- 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
What follows is an account of the march to the Yalu and back by Battery B, 31st Field Artillery Battalion, 7th Division, put together from scribbles in a diary of sorts, the rough copy of notes for the unit journal, and memories now over thirty years old:
The American Army had been cut and cut again, while the Communists built up for their war.
Following our successful landings at Inchon and the capture of Seoul in September 1950, the 7th Division marched overland to Pusan and prepared to embark for North Korea. The 31st Field Artillery had 155mm howitzers drawn by M-5 tractors. The march proved too much for many of our aged machines, and we had to be issued several replacement tractors, equally aged, when we reached Pusan. On October 16, 1950, we boarded the USNS David Shank , and there in Pusan -Harbor we waited for the rest of the month. It had been planned to land us at Wonsan, but the Russians and North Koreans had mined those waters so heavily that the port proved unusable. While headquarters tried to find a place to land us, we spent a boring time aboard ship. Being bored aboard ship was better than being shot at ashore, so nobody had any real complaints. The Shanks was owned by the Navy, but it was manned by a civilian crew from the Merchant Marine. The ship’s captain was a courtly old gentleman who did all he could to make our stay as pleasant as circumstances permitted.
We finally sailed on October 31 and arrived off the small town of Iwon the next day. There we spent another four days waiting for an LST to take us ashore. In the meantime we stared at the rugged mountains behind the beach, worried about reports the Chinese had sent troops into North Korea, and studied our maps. The maps were copies of the Japanese Imperial Land Survey of 1918, and apparently they had not been updated since. We were to discover that rivers had changed course, towns had vanished, and mountains had risen up since 1918.
During the afternoon of November 5, 1950, we climbed down the cargo nets to an LST whose crew were all former members of the Imperial Japanese Navy. It is an indication of how drastically strength had been cut that we had to hire recent enemies to man our ships. As we pulled away from the Shanks , its horn sounded a series of blasts and its captain stood on his bridge waving his cap and shouting, “Good luck, 31st! God be with you!” He had given our battalion commander, Lt. Col. Patrick Welch, a U.S. flag to hoist whenever we could find a flagpole. I, for one, was much moved by the concern he had shown for us. The LST promptly grounded on a sandbar; the result was that the sun was down by the time we got ashore. We discussed whether the Japanese captain would commit hara-kiri on the bow. Some officers who had served in Japan claimed that, in the late Imperial Navy, a captain who ran his ship aground was expected to do just that. In any event, he did not do so while we were aboard.
I was at the time a first lieutenant acting as assistant communications officer and executive officer of headquarters battery. As an additional duty I more or less commanded the Koreans in the security platoon, since no one else paid much attention to them. The American army had been cut and cut again, while the Communists built up for their war. When the invasion came, there were just not enough U. S. troops to bring the skeleton formations still active to anything like a war capacity. The 7th Division, while still in Japan, had been cut to less than cadre size to provide replacements for the first units committed. It had then been rebuilt with officers and men flown in from the States. I myself had been pulled out of the 18th Field Artillery at Fort Sill and shoved onto a plane to Japan just in time to board ship for the Inchon landings.
This still left the division at only about two-thirds strength, so General MacArthur had taken the unprecedented step of filling up the 7th Division with Korean conscripts. These poor souls had been pressganged off the streets and rice paddies, told they were now in the army, and shipped to Japan for incorporation in American units. The lucky ones got ten days’ training and a chance to fire a carbine before being sent into action. We had organized a platoon of ROKs (for Republic of Korea) for local security of the headquarters under an American sergeant and two Koreans, both named Kim, who had been appointed sergeants when they claimed to have been noncoms in the Japanese army. I have a vivid memory of trying to call their roll on the beach after dark. A third of them were named Kim, but no matter what name I yelled out, the entire platoon chorused, “Yes!” each time. So I gave up and just counted the total number.
On November 9 we learned the division was under orders to push north all the way to the Yalu. The 31st Field Artillery would stay near the coast, but one battery was to be detached to take part in the drive. Since this battery would operate its own Fire Direction Center (FDC) with very little supervision from anyone, it was mandatory that both the battery commander and his executive, who would command in his absence, be well qualified in field artillery gunnery. Gunnery had been undergoing extensive changes over the preceding year and a half due to the introduction of the target grid system. Modifications were still being made faster than changes could be issued to the gunnery manual. This had resulted in only those officers who had just come from the field artillery school at Fort Sill being current on all the new intricacies of gunnery. Only two officers in the battalion had just come from Sill; myself and Captain Klaniecki, the assistant S-3. (The S-3 was the main gunnery officer in the battalion.)
Colonel Welch selected B Battery for the expedition and put Captain Klaniecki in command. Captain Klaniecki promptly asked me to be his executive. On the voyage from Yokohama to Inchon I had assisted in organizing and training the gunnery personnel, and during the Seoul fighting I had worked in the FDC when I was not out as a forward observer. The result was that I had acquired a solid if not entirely deserved reputation as a good gunnery officer. Gun-battery executives usually were very senior lieutenants. Since the battery commander would be absent for extensive periods on reconnaissance or liaison duties, his executive would be in effective command much of the time. The request was quite unexpected. I had been a first lieutenant less than three months, had been in the army only twenty-three months, and except for some of the newer second lieutenants, I was the youngest officer in the battalion. I accepted with a sense of having been given a great honor but with considerable trepidation over the responsibilities.
The march order came at 0700 on November 11, 1950. We broke camp quickly. The only tents we had were two small command-post tents and a fly for the mess. One tent was for the battery headquarters; the other for the executive post. There was no confusion. Every truck position in the column had been laid out the night before. The first sergeant sounded his whistle, and shouts of “Mount Up!” rang out from the other sergeants just as they had done since the days when the field artillery was horse drawn. The sentries came in from their posts on the double, with the cold air causing clouds of vapor to issue from their mouths. I watched the guns pull into line and then took my place in the front of the three-quarter-ton truck allotted to the executive and the FDC crew. I noted that the first sergeant only then pulled the guidon out of the ground, cased it, and carried it to his truck. As he passed me, he paused and spoke: “It’s the custom of the battery, Lieutenant. We always keep the guidon flying until the last. We plant it once more as soon as we get to the next position.” It was a fine custom, and I liked it. Captain Klaniecki’s jeep pulled to the edge of the road, and he stood up, raised his arm, and swung it forward in the age-old gesture to march. The battery moved out.
Captain Klaniecki led in his jeep, and I came next in my three-quarter-ton. The guns were behind me, followed in turn by the ammunition trucks. The remaining vehicles brought up the rear, with a radio truck last of all. We had only four radios in the battery, which was not enough. Two of the radios were in the jeeps of the battery commander and the reconnaissance officer, both of whom were often absent at the same time. One other was in my truck and was the base set; another was in the chief of detail’s three-quarter-ton. The radios were on, and the operators checked in from time to time.
The first thing I discovered about my three-quarter-ton was that it had lost its windshield. This caused me and the driver to get the full force of the breezes wafting down from Siberia. The truck was open, but the rear was to some extent sheltered. Lieutenant Moon rode in the back, and as I got colder and colder, I suggested he might like the prestige of the front seat from time to time. “I am only a humble second lieutenant and am unworthy of such a great honor,” he answered. As the cold sharpened, I offered to give my seat of honor to any man who wanted it, but the FDC crew was unanimous in declaring that they would never disgrace the battery by making an officer ride in the back while an enlisted man rode up front.
The road was a single-lane dirt track that ascended the mountains in a breathtaking series of switchbacks and was barely wide enough for the gun tractors. The mountains were wild and rugged, and by this time of year all vegetation was bare or dead. Looking back down at the battery strung out on the loops and hairpin curves below brought a catch to my throat. It was an imposing sight, and I felt a surge of pride at commanding such a formidable array. I was very young, and it was my first real command.
The 31st Infantry was in the process of clearing the area to protect the western flank of the force driving north; after that it was to push west and establish contact with the Marines working their way north along the Changjin Reservoir. The 1st Marine Division and the 7th Infantry Division made up Maj. Gen. Edward M. Almond’s X Corps. The ROK I Corps was also under General Almond’s operational control. It contained the ROK Capital Division and the ROK 3rd Division. All told, General Almond commanded some fifty thousand Americans and thirty-five thousand Koreans. (The 7th Division had about eighteen thousand Americans and eight thousand Koreans.) We were not a part of Lieutenant General Walker’s 8th Army operating on the west coast; General Almond reported directly to General MacArthur. This unusual command arrangement was due partly to the two elements being separated by impassable mountains, but according to officers who had served in Japan, the main reason was that General Walker and General Almond could not stand the sight of each other and were not on speaking terms.
We laid on Compass 5600 (due northwest), but received no fire missions that day. Lt. Col. Embree, commander of the 57th Field Artillery, visited us the next morning, and we soon began to get missions assigned. Our position was not too good for our purposes, and after conferring with Colonel Embree, Captain Klaniecki left to look for better gun sites. We began our registration on the 57th’s base point after Klaniecki left, so I was on my own. To my great embarrassment, the first round slammed into a ridge in front of us. I had calculated the minimum quadrant necessary to clear the ridge, and a check showed no errors in the gun settings. Myself, Lieutenant Moon, and Sergeant Baskhill put our heads together and finally decided that the cold was so intense that the powder was not behaving the way the tables said it should. That night the temperature started dropping even more. We read it at thirty-two degrees below zero on the powder thermometers, highly accurate instruments carried by each gun section to measure the actual temperature of the gunpowder.
“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.
Division artillery headquarters was only about five miles away in the town of Pungsan, and Brig. Gen. Homer Kiefer the division artillery commander paid us a visit and was present during the firing. It was fortunate he did since we had been having much trouble with our radios. Our last operating radio, the one on my three-quarter-ton, went out twice, but we were able to continue the mission by using one of the radios in the general’s party until we got ours on the air again. General Kiefer promised to send someone from his own headquarters to work them over, and the next morning the division artillery communication chief and one of his radio repairmen showed up. It took them most of the day to get our sets working again since they had to stop every four or five minutes to thaw their hands out. They said the cold was just too much for the radios. That intense cold meant dead batteries. We kept the motors of at least two trucks running at all times and used jumper cables from them to start the other motors as necessary. Flashlight batteries had to be kept in somebody’s pocket when not in use. During night fire missions a cannoneer had to periodically run out to the aiming posts carrying warm batteries for the night lights. My notes show a total expenditure of one hundred and thirty rounds on the seventeenth. The trucks from the ammunition train were sent back to the corps ammunition dump to replace our supply. That day I was afflicted with some type of intestinal disorder. The discomforts of dysentery in the open at more than thirty below are best not described. For some reason it stopped troubling me by night.
Our worst shortage was of gloves. It was impossible to touch any metal with the bare hand without having the skin stick.
My notes for the eighteenth of November begin: “Snow, almost a foot has fallen. The snow, however, seems to have warmed up the country somewhat.” Warmth is, of course, relative. In this case it meant the temperature was only about twenty degrees below zero. This day we sent a wire crew on foot into the mountains in an attempt to lay a phone line to the front lines to supplement our erratic radios. They were not able to push through and ran into an enemy patrol. Only a few shots were fired, and the North Koreans surrendered. The wiremen brought in a total of six POWs. The patrol might be better described as stragglers, and they were so cold they gave up to keep from freezing to death.
That night a major worry hit me. Captain Klaniecki came down with something very close to pneumonia, and the battery aidman made plans to evacuate him to the rear. To put it bluntly, the prospect of having the full command of the battery scared the daylights out of me. Lieutenant Moon would be a tower of strength, but I am sorry to say that our other first lieutenant, who would move up to acting executive, would be something else. I never felt so young and inexperienced in my life as I did that night while we watched over Klaniecki and tried to keep him warm.
Early the next morning we received notice that our mission with the 31st Infantry was to end, and we were to move even farther north and support the 32nd Infantry Regiment in protecting our ever-lengthening MSR (main supply route) as the division neared the Yalu. Colonel MacLain’s Infantry got two battalions to the Marines, and the 57th, less Battery C, joined him there. Captain Klaniecki was somewhat better, but still very sick. Sick as he was, he insisted on going up to the 48th Field Artillery Battalion, with the 32nd Infantry, to make the necessary arrangements. I begged him to let me go in his place, but he refused to consider it: “Reconnaissance is the battery commander’s job, and as long as I’m commanding this outfit I’m doing it.” The aidman’s protests had no effect, and we bundled him into his jeep.
We parceled infantrymen out among the gun sections to get warm at our fires and sent off a hurry-up call to the nearest quartermaster for more rations. Our cooks prepared a meal for them. It was hashed corn beef and bread, but the hot food did wonders for them. Trucks arrived sometime after midnight to take the company away, and they left expressing deep thanks for our hospitality.
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.
This day we were advised that the war was almost over, and that we should prepare for a return to Japan. The advisory also included an example of how forms should be made up for returning our ROKs to their own army. We were told to tell them that most would soon be discharged and sent home. An unofficial note was added to brush up on close-order drill since the 7th Division would be expected to take part in a grand victory parade as soon as we reached Japan. I wondered just what the battery would look like thawed out, scrubbed up, and in Class A uniforms. Parades in fatigues such as are held now were unthinkable. In our archaic minds parade and dress were always coupled.
Meanwhile various administrative matters had piled up, and they wanted Captain Klaniecki to come back to headquarters to take care of them. Also they could brief him on the plans for the return to Japan. As an afterthought they added something like: “Tell Dill he won’t have to do anything while you’re gone. Nothing is going to happen in the next few days. He will just sit there in position until you get back.”
I saw the captain off early on the morning of the twenty-fifth. His last remark before leaving was to make certain everyone shaved, since he did not want any visitors on the way to the Yalu to think his battery was part of Coxey’s army. The present generation probably cannot understand it, but we made every effort to keep clean shaven and our hair close cropped. Those who had served in Japan regaled the rest with vivid descriptions of the pleasures available in the fleshpots there. I wondered if I could justify a reconnaissance to the Yalu by the acting battery commander but decided against it. There was a legend that General Patton had celebrated his arrival on the Rhine River by performing a certain bodily function in the waters thereof. Everyone wanted to do the same in the waters of the Yalu. I did allow a truckload of men, one from each section, to drive up and desecrate the waters or, to be more exact, ice, since the river was frozen over. They were somewhat disappointed; I am not sure just what they expected to see, but one of them said China looked the same as Korea.
G-3 : Is this the battery commander?
ME : No, sir. Lieutenant Dill, executive and acting battery commander.
G-3 : Well, are you in command?
ME : Yes, sir.
G-3 : You are to move your battery to So-dong-ni at once. Get moving.
We had a message brought in by relays of Korean runners: Thousands and thousands of Chinese are crossing the Yalu.
ME : Where is So-dong-ni? I’ve never heard of it.
G-3 : It’s south of division headquarters at Pungsan. Stop by on the way for further orders.
ME : Good God, sir! That’s over eighty miles! Can’t I wait until morning? I’m not sure the gun tractors can make it down the road at night. The mountains are covered with ice.
G-3 : Stop arguing and get moving, Lieutenant! Leave with your advance party at once and have your guns follow as soon as they can march-order. If something cannot be moved, blow it up.
ME : Blow it up?
G-3 : You heard me. I’ll tell you more when you get to Pungsan, but those howitzers of yours have got to start long before daybreak.
ME : Yes, sir. March order at once.
By this time I was fully awake and climbing out of the sleeping bag. So was everyone else in the exec post.
Lieutenant Moon spoke up: “Did I hear you say march order, or am I having a nightmare?”
“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.
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.
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.
Then, on the twenty-eighth, we were ordered farther back. March order was at 1030, and we reached Chori at 1530 after a hard and cold march over the mountains. We left at 0700 on the twenty-ninth for the coast by way of Pukchong. There was a heavy snowstorm in progress all the way to Pukchong, which we reached about noon. The snow actually made it seem warmer, but we had to move very slowly to keep vehicles from sliding off the road. Part of the time the vehicles had to be led by men on foot because the snow was so thick the drivers had trouble seeing.
Colonel Welch had orders to move the battalion to Hamhung. C Battery had already started down the coastal road, and we were to continue on without pause. He was expecting orders to move the headquarters at any minute. We were to abandon everything except a perimeter at Hamhung. The ROK divisions up the coast were being evacuated by sea even then, and we were also told that 8th Army on the west coast was being driven back with high casualties.
We made it near to the coast without too much trouble. The snow had stopped, and the sky cleared somewhat. As we neared the coast, however, the road became very steep and the ice became ever thicker and slicker. Soon we had to put the entire battery to work chopping ice so the tractors could move. It must have been about four in the afternoon, or maybe later, when it happened. I was at the head of the column supervising the party breaking ice; Captain Klaniecki was back along the column guiding tractors around a particularly slick section on a curve overlooking a fifty- or sixty-foot sheer drop. I suddenly heard several men scream and spun around to see the fourth tractor in line moving sideways toward the cliff. The light was still bright enough for me to see the driver frantically working his levers in an effort to get control, but the tractor and its howitzer kept sliding sideways toward the edge. I started running back up the hill as hard as I could while I watched that machine slide over the cliff in what seemed like a slow-motion movie. Somebody later told me I kept yelling, “No! No! No!” all the time I ran up the hill, but I have no memory of this. Two men were riding on top when it went over. One of them managed to jump onto the road before the track went over, but the other did not. The driver and at least one other man were in the cab. The tractor and howitzer came to a stop on their sides with the motor still running and the tracks spinning. Some of the men found a way down the cliff and floundered over to the tractor in snowdrifts above their waists. These snowdrifts saved the men who went over. They had bruises and a few cuts but were otherwise uninjured.
Captain Klaniecki and I had a conference. We would never make it into Hamhung this way. Even if we did not lose the rest of our guns over cliffs, we could not chop ice all the way. We decided to keep chopping ice down to the coast, which was now not far off. There was a railroad there and a small town called Yongdae. I was to go down there, find out what sort of facilities were available, and then go back to Pukchong, report the situation to Colonel Welch, and ask him to find some way to send us on by rail.
I took the captain’s jeep and the ROK who spoke the best English and went down to the coast. Yongdae had a railroad depot, but there was no loading dock or ramp of any kind. There was a large pile of railroad ties at the station, and I thought we could build a ramp and dock from them. The problem was it would take the better part of a day to build a ramp and dock. Talking about it to the driver, he made an observation much to the point: “The way some of the men around headquarters were talking, I don’t think we’ve got a whole day, and the day won’t start until the battery gets down here.” I was not sure how long it would take the battery to reach the town, so I had to find a labor force to build it for us. I sent the ROK out to find out who was in charge of the town. He was back in less than ten minutes with the information that there was some kind of meeting going on in what he took to be the town hall. We loaded up in the jeep and drove over to the building the ROK pointed out. It was now well after dark, but there was a bright moon breaking through scattered clouds, and it reflected off the snow and ice to give surprisingly good vision. The three of us trooped into the building and found about a dozen Korean men standing around a long table. They looked very, very scared.
Later, when I had time to think about it, I began to wonder why the City Fathers at Yongdae were so frightened. As we occupied North Korea we replaced the communist officials with ROK sympathizers; and at least in Pukchong we had held a regular election in which the people had chosen their own city government. At the time I assumed that I was dealing with our own appointees. However, the more I thought about it, I came to the conclusion I was dealing with communists. In spite of the railroad, Yongdae was a small and relatively isolated town. There were no Americans or ROKs stationed in the town, and as far as I could tell never had been. It was obvious to anyone that the U.S. Army was in retreat, and if any ROK officials had once been in charge, they were gone by then. What I had done was walk in on a meeting of the local politburo in the process of taking charge of the town. I was lucky they were so surprised, otherwise we might well have been knocked on our heads and tossed over a cliff.
“The Chinese rushed my gun in platoon mass. But I ran out of ammunition before they ran out of men.”
I was not sure I could impress a labor force, and I decided the best way to start getting one was to be diplomatic. I bowed to the man I took to be the mayor and told the ROK to “bow to the mayor and tell him I have traveled around the world and have never seen a finer town than his.”
The jeep driver looked at me as if he thought I was shell-shocked. The ROK also looked startled, but he did as told, and much jabbering in Korean followed:
ROK : Mayor, he glad to know he have number one town. He want to know if you’re going to shoot him.
ME : Tell him I’m not going to shoot anyone. Tell him he also has a very fine railroad depot.
ROK : Mayor, he glad you know he have number one railroad depot. He still want to know if you’re going to shoot him.
ME : I said I wasn’t, but his depot needs a loading ramp. Ask him to turn out the whole town and start building one from those ties.
ROK : Mayor say he glad to build number one ramp. He want to know if you not shoot him if he build number one ramp.
ME : Honest Injun, I’m not going to shoot anyone. I just need that ramp.
ROK : I not know Korean for “Honest Injun.”
ME : Never mind. Just tell him to build that ramp.
With this I bowed again, and we piled into the jeep and headed back up the mountain road. On the way I asked the ROK if he thought they really would build that ramp. “Oh, yes, sir! I tell them you most mean son-of-bitch in whole American army. I tell them you shoot all men in town of Yongdae if they not build ramp. I tell them you shoot own GIs when they no do what you say. ” Oh well; I had tried to be tactful. I do not doubt that to this day the communist mothers of Yongdae frighten their little Reds into obedience with tales of the bloodthirsty imperialist who was going to liquidate the local proletariat unless they toiled through the night.
I saluted and started to leave, but he called out: “Where are you going now?”
“Back to the battery, sir. Captain Klaniecki will need me.”
“No, you are not. I’ll get word about the train to Klaniecki. Find a place to sleep until breakfast, have a hot meal, and then start back. You’re out on your feet. If you don’t know it, everyone else does.”
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.
The Chinese set the trucks on fire, and several hundred helpless men burned to death with them. Most of the men who escaped managed to do so by dashing across the ice of the frozen reservoir under heavy fire. It was at this time that the term human wave to describe Chinese attacks came into use. It was best described to me by a sergeant from A Battery of the 57th who got out. He believed he had manned the last howitzer in action.
“The Chinese rushed my gun in platoon mass. I would cut the fuse to zero, fire into the middle of their platoon, and kill the whole bunch with one round. Then there would be another platoon right behind. I ran out of ammunition before they ran out of men.”
Fortunately our A Battery had not yet joined and was still near Hamhung when the Chinese cut the Marine MSR. Their advance party was cut off with the Marines, but all of them got out when the Marines broke through.
On the fourteenth the order was given to start blowing up replaceable supplies. The main ammunition dump was blown this day, but we did not know it was to take place and we were surprised by the loudest noise I have ever heard, followed by the sight of a huge mushroom cloud rising over the area. Everyone’s first thought was that the Chinese had dropped an atomic bomb.
On the seventeenth we occupied our last position, near the beach. Naval gunfire passed over us here. The wind was strong and biting cold. It whistled down from Siberia loud enough to make shouting necessary in ordinary conversation, and all orders to the guns had to go over the phones. Everything except the absolute minimum equipment needed to fire was loaded on the vehicles. We were told that the guns and trucks would be loaded on a cargo ship. The men were to carry only their carbines, a small pack, and their sleeping bags.
I decided to stow the arctic shoe pacs on my truck and wear my combat boots. Even if my feet did get cold, I was not going to let that fine new pair of boots out of my sight. I stuffed everything else into my sleeping bag and tied it into a horseshoe roll. It was not much. Just some spare socks and underwear and my shaving gear; and I had my pistol and bayonet, canteen and compass.
Although we had been alerted to leave on the seventeenth, for some reason our departure was canceled at the last minute, and we spent the night firing “H & I” (harassing and interdiction). Making the rounds of the guns that night, one of the men who had made the trip to the banks of the Yalu and duly left his mark on the ice thereof spoke to me about that piece of business: “You know, Lieutenant, if I had known it was going to make the Chinese that mad, I never would have done it.”