~~Seventy-Six~~

Donald Albert

279th Infantry Regiment

45th Infantry Division

U.S. Army

I was drafted on October 8, 1951. I reported to the draft board at the downtown post office in St. Louis, Missouri. There must have been one-hundred draftees present, with every fourth one in line being sent to the Navy. Since I never felt good aboard a ship in rough water, I was glad to have been third in line. So, off to the Army I went.

I boarded a train at the Union Station in St. Louis bound for Camp Clark, where I was inducted into the U.S. Army. Here I was given a uniform, a nice haircut, shots, and tests. Then again I was loaded onto a troop train headed for Camp Roberts, California; which was known for it’s worlds largest parade ground.

Camp Roberts, which was located in the desert, was hot in the day and cold at night. With the daily temperature changes and all the mountains, this was a good place to train recruits headed for Korea. After completing basic training as a rifleman, I was recruited to go to leadership school. I was more than happy to attend the school, because I had received orders for Korea after basic. I was not your typical gung-ho soldier.

After completing the eight weeks of leadership school, I again received orders for Korea. However, an airborne recruiter told me if I signed up for airborne school he could get my orders cut. He went on to tell me that since none of the airborne divisions were in Korea, I would probably be assigned to a stateside division.

So, off to Fort Benning, Georgia I went. I remember the first two weeks of tower jumping was worse than actually jumping from a plane. My last jump was with a parachute that I packed the night before. Needless to say, I worried all night if I had packed it right. What a beautiful sight when it opened. To my surprise, after graduation, we were the first class to receive orders to Korea.

* * * * * *

Arriving in Yokohama, Japan, we proceeded to the processing center at Camp Drake. We were to join the 187th Airborne RCT BN at Bibai, Japan. Four of us had children and we were told this was too high a risk unit, so we were removed from the group. However, one week later, the four of us were on our way to the front lines.

It was on the ship over to Korea that I learned a valuable lesson in life, from a priest aboard ship. He told us there was a time to pray, and a time to fight—together they don’t mix. He went on to say, “Get yourself prepared for God now, and keep a clear head during battle to survive.” During my time in Korea, I lived by those words. I never worried about being killed, or wounded, until the ending of the fighting; my main concern was not to be taken prisoner.

After landing in Inchon, Korea, we spent the next two days making our way to the front. On the last evening of our journey we had to climb a mountain to get to our new company. It was around midnight when we arrived at Company C, 279th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division.

After we reported in, I was picked to stand guard over the company CP bunker for the next three hours. It was a cool, windy night with a full moon. As the clouds drifted by, they created shadows that kept my tired mind on edge; everything seemed to be moving towards me. This was my first experience of front line duty, and definitely the longest three hours of my life. Luckily no one passed by me, because I’m sure I would have shot them—no matter which side they were on.

It was around 4:00 AM when I made it back to the CP to bunk down. However, I wasn’t able to sleep from thinking what the next day was going to bring. Around 6:00 AM the sergeant called us outside to what was a rude awakening. The surrounding mountains were barren from bombings, then as far as one could see—a maze of trenches. Then there were the firing bunkers, and barbed wire strung everywhere. As I looked across the valley, the enemy side looked the same. It reminded me of movies I had seen about the trench warfare of the First World War.

I was assigned to the fourth platoon, or weapons platoon, as a squad leader of a 60mm mortar squad; I held this job until I rotated home.

Korea was a country that had four seasons; hot, rainy, cold and colder. During the rainy season, we were on the front line having replaced a ROK division. We lived in bunkers they had built, which began to cave in from all the heavy rains. Unfortunately, several men were killed during these cave-ins, so we were ordered to live in the trenches until the bunkers could be rebuilt. So, for close to a week, we lived in mud up to our ankles; I’ve seen hogs living in better conditions.

We never had on a dry stitch of clothing during the rainy season, which caused our skin to wrinkle from being constantly wet. Then came the winter; the temperatures in the mountains was so cold, your skin would crack open. We lost a lot of men with frostbit feet. They wore their thermal boots instead of their regular boots when walking, causing their feet to become warm, and wet, and then they would freeze when they stopped walking. This was extremely painful, but it was a fast ticket home.

* * * * * *

If you have been in combat, one thing you can never forget is the smell of death; it surrounds you and lives with you forever. I can still remember waking up one morning to that awful smell; there were several body bags outside my bunker waiting for Quartermasters men to pick them up and take them to be processed for their journey home. That was one job I would never want to have.

* * * * * *

For some reason, our company was assigned to outpost positions more times than being on the MLR. An outpost was on point in front of the front line, and was always the first to get hit in an attack. This let the troops on the MLR know that the enemy was on their way. One night we were at an outpost when we received word that a battalion size attack would happen sometime during the night. About dusk it started with artillery raining down on us. We were soon told that our outpost was surrounded—by the Chinese Mongolia Division.

Our fourth platoon took up their rifle positions defending the rear. That night “Hampton,” a Canadian who joined the Army at the age of sixteen and a gunner in my squad, and I must have thrown a case of grenades. From our foxhole, we threw them down the hill towards the flashes from the enemy’s rifles. The following morning we couldn’t tell if we had hit anything, since the Mongolia Division never left their dead or wounded behind—they were a first class unit.

Around midnight our first platoon had been hit hard and run over, causing a weak link in our circle. We were told help from the first platoon of Baker Company was on the way. About an hour later, we received a call from them saying they were in the trenches and didn’t know which way to go to get to the outpost. I was called to the CP and told that I needed to go bring them to the outpost, since I had the most experience of traveling the trenches.

I was pretty sure I knew where they were, but my biggest concern was if the Chinese were in the trenches between us. Gathering my .45 pistol and carbine with two banana clips, I headed back towards the MLR—alone. After traveling about one-hundred yards, I thought I could hear the enemy in the area, but they weren’t in the trenches. So, to be on the safe side, I crawled on my belly until I was sure I had passed them. Finally, I came upon what I knew was Baker Company’s first platoon, when someone shouts, “Halt, who goes there?” Oh, hell! Suddenly, I realized with all the excitement of the night, I never got the password. I replied back, “Don’t shoot. I’m Sergeant Albert with Company C and I don’t have tonight’s password. I’m from St. Louis, home of the Cardinals, and Browns baseball team” When I said “Browns” he started laughing, and said okay.

I told them we may have to pass the enemy on our way to the outpost, so if they had anything that made a noise to leave it behind. So, in the darkness of night, we took off and I wasn’t sure we were going the right way until I came to a Korean canvas shoe that I had passed on the way down. Finally, we arrived safely and they helped plug-up our weak positions.

After we got back the enemy didn’t bother us, but they went straight to the front line. We thought that on their way out they would overrun us and take prisoners. Someone must have been watching out for us, for it didn’t happen.

* * * * * *

One night I was smoking in the bunker and decided to go outside for some fresh air. Like a fool, I took the cigarette with me. I knew I could cup it in my hands, and show no light—what a dummy. As I took a drag, it must have lit up my face. The next thing I felt was sand spraying my neck, as a sniper round busted the sandbag next to me. This was the last cigarette I smoked until some ten years later. It was careless acts like that one—that we learned not to do in basic—that caused a lot of casualties in a war; I was one lucky fool.

* * * * * *

We were in reserve and after a hot shower and putting on clean underwear (which made you feel like a million dollars), I heard they were having mass in the mess hall bunker. During the mass, as the priest stood with his back to us, a bomb hit the rear of the bunker causing part of it to cave in. They didn’t flinch a bit, and continued with the mass as if nothing had happened. Not me! Still shaking from the concussion of the bomb blast, I got out of there before another one hit.

* * * * * *

At the end of April, I was sent to Kokura, Japan for five days of R&R. I spent almost three days waiting for a telephone call to my wife Shirley to go through. During this time I was able to visit several Buddhist temples, some castles, gardens, and the Kokura United Nations Military Cemeteries where Korean laborers, in three days, moved the bodies of 864 fallen comrades to be shipped to Kokura for burial, before the arrival of Chinese Communist Forces.

When my R&R was over, I was flown to meet my outfit on the small island of Koje-do; here we guarded Chinese POW’s for a month. When Joseph Stalin died, the prisoners held a funeral parade, marching around their compounds. As they marched, they chanted songs. They made large white wreaths from toilet paper, and bleached their uniforms white. Thinking there may be an uprising, we were put on twenty-four hour alert. However, after a couple of days, everything settled down.

Every sergeant was assigned a work detail of ten prisoners, who were building an airstrip on the island. My group was responsible for crushing rock used for the runways. When they got tired of loading rock and wanted to rest, which was usually half of the day, they overloaded the crusher to stop it. They knew they weren’t allowed to put their hands in the crusher, so they watched me unload it while they rested. We weren’t allowed to carry weapons while on our work details; however, we usually had three-or-four guards in each group for our protection.

Later that month, prisoners were exchanged for the first time during the war. This was such a huge event; news services from around the world were there to cover the exchange. Our company lined the dock as injured POW’s passed by as they unloaded from ambulances, trucks, and buses. Suddenly, a sergeant from our company accidentally let off a burst of about ten rounds. Needless to say, the reporters hit the ground.

* * * * * *

Now we were back in Korea, in the area of Heartbreak Ridge, when the truce ending the fighting was signed. Just hours before the signing, our artillery fired several rounds into the enemy lines; which had to be the stupidest order ever given by a gung-ho officer. Guess what? They returned fire, not with several rounds, but what seemed to be around seventy rounds. There I was, lying on the ground in a bunker, wondering could I have survived all this time in Korea to get blown up because of a stupid order with only a few hours of fighting left.

At 10:00 AM on the morning of July 27, 1953, General Mark Clark signed the truce. It called for a twelve hour cease-fire before the truce went into effect at 10:00 PM. The following morning, both sides came out of their trenches waving at each other with clothing and flags—and joy. What an awesome sight too see, so many of them and so few of us.

I had enough points to rotate home, so two days later I was aboard a ship headed for home. After traveling twelve days on a ship, I then traveled another two days aboard a train bound for Camp Carson for processing. Then I flew home to meet Shirley and our son Karl, at the St. Louis airport—ready for civilian life.

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