- Historic Sites
Leaving For Korea
A young man’s journey from Brooklyn to the world, from boyhood to the glimmerings of maturity, from peace to war
February/march 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 1
From Korea and the 1st Mar Div he wrote: “The country is very rugged, almost unbelievably so. We are dug in for the evening around the bottom of a ravine for a change. Stream about 100 yards away, babbling over stones, cold, clear. Washed myself and clothes and feel wonderful. Yesterday my platoon was sent up to seize a ridge. We really pushed hard and found the Chinks had stopped on a ridge 600 to 800 yards away. Small arms and machine gun fire came sporadically but we didn’t pay much attention and they gave up in disgust. Marines are far and away the best fighters in Korea but tired out. I’ve lost five men in the last three days through heat prostration and exhaustion. Platoon very good. Company commander is good and whole outfit and whole first Division very sharp.
“The spirit of the Corps never ceases to amaze me. Walking to our assembly area yesterday it rained all the way. Much singing, horseplay, laughter, even though pretty miserable actually. Spirits kept high and we were rewarded by a beautiful day when we arrived.
“Have impressions of Korean civilians, farmers, as they watch I Marines move on to their farms and set up camp. They can only look and hope for the best. No language bridge, so no talk exchanged, except extra rations usually find their way to them. Many houses burn because of ” thatched roofs. On ridges at night I can usually see two or three burning in valleys below. Usual procedure is to set up in a line around a bowl of terrain, each platoon tied in with one on each side. Fighting holes are on the front slope, sleeping holes on the reverse side.
“Amazing thing here is that there are mocking birds exactly the same as in Colorado.”
Now another letter came back. Dick Brennan had been hit on June 10, assaulting a Chinese hill. Someone said he’d been machine-gunned; someone else said it was a burp gun, a sort of submachine gun. Anyway, it stapled both his hands and one arm halfway up. That letter said Dick had been put up for a medal for pushing the assault after he was hit.
In his own letters to us from the naval hospital, Dick wrote us nothing about the war, only about the medical care and how fine it was though the food was tiresome. Brennan said he and another officer were writing a play; it wouldn’t be about the war but about the hospital.
Someone said he’d been machine-gunned; someone else said it was a burp gun. Anyway, it stapled both his hands and one arm halfway up.
“I think it could be a fine play,” he said.
And he never wrote anything about the fighting.
Bob Bjornsen was a forest ranger, about as tall and naturally impressive as the trees he tended in Nevada, up north near Reno. He’d been an enlisted man during the war and enjoyed talking about it, not loud and didactic as Gunny Arzt could be, but proud of his being a “mustang,” an officer promoted from the ranks. There’s one photo of Bjornsen with Mack Allen and me, Bjornsen half a head taller and at the shoulders half again as wide. While Mack and I stayed behind as platoon leaders in the 5th SBC, Bjornsen went early to Korea in a replacement draft, joining the 3d Battalion 1st Marines in May. Jim (“Wild Horse”) Callan and Doug Bradlee were with Bob Bjornsen and were both huge men. Wild Horse and Bjornsen too had something in common: Callan would go back to the ranch after the war, he said, and Bjornsen said he’d return to the forests. That was the work he did, and he loved it, the trees and the peace and quiet, and he was good at his work.
“We became buddies,” he said of Bradlee. “I’ve got pictures of Doug and me at Pearl Harbor, Guam, Japan, and in Korea. He, quiet, me, talkative, an old salt with a wife and daughter back home and Doug just a year out of college.”
All three men were assigned to the same battalion on the same day, May 20. “Doug was killed June third,” Bjornsen said, “and Callan on June tenth. I took over Callan’s heavy machine-gun platoon in a firefight on the day he was killed. Doug and I just hit it off together from Quantico days, and how well I remember trudging up the hill that day, thinking sixtysix percent of the three officers who came as replacements were already killed in action and we hadn’t been in Korea a month. Neither Doug nor Jim had been in combat before and were killed before they learned the ropes. By contrast I was a World War II enlisted combat Marine and knew how to survive and maneuver troops in a firefight.
“His father wrote me after Doug’s death and wanted the particulars. I wrote back that he was killed instantly, which was true, but left out the particulars.”
Back in Quantico that spring and summer we got too many reports like this back from men we knew about other men. I’d heard about Doug from his father. The wire arrived at Camp Barrett, where I was a platoon leader training other young officers. It read: “ WORD RECEIVED DOUG’S DEATH IN ACTION 3 JUNE NO FURTHER DETAILS .” It was signed “Malcolm Bradlee.”
In late July from Saunderstown, Rhode Island, Mr. Bradlee wrote me again.
“My dear Jim, I sent you that wire about Doug’s death because I sensed at once how close friends you two had become. This picture was taken just before he left home for San Francisco. Also, Mrs. Bradlee and I felt that you would like to have the enclosed reading at the memorial services. I sincerely hope that you will write me about your current news and that you will keep in touch with us in the future. Always sincerely, Malcolm Bradlee.”