~~Thirty-One~~

Donald Thomas

23rd Infantry Regiment

2nd Infantry Division

U.S. Army

In the summer of 1947, I was living at 274 Elm Street in Atwater, California. Imbued with the patriotism left over from the Second World War, I had a strong feeling about wanting to serve in the U.S. Army. I told the recruiter that I was seventeen and after passing the entrance exam, my parents signed all the appropriate papers. I was in, even though I was actually fifteen years old.

After completing basic training at Fort Ord, California, I applied for training as an ordnance small arms weapons repairman. So, for twelve weeks I attended the Army’s Ordnance School at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. At the end of training I was given a thirty day leave before being shipped to Germany. While I was waiting for a troopship at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, I turned sixteen.

In early summer of 1950, I returned to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds where I was discharged—five days before the start of the Korean War. I returned to California and for six weeks held a couple of uninteresting jobs around Merced, so I re-enlisted. I returned to Fort Ord to wait for assignment; it seemed nearly everyone that was waiting for assignment was being sent to Korea—I would be no exception.

On the 22nd of November, 1950 I arrived at the 2nd Infantry Division Headquarters at Pyongyang, North Korea. When I arrived everyone was saying the war was over. General MacArthur himself was saying that we would be home by Christmas, which sounded great to me. Having spent my first enlistment in Ordnance, repairing firearms, I didn’t figure I would get into the war anyway. However, on the 23th of November my bubble burst. Along with eleven other guys, I was headed to the 23rd Infantry Regiment; apparently they needed “shooters,” not “fixers.”

Three of us had been assigned to K Company, 3rd BN. Riding in an open jeep all day, with the temperature below freezing; we arrived at company headquarters after dark. Here we learned that out of two-hundred men, only ninety-five were left and a couple weeks earlier an entire platoon had been lost. While waiting for replacements, the company was assigned guard duty at Company Headquarters—we three were all they got!

After spending the night in a Korean adobe house, which was being used as Captain Haynes’ Company Headquarters, we were each assigned to different platoons. Around noon everyone was alerted to move up to the front lines and rejoin the regiment.

On the 25th of November, under the cover of darkness, Chinese forces attacked all along the line of the Eighth Army. We loaded onto open trucks on the morning of the twenty-sixth for our journey north to rejoin the regiment. With the temperature below zero and adding in the wind chill from the moving trucks, it must have been fifty degrees below zero. Twenty-four of us sat in the back, on wooden jump seats, jammed together and did our best to wiggle our feet and fingers. We also rubbed our upper legs to keep them from going numb.

As we arrived in the small town of Samin that afternoon, another convoy was on the road headed in our direction. By the markings on their front bumpers they were from the 9th Infantry Regiment, which also belonged to the 2nd Division.

The lead truck had a canvas top over the cargo area and there was a soldier at the front of the bed poking his head our from under the canvas. When he was asked how the 9th was doing, he said nothing. However, he clinched his fist and with only his thumb sticking up, he motioned in the direction of the rear of the truck. This made no sense until his convoy started moving, and we could see in the truck.

The truck bed was piled to the top of the bows with uncovered bodies—each lying on a litter. The next six trucks, in the convoy, were identical. I had never witnessed anything like that in my entire life; I began to feel sick. A knot rose up in my throat; tears rolled up in my eyes; and I found it hard to breathe. Up to this point, we had been talking and joking—not now. Silence came over us for a long time.

We found out later that these casualties were from a battle at a place called “Chinaman’s Hat.”

* * * * * *

On the 29th of November, Colonel Paul Freeman ordered the 23rd north to hold a vital road junction west of the village of Kunu-ri. After marching all day we arrived at the junction. The road ran west to Sinanju and southward to Sunch’on.

As we headed north, we passed vehicles with the markings of the 24th Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division, and a thought came to my mind, “Why in the world were we headed towards the front lines when everyone else was going away from it?” I thought this was a good question. The answer; the 23rd was to hold the road junction so all the other Eighth Army units could pull out.

The 3rd BN immediately set up defensive positions—a mile east of the junction—on a low ridge that looked across five-hundred yards of frozen rice paddies, a small river, and the village of Kunu-ri.

On our left flank was Love Company. The other two battalions set up positions along the west and south sides of the road; thereby forming a three-sided defense line. From the center of the arc, Col. Freeman directed the fight. The regiments mission: to prevent the Chinese from catching up with the 2nd Division as they withdrew south to Sunch’on, and to keep the road to Sinanju open for our escape route.

By this time the temperature was dipping around twenty degrees below zero. In our five-man squad, I was the odd man out and had to dig a foxhole by myself. Chipping away at the frozen ground trying to dig the standard knee-deep, six feet long, and three feet wide hole was slow going. We had our trenching tools with the shovel-blade locked at a right angle; even in the extreme cold, I sweated.

While we were digging, there were two or three-hundred Chinese soldiers standing around huge bonfires—directly in front of us—on the railroad tracks next to the village. They didn’t know we were digging in, but we could hear them hollering, blowing their bugles, and beating their pans. However, around midnight they returned to the village and we kept on digging until just before daylight. At dawn we stopped all activity and every eye, and ear, was pointed in the direction of the village. Just before full light they appeared—Chinese soldiers walking single file, about fifteen feet apart—in an unending line.

As they crossed the bridge to our side of the river they turned in our direction, passing five-hundred yards in front of us. They were on their way to cut off the Sinanju Road. Sergeant “George” Chamberlain, our first platoon sergeant, quietly passed the word down the line for us to hold our fire until Love Company’s machine guns opened fire. When they did, all hell broke loose. Every weapon, up and down the line, opened up. It was like a shooting gallery at a local carnival; many Chinese soldiers hit the ground—never to get up.

By mid-morning, a pair of B-26 Bombers from the Air Force came on the scene and worked over the village; the column of Chinese soldiers having already been destroyed, the road going to the west was still open. Shortly afterwards, some P-80 Shooting Star Fighters joined in the fight. Several Chinese had taken refuge underneath the bridge they had previously crossed, and with a ringside seat, we watched as the bridge was cleaned out after each plane made two runs apiece.

Before noon Major General Laurence Keiser, Commander of the 2nd Division, made a fatal decision; the division would move south on the Sunch’on Road.

At dusk, word was passed down the line to prepare for withdrawal. After dark, a few men at a time—from each platoon—quietly slipped off the ridge into the draw behind their position. Then we walked a mile back to where the men of the 15th FA had been patiently waiting. By this time they had already fired all their ammo, and destroyed all their guns.

The 30th of November was a costly day for the 2nd Division, as we ran through “The Gauntlet” and “The Pass.” The division lost four-thousand men killed, wounded, or captured, as we made our way through that seven-mile deep roadblock—it was a nightmare.

As I look back through the “fog of time,” the 23rd was sacrificed to save the division.

* * * * * *

We passed through Wonju as we traveled north of Hoensong. Arriving at an open field located next to the road; the field sloped upwards to a line of trees. Since we were a few miles behind the front line, we only set out a couple of guards. Not having any rice straw to lay on the four inches of snow, I trampled the snow down then laid some freshly cut pine branches down for my bed. Crawling into my mountain bag, with only my boots off, I warmed up and went to sleep.

Someone yelled, “Wake up, you guys.” I got out of my bag and sat on it to put on my shoe-pacs. However, with the minus twenty degrees, the laces were as stiff as bailing wire. Finally, ten minutes later, I was able to get them on. There was a bonfire down the hill where the platoon had gathered some C-rations. After getting some hot coffee going, I grabbed some rations and heated up a can of something. We were told that we would be marching seven miles further north to engage an enemy roadblock that had another unit trapped. Additionally, they told us to leave our mountain bags and ponchos behind; we could only take one can of rations, as we would be traveling light—I kept a can of cherries.

The three other companies of our battalion were there, and our squad was picked to be the connecting link with the company in front of us. Our job was to spread out, about two-to-three-hundred yards apart, on the road and relay any signals back to the company. The signal I saw was a soldier coming down the road with his rifle raised horizontally over his head, which meant “enemy sighted.” As we neared the roadblock, around 4:30 PM, we could hear small arms fire coming from the hills on both sides of the road. We were directed to move along a low ridge line that ran along the left side of the road.

Our squad was either the second or third one up the hill. We were wearing our new white and green reversible parka covers. The white blended in real well with the four inches of snow. There was a ridge about two-hundred yards to our left, from which we were receiving a lot of rifle and machine gun fire. As we deployed to return fire, Sgt. Handcock, our squad leader, attempted to get a better look at the other ridge. He was hit in the neck, and mortally wounded. I had been moved over to assistant BAR man a few days earlier, and I was following Dunbar—the BAR man. As he was setting up to fire on the other ridge, he was hit. Our medic, Vernon (Doc) White, checked him out and he had been creased in the cheek and shoulder. So, I crawled up to take over the BAR, and as I was looking for a target, the next thing I remember I was setting behind the BAR—with my back to it—several feet down a slope. A bullet had hit me in the left shoulder, spinning me around and knocking me backwards. I had no feeling in my arm, but I wasn’t bleeding. Doc was busy with other wounded, so another guy in the squad looked at it and told me to get to the aid station.

While waiting my turn at the aid station, I was hungry so I ate my can of cherries. When my turn came, the medic cut through all seven layers of my clothes; beginning above my left pocket, continuing over my shoulder, and ending a foot or so down the backside. Upon examining my wound, he said the bullet entered the back of my shoulder, near the joint, skidded across the shoulder-blade, and came out; he then applied a dressing. By now the feeling was coming back in my arm.

After we had enough to fill a jeep, we headed to the battalion aid station that was a few miles to the rear. As we headed down the road the part of my clothing that the medic had cut open kept flapping, exposing my bare skin to the cold and snow—I sure wished I had a blanket.

When we arrived, I learned that Bohn and Yarbrow had been killed; they were in a different platoon. Later, I learned that Sgt. Garcia’s leg had been broken by a bullet and he was somewhere in the building. I found him. I stayed and talked with him until the medics ran off all visitors. I spent the night sleeping on a litter.

After going through the regimental clearing station, division collecting station, and a M.A.S.H. unit, I ended up in a Swedish Hospital in Pusan. I had hot chow and showers, a cot with a mattress, a pillow and blankets; the next three months were the best ones I had while in Korea.

* * * * * *

On the night of May 16, 1951, the Chinese launched an attack against the ROK’s 5th and 7th Division’s, which were on the 2nd Division’s right flank.

A common tactic of the Chinese was to break through your lines and swing in behind you, cutting off your supply and escape route. This is the tactic that was used against the 8th Cavalry Regiment, at Unsan, North Korea—in October of 1950—and to the 2nd Division, in November, at Kunu-ri.

The road above Hangye was blocked behind the 23rd Regiment and Colonel John (Jack) Chiles, who had taken over from Freeman after the battle at Chipyong-ni at the end of February; hit the roadblock with infantry and tanks. Having killed some three-hundred enemy soldiers, the roadblock still held. It looked like the only way out was to go over the hills—by foot. To save the two-hundred plus vehicles, Chiles was going to have them run the roadblock. With only a driver per each vehicle, they were to be escorted by tanks. Unfortunately, the lead tanks damaged a bridge, and hit some mines—the plan failed. So, the drivers had to join the rest of the 23rd for a hike over the hills.

The morning after the ROK unit had left our right flank, K Company was moving along a ridge line. Our platoon moved off the ridge proceeding along a dry riverbed, to extend the battalions right flank. Less than an hour later, we were ordered back to the ridge.

Finally, towards the middle of the day, we began to pull out. As we headed for the tree line, we passed through a dozen or so wounded that were being carried on litters by South Korean supply packers; there were even some walking wounded. As our column strung out along the trail, the wounded were nearly a mile behind.

A light rain began to fall, and it continued all day. After a couple of hours, my canteen became dry and several times during our hike we stepped over small streams of rainwater that were running off the rice terraces and hills above us. With my thirst getting the best of me, I took off my helmet and quickly dipped it in one of the streams as I stepped across. I wasn’t the only one doing this and knowing what the Koreans used for fertilizer—we drank it anyway.

At times I was able to see the end of the column, and the wounded bringing up the rear. We reached a steep pass on the trail and I stepped out of the column to take a break, and to look back at the valley we just left. As soon as the wounded cleared the woods, the shooting began. The Chinese had finally caught up with us. The litter bearers and the walking wounded, were attacked and began tumbling down the hill. Suddenly, an officer pulled out some machine gunners, and mortar men to set up a defensive line. He told the rest of us to keep on going—back in line I went.

We were passing through a narrow gorge, around 11:00 PM, when we heard someone from the ridge line yell, “Who in the hell is down there?” Many of the guys yelled back, “King Company, 23rd!” We had reached a defensive line set up by the 38th Infantry Regiment—from the 2nd Division. Boy was we relieved. Over hills and through valleys, we hiked fifteen-to-twenty miles.

We came to a clearing where a dozen tanks were parked, lined up for battle. All of our squads paired up with a tank, digging in on the left, right, and behind our tank. The tankers told us to get some sleep as they took guard duty. Being wet from head-to-toe, as well as my wool blanket, I took an empty ration case, opened it on and laid it on the muddy ground. Wrapping up in our wet blankets, my buddy and I laid on the dry cardboard and went to sleep; by morning we were 90 percent dry.

In all this, I never fired a shot. Wars are like that—unpredictable.

* * * * * *

It was the 15th of July 1951 when the 3rd BN, along with the French Battalion moved up replacing the 5th Marine Regiment that was dug in on the “Kansas Line.” This was located on the southern rim of the Punchbowl, which was a large circular hill that had a depression ten-or-fifteen miles across.

The Marines had been there long enough to build bunkers with log and sandbag roofs; as well as stringing a barbed wire fence rigged with trip flares, down the front slope. Our bunker was not deep enough to stand up in, so Richard and I dug down two more feet. Behind us, about fifty feet down the slope, was a spring; we had all the water we needed.

One night, word was sent around that at 10:00 PM some B-29’s would be coming over the valley on a bombing mission, and we were to keep our heads down. When the time arrived we could hear them coming toward us from the other end of the Punchbowl. After the last bomb hit several hundred yards down the slope, I was still hunkered down in my bunker—just in case there were more. Sure enough, another one hit about forty feet away. The explosion splintered the rock into hundreds of projectiles, which flew in our direction. The third bunker, to our left, collapsed and injured one of the guys. The flying pieces of rock also set off the trip flares, and some of the guys started firing down the hill.

Several patrols were sent down into the valley, and one from Able Company ran into some mines—wounding their medic and several others. The wounded were evacuated by small, two-litter helicopters.

There was one day on the rim of the Punchbowl that was better than any other day—the day I was told I was going home. I traded my well maintained rifle to another squad member for his rusty one: I gave away my blanket: I gave away two cans of pork-and-beans that I had hoarded. Then after the hand shakes, and “have a good trip home” from the guys, down the hill I went—to start processing for my journey home.

When I arrived I was informed that ten days earlier I had been promoted to Sergeant First Class and that I wouldn’t be able to leave until the river receded. The level of the river had raised from the monsoon rains, to the point that a two-and-a-half ton truck wasn’t able to cross. So, back up the hill I went and I was able to get my rifle and blanket back. However, the beans were already gone. For the next three nights I wasn’t able to get much sleep. Finally, word came for three of us to come down, and go home.

Those of us going home gathered in the company area where we traded in our steel helmets for the “badge” of rotation—a fatigue cap. We loaded onto the truck, and as it began to lurch down the road I glanced up the hill realizing I would never see those guys again. These were men that I had lived with through hardships and danger. That brought sadness to the joy of my going home. Many of them never returned home, because during the months of September and October they would be killed at a place called Heartbreak Hill.

We arrived at the division’s rotation center which had tents with canvas cots and hot chow. We stayed there until they had a large enough group for a train, which was about three or four days.

They took us to the train station for our overnight trip to the Pusan rotation center. The cars were equipped with bunks—sort of. They were wooden shelves, four high, on each side of the car. They were just shelves! No mattresses; no blanket; no pillow. However, the most important thing was no one was shooting at us.

Arriving in Pusan, we turned in our rifles, ammunition, and all other field equipment. Needless to say, I was embarrassed to turn in that rusty, clunker of a rifle that I had traded for. After staying there a day, we took a ferry to Sasebo Navy Base in Japan. Here we were told our ship would be ready in two or three days. However, it was day seven and we were still there. Even though we had no passes, some of us decided to sneak off base—after dark—and see the town. We had walked over a footbridge at the rear of the base, when we encountered a barbed wire barrier, which was no match for ex-combat soldiers. Slipping through the wire, we hadn’t much more than hit the dirt on the other side when we were surrounded, and captured, by M.P.’s. They took us back to the centers commander for proper punishment—latrine duty. Luckily, we only had to do this for one day because our ship was ready the next day.

With a one-day layover because of water in the Aleutians, our voyage to Washington took fifteen days. On the 22nd of August 1951, we arrived at the Port of Seattle. As we moved toward the dock, several harbor fireboat’s were pumping streams of water high in the air and one of the boats was blaring Frankie Lanes “Mule Train” over its load speaker.

As we disembarked, there was a young lady waiting at the bottom of the gangplank. She said, “Welcome home, soldier,” to each of us as we walked off. As we loaded onto buses, the Red Cross was pushing coffee and donuts through the windows to us. With a motorcycle escort, we headed for a ticker-tape parade in downtown Seattle.

We were home at last![6]

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