- 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
Since the Chinese were headed south in the gap between the 7th Division and the Marines, the staff believed they would keep going until they reached the south end of the Pujon Reservoir. Once there they could either turn west and try to cut the Marine’s MSR at Hagaru-ri (at the south end of the Changjin) or turn east around the south side of Puksubaek and drive from there northeast by way of Undam to cut our MSR somewhere between Pungsan and Pukchong. An infantry battalion plus “C” of the 57th covered this approach. I was to join them covering the southwest with my guns. I recall interrupting the G-3 with a comment here. This estimate of the situation would call for the Chinese to march down the length of the same mountain range the 31st Infantry had had so much trouble crossing from east to west. I mentioned the difficulty E Company had in making even a short march in those mountains, and now the weather was even worse. I had become quite bold for a young lieutenant in offering advice to the division staff. It was probably because I was so tired. If my mind had been functioning properly, I would have done nothing but say, “Yes, sir” and “No, sir.”
However, the G-3 took my remarks in good part and went on to explain that, from his experience in China, General Barr had concluded that there was no terrain that could not be crossed by a Chinese army, regardless of weather conditions. (I thought about that years later when the Chinese army crossed the Himalayas in its border war with India.) I have always wondered who sent that message and how he got it to our outpost downriver from Hyesanjin.
I suddenly heard several men scream and spun around to see the fourth tractor in line moving sideways toward the cliff.
While we were talking, Maj. Gen. David Barr himself came into the war room, and I was presented to him as the officer commanding the 155 battery moving back from the Yalu. I think General Barr had stayed up all night himself. He was about fifty-five, and he looked very tired. I wondered how a man his age could keep going under the conditions we were living in. In fact, he suffered a heart attack within a year, which retired him from the Army. I am firmly convinced that he worked himself to death those last two months of 1950 trying to save his men. His prompt action on the receipt of that strange message (my impression was that he had not waited to clear the withdrawal with X Corps) did save several thousand lives, including mine.
As soon as I saluted, he shook my hand and explained his actions. This has always struck me as a most extraordinary courtesy from a major general to a first lieutenant. Generals simply do not explain their actions to lieutenants. Maybe he realized just how exhausted I was and was trying to give me a lift. He repeated that the 17th Infantry would leave the Yalu at dawn, and he just had to get my unwieldy tractors and medium howitzers out ahead of them. He feared that if we waited to march south with the main column, we would hold it up and might even block the road. If we were placed at the rear, we would probably be left behind and lost to the enemy.
As we drove through that frozen night, I kept wondering just how long roughly a hundred and thirty carbines and fifteen pistols could hold off a Chinese division or two if they came due south from the Yalu. There was nothing between us and them on that route. We had our machine guns, but with our howitzers pointing in the opposite direction, it did not give us much firepower.
We reached the position about dawn. I visited C Battery of the 57th a couple of miles down the road, made the necessary arrangement with them, and set the wire crew to laying a line to them. When I got back to my position I made a major decision that might not have been strictly in accordance with my instructions. I would put only four guns in place to fire to the southeast; the other two I would point north. This would give us something to fight with if the Chinese did come down from that direction.
It took time to shift trails on the towed 155-mm howitzer. It was necessary to lower the weapon from the firing plate, manhandle the piece around, and then jack it back up again. Sometimes the trails became so wedged in that the tractor had to be brought up to move it, all of which would mean we would not be able to use the howitzers themselves if we were hit from the north. I asked the gunners if any of them had ever seen a 155 fired from its wheels. None had, but one of them had talked to a soldier who had. He was told it bounced like a rubber ball and left a couple of men with broken bones.
By noon I had made every preparation I could think of and settled down on the floor of a building in the village of So-dong-ni for a rest. About 1400 someone shook me awake and told me Captain Klaniecki had just driven up. I stumbled out to report to him; he acknowledged my salute with a somewhat exasperated wave of his hand, and said: “A fine exec you turn out to be! I leave you alone for twenty-four hours, and you hijack my battery clear across Asia!” The relief I felt at having him back to take command was overwhelming. He went over my plans and did me the honor of approving all of them.