On Going To War
by Bernard Trainor
Originally published April 1996 in the Marine Corps Gazette.
From the classrooms of The Basic School to the frozen hills of the Korean War, the author tells his story of how a 'student officer (or was it officer student?)' was transformed into a combat leader.
If we heard it once, we heard it a hundred times-"Listen up, this might just save your life." It was an instructor's way of waking us up to pay attention to what he was saying. The year was 1951. The "us" were newly commissioned second lieutenants. We were going through a special 5-month basic course, shortened from the normal 9 months because of the year old war raging in Korea. Most of us would end up there after graduation, but at the time the war was remote and we were carefree. Our class had gathered in June, at which time we were treated to a "pack and equitation" course prior to the start of The Basic School (TBS). The course was supposed to teach us how to care for horses and use them as beasts of burden in mountain warfare. After peeking into the rear end of horses and spending hours brushing the beasts down, we were convinced the course was a manufactured excuse to justify the costs of maintaining the Quantico stables. This suspicion was reinforced months later when nary a horse was seen by any of us in Korea. Heavy lifting was done by the wiry and incredibly strong Koreans known as "chiggie bearers."
After the horsey drill, TBS started, and we were soon immersed in the good stuff-warfighting stuff-like setting headspace on the .30 caliber air cooled machinegun, how to fold a tactical map, immediate action drill for a jammed Browning Automatic Rifle (pull-push-tap-aimfire), and how to get lost on a night compass march around the Quantico golf course. Many of our instructors had just returned from Korea, veterans of the Pusan Perimeter, the Inchon landing, Seoul, and the Chosin Reservoir. On top of that most had also fought in one or two of the final campaigns of the Pacific war. They were wellseasoned Marines, but most of them were lousy instructors, thus their recourse to life and death admonitions before a shed full of sleepy heads. I say shed, because we had no fancy classrooms. TBS at the time was located at the far end of mainside, where Officer Candidates School is today. We lived in the now derelict red brick barracks and learned the ways of war in the big tin utility sheds backing on the barracks-stifling hot in summer and freezing cold in winter. They weren't much as a learning environment, but were great for character building, if constant discomfort serves that end.
Most "nonessential" subjects had been dropped from the normal 9-month basic course to concentrate for 5 months on essentials of the infantry trade. We could then be whisked off to the front at least knowing that north was at the top of the map and that the sum of Marine Corps tactics was two up, one back, take the high ground, and feed the troops a hot meal. Among the subjects missing from the wartime program of instruction were post exchange management and formal guardmount, areas in which I remained deficient throughout my career. When I retired in 1985, I marveled that I made it to general officer absent such essential knowledge. With warrior subjects the exclusive focus of TBS, the Quantico experience was a lot of fun. "Lecture, Demonstration, and Application" was the educational philosophy, so if you slept through the lecture part, you had a good chance of getting the drift of the subject during the canned demonstration or through the art of doing.
Sleeping in class was not a luxury, it was an essential. Most of us had active social lives in Washington, particularly on weekends, when after Saturday inspection he with the speediest car would rush to the Ambassador Hotel, on the corner of 14th and K, and engage a communal room for the follow-on horde barreling up Highway 1. From our command post at the Ambassador we would sally forth to do romantic and intoxicating things around town, retiring to its sanctuary for replenishment and repair throughout the weekend. Those few who were married also had active lives in their cramped and overpriced apartments in Fredericksburg. Many a new bride learned the meaning of Marine Corps couth when she set a table with her wedding china and crystal and innocently invited some of hubby's rowdy platoon mates for a homecooked meal. Another few of the class scoped out Mary Washington College and mysteriously disappeared into that grid square whenever they could. All of this meant late hours as we burned the candle at both ends. Absent a night field problem, speed runs north and south were routine.
After a late night, morning PT, and a wholesome breakfast of scrapple, courtesy of our Philadelphia-born mess officer, we were all ready for a little shut-eye. Where better to make up for sleep deprivation than in the learning shed. Those of us who arrived late in the alphabet got the most sleep because in a world of alphabetical order we were hidden and unobserved in the back of the class. Not that sleeping back there wasn't without its risks. Recalling an incident, one of our number was deep in the arms of Morpheus when he was randomly called by the mortar instructor on a question related to the famous WORM formula. Unhearing, the student officer (or was it officer student?) was saved acute embarrassment by a sympathetic deskmate who nudged him into consciousness and whispered, "Two jeeps and a trailer"-an answer promptly made by the dozer that confounded the faculty, but won the admiration of his fellows.
Field problems were the meat and potatoes of the course, and we spent a lot of time groveling in the mud learning that the earth is the infantryman's friend. We also learned that the two most dangerous things to an aspiring 03 were chiggers and poison ivy. May it ever remain so. A famous location for our furious mock battles was Samsky's Ridge. Who Samsky was is lost in time as is the ridge, for it is now the site of the FBI Academy. But it was on that piece of terrain that we tried to master the ABCs of offensive and defensive combat and the use of supporting arms. Midway through our training, we had a live fire exercise in which we attacked with mortar and artillery support. It was my first rime with the real thing. As we assaulted through the objective and took up a hasty defense against counterattack, the ridge was still smoking from the prep fires and the smell of the explosives was strong. As I laid in my assigned position, I picked up a shard from a just exploded artillery round. It was jagged and still very hot. "My God," I thought, "what a horrible thing to rip into you." From that moment on, some of the fun was taken out of playing John Wayne.
In typical Marine fashion, most of our tactical training was for the offense. Although with memories of the Chosin Reservoir fresh in everybody's mind, a respectful amount was given to night defense, and we became fully acquainted with the Chinese tactic of attacking from the front while enveloping from the rear. Unfortunately, most of this instruction turned out to be of little value for the type of war we \vere to fight in the second winter. By the time we got to Korea, peace talks at Panmunjon had put major operations on hold. Positional warfare dominated the battlefield as both sides burrowed into the ground in trenches reminiscent of World War I. What we needed training in was night patrolling, ambushes, and trench raids-none of which we received. Again, in typical Marine fashion, we ultimately learned by doing.
However, the veterans of the first year of the war were invaluable in passing on tricks of fieldcraft learned in the bitter first winter. Contrary to all the rules of the rifle range, we learned that the best way to keep the bore of an M-1 clear was to fire a round through it twice a day at daylight and dusk. We also learned that the standard rifle lubricant freezes in extreme temperatures and that the graphite in a number two lead pencil was the preferred lubricant for a weapon's moving parts. We also learned that temporary relief from the cold could be obtained by squatting over a lighted candle with a poncho draped over our parkas to form a living tent. Our 1:25,000 maps could also be preserved by encasing them in the plastic from radio batteries. (Remember, this was in the days before ziplock bags on the supermarket shelves.) All of these tips stood us in good stead during the year ahead, and while none of them saved our lives as so often forecast by our instructors, they did make our part of the war more tolerable.
Summer gave way to autumn, and the stunning red and yellow foliage of the Virginia countryside formed the backdrop for more fieldwork. As time for graduation and orders to our next duty station drew near our concentration improved. Unfortunately, this was not matched by confidence in our equipment. Everything at Quantico seemed to be broken. Schools Troops corporals always assured us that things would be "better \vhen you get to the fleet," but we weren't so sure. I recall tank-infantry tactics (circa Peleliu) when I tried to use the phone at the stern of an old M-4, only to be told that was one item that never worked. "Climb up and hammer on the hatch lieutenant, that's what we always do," was the field expedient in this instance. Some solution, I thought. What's the lifespan of a lieutenant crazy enough to do that in a firefight?
By November the mysterious "they" at a place known by the cognoscenti as "HQMC" had issued the edict that would seal the fate of our class-MOS assignments and orders. I experienced a rush to the head and a tinge of fear in the heart when I read that I was assigned MOS 0301 and ordered to Camp Joseph H. Pendleton for "further transfer beyond the seas." This was it, I was going to war. Comparing orders with others, I found out that a group of us would not be going out with the monthly ship draft from the West Coast, but were to be flown out early as replacement officers in a special air draft-most unusual we were told and a bit ominous we deduced. The old wives' tales about a lieutenant's longevity in combat made its rounds. Those that \vere not on the air draft \vere both envious of we favored few and a bit relieved that they would have a little seasoning time before they were kicked into the cauldron.
The leaves fell from the trees and the damp cold set in as we approached December and our final exercise, "The Three Day War." Those of us on the air draft were assigned the command positions by the staff in one last attempt to get us to do it right. I was assigned as a platoon commander. For the next 3 days and nights we moved, shot, and froze along the icy shores of Chopawamsic Creek. Those not scheduled for "further transfer beyond the seas" had already taken their packs off and saw no earthly reason to hustle just because their fellow lieutenant in command was in imminent danger of death. As far as they were concerned, staying warm was the only object of the exercise. Thus, in the final hours of TBS, I was faced with my first challenge at motivating the troops. I failed miserably and found only my fellow air draftees with me in the final assault of the "war." The others \vere already forming on the road to head back to the barracks and a hot shower. "You've got to do better than that, Trainor," was the only critique I received from the tactics instructor, as he poured hot coffee from his thermos. I was horrified that my name might be struck from the replacement roster with the notation, "Not fit for duty in the field-recommend reassignment to aviation." (Here I want to apologize to all my aviator friends for what can be interpreted as a cruel remark. Please remember that my tactics instructor was an 03). As luck would have it, incompetence in the field did not result in my damnation, and orders remained as issued.
Beside the importance of motivation, I learned a lot in those final 72 hours of TBS. Most of all I learned how easy it is to become mistake prone when cold, wet, sleepless, and fatigued over a prolonged period of time. It was then that the rote repetition of things like the five paragraph combat order, the seven troop leading steps, and immediate action drills suddenly made sense. They allow an officer to engage in automatic when the brain can't handle manual. It was a lesson I appreciated the rest of my career.
With TBS behind us, short leaves were in order. Some of us met in New York City to shed our student officer nametags and celebrate our bona fide lieutenancies. Such was our bravado that at one watering hole we shocked the patrons by loudly toasting "a superior armed force of brave and gallant warriors without which our life would have no meaning-the Chinese Communist Army!" Then we were off to the West Coast on our way to war with that army.
At Pendleton we found that we were treated pretty much as third lieutenants again by patronizing but solicitous senior noncommissioned officers (NCOs), who wondered where the Corps was headed with this lot of young pups. Billeted in the 17 area, in a reopened World War II BOQ suffering from faulty plumbing, dry rot, and the smell of mildew, we went through predeployment "training." We were marched and shuttled around for lectures on first aid, frostbite, sexually transmitted diseases (which led us to wonder what exactly we were expected to do when we met the Chinese), and the care and cleaning of the M-1 rifle-all a waste of time, but it gave the base personnel something to do. We also received inoculations for all known diseases, filled out all sorts of forms, and had our spiritual needs seen to by Navy Reserve chaplains called up for the war from cushy ministries. Despite the mickey mouse of Pendleton, the hours were short and the liberty was great. Rental car dealers made a fortune as we hired wheels at each liberty call. Led by our many California classmates, we headed to where the action was up and down Highway 101.
Marines who went through the first Korean winter were ill-prepared for the ordeal and suffered mightily from the weather. This was bad publicity for an outfit that boasted of fighting in every clime and place ". . . from the snows of far off northern lands," etc. To avoid a repetition of that embarrassment, the Commandant ordered that all Marines prior to shipping out for Korea go through a period of cold weather indoctrination. Thus, the mountain training center outside of Bridgeport, CA, fondly known as Pickle Meadows, came to be. Early on a Monday morning, a hungover group of lieutenants joined a draft of enlisted replacements, boarded busses Mainside, and headed north through the high desert. As the sun rose, so did our spirits as we marveled at the incredible new equipment we were issued. There were pilelined parkas, waterproof oversuits, big, warm thermal boots, and most of all, down mountain bags. For a group that had recently fought a 3-day war in utilities, field jackets, boondockers and leggings, protected from the elements by only worn out ponchos and frayed wool blankets, this was luxury indeed. Hey, we thought, this war can't be all that bad. Why, they even gave us rubber air mattresses.
The winter of 1951-52 was particularly bad in the high Sierras; lots of snow. The Chicago Limited on its way to San Francisco became snowbound for days in the Donner Pass and had to be resupplied by helicopter. It made the pages of Life magazine. All this by way of introduction to the fact that we never made it to Pickle Meadows. The busses \vere halted by the state police at Bishop, CA, and the drivers told that the highway was closed further north due to the snow. Their advice was to turn around and go home. This put the little fat major in charge of the convoy in a state of near panic. He argued to the troopers that his wards were on their way to Korea and the Commandant had mandated that they go through cold weather training first. As anyone who has ever tried to argue with a state policeman knows, the major's efforts got him nowhere. The police outranked the Commandant in California and they absolutely mandated that "you shall not pass." We were delighted with their firmness. We had no burning desire to go to Pickle Meadows. After all, our days along the Chopawamsic qualified us for nasty weather. Besides, an unscheduled return to Pendleton probably meant liberty call.
Poor Maj No-Name of course saw things differently. He just couldn't return to garrison with troops unqualified for winter warfare because of winter conditions. Think of the shame. Besides, it would throw the whole Marine Corps and its well greased replacement system out of sync. I will say this for him, he may have been a staff pogue with a dirty belt and unshined brass, but he was a dedicated Marine with a sense of mission and a knack for the famous field expedient. If Mohammed could not go to the mountain, he would bring the mountain to Mohammed. He blew a whistle and ordered everyone out of the busses. For the next 3 days and nights we tromped through the snow in the hills above Bishop, pretending we were in Korea, while the major set up his CP in a local motel. At the end of our trekking we piled into the busses and headed back to Pendleton. Upon arrival, NCOs were seated at portable tables stacked with our officer qualification record books. As we debussed and identified ourselves by name, an entry was stamped into our officer qualification records, "Certified: Winter Warfare Qualified."
We turned in all our nifty cold weather gear, assured that we would pick up another issue when we reached our destination. Now we were to go back to the BOQ, pack up, and stand by for transportation for our overseas flight. This came in the form of an overnight train ride to San Francisco and a shuttle bus ride to the Naval Air Station Treasure Island. It being Saturday morning we all assumed we would have liberty until Monday and looked forward to a final fling in the city on the bay. No such luck. We were told we would fly out that night to Hawaii. Quarantined to the base, we had little else to do but hit the officer's club. (Today's lieutenants must realize our's was an age of pretty hard drinking.) By nightfall some of our number were becoming a problem for the club manager, who insisted on good behavior under threat of calling the officer of the day. "What's he going to do, send us to Korea?" was the rejoinder. At 2100, against the magnificent backdrop of an illuminated San Francisco, we bade adieu to the United States, some forever, and boarded a giant Martin Mars flying boat. Bouncing down the choppy waters of the bay, the pilot engaged his JATO for a jet assisted takeoff into the dark western skies.
The trip was a blur for many of us. We were broken into smaller loads in Hawaii and sent off by serials in propeller driven transports. We seemed to touch down in the land of perpetual breakfast as we refueled at Johnston Island, Midway, and Guam: names that held excitement for us from a not-long-past war. By the time we got to Guam were pretty ripe as we were doing our tropical flight route in winter uniform. Guam provided a brief relief from a succession of scrambled eggs and toast at refueling stops and bologna sandwiches in between. It was a break where we could clean up and spend a pleasant afternoon at the air station's O Club. At the bar there I met a slightly glassy eyed Navy officer in mufti, who introduced himself as Captain Gay. "Not the Ensign Gay, sole survivor of Torpedo Squadron Eight at the Battle of Midway?" I asked. He modestly confirmed that he was one and the same. For the rest of the afternoon he held me in thrall with tales of the Pacific war. It was only later that I found out that my drinking buddy was indeed Capt Gay; Capt Gay the air station dentist. Since that scam I've never trusted a Navy officer.
Our final stopover before the land of the morning calm was at Naval Air Station Itami outside of Osaka. We arrived on a cold, damp evening and were given liberty until midnight. We were to muster for our short hop to Korea at 0200. Most of us went into Osaka, but we were tired and partied out. Besides, the prospect of imminent combat was beginning to work on our nervous systems. I spent most of my time playing pachinko, a game I had never seen before, but was obviously a national passion for the Japanese. Returning to the air station before the bewitching hour, we packed and stored our greens in willie peter bags and drew utilities, mickey mouse boots, and a field jacket. Questioning where we drew the rest of our winter gear reminiscent of Camp Pendleton, we were told that would occur when we arrived in Korea. And weapons, when do we draw them? This query received the same answer. Typical supply pogues, we thought. "Ain't got none, and you're not gettin' any." We piled into underheated C-47s and shivered into the early morning sky. It was barely light when we landed at a dirt airfield somewhere on the east coast of Korea. Its infrastructure consisted of an air control van and a single "pram" tent with black smoke belching from a tin chimney protruding from its roof. The air crew parked their planes and immediately headed for it. It didn't take a high IQ to figure out that the rest of us were not welcome. Between shivers we sized up our environment. We were on flatland, but hills and mountains were not too distant. What wasn't covered in snow was brown and frozen. The frigid wind raced down the slopes of the hills and made a mad dash to embrace us at the airstrip. We thought we could hear reverberations of distant explosions, leading us to conclude that we were just behind the front. We half expected to see hordes of Chinese racing towards us accompanying the wind.
The dead winter scene came to life in the distance as we spotted dust rising from the dirt road leading to the air strip. As it came closer we saw that the dust heralded the arrival of a convoy of some worse for wear 6-by-6 trucks. They came to a halt abreast of our gaggle of lieutenants and disgorged a motley lot of humanity worse for wear than the trucks that conveyed them. These were troopers who had done their time and were heading home. They could scarcely be described as human. Unkempt greasy hair under helmets that had seen long service as cooking pots. Red rimmed eyes with wild looks, faces camouflaged with a combination of rust-colored road dust and black soot. Each apparition was similarly clad in a frayed, dirty, and greasy parka, adorned with a bandoleer of .30 caliber ball ammunition to go with a dirty M-1 rifle slung over the shoulder. To say that they were wildly exuberant would be an understatement. Those that weren't relieving themselves where they stood were making wild noises and looking at us with hysterical glee. The old boot camp shout was raised, "You'll be sorrrry!" An NCO took charge of the lot and told them to file past and board the planes, dropping M-1s in a pile along the way, ammo in another, parkas in a third, and finally their helmets in a fourth pile. This they did with alacrity and with much cheering, jeering, and shouting as they disappeared in the bowels of the planes that had so recently delivered us to this scene. The air crews left the sanctuary of their heating tent, reentered their aircraft, and sped down the runway with a cargo of happy, slightly insane, homeward bound young Marines. In the ensuing silence, the convoy NCO then turned to us with exaggerated deference and said, "Now, gentlemen, if you would be kind enough to equip yourself from the piles in front of you, we will be on our way." So this is what they meant when we were told we would draw our equipment in Korea. A sober group of lieutenants filed by to pick up helmet, parka, bandoleer, and rifle-all more than slightly used. Boarding the trucks, we were admonished to stay alert for guerrilla ambushes along the way. The fact that we were a full day's ride from the battle area and that the route north was as safe as a nursery was lost on us. We headed off in a cloud of dust with every nerve on edge awaiting the sound of hostile gunfire.
Our journey north took us through Korean villages, giving us our first look at a culture so foreign to our own. All of the "villes," as we quickly learned to call them, looked dirt poor, made more so in the grip of winter. We saw few young people. The road we passed along was populated by children, who waved to us as we passed. The old people ignored us. All were dressed in ratty padded jackets that made our beat-up parkas look good. The houses appeared to be made of mud, topped with thatched roofs. Unfamiliar flues ran up the sides of the structures. These we learned constituted the heating system. Fires were built in pits under the houses with heat and smoke running up the flues. It was a primitive but marvelously effective system that kept the homes toasty warm. As we later noted, the Koreans on both sides constructed their living bunkers on the lines in similar fashion-far more effective than the damp and cold living spaces that we found in our trenches. The few times we slowed down in a ville, a horde of little ragamuffins swarmed around the trucks shouting, "Alo Joe, chopchop," as they mimed shoveling food into their faces. Not only could we not comply, but their entreaties reminded us that we had not eaten since the night before and had no hint of a meal along the way. Like the kids, we too were hungry.
The fascination of being in a new and strange land soon gave way to cold discomfort and ennui, as we rolled on endlessly with dust roiling into the backs of the trucks. Within hours of leaving our port of debarkation, we were a modest equivalent of the dirty troops who had come south earlier in the same vehicles. As the day drew on, the villages and people became fewer, the terrain more mountainous and snowy, and the unmistakable signs of military activity more evident. Broken and abandoned vehicles and equipment half hidden in the snow dotted the sides of the road. MP checkpoints surrounded by barbed wire became more numerous. Supply and maintenance camps were frequently seen not too distant from the road. I noted that, like the warming shelter at the airstrip, every canvas tent along the way that hinted at human life was marked by a tin chimney belching black smoke in mystical communion with the others.
It was dark and very cold when our tired and hungry cohort arrived at the tent city that was the 1st Marine Division CP. Unloading from our transport, we stretched cramped legs thankful to be done with vehicular torture. We were ushered into a mess tent for leftovers from the evening dinner and thanked the Lord for our daily bread, as spartan as it was. Now it was time to bed down. Led to a complex of empty squad tents, we were invited to lay claim to stretchers that were lined up in neat rows therein and get some rest. Wondering where those air mattresses and lovely mountain bags were that we had in the hills above Bishop, we flopped on our stretchers and assumed a fetal position in our parkas, which by this time had grown to be our cherished friends. As luck would have it I drew a defective stretcher, which kept collapsing on me and sticking its sharp bracing elbows into my shoulder. It was not a pleasant night.
Morning was sparkling clear and sunny. With daylight and a good hot breakfast with steaming coffee, our spirits were restored. Returning to our billeting area, we were told by a round little major, who vaguely resembled our mentor on cold weather indoctrination, to line up. Those who were Naval Academy graduates were asked to raise their hands. (Ours was the regular officer class of 1951, made up mostly of USNA and NROTC graduates.) Those of us who had come through the NROTC or other programs were immediately suspicious of an old boy conspiracy to give all the infantry platoon leader jobs to the Academy grads. Visions of being the bath and fumigation officer or OIC of messkit repair flashed through the minds of the rest of us. The reason the Annapolis types were singled out was soon made manifest and was in keeping with the highest traditions of Marine Corps logic. "You officers know all about naval guns, don't you?" the major asked. Without awaiting an answer, he added, "Good, we need arty FOs." The connection was obvious: guns are guns and if you know about naval guns, by definition you also understand the nature of 105mm and 155mm artillery. Selecting the requisite number of new artillerymen from the cluster of raised hands, he turned to a waiting NCO and certified their fate, saying "Sergeant, deliver these gentlemen to die 11th Marines." This was my first insight to the exquisite Marine Corps personnel assignment system. I would continue to marvel at it for another three decades.
Like Tacitus' description of Gaul, the rest of us were divided into three parts and directed to trucks to take us to the 1st, 5th, and 7th Marines. The 1st and 7th Marines were on line with the 5th in division reserve. I went to the 1st Marines, where our group was again divided in three and immediately shipped further north to the three battalions of the regiment. Without any particular reason I went to the 1st battalion. Not bad, I thought, 1/1/1. Our short travels from division to regiment to battalion were through a narrow valley formed by the Soyang Gang (river) and dominated by high ground that had been recently captured at a high cost in lieutenants during the last of the war's offensives. The valley was clogged with artillery and appropriately called "Artillery Valley." Jammed into it was not only the 11th Marines, but reinforcing Army corps artillery. The bang of guns accompanied our journey as the 08s responded to fire missions or launched H&I fires across the front. As I viewed the hub to hub artillery, I thought of the old TBS admonition, "Don't bunch up, lieutenants; one hand grenade will get you all." But the terrain was so constraining and with only a single main supply route though the mountains, I guessed the gunners had no other choice but to cluster.
It was late afternoon when our now diminishing group of replacement officers arrived at the battalion CP, which was located adjacent to the frozen river in a deserted and wrecked village named Cholmi-dong. We were greeted by the XO, who told us the battalion commander would see us in the morning. He bade us welcome and suggested we find a place to bed down for the night. With that he went back into his tent marked with the ubiquitous smoking chimney. So much for welcome aboard. Remembering the cold miserable night I had just spent, I had no intention of repeating it if I could help it. I did not care where my colleagues went, but I was going where I knew it would be warm. I headed for the battalion aid station and asked the corpsmen in the triage tent if I could avail myself of their hospitality. I was made welcome, to the extent that I was ignored. Taking that for silent assent, I settled in for the night, curling up on a stretcher set on saw horses. It was an uneventful night until about 0300, when I was ousted from my perch to make room for a casualty. I pressed against the tent wall to stay out of the way as a Marine who had been hit with mortar fragments was rushed in. His filthy clothing was cut away, soaked field dressings peeled off his gaping wounds, blood pressure taken, IVs begun, and myriad ministrations undertaken by a medical team that had suddenly appeared from the outside darkness. As I looked upon the scene, I was taken back to Samsky's Ridge and the artillery shard I had reflected upon. Yes, I thought, they can do terrible things to the human body. All the while the young Marine appeared conscious and stared fixedly at me with what I thought were accusing eyes. I was almost prompted to say, "Hey, don't blame me, I just got here today!" In due time the battalion surgeon finished his initial lifesaving, and the casualty was moved into the surgery tent. I was left alone looking at the blood soaked stretcher that had been my bed. All thoughts of further sleep had left me.
Another clear, albeit frigid morning cheered me up, and I headed for the battalion mess tent to find my classmates and get some breakfast. A few of the battalion staff were present, and I was greeted cordially. A warrant officer from the tank battalion was having breakfast as he recounted his early morning foray firing his tanks at the North Koreans a little further up the valley. The after action report was fascinating, but so was his language. I had never heard descriptive profanity delivered with such style and elegance. It was almost lyrical. A leisurely breakfast was followed by a casual introduction to the battalion commander. I was really surprised at the informal and laid back atmosphere of the command-none of the protocol I associated with a military unit. The CO did not give us a pep talk, but rather carried on a conversation and then turned us over to the S-3, who took us to the Ops bunker and briefed us on the situation. The battalion had all three companies on line anchored on Hills 812 and 749. Except for a hill held by the North Koreans, known as "Luke the Gook's Castle," about 100 yards in front of Baker Company on 812, the Soyang Gang separated us from the enemy. They were north of the river, we were south. All offensive operations had ceased. Artillery, mortar duels, and air strikes were supplemented by ambushes in the valley and the occasional trench raid, the latter two being conducted exclusively at night. Daytime was reserved for resting and improving defensive positions. Capturing prisoners was a priority. Soon Operation CLAMUP would begin. This was to be a feigned withdrawal across the entire allied front in hopes of drawing inquisitive Chinese and North Koreans out of their positions so some could be captured. The S-3 thought it was a harebrained idea (as it turned out to be).
During the briefing in the hot bunker, I began to smell something sour. I finally identified the source-me. I had not had a shower since Guam. Little did I know that it was still weeks before I would have the next one. Until then it would be a Marine bath, sweat and wipe. After the briefing, the adjutant gave us our assignments. Three of us were to join Charlie Company on Hill 749. The others were distributed around to the other companies. We were told to get our gear and prepare to move forward. What gear, we asked? "Weren't you issued any gear in the rear?" the S-1 inquired. We explained our outfitting plight and how all along the way, half-way around the world, we were assured that all we would need would be provided at our next stop. Obviously, somewhere along the way we passed that magic stop because we didn't have diddly squat. We were told to go to battalion supply and rummage around. He couldn't promise much as the battalion carried very little 782 gear. We did as we were bid and he was right. Most of what was available was salvaged gear from evacuated dead and wounded Marines. We did the best we could and reasonably equipped ourselves, including cherished if soiled mountain bags.
Along with my two comrades, I climbed into a jeep and proceeded north along an icy trail until we came to a finger of land jutting down to the river's edge. Our driver pointed across the frozen water and to the top of the hill that lay beyond. "That's 749," he said. "You'll find Charlie Company on top, lieutenants." As we untangled ourselves to clamber down to the river's edge, our driver had a final piece of what turned out to be upsetting intelligence for us. "When you get beyond this finger, you are in full view of the gook positions up yonder, so I wouldn't tarry going across the river." With that he put the jeep in reverse and backed down the trail. In a scene worthy of Funny Home Videos, three very frightened young officers slid, stumbled, and ran across the open space in what we hoped would be faster than the speed of a bullet. Reaching the safety of the far hill, we collapsed and looked at each other with self-congratulations. Then as though on cue we all burst out laughing. They had their first chance to get us and they missed. At that moment an explosion took place behind us. We watched the dirty smoke rise to the blue sky, and we hugged the snow waiting for the gunners to get our range. But nothing followed. We found out later the source of our fear was the battalion antitank platoon using explosives to set in a position covering the river.
When the fatal round we expected did not materialize, we began the long, tough climb up the hill. We followed the trail that, although protected by the terrain, had already been made icy by resupply details. A veritable cable made up of comm wire was adjacent to the trail allowing us to pull ourselves upward on the treacherous slope. None of us relished the thought of a slip that would send us sliding down to the river bed. Huffing and puffing, and drenched in sweat despite the cold, we came to the military crest of Hill 749. All was deathly quiet, but we saw signs of entrenchments. We also saw scruffy mole like creatures pop up from the ground, survey us, and quickly disappear from whence they came. Puzzled at first, we realized we were seeing and being seen by the resolute Marines of Charlie Company. We made our way along a reverse slope trench line to the company CP, an earthen and log bunker which blended into the hillside.
Entering, we came face to face with our company commander and his first sergeant. Both \vere to have a profound effect on our professional development-they turned out to be the mentors that every new officer should be blessed with. But at this point they were just faces in a hooch lit and wanned by a Coleman lamp. The skipper was a Reserve officer who played semi-pro football in Ohio and had been called back to active duty. The first sergeant was a lean, old line first soldier, who treated young officers with genuine respect, but also made sure they didn't do anything stupid. A country boy by birth, he was a whiz at fieldcraft and a crack shot, as periodic pheasant meals later attested. We were offered cheese and crackers while the Top brewed up real coffee. Again I was stuck by the lack of formality and the casual camaraderie that existed in the line units. A pleasant interlude ensued, which included us being told of the location of a forward battalion aid station, which had been established on the hill because of the reduced chances of untreated casualties ever making it to the rear-a sobering yet comforting observation. Finally, we were asked if we had platoon preferences. Not expressing any, our company commander made the choices. I was to go to the 2d Platoon. Charlie Two was on the company left flank and tied in with Baker Company on 812 facing Luke's Castle. The current platoon leader was still present for duty, but the night before he had sustained his third wound and would leave the platoon to go home upon my arrival.
The three remnants of what was our boisterous airdraft from Quantico parted ways with "good lucks" outside the company CP. We began the solitary treks to our first commands. As I snaked across the icy trail to Charlie Two, the fraternity of Quantico was gone. The collective derision of our instructors, the bravado of leave in New York, the well meaning, but ridiculous world of Pendleton, and our TransPac were gone. The mutual support of my fellow officer was no longer there. Now it was me alone with a scarred rifle and a backpack filled with second hand equipment. It was a lonely moment, one filled with apprehension, self doubt, and a pious prayer that I would not be found wanting in either courage or skill. As if sensing my mood, the brilliant blue sky that had lifted my spirits for the past 2 days gave way to slate gray clouds and the smell of imminent snow. I wondered how it would all end.
The 2d Platoon CP was not much. It was a cave dug into the back slope of the hill and covered with tropical shelter halves left over from the war in the Pacific. As I trudged up the trail, I was met by the current landlord standing in front of it. He was all smiles and greeted me warmly. His arm was in a sling from last night's wound. A scruffy little Marine wearing a big grin stood just behind him with a backpack at his feet. I assumed it was the lieutenant's gear. My predecessor introduced himself, and handed me a map and an overlay. With a smile, he pointed over his shoulder to the north and said, "They're that way." Reversing the direction of his hand, he continued, "I'm heading that way." With that he motioned to his grinning companion and the two of them disappeared down the trail I had just come up. Again, a terrible loneliness overcame me.
I entered the CP to a decidedly indifferent welcome from a committee made up of my platoon sergeant, a redheaded company guide, two radio operators, and a pair of Navy corpsmen. They had been on the line for a couple of weeks, and their appearance showed it. As I soon learned, the duration on the line could be measured by the intensity of red-rimmed eyes and black pores. Introductions were exchanged and I was directed to "the lieutenant's bunk." Set against a wet earthen wall, it consisted of a bed frame made from barbed wire stakes criss-crossed with comm wire. Dropping my gear on it, I was encouraged by a cup of hot cocoa proffered by one of the corpsmen. All hands were occupied rereading well fingered letters from home, and my presence was totally ignored. After studying the map and overlay of our position that my predecessor had willed me, I expressed interest in walking the lines. "Be my guest lieutenant," said my platoon sergeant. Then, with the clear indication that he had no intention of accompanying me, he waved his hand toward the entrance of the shelter and said, "Just follow the communication trench." A bit unnerved by my cool reception and anxious to break the tension that filled the air, I ventured forth "to check the lines."
It was deadly silent and light snow fell as I made my way to the forward slope and into the fighting trenches. There was nary a soul above ground. I stood in the trenchline looking north across the Soyang Gang at the hills opposite hosting the North Koreans. Little could be seen; no sign of trenches or bunkers. I had yet to learn that our enemies dug deep and were masters of camouflage. The only signs of war were the dirty scars on the snow covered slopes to my front caused by our artillery and air strikes. Off in the distance, a pair of Corsairs were dropping bombs on a rear area position. I could not see the explosions, but I could hear them well in arrears of the pullout of the aircraft. I tried to remember how to gauge distance by the flash-bang method, but for the moment the formula eluded me. Looking down our zig-zag trench line, I could see fighting positions with flimsy overhead cover. Periodically, a head would emerge from one of them to sniff the air and glance at me before returning to obscurity. My Marines, I thought. I would get to know them in the coming weeks, mostly by eccentricities of their attire, because their dirty faces made them indistinguishable. Weeks later, when we came off the line and they showered up and were issued clean clothing, it was as though I had never seen one of them before. Before returning to the platoon CP, I gazed northward beyond the Korean main line of resistance. It was a panorama of ever higher snow-covered mountains etched against a leaden sky and stretching to eternity. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I thought, if we go on the offensive this spring, we'll all die out there somewhere. With that happy thought, I retreated back down the communication trench. The snow was getting heavier. The hospitality within the platoon bunker was only a few degrees warmer than the outside temperature. I was being studiously ignored. I had never thought about what sort of reception I would get upon taking over my first platoon, but unconsciously I assumed it would be a bit more cordial than the reality that faced me.
It was about 2300 that first night when I visited the piss tube just down from the CP. As I stood there I saw a flash from the forward slope reflected in the falling snow. An explosion immediately followed. Other explosions followed along with a sound that was to become all to familiar, the zapping of a Chinese burp gun. I could hear M-1 and automatic weapons fire responding. Ricocheting tracers wiggled off into the night. A parachute flare exploded overhead, followed by others in succession, casting an eerie light over the hillside and reflecting off the snow flakes like so many tiny strobe lights. The heavy flash and crump of mortar rounds added greater substance to the cacophony of a fire fight. I stood mesmerized. As a light and sound show, it was beautiful to witness. I came out of my reverie with the shocking realization that we were under attack. Hastening back to the CP, I fumbled through the folds of the shelter half entrance to find a scene of amazing calm and orderliness. The corpsmen were laying out their kits and the radio men were making comm checks. The platoon guide was taking hand grenades out of their tubes and putting them into sandbags. My platoon sergeant, who was a gunnery sergeant, sat on an upended case of C-rations. Around his neck was a dirty strip of cloth with either end tied to a soundpowered phone. One phone was connected to the company mortars, the other to the automatic weapons positions out on the line. When I entered, he was arguing with the mortar NCO who, well removed from the firefight outside our door, wanted to check fire in order to find out why some of the rounds he was firing were duds. The Gunny demanded continuous fire, even duds "could hit them on the head," he argued. Alternately, he would speak into the other phone admonishing the BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) men not to fire unless they had a target. He reminded them, "They're trying to find out where our automatic weapons are at, you know."
I just stood there. With that, a dirty face appeared through the canvas asking the guide for a resupply of hand grenades. The response was explosive. "More grenades? What are you doing, wasting them or eating them. I just gave you some yesterday." There ensued a debate between the two of them over the justification for more grenades. I couldn't believe it. Here was the fiercest battle since Iwo Jima taking place just yards away and they were bean counting grenades. Under my breath I took up the mantra, "Give him the grenades, give him the grenades, for God's sake give him the grenades." My silent importation apparently worked. At any rate, the guide reluctantly handed over a sandbag with about a dozen grenades clacking inside, accompanied by a warning not to waste them. Up to this point, nobody had glanced my way. Wait a minute, I thought, I'm the platoon commander and my platoon is under attack. I remembered the golden rule from TBS: "Even if you don't know what to do, do something." It didn't work that night on Hill 749. In my best command voice I said something to the Gunny that to this day escapes me. But I will never forget the response. He took the phones from his ears and let them hang from his neck by their cloth umbilical. The silence was suffocating. I had the sense that the war was caught in a state of suspension, with grenades, mortars, and tracers halted in mid-flight. Time stood still. Then fixing me with a stare I can still see, the Gunny said, "Lieutenant, why don't you make yourself a cup of coffee?" The war immediately resumed in all its fury while I slinked to my corner of the dugout in shock. Within 20 minutes, the North Korean probe was history and life returned to normal in the CP. I remained numb the rest of the night, not knowing who to hate more, me or the Gunny.
In the ensuing days, I got the feel of the place, experienced slithering down the slopes on patrols and lying snow covered in ambush. Communications improved between the Gunny and myself, and the other members of the platoon ceased treating me as the man that wasn't there. I worked into the routine, but I was always conscious that any of my orders required the unspoken certification from the platoon sergeant. Shortly before we were to come down from the hill and go into reserve, Baker Company on my left was ordered to make a night raid on a North Korean position. I was assigned one of the supporting fire roles. It was exciting. Some real offensive action. I made a map study for the best spot to establish a base of fire that would cover the raiding Baker platoon to and from the objective. Picking a ridge that seemed to provide adequate cover and concealment and clear fields of fire, I discussed it with the Gunny. He was unusually reticent and only nodded as I explained my rationale. A bit puzzled, I put his peculiar behavior out of my mind and suggested we check the location out with a physical reconnaissance. He remained strangely silent and simply followed me as we carefully left the lines and pooped and snooped to the ridge I had tentatively selected. Once there, I confirmed in my own mind that it was ideal for the job we had been assigned. Turning to my companion I said, "This looks pretty good, Gunny. What do you think?" He was looking straight ahead at the distant snow-covered hills. Without glancing at me he said in a quiet voice, "I guess so lieutenant, you're the platoon leader." It was my epiphany! I had arrived. He had just relinquished command to me. While I had won my bars earlier, it was at that point that I won my spurs.
A rifle platoon is more than just a map symbol made up of a rectangle, X, and three dots. It is a flesh and blood organization that is in the most dangerous of businesses. There are lots of people and things behind it that make up a war machine. But there is nothing in front of a rifle platoon but the enemy and possible death. Its members must care for one another. Its leaders must cherish the men in every fire team and squad. For a rifleman, a leader's misjudgment, ignorance, or inexperience can be fatal-no second chances. No rerunning the exercise until you get it right. When the word "go" is given, there is no turning back from the consequences. It is the monstrous burden of command that my platoon sergeant felt when I stuck my head into the CP. He knew, loved, and sought to protect Charlie Two. Nobody else out there would do so. He didn't know me. He didn't know if I was prepared to assume his burden, and he wasn't about to oversee its transfer until he had measured me for size. I hated and was silently humiliated by the process, but on that day overlooking the Soyyang Gang, when he had judged that I was fit to command, and willingly turned over the reins, I was grateful for my apprenticeship at the hands of a master.
Epilogue: The name of the red-headed platoon guide who was so chintzy with grenades was SSgt Berryman. Not long after the tale told here, he was shot through the throat and evacuated. I don't know whether he lived or died. His debating partner in that incident was Sgt Barwick of linebacker proportions with bright sandy hair and a disposition to match. Though a squad leader, Barwick loved the BAR as the weapon of choice. He was also the platoon barber. Though he had no skill at that trade, like most barbers he loved to chat with his clientele. I remember how he would grow poetic about his BAR as he mangled my hair. "Lieutenant, it's the truth, I love to hear that BAR chatta." Barwick was later hit covering one of our first draftees, an oversize kid named Kadagionis, who was seriously wounded. The Greek made it, Barwick didn't.
As I thumb through my platoon notebook, grown fragile with age, like the rest of us who fought in that near forgotten war so long ago, the memories flood back. There are tales to tell about LaBoy and Leon, the first two blacks I had ever seen in the Marines; Chanesi, an Italian immigrant who was more interested in conjuring up C-ration miracles than in saving the free world from communism; Holbrook, a replacement who showed up wearing a German helmet. Most of them survived and few did extraordinary things except to put their asses on the line when it counted. But, I will relate none of these tales-at least not now. Those who today even think about the Korean War associate it with Pusan, Inchon, and the Chosin fighting of the first year. These were dramatic battles. Those of us in the second and third years of the war were never challenged to match our predecessors. Yet the fighting and dying was very real to us and at times reached Homeric proportions. For us it was a big war because we were in it.
A final word: My platoon sergeant was GySgt Harold Wagner, a native of West Virginia. After the shaky start I relate above, we became very close during our time together. In March of 1952, the 1st Marine Division moved to the west coast of Korea to face an expected Chinese spring offensive that never materialized. We began \vhat is now called "the war of the outposts" that lasted until the end of the war. In it, Wagner was killed. He took three burp gun slugs in the belly while on a patrol near a place called "The Hook." We pulled him and the other casualties back through the wire. Wagner was dead by that time. Before his body was hauled to the rear, I had the privilege of closing the lids over his sightless eyes. Thus ended the service of a good Marine-preceded and succeeded over the years by legions of others.