~~Seventy-Three~~

Donald “Hank” Nicol

179th Regiment

45th Infantry Division

U.S. Army

On the 26th of February, 1930, I was born in Pasadena, California. In 1947, I enrolled in Bakersfield College, but academic life wasn’t doing much for me, or I it. So, when President Truman reinstated the draft in 1948, I enlisted. According to the fine print, in the Selective Service Act, anyone that was drafted would serve for twenty-one months. However, if you enlisted, and was eighteen years old, you only had to serve one year plus some time in the reserve; I joined the U.S. Army.

The day before I was to report to Fort MacArthur, my father drove me down to San Pedro where we stayed with one of his friends. The following morning I walked a few blocks to the Fort where I received a physical along with forty-or-fifty other guys. One of which was Frank Pellet, a high school classmate.

The morning after being sworn in, we boarded a train bound for Fort Ord. Here we were issued wool olive-drab uniforms, and then we were loaded onto another train headed for Camp Hood, Texas. Here I was assigned to Company C, Fourth Training Battalion, Second Armored Division.

After basic training most of the guys from the training battalion were assigned to the 41st Armored Infantry Battalion. As for me, I was assigned to Headquarters Company where I became a truck driver.

* * * * * *

On January 2, 1952, I was a new second lieutenant reporting to Camp Roberts. Wearing my poncho, I stood in the pouring rain as a group of new recruits crawled in the mud and rain. Even though the poncho kept me nice and warm, guess who caught pneumonia? A month later, after I had been released from the hospital, I was transferred to Camp Cook. Here I was assigned to Company L, 130th Infantry Regiment, 44th Division—a federalized National Guard Company.

After spending a few months at Cook, a few second lieutenants—including myself—were shipped off to the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia.

Here we sat in classrooms, and grandstands, listening to lectures and watching demonstrations. Then we would go out in the field to apply what we had learned. We fired various types of weapons, fought with bayonets, assaulted hills, and threw grenades; which I excelled in. We familiarized ourselves with the tank, and even made a water crossing in assault barges. Then we watched as the artillery gave an impressive demonstration.

When my training was over, I volunteered for paratrooper school. Lucky for me, my commanding officer at Cook refused to release me. I had heard about an officer at the Pentagon who would talk to anyone, about anything. So, before I headed back to Cook, I flew to Washington D.C. to meet him. Arriving at the Pentagon, I met a kindly old Brigadier General who listened to my every word. And he gave me what I asked for—a twenty day furlough, then a free trip to Korea.

* * * * * *

I boarded the MSTS General A.W. Brewster at the Oakland Army Base; our voyage to Japan was uneventful. The ship finally docked at Yokohama, Japan where we disembarked and boarded a train for Camp Drake. Here I traded my olive-drabs for fatigues, and loaded myself down with gear that I would never need, or use.

As our ship sailed toward Korea, I must say my first sight of the “Land of the Morning Calm” was not very encouraging. The hills behind Pusan were bare and brown, except areas that were covered with patches of snow. Before we disembarked, we were entertained by an Army band standing on the dock, playing, “If I knew you were coming, I’d have baked a cake.” Orders came down for us to go ashore with our weapons slung and the muzzles down; this meant we were entering a friendly country.

We boarded a claptrap train that huffed and puffed its way northward. The cars were made of wood, except the undercarriages; the seats were benches with straight backs. It was apparent that the Pullman Corporation hadn’t reached Korea.

Finally, we reached the city of Yong Dong-Po and went through a Repot Depot. I was given a form to fill out, which asked me to put down my three choices division assignment. My first choice was the 3rd, followed by the 7th, then the 45th. Along with four other second lieutenants, I was loaded onto a 6 x 6 truck that bounced all the way through Chunchon.

After reaching the 45th Division Replacement Center, which was located on the north side of the Soyang River, I was assigned to Company B, 179th Infantry Regiment.

It was during December of 1952 when I reached the Punchbowl, and assigned to a rifle platoon on Hill 777. The lieutenant I was replacing showed me the view from the hill, as he pointed out an enemy position known as the “Ice Cream Cone.” I told him it didn’t look much like an ice cream cone to me. He told that I should have seen it a few days earlier before the artillery took twenty feet off the top. To the right, he pointed out a position called “Luke’s Castle,” which was named for the legendary North Korean sniper, “Luke the Gook.”

Then there was “Smoke Valley” to our right rear. The lieutenant explained that this position was completely exposed to the enemy, but this was the only place to set up our artillery. So, to hide them, smoke generators spewed white clouds across the valley.

The day I arrived, I was treated to a hot lunch. After most of the men had eaten, the other lieutenant and I got in line. The only places to set were either covered in ice or snow, so I stood. It was hard to operate my spoon while wearing mittens, so I removed the one on my right hand. I couldn’t get the bite to my mouth before my hand was freezing—the weather was bitterly cold. So, I put my mitten back on and tried to eat something before the food froze.

Unfortunately, our little picnic—in the snow—was interrupted when we saw black specks falling from F-80’s as they cruised overhead. Needless to say, when the specks hit the ground, they exploded. The only place to scatter to was along the road we were standing in, which was cut into the side of a steep mountainside. The F-80’s continued to make more passes over Smoke Valley, dropping bombs and strafing. A smoke screen was used as an indicator of friendly forces in Korea, so these guys must have been complete idiots for going after “our” artillery. From the valley floor I could hear quad-50’s trying to drive them away. Finally, a T-6 trainer, which was used as a spotter plane was able to head off the returning jets. Although minor, this was my first introduction to war.

* * * * * *

When talking on the radio, we used more jargon than secret codes. The 179th was Pagan, and its three battalions were Red, White, and Blue.

Pagan Red was pulled back and placed in reserve on New Years Eve 1952. When you were off the front lines you continued training, so I was sent to Chunchon for leadership school. While there I developed an itch on my hands and feet, and I was bounced from an Army doctor to an Air Force doctor, of which neither knew what it was or how to cure it. Finally, I went to an aid station and explained my symptoms to the corporal that was on duty; he was able to cure it.

Upon returning to the regiment, I was chewed out by a major for having lost so much time. He ordered me to get healthy, and stay healthy. As punishment, me being the least experienced second lieutenant in the battalion, he sent me as a permanent Officer of the Day with a platoon to guard a radio relay station on top of a mountain.

The relay station had Quonset hut barracks, which was more comfortable then the tents we had at the reserve camp. During the night we placed sentries and sent out patrols, which no one saw any living creatures except themselves. However, every morning we found deer tracks in the thin layer of snow that covered the entire area; I hoped the enemy was clumsier than those deer.

One night I was roaming between guard posts when I met Sergeant Legge and a squad leader. I was perched on an embankment and they were on the road below. It was a moonless night, and I guessed the drop to the road below was about five or six feet—wrong. Jumping down, I wasn’t ready for the landing and I hit the road with two stiff legs; the blow pushed the air out of my lungs. A few seconds later I was able to get my breath.

Suddenly, a shot rang out from the Quonset hut and the sergeant and I arrived at the front door at the same time. Inside we found one soldier, with a BAR, sitting on a cot and another one cowering at the end of the barracks. Apparently the soldier with the BAR was cleaning his loaded weapon. Needless to say, the sergeant and I blasted him with every cuss word we knew.

When I returned from the relay station, Pagan Red had moved to a new camp located in a flat bottom of a wide canyon. It was still to cold to be living in tents. I found a wool summer sleeping bag, which I put inside my winter bag. Then I hung a lighter-fluid burning hand warmer from my dog-tag chain—it didn’t help much.

Two or three days later, Pagan Red was ordered back to the front lines. Before we left, word was passed around that everyone was to cover their helmet. The Marines had real helmet covers, so we had to make do with what we had. Everyone, except me, used sandbags; I didn’t think a burlap helmet cover would look to cool. I found a sleeping bag cover, which happened to be the same color as our fatigues.

The 179th was sent up to the area around Heartbreak Ridge. Charlie Company’s second platoon was actually on Heartbreak, with their third platoon stretched across the Mundung-ni Valley. My first platoon was located on a no-name ridge to the left.

We were separated from the third platoon by an un-climbable hill, so we were attached to either Able or Baker Company. This seemed to be the worse position imaginable, until we found ourselves on Outpost Queen. The unit we were relieving informed us that a month or so earlier they had relieved a platoon from the 40th Infantry Division. This platoon had fifteen machine guns—one for every two men. When they left, they didn’t take their ammunition. The hill was littered with steel boxes full of .30 caliber machine gun belts. We only had one .30 caliber machine gun; however, we were low on ammo for out M-1’s and BAR’s. So, we dismantled the belts and put the rounds into the clips for the M-1’s and magazines for the BAR’s.

One morning as I stepped out into the blinding sunlight, I met a major walking down the trench. He was all clean, and shiny; so, I saluted. He told me he was there to inspect the MLR. I told him that I would show him around, when a shell hit about two-hundred yards from us. He quickly told me that was okay but he needed to get back to the division—he left.

A few days later, I received the inspectors report. There was only one item on it, “Lieutenant Nichols was dirty and had not shaved.” He didn’t even spell my name correctly. The commander of Pagan Red, Major Cruikshank, being an old dogface himself was sympathetic. So, he sent up five razor blades for the troops.

Suddenly, someone yelled out an alarm and I again came out of the CP bunker into a blinding sunlight. I ran into two soldiers dragging a wounded GI from a bunker that had been hit. Under the clutter of logs and dirt, I found a KATUSA buried up to his waist. The enemy kept firing at us, so I began to dig furiously. After pulling a log off the guy, I scratched away some loose dirt using a bayonet or helmet—I can’t remember which. As I looked up, there digging from the other side was Corporal Gaeton Briseno. Shortly afterwards, a medic reached over my shoulder and gave the KATUSA a shot of morphine. He then inserted a needle that was attached to a bottle by a rubber tube into the guys arm. The medic said the bottle contained “albumin,” or plasma.

I tried to find his legs by sliding one hand along whatever I could fine, and using the other hand to sweep away dirt. Finally, I was able to get my fingers under the buckle of his boot and lifted. When his leg came out of the dirt, it bent forward where there was no joint. Then I found the other leg and it was limp as a hamburger. The medic was standing by with a litter. We quickly loaded him onto the litter and two guys carried him across an open field, while the medic held the bottle of albumin.

Weeks later we heard the KATUSA had lived, but his legs had to be amputated.

The weather had moderated enough that I was able to put away my parka. Everyone in the platoon had been on R&R and was able to shower at least once. Now it was my turn. I walked up the trench to the road, when I met Lt. Colonel Cruikshank—a week earlier he was a major. As I walked a little further, I came to a notch in the ridge that had been cut out for a tank. Earlier that morning, Lt. MacIntyre of Baker Company had been killed in that very spot by a 61mm mortar. Being out in the open, I ran towards an area that provided some cover. Apparently, I didn’t run far enough; as I slowed down I heard an explosion and felt a burning sensation in my left wrist.

Being off balance, and in case of another incoming shell, I jumped into a ditch. As I looked up, I saw three guys running over to me. They helped me up and a medic named Bennett put a band-aid on my wrist. Holding my hand up high, Bennett walked me to Baker Company’s CP. Here, belly down, I was placed in a litter jeep. Apparently, I had been wounded in the butt as well. This was March 4, 1953, and the weather was still cold.

When I arrived at the battalion aid station, Doc Schorr cut off my suspenders to check my left buttock. He then applied a four inch square gauze on my wrist. I was taken to the division clearing station, where a doctor put a wooden splint on my wrist. From there I was taken, by another meat wagon, to the 46th ASU (Army Surgical Unit). I was taken into surgery where they placed a knuckles-to-elbow cast.

From the 46th ASU, via the 11th Evacuation Hospital at Wonju, I was flown to Japan where I ended up at the General Hospital at Camp Drew. There were two other second lieutenants in the officers ward; one was an artillery FO, who had walked into the path of a mortar round, the other was a dogface with more than twenty burp gun holes in his hide. Finally, my cast was taken off and I could hardly wait to get back to Korea.

When I arrived back at Pagan Red, I was re-assigned to Baker Company since Charlie Company had already received a full complement of officers. My new platoon was located to the regiments far right, and to our right was the newly arrived 13th Battalion Combat Team of PEFTOK (Philippine Expeditionary Force to Korea).

With Baker Company acquiring a full slate of officers, I became weapons platoon leader. One of the rifle platoons was being harassed by a sniper, so I set out to do something about it. Taking a sound powered phone, I scrambled to a forward position. Someone pointed out a spot on Dagmar, which was a double hill named for a television star.

I was a rookie at adjusting mortar fire, so I faked it. The first round landed closer than I thought it would. After the third round landed close, I called for ten more. The sergeant back at the gun informed me the “old man” was yelling for us to stop wasting ammunition. I told him to make up a story, and to give me ten more. When the sixth or seventh shell hit, I saw a secondary explosion then two bodies flying through the air—in opposite directions. Apparently, the sniper, and a buddy, must have been sitting on a box of grenades.

The sergeant had told the company commander he couldn’t get in touch with me, because the phone clips had touched and shorted out communications.

Several weeks later, while we were in another position, we came under enemy mortar fire. As I was running along a trail that led to the third platoon, I heard someone whistling. Immediately, I put my left foot in front of my right, only to trip myself. I quickly scooted into the firing position for the 57mm recoilless rifle, scanning the hill for the enemy through its scope. The Chinese would place their mortars on the forward slope of hills instead of hiding them on the backside. I spotted a mortar in the middle of the hill, on a bare slope. After pointing it out to Corporal Pak, a KATUSA, who was acting as gunner; I quickly loaded the rifle. We fired a few rounds before we finally knocked over the mortar, and scattering the bodies of four men over the hillside.

* * * * * *

While on Heartbreak Ridge, Captain Reed became the CO of Baker Company. Being the new guy in charge, he came down hard on everyone. By the end of his fourth day, the entire company hated him.

A 6 x 6 truck, loaded with rations, ammo and thirty-to-forty five gallon cans of napalm, came up to the end of the road. The driver quickly unloaded his goods and left. Suddenly, enemy rounds began falling with accuracy, causing some of the napalm to catch fire. The rest of the cans had become hot and posed a threat to the pile of mortar ammo.

Captain Reed was able to lure a medic—Corporal Bennett—to help toss the cans of napalm down the hill. As they rolled down the hill most of the cans were burning; some exploded. With skin blackened, and scorched hands, both men had averted a disaster. The company’s opinion of Captain Reed changed—he became our hero. Even his attitude towards us changed.

Still on Heartbreak, Baker and Charlie Companies swapped places. A few days later, Captain Reed called all officers together for a speech. It began with “There’s one too many chicken shit second lieutenants around here.” He then called me forward and read the orders promoting me to first lieutenant.

* * * * * *

One night an enemy force came up the finger in front of the third platoon, which was to the left of our line. They did not attack us immediately, but set up a base of fire support for an assault on Fox Company. Then a larger force came up right in the middle of the company. We drove them off using mortars, recoilless rifles, and bazookas; we never fired a shot from our rifles or machine guns.

A few nights later I went to check on the listening post; finding everyone awake and alert, I went back. As I walked over a crest, there was a loud crack and a flash of light. I began to run for cover when I realized the explosion was not from enemy fire, but from lightning striking the radio antenna next to the communication hut. When I entered the hut, I saw the switchboard had been knocked over and the stunned operator was up against the sandbag wall. The other guys that had gathered around him said the lightning passed through his head—from ear to ear.

I returned to the company and found the first sergeant who had been on the phone, when the bolt of lightning struck the antenna, was nursing a huge headache. Captain Reed told me that sparks, about a foot long, flew out the sergeants opposite ear. For the rest of the night, the captain nor myself would go near the phone.

* * * * * *

The night before I was to rotate home, the battalion officers threw a party for Lt. Doyle Butler and Wilson, a warrant officer whose first name I can’t remember, and myself.

Early the following morning a jeep with its siren blaring, raced through the battalion area. It was only a practice, but the regiment had to be armed and on the road in fifteen minutes. The most vivid memory of that day was not leaving the company that had been my home, but watching as Pagan Red marched up the road. Leading Able Company was Lt. Peshkoff, who was still feeling the effects from the party the night before.

We three officers, and a dozen or so men, were taken by truck to Inchon or Yong Dong-Po—I can’t remember which one. After arriving at the port of Inchon, I was able to get an idea of the problems that our landing forces faced. The tide was out and I looked over the steep rock wall, which extended down some thirty feet to the mud flat.

We boarded the MSTS Marine Serpent, which was bound for Fort Lawton in Seattle, Washington.[10]

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