7th Cavalry Regiment
1st Cavalry Division
On September 28, 1948, a day after my seventeenth birthday, John Bontrager—a school friend—and I drove to Fort Wayne, Indiana, with only one objective—join the U.S. Navy.
After taking an aptitude test and a general IQ test, which were followed by a physical examination, we had to take an eye exam. John passed with flying colors and so did I—with my glasses on. I then had to take my glasses off and read the chart—I failed. They soon informed me that the Navy would not take me due to my eyes being bad without glasses. My dream of being a sailor—like my father—had come to an end.
Since they would not take me, John decided he would not join either.
As we were leaving the Navy Recruiting Office we couldn’t help but notice the Army Recruiting Office across the hall. We looked at each other and said, “What the hell,” so we went in.
The sergeant, seated behind the desk, asked what we needed.
We replied, “To join the U.S. Army.”
He asked if we had anything wrong with us, and we said, “No.”
He said, “Sign your John Henry right here.” He thought John was trying to be a wise guy, because his middle name was really “Henry.”
Seven days later, on the 5th of October, my parents drove us back to Fort Wayne where we boarded a bus that took us to Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky. Here we would take our basic training. Upon our arrival we were met by a Master Sergeant who informed us that for the next eight weeks he was going to be our mother and that we had no fathers. So, in his eyes we were all you know whats?
After graduation, most of the guys we went through basic with were sent to Germany. John had requested to go to Germany and I requested Fort Knox, Kentucky. So, true to form, the Army sent John to the other end of camp to await orders for Japan, and I became company clerk at Camp Breckinridge.
For the next eight weeks, as the new bunch of recruits were going through their basic training, I pretty much did whatever I wanted too. I worked if I felt like it, went to the firing range, or just walked around acting like a big shot in front of the new guys. At the end of the eight weeks, I again requested a transfer to Fort Knox. However, they informed me that the administrative school was full. In the meantime, John had received orders to report to Camp Stoneman, California, where he would be sent to Guam, Korea, Japan, or some other island station. Wanting to stay with him, I requested the same assignment; I received orders to report to Camp Stoneman.
We received a fourteen day furlough to visit our families and friends, because we were going overseas. Two days before going on leave I came down with rubella measles, causing me to stay in the camp hospital for seven days. My commanding officer revoked my furlough and issued me a new one, this way I wouldn’t loose any days at home. Since John was able to go home ahead of me, he headed back to camp three or four days before I did. During basic training I met Roy Ligon, from Paducah, Kentucky, and we were able to go back to camp together.
On May 19, 1949, Roy and I boarded a troop train in Evansville, Indiana headed for Pittsburgh, California. After four days, and several backaches, we arrived at Camp Stoneman. Three or four days later, I finally saw John; he was in the mess hall. He told me he was on alert, which meant within the next forty-eight hours he could be shipping out. So, we went to San Francisco to party a little before we parted company.
On the 31st of May, John left for Japan where he was assigned to the 24th Infantry Division. Roy shipped out to Guam on the 3rd of June, and on the sixth, I left for Yokohama, Japan.
Being a sailor, my father gave me some advice before shipping out—to get a top bunk. This was so no one would be above me if they became seasick. During our fourteen day voyage, I never got sick. It made me think, I may have been a good sailor after all.
Finally, on June 19, 1949, the USS General Hodges docked at Yokohama. After we disembarked, we were loaded onto trucks and taken to Camp Drake—home of the 7th Cavalry Regiment. This was one of the three regiments that made up the 1st Cavalry Division.
In the Second World War, Camp Drake was used as a Japanese Army officer training facility; so, everything there was pretty much first class. It had a racetrack complete with pari-mutual betting, a movie theater, huge gym, bowling alley, library, churches, swimming pools, and service clubs. All were available to camp personnel.
I was assigned to D Company, which was a heavy weapons company.
In the early part of July, the entire regiment went to Camp McNair, which was located about half way up one side of an extinct volcano—Mt. Fujiyama. The camp consisted of four-man tents, a medical tent, mess tent, and last-but-not-least the latrine tents. These were placed over a slit trench, similar to the outhouses we had when I was a kid—only more “holes” to sit on.
When the latrine was almost full, civilian farmers with their ox-drawn wagons would come and fill up barrels, which were known as “honey buckets.” The contents were used to fertilize their rice paddies, and gardens. Needless to say, we had been warned not to eat fresh-grown vegetables for fear of dysentery.
We were there for more than two months, and during this time I was transferred from supply clerk to the heavy machine gun squad. The .30 caliber machine gun, which was mounted on a tripod, was a rapid firing gun with a water-cooled barrel. We only got to fire it one time on the firing range, because of our limited amount of ammunition. So, most of our time was spent learning, and practicing, how to set it up and tear it down.
On the 7th of September we left McNair for Camp McGill—in Yokohama—so the 5th Cavalry Regiment could take their turn training at the camp. We finally returned to Camp Drake in November where we resumed our normal training. During this month everyone that had been drafted, or was on a two-year enlistment, was sent back to the states. We read, and heard, about the political unrest occurring in Korea. However, we were told this had nothing to do with these men leaving, and certainly would not affect us.
As 1950 began, I decided the Army was a place for me and even dreamed of attending West Point—becoming an officer. So, I enrolled in an eight week NCO leadership school at Camp McGill, which turned out to be torture training. The school started on the 3rd of March, and two days later I received two demerits for having my boots laced the wrong way. Our days began at 4:30 AM and lasted until 7:30 PM, with getting only Wednesday afternoons off.
Each day we stood for two inspections, one inside our barracks and the other one outside. We had five officers inspecting one cadet simultaneously. One morning, one of the officers asked about a small mark on my face. I informed him that I had nicked my face shaving; he gave me three demerits for destroying government property. After dinner, we went on six-and-a-half mile runs; to be sure our food didn’t turn to fat. Of the eighty-five men that started, only forty-nine of us graduated—I was third in class. If I could pass the competitive exam, I felt confident of making it through West Point.
While I was attending school, D Company had been sent back to McNair for another six weeks of training; I arrived back to D Company before they left.
On June 25, 1950, the North Korean Army invaded South Korea, and we were immediately put on alert. All furloughs and passes were canceled. However, we were again told that we probably would not be involved in any way.
In typical military blunder, most of our experienced platoon sergeants, and strategic personnel, were transferred to the 24th Infantry Division. Around the 10th of July, the 24th would be the first American troops deployed to Korea. We immediately began training for amphibious landings; we knew where we were headed.
We boarded the USS William C. Weigle and on the 22nd of July, the ship anchored in Pohang Dong, Korea. We disembarked by climbing down huge, rope ladders into our waiting LCT. They told us to expect medium to heavy resistance as we approached the beaches; I was one among forty guys who were huddled together, terrified of the unknown, and scared of dying. During our trip ashore, I started reciting Psalms 27: 1-3 in my head, which I did every day for the next few months.
After landing, with no resistance, we loaded onto trucks and headed inland until darkness fell. The 1st BN was deployed on hilltops that completely surrounded a small valley. Sometime after dark, a shot was heard and the entire battalion fired into the valley—at unknown targets. The following morning, a cow and local farmer lay dead in the valley. I had ordered my squad not to fire unless they saw movement. Our battalion commander asked if my gun had been fired during the night. I told him it had not; he congratulated me.
The following day we moved up in support of some ROK troops, who were located on the south side of a mountain that had North Korean troops on the north side. The ROK soldiers were firing their weapons up in the air; I guess they hoped their bullets would fall on the North Koreans. We found this to be typical military tactics of the untrained ROK Army.
We were able to push the NKPA troops back a few miles as we approached the city of Taejon. Along the way, there were many ditches that were lined with bodies of South Korean men who—with their hands tied behind their backs—had been executed. Women were wailing as they walked amongst the bodies in search of their loved ones—a sight and sound, I have never forgotten.
On the twenty-seventh, a truck arrived in our area and the company commander told me to get on it. I asked him where was it going and he said he didn’t know, but he had orders to put me and another guy on the truck. We traveled about ninety miles to the Eighth Army Headquarters, which was located at Waegwan. Everyone there had their uniforms pressed, brass polished, and their shoes shined. For more than a week, we had not bathed, shaved, or even changed clothes—we were pretty scruffy looking.
Neither one of us knew why we were summoned there. As we walked around the base we passed a one-star general who we did not salute; this was something you didn’t do in combat. He began to chew us out when he realized where we had come from. Then he proceeded to tell us the only reason soldiers were taken off the front was to take the West Point examinations. After three days—eight hours a day—of testing, we were to return to our unit; the War Department would let us know the results, in September. When it was time to leave, they provided us with no transportation; so, we walked and bummed rides and meals when possible. Finally, three days later we rejoined our unit.
In the first two weeks, a good friend—who had transferred to battalion headquarters—was killed by mortar fire after a Korean woman carrying a baby on her back had entered our area asking our interpreter for directions. Within minutes after she left, mortar shells began to rain down with pinpoint accuracy. Thirty minutes later, another trooper and myself found the woman; the baby was a radio, so we knew right away she was an enemy agent. We took her back, and our Korean interpreter pulled out his pistol and shot her in the head; he never asked her one question.
Two days later we set up our machine gun on a slight rise, which overlooked a railroad track some three-hundred yards away. For the refugees heading south, this was the only authorized evacuation route. About every fifty yards were signs telling the refugees to stay on the tracks, and under no circumstances were they to get off the tracks. Suddenly, about five or six women, four or five children, and three or four elderly men—who were wearing their traditional stovepipe hats—began walking toward our gun emplacement.
I was instructed, by a major, to fire my gun in front of them, which I did. Without changing their expressions, or their gait, they kept coming. Again, I fired in front of them with the same results. He then informed me that I was not to allow them to proceed any further, and to open fire on them. Needless to say, with the target being women, children, and old men, I protested.
The first major battle that we were involved in took place in a cemetery. While being pinned down for a few hours with machine gun and mortar fire, we were able to repel several attacks. The only thing that separated us from the enemy was a three-foot high stone fence located in front of the cemetery. The Koreans buried their dead in a sitting position, so the cemetery was full of mounds about three feet high, and three feet wide. Otto Graml and I were behind one of these mounds, and our 75mm recoilless rifle was on the mound in front of us. Every time it fired, we slid backwards down our mound. Seven were killed, and seven wounded during this battle.
A few days later, while sharing my foxhole with Eddie—a squad member—we were being shelled by enemy mortars. When the shelling stopped, I asked him if he was alright, but I got no response. I turned to check on him and found that the back of his head had been blown off. We were only inches apart and I didn’t get a scratch. The Lord was obviously watching over me.
Shortly afterwards, we pulled back in reserve for about three days. By this time we had lost several men and with American replacements being unavailable, I received two ROK soldiers in my squad. They didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Korean, so there was a slight communication problem. One day I was cleaning my rifle while I was sitting in front of my tent, when one of the ROK soldiers noticed my ammo belt. It had suspenders to help ease the pressure on my hips and waist. He picked up the belt, removed the suspenders, attached them to his belt, and adjusted them to fit him—without ever saying a word. So, without saying a word, I picked up my rifle and hit him in the back of the head with the butt of the rifle, knocking him to the ground I reclaimed my suspenders. He must have gotten the message, because he never tried to steal from me again.
We returned back to the front and immediately came under enemy attack. Suddenly, my other ROK replacement got up and started to run away I turned around, took aim and shot him in the leg. He then crawled back to his position, and neither one of them ever bugged-out during an attack again.
One night during August, one of my men was manning a gun on top of a hill and while he was talking on a sound-powered telephone, lightning struck the wire and knocked him unconscious. After he came to, he was taken to the aid station, where they gave him two aspirins and told him to go back to his post.
During the last part of August we moved to new positions along the Naktong River. In the early days of September we were involved in several attacks and counterattacks, which resulted in heavy casualties on both sides. We received air support from Second World War vintage P-51’s. Within seconds after dropping their napalm canisters, at the base of the hill, fire swept to the top scorching everything in its path. As we took some of the hills that had been victims of napalm bombing, we found bodies that had their clothes completely burned off.
On the 11th of September, we were near the village of Shindo and were using a one-room house as our headquarters. Inside were Cleo Seeger, our radioman, and Lt. Damian Folch. It was mid-afternoon as I was walking past the doorway, when Seeger called for me to cover the radio so he could go to the latrine. For some unknown reason, I told him I didn’t want to go inside the house. Finally, the lieutenant ordered me inside.
We were providing cover fire for Charlie Company, whose commanding officer I knew from Japan. He was on the other end of the phone and as I put my end up to my ear, the room suddenly became full of smoke and dust. Dazed, I crawled outside; my glasses were gone and my back felt like it had been burned. Hearing the other two guys moaning inside the house, I went back in and brought Seeger out. He had been hit in the thigh with a piece of shrapnel, which penetrated his leg leaving a large exit wound. After applying a bandage to his wound, I went back for the lieutenant. When I got him outside, I noticed that one of his hands was just hanging on by skin—it had almost been severed. Captain Kueffer, our commanding officer, helped with getting his hand bandaged. We then put both of them in the back of a three-quarter ton truck, and I drove them to the aid station.
As I arrived, I yelled for the medics to give them some morphine, because they were in pain. I offered to help unload them, but I couldn’t get out of the truck; this was the first time I had realized I too was wounded. All three of us were treated then transported to a M.A.S.H. unit. I was flown on a stretcher strapped to a side-pod of a helicopter, which meant I was exposed to the elements of the weather. The flight wasn’t bad, but it sure was dusty during takeoff and landing.
After being treated at the M.A.S.H. unit, I was taken by ambulance to Taegu, where I was loaded onto a train headed for Pusan. The car I rode in was equipped with web strapping, to hold the stretchers, which were stacked three high. The following day we arrived at Pusan and I was placed on an airplane, suspended by the same kind of straps that were on the train—I was still in the same stretcher. After spending a night at Itazuki, Japan, I was then flown to Osaka, where I was admitted to the Army General Hospital.
Upon arriving, the first thing I did was write home to assure my parents that my wound was not life threatening. It was a good thing I did, because a day after my letter arrived they received three telegrams from the government; they said I had been slightly wounded, severely wounded, and killed in action.
By the second day, my left leg—from the knee to the ankle—had swollen to double its size and had begun to turn a dark color. It was oozing a black, thick liquid that had a foul odor. As the doctor was making his rounds, he stopped at my bed and read my charts. He informed his assistant that he would have to amputate my leg below the knee. As he turned to see the next patient, I asked him if I had heard him correctly; he replied that I had. It being “my” leg, I asked if there was anything else he could try. Even though gangrene had already set in, he said he could try draining it, but I could possibly have problems with it for years. I told him to give it a shot. He said it was against his better judgment, but he agreed.
Two days later they operated on my leg, making a three inch incision on the left side of my calf; they drained a pint-and-a-half of infected liquid. Since the flesh was too rotten, they were unable to put sutures in, so they used a butterfly bandage. I was then confined to bed for two weeks to see if the incision would close by itself.
Later, they took an x-ray of my entire leg and found a couple of large pieces of shrapnel in my thigh. They took me back to the operating room and removed them, plus sutured up my earlier incision with stainless steel stitches—the butterfly bandage hadn’t done its job. The following day the stitches pulled through the skin, and once again the wound was wide open.
They tried this same procedure three or four more times, all with the same results. So, they tried a skin graft, which after two attempts was also unsuccessful. Word around the hospital was any patient needing to stay there for thirty days would be returned to the States. Having already been there two months, I became a challenge for the doctors.
A guy I knew from D Company was in the same ward, but he only stayed two days before being sent stateside. Before he left, he told me a guy from my squad was on the floor below us, so I hurried down to see him. There lying in a bed was my first gunner—Angel Gomez. When he saw me he smiled, and it was obvious a lot of his teeth had been broken off. His right arm had been amputated below the elbow. As we talked, I told him that because of his arm he would be going home. He said missing his arm didn’t bother him that much, but he wondered if he would ever walk again as he threw back his sheet to expose his amputated legs. He was firing his machine gun when it took a direct hit from a mortar shell.
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It was around the end of November when I received word from home that my brother Jim had been drafted into the Army. After completing his basic training at Camp Breckinridge, he was assigned to Fort Myers, Virginia—home of Arlington National Cemetery. This was fine with me, because I didn’t want him to go where I had been.
December arrived with temperatures dipping to thirty below zero, or colder. As I walked around the ward, I noticed the patients with frostbite outnumbered those with gunshot wounds by three-to-one. One day some of us were playing at a card table that we had set up at the foot of the bed of a patient with severe frostbite. As his big toe began to throb with pain, he reached down to wiggle it and it fell off in his hand; he passed out. Needless to say, we all got a little queasy.
On the 10th of December I was transferred to the 8th Station Hospital in Kobe, Japan—ninety-four days after I was wounded. My doctor told me to expect to be there a couple of months, because infected wounds healed slower in Japan. He also said that I would eventually return to duty—in Korea.
Two days before Christmas, they removed another piece of shrapnel—about 11mm in size—from my left thigh. During the first week of January my leg had scabbed over, and I was told following a seven day leave I would be departing for Korea. However, three days before I was to leave, my leg ruptured and I had to return to the hospital. Once again it was oozing the stinking, black tar-like liquid. On the 31st of January I had more surgery to remove shrapnel that had been discovered near the wound—this was my fifth operation.
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On the 21st of March, while I was playing cards, a ward boy came in and told me I had a visitor. I turned around and there stood John Bontrager—he was on a five day R&R. I was able to get a special two day pass so we could go into town and bring each other up to date on what we had done in the past two years.
John was able to spend one night in an empty bed at the hospital. He then had to go to Camp Drake, then back to his unit in Korea.
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I was transferred to the Army hospital at Nara on the 9th of April, which was pretty much a rehabilitation center; it was located thirty-five miles from Kobe.
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May 1st, known as May Day, is the communists New Years Day. A group of Japanese communists began to protest in front of the hospital, and as the day progressed they got rowdier. Having locked all the doors we placed a machine gun, with three riflemen, on the roof. As the crowd began to rattle the front doors, one of the guys with me on the roof whistled. When they looked up, I fixed the machine gun on them and they suddenly quieted down, and began to leave.
Two days later I received orders to return to my unit; however, I came down with malaria—of all things. It must have been from the rice paddy water I drank eight months earlier. For the next five days I mostly laid flat on my back, with a temperature reaching as high as 105.6 degrees.
It was around this time that I became the recipient of a one-year “involuntary extension” on my enlistment; all thanks to our illustrious “give ‘em hell” president—Mr. Truman. However, I wasn’t alone, it happened to all military personnel.
On the 16th of May, eight months and five days after I had been wounded, I went by train from Kyoto to Tokyo ending up at Camp Drake—my original base. While there I saw three guys from D Company who, because of rotation, were on their way home. This gave me hope that my days in Korea would not be long.
Leaving Camp Drake on the twentieth, I arrived at Pusan two days later. From there I traveled by train to Chonan and after spending a night, I was on to Seoul. The day after I arrived at Seoul, I rejoined D Company at the 38th parallel. There were very few guys that I knew; most of the guys I had been with, had either been killed, wounded or rotated home. However, Otto was still there and we had quite a reunion.
I was asked by the first sergeant to take over as squad leader of my old machine gun squad. However, I informed him I wasn’t climbing up and down any more hills, so he asked me what I wanted to do. I told him I could be the jeep driver for the company commander, which they just happened to need—I got the job.
My second day on the job, I was following a tank down a dirt road when my right tire hit a mine, tipping us over. The lieutenant who was riding with me was thrown from the jeep and severely mangled his foot. Lucky for me, I was uninjured.
On the 8th of July, I was informed that I would be rotating home—Otto had already gone home. The company commander said if I would stay he would promote me to sergeant, and after sixty days to master sergeant. My reply was thanks, but no thanks.
There were only two original members of D Company left, me and another guy. The following day we left for Inchon. Here we boarded the Weigel and sailed to Sasebo, Japan.
We boarded the USS Woodward for our journey home. Eleven days later we docked in San Francisco, where we were greeted by a military band, hundreds of waving and cheering civilians, and a banner that read, “Welcome home. Heroes.”
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At Fort Custer, Michigan, I received orders to report to Fort Meade, Maryland, where I stayed until the first of November. On the fifth, another guy and I reported to Fort Hayes, in Columbus, Ohio. He was sent to Lexington, Kentucky and I went to Toledo, Ohio—to be recruiters.
On the 10th of June, 1951, I received orders to report to Fort Hayes. Two days later, after serving three years, eight months, and six days of active duty, I was honorably discharged from the United States Army.