~~Thirty-Two~~

John “Rick” Kennedy

5th Marine Regiment

1st Marine Division

U.S. Marine Corps

During the Second World War, students at St. Xavier High School in Louisville, Kentucky frequently worked in defense plants during summer break and after school during the regular semesters. In my junior year, I worked at Jeffersonville Boat and Machinery, building the LST. In my senior year, I was a clerk for the Pennsylvania Railroad after classes. Upon graduation in June of 1945, I immediately enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps—at the age of seventeen. The strict discipline at St. Xavier allowed me to breeze through Parris Island.

After Parris Island, I attended the Naval Academy Prep School in the old remains of Tome University in Bainbridge, Maryland. It was like a highly regimented high school, with the same discipline as Annapolis. Here our main objective was to study for the entrance exam into the U.S. Naval Academy. The school population consisted of two-hundred sailors and fifty Marines. Many of the Marines were veterans of the Pacific Theater, but some were just like me—fresh out of boot camp. Guys like Private Gordon Cooper, who later became a Mercury Seven astronaut, and Private Hugh Krampe, who later became the actor Hugh O’Brian were there as well. Soon the atmosphere at Bainbridge became boring, so half of our group—including myself—left and was put on active Marine Corps assignment.

I was assigned to the Washington Navy Yard located on the Anacostia River at 8th and M Streets, where I was assigned to a special guard detachment. My duties included chasing prisoners, acting as a guard while the Secret Service handled the melting down of obsolete currency plates and U.S. Saving Bonds at the foundry, I stood guard on Pier One while President Truman was aboard his yacht—the Williamsburg. At 6:00 AM one morning, I saluted the President as he walked with two Secret Service men past my post, on his way to get a paper at the front gate. He stopped and told me that he had the Marines, Army, and Navy here today, and everything was in good hands. I saluted and said, “Yes sir, Mr. President.”

After several other assignments, my first Marine Corps experience came to an end and at Quantico I was given an honorable discharge. I then enrolled in school at Indiana University.

In 1950 I attended summer school at the I.U. extension in Jeffersonville, then one day in July—after class—I joined some friends at the Brown Derby bar. Like me, they too had served in the military after World War II. On the television was the news showing the Marines landing in Korea. I told my friends that the war would be over in two weeks. They told me if I thought so much of the Marines that I should go give them a hand. So, the next day I joined a Marine Reserve unit in Louisville; two weeks later I was headed to Camp Pendleton by train for advanced combat training.

* * * * * *

Early in November, with roughly fifteen-hundred Marines and a small group of Navy personnel, I boarded the SS General Collins. As the lights along the California coastline disappeared into the night, the ships sound system played “Harbor Lights.” Talk about a haunting feeling.

We were put in troop quarters with bunks stacked five-to-six high. Our first night at sea felt like we had run into a typhoon. The ship rose out of the water and the rudder made a terrible noise. Many of the Marines became seasick with no other choice but to vomit on the Marines in the bunks below—it wasn’t a pretty sight. Needless to say, I thought the ship was going to sink. The following day, the sky was blue and the sea calm. Apparently, no one had bothered to tell us about the ocean swells off the coast of California.

As we approached the coast of Japan, we were met by a harbor pilot in a tugboat who led us into the harbor of Kure, Japan. We dropped off some equipment then set sail for Yokohama, where the sailors disembarked. Finally, we reached our destination—Kobe, Japan. After disembarking and storing our sea-bags in a big warehouse, we boarded a train bound for Otsu. Here we were indoctrinated about our future in Korea, along with gathering our winter gear.

At Otsu we stayed in barracks that were used to house Kamikaze pilots during their final phase of training. Before leaving, I was assigned to the 5th Marine Regiment.

In early December we again boarded the General Collins, this time headed for Pusan, Korea. It was late afternoon when we arrived and a band, was playing, “If I knew you were coming, I would have baked a cake.” This gave me a sick feeling.

We loaded into boxcars on a slow moving freight train headed for Masan. Before boarding we were given a clip of ammunition, and along the way a Marine fired a round that seemed to have ricocheted throughout the car. Lucky for us, only Private First Class Marines were aboard and because of the train noise no one else heard the shot.

After arriving at Masan, and setting up camp, I was assigned to Charlie Company, 1st BN. Here we waited for the arrival of those men who had spent some thirty days in hell; those men who had been surrounded by over 100,000 Chinese soldiers at the Chosin Reservoir. When they arrived, those young men with their beards looked old and haggard. Their uniforms were torn and spoiled like the homeless on Chicago’s Clark Street. Soon, Masan became a city of tents.

We shipped out of Masan aboard an LST with a base plate marker 104 that was built at the Jeffersonville Boat and Machinery Company; this was one of the LST’s that I helped build during the summer of 1944. Since I knew every hold in the ship, I led some of the second platoon to more comfortable places to bunk. After two days at sea, we landed at the Port of Phohang.

On the January 29, 1951, we proceeded from Topyong-dong on an all night forced march to the village of Chachon-dong. We left Topyong-dong after sundown in a staggered formation. Our formation was led by Captain Jack R. Jones, our company commander. During the march, the rear of our two-hundred man formation had to double time it in order to keep up the pace with the captain’s vigorous stride.

My duty during this mission was as runner for the second platoon, so I was in the middle of this long column—working under Gunnery Sergeant Owens. He was a veteran of World War II, the Inchon Invasion, and the Chosin Reservoir; Gunny was an old man among boys.

About four hours into our march that included a periodic five minute break every hour or so, it became evident that my training at Parris Island and Camp Pendleton was child’s play compared to this. As we continued on, the straps from my field pack and rifle sling were causing pain that was almost unbearable. However, my problems were nothing compared to those guys carrying the BAR’s, and machine guns. My legs felt weak from all the weight, and walking in those shoe pacs was awkward and clumsy; it was like I walking in a sea of glue.

We arrived at Chachon-dong just before sun-up. Upon our arrival, we headed for the police station which was a large building that had a watch tower on the roof. Immediately, our executive officer, First Lieutenant Schening, developed a perimeter around the village. We were placed in civilian homes, so we wouldn’t be noticed.

In my group, which consisted of the platoon runners, were Bill Boyle and Marvin Wright. Besides us three, were Whit Moreland who was our scout and map reader. Plus, we had a Marine correspondent who carried a portable Remington typewriter; and of course, Gunny. We stayed in what they said was the mayor’s house. The first few days were pretty much uneventful.

It was around 4:30 AM on a Friday, when I was awakened by what sounded like my mother popping popcorn for my little sisters. Instead it was the sound of a light machine gun—we all hit the deck. Quickly, we put on our boots, parkas, grabbed our rifles, and headed to the police station which was our command post. As soon as we arrived, Gunny ordered me to climb to the tower on the roof. I had this sick feeling that my first combat mission could very well be my last. As I proceeded to climb to the roof through a trap door, Gunny rescinded the order—much to my relief. Apparently, one of Dick Holbrook’s machine gunners had chased the enemy away, and the shooting stopped.

We didn’t destroy the enemy, but our presence stopped the destruction of this small village and the death of innocent civilians.

The following day the people returned from the hills and set up a market on the outskirts of town. They sold small trinkets, as well as prepared food dishes. I remember seeing a mallard duck and a squid hanging from a line on display. The scene was business as usual—as if the war didn’t exist. We left the next day.

* * * * * *

Early in February of 1951, we moved north, by truck, to Chungju where we were to be the lead company for Operation Killer. On the 21st of February, we assembled near General MacArthur who was seated in his jeep. Using a jeep as an altar, the Navy Chaplain was saying Mass. When he finished, he passed out rosaries to all those in attendance—even those of non-Catholic faiths. It was evident to me; there were no atheists in Charlie Company.

* * * * * *

It was now late March, or early April, and the front line across Korea was not well defined, because of a strong enemy offensive after our success in Operation Killer. The exact location of enemy positions was unknown. So, Charlie Company was called upon to advance through the front line of the First Marine Division in hopes of locating advancing units of the Chinese and North Korean Armies.

We moved quickly along the Korean countryside, only stopping periodically—for five minute breaks. Our flanks were rolling hills, so our fire teams covered the high ground to prevent ambushes. This was a grueling march, however after climbing hills all winter long our Marines were in top shape. Lucky for us, this march was not as torturous as the one to Chachon-dong. We Marines of Charlie Company said we would “go to hell and back” for our company commander Captain Jack Jones; and I thought he was taking us up on our word when he volunteered us for this dangerous mission.

Finally, after dusk, we reached our destination—a hill about six-hundred feet in elevation. It seemed to be sitting in a valley all by itself. With good visibility on all sides; we quickly dug our foxholes.

After taking watch during the night, I remember waking up the first morning. It was springlike with small, green sprouts of fern growing close to my foxhole. It was sunny and clear; we could see for miles, but there was no sign of the enemy. Each day we sent out patrols, but there was no contact with the enemy. I recall on the third day one of our platoon sergeants placed a bright, colored banner in the center of the valley so a plane could make a food and ammunition drop. If the enemy didn’t know our whereabouts before—they did now.

The following day I was sent to get some water. I tied nine canteens to a tree branch and went to a stream at the bottom of the hill. Kneeling along the bank, with my M-1 across my knee, suddenly, a beautiful young Korean lady—accompanied by an old Papa-San—appeared. As I filled the canteens they watched me, and I never took my eyes off them.

On day four we were to move out, so we leveled our foxholes and buried all our debris; this way no one could tell we had been there. So, without loss of life, we returned, but it did prepare us for more perilous things to come.

* * * * * *

It was the 23rd of May when Charlie Company walked “through the valley of the shadow of death.” On the twenty-second we were dug in on the front line, and to our east we could hear the sound of machine gun fire; on the west side we heard the explosion of artillery. Our front was silent.

Later that night, word came down for us to move out. My squad leader, Paul Embrey, told us that “all hell has broken loose.” Apparently, somewhere in our front line a hole had developed and we were ordered to fill it. After being relieved by another Marine company, we marched down the hill, boarded waiting trucks, and traveled west throughout the night reaching our destination near sundown.

After dismounting the trucks, we began our march up the valley in a staggered column. We came upon a cluster of unoccupied heavy equipment, and in the background we could hear the buzzing sound of swarming green flies—it was deafening. They were hovering over clusters of dead soldiers lying throughout the grassy field. We continued on; there were more dead soldiers. Soldiers with the Indian Head patch, with the inscription “2nd to None” embroidered on their jackets. [One of these soldiers lying in “the valley of the shadow of death” could have been Ernest Everett Edge.]. We came to a squad tent that was filled with dead Army officers, one of which was wearing the gold leave cluster of a major; it was obvious this was the CP. To the rear was a mess tent, which had a few eating stands built among the trees. One of these stands had a staff sergeant standing alone, resting his canteen cup on a board that was nailed to the tree. My first thought was he had been caught by surprise during his morning coffee. However, after further inspection, I believe it was an enemy prank to demoralize the approaching Marines.

As I noticed a red-headed soldier, lying in a shallow parapet, his new size 11D combat boots caught my eyes, because my boondocks had large holes in their soles. I made the trade and wore his combat boots throughout my tour of Korea. I wasn’t happy about taking boots from a dead soldier, but I still had more hills to climb—he did not.

Before dusk we reached the crest of the hill that I would guess to have been about seven-hundred feet in elevation. Even though the terrain was very rugged, Charlie Company made a perimeter with deep foxholes. Since the valley in front of us was as flat as an Indiana cornfield, we could see for miles.

As we were making our way down, I lost my footing and my helmet tumbled down into a deep, narrow ravine. I could have located another helmet, but inside mine was a tattered photo of my youngest sister, Nancy. She was dressed in her ballet costume, and I carried it as a good luck piece. She almost died from an appendix infection, but with many prayers said by our mother, she miraculously recovered. With some risk, I retrieved my only object from home. As we reached the bottom, we saw a Chinese truck in the distance headed north. We dirty-faced, young Marines had just seen over two-hundred dead soldiers, and our summer of fighting was about to begin.

* * * * * *

In June of 1951 during a battle in the Punchbowl Charlie Company again proved to be a formidable force. The first platoon, under the leadership of Pete McCloskey, and the second platoon, under the leadership of Chuck Daly, led a John Wayne type charge against highly fortified enemy positions, with only minimum casualties. Falling on a grenade to save the lives of other Marines on Hill 610, my good friend Whit Moreland received the Medal of Honor.

* * * * * *

Below is an excerpt from a letter I sent home to my parents in August 1951:

Dear Mother and Dad,

We take great pride in being able to live and sleep in a dirt hole, and preparing our individual meals, and being able to survive the coldest of winters or the intense heat of summer...

We are the dirty faced boy Marines of Charlie Company. We carry a full pack with clean rifles, hand grenades attached to our cartridge belts and extra bandoleers of ammunition are criss-crossed around our chests. Many of our shoes have holes in the soles from climbing mountains all year long, and our toe nails are black from the dirt from the mountain terrain...

Love Always

Rick

* * * * * *

In September of 1951, I rotated back to the states.

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