Korea: The Hill Battles

Originally Published Sept. 1991
By R. R. Keene 

Late August and early September of 1951 saw Stateside headlines and pundits still proclaiming that a cease-fire throughout the Korean peninsula would happen before the end of summer.

As usual, those who talked the most, knew the least. The First Marine Division and, indeed, all of U.S. Eighth Army had already submitted their requests for cold weather clothing and equipment in preparation for another winter campaign.

The fighting men in Korea knew truce talks in Kaesong were a sham. They saw the Chinese Communist Forces and North Korean Peoples Army (NKPA) recuperate and replenish as the talks went on. The Communists had increased the number of aircraft in the area, brought their artillery through the mountains, and resupplied their men with ammunition and material. Allied intelligence sources said the Communists had what they needed to conduct a sixth offensive.

The Communists then charged that U.N. planes had violated the neutrality of Kaesong area by dropping napalm bombs. The Communists presented no valid evidence to substantiate the charge. It didn't matter. They had accomplished what they had set out to do: buy time. Having purchased it easily enough, they walked out of the truce talks on August 22.

The 1stMarDiv was ready and sent a warning order to all units on August 26 stating offensive operations were to be initiated in the immediate future.

It was essentially a new division then, but it faced some old problems. The veterans of Inchon and the Chosin Reservoir were all but gone as were a good majority of those who had rolled over the Communists that spring. While they talked at Kaesong, the division had put its time in reserve to good use with realistic in-country training. Close air support missions, again, took a back seat in the "big picture." Resupply problems also caused the Marines to pioneer new uses for the helicopter. And, as always in Korea, extreme weather conditions, this time in the form of rain and mud, played havoc.

On a map, the Punchbowl looks like a crater on the moon. Marines who have been there swear it to be as bleak and foreboding as any place in creation. A natural fortress for the defending Communists, the ring of sharp, rugged ridges was dominated by the crocodile-shaped "Yoke" Ridge which controlled the movement in and out of the bowl. The adjacent hills were bivouac to battalions of scrub pine and a reinforced regiment of NKPA who concealed themselves in fortified bunkers. That regiment rained more than 200 mortar and artillery rounds on 3d Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment moving into the area on August 30.

The Marines had been moving, drenched and mud soaked, ankle deep in water and boot-sucking slippery mud, for three days. To top it off the place was full of indiscriminate land mines which, once tripped, didn't care which side had planted them. It was part of a coordinated move northward to straighten what the allies called the Kansas Line and keep several suspected regiments of Communists from taking the offensive.

Resupply by trucks was an exercise in futility. Mud slides had washed out many of the roads, and stream crossings could only be accomplished by boats. The Marines had managed to receive one resupply by air. The rest was carried in on foot by 20,070 Korean laborers contracted by the Army.

History has a tendency to describe the first few days of September fighting as light. However, in one fourday fight, 656 North Koreans were killed and 40 were captured. U.S. and Korean Marines suffered 109 dead with 494 wounded. The allied casualties were due in no small measure to the truce talks. Thanks to the breathing spell, the Communists were able to fortify the Punchbowl area with artillery, mortars and machine guns equal to the firepower of Marine and U.S. Army artillery units in the 1stMarDiv sector.

The Marines cited another factor in casualties taken during that month 40 years ago: Close air support missions were, again, considered secondary to interdiction air strikes by the U.S. Fifth Air Force which had operational control of the First Marine Aircraft Wing and also siphoned off U.S. Navy air sorties in the area.

The commander of Far East Air Forces, U.S. Air Force Major General Otto P. Weyland, backed the interdiction strikes and told ground commanders: "I might suggest that all of us should keep in mind the limitations of air forces as well as their capabilities. . . . In a static situation close air support is an expensive substitute for artillery fire."

U.N. air power was being launched on Operation Strangle, designed to cut off and destroy communist vehicle and rail convoys flowing south through the narrow waist of the Korean peninsula. It was given top priority and for awhile the entire Eighth Army was limited to only 96 support sorties a day with the Marines receiving a proportionate share.

Marine and Army commanders knew there was nothing static about what they were doing and that there had to be a better balance between close air support and interdiction strikes.

In the Marine Corps' situation, two incidents validated the need for close air support. On August 30, aerial observers spotted a division-sized force of North Koreans massed and on the move, but beyond artillery range. It took four hours before four bombers arrived. In the meantime the Communist forces had dispersed. The second example was enemy fortifications in the Punchbowl. It was estimated that the Communists had 92 artillery pieces emplaced in solid rock. The Marines with 72 field pieces put 11,000 rounds of artillery onto the positions in a 24-hour period with little effect. They had to replace the lack of air power with man power. Further, in 18 days of fighting, from September 3 to 21, Marines had made 182 tactical air requests, of which 127 were answered. However, in only 24 instances did the fighter-bomber support arrive when needed. The average response time was nearly two hours and in 49 cases it took longer. MajGen Gerald C. Thomas, Commanding General, First Marine Division, said many of the 1,621 casualties suffered by the Marines during the fighting in September were due to inadequate close air support and that the division's tactical capabilities were strongly restricted.

Marines require their aircraft to remain overhead for immediate response to requests for close air support. The Corps' brand of close air support, even today, calls for pilots to fly in out of the sun, parallel to the troops and that ordnance be delivered under a ceiling of 500 feet, more often at less than 200 feet or at tree-top level. This is accomplished by close coordination between the Marines on the ground and the Marines in the air. However, when the capability of Marine air is restricted, as in Korea, ground attacks are often costly.

Air support was still a problem in September of 1950. A Marine fire direction center called on artillery to cover units in battle.

Private First Class Joseph Giovannucci winced from the pain in his right hand. "How" Company, 3d Bn., 7th Marines had been attacking Communists dug in deep on Kanrnubong Ridge north of the Punchbowl, on September 11, when he was wounded. He knew it was ridiculous to expect a replacement and, besides, he could still fire his machine gun. He continued to do so for four hours until a desperate Communist managed to throw a grenade at him. It sent shrapnel into his legs and feet. He was losing blood fast, but continued to fire. Fortunately, his fellow Marines noticed his wounds, yanked Giovannucci off his gun and dragged him to treatment.

In a division assault with the 7th Marines leading the way, the area around the Punchbowl exploded in violence marked by the extreme courage of a few Marines.

There was unquestionable heroism on the part of Sergeant Frederick W. Mausert, of Baker Co., 1st Bn., 7th Marines. It was September 12 and Baker Co. wasn't just pinned down, its men were getting nailed, one at a time, by the NKPA deeply entrenched in an impregnable series of bunkers on Hill 673 near Songnap-yong. Sgt Mausert saw two Marines badly wounded and ran out to get them. Communist machine-gun bullets splattered chunks of mud and sent geysers of rainwater up from the no man's land between Mausert and the downed Marines. He also knew that the ground to be covered was strewn with mines. None of that slowed him: Even when he was hit in the head, he continued his efforts until the Marines were back in their lines. He arrived in time to hear the command to fix bayonets and assault.

Mausert took the point position in the platoon ordered to charge up a ridge. The North Koreans poured rifle-, machine gun- and mortar fire at them. Mausert was knocked off his feet by a bullet that hammered his helmet. He was up almost as quickly as he went down, again leading his men and knocking out an enemy machine gun.

In that same assault Corporal Charles V. Rust had knocked out four bunkers with his ability to accurately throw grenades. His arm was badly mangled in the process, but he kept up with the assault. Somewhere in the fight he came up with a Browning Automatic Rifle and found a tree stump to prop it on. Using his good arm, he delivered bursts of accurate fire to cover the advance. When his squad had knocked out a machine gun, Rust rejoined it for another assault. When his squad leader was killed, Rust, still bleeding, took command and spearheaded a fierce drive through air thick with shrapnel from exploding grenades. Having killed the enemy, the surviving members of the squad had nothing to celebrate for there was still more killing to be done.

Sgt Mausert wasted no time in reorganizing his unit for the return fire he knew would come. Immediately, the enemy opened up with a vengeance. Sgt Mausert is no longer alive, so nobody will ever really know what prompted him to charge the enemy alone, thus drawing their attention and wrath. Whatever it was, it enabled Mausert's men to move into assault positions. In the meantime Mausert waved off any assistance and, alone, was charging and throwing grenades into a wall of fire from the topmost machine-gun nest and "impregnable" bunkers.

The enemy threw grenades and machine-gun bullets at him, hit and mortally wounded him, but he kept advancing.

PFC Donald A. Daigneault's squad in Dog Co., 2d Bn., 7th Marines covered his company's assault up another part of the small hill. He watched in frustration as one of the assault squads started tripping mines and booby traps. He also noticed the Communists moving in to finish off the hapless squad. Daigneault moved forward for a better firing position and tripped a mine.

The explosion seriously wounded Daigneault and drew the enemy's attention. Daigneault crawled forward to expose himself even more. The report of his rifle could be heard until the Communists fled, leaving behind four dead and three wounded.

A platoon of Captain Robert C. Henderickson's George Co., 3d Bn., 7th Marines had crested Hill 673. He knew they'd engaged a battalion. He had taken serious wounds early on. He'd also proved his worth by skillfully maneuvering his men through minefields, and exposing himself to enemy fire.

Second Lieutenant George H. Ramer of Item Co., 3d Bn., 7th Marines would perform a similar act the next day on Kanmubong Ridge. He led his men uphill through a wall of enemy fire that left most of them wounded. The climb became steeper as they neared the summit, and the Communists rolled grenades and poured fire down on Ramer's men. Ramer encouraged them to continue and led the way through the heaviest of the fire.

Gaining the summit, he let fly the spoons on his grenades, flipping them into the Communists, and leveled his carbine, shooting those who chose to stand. Only eight Marines reached the summit with him and three of those were dying. Wounded himself, Ramer organized a hasty defense in time to face a massive counterattack. It quickly became clear that his men were outgunned and outnumbered. Ramer ordered them off the ridge to safety, saying he would cover them. He also told his men to take their dead and dying with them.

Several of Ramer's men waited for their lieutenant a few yards down the hill. He didn't show up. They climbed back to get him. he had been wounded again, this time seriously, but was firing at the oncoming North Koreans. Between rounds he forcefully ordered his Marines back to safety. The last time the Marines saw their leader alive, 2dLt Ramer was still shooting Communists. Very soon thereafter the sound of firing ceased.

Such was the price of Korean real estate in mid-September. They eventually recovered Lt Ramer's body. Sgt Mausert had died from more wounds than anyone cared to count. Cpl Rust was dead too. PFCs Giovannucci and Daigneault along with Capt Hendrickson would survive their wounds. Mausert and Ramer would be posthumously awarded Medals of Honor and the others received Navy Crosses. Twenty other Marines had been killed and 243 more wounded. Enemy losses included 30 counted dead and 22 prisoners. "Light casualties" is a relative term. To the Marines who were only renting Hill 673 and Kanmubong Ridge, some small pieces of Korea seemed very expensive.

Casualties continued in September. Navy corpsmen and surgeons worked in the field to treat leathernecks wounded near the Punchbowl.

Something else happened during that battle that changed the logistics of warfare. An assault by the 1st Marines had been postponed by a serious shortage of ammunition and other supplies. The division had received only one aerial resupply in the field. On September 1, 20 Air Force cargo planes dropped ammunition and rations onto Korean Marine Corps positions. While more than 90 percent was recovered, it was used up fast. The Korean cargodores contracted by the Army were working hard, but they could not begin to keep up with the consumption of a modern fighting force on the move. Obviously, a remedy for the logistics problem was needed.

The Corps had, since 1947, been working on the solution. The Marines had been tasked to "develop techniques and tactics in connection with the movement of assault troops by helicopter in amphibious operations." Working with Sikorsky aircraft, they designed, built and developed the HRS-1 helicopter. It was 62 feet in length and more than 11 feet in width, with blades folded. It could cruise at 60 knots, hauling up to six fully equipped combat Marines.

Marine Transport Helicopter Squadron 161 had brought 15 of the helicopters into country on the last day of August. They flew their first combat missions on September 13. It was dubbed Operation Windmill 1 and designed to ferry supplies and evacuate casualties. Even the nonbelievers were impressed. In a two-and-a-half hour period, 28 flights had hauled in 18,848 pounds of cargo and brought out 74 casualties from the front. A few days later they started lifting combat troops. It obviously caught on, because the rest is history.

Moving supplies by trucks became next to impossible in the rainy season and required the Marines and U.S. Army to come up with alternatives.

Operation Windmill 1 also saw action on the ground. Sgt William M. Gaul, Item Co., 3d Bn., 1st Marines, had pressed his luck over the past two days. He was an outstanding sergeant as the Marine Reserve has a tendency to produce. The first night his platoon had made one hell of a drive against Communists who fought "fanatically." Gaul and his men had dispatched them accordingly and at no losses. It seemed a major miracle considering that Gaul had exposed himself to heavy fire and led an assault up 800 yards of rugged ridge. They had become pinned down and Gaul charged with grenades, killing two and putting six more out of action. Later, he brought his light machine gun to the aid of another platoon with such skill that the platoon was able to easily advance under his covering fire.

Back with his men, he maneuvered them so well they overran every obstacle in their path. As before, Gaul was in the lead, aggressively pursuing the contact or ruining an enemy counterattack. Through it all his men had been unscathed. He led them again the following night during a mortar barrage. Sgt Gaul moved from cover to cover to direct his men. Sometime during that night, luck left him. He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.

That same night, over with Item Co., 3d Bn., 5th Marines, Sgt James B. Southall led his platoon into action and earned the Navy Cross. The North Koreans were stubbornly holding their own. Southall fired his carbine from the off-hand position (standing), as he walked forward, through enemy fire, killing or wounding those who exposed themselves to his sights. When he emptied his last magazine, he stood his ground and shouted to his men to move over the hilltop. He then directed machine-gun fire on communist positions and ordered a charge 100 yards into the North Koreans, who died at their guns. Southall, shot in the wrist, directed the defense of the hill which faced counterattacks throughout the night.

Marines could not help but pay reluctant respect to the North Korean tenacity and skill in the defense. Their bunkers were well-constructed and used the terrain to their maximum advantage. The occupants also did not hesitate to accurately call mortar fire on their own positions when the Marines closed in.

Hill 749 was protected by deadly cross fire and was a transverse ridge line loaded with well-protected mortars and machine guns whose fields of fire interlocked, in what the Marines called the "North Korean T-Formation." From it, the Koreans on the top of the "T" could bring volumes of firepower to bear on those foolish enough to attempt to move up the stem.

On the night of September 15, the Marines assaulted Hill 749. The North Koreans unleashed a hurricane barrage which, according to division reports, "reached an intensity that was estimated to surpass that of any barrage yet encountered by the First Marine Division in Korea."

Second Bn., 1st Marines took the frightful brunt from 76-mm., 105-mm., 122-mm., 82-mm., and 120-mm. artillery and mortars. Then, the Communists counterattacked. Bugles and whistles signaled wave after bloody wave of North Koreans screaming and shooting at the Marines who bent but didn't break.

They held because of men like Easy Co.'s PFC Edward Gomez. He'd volunteered to move into an abandoned trench to find a new location for his machine gun and to carry ammunition. When a grenade landed in the midst of his squad, Gomez grabbed it, yelled a warning to those with him, pulled the explosive to his body and dived into a ditch with the exploding missile.

Marines guarded prisoners of war, however, many more Communists held their ground and died at their guns.

Fox Co.'s Corporal Bill Dukes charged forward looking for a sniper and was shot in the left eye. He crawled 40 yards through fire-swept terrain just to shoot the enemy. Covered with blood, he drove forward until his platoon could establish defensive positions. Noticing another Marine lying wounded in the open and under fire, Dukes again risked the fire-swept terrain to lift an equally bloody Marine on his back and hobbled to safety.

The saga of Fox Co. continued. PFC Lyle F. Conaway, a veteran of the June fighting, hadn't seen anything like this. His buddies were reeling under the North Korean assault. He volunteered to move forward to defend a heavy machine gun. It came under scathing fire and Conaway remained in the exposed position to deliver accurate return fire. Once the machine gun was rendered inoperative, Conaway raced from one fighting position to another, firing his weapon to simulate greater strength in the line until the machine gun was firing again. He was wounded several times in the process and refused to be evacuated. Only sheer exhaustion eventually stopped him.

The 2d Battalion's commander, Lieutenant Colonel Franklin B. Nihart, held it together. His Marines were dying and those still fighting needed the assurance of strong leadership. With bullets slapping around him and amid the crescendo of exploding mortars, he worked his way to the leading elements of his battalion, coordinating all available supporting arms. Despite the darkness, he skillfully maneuvered his Marines to meet the counterattack. He calmly pulled units to plug gaps in the lines, and reinforced the firepower of those under the heaviest attack.

If the Marines found leadership in Nihart, they took inspiration from Fox Co.'s Cpl Joseph Vittori.

The forward platoon was getting mauled and started to give ground. That's when Vittori and two volunteers charged, using bayonets and rifle butts. It enabled the company to consolidate around the platoon and hold.

As the all-night fight continued, Vittori "leaped from one foxhole to another, covering each foxhole in turn as casualties continued to mount, manning a machine gun when the gunner was struck down, and making repeated trips through the heaviest shell fire to replenish ammunition."

The situation was still critical. Marines attempting to reinforce beleaguered units were pinned down. Out front 100 yards, fighting holes were manned only with dead and wounded Marines. . .and Cpl Vittori. It was there Vittori made his stand. He simulated strength in the line, denying the enemy physical occupation of the ground. It was near dawn and the fight was about over, but Vittori would never see it. He had cut down Communists only a few feet from his final position when machine-gun and rifle bullets killed him.

At dawn, they found nearly 200 enemy dead near Vittori's body. There was no doubt that he had prevented the entire battalion position from collapsing.

Marines eventually secured Hill 749. The bunker assaults and counterattacks in the four-day fight were of a ferocity that, until then, only veterans of the Pacific could speak of. There were 90 dead Marines, 714 wounded and one missing. Enemy losses were 771 known killed and 81 prisoners taken. Gomez and Vittori received their nation's highest award; Dukes, Conaway and Nihart received their nation's next highest honor, the Navy Cross.

Later, fighting at Hill 812 and Songnae-Dong would see Marines like Staff Sergeant Stanley J. Wawrzyniak of Fox Co., 2d Bn., 5th Marines, who earned the Navy Cross for heroism at "The Rock," in fearsome firefights. He'd volunteered to join the leading assault squad in a final attack on an enemy hill position. As usual, it was heavily fortified and strongly defended. SSgt Wawrzyniak exposed himself to enemy fire, encouraging his men and pointing out targets. He then single-handedly charged an enemy emplacement, killed three of its occupants and, though wounded by a grenade, continued to attack. Seizing a Browning Automatic Rifle from a dead Marine, he ran the enemy off the hill and chased them down.

Cpl Jack Davenport of George Co., 3d Bn., 5th Marines near Songnae-Dong sacrificed his life in the pre-dawn morning of September 21 and earned the Medal of Honor. While fending off infiltrators with another Marine, a grenade fell into their foxhole. Davenport calmly felt for and found it, then smothered the explosion with his own body.

Wawrzyniak was involved in the last "action of mobility" by Marines in Korea. Davenport's ordeal signaled the beginning of what was considered "warfare of position."