- 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
So I got a few hours’ sleep and a hot meal of corned beef hash. I also managed to shave for the first time since we left Kapsan. Maybe it was that four-day growth that so scared the town of Yongdae. As I was starting back, the adjutant handed me an order and told me I had just been appointed Class A agent for the battery. Finance had two or more months back pay for the battery, and since Finance was right here in Pukchong, it would be no trouble for me to pick it up. Finance was about to leave for Hamhung, and I could turn in there after paying the men. The thought of carrying several thousand dollars around the wilds of North Korea did not appeal to me at all, and I let out a howl of protest—which the adjutant ignored.
While I was at Finance trying to count out the money with cold-numbed fingers, I could only think of the incongruity of the situation. There was a chance we might not be alive much longer, there was absolutely nothing to buy or spend money for, and here I was counting the payroll the same as I had in Stateside garrison duty. I was also given the ROK payroll. This was to cause our Koreans to do flip-flops, as they did not know they were even supposed to be paid, and up to now they had received no pay of any kind. A private in the Korean army got the equivalent of seventy-five cents a month.
I found the battery in Yongdae, and sure enough, there was a solid ramp waiting for them when they got in. We hunted up the mayor and gave him a box of C rations, which was the only thing we had of any value to him. He still looked scared, and I felt sorry for him. I suppose now he was afraid his communist superiors might shoot him for cooperating with the Americans. A train did arrive, but it was late at night, and we were still loading up the next morning (December 1, 1950). There were enough flatcars for the howitzers and larger vehicles, but some lighter trucks would have to continue by road. There was also a boxcar for the men.
By 10:00 A.M. we were ready to go. Captain Klaniecki and I would both ride in the boxcar, and Lieutenant Moon would take the trucks going by road. Captain Klaniecki and I were in the station house with the first sergeant, who was making up a list of men indicating who would go by rail and who by road when the captain from C of the 57th came in with his driver. The first thing we saw was that the driver was crying. The soldier slumped down on a bench with his shoulders shaking and tears streaming down his cheeks. The tears dripped down onto the barrel of his carbine, which he was holding tightly between his knees. The captain sat down beside him, put his head in his hands, and spoke so low I could barely hear him: “I won’t tell my men until they get to Hamhung. It might be too much for them. They’re all close to collapse now.”
We stared at this tableau in bewilderment for some seconds until Captain Klaniecki went over and put his hand on the captain’s shoulder and asked what had happened. At this the officer shook himself, or maybe shuddered is a better word, and looked up, and spoke in a mechanical and toneless voice: “They’re all dead. My whole battalion is dead except for C Battery. A, B, headquarters, service; they’ve been wiped out. We are all that’s left. The infantry they were with are gone too. Colonel MacLean’s dead. The Marines are cut off by now. Nobody knows where your A Battery is; they were on the way to join the 57th.
“Radio contact was lost just before daylight this morning. The radio operator from D of the 15th came on the air and said the Chinese were in among the guns. He said not many men were still alive, but those that were able to walk had loaded the wounded on trucks and were going to try to break out along the road to Hagaru and reach the Marine lines. Then he stopped transmitting for a minute or so. They then heard him say: ‘Oh my God! Here they are!’ That was all. The radio went dead. Air observation now reports nothing but burning trucks and Chinese. That’s what they told me at Pukchong. They’re all dead.”
He gathered up his driver and went out to his jeep and left to rejoin his battery, leaving us sick and despondent. We finished loading and started for Hamhung in a badly shaken frame of mind. We had all lost friends; and everyone in the battery realized that if the Chinese had turned east instead of west, or if General Barr had delayed our recall, we would have been the ones to die.