Winter Of The Yalu

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“Both,” I said. “Sentry, step outside and give close station march order.”

While the sentry yelled, “March order,” I pulled on my boots and field jacket, the only clothes I was not wearing anyway, and shortly the section chiefs stumbled into the exec post looking bewildered. I repeated my orders and could only say that I had no idea what was up, but considering that division headquarters had bypassed everyone in between to call me direct, it had to be urgent. Sergeant Hartzog of the ammo section at once tossed me a major problem. There was no way his trucks could carry those two hundred rounds that had been on service battery’s trucks. I had been ordered to blow up anything I could not move, but I had no idea how to blow up two hundred rounds of 155-mm ammo without blowing myself up at the same time. Each gun section carried three Thermit grenades, but they were reserved for blowing up the howitzer itself if it ever came to that. An unexpected solution appeared when we heard trucks on the MSR. The motor officer ran out and stopped them. The corporal in charge said he was returning south after delivering supplies to the 17th Infantry at Hyesanjin. His trucks were empty; he knew where the corps ammunition dump was and would carry our excess ammo there. So that problem was solved.

I took two jeeps and the threequarter-ton wire truck, since I had no idea what sort of communications would be available wherever we were going. I thought it best to be able to start laying a phone line as soon as I got to our new position. In addition I put all six gunners into the wire truck. This way the second man in each section would be able to brief the section chiefs as soon as the guns arrived.

I will never forget the cold on that trip south from Kapsan. Twice we stopped at MP checkpoints and warmed ourselves at their fires. These two-man posts were one of the most dangerous jobs of all. They were just two men alone in the night, usually with no other troops within miles. Those who did not build a fire were sometimes found frozen to death the next morning. Those who did build a fire were sometimes found shot to death the next morning beside the ashes of their fire. Once the threequarter-ton behind me started honking, and I stopped my jeep to run back and investigate. Two of the men had passed out from the cold, and the other men were huddled up against them trying to revive them with their own body heat. I ordered everyone out and set the strongest to cutting down bushes with their bayonets. With the aid of gasoline from the spare cans we soon had two fires going, between which we placed those men who had fainted. When they revived, we loaded up and started off again. I believe they would have died if I had not stopped and built fires, and the rest of us were not much better off. Somehow my driver kept going, but near the end he was actually moaning as he drove. I have never been particularly robust, and I was close to collapse from the cold when we finally reached division headquarters. I do not know just how low the temperature dropped, but at division headquarters they recorded it at thirty-six degrees below zero that night. Division headquarters was in a valley, so it must have been forty degrees below on the mountain passes.

WE FOUND division headquarters located in a school building, always the most substantial building in any Korean town, North or South. They had hot coffee ready for us, and their rooms had stoves going. It was so cold, however, that the stoves barely cut the chill. I went straight to the war room and reported in. The G-3 was still up. I think it was about 0430, and he had apparently been up all night. He gave me coffee from a pot sitting on a stove and told me to sit down next to the stove. I had not stopped to drink coffee with the men, and I was grateful for that hot liquid. He explained what had happened, and I believe I can recall something close to his exact words: “We had a message brought in to our forward outpost by relays of Korean runners. It was written in Korean and was from the headman of a village downriver from Hyesanjin. In it he says that thousands and thousands of Chinese are crossing the Yalu near his village and heading due south.”

 

I expressed incredulity at this information and blurted out a whole string of questions. Any headman of a village downriver from Hyesanjin would have to be a communist headman. Why would such a one send us a warning? And how could anyone, even if he were on our side, have managed to organize a system of relay runners on short notice in this weather? Could we really trust or believe such a vague message from such a vague source?

The G-3 replied that it did not matter whether he believed it or not, because General Barr, the division commander, believed it. He told me that General Barr had served in China as an adviser to Chiang Kai-shek and knew a great deal about the Chinese communists. He then went on to explain that General Banwas ordering everyone back to less exposed positions, and the 17th Infantry was being ordered to leave the Yalu at dawn and start south. The division was scattered up and down a hundred miles of road, but it was to be consolidated as rapidly as possible.