~~Twenty-Three~~

Robert Grass

11th Marine Regiment

1st Marine Division

U.S. Marine Corps

I was born in Troy, Indiana, on September 26, 1924. The day the United States declared war on Japan—December 8, 1941—at the age of seventeen, I joined the U.S. Marine Corps. That Monday morning, along with three buddies, I arrived at the post office in Evansville, Indiana—before it opened—to enlist. After we were sworn in, they told us we would be leaving the following morning for Parris Island, South Carolina. Shortly afterwards they informed us the camp was overflowing with new recruits, and that we wouldn’t be leaving until the 29th of December.

Finally, we arrived at Parris Island for our three months of basic training. It is located on the Atlantic coast and at night it got pretty cold with the winds blowing off the ocean. However, after only being there a month, they boarded us on ships and sent us to Guantanamo Bay. During the early part of the Second World War, German U-boats patrolled the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and there was a concern they may attempt to take over Guantanamo. So, we went through the rest of our basic training here. After we finished, we again boarded a ship, but not to return to Parris Island; we sailed through the Panama Canal headed for New Zealand.

The 1st Marine Division was scattered throughout the States and other parts of the world. The entire division would meet in New Zealand, where we all went through more training. We didn’t have a clue where we were headed, but with the training we knew it was going to be an island. And we were right; on August 7, 1942 we landed at Guadalcanal.

During my time in the south Pacific, I was in eight amphibious landings; the last being Guam. I returned home and on December 8, 1945, I was discharged from the Corps.

* * * * * *

On January 31, 1948, Vernia June Polk and I were married in Evansville, Indiana. I got a job working for ADT, and wanting to make a little more money I enlisted in the Marine Reserve in 1949. There were about one-hundred twenty-five men in the rifle company I joined, and about 95 percent of the guys had no combat experience. The only experience they had was the one or two weeks of training at various camps, which I didn’t have to do.

On the 25th of June, 1950, war broke out in Korea and they activated our company. I went and talked to the captain telling him that Vernie and I had two children, and I wanted to know if I would have to go. He told me that he didn’t believe I would be able to get out of it—he was right. Since my income was all the money we had coming in, Vernie and the children went to live with my parents.

When my brother Ralph, heard I was going over, he joined the Marines so he could be with me. The only time we were together was during the two days I was at Camp Pendleton before I shipped out.

The Army and ROK units had been pushed all the way back to Pusan, and there was concern they may be pushed all the way into the sea. So, the Navy had ships ready to evacuate them if necessary. However, they would not be needed as they began to break out of Pusan and started driving the NKPA back north.

When we arrived in Japan, we where informed of MacArthur’s plan to land at Inchon. We were to cut across to Seoul and cut off the retreating NKPA. Our company would not be making the landing at Inchon; however, we would be flying into Kimpo Airfield, which was about ten-to-twelve miles outside Inchon. After the 5th Marines had landed and secured Inchon, they were to secure the airfield so we could land. At 3:30 AM on the the 19th of September we landed. However, only one end of the airfield had been secured at that time. Once we disembarked, we came under enemy fire and of all the men aboard, there were only seven combat veterans. We finally secured the airfield and headed towards Seoul.

Before we entered Seoul, they pulled me back and put me in charge of three squads, or thirty-three men. We had to protect a ten mile area to stop, or accept the surrender of the NKPA and keep them from going north. All I could do was send out scouts to see which way they were coming and set up a perimeter. We set up our machine guns and saturated the area with as many men as we could. The North Korean soldiers were surrendering by the hundreds; they didn’t even have any weapons. However, there were some die-hards who tried to get back, but we took care of them.

After a few more stragglers came in to surrender we then made a beeline to Seoul. When we arrived, who was there? MacArthur himself, and with him was Syngman Rhee. The city was only about three-quarters secured, but that didn’t stop him from coming. He held a ceremony in which he presented Syngman Rhee with a “wooden” key to the city—symbolizing we had taken the capital back. Then MacArthur had everyone remove their hats, place their hand over their heart, and recite the Lord’s Prayer—as he led us.

Now we were at the 38th parallel and didn’t know if the war was over or what—it wasn’t over. MacArthur decided to chase the NKPA all the way to the Yalu River. So, we—the 1st Marines—headed back to Inchon where we boarded ships and headed for the east coast of North Korea.

After landing in North Korea, we quickly headed north to the Chosin Reservoir. We reached the town of Hagaru-ri, which was about fifteen miles south of the Chosin, where the division set up its CP there. It was reported that there were a few thousand NKPA camped in a valley around Yudam-ni, so three-thousand men from the 5th and 7th Marines headed around the west end of the reservoir. We had three 155 Howitzers accompanying us and it was my job to protect them. I took three squads and set up a perimeter about one-hundred yards out in front of the guns, but not directly in front of them. Sometimes after firing the guns the brass casings of the shells would come off, which could cause injuries to anyone in the area.

It was the day before Thanksgiving and the guns fired all through the day and night. They finally stopped on the morning of Thanksgiving. It was said that we must have killed over three-thousand NKPA soldiers in that valley.

The weather turned bitter cold during the night—dropping well below zero—and they were going to bring us our Thanksgiving Dinner. When it arrived everything was frozen—the potatoes, gravy, and even the turkey. So, we didn’t get much of a Thanksgiving Dinner.

Around 6:00 PM a buddy of mine wanted to borrow my rifle—I had a 0-3. He wanted to take it instead of his M-1 for he was going to ride shotgun with a lieutenant colonel, who was going to division to report on our progress. We were to find out later that they never made it. The Chinese caught them on the road and killed both of them. It should have been me, but he asked me if he could take my place. Not thinking anything like that would happen, I agreed.

Later that night, around 11:00 PM, we saw our first Chinese when we suddenly realized they had us surrounded. We had our machine guns set up in a crossfire pattern, and occasionally a straggler was able to get through. However, the guys behind us with their M-1’s took care of them. When morning arrived, I looked out across the area and there must have been thousands of dead Chinese.

The division wanted us to get back to Hagaru-ri but leave everything where it was. Our captain decided he wanted to take the howitzers back with us. So, we attached one to the back of a truck and another one to the back of a bulldozer. We destroyed the third gun.

By this time Bill Ellis, a friend of mine from Evansville, was getting in bad shape—his feet were frostbitten. Bill was an Army veteran of World War II and after the war he joined the Marine Reserve.

After gathering all the dead we could find, we headed south to Hagaru-ri. We headed down the only road from the Chosin and it was nothing more than a dirt road about fifteen feet wide. For every mile we advanced, we had to fight for at least eight hours—it was brutal.

By this time the weather was taking its toll on men, and equipment. Our grenades were no longer working properly, and rifles were jamming due to the lubricating oil freezing. I saw many men urinating on their rifles in the hopes of thawing them out. I even saw men built a fire underneath a .30 caliber machine gun, to get it to work. But most of all, we were running out of ammo.

We continued on. We must have been about three days out of Hagaru-ri, and we were feeling everything was going to be alright now. Wrong! On the side of the road was a shack that was burning, so we all hurried over to it to get warm. Suddenly, we heard the sound of a bugle and here they came. They were on the high ground, and they were hitting us hard. By this time I only had four bullets for a .38 pistol. In their standard mode of attack, the Chinese ran through us then they returned.

During the first attack our Staff Sergeant had been hit in the right temple. Lucky for him it only penetrated the skin. We could see, and feel, it; it was a slug from a .45, and it was making him dizzy. As the Chinese were making their return attack, Bill and I protected the Sarge as best we could. Suddenly, a concussion grenade landed about ten feet in front of us. It knocked me backwards against a 6 x 6 truck. I heard Bill yelling that he had been hit in the face. I went over to him to check and see how bad he was hurt. Taking off my glove, I wiped off the snow and ice—that had been kicked up by the concussion grenade—from his face to find that he was okay. In just that short period of time, I was unable to put my glove back on. My hand was frozen stiff.

With no ammo, and weapons hardly working, we knew it was about over. Suddenly, in the distance I heard singing—I must have been hallucinating from the extreme cold. But it was getting louder. Low and behold, coming up the road was a unit of the British Royal Marines. What a sight! I was never so glad to see anyone in my life. And let me say this—those boys could fight!

Our lieutenant, who I had been with on Guadalcanal, was riding in a jeep leading our outfit. When we got to him, he was dead—or at least we thought so. I took my poncho and covered his body. The driver was lying on his side, and I could tell he was also dead.

Finally, ten-or-eleven days after our journey started, we arrived at Hagaru-ri—to a thundering cheer from the rest of the division. Unfortunately, along the way we lost roughly two-thousand men.

As I was walking down the road, I heard someone yelling, “Bob Grass. Is Bob Grass here?” I thought who in the world could that be? I turned around and there was my cousin, Jack, from Chicago. I didn’t even know he was in the Marines, let alone Korea. He was in the Marine Air Corps as a spotter for our airplanes. After seeing my hand, which by this time had a large water bubble, he said I needed to get it taken care of. I told him there were men who needed attention worse than I did. So, I waited until they were all taken of, then we went to the aid station. As we entered the tent, a colonel was raking a Marine over the coals about his feet not being that bad, and for him to get back to his unit. I could only think of what he was going to say to me, so I turned to leave when a captain came in the room. He took one look at my hand and said that it needed to be amputated. I told him I wanted to wait until I got to the hospital in Yokohama, Japan, and see what they said.

The captain told me there was a plane of wounded leaving and for me to hurry and get on it. I was the last person to board the last plane flying out of Hagaru-ri. It was nothing more than a strip that had been leveled by a bulldozer. Another Marine and I were sitting in bucket seats on the side of the plane, and as it took off the Chinese at the end of the runway began to shoot at us. A bullet came through the floor and through the other guy’s foot. The plane was so full of bullet holes we couldn’t use the oxygen.

It was a short flight to Hamhung, where I went to a M.A.S.H. unit. Who was there when we arrived? General Almond, commander of the Tenth Corps; he was handing out medals to those of us who were going to be transferred to Japan. He looked at my hand and said I needed to get in there and have it amputated. I told him I was going to wait until I got to Yokohama. He told me he couldn’t make me, and then he asked what was wrong with me. I told him nothing. He said you are bleeding from your nose. I felt my nose, and sure enough I was bleeding; not only that I was also spitting up blood. He went on to ask me if I had been shot. I told him no. Then he pinned a Purple Heart on me.

When I arrived in Yokohama, I was still bleeding—like a stuck pig. They immediately took me into the emergency room, where a captain—I believe—told me they were going to do exploratory surgery on me to find the source of the bleeding. They cut me from my neck to my waist; my spleen had been split in two. After surgery they left me open, and packed my chest cavity with ice. They kept the incision closed with something to see if it would stay closed during the night. The following morning, seeing that the wound stayed closed they went ahead and sewed me up.

Apparently, I had damaged my spleen when I was slammed against the truck from the concussion grenade. Since it was so cold up north, it apparently kept me from bleeding. It was a miracle I hadn’t bled to death.

There was a new Ensign at the hospital that had experience in treating frostbite. He told me I could immediately return to the States, where they would amputate my hand; or, I could stay with him another six months and he could possibly save my hand. Needless to say, I wanted to get home, but I also wanted to save my hand. So, I stayed.

After being here three-or-four days, I began to go around the hospital trying to find out how many from my squad were still left. And who did I find? Our lieutenant who we thought was dead. He had been shot and was unconscious—he was doing fine.

To save my hand, they sprayed it daily with a yellow substance—like iodine—and took long syringes to remove fluid. They also gave me three daily shots of penicillin. After a period of time I became allergic to the type of penicillin they were giving me, so they had to switch to another type—this worked fine.

If my recollection serves me, I was there about two months. Then we were told, because of the large numbers of severely wounded Marines and soldiers, they needed our beds. So, the walking wounded would be transferred, by train, to the naval hospital in Kobe, Japan.

When I arrived in Kobe, my hand still had no flesh on it; it was just skin and bone. I had very little movement in the joints. However, it wasn’t long before movement started to come back; my index finger is still stiff to this day. I had been there six months when they told me I was going home. I was taken by a truck down to a harbor where lighter ships—like destroyers—could come in. Here I was told that I would be going home on one of the destroyers. When I boarded, I heard someone say, “Hey, Bob Grass.” I turned around and there stood a member of my Sunday School Class back in Evansville—he was a Chief. He told me that I wouldn’t be bunking with the other guys; he had a special place for me—a folding bed in his cabin. And boy, did I eat well during our voyage home.

When I arrived in San Francisco, I was given new clothes. I was here for three days when I was given a thirty day furlough. I rode a train to St. Louis, and then finished my journey to Evansville via Greyhound Bus. While I was away, Vernie and our two children stayed with my parents in Troy, Indiana, which was about another forty-five miles. It was late at night and I started to hitchhike to Troy. No one was stopping to pick me up; however, a gentleman did stop and took me home with him for the night. The following morning his wife fixed me one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had. He then took me to the nearest bus stop.

I caught a bus the rest of the way; finally, I was home.

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