Richard “Joe” Johannes

17th Infantry Regiment

7th Infantry Division

U.S. Army

I dropped out of high school during my sophomore year. I was still living at home, and unable to find a job that paid anything, my dad began to get upset with me. So, I decided to join the Air Force. However, without a high school diploma, they wouldn’t take me. This left me with only one choice—the U.S. Army. On April 10, 1951, at the age of seventeen, I enlisted in the Army. Due to my age my parents had to sign for me, which my father was all too happy to do.

Two days later, I left Denver, Colorado, via train, headed for Fort Ord, California. As I recall there were four of us and the trip took five days. We had Pullman berths, but we were issued army meal tickets for our food. With the prices being what they were, we ate omelets three meals a day.

When I enlisted, I was so thin I could have hidden behind a telephone wire—seriously. I arrived at Fort Ord weighing in at 118 pounds. I have to say, at the beginning of basic training I didn’t know “come here” from “sic ‘em.” When marching, you always stepped off with your left foot. Needless to say, I caught hell for a while. Luckily, I had some guys who helped me a lot. Finally, about halfway through basic I got to where I could carry my own weight.

On the 5th of July, just ten days after the war started in Korea, I finished basic. Being issued an eleven day leave, I visited my family—in Denver. After my leave, I was to report to Camp Stoneman, California, which was a port of debarkation since World War II.

Instead of shipping out from San Francisco, the Army boarded us on a troop train—complete with mess hall—bound for Seattle, Washington. I can’t recall how many days it took, but the views along the trip were fantastic. Arriving at Naval Pier 91, to board ships, they took enough of us to fill a C-119 (Flying Boxcar) and loaded us on a bus. We were taken to McCord Air Force Base, to be flown to Japan. We flew to Japan via Anchorage, Alaska, and the Aleutian Islands.

After arriving in Japan we were taken to Camp Drake, which was the former home of the 1st Cavalry Division who had already been deployed to Korea. Being issued our gear, we went by the slowest train ever built to the base of Mt. Fuji where there was a large tent city. I don’t recall what units were there, but I do know the entire 17th Infantry Regiment was there. Here I was assigned to the Heavy Mortar Company. However, being young and dumb, I walked up to an opened end of a tent that had the First Sergeants field desk blocking the entrance. I dropped my duffel bag, leaned over, and put my hands on the desk. The next thing I remember was picking my butt up from the middle of a dirt street, and was told in no certain terms to get my ass back to personnel—to get re-assigned. In my twenty-eight-and-a-half years in the Army, I never put my hands on a First Sergeants desk again. My new assignment was Item Company, 17th Infantry Regiment, where I stayed during my entire tour of Korea.

In each rifle squad we had three American soldiers and five or six Korean soldiers, which was both tragic and comical. Not being used to our rich food, the Koreans over ate and was sick a lot. Being smaller in stature, their boots didn’t fit, and very few had ever held a rifle—let alone fired one. Then there was the language barrier.

While at Camp Fuji we trained for a couple of weeks during which time we were hit by a typhoon. Two other guys and myself rode it out in a one-and-a-half ton trailer. The wind spun us around numerous times, and we just knew it was going to turn us over. After the storm subsided, we exited the trailer to find a sight that was everlasting.

After collecting what we could of our gear, we loaded onto another one of those typical “slow moving” Japanese trains headed for the port of Yokohama. From there we headed for the port city of Pusan. The bad thing about Pusan was you could smell it before you saw it. It looked like you were floating in a cesspool; the harbor looked like raw sewage—which it was. Koreans, men and women, in small boats would come along side the ships too scoop up garbage that had been thrown overboard. After docking, we disembarked for a four-or-five mile hike, to get our land legs back, and then we returned to the ship.

We then left Pusan in a huge convoy, headed for the invasion of Inchon. It was mid-afternoon when we reached the harbor at Inchon, and the Navy was still pounding the hell out of Inchon and the surrounding area. The concussion from the ships guns that were closest to us would vibrate our ship. Soon, we were ordered to get all of our gear and get into lines as we had practiced over and over. We then proceeded over the side and down the rope ladders to our waiting landing craft. My guess is we were roughly a thousand yards from shore. When we landed, there was a seawall about four feet high, which we had to scale. Through the years I have seen pictures of various landing sites at Inchon with no seawall. I don’t know where the photographer took the picture, but he sure wasn’t where we came ashore.

In my short seventeen years, I had never been to a funeral let alone seen a dead person. As we moved along a railroad track that would change—I saw my first dead person. Lying beside the track was a woman with a baby strapped to her back. Suddenly, realization hit me like a sledge hammer as I thought to myself, “Man what are you doing here—this is war. You should be in high school, not here.”

We mopped up around the southern part of Inchon and dug in on some high ground just outside the city. The 31st and 32nd Infantry Regiments, of the 7th Infantry Division, moved out toward Seoul.

On the second or third day we began to move almost due east, cutting off the escape routes of the NKPA. There were thousands of POW’s, under American guard, being marched to POW compounds. It was our job to look for stragglers. We set up roadblocks and tried to check everyone. It became very difficult to pick out the refugees from the infiltrators.

After a time, we were sent to guard an interrogation enclosure for those suspected of aiding the North Koreans. It was a barbed wire area, so we had a clear view of all that was going on. My guard post was situated at the end of a bridge about fifty yards from the compound; across from me was an ROK soldier. Having to relieve himself, he went a short distance down a slope beside the bridge. While he was gone, an ROK officer (rank unknown) came looking for him. Finding him absent from his post, the officer unholstered his pistol and shot the soldier dead. That scene is as vivid in my mind today as the day it happened.

* * * * * *

I cannot recall how we were transported south to Pusan, where we bivouacked north of the city. After replacing missing equipment, we were taken by truck to the docks and loaded onto LST’s. Each of which carried a battalion and regardless of rank everybody was located on the deck. The only thing loaded in the holds was our vehicles.

We sailed up the east coast in very choppy seas, and men had become seasick. With limited latrine facilities, men were trying to hang over the sides to vomit, crap, or whatever else needed to be done. The deck became so slick from all the refuse, one could barely keep their footing; especially with the pitch and yaw of the boat. We didn’t help our situation any by eating C-rations. Needless to say, we looked like hell, and felt worse.

Finally, we reached Iwon, North Korea. The crew of our LST ran the vessel aground, opened its doors, lowered the ramps, and discharged its stinking passengers. Luckily, we met no enemy resistance and as we walked through the sand we drug our feet, trying to get rid of the slime from our landing craft. There was nothing we could do about the rest of our condition.

We moved inland and quickly took up positions along a ridge line. For the next several days, we patrolled the surrounding area. During this time I went from being a rifleman to a platoon scout; this meant I was the first idiot out front. I held this job until February of 1951, and then I became a machine gunner.

As October drew to a close, the days and nights began to get colder. When the big push began we headed north to the Yalu River. As we traveled along the roads, we saw six men dressed in quilted clothing lying dead in a gully; we knew who they were—Chinese. They had been killed by artillery fire. However, we could not get anyone beyond battalion to believe us.

By this time the weather had turned miserable; it had turned colder, rain with snow mixed in, and fog. We were still wearing our warm weather gear. A few of us didn’t have anything to keep us warm, our feet dry, or gloves for our hands—it would only get worse.

The 3rd BN had to be moved in a hurry, to the west, to join up with the rest of the regiment, so trucks were sent to pick us up. I don’t recall how far we traveled, but it was fairly long with very few latrine breaks. At one point I had to relieve myself—badly. So, I sat on my helmet, on the wooden seat of the truck, and did what I had to do. When finished, I threw my helmet out the back of the truck. Needless to say, I wasn’t the most popular guy on the truck. But I soon had company.

The further north we traveled, the snow became deeper and the mountains higher. Luckily, we had some tanks traveling with us, which could break a trail. Everything we needed was airdropped to us, gasoline, food, and ammo; everything except warm clothing. The mountains were so high, and because of their heavy cargo, the C-46’ and C-47’s had a difficult time getting enough altitude to make their drops. In fact, one plane crashed making its drop.

As we continued our journey we met sporadic resistance, which our tank gunners pretty much put a stop to. I remember walking along and as I looked down noticed a human foot that had been severed at the ankle. It was still in a rubber slipper that Koreans and Chinese wore, and still had rice straw wrapped around it for traction.

Our first view of the village of Hysenjin, the Yalu River, and the Manchurian border was from atop a mountain pass about three or four miles from the village. When we entered Hysenjin there were no civilians around. Nobody! When the command element figured out where each unit should be positioned—we settled in. At this time we were still wearing the same clothes we had on when we boarded the LST’s in Pusan. The only thing we had been able to do along the way was to bathe in streams we passed on our way north. However, with the temperatures dropping liking it was, it was a hit and miss proposition.

The following morning Hysenjin was overrun by civilians; where they came from, I have no idea. There was a bridge that crossed the Yalu into Manchuria. We were not allowed to step on it or even point a weapon in the direction of Manchuria.

We enlisted the aid of the local women to wash our clothes. Except for removing the eggs of body lice, they did a good job. Having slept in several Korean homes along the way, we were all pretty lousy at that point. It wasn’t at all unusual to be sitting by a fire, trying to get warm, and feel a louse crawling up your neck trying to reach your hairline. When you caught one you threw it in the fire and just waited for it to expand, and then explode. We lived like this our entire tour of duty.

Some time before we entered Hysenjin we were issued winter sleeping bags, but not before the mercury reached zero. All we had prior to that was what we called a “mummy bag.” Basically, that was just an OD wool blanket with a zipper sewn on it. At Hysenjin we were issued snow pack boots, which had rubber lowers, leather uppers, and an insole that went in the boot. However, when you perspired, the insole would freeze to the bottom of your socks. Needless to say, we didn’t receive any additional socks. Most of us had two pair; we wore one pair and kept the other next to our bodies, so they would dry out. Now you can see why so many guys had trench foot, or frost bite.

Finally, we were clean and warm. As I recall, this lasted about three days. Item Company was the furthermost company—on the west side of Hysenjin—and we were chosen to be a task force to go west and cut off any NKPA soldiers trying to escape into Manchuria. Along with three tanks from the 17th Tank CO., we moved out on Thanksgiving morning. We traveled only a few miles when the road became so narrow that the tanks couldn’t move forward. So, we all just stood around—with our thumbs up our butts—until regiment decided what to do.

In the meantime, Thanksgiving Dinner was brought to us. It was close to dark and with the temperature dipping well below zero; the food froze about as fast as it was served. Most of us had long since discarded anything that wasn’t vital to our survival, because of the extra weight. So, all we had was the bottom half of our mess kit and a spoon. I am not making light of this, but the spoon was as important as the weapon you carried; it was the only tool capable of getting frozen C-rations out of the can.

By now the tank crews had managed to back out two of their tanks, and headed back to Hysenjin. The other tank was still wedged in and unable to move. So, using thermite grenades, it was destroyed in place. We spent the night right there on the road, in plain view of the Chinese.

Early the next morning, we moved out. The snow was now deeper and the going was rough. I was still a scout at this time and the only opposition we received was a single individual about three-hundred yards in front of me. He fired one shot and ran away as fast as he could.

Continuing on, we came to a place where there was a sheer cliff on one side and a drop-off to a river on the other side. Across the river was a small hut, where the door would fly open and either a North Korean or Chinese would spray us with burp-gun fire. We quickly returned fire and for some reason I was knocked backwards, into a ditch, when I fired my M-1. I don’t know if we got him or not, but the shooting stopped.

Somehow I had jammed the muzzle of my rifle with snow, thus causing me to be knocked backwards when I fired it. I saw that one of our ROK soldiers had an M-1, so we traded. The M-1 I had was split open all the way back to the gas port.

Roughly two-hundred yards from here was a tunnel approximately two-hundred feet long, and at the front end it looked like there should have been a bridge over a tributary of the Yalu. There was a sharp incline, on the far side, where the ground leveled out for a few hundred yards. At the end was a village with a tower at one corner. As my squad topped the incline, and crossed the open, we began to take small arms fire from the tower. Equipped only with small arms ourselves, we charged forward running and firing. I was on the right flank and that was as far as I got.

Some time later, I woke up in a jeep trailer. Apparently I had been struck a glancing blow, above my left eye. Later, my platoon sergeant told me with all the blood he thought I was dead. I was taken back to the battalion aid station where I was treated. They kept me for two days to be sure I was okay—I had one hellish headache.

When I returned to Item Company it was late afternoon and they were getting ready for chow. Suddenly, word came to move-out immediately. All the mess hall equipment had been brought up and set up in the tunnel; we left everything and headed south. Can you believe it, we were going to have chocolate cake? I hope the bastards that got it enjoyed it as much as we would have. There was no need to worry about stragglers, because if you fell behind, “Charlie” had you. We took very few breaks.

We arrived at one place that had an overhead cable system—built by the Japanese—that was still operational. All the gear that we could do without was loaded onto the cable cars, and sent over the mountain to Pungson—where we were headed.

When we arrived at Pungson, we found a narrow gauge train with enough flat cars to carry all of us. I don’t remember how long it took us to get to Hamhung, but I was glad to be riding for a change. At Hamhung we were placed along a perimeter so the Marines could get out. After this was accomplished, we went south to the mountains that were just north of Hungnam.

The 3rd BN was deployed along a ridge line on both sides of a pass. Our platoon was selected to set up and man a roadblock at the base of the pass. My squad was placed on first watch, so we set up just before dark with four rifles, a BAR, and 3.5 rocket launcher. There was a house, with what we would call a privacy fence, approximately fifty-to-sixty yards from our position. Two other guys and myself pulled the first watch while the guys who had the second shift went in the house to get warm, and dry out their socks. I don’t remember the time we were relieved, but I’m guessing it was around 2300 hours. We had just pulled our snowpacs and socks off when we heard a jeep stop at the roadblock.

A short time later—two to three minutes—we heard all hell break loose in the direction the jeep was headed. We scrambled to get dressed. It goes without saying, it was darker than dark. As we started out the door, guys from the roadblock ran past us heading up the hill towards Love Company—we were right behind them. By this time bullets were flying through the fence and over our heads as well. It sounded as though the entire Chinese army was shooting at us. Love Company quickly opened fire, and someone saved our butts by calling in mortar fire. By now we were wearing those heavy, long rayon coats with a liner—they must have weighed twenty pounds.

The following morning we found the occupants of the jeep, approximately two-hundred yards from the roadblock; all three were dead from multiple gunshot wounds as well as being badly beaten. The lieutenant’s ring finger had been broken off—we assumed they took his ring. We had all seen casualties from gunshots, but never anyone that had been beaten.

This was the end of our roadblock duty.

We went back to the top of the pass, and took our place on the line. From our position we could look down on the beach at Hungnam. We could see that all the tanks and artillery pieces that had not been loaded aboard the ships had been placed hub-to-hub, in a semi-circle around the dock area. When I say hub-to-hub, they were less than ten yards apart. In the harbor was the battleship Missouri, along with ships equipped with smaller caliber guns. At night the Missouri fired 16 inch flares to illuminate the area for the artillery forward observers. The temperature was still hovering around thirty below zero, and the faintest light shown by the enemy was fatal for them. If they attempted to light a fire, it was usually their last act before meeting their ancestors.

We, the 17th, were next to the last infantry troops to board ships; the last being the 65th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division. After being very cold for so long, the heat and warmth of the ship was, and is, beyond description.

I have no earthly idea where we landed in South Korea, but when we debarked we were told that we could no longer burn buildings for the purpose of getting warm. The houses all had rice straw roofs, and they burned very well. We were just trying to help out by killing all the lice. By the way, we were all lousy to the max.

We then took a fairly short train ride—short in miles, long in hours. The morning after our arrival at our new positions, the entire regiment lined up according to company. What equipment we had was laid out if front of us as we stood for a Division Command Inspection. How absurd, considering what we had just come through!

I, and most of the other guys, had a weapon, cartridge belt, canteen (or at least the cup), mess kit with spoon, P-38 can opener, sleeping bag, and the clothes on my back—including lice. We were a pretty sad looking bunch of guys. Today as I look back on it—we looked defeated.

* * * * * *

In early February, we were on a mountain pass above Wonju. The enemy was so close that the artillery was firing at maximum elevation. While we were holding the line, two full ROK divisions ran by us; they were bugging out. However, they were stopped a few miles down the road. All their officers, and senior NCO’s, were replaced and the division’s were sent back to help defend Wonju. It was a major road junction that was still in UN hands, and had to be held.

Later in February we moved to the area of Hoensong. By this time I had become the 3rd platoon machine gunner. We fought several battles in the mountains around Hoensong. During one engagement, I was down behind my gun when I felt something hit my leg just below the knee. I started raising hell about somebody throwing rocks. It wasn’t a rock; it was a bullet that didn’t have enough velocity to penetrate the flesh.

By March we were in the vicinity of a small town called Tamani. We came down off a ridge line, crossed a narrow valley, and assaulted another ridge line to our front. It was heavily defended by the Chinese. We advanced approximately three-hundred yards before they pinned us down. I quickly set up my machine gun and began firing. Between me and the other two platoon machine guns, we were very effective. Incoming bullets were hitting so close in front of me, mud was splattering in my face. In times like these, a person will do dumb things; I cursed, yelled and kept on killing Chinese.

By now we were taking on mortar fire, which was very accurate. During the shelling I lost my foxhole buddy. A piece of shrapnel split his skull from front to back; we had been together from day one. I wonder to this day why he wasn’t wearing his helmet. I helped carry him back across the valley, up the steep hill we had just come down that morning and down the other side to the aid station. It was a very sad trip.

I was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor for that action, but I would much rather have had my friend back. It took me several years to find out, but Trumansville, New York is the final resting place for Leo W. Maguire—my friend.

During the month of April, and up until I rotated home in late May, we were in the hills of Chorwon Valley. All headquarter elements were down in the valley and caught hell when the Chinese opened the flood gates on the dam located at the upper end of the valley. If flooding them wasn’t enough, they also bombarded them with mortar fire.

One morning around 0200 hours, the shepherds horns started blowing, green tracers filled the air, and screams of “Banzai, Banzai” echoed in the darkness; a definite sign of a human-wave attack. It had been awhile since we had one, but one is never prepared for it. Some of the Chinese were on Mongolian ponies pushing the foot soldiers that were in front of them. The 23rd Infantry Regiment was on our left flank and they were attacked the same time as us. At daylight we found bodies within twenty yard of us, explaining the number of hand grenades we had experienced during the night.

This was the last human wave attack I was involved in.

Toward the end of May I had earned the thirty-six points required to rotate home. Of the original guys, there were only four or five of us left. You had to be examined by the battalion surgeon to determine if you had any lice; hell everyone had lice. The doc said there was no way he was going to keep anyone in Korea because of lice.

I traveled by train to Pusan where I boarded a louse infested Japanese passenger ship to Sasebo, Japan. From here we took buses to the processing area. We went in one end of a long building, were told to strip naked, given a small draw string bag for what few valuables we had, given “about face,” and sent out the same door we came in. Up an embankment from this building was a hospital. Its windows were filled with American and Japanese nurses, shouting and whistling at us. Here we received an honest-to-goodness hot shower, and a thorough dusting with DDT.

My time in Korea was over.

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