- Historic Sites
Winter Of The Yalu
A soldier remembers the freezing, fearful retreat down the Korean Peninsula after the Chinese armies smashed across the border
December 1982 | Volume 34, Issue 1
Then, on the twenty-eighth, we were ordered farther back. March order was at 1030, and we reached Chori at 1530 after a hard and cold march over the mountains. We left at 0700 on the twenty-ninth for the coast by way of Pukchong. There was a heavy snowstorm in progress all the way to Pukchong, which we reached about noon. The snow actually made it seem warmer, but we had to move very slowly to keep vehicles from sliding off the road. Part of the time the vehicles had to be led by men on foot because the snow was so thick the drivers had trouble seeing.
Colonel Welch had orders to move the battalion to Hamhung. C Battery had already started down the coastal road, and we were to continue on without pause. He was expecting orders to move the headquarters at any minute. We were to abandon everything except a perimeter at Hamhung. The ROK divisions up the coast were being evacuated by sea even then, and we were also told that 8th Army on the west coast was being driven back with high casualties.
We made it near to the coast without too much trouble. The snow had stopped, and the sky cleared somewhat. As we neared the coast, however, the road became very steep and the ice became ever thicker and slicker. Soon we had to put the entire battery to work chopping ice so the tractors could move. It must have been about four in the afternoon, or maybe later, when it happened. I was at the head of the column supervising the party breaking ice; Captain Klaniecki was back along the column guiding tractors around a particularly slick section on a curve overlooking a fifty- or sixty-foot sheer drop. I suddenly heard several men scream and spun around to see the fourth tractor in line moving sideways toward the cliff. The light was still bright enough for me to see the driver frantically working his levers in an effort to get control, but the tractor and its howitzer kept sliding sideways toward the edge. I started running back up the hill as hard as I could while I watched that machine slide over the cliff in what seemed like a slow-motion movie. Somebody later told me I kept yelling, “No! No! No!” all the time I ran up the hill, but I have no memory of this. Two men were riding on top when it went over. One of them managed to jump onto the road before the track went over, but the other did not. The driver and at least one other man were in the cab. The tractor and howitzer came to a stop on their sides with the motor still running and the tracks spinning. Some of the men found a way down the cliff and floundered over to the tractor in snowdrifts above their waists. These snowdrifts saved the men who went over. They had bruises and a few cuts but were otherwise uninjured.
Captain Klaniecki and I had a conference. We would never make it into Hamhung this way. Even if we did not lose the rest of our guns over cliffs, we could not chop ice all the way. We decided to keep chopping ice down to the coast, which was now not far off. There was a railroad there and a small town called Yongdae. I was to go down there, find out what sort of facilities were available, and then go back to Pukchong, report the situation to Colonel Welch, and ask him to find some way to send us on by rail.
I took the captain’s jeep and the ROK who spoke the best English and went down to the coast. Yongdae had a railroad depot, but there was no loading dock or ramp of any kind. There was a large pile of railroad ties at the station, and I thought we could build a ramp and dock from them. The problem was it would take the better part of a day to build a ramp and dock. Talking about it to the driver, he made an observation much to the point: “The way some of the men around headquarters were talking, I don’t think we’ve got a whole day, and the day won’t start until the battery gets down here.” I was not sure how long it would take the battery to reach the town, so I had to find a labor force to build it for us. I sent the ROK out to find out who was in charge of the town. He was back in less than ten minutes with the information that there was some kind of meeting going on in what he took to be the town hall. We loaded up in the jeep and drove over to the building the ROK pointed out. It was now well after dark, but there was a bright moon breaking through scattered clouds, and it reflected off the snow and ice to give surprisingly good vision. The three of us trooped into the building and found about a dozen Korean men standing around a long table. They looked very, very scared.