- Historic Sites
The Twenty-second Great Battle
September 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 5
Charged with the task of building that bridge, I was faced with three major difficulties. First, in order to meet the deadline, we had to start work before the far bank was completely secured. This resulted in numerous casualties to our bridge builders. The second difficulty was that the Han River was tidal, with fierce alternating currents; the third was that the river was wider than the amount of bridging of any single type that we had available. As a result, we established a foundry on the south bank, where we manufactured connecting links to join the three kinds of bridging we had on hand. As dawn broke on September 25, we calculated that it would take at least 10 hours to complete the bridge. Nevertheless, we received word from General MacArthur’s headquarters that he and President Rhee would arrive at Kimpo Airport at noon and cross the Han in jeeps. Through the superhuman effort of our engineers, and taking risks that the remaining parts of the floating bridge did not need to be anchored to withstand the tides, the party crossed the river on schedule. Later that day I wrote my wife that I had prayed that General MacArthur could really walk on water.
Having had such success on the west coast, General MacArthur made the mistake of believing that we could repeat the feat by invading the east coast at Wonsan. Here, however, the North Koreans had heavily mined the area, and it took three weeks to get forces ashore.
A second—and far costlier—mistake was the general’s assertion that the Chinese would not enter the war. Having captured two Chinese soldiers from a reconnaissance force, we invited General Willoughby, MacArthur’s intelligence officer, to come see for himself that these were in fact Chinese troops. The unbelieving general asked me why I felt certain that the prisoners were Chinese and not North Koreans.
“Look at the epicanthic fold of their eyes,” I said. “Only the Chinese have such eyes.”
“Don’r give me that anthropological jazz,” he said.
Several days later the Chinese hit in force and surrounded the U.S. Marines on the high plain of the Chosin Reservoir. As the corps engineer, I got the task of building a runway inside the perimeter so that planes could evacuate the hundreds who were wounded and killed daily, and who were augmented by even greater numbers of casualties inflicted by the 30-degree-below-zero weather. Our plan for constructing the runway was to set small charges of dynamite to break up the frozen earth, which would then be bulldozed smooth. We established two large tents with space heaters at the ends of the proposed runway, each tent housing a bulldozer. After the charges were set off, a bulldozer would leave the warming tent and smooth out the earth between the first and second warming tents. The one flaw in the plan was that the frozen earth stuck to the warm blades of the dozers. We tried operating the dozers in the sub-zero weather without the use of the warming tents, but it proved too cold. Our solution was to ask for an airdrop of several hundred pounds of ski wax from Tokyo. Rubbing the blades down with wax in the warming tents proved to be the solution (although I was maligned by U.S. reporters who asserted that I had requested the ski wax for recreational purposes).
The plan was to have the Seventh U.S. Army Division establish successive perimeters that would allow an orderly evacuation at Hungnam. I was given one final task, that of blowing up the harbor facilities once the troops had been evacuated. Our shrinking perimeters held, and the troops and most of the supplies were successfully evacuated. I later learned that one of our brash lieutenants had booby-trapped the only working flush toilet at the adjoining city of Hamhung.
Our Korean interpreter, a young officer who had studied medicine in the United States, convinced the X Corps commander that we should evacuate as many refugees from North Korea as possible. Some 10,000 old men, women, and children filled every available space.
The demolition of the harbor was spectacular and proceeded without a hitch. I now found myself on the beach with two jeeps and six enlisted men. But soldiers dismantling mortar shells in the small vessel that was to carry me off to the USS Mt. McKinley apparently dropped a cigarette into the powder, and my escape craft blew up. Our only hope lay in trying to get one of the U.S. aircraft flying over Hamhung to land and pick us up. Unfortunately, our radios could not contact either the aircraft or the Mt. McKinley , which sailed off. Then one of our ingenious enlisted men had the idea of using abandoned powdered milk to spell out HELP in six-foot letters on the asphalt runway. Braving small arms and artillery fire, a C-119 landed and took us off to safety. Several hours later I was enjoying a Christmas Eve dinner with my family in Tokyo.