~~Fifty-Two~~

Morton “Pete” Wood, Jr.

5th Cavalry Regiment

1st Cavalry Division

U.S. Army

My first military experience was three years in the Washington D.C. High School Cadet Corps. After graduating from high school, in 1940, I enrolled in Virginia Tech which at that time was a full, twenty-four hour a day military academy.

After finishing my third year, World War II was in full swing, and ROTC Programs across the country were closed. Those of us entering our senior year were sent home to wait for our induction into the Army. Receiving our notice, we then went to basic training, then back to college under the ASTP program. While attending the program, we waited for openings in the Coast Artillery Officer Candidate School. At graduation we were handed our commissions in one hand, and orders for us to report to the infantry in the other.

I was assigned to the 66th Infantry Division and on December 1, 1944 I boarded the troopship USS George Washington, bound for England. On the twelfth, we docked at Southhampton, England.

On Christmas Eve 1944, most of our 262nd and 264th Regiments boarded the Leopoldville, which as an old converted Belgian passenger ship. The compartment for Item Company, 264th Infantry Regiment, which I belonged to, was several decks below the loading deck. To reach our deck, we climbed down a vertical ladder that passed through holes about three feet in diameter at each deck.

Our cabins were nothing fancy, but they were comfortable. There were six of us to a room on two triple-decker bunks; I had one of the top bunks. One of my bunkmates was Lt. Corbie Truman, who we were told was a nephew of Harry S Truman. Some time during the day we had a lifeboat drill. When the alarm sounded, we put on our life-jackets and went on deck to our assigned locations.

I was in my bunk that evening, around 6:00 PM, when the torpedo hit. I was thrown against the ceiling but not hurt. The alarm sounded. This time it was not a drill—it was real!

Making our way to our assigned locations, I stood on deck surrounded by men from the third platoon. From a deck above, someone using a megaphone was informing us that the ship was not sinking and that we would be towed to port. (We later found out that Cherbourg was only a few miles away.) Shortly after the announcement, some of the crew started lowering the lifeboats. Some of the troops, who thought the crew was getting the boats ready for us, began to cheer. The cheering soon stopped when it was realized that the crew themselves were abandoning ship. They had probably gone through other sinkings, so looking back; it is hard to criticize them. However, at that moment our feelings were not too kind.

The ship was beginning to list and rumor was we might have to abandon ship. Whoever was on the megaphone was doing a good job of keeping us calm, and warning us not to leave the ship.

Suddenly, a special thing happened; a soldier started singing “The Star Spangled Banner!” Soon, everyone was singing, whether they knew the words or not. I didn’t, but I could hardly sing anyway because I kept choking up with emotion.

The HMS Brilliant, a British destroyer, pulled up along side of us. The guy with the megaphone said that some troops would be allowed to jump, but only when and where he directed. The sea was still rough as we could see the destroyer bobbing up and down. It wasn’t long before the man on the megaphone pointed down at me and told me to line up my platoon and bring them up to his deck. Not wasting any time, we were in line and heading to the spot where the other men were jumping to the destroyer.

Lt. Ben Thrailkill and Lt. George Washko, friends of mine, were directing the jumping. They judged the movements, both vertical and horizontal, of both ships, gave the signal, and sometimes a shove, to each man when the two decks were close enough for a safe jump.

Even though I twisted an ankle when I landed among some sort of depth-charge device, my jump was fairly easy. The jump was made easier since I had given my life-jacket to another trooper who couldn’t swim; he had left his on his bunker. I was reprimanded for not having mine, but it was too late to do anything about it; nobody was going to go back down to our compartment to look for one.

After jumping, British seamen took us to a cabin—below deck—where they gave us hot drinks and blankets. I was glad to see that most of the third platoon was already there. However, five men didn’t make it. They were presumed drowned when the ship finally sank. My best guess is that they were on KP or latrine duty when we had lifeboat drills, and never knew where our platoon was to meet. Or they could have been away from the platoon when the torpedo hit.

We learned later that the German U-boat U-486 was responsible for torpedoing the Leopoldville. A few months later the U-486 was sunk by the British destroyer, HMS Tapir.

Finally, the Brilliant delivered us to the dock at Cherbourg. Since we were actually bound for LeHavre, France, the authorities at Cherbourg had to receive the survivors. Of the approximately 2100 aboard, about 1300 survived. After taking on new replacements, within a few weeks we were in combat against the Germans.

Just before Christmas 1945, I was able to get a month home leave. Before heading back to Europe, I was able to apply for immediate discharge, which I did. I elected to remain in the reserves and to stay in the infantry, instead of going back to Coast Artillery—this would be a bad choice.

In January of 1951, I was recalled to active duty—as a First Lieutenant. When I received my notice, my minister, boss, mother’s boss, parents doctor, and a neighbor—active duty Major General Parker—all persuaded me to file for a hardship discharge. The reason being was my father’s poor health and mother’s age. All paperwork was forwarded to the Army, which resulted in a weeks delay to reporting for duty while they considered my request. Not hearing anything, I packed my gear and flew to Camp Stoneman, California. As we were boarding a troopship to Japan, I literally had one foot on the gangplank when I received orders from General Parker. I was to report immediately to the 3rd Infantry Regiment, in Fort Myer, Virginia, which was about a ten minute drive from our house.

Not only does the 3rd provide guards for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, they also conduct military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery, march in parades, and other duties. Tall, erect men were the one’s chosen to be guards. At 5’-8”, I was never a guard.

Early in the war, General Walton Walker was killed and his body was brought back for burial at Arlington Cemetery. I was in charge of directing traffic around the approaches and crossroads at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the adjacent amphitheater, where the service was to be held. Those in attendance were to be President Truman, along with a number of military and government dignitaries.

We had two directives: first, be sure the caisson, pulled by white horses and coming across the river from downtown Washington, was not held up by traffic. Secondly, make sure that President Truman’s motorcade, which was to arrive earlier, got through without any delay.

Things were going great until Truman’s motorcade arrived late, and from a different direction. Needless to say, the motorcade and caisson arrived at the amphitheaters crossroad at the same time. Who goes first? Who gets the hatchet if the wrong one has to wait?

I had my number one sergeant located at the key intersections, which was about fifty feet from my position. He waved at me as if he was asking, “Which one?” After freezing for a few seconds, I replied back, “The horses.” So, the caisson, all the attendant vehicles, the slow-step marchers, and drummers all filed by the President’s motorcade. You could tell by the looks in the eyes of the motorcycle policeman—in the motorcade—they didn’t like my decision. However, the ceremony started on time.

After the ceremony ended, and everyone was on their way home, the major in charge sped by my post and gave me what I hoped was a “well done” signal. Or could it have been “I want to see you in my office” signal?

I never heard a word about my decision; however, I couldn’t help but wonder if it had anything to do with me receiving orders shortly afterwards to go to Korea.

In September 1951, I arrived in Korea and was assigned to Company C, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. When I joined Charlie Company, the officers were Captain Shaw, who was in the same outfit as me during World War II. Executive Officer was First Lieutenant Heminger, weapons platoon leader was First Lieutenant Lieb, first platoon leader was Second Lieutenant Cochrane, and I was in charge of the second platoon. Third platoon leader was Second Lieutenant Walsh (or Welsh). Two days later, Capt. Shaw decided he couldn’t do the job and quit; Heminger then took over. On the third day, Lt. Cochrane was killed. Lt. Lieb was killed on the fifth day.

During the early morning on October 1st, we left outpost line “Wyoming,” which was on the northeast side of the Imjin River, to secure a line of hills through which another battalion was to attack the following morning. Charlie Company was the battalion point, and only light resistance was expected. As evening approached, we were within a mile of our objective. At this time my second platoon took over at point; we were now leading the whole battalion. Having good maps and aerial photos, I could see the hill off in the distance.

As we reached the foot of the hill, we fixed bayonets and charged up the hill. When we reached the top we found no enemy, so we started digging in around the perimeter. By this time other platoons should have been on our flanks. So, I decided to send out small patrols to see if they could locate them. They couldn’t. Shortly afterwards, I received a radio message from the Battalion CO. It basically asked if I knew where I was. Apparently, I had gone too far out. I was sure we were at the right place. A messenger from battalion soon appeared and I was to go back and report to the colonel.

Arriving back at battalion, the colonel chewed me out and told me what a dumb-ox I was. Suddenly, an officer from S-2 came running over, waving a map, and told the colonel that the battalion had stopped about a mile short. The colonel looked at me and said, “Get on back to your platoon.” About ninety minutes after I had returned, you could hear the rest of the battalion, cussing and fuming, as they were coming up the hill.

Over the next sixteen days—September 30 through October 15—we were involved in trying to take Hill 346. The hill was located north of Seoul, and east of the Imjin, in the Yonchon-Chorwon region. We watched as the hills wooded ridge turned into a mass of barren rock. Hill 346 later became known as Old Baldy.

On the 6th of October, we launched our first attack against Hill 346. The first to move out was the third platoon, followed by my second. The third was already withdrawing by the time we caught up with them. The Chinese had a line of trenches and dugouts across the face of the hill. From their trench line, they had tunnels that went through the hill to the backside, so they could easily move up men and supplies. There was not enough cover, so we also had to withdraw back to the company lines. The Chinese counterattacked, pushing us back a half mile or so. My platoon sergeant was badly wounded along with a squad leader; several were killed.

Two days later, we tried again. This time we moved out earlier in the day, but first with an intense artillery barrage. There was also to have been air support, which never materialized. Like the first attack, the third platoon led the way, with us following. By this time the first platoon was no longer intact.

Our artillery fire had the Chinese pinned down, so we were able to advance. The third was able to establish a base of fire, in a shallow gully, and we passed through them moving up the steepest part of the hill. As we approached the trenches, the Chinese rolled grenades towards us; they were exploding all around us. I’m sure they didn’t know we were up there, but the earlier air strike that never materialized did.

Our CO immediately issued orders for us to withdraw; we had no other choice. I’m certain we may have left dead and wounded on the hill. There were two guys in my platoon that were to far in front of the rest of us. They never heard us shouting at them to fall back; they just kept on going up the hill. I’ve never been able to find out if they were killed or captured.

We withdrew to our position facing the hill. For the next day or two, we watched as a Mosquito—a small, slow-flying plane—came in and marked target areas with tracer bullets. Then the Marine Corsairs, which were flying out of ground-fire range, swooped down with napalm, rocket, and machine gun fire—plastering the Chinese trench lines. As soon as the air strikes let up, we could see them repairing the damage. I’m sure they had many dead. However, we would find out there were plenty of them left.

We were sent back a few miles, to a peaceful area, where we got showers, clean fatigues, underwear, and socks. The fatigues were never your own, they were a clean pair they just handed you. I was handed one that had stripes for a buck sergeant instead of silver bars, but who cared?

After everyone got cleaned up, they gave us three cans of warm Budweiser; which lasted about ten minutes. We also practiced night attacks; I guess the higher-ups finally realized we were not going to take that hill in the daylight. They came up with the idea of lining the whole company—abreast—across the valley at the foot of Hill 346. We were to sneak up just short of their trenches, then at daybreak jump in and rout the Chinese.

By this time we had become so decimated that they sent up mail clerks, cooks, and non-coms from battalion—basically anyone that could carry a weapon. Assigned to my platoon was a Master Sergeant who was ready to rotate home. After only staying there one night, he disappeared the next day; I couldn’t really blame him.

The following morning we had chow around 3:00 AM, then we were trucked up to our favorite hill—the one facing 346. It was tough moving through the darkness of night. We were tripping over rocks, tree roots, and cussing all the way. We were late getting to where we wanted to be when daylight caught us about two-thirds the way up. The Chinese began to fire at us with machine guns and mortars. Being one of the first to get hit—in the right hip—a medic was quickly called over to me. He gave me a shot of morphine, patched my wound, and placed me on a litter. These litter bearers were a brave and fearless group of men; they were oblivious of the mortar rounds falling around them. I yelled for them to take cover, but they had a job to do.

While being treated at the aid station, I told the doctor the bullet hole didn’t hurt, but my right foot hurt like hell. They took off my boot, which I had bought in Japan on my way over, and couldn’t find anything. I was soon taking a helicopter ride over the hills to a M.A.S.H. unit. During surgery they discovered I had serious nerve damage in my hip (more accurately, my ass), which was the cause of my foot pain, and paralysis to my leg.

In November 1951, I arrived at Walter Reed Hospital in a cast from waist to toe. Several months later a couple of us were in our beds moaning about not ever being able to play golf again; Freddy, with his artificial leg, and me with my paralyzed lower leg. One of the wards overheard us and said, “You bunch of crybabies oughta quit bitchin’ and give it a try.”

To us this sounded like a challenge, so we took him up on it. After his shift was over, he loaded us in his flivver and away we went to a nearby course, with nine-holes. He held us up when we swung, and picked us up when we fell—we were hilarious.

On that day, Freddie and I quit feeling sorry for ourselves, and decided to join the real world.

I retired from the Army in the fall of 1952.

* * * * * *

Sergeant James Beaver, a farm boy from Indiana, was transferred from another company to replace my wounded platoon sergeant.

Over our three can ration of Budweiser, we didn’t talk about our plans for our third attack on Hill 346. Instead we talked about our families, friends, and hometowns.

By the end of the following day I was at a M.A.S.H. unit, and James lay dead near the top of that miserable hill. He was one of the very few men in Korea that I had the privilege of getting to know—if only for a few hours.

There stands a small statue, in our yard, in his honor.

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