- 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
On the twenty-first we learned that the 17th Infantry had reached the Yalu at Hyesanjin. We did no firing from this position, but the journal notes show we moved the guns which had pointed west to point north. On the twenty-second we received some much needed winter clothing. It was not enough—we still did not have any overcoats—but it was welcome. At this time we did get the “arctic shoe pac” to replace our combat boots. This item was rubberized and watertight. Body moisture was absorbed by a removable felt inner sole. The soles along with the socks worn each day were placed next to the skin at night to dry out from body heat, adding a piquant aroma to bodies long unwashed.
Adequate winter clothing was not issued until after we returned to South Korea. My clothing was fairly typical of what everyone wore. Under my helmet I wore the hood for the field jacket buttoned down to the jacket shoulder loops. Most men had these hoods; those who did not wrapped towels around their ears. We had not yet been issued the fur cap that made everyone look like an illegitimate son of Mao Tse-tung. I had a scarlet artilleryman’s silk scarf, which I wound around my neck to prevent chafing. I still have this muchfrayed scarf, an item I was quite fond of and wore even in the summer. From inside to out I wore a T-shirt and drawers, more for cleanliness than warmth, since they could be easily washed; a set of wool long Johns that had been issued at Pusan; a standard wool uniform shirt and trousers—the famous “shade 33s”; two fatigue jackets and two fatigue trousers; and lastly I wore my field jacket, not lined but a good windbreaker. I also wore two pairs of socks at all times. Except for some spare socks and underwear and two handkerchiefs, this completed my wardrobe.
Our worst shortage was of gloves. Nobody had anything but leather work gloves, which gave almost no protection from the cold. It was impossible to touch metal at any time, be it howitzer, ammunition, or truck, with the bare hand without having the skin stick. I had a pair of leather dress gloves I had brought from Fort Sill. Even now my hands ache whenever they get chilled. The worst problem was where the fingernails joined the skin. Here the flesh split into deep furrows that bled almost constantly. I managed to keep my sores fairly clean, but many men developed bad infections. In the cold our lips cracked and bled. I had had the foresight to put chapstick in my pocket when I left the States and so got some protection. The battery aidman finally managed to get some kind of salve, which the men smeared around their mouths. It was a white paste that made everyone look like a character in a minstrel show. A few of the men had sweaters of some kind, but I did not. Fortunately we did have winter sleeping bags; without them we would not have made it.
On the twenty-third we moved up to the ancient walled town of Kapsan, passing evidence of hard fighting along the way. The town itself was almost entirely destroyed as a result of the recent fighting, with only a few pathetic residents left, and they were freezing in makeshift shelters. Large sections of the walls had crumbled away, but there were sections still standing up to seven or eight feet high. I think the walls were about ten feet thick at the bottom.
We were the only 155-mm gun battery this far north, and the only ammunition we had was what we had carried ourselves. We were directed to establish a battery ammunition dump and send the service battery section to the rear for more. We piled the two hundred rounds from their trucks off to one side of the gun position, gave the sergeant in command of the section a supply of C rations for his men, and sent them off. The nearest ammo dump they could draw from was a hundred or so miles to the south. Events changed, so this section did not return to us.
On the twenty-fourth we had Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings. This was actually a Friday. The ration had reached us while we were moving up, and we decided to put off the feast one day to allow the cooks to set up and properly prepare it. It was an unbelievably joyous break from hashed corn beef and bread. The quartermasters made a tremendous effort to get this meal into the hands of the troops. That day I assembled our ROKs and attempted to explain through those who spoke the best English just what the occasion was. I fear the tale of the Pilgrim Fathers lost something in the translation.