~~Four~~

Joseph Marlett

27th Infantry Regiment

25th Infantry Division

U.S. Army

With my mother signing for me, I enlisted in the U.S. Army on February 17, 1948—ten days after my seventeenth birthday.

My unit, B Company, 27th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, landed at the port of Pusan, South Korea on July 10, 1950. Our hasty deployment from Japan to South Korea, on a World War II type, rusty Japanese transport ship, took about forty-eight hours. We fought our first daylong battle against the NKPA on the 24th of July.

In the first few weeks of combat, three U.S. infantry divisions—the 24th, 25th, and the 1st Cavalry—previously stationed in Japan were fighting eight well trained North Korean divisions. We were fighting delaying actions, and giving up ground, while more units were arriving in Pusan.

In our zone of western South Korea, the 25th and 1st Cavalry were mainly blocking the main roads to Pusan. As we tried to slow the advancement of the well disciplined NKPA, we had no solid line of defense. As the enemy continued their southward trek, the 27th Regiment was attacked and overrun almost on a daily basis—especially during July and August. During this period, my platoon had been reduced in strength from forty-eight to fourteen; they had been killed or wounded.

By the middle of August, I believe a verbal order from our regimental commander, Lt. Colonel John Michaelis, was issued for all companies to secretly check every man’s rifle to see if it had been fired, and if not—why. Immediately following the next enemy attack, we platoon leaders conducted the secret check; I found three men that had not fired a shot. When asked why, they replied that due to their religious beliefs they could not kill another human being. These men had trained with us for two years in Japan; these men were not cowards.

We reprimanded them, threatened them with court-martial, etc., and waited until the next inspection. During the second inspection, it was found that the same three men had fired all their ammunition. When I asked them if they had wounded or killed an enemy soldier, they replied, “No. We missed on purpose.” Since these were honorable soldiers, and truthful, one of them was assigned as our supply truck driver and the other two were assigned as ammo bearers for our 60mm mortar section; no punishment was administered. Our other three platoons reported similar results. We interviewed all incoming replacements before assigning them to a squad.

By the end of September, the U.S. led Eighth Army and its allies had defeated the NKPA and restored South Korea. The men began to wonder when the ships were coming to take us home for Christmas; it was not to be. Complying with orders from MacArthur, we crossed the 38th parallel with the mission of unifying all of Korea under the government of South Korea’s Syngman Rhee.

We crossed the 38th parallel in early October and marched approximately 125 miles north with little or no enemy resistance. By the end of the month, many of the units of the Eighth Army were north of the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. The 27th had reached an area north of the Kuryong River near the North Korean town of Yongbyon.

We advanced farther northwest when we heard rumors that other units were engaged in heavy combat. While other units had reached the Manchurian border, we were about thirty-five miles from the Yalu River.

Unbeknownst to our intelligence, China’s Chairman Mao Zedong and his generals had already decided to intervene and help North Korea. They had already deployed 170,000 troops, south of the border, in the mountains of North Korea, with another 120,000 in reserve.

Around the middle of November, the Chinese Peoples Army (volunteers) struck us with a vengeance and drove the Eighth Army back about 150 miles; and eventually back into South Korea. By this time the weather had turned bitterly cold with the wind-chill reaching forty-to-fifty degrees below zero.

When we left Japan, in July, we were issued a wool olive drab Army overcoat, but we discarded them because they were too heavy and bulky to fight in. By Thanksgiving we had been issued the Army trench coat with removable liner; they were a great improvement. We were also issued goose down winter, or arctic, sleeping bags. They were the very best—I still have one. After another unit was bayoneted to death while trying to unzip their sleeping bags, we removed all our zippers.

Our long retreat ended about thirty miles south of Seoul around the 15th of January, 1951. American Army units decided to defend the South Korean capital and slow the enemy at the Han River, which was about 200 yards wide and frozen over.

Rumors were running rampant: the 8th Cavalry Regiment being almost annihilated at Unsan, North Korea: the 2nd Infantry Division had been caught in a huge Chinese ambush: the First Marine Division were fighting for their lives on the east coast near the city of Hungnam, North Korea. These turned out, not to be rumors. Our 27th Infantry Regiment had not yet been engaged by the CCF.

When General Walton Walker, commander of the Eighth Army, ordered a hasty withdrawal, our regiment started marching south in the snow—fighting our first battle with the “Chinks” in the western outskirts of Seoul. This four hour battle was by no means our toughest battle, but our first with the CCF. Company B—my company—was acting alone when what appeared to have been a Chinese battalion attacked us. Our 1st Battalion had already split up and each company was defending a possible enemy approach into the city.

In September of 1950, when Seoul had been captured by American troops, all the bridges spanning the 200 yard wide Han River had been destroyed. None of these had been repaired or rebuilt. So, the 65th Engineer BN had to construct a pontoon bridge across the Han in order for our men and vehicles to cross to the south. After everyone and all equipment had crossed, the engineers were to salvage the bridge. Once the pontoon had been removed, the Chinese would be on the north side while we wore out leather going south.

Our 3rd Battalion set up a perimeter just north of the pontoon bridge to provide safe passage for all the other units crossing the river. Although the river was frozen enough for men to walk across, it was unsafe for heavy equipment.

Around midnight on January 3, 1951, Company B was deployed in a defensive line along the western berm of a railroad. By 0400 hours we had dug in and our CO, Captain Gordon Jung, placed four tanks on the rear slope of the railroad, and one blocking the underpass. We were ready to meet the enemy—for the first time.

Every man was apprehensive about facing the Chinese; we had long ago made a pact to die fighting instead of surrendering. Sometimes surrendering to the NKPA was worse than dying. One of my best friends was found tied to a tree, with commo wire, and had about thirty bayonet puncture wounds to his body. We believed the Chinese would treat us the same way. About six inches of snow had covered the ground, and was still falling. Roughly seventy-five yards behind us was a row of houses with what appeared to be a harvested sweet potato field between us and the houses.

At 0730 on the fourth, about two-hundred Korean refugees were seen walking down the road towards us, some three-hundred yards away. As they drew nearer, we could see women carrying children, old men carrying their belongings on A-frame packs, old women pushing hand carts, and ox carts loaded with bundles, and a few dogs. Captain Jung ordered our second platoon leader not to allow them to come any closer than one-hundred yards to our position—by firing his machine gun over their heads. The captain wanted to prevent any civilians from getting caught in the crossfire.

Once the machine gun opened fire, the refugees panicked. Some just milled around for a few moments, but finally the majority of them ran back in the direction they came from. Lo and behold, at the sound of our gunfire a nice military formation developed on each side of the road; men threw off what appeared to be white ponchos, took cover behind some burial mounds, and opened fire on us. There were about thirty soldiers firing at us with rifles only and we suspected they must have been an advance guard of the Chinese Army.

An hour later, roughly forty Chinese soldiers joined the small arms fire with their comrades. We held off this group, inflicting heavy casualties on them. We could see their medics, or other soldiers, carrying their wounded to the rear. The Chinese employed women soldiers as medics or laborers.

At 0900 we were receiving reports that long lines of enemy soldiers had been spotted running across the railroad tracks some three-hundred yards away. They were headed for the row of houses behind us. As they disappeared into the houses, they soon started firing from windows, and doorways, at our rear. Captain Jung called our regimental commander, Col. Michaelis, who was located on the south side of the river. He requested permission for us to withdraw; permission was denied. The colonel, who was an experienced World War II veteran and a fine leader, informed the captain there were still a lot of soldiers, and equipment, that had yet to cross the pontoon. We had to hold the enemy a bit longer.

Captain Jung, at 1030, would again call the colonel asking for permission to fight our way out of the tightening circle of the enemy. He went on to inform the colonel that he feared losing many of his men, and that the enemy strength was increasing every minute. Again permission was denied. We were running low on ammo, and some of the men began to think that our senior commanders were sacrificing us for the benefit of the larger units coming south. As a nineteen-year-old first lieutenant, from Warm Springs, Arkansas, I thought this may be my last day on earth.

As we continued to hold our line along the railroad berm, Captain Jung sent a runner to tell all his platoon leaders to meet with him at his CP, which was located behind a hut with a mud thatched roof. Since I was located about seventy-five yards from his CP, I was the first to arrive. When I turned the corner of the hut, he was down on one knee—praying. Seeing me, he stood up. By this time the other officers were beginning to arrive.

Here he informed us of what the plan would be when the word for us to breakout would come. The four tanks would lead slightly ahead of the company, closely followed by each platoon—in line. As we moved out we were to assault the line of houses, turn right on the street that ran behind the houses, and quickly get out of range of the enemies small arms fire. We were to put our dead and wounded on the tanks; the wounded were to ride while holding the dead.

Finally, at 1145, word came to breakout. In the meantime, the Chinese had raised a flag on a makeshift flagpole, on one of the buildings about one-hundred yards behind us. The captain asked one of the tank commanders if he could shoot the flag down. The sergeant replied, “Yes, sir!” He had his gunner zero in on the flagpole—BOOM! The first round missed. However, not only did the second round break the flagpole, but also put a huge gaping hole in the buildings roof.

It was a do-or-die situation as B Company attacked across the open sweet potato field, firing into the windows and doorways of the houses. About half-way across the field, one of my men fell wounded face down in the snow. My sergeant, M/Sgt. Jerome Sudut, and I rushed to his aid. As we were carrying him to one of the tanks, I looked behind us and saw roughly forty Chinese standing on the railroad firing at us. The “Chinks” had seen us leaving.

Reaching the street behind the houses, we hurried east, in two columns. We then came to a larger street, turned right, passed through the 3rd Battalions perimeter, and finally crossed the pontoon bridge. What a scary day!

Unfortunately, B Company had to leave seven men behind—probably killed in action. Three of our KIA’s were KATUSA or ROK soldiers assigned to our company. During the breakout, one ROK was killed and six wounded, which were put on the tanks. We were lucky to have escaped with such low casualties, but discipline, good leadership, and the strong will to survive really paid off.

Having been slightly wounded by enemy mortar shrapnel, treated for frostbite on my left big toe, and treated for malaria—twice, I rotated home on the 5th of May, 1951.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!