- 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
“Do you want to build fires and chance being shot, or do without fires and chance freezing to death?”
On the fourteenth I noted that a man had to be evacuated with frostbitten feet. On the fifteenth more men had been sent to the rear with the same trouble. Once more the temperature dipped to thirty-two degrees below zero. We still had only the two small command-post tents, and the gun sections slept huddled together under their ammunition tarpaulins. We had not yet been issued winter boots. Fortunately a few men had brought galoshes, and these were passed around among the sentries at night. Everyone was supposed to remove his boots and socks at least twice a day and massage his feet. With temperatures so low it was difficult to enforce this rule, but those who did not comply usually got frostbite.
We did have a small gasoline stove that we kept in the exec post and lit during fire missions because the FDC men could not work their charts and graphical firing tables with frozen fingers. My position entitled, in fact required, me to sleep in the exec-post tent, and sometimes the heat would linger for a while after a fire mission. The mess section kept a field range going for hot coffee as long as it was light enough not to have the fire give away their location. There were no firm front lines, and enemy stragglers were roving the hills around us as the wood-gathering party found out. After two nights at thirty-two below we could not take much more. Captain Klaniecki assembled the battery and put it to a vote of the men: “Do you want to build fires and chance being shot, or do you want to continue without fires at night and chance freezing to death?” After some discussion they voted overwhelmingly to build fires. The enemy must have been even colder than we were, since our fires were not sniped at. I told Klaniecki he reminded me of Xenophon putting important matters to the vote of the Ten Thousand. Unfortunately he was not too firm on classical literature, and by the time I explained what I was talking about, the point of what I meant as a compliment had been lost.
By now we were about out of range of the main enemy forces. Captain Klaniecki spent most of his time on a reconnaissance trying to find some way to move up closer. The 31st Infantry was now nearing the Pujon Reservoir, and only oxcart trails led over Puksubaek to it. The infantry was in fact using oxcarts to move their supplies up to the front. Sometimes Klaniecki took the reconnaissance officer with him, but usually he just took his own jeep with only himself, the driver, the chief of detail, and a ROK who spoke fair English. They were always near collapse from the cold when they returned. I remember once that the driver was so stiff he had to be lifted from under the wheel and carried over to a fire to thaw out.
At 0700 on November 17 we started north once more, circling around the eastern approaches to Puksubaek by way of Pungsan. It was a march of about thirty miles and ended near a tiny village called Sinwongsang-ni. Here we did some of our heaviest firing to date. My notes for the unit journal mention enemy machine guns, an artillery piece, and troop concentrations. The targets were from seven to eight thousand yards to the northwest.