Winter Of The Yalu

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THERE ARE places on this globe to which history can point and say of a people, a nation, or an empire: “This was their high-water mark. Thus far they went and no farther.” The three legions that reached the Elbe in A.D. 9 only to be destroyed in the Teutoburg Forest were at such a point, for no Roman in arms ever saw the Elbe again. Both the Mongols and the Turks saw the walls of Vienna but never passed them. The British took Kabul more than once, but that was their outermost limit. I still feel the Yalu River was such a point. For a few hours near the Yalu, we Americans knew the intoxication of total victory. We knew America was invincible, that free men would always triumph over the mindless automatons of tyranny.

What follows is an account of the march to the Yalu and back by Battery B, 31st Field Artillery Battalion, 7th Division, put together from scribbles in a diary of sorts, the rough copy of notes for the unit journal, and memories now over thirty years old:

The American Army had been cut and cut again, while the Communists built up for their war.

Following our successful landings at Inchon and the capture of Seoul in September 1950, the 7th Division marched overland to Pusan and prepared to embark for North Korea. The 31st Field Artillery had 155mm howitzers drawn by M-5 tractors. The march proved too much for many of our aged machines, and we had to be issued several replacement tractors, equally aged, when we reached Pusan. On October 16, 1950, we boarded the USNS David Shank , and there in Pusan -Harbor we waited for the rest of the month. It had been planned to land us at Wonsan, but the Russians and North Koreans had mined those waters so heavily that the port proved unusable. While headquarters tried to find a place to land us, we spent a boring time aboard ship. Being bored aboard ship was better than being shot at ashore, so nobody had any real complaints. The Shanks was owned by the Navy, but it was manned by a civilian crew from the Merchant Marine. The ship’s captain was a courtly old gentleman who did all he could to make our stay as pleasant as circumstances permitted.

We finally sailed on October 31 and arrived off the small town of Iwon the next day. There we spent another four days waiting for an LST to take us ashore. In the meantime we stared at the rugged mountains behind the beach, worried about reports the Chinese had sent troops into North Korea, and studied our maps. The maps were copies of the Japanese Imperial Land Survey of 1918, and apparently they had not been updated since. We were to discover that rivers had changed course, towns had vanished, and mountains had risen up since 1918.

During the afternoon of November 5, 1950, we climbed down the cargo nets to an LST whose crew were all former members of the Imperial Japanese Navy. It is an indication of how drastically strength had been cut that we had to hire recent enemies to man our ships. As we pulled away from the Shanks , its horn sounded a series of blasts and its captain stood on his bridge waving his cap and shouting, “Good luck, 31st! God be with you!” He had given our battalion commander, Lt. Col. Patrick Welch, a U.S. flag to hoist whenever we could find a flagpole. I, for one, was much moved by the concern he had shown for us. The LST promptly grounded on a sandbar; the result was that the sun was down by the time we got ashore. We discussed whether the Japanese captain would commit hara-kiri on the bow. Some officers who had served in Japan claimed that, in the late Imperial Navy, a captain who ran his ship aground was expected to do just that. In any event, he did not do so while we were aboard.

I was at the time a first lieutenant acting as assistant communications officer and executive officer of headquarters battery. As an additional duty I more or less commanded the Koreans in the security platoon, since no one else paid much attention to them. The American army had been cut and cut again, while the Communists built up for their war. When the invasion came, there were just not enough U. S. troops to bring the skeleton formations still active to anything like a war capacity. The 7th Division, while still in Japan, had been cut to less than cadre size to provide replacements for the first units committed. It had then been rebuilt with officers and men flown in from the States. I myself had been pulled out of the 18th Field Artillery at Fort Sill and shoved onto a plane to Japan just in time to board ship for the Inchon landings.