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Tony G. Gracco
Eastlake, Ohio -
"It was not bullets that always killed men. Bullets we could live by. It was the shells when we were out in the open that landed and killed people. I’m probably one of the luckiest guys in the world. I had no business coming back, and I mean that. I don't know how I made it. I should have been killed many times."
- Tony Gracco
My name is Tony G. Gracco. Everybody calls me Anthony, but my name is Tony. I live in Eastlake, Ohio, about 10-15 miles east from Cleveland. I was born in Cleveland, Ohio on February 12, 1931, a son of John and Jennie Ferraro Gracco. My mother originated from Pennsylvania. My dad did a lot of things for a living, but when I was born I think he was working construction. Later on in my early years he got a job with a machinist company and he stayed with them until he retired at age 65.
I went to grade and high school in Cleveland. I went to grade school in a strictly Italian neighborhood called "Little Italy", which was the little section of Cleveland where I was born. I went to Murray Hill School until my dad moved out of there in 1944. We moved out to Lakeville Superior. My mother got him out of there because she wanted to buy a home to raise her four sons.
I was going to grade school when World War II was going on. I remember that we had a lot of scrap drives. We had all kinds of drives--metal, rubber and so forth, for the war effort. We had speakers who came to our school to give lectures about the war effort. There was a sense of patriotism and one of the main things I recall is Flag Day while I was attending elementary school. We used to go outside the building and pledge allegiance to the flag and everything like that that isn't done today. We were a patriotic group.
I was still in Junior High School when I left for the service. I ran away from home and joined the Army. I didn't leave school because of a sense of patriotism. I left because at age 15 I wanted a little more excitement in life, let's put it that way. I had an older brother that was overseas in the Philippines. He was in the Army. So why did I join the Army? Well, what does a 15-year old know? He only knows there is an Army, Marine corps, and Navy. I was only 15 so I had to lie about my age. It was the only way that I could get into the service.
I joined the Army in 1946. I had a happy home--it wasn't that I wanted to get away from it. I was just looking for a little bit of excitement. Something that was a change in life. I was tired and bored with school. My brother went into the service and so did one of the guys that I looked up to all the time. Although I was still a 15-year old kid, they kept me in because they didn't know how old I was. I was a little bit bigger and a little bit more mature because the neighborhood that I grew up in was a rough neighborhood. We grew up fast and we thought we were big kids.
I went to Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland for basic training and was there for about two months in boot camp. I learned how to be in the Army, learned about the rifle and how to shoot it, and learned about the military commands and so forth.
On January 7, 1947 I ended up in Korea. We had a lot of conflict going on at the time between the Russians and the South Korean government because they were trying to set up a government of their own. We were there more or less to help police the area. We were occupation troops.
In Korea of 1947, when I landed there I thought I was back in the Middle Ages, to tell you the truth. Everything was so far backwards. When I was there they had no machinery or equipment whatsoever. Nothing. The farmers plowed the field with oxen. A man about 40 years old looked like he was 90. A woman who was about 30 years old looked like she was 80. But they had hard times. They worked hard. There were no paved roads that I recall. All they had was gravel roads. When we rode in a 6x truck our brains rattled around in our heads.
I thought it was pretty country, but I don't know if you would want to say that it was clean. I had never seen a country like this in my life. I mean, I was a 16-year old boy and it was the first time that I had been out of my country. The town I was in was Kunsong. At each end of the village there were outhouses. Everybody went in there--men, women, children, everybody. Then the farmers would come in there, pick up the human waste, and take it out to the rice paddies. That’s how they grew their rice. They used that as fertilizer. It wasn't the best smelling country by a long shot. I just couldn’t believe that the people worked so hard for so little. They were going back in time. Even history books will tell you about that.
I was attached to the 6th Infantry Division in Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 63rd Infantry Regiment. We did a lot of things. They used us as train guards when they brought supplies all over the country of South Korea. I got a free ride every place we went. We brought supplies to the military bases and to civilians. We had to keep civilians off our trains, otherwise they would steal us blind. I shot at them just to scare them away, but I never shot one. But a buddy of mine shot one. He got three years in Ft. Leavenworth for shooting him. It wasn’t the idea that he shot him once or twice, but he shot him six times. He was a young kid. What did he know? I mean, you pull the trigger and all the sudden, “Boom, boom, boom, boom.” They said it was murder.
The Koreans wanted us there. They were under Japanese occupation for so long that they welcomed us. They wanted us there to help and teach them. But it was such a conflict with the Russians over there. Every time we turned around they were catching our guys. I'm talking about the guys who were going there for line repair wires. They would capture them and then keep them for maybe a month or who knows how long. We never knew when they came back. We had a lot of trouble with the Russians.
I left Korea in September 1947. From there they sent me home because my dad had been trying for over a year to get me out of the service. When they finally found out how young I was, they sent me home under the Selective Service Act. I never got in trouble for joining underage, but I came home after my Mom and Dad went to talk to the government to get me out. I think my father understood because he was a World War I veteran who fought in Italy. I didn’t want out. I wanted to serve my time and that was it. But I had no choice. I was a young kid. I was honorably discharged on October 2, 1947 at the age of 17. I went back to Cleveland and went back to school when I got out of the service. I was in my last year of high school.
I didn't finish high school. The war broke off in June and I tried to join the Marine Corps Reserves. A friend of mine and I were in the same class together. George Mills was a Marine Reserve attached to the 7th Battalion Marine Reserves in Cleveland. He told me they were getting to leave for Korea and asked, "Why don’t you come with me and sign up?" I went down to sign up, but they wouldn’t take me because they had filled all the enlistments. They said I had to go down to enlist in the regular Marine Corps, which is what I did. My mother went down there and talked to the Colonel. He called me up and told me that she didn’t want me to go. He told me that I didn't have to go into the Marines because I had already served my time. I said, "No, I'm leaving. I signed my signature on the enlistment papers and I'm leaving for the Marine Corps."
I knew the war was coming long before this. We had all predicted it. We knew it was coming. I had been in Korea. We knew what the North Koreans were doing. We figured that within three years a war would be coming. It was just a matter of time. It took a certain length of time for them to get ready. I figured that within a three-year period North Korea was going to invade South Korea because they wanted a united country. Once we pulled out 1948, we knew right then that that was it. The United States knew it too. I don’t know why they let the North Koreans do it.
Enlisting in the Corps
I enlisted in the Marine Corps on August 23, 1950, and was sent to Parris Island, South Carolina, for boot camp. Even though I had already had basic training in the Army, anybody (even those who had been in the Army, Navy, or any other branch of service) had to go to boot camp when joining the Marine Corps.
I remember my first day in boot camp. It was hell day. We got off of the buses and the first thing they did was call us to stand at attention. They said, "Stay here and don’t move until we get everybody together, then we’ll get you to barracks.” We got in at night. They yelled at us. We weren't beaten--we were yelled at. They yelled all kinds of commands at us. They wanted us to know who was in command--which we did from Day One.
Many times during my boot camp training I thought, "Man, I wish I had gotten in the army instead of the Marines." But I’ll tell you the truth, I give Staff Sergeant Haines credit. He drilled this into our heads: “When I give a command you listen to it. You obey it.” He was right 100 percent.
I had the unique opportunity to know what it was like to be in the army and to also know what it was like to be a Marine. Without question the Corps was better. There seemed to be a closeness of men. One taking care of the other. We could depend on someone. Somehow or another it seemed like in the army it was different. Also, the training was much better and stricter and harder in the Marine Corps. As a 15-year old, if I hadn’t got through army basic I don’t think I would have made it through Marine Corps basic two years later. I don’t think I could have stood Marine boot camp at age 15.
Down there at Parris Island it was all sand. I can give you an instance. I’ll never forget it. When we came out of chow hall we were supposed to stand at attention until everybody came out, and then we all left together. One day after lunch, the Staff Sergeant saw a couple of guys scratching because they had flies on their head. The first thing he said was, “You’re staying at attention. You don’t touch that fly. You’ve had your dinner. Let him have his. That’s it. You don’t move." Those who moved were punished with, "Give me 50 push-ups” or "You’re going to run about the area."
Another punishment that was received in boot camp was being made to pick up your foot locker and waddle like a duck up the stairs. We had two floors--upstairs and downstairs. And not just one man did it--the whole platoon had to do it. If one man got in trouble, we all got the punishment. We picked up that locker and we waddled like a duck. "Go upstairs, come back downstairs, and put your footlocker back down." We carried it in our arms right in front of us. If there was a problem within the group we had to straighten it out--not physically like you see on television. That didn’t happen. But we helped one another. If a man was slow learning about how to put a weapon together, others taught him how to do it, blindfolded or what. We helped them learn about the weapon, how to shine their shoes, how to dress, how to look neat, how to clean up the barracks. We had to learn how to work as a team, not as one individual. We were a team.
I don’t think we were that close in the Army. When I was in Army basics there was a young guy about 17 years old who used to wet the bed. One day he came in and couldn’t find his bed. He was on the second floor. The other guys had put it outside on the second floor balcony. He had a little flat area there about three or four feet. The other guys had put it out there. If that Army guy had been a Marine boot, the others would probably have got a hold of him and tried to help him out. Find out what his problem was. Maybe he was drinking too much water. Maybe he couldn't hold his liquid, I don’t know. But maybe it was a medical problem. But they never tried to find out what his problem was in the Army. Because his bed smelled, they just moved it out of the room. Instead of getting to the root of the problem, they didn’t bother. They embarrassed the kid. That’s no good.
I had already been through Army basic training when I went to Marine Corps boot camp, so I really didn't make too many mistakes. I never got smacked or cracked or whatever for not getting in step or getting in line, etc. All of the things that I learned in the Marines I had already went through in the Army. The difference was the idea of doing things a little quicker. In Marine Corps boot camp we didn’t have any free time. We were in basic training 24 hours a day. In the Army we weren’t. We trained for eight hours and then the rest of the time was ours to go to the PX, go to a movie, or go to places on the base. Not in the Marine Corps. We never left the barracks until we graduated.
Our days started about 5:30-6:00 in the early morning. We had both classroom and physical training. They tried to find out exactly what we were good for and where to put us, so we had classes to find out what kind of knowledge that we had. Everybody in the Marine Corps is a rifleman, regardless, but they wanted to know where we fit in individually in the big picture.
I know there were guys that were sometimes dumbfounded during training. They went through hell, but they were intelligent people. They learned and they did graduate with us. I'm sure there were probably some who thought, “You guys are just shooting at me, hollering at me, and I’m no dummy.” But they didn’t shoot off their mouth. It wasn't done, even if all they got was a PFC. The DI was our leader. What he said went. We would have liked to get them and pound them to a wall sometimes, but we didn’t do it because if we did, we were going to have a problem. Not just one guy, but the rest of the platoon.
We were in boot camp for two months. We all graduated and some of us made Private First Class stripes. For the graduation ceremony we marched on the playing field. When we graduated, somehow or another our chest stood out. We were accepted in the Corps. We were not a civilian anymore. We were Marines. There was a good sense of pride because we had made it through boot camp. I don’t think I ever saw anybody in my platoon (Platoon 113) that didn’t make it.
After graduation I went home for ten days and then they shipped me back to Camp Lejeune to supply school. I learned how to handle supplies, how to fill up and crate boxes, how to load up crates, how to get supplies from one point to another--everything. They had pallets and we loaded everything them, picked them up using a fork lift, and then transferred them from one place to another. We loaded them on a plane or something like that. We had forms to fill out. I went through much of that.
I didn't like this job so I put in for a transfer from the 2nd Marine Division to the 1st Marine Division. I put in 21 transfer requests during the year and a half that I was at Camp LeJeune. They told us we would be going to Korea, but we never did as a group. Instead, they picked out individuals and shipped them over. I just got tired of that, so I requested to see the Inspector General. I told him I wanted a transfer and he talked to me like a father. He said, “Why? Do you want to get killed?” I said, “No, but I want to go to Korea.” I told him why. I said, “That’s the reason why I joined the Marine Corps. I didn’t join the Marine Corps to sit out the war back here.” I’m not a guy that’s gung ho or anything, don’t get me wrong. But I joined the Corps because I wanted to go over to Korea.
I wanted to go there for a lot of reasons. You've got to understand, when the war first broke out I thought it was going to be over real quick. That is why I didn't join in June. I figured that within three months the war would be over, but it wasn’t. When I started seeing some of the pictures coming out of there—guys with their hands tied behind their back with a bullet in their brains, guys who had been blown up, and guys who were captured and how the enemy was treating their prisoners, I figured, “This is nuts. This has got to stop.” I couldn’t see this happening to our guys over there. I didn’t care who they are--Army guys or what. This was what was happening to them. They were captured and the North Koreans were blowing their brains out. I figured, “Let me go. Let me try something.”
The 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune was more or less training troops to send over to Korea. The men were sent to Korea in replacement drafts. They started out with the 1st Replacement and sent maybe a couple of thousand men at a time to Korea once a month. I was at Camp Lejeune from 1951 until right after the holiday. I finally decided I had had enough and that's when I put in a request to see the Inspector General. I wasn't the only one who felt that way. As I said, he talked to all of us like men--like our fathers.
1st Marine Division
I finally got my transfer to the 1st Marine Division. They sent me to Camp Pendleton, California to Tent Camp One to learn about combat in Korea. We were taught how to fight the war by Korean veterans. I had already been taught combat in boot camp, but this was a little different. They were trying to show us how effective the fire power was of a platoon. When you see their firepower at night it’s unbelievable. The sky lights up. They wanted us to know what we would have behind us. They showed us what we would have to help us if we had a problem.
After this training I was finally sent to Korea. I went there in May 1952 and ended up in Division Supply back in the rear. That isn't where I wanted to be so I went to see my 1st Sergeant the next morning to put in a transfer to a line outfit. A couple of weeks later I got my transfer to How Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. How Company was up on line east of Panmunjom. I forget the location, but I know we were on the east side of Panmunjom somewhere around the Bunker Hill area. I didn’t know any of the names of the hills at that time because I was just a new recruit up there. I was no longer in supply when I was in the infantry. I was a machine-gunner on a light .30 air-cooled machine gun, which was different than a water-cooled machine gun. The water-cooled type machine gun had a barrel in the front full of water and it had a tube that was water-contained to keep the weapon cold.
There are a lot of people who think that during the Korean War Marines didn’t do much after Chosin, but I have to disagree. I will say one thing. I give those guys who came from the Reservoir a lot of credit. They deserve a lot more praise than what they have gotten because I would say there were 15 Chinese divisions after them. I think the Chinese learned a lesson. To put it bluntly, they got their asses whipped. Don’t get me wrong, the Marines also got beat. They lost a lot of good men up there.
East of Panmunjom when I was with How Company, there was a lot of activity. There were a lot of small groups, especially at night. If we were on patrols we took out a 12-man patrol to go out and spend all night out there. What we were really trying to do was find a Chinese outfit. We went out there a number of occasions to find out who was in front of us. We wanted to find out who was in front of us--what outfit and what kind of strength. I know we dragged a lot of Chinese back that were dead. They were big Mongolians.
The first time I was in Korea I was there during peace time. This time I was in Korea during war time. Before I did not see the carnage. Now I saw the destruction that was in the country. During World War II Korea had been bombed and all that stuff. But this I was seeing firsthand--the destruction of the cities and people trying to kill one another. All my buddies and I were trying to do was survive, really. That’s what I had never seen before. This was my first time in combat. What can I tell you? It was a nightmare.
Not long after I arrived in May 1952, I saw my first dead Marine. He got hit by a mortar round and was killed. I didn't know who he was and I didn't see him get killed. He was a complete stranger to me, but in a way it affected me to see that dead Marine. As a young kid back in the States, I had seen dead bodies before and didn't freak out. I had seen them in a funeral home and I had seen them shot and laying in a pool of blood in my neighborhood. As I said earlier, I grew up in a rough neighborhood. We had the mafia and there were people getting killed all the time around there, which is why it was not unnatural for me to see a dead body. Here in Korea I was seeing somebody I didn't know--a total stranger who was bleeding to death right there.
Gateway to Seoul
Carson, Reno and Vegas were three areas (hills) in Korea that were associated with Marines. They were the gateway to Seoul. They overlooked and controlled a lot of area. We used them mostly as listening posts for the main line of resistance. They were out maybe a half mile, quarter mile, or whatever distance they were from the main line. They were used mostly for "listening posts" that were in front of the line as protection for the troops on the line. Let's put it this way. Some were put out in front to hear the enemy. If they engaged the enemy they would be the first ones to get hit before the large body got hit. If they got hit we could usually help the guys on the listening post because they weren't too far in front of us. But if we got hit as a whole body, nobody could help us. We could give the listening post cover fire real quick by our own artillery fire, mortar rounds and rocket fire. Within a minute we could throw all that kind of fire power at the Chinese. Our tanks never came up to those positions. If they fired, they fired from the Main Line of Resistance (MLR). They couldn't get up on the hills with tanks. They had to be on the road below or anything that was flat land. If an OP was attacked and the enemy sent troops in, we could send our troops in right after that. On OP Vegas there were not many trees left. Everything was gone, including the vegetation. We had a couple of small bunkers and one main bunker up there, but the trench lines were all gone because the shells had blown them off.
I can tell you an instance when I, myself, didn’t pay any attention to it, but two of us carried a dead Marine down the hill. We were pulled off of OP Esther back in September of 1952 and we got in a new area that had all fresh bunkers. That night what we were planning on doing was to go on a raid and hit the Chinese line. The Chinese must have seen us come off the outpost because we got incoming mortar and artillery rounds. We got everything. I mean, they just tore the place apart. My platoon sergeant was a new guy--a staff sergeant. He took over a rifle platoon in How Company. He was hollering at a new kid on the phone. The new kid had only been up there for two weeks. He told him, “Go out and see where the rounds are landing.” He told the others to get in their bunkers. Like a dummy, this guy walked right out of the bunker and got hit with a .122. It blew the top of his brains out, part of his hand, and part of his back. Somebody hollered, “Marine down”, so I ran out of the bunker, got down, rolled him over, and saw the top of his head blown off. I went back to the bunker and hollered for someone to give me some help to carry him down. One of the other guys came out there with me. We put him on a poncho and we dragged him down to the bottom of the hill.
Forty years later I finally talked to John Leon from California on the telephone. He was the kid that helped me carry that Marine down the hill. I asked him if he remembered that incident and he said, “Yeh, Tony. I remember it.” He said, “When we carried that kid to the bottom of that hill I turned around, walked away, and was sick and throwing up all day long. I was sicker than a dog.” But that didn’t phase me because I had seen dead bodies before. Seeing a dead man with his brain blown out, fresh, right there, I didn’t think anything of it. I felt sorry for the kid, but what angered me the most was the way this kid got killed. He died by human error, but he didn't have to. That Staff Sergeant knew where the shells were landing and he told that kid to go out of the bunker and see where they were falling. I risked my neck--both of us did to get him down that hill. Even today I don’t know how John Leon and I are alive, because shells were all over. It was unbelievable.
The Staff Sergeant was a former China Marine that was in China at the time of the civil war there. He and I used to have a lot of conflicts after he took over our platoon. Every time there was a patrol going off he made me take a machine gun out. Nine times out 10 that generally didn’t happen. When they took a patrol out they usually had three BARs per squad. I was only a corporal at the time, but every time I turned around the Staff Sergeant ordered me to go out on patrol out night with a squad. He didn’t like me for some odd reason. I don’t know why he singled me and my crew out all the time. Every time I went out my assistant gunner and a couple of ammo carriers went out too. From that time on we had conflicts between us. I don't know why, but finally he was transferred out by our Lieutenant. I had never even seen our Lieutenant, but he had him canned. He was still in How Company, but he was in a rifle company. It wasn't long after that that he was out of How Company and back in the year.
The same day that I carried that man down the hill was a time that I never thought I would make it out of Korea alive. That night I went out on patrol for a raid on the Chinese, but before I hit the MLR I checked my chest. I didn’t have my bullet proof vest on. I thought, "Forget it. Go ahead." That night there were two of us machine gunners that went out, one on each flank giving support fire to the guys going up in the assault on the Chinese positions. We were all lucky. When a shell landed, we were on top but the shell landed on the right. The concussion blew us all off the top of the hill. We woke up after a few seconds, got back up there, and nothing ever happened after that. One of my ammo carriers behind me got hit with a bullet through his hand. My assistant gunner, Neil Lufkin, also got hit in the hand next to me. I had some shrapnel in my hand and my arm, but that was it. When we fought the Chinese we were sometimes blown off of bunkers when shells landed on top of the hills and on top of the bunkers, but other than that one shrapnel wound, I was never wounded in Korea. It was not bullets that always killed men. Bullets we could live by. It was the shells when we were out in the open that landed and killed people. I’m probably one of the luckiest guys in the world. I had no business coming back, and I mean that. I don't know how I made it. I should have been killed many times.
Although seeing the kid with his brains blown out didn't bother me, I sometimes get emotional thinking about others that died. I had a buddy named Donald Anthony Fatica. I grew up with him in my neighborhood and we played baseball and all kinds of things. When I got transferred out from Camp Lejeune to Camp One at Camp Pendleton, I met him out there. I got the shock of my life when I met him out there. I never even knew that he was drafted into the Marine Corps. We were in the same platoon. Our platoons at that time were big because we were training. He and I used to go out on leave on weekends. We finally went overseas together, but in Korea we split. He was a PFC in A Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines when he was killed on Bunker Hill on August 9, 1952. I was there the night he was killed, although I didn't see him get killed. When we got back to battalion reserve I got a letter from my friend Romeo Afinetti. He was with an Army artillery unit in Korea. His letter, which was postmarked August 29, 1952, said that he had received a letter from a mutual friend, Dante Iafelce, telling him that Don had been killed. Dante was a Marine stationed at the Panama Canal. I still have the letter today. It reads:
It made me angry that Don got killed. His parents wrote to me and requested that I go home with his body. The government turned them down because they were afraid that if I went home I would not come back. That wasn’t the case. There isn't any doubt in my mind that I would have come back. The fact that I couldn't accompany his body home hurt in more ways than one. I knew him. He was a kid I grew up with and we went through training together. His death was personal. I can't say that I was out to avenge his death while I was in Korea, though. It was kill or be killed. Probably the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life was go home to see his folks. I knew them. We were all good friends. His parents asked me questions I couldn't answer, like how he died. I couldn't tell them because I didn't see him get killed. If I'm not mistaken, I think they had a closed casket at his funeral. I know that when you get hit with shrapnel or mortar rounds, your wounds all depend on where you’re standing. It can tear you up. It can make little holes. And sometimes you don’t even know you’ve got it.
Hearing that Don died was the shocker of my life. I have never forgotten it. Here was a kid I grew up with and went to school with, so it bothered me. I heard that the funeral home was loaded and there were people outside. Don was well-liked in the neighborhood and well-liked in school. This kid had no business dying. He had so much to live for. He was a good looking kid and well liked by everybody. I've known his brother for years and still talk to him when we have our neighborhood reunion once a year. I don't think his family got over Don's death. I think the world lost something when Don died. I don't know what he would have been, but he was one hell of a nice guy. He was good to everybody. I can't say one bad word about him. As I said, I went to see his parents when I came home. He is buried in Holy Rosary Cemetery, Mahoning County, Ohio, but to this day I haven't visited his grave. All these years and I never have, even on Flag Days. I belong to the VFW and American Legion. We go to the cemeteries and put the flags up on every one of the graves. I feel that I've got to see his grave, but I just can't make it yet. I just am not ready. One day I probably will though.
The war in Korea was not a waste and Don did not die in vain. We were in Korea for a purpose and I think we achieved our purpose. We would have probably gone ahead and won our battle or won that war if the people in the United States had been behind us. They didn’t want to hear about the war. It was just five years after World War II was over and they didn’t want to hear about another war. The defense plants weren’t going full stage like they did in World War II. They thought it was a conflict. A small insufficient war. They didn’t think anything of it. But it was a major war. We know it was.
A few weeks after Don was killed we pulled a raid on OP Esther. It was either in September of October, I can't remember which. Tony Longo was a Sergeant in 3rd Platoon, How Company when he was hit in the gut with a burp gun while going up in the trench line. That's the last time I saw him. I didn't know if he was alive or dead until years later, when I found out that he was alive and living in Florida. He fully recovered from his wound.
OP Casualties in 1953
One guy in my squad, Woody, was killed up on OP Vegas in March of 1953. He was in How Company machine guns and was one of my ammo carriers. He was due to go home on rotation, but he said he wanted to see more action. He said he didn't want to go back to the States as a spit and polish Marine, so he signed up for reenlistment for another six months tour of duty in Korea, even though we tried to talk him out of it.
There were must have been around 30 some Marines from 3rd Platoon up on OP Vegas the night the Chinese hit it. When the Chinese hit Outposts Vegas, Carson and Reno that night, they took Vegas--although not the whole hill. I think they took Reno. Carson held out. The Chinese who hit that night didn’t hit with troops. They hit with incoming shells. It was quick and bad. There were only 25, maybe 35 guys up on the hill and if they got hit by enemy troops we could send reinforcements up there to help them out. That night the guys all ran into the one bunker that was still left after the incoming shells had blown everything else away. I think there were about 30 of them in the bunker. I’ve got an article that tells the story of what happened. When the Chinese got up there they threw a satchel charge, blew up the bunker they were in, and then flame-threw it. A satchel charge is a big bomb in any kind of a handbag. It's lighted with a fuse and then the enemy threw it. They used similar satchel charges in World War II to destroy bunkers. That's what the Chinese did on Vegas. They satchel charged it and then they burned it with a flame thrower. A flame thrower had some kind of gases in it. It had a long tube that someone held like a machine gun. It had handle grips on it and when the trigger was pulled there was a mechanism in there that lit up and flames shot out. The flames could burn a Marine to death and it set things on fire. I'm not sure if everyone in the bunker died right then because it must have been a couple of days or about a week or so before Graves Registration guys could get up there to start digging them out. They were buried under all that dirt when the Chinese threw in satchel charges. To my knowledge, nobody escaped.
Forty-seven years later I talked to one of the original guys in my squad. He was on the line the day this happened and he never knew what had happened to them until I told him all these years later. I asked him, “How can you not be told? You were standing outside. You were the only guy left in the squad and you don’t know what happened to those other guys?” He didn't. He was never told anything. He said until the day I told him, he didn't know what happened to them. They only needed a couple of guys for machine guns so they probably picked out a couple of guys and sent them up there with the rifle squads. He was one of the guys that wasn't chosen, but he was on the line.
Any time the Chinese hit the outposts they didn't hit by platoons or squads. They attacked us by the thousands. We heard their bugles in the middle of the night and knew they were coming. More than likely that was a psychological thing for them. They kept that up all the time. They lost unbelievable amounts of men. Their way of thinking and our way of thinking was much different. I’m sure that we knew our lives were much better than what theirs were. We value our lives. They didn't care about theirs. How could a commander send thousands of men against another outfit knowing the fire power that we had compared to theirs? They didn’t have that fire power. I mean, we could set up two machine guns and kill thousands at a time and it didn’t make a difference to them. They sent their men to a slaughter house and they kept on coming. They fought with numbers. There was nothing skilled about them. Numbers is how they overpowered their enemy. They did this at the Chosin Reservoir, too. They came at them by the thousands. I wasn't there, but I've heard so many stories from guys that were there it's unbelievable. That's how they came at us when I was there--in numbers. Every time they came at us that's how they did it. Night after night, not daytime. It was always at nighttime.
This was in 1953, and although the peace talks were going on, we didn't pay that much attention to them. I never did anyway. I mean, I knew they were talking peace. We knew the talks were happening, but we never had the thought, "Hey now, we don't want to die. I don't want to be the last one to die." We had a job to do and we did it, regardless of what.
Life in a War Zone
My mother was from Pennsylvania so I was used to climbing hills. I liked climbing them while out hunting. I was conditioned to be able to handle the hills in Korea. I was a young man. I was able to take it. That’s what the Marine Corps training was. "Don’t give up. Just keep pushing, keep pushing, keep pushing."
I was always getting a letter two, three, four times a week. I got packages from my mother and from a girl that I was writing to in Chicago. I had never met her, but I was planning on getting married to her when I got out of Korea. One of the guys wrote to the Chicago Tribune and said, “You’ve got a bunch of lonesome Marines here.” So this Staff Sergeant got a bunch of letters and he threw them out at us at the bunker and said, “Take your pick.” I picked out a couple of them, including one from the girl in Chicago. I wrote to her for around ten or eleven months. I really got to know her. In the wintertime my mother and this girl sent me stuff for the winter--warm clothing, gloves, stockings. I never asked for anything because I didn't need anything. I never got things that only an Italian could appreciate, like an Italian lunchmeat sandwich. No, I never got that stuff. I got cookies, some canned goods, and stuff like that.
C-rations and K-rations were all we had. If we wanted a square hot meal once a day we had to walk about a mile or maybe a mile and a half back to company headquarters where they had a tent set up and we got to eat a hot meal. In order to go back there we had to leave the bunker and get in the trench line, but a lot of times the Chinese were popping at the machine gun, so it wasn't worth going back there for a hot meal. Once a week they had trucks ready for us from the commander They took us back to the area of battalion reserve where we got a shower and change of clothes and then were trucked back to the line again.
Being in Korea was always a serious matter, but we also had a lot of good times. We had booze there and there were times we could maybe have a few more drinks. I had two or three guys on my crew that didn’t drink but I always had three cases of beer at a time to crack. If I went up on the OP I always had about a half a case of beer I would drag with me. I learned to drink, I smoked, and I learned to chew tobacco. Hell, when I was there, at night when we were on patrol or something we couldn't smoke so we kept our jaw going by chewing tobacco. I did that. There was enough there.
I definitely experienced change of weather. Winter was lousy with 2o, 35, and 40 below zero weather. It was unbelievable. Cleveland was cold but I had a home that had heat. Even if I was out in the cold weather for maybe a half hour or hour, all I had to do was go inside the house to get warmed up. Unlike the kids of today who have big insulated boots, as kids in our town when I was growing up we didn't have the winter clothing they now have. All we had were shoes with rubber boots over them. Korea was mountainous. The cold was bitter. I mean, no matter how much clothes we put on we could never take the chill out of us because we never had heat. That’s the biggest point. We didn’t have any heat. When we got back to the cadre reserve we had Kerosene heaters and that’s where we got warm. But we didn’t have the heat one has in a house. We had a tent. What kind of heat can you get in a tent? We had six or eight guys living in a tent, but the cold was numb cold and there was wind.
It was at nighttime when we were awake, not the daytime. We slept during the day or wrote letters, but at nighttime we were awake all the time. Twelve hours through the whole night we were awake, no matter what. Everything happened at night--the attacks, the shooting, people getting killed. We were not protected from the elements at night. We were in a trenchline and it was cold. There was lot of snow in there and a lot of water. The snow was wet and deep and accompanied by fierce winds, especially on the mountains. The mountains were always cold because there were cold winds coming at us and no way to break it up. It went around a mountain and if we were out in front we were going to get hit by the wind. It was that cold Siberian weather coming down at us. I put a can of beer out at night and an hour later it was frozen solid. I'll never forget that. Our C-rations froze, even though we tried to keep our food in a warm spot if we could find any. We tried to cover it up. We never had it sitting out in the open. We had to keep everything under lock and key and away from an open field or something of that nature.
In the summertime it was the reverse. It was a very hot, dry, dry summer. I drank cold beer but it didn’t help me. I drank water. There was nothing there to cool off. No fans. No air conditioners. We did whatever we could to survive. In the winter we did what we could to stay warm. We put on layer after layer of clothes. clothes but we had to have our hands and feet free so we could run and fight. If we were out there going on patrol four, five, or eight hours, just sitting around waiting for Chinese, and all we had on was a regular pair of thin boots and a pair of stockings, we were going to get cold. We didn’t have snow pacs because we couldn't move in them. They were sloppy. We wore gloves, but we cut the cloth off of our trigger finger so we could fire out weapon.
In the wintertime sometimes our gun wouldn’t fire so we would take a leak on it and lubricate it because our urine was hot. We put oil on it and that helped, but we had the automatic weapon so we wet them. But a rifle, we could sometimes kick the bolt open if it froze. It was steel against steel, so it froze solid. Weapons had their own problems because the cold was terrible. It was hard on the jeeps, hard on the tanks, hard on our weapon, hard on human beings.
People can’t live like that in a bunker in the wintertime. How did we survive? We were lucky. We lived like a rat in a trap about a couple of months. During the early parts of the war we were moving here and moving there. We were always on the move. During the hill climb campaign, we were on a hill for 30, 60, 90 days. Whether it was winter or summer, we were there in that position. Then we got 20 or 30 days back in reserve before we were called back up.
The summers were hotter than hell. The year I did this interview I looked in the paper and saw the temperatures in Seoul, Korea. I never saw it go below 85 degrees the whole summer. If we were out in the mountains, it’s hot and dry. Then in the wintertime it was cold. You can’t believe how cold it got there. Over here when you’re cold you walk in the house and warm up. In the wintertime I go out in shorts generally. I can’t stand clothes being on my knees. It restricts me. I can’t take the cold, but I survive in it. In Korea there was no place to get away from it. The only place we had was in the bunker or in the trench. Nights were awful long. Sometimes we never were shelled but other nights were unbelievable. It all depended on where we were at. You might be lucky and we might not be. Some of the guys were unlucky, some not yet. It was a tough war. We survived it though. After that, we can survive anything.
Rest and Recuperation
I went on R&R right after OP Vegas was over. They pulled the division off line and sent us back to battalion reserve. From battalion reserve we went to regimental reserve. I then got a chance to go on to Japan for four days on R&R. I wanted to see Japan. The first night I got there I ran across a buddy of mine that I hadn’t seen since OP Vegas. He got hit in the rear end. (That was a place to get a piece of shrapnel!) His name was Kelley. He was from Chicago. When I met him in Japan it was one of the happiest days of my life. I didn’t know what had happened to him. I had never seen him again. I found out that he was in the hospital in Japan and was recuperating. He and I went out that night and we went on a hell of a binge.
There were girls available, all waving medical cards back and fourth and shouting, “Hey, me clean. Me clean.” The cards meant that they had been checked by a hospital and were free of any disease. We paid money to the girls and they knew exactly where to take us. What nightclubs to go to. What hotels to go to. They knew how to treat us. They knew what we had been through in Korea night and day, night and day. When we left Korea, God, that was a thousand miles away. Going on R&R helped a great deal. It took our minds off war. We wanted to forget war altogether. I wondered, "How can you live like this and then you’re over here in Korea and living like an animal in a cave?" It didn’t make sense. But Japan had gone through it. They knew what war was. They had had it. Now they were an ally, and now they were taking care of us and helping. We didn't think about going back. We partied to forget. We didn't want to remember anything. That was over. Gone. We had no part of the war for four days. But then once the four days were over, we were on that plane going back to Korea. That was the worst part--going back. I dreaded going back. I was a short-timer and who knew what was going to happen. But I was fortunate. When I went back to Korea I was only there for about a month before I came back to the States. My time was up and I went home.
In a way I was sorry I came home because I really had no business coming home. Except for the grace of God I could have been up on Vegas. I should have been one of the guys that went to their death up on Vegas that night, but I was out of the platoon. I was out of machineguns. I was in S&H platoon. When I heard that Woody was killed up on the hill, it just tore me apart. I should have been up there with him that night and I wasn’t. I was with him for 11 months, but I was transferred out of the platoon before we moved up to the front line in February 1953. I didn't do a damn thing in S&H. I wasn't a machine gunner. I wasn't a clerk. The job of S&H platoon was to find out where we were going and set up our organization in order to get it ready for the company to come back in. That's what our job was, but I didn't have time to do it because I wasn't in it long enough before I was due to go home.
I returned home in June or July of 1953 before the war ended. I don't remember the name of the ship I was on but I remember coming home and I remember being in San Francisco. I spent about a week there. I remember flying to Chicago to meet the girl who I had been writing to while I was in Korea. I spent two days up there with her and her folks. They were wonderful people, but when I spent up the two days I flew home to Cleveland and I never went back to Chicago. It was all my fault that it didn't work out. I started going out with the guys, going around in the bars drinking and so forth. I was trying to forget where I had been the last year. I didn't want to remember it. I didn't want to remember anything.
I spent many years trying not to remember, but it didn't work. I mostly think of one thing when I think of Korea, and that is Outpost Vegas. I ask myself, "Why wasn't I up there?" I think about it every night. I went over to Korea with a purpose. I asked for it. I wanted it. I'm not a John Wayne, don't get me wrong, but it was something I had to do. I just feel that I had no business coming back.
I was discharged on August 22, 1953. A few years later I got married to a woman who had an illegitimate child. I was more or less a sucker. We were married for one day and separated for three years. For a short time while I was still married to her I stopped going to the bars, but she ran around on me so I continued going to the bars. At this time I was going to college to get a degree as a tool and die designer. At the same time I was getting a divorce. I had a cousin who lived in Cleveland, and every weekend we used to run up to Pennsylvania. We didn't do anything but drink. How we made it back to Cleveland on Monday morning to go back to work or back to school I don’t know because I think we cleaned out the bars all weekend.
It took me two years to get my degree. When I finished school I couldn't find a job as a tool and die maker so I got a job with Serro Copper and Steel, working there with my brother for five or six years. That's where I met my present wife, Frances. I stopped drinking and settled down. We had three kids--one son and two daughters. We’ve also got three grandkids now, but our daughter is expecting another daughter and our fourth grandchild any day now.
In the time that I've been married to Frances I think she might have seen some of the after effects of me being in the Korean War. I have stood by them through the years, but I'm not sure I was a good dad to my kids. I was very impatient with them. But I think I have toned down quite a bit. We've had our ups and downs, but I made a commitment to my wife and our family. I think that Post Traumatic Stress associated with Korea had a lot to do with my problems.
My wife and I can have a good time. I enjoy her company. I love my wife. If it weren't for her I don’t know where I'd be because she stuck with me all these years through all the hell I’ve been through. I had a sense of guilt that I came back from Korea but others didn't. I used to go see a psychiatrist at the VA about it. I went there with a good friend of mine who was a POW when he was in the Army. They held him in Manchuria for three years. I really don’t know whether it was good that I came back from Korea, but I do realize what could have been and wasn’t. I was one of the few lucky ones that did come back. I probably should be thankful for that. Besides talking to the psychiatrist at the VA, I talked to my priest many years ago about what happened to those guys on OP Vegas. I still can’t understand it. "Why am I here?" He said, "Well, you're lucky. Be thankful you're alive."
I've beaten death a couple of times since returning home. I had a couple of heart attacks and I had four bypasses. I've had angioplasty. I've had knee replacements. I've had clogged-up arteries in my neck. Why I'm still alive, I don't know. Like the doctor said, "Somebody up there must like you to survive."
I think that my presence in Korea made a difference. I think we all helped one another. We had hundreds--thousands of people helping one another, so we made a difference. Even though I was only one person I made a difference because I was part of that group that helped. We kept that country free. That was our main objective.
There is no doubt in my mind that the United States should have been in Korea. They had no business leaving South Korea open like they did in 1948. They should never have stopped helping them strategically. When the United States made its resolutions not to help Korea, that gave the Chinese and the Russians (well, really the Russians) the word to North Korea to invade because we wouldn’t help the South Koreans. They enemy thought we would never help them. It’s a good thing that we had a man like Truman. Two years before that he wanted to disband the Marine Corps, but that was the first outfit that he called when war broke out in Korea. After that he loved the Marine Corps.
I think that going all the way up to the Yalu was the right decision, but that came from Washington. It wasn't Truman's decision to let the ROK Army to go first and then we were to follow them next. They wanted to unite the country one way or the other. I think that they had the right idea, but to let the Chinese MiGs get away was a big mistake. If we had got hold of some of those MiGs by shooting them down, we would have had the proof that the Russians were behind it. There were Russian pilots flying those planes. Even though we didn't have proof, we knew where the money was. It was the Russians behind it. Everybody knew it.
There is no doubt in my mind that if the United States pulled out of South Korea now, North Korea would invade it if the North Koreans cannot sucker the United States into giving them all kinds of aid. That is what they did this past week again. North Korea dropped its missiles and promised not to go any further experimenting with them if we gave them aid. The United States agreed. Now here is a country where the people are starving to death because everything goes to the military. These are North Koreans. They habitually don’t care about the human life. Fifty years ago they didn't care about life and they still don't. You can tell by the way their people are living. How they exist. They’re dying out. There’s so much famine going on in that country. I’m no dummy. I can see it. I hear it. I worked for Caterpillar Corporation for 20 years and we sent products over there. I've talked to people who have been in Korea. I’ve talked to Koreans who work for Caterpillar who came from Korea. We know a lot of things that are going on over there. People just don’t want to listen to it. I think there will eventually be another war.
My life is, I don’t know, I heard guys talking last night about some of their ills and so forth. I keep looking at them and I look at myself and think, “These guys are in worse shape than I am.” I mean, I thought I’d been through hell. I mean, I’ve been literally through hell. I beat death a couple of times.
I have never sat down with my three children and talked to them about Korea. I don't think they're interested. But if they did express interest I would want them to know what I went through as a young man. My life wasn't a bowl of cherries. Korea changed me a lot. Before I went there I was one happy-go-lucky guy. I was considerate. I was very happy to be with people. I had some good times. In those days we were not a bunch of wild young kids. We didn't get in trouble. We were a hell of a good bunch of guys and girls who got together and hung out with each other at our houses at night. We played ball. Went on picnics. We had one hell of a good time. Nothing bad happened. It was all good clean fun.
The Korean War mattered a great deal. We had a purpose in life. I mean, take a small country like South Korea. Why should anybody in their right mind invade another country and impose their will on them? They’re the people who were occupied by the Japanese for 40 some years. They lost their culture. They lost their own land. They lost everything. Then the North Koreans came in and they wanted to dictate to them on their terms. We couldn’t allow that to happen. We had the right to help those people. They had the right to their own lives and their own country. They didn’t need somebody coming in and dictating to them what they were going to do.
There is a difference between the US going into Korea to try to solve their problems as opposed to going into some place like Kosovo. Kosovo is a little different. First of all, that was slaughter. There was definitely mass murder going on there. We cannot allow that to happen in the world today. We should have learned a lesson in World War II, but we didn’t. Should we have let Hitler get away with it? Mussolini get away with it? Stalin get away with it? Tojo get away with it? One individual cannot be allowed to run a country as dictatorship. We can’t allow that because when we do it affects the rest of the world. Where does it stop? That is really a hard choice. I don’t know where it's going to stop but we have to put our foot down someplace. We have to show the rest of the world that we will not allow this to happen, even if it means going in there by force.
I don’t think that the world learned a lesson from Korea because it’s happening today all over this world. It has happened in Indonesia again. Because people do not want independence or they want independence, why should somebody force their will on them? It’s a civil war but do you really want a civil war to happen with all these mass murders going on? We can’t allow that to happen. Like Truman said once, we’re a police force. Yes, we go in with the small clubs and the other people have the big clubs, but we have to put our foot down some way. These people cannot be allowed to do what they’re doing in this world. This has to be a society where people can get along with one another.
Would I want to put the foot down with my son? No. I don’t want anybody’s son going to war. I don’t want anybody getting killed. But we have to do something, whether it’s politically or what. We have to do something to straighten this world out somehow. To be honest, I don’t think we’ll ever straighten it out. The Middle East has been at war since before time. Yugoslavia has those clans in there who have been going on in there for centuries. We’ll never stop it. I don’t know what they’re going to do. I really don’t.
Meeting Old Buddies
I attend 3/5 and How Company reunions. I tried to locate some guys that I knew at the How Company reunion, but the How Company that I went to was originally Baker Company up on Guam. They were called back to the United States when the Korean War broke out and they were formed up as How Company, Third Battalion, 5th Marines. They went overseas as 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. They made the landing at Pusan with the 1st Provisional Brigade. When that was done they made the landing at Inchon. I have never met anybody who was in How Company when I was. Most of the people who attend the How Company reunion were from the original How Company that made the original landing.
I’ve been attending these reunions six years now and have attended six meetings out of nine. I met my old squad leader that was in Korea here. As a matter of fact, I met him a couple of years ago and we talked on the phone. It had been 40 some years since I had last talked to him. We hadn't been in touch all that time. I was shocked to hear from him. This is the second reunion for my assistant gunner that was hit when we were wounded up on OP Esther that night.
It feels good to see these people again. When we get together we talk about the war, but we also talk about what has been going on in their life since the last 40 years. We find out why we couldn’t see each other before. We’re finding out that everybody was married and raising children. We didn’t really have time to get together before. Now that we’re grumpy old men, we're finding some time that we can get together. It’s fine to be here with these guys because these are guys we used to serve with. We didn’t know them, but we served with them.
It is definitely, definitely true, "Once a Marine, always a Marine." I’ve talked to guys that were in the Army and I've asked them, “Why don’t you have reunions? Why don’t you go to them?” They answer, “I don’t know the guys. I joined the outfit, I was in it for a year, and I came home. They never knew me and I don’t know them. I don’t want to know nothing.” I think they're hiding something and they don’t want to get involved. Why I don’t know. But Marines are different. We met in Korea under wartime circumstances but we made bonds that will last us a lifetime. We know each other. We want to know how they're doing. How they're making out in life. They meant something to us and we meant something to them. I will never, ever forget these people and they won't forget me. Even widows of the guys return to our reunion because there's such a bond.
Two years ago other guys tried to get into our organization. Guys from Vietnam wanted to join. We told them no. It wasn't that we didn’t know or like them, but they weren't there with us in Korea. This reunion was ours. This is our generation. They were a different generation. We felt for them because they were a Vietnam veteran, but we were in a different situation and we still had that closeness with our friends. And even though our group is dying off, it doesn’t make a difference. As long as there is one guy left he’ll be thinking of us--of everybody. It was our time. We were with each other. We grew up together. We lost our childhood in Korea.
I don't have a definition for a hero. Alford McLaughlin was a Medal of Honor recipient who served in L Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. His brother was serving on the line with me in How Company when Alford was written up for the Medal of Honor. I’ve seen articles written about other guys who gave their lives-jumped on a grenade to save four or five other men. They never gave a thought to themselves. Whether you want to call them heroes or not, I don’t know. What they did was give up their lives to save somebody else. I don’t know if you want to call them a hero, but they risked their lives to protect ours. I'm sure I served alongside of others who would have done the same thing if they were there and the opportunity presented itself. The adrenalin flows in an individual. You didn’t think, “Hey, there’s a grenade.” Boom. You step on it. You don’t think. You don’t think you're going to die. You don’t think of dying. There are a lot of heroes that never receive medals. A lot of them. But those that did receive them deserved them. I think the highest medal was coming home. "You made her." The others sacrificed their lives for you to come home. My heart goes out to these guys. I mean, they could have lived a normal life but they chose otherwise.
I don’t know whether the young people living in the United States realize what happened to give them freedom to do the things that they do or how this all come about. We in this country are fortunate that we have a country that has freedoms. No other place in the world has what we have here. We’re unique. Everybody living in this country are from all different parts of life, from all different countries. We're all one big football team here. Yeh, we fight among ourselves, but if you get us mad trying to take over our country we’re going to fight. I think if anybody tried to take this country over they'll do the same thing. They will fight to protect this country. I don’t believe everything that you read in the paper all the time. I think that when the time comes--and eventually it will come someday, the people of this country will band together like they did in World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and Desert Storm. They will stick together. I think that if push comes to shove they will rally around their country. People like Clinton and the White House are giving everything away. His sob story of him growing up and so forth. He doesn’t matter much. It’s the people in this country that matter. We as a group. We’ll band together, although I may not be here to see it. People never think that war is going to come. But wars do come, and they’ll always come as long as some individual thinks he can force his will upon other people. We have to put a stop to it. All we have to do is try. We’re not going to solve all matters, but as long as the people in this country are willing to try, they can do it.
Obituary - Tony Gracco
[KWE Note: After Tony died, he became the grandfather of two new grandchildren - a granddaughter and a great grandson. He would have been thrilled!]