russian made burp guns. In unison, all three of us fell off the tailgate onto the road; but, I continued to roll to a small berm in the valley below. The other two laid motionless in the middle of the road, with their eyes open. The first three trucks continued on, but the following trucks stopped and the other Marines quickly set up a skirmish line and returned fire.

Luckily, I still had my carbine and I began to fire at some NKPA’s in the valley below. Apparently they didn’t care about the ambush, because they never returned fire. I decided not to stay there, but where should I go? I could either join the skirmish line, or go see what happened to Sgt. Hurt—who was riding shotgun in the second truck. I went to see about Sarge.

As I worked my way around the bend, I saw all three trucks stopped behind some large boulders which had been used to block the road. I began to survey the situation and noticed four-or-five Marines lying motionless on the ground around the trucks. The driver of the third truck had taken cover under his vehicle; I motioned for him to stay there. Carefully working my way to the second truck, I noticed in the cab was a very shaken driver and Sgt. Hurt, who had a serious shoulder wound. His shoulder had been shattered and he was unable to move. I was unable to check out the first truck, as there were four enemy soldiers standing about thirty yards in front of it.

I could have gotten the non-wounded guys out by retracing my footsteps, but this meant leaving the wounded behind—this was not an option. Checking the back of the truck, I noticed a machine gun sitting on a box. I asked the driver if he could turn the truck around on such a narrow road. He said he could, but when we started to move the enemy would see us and open fire. I told him that I would use the machine gun that was in the back of the truck for cover fire, but he was not to move until I tapped on the cab. Then I went to tell the driver of the third truck about our plans.

Returning to the second truck, I climbed into the back and spotted PFC Jack Dunne, a rifleman, behind some boxes. Realizing I couldn’t use the tripod because it would bounce all over the boxes, I only had one option—fire it from the hip. Using some webbing, I wrapped my left hand to protect it from the heat of the barrel. I tapped on the cab, made eye contact with the driver, stood up, and opened fire. This completely took the NKPA’s by surprise, as I took out three of them with my first burst. The fourth took cover behind some boulders, and by this time Jack was firing with his M-1. We were drawing a lot of fire as the trucks managed to get turned around.

I thought the drivers would stop when they reached the skirmish line and join the other Marines. However, they were so shaken up, they kept on going down the road. It was a wild ride and as we neared the bottom, an explosion caused the truck I was riding in to swerve off the road, and down a deep gully. I jumped clear of the truck as it left the road. The driver of the lead truck saw what happened, in his rear view mirror and came back. Then both of us went down the gully to check on the guys in the truck; they were unconscious, but out of harms way.

Needing medical help, we quickly made our way back to Regimental Headquarters. After reporting our situation, Colonel Puller rounded up all available men, including cooks and clerks. It was apparent that no radio messages were sent to headquarters about the ambush. One could only assume the radio must have been in the first truck with Lt. Beeler. When we arrived back at the ambush site, the NKPA’s were gone; they must have seen Col. Puller’s rescue force coming up the mountain.

For Sgt. Hurt and PFC Dunne, the war was over. After being treated for their wounds, they were flown to a hospital in Japan. Out of the fifty men we started with, nine were killed and fifteen were wounded. Included in the dead; Lt. Beeler.

After the ambush, I became the new machine gun squad leader; I was the only one left from the original squad that landed at Inchon. Captain Carl Sitter was our new company commander and he wanted combat veterans in charge of the machine guns and mortars—regardless of rank. I was fortunate to have gotten another veteran—PFC Joe Rice—from another squad to be my assistant gunner. Green replacements would make up the rest of my squad.

Since many replacements had been added to the company, Capt. Sitter ordered everyone under his command to cut up the red airdrop parachutes and wear them for identification purposes. We became known as “Sitter’s Bastards.”

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By November 27, 1950, more than 120,000 Chinese soldiers had surrounded all Marine and Army units in the area of the Chosin Reservoir, and cut the main supply route in several places. All Marine and Army units from Koto-ri and Yudam-ni were cut off, and would have to fight for their own survival.

At Koto-ri, Col. Puller put together Task Force Drysdale. It consisted of 235 men from the 41 Independent Commando, British Royal Marines; 205 men of George Company, 3rd BN, 1st Marines; 190 men from Baker Company, 31st Infantry (U.S. Army); and roughly 200 from headquarter units, totaling 712 men and sixty-five vehicles. The task force was named for Lt. Col. Douglas Drysdale, commander of the British Royal Marines.

Marine airplanes had spotted numerous Chinese roadblocks along the main supply route; we needed armor. Tanks from Chinhung-ni were headed to Koto-ri, but wouldn’t arrive before mid-afternoon. Being outnumbered at least ten-to-one, and no armor, our mission would be suicidal. However, the urgency at Hagaru-ri did not allow us to wait. So, we left Koto-ri without armor.

On the 29th of November, at 0945, the 41 Independent Commando attacked the first hill on the way to Hagaru-ri, taking it with little trouble. George Company swung around them, attacking the second hill. After intense fighting, we gained control of the hill.

Both units came off the hills we had just captured and moved up the supply route to our next objective. When we left, the Chinese reoccupied the two hills. Our next objective was a mile up the road, and well fortified with mortars and machine guns. As the Marines attacked along the way, they ran into a hailstorm of bullets. Casualties began to mount up and there were no replacements available. We were ordered to the road, to wait for further instructions.

Around 1130 as Drysdale contemplated his next move, he was informed that seventeen tanks would be available around 1300 hours, with another twelve two hours later. Their extra firepower would be needed to help break through the roadblocks. Plus, this would bring the task force up to 922 men, 141 vehicles, and twenty-nine tanks. So, he decided to wait.

At 1350 the attack started again, with the seventeen tanks in the lead; when the other twelve arrived they would be attached to the rear. Our pace was slow due to the many pockets of resistance, roadblocks, and craters in the road that the tanks had to maneuver around. A tactic used by the Chinese was to hunker down and the let the tanks go by, then open fire on the following vehicles. One of the main battle strategies the Chinese used was to dissect columns. To ward off such an attack, each occupant in the vehicles had to use maximum firepower.

About four miles north of Koto-ri, our attack came to a halt. Drysdale was told by the tank commander he believed the tanks could get through. However, with the road conditions and increased enemy fire, it would be costly to the rest of the task force if they proceeded. Enemy fire was taking its toll on the convoy. So, Drysdale radioed Hagaru-ri and reported his situation. Due to the urgent need of reinforcements, General Smith had no choice and ordered him to proceed—at all cost.

The order was clear; the task force had to fight its way through the Chinese, or die trying.

This was around 1615 and by the time the tanks had finished refueling, darkness had set in. Nightfall brought the Chinese blowing their bugles and whistles, along with shooting flares. The first time one experiences this, it is unnerving. However, the Marines at Koto-ri had warned everyone in the column of these tactics.

The Chinese were getting bolder and coming closer to the column. Our grenades usually broke up these close-in attacks.

About halfway to Hagaru-ri, in a place later known as Hellfire Valley, a mortar round hit a truck, setting it on fire; thereby causing a roadblock. This split the column in two, without the front of the column realizing what had happened. The only radio communication available was through the tanks. Earlier on, runners had been used, but most had been killed or wounded.

This left the Army’s Baker Company, sixty-one Commandos, and all of the Marine headquarter and service troops cut-off, and on their own. Little could be done to help them; many became casualties of the war. However, roughly three-hundred men and twelve tanks were able to fight there way back to Koto-ri.

When the head of the column was in sight of Hagaru-ri, it came under a heavy machine gun and mortar attack. One of the tanks was knocked out of action by a satchel charge. Quickly, the Marines formed a perimeter and fought off the attack. Wounded in the arm was Drysdale, but he stayed with his command.

As the column moved out things looked a lot brighter; the engineers in Hagaru-ri were using floodlights, as they were building an airstrip. When this scene came into our view, it raised the troop’s spirits. However, as George Company neared the perimeter, it came under fire from tents that had been left by the 10th Engineer Battalion. Dressed in captured helmets and parkas, the Chinese opened fire on us. After a short firefight they scattered into the hills. We suffered unnecessary casualties, and loss of equipment.

One of the casualties was First Sergeant Rocco Zullo, a veteran of Guadalcanal and other World War II battles. In the summer of 1950, he helped form and train George Company at Camp Pendleton. There are very few men that are totally fearless in combat—he appeared to be one of them.

Zullo was cut down by enemy machine gun fire. The attending corpsman said he was dead, placing him in the tent with the other dead. An empty feeling came over his men. Many of his men—including myself—would not learn for another forty years what happened to him.

Another corpsman had gone into the dead tent and heard a cough. After investigating, he found Zullo—alive. Apparently the extreme cold had stopped his bleeding. Due to the number of casualties, and the chaos, around the hospital, word was never sent back to his company. He spent a year in the hospital and later retired from the Corps as a Captain.

Hagaru-ri had its reinforcements; sixteen tanks and 100 men from Company D, 1st Tank BN and A Company 5th Marines, less than 100 British Royal Marines, and 157 men from George Company. However, over half of the task force didn’t make it to Hagaru-ri. The total loss was 321 men, 74 vehicles, and one tank. George Company suffered 23 percent casualties, the Commandos had 26 percent, and the Army’s Baker Company had 63 percent.

It was around 1900 hours, and the men were frozen and exhausted. We had no hot shower, hot food, or warm beds waiting for us, only more ice and snow. Our drinking water and rations had frozen a long time ago. Our meal was going to be the same as it had been for days—Tootsie Rolls. We kept them inside our clothes to keep them from freezing.

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With the Royal Marines in reserve, at 0800 hours on the 30th of November, George Company began its attack on the deeply entrenched enemy on East Hill—at Hagaru-ri. Due to previous traffic, the hillside was nothing but a sheet of ice. Using our trenching tools, and bayonets, we chopped away at the frozen earth hoping to get better footing. It seemed for every two steps forward, we slid back one.

As we neared the top we were showered with an airburst of deadly shrapnel; my assistant, PFC Joe Rice, died in my arms. He had been hit in the back of his head; I doubt he ever knew what hit him.

Exhausted, we set up our defenses for the night and a counterattack we knew would come. The first platoon was in the middle, with the second platoon over the crest to the right, and strung out down the hill on the left was the third platoon. Most of the men in George Company were unable to dig foxholes due to the ground being frozen. So, they either had to lie on top of the ground, or use dead Chinese for protection. During the wait, every man in the company shivered as the temperature reached thirty degrees below zero. A Chinese attack was a blessing, as it got our adrenaline pumping and our minds off the cold.

Captain Sitter moved among the young men to steady their nerves for the upcoming battle. He told them they were going to fight, and they must fight to survive. Fight they did!

Sometime during the night, thousands of Chinese came screaming, blowing their bugles and whistles, and shooting off their multicolored flares. Then suddenly, they set the hill ablaze with mortar, machine gun, and automatic weapons fire. My machine gun squad was attached to the first platoon and we soon came under heavy fire. I ordered my men to open fire. Suddenly, I realized the worst fear a man in combat can experience—my weapon wouldn’t fire. The gun wouldn’t respond to corrective measures, and by now the Chinese had begun to penetrate the lines. So, I quickly yelled for the men to use their grenades. This only temporarily slowed their advance, and soon their massive numbers caused a break in the first platoons section.

That night several Chinese had busted noses or bad headaches after I grabbed my helmet by the chinstrap and used it as a weapon. I then drew my .45 pistol, emptying a clip into the enemy. I heard an officer’s voice, in the background, yell for the first platoon to pull back and join up with other defenders to seal off the break. This was the last time I saw any of my men on East Hill.

To reload my pistol, I dropped into a shell-hole that contained three-or-four motionless Marines. Quickly reloading my .45, I started to leave the hole when someone said, “Bob, don’t leave me.” I looked around and there lay Cpl. Dick Haller, squad leader of the other machine gun attached to the first platoon. This meant both of the machine guns of the first platoon were out of action.

Having been shot in both legs, Haller was unable to walk. By this time the Chinese were everywhere and the Marines were engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Our only chance to safety was down the reverse slope of the hill. I grabbed Haller, by the hood of his parka, and headed for the slope. I slipped and stumbled numerous times, and emptied my last clip on the Chinese between us and the slope. Finally, we reached the slope as several Chinese approached us. With no more clips, I threw my .45 at them, yelling, “Shoot you bastards.” I don’t know if I hit any of them, or if any of them shot at us. Halfway down I jammed my left foot into a protruding rock, sending a sharp pain up my leg. After a short rest, I grabbed Haller and started back down the hill.

As we reached the bottom, a platoon of 41 Commandos was beginning to go up the hill to help seal the break. Standing by his jeep was PFC Jim Feemster, so I hobbled over and asked him to help me get Haller to sickbay. After loading him into the back of the jeep, we took off to get medical help. When we arrived, as soon as I exited the jeep, a bullet whizzed by and slammed into Feemster’s right thigh—now I had two men to care for. Hobbling into sickbay, with these two wounded Marines, I asked a corpsman for help.

Before I could leave, a Navy surgeon told me to remove my shoepac. On the back of my heel was a knot the size of a golf ball—a ruptured Achilles tendon. He informed me that I was now out of action and would be flown to a hospital in Japan.

George Company suffered another 35 percent in casualties; they now had fewer than one-hundred men on the line. They continued to hold East Hill until the 5th of December, when they were relieved by the 5th Marines.

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After the battle at the Chosin Reservoir, the 1st Marine Division was put in reserve near Masan, South Korea. This is where I rejoined George Company in late January 1951.

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When they arrived at Masan, only sixty-seven of the original 255 men of George Company that landed at Inchon, answered the roll call. The company was refitted and ready for battle—again—by the end of January.

There was a division sized guerrilla force operating in the mountains around Pohang, South Korea; the division’s first assignment was to eliminate it. This turned out to be a tedious task, but it was a good opportunity to train our new replacements. It helped get their combat legs in shape for the mountainous terrain that laid ahead. By early March we had accomplished our mission, and then we moved to the central part of South Korea to face the Chinese that were advancing deeper into the country.

During one stretch we were on the attack for forty-five days straight. This meant digging forty-five foxholes in forty-five days, but they were necessary for our protection. This was dirty and exhausting work, and we had little time or conditions for proper hygiene. Someone thought we had set a record for continued combat in the Marine Corps. Record or not, we smelled.

On the 21st of April, 1951, the 5th and 7th Marines were attacking abreast above the Hwachon Reservoir. To their left was the ROK 6th Division, and on their right was the Tenth Corps. No one was aware that the Chinese had amassed 350,000 troops, and on the twenty-second they hit the UN lines from the Hwachon on the east, to Munsan-ni on the west. This was the start of their spring offensive, and they stopped the UN advance in its tracks. The ROK 6th Division was one of the worst hit; they basically evaporated and the CCF’s 40th Army poured across the line.

The Chinese probably thought if they could cross the Pukhan River they could encircle the 1st Marine Division, which was on the north side. Apparently, they didn’t learn their lesson at the Chosin Reservoir.

The 3rd BN was in reserve near Chunchon, and was ordered to immediately saddle up and join the rest of the regiment. We were to take up a blocking position in an effort to help shore up the crumbling left flank.

Whoever controlled Hill 902 controlled all traffic across the Pukhan River via two ferries and the concrete Mojin Bridge. This was the only crossing for many miles. George Company’s objective; take Hill 902. Also realizing its importance, the Chinese sent the 359th and 360th Regiments to take the hill. We were in a virtual foot race to the hill.

Getting supplies up this four-thousand foot mountain was going to be a problem, so everyone was told to carry extra mortar and machine gun ammo. Men struggled with their heavy loads, and many fell from heat and pure exhaustion. We won the race, but in doing so we consumed our water supply. Corpsman constantly moved among the men to be sure we were taking our salt tablets. For the next hour, stragglers kept arriving and we all knew we were in for a hot time that night.

The third platoon took the crest of the hill with the first platoon on their right, and the second platoon taking the left flank. In the rocky ground, we quickly prepared our defenses. We placed a heavy .30 caliber machine gun, along with two light .30’s, on top of the hill. The heavy, and light, mortars and artillery zeroed in for action.

Shortly after dark all hell broke loose when the Chinese hit our lines. For the next several hours the fighting was frantic, and furious. Many of the Marines were using their entrenching tools, helmets, and even the butts of their rifles to hold off the Chinese. After receiving heavy losses, they broke off their attack—to regroup. During this interval, we removed our dead and wounded. The hill was littered with the bodies of dead Chinese, and some had to be removed so the machine guns had a better field of fire.

Around midnight Sgt. Peter Dusanowsky, the machine gun platoon leader, called me on the field radio to see how many casualties the first platoon had received. I informed him that our lines had not been hit. So, he instructed us to pull one of our guns off the line to reinforce the third platoon. The gun was placed on a small ledge above the heavy .30 caliber. The ledge had enough room for three guys, and had a good field of fire. This now put four machine guns in position for the next attack.

The Chinese attacked an hour after their third attack. The men on the recently placed light .30 saw the enemy first, from the lofty perch, and opened fire. Simultaneously the other guns followed suit, sending a blistering fire into the enemy. Then the mortars and artillery sprayed a wall of steel, breaking the back of the attack. Again, the Chinese broke off the attack to regroup.

One of the key players in the defense of Hill 902 was Gunnery Sergeant Harold E. (Speedy) Wilson, leader of the third platoon. He was wounded five times, receiving wounds in both arms thereby making it impossible to fire a weapon. So, he went from foxhole to foxhole rallying his young men, and bringing them more ammo. He refused to be evacuated until he knew the battle was well in hand; he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.

For their courageous stand on Hill 902, George Company’s third platoon was relieved by the second platoon.

Orders came down for George Company to pull back across the Pukhan River; this was easier said than done. As we made the three mile descent to the bottom, the Chinese were breathing down our necks. The machine guns of the first platoon covered each phase of the pullback. The first priority was the roughly one-hundred dead, and wounded. Going out first was the walking wounded, followed by the dead—and litter cases—carried out on ponchos. On numerous occasions some of the men lost their footing on the steep slope, causing the bodies to fall off the ponchos. Needless to say, it was slow going.

The heat, and dust, left a dryness and thirst in one’s mouths; several of the guys emptied their canteens on the climb up. Seeing the cool, running water of the Pukhan River—in the distance—only added to their thirst.

Finally, George Company made it to the river, but it came with a price. Later some of the men were diagnosed with stomach parasites, which they believed came from drinking water from the river.

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In June of 1951, I left Korea. A year later—June of 1952—I left the Corps.

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