Mess Duty and Dozers - Chris Sarno Memoir
|Chris Sarno’s first assignment with Able Company tanks was not to be on the M-46 that he so greatly admired.
"I was the youngest one in the company," he explained, "so I was first put on the dozer tank. There were a lot of
uses for that dozer in and out of combat. Say we were in Reserve. Every time we went into Reserve, that dozer was
used to dig out a deep hole for our trash pit and for our head. They eventually put up a wooden contraption where
we dumped waste. In combat, the blade of a dozer could barricade any position—or collapse it. There was a lot of
power in that blade." Sarno said that he didn’t have the opportunity to see the dozer blade in action in combat,
but he did see its 105 weapon in action. "A 105 came in high like artillery," he explained. "You could light a
cigarette in between before it exploded. It had high angle fire and had a popping noise like a pop gun." Sarno and
the others used to laugh at its pop, and during the two months that he stayed on the dozer tank, he kept hoping
for the opportunity to move on to a bigger, more powerful tank. Nobody laughed when the M-46 90mm was fired. "The
90mm fired directly like a rifle shot and it could go that way for six miles accurately," Sarno said. "It had a
vicious noise coming out. Vicious." But in spite of his partiality to the M-46, he remained assigned to the dozer
for about two months.
The first couple of weeks after he arrived at Able Company, Sarno was put on mess duty by the Company Commander, Captain Albert W. Snell. "What is it with these Marine CO’s," Sarno thought, "that they go out of their way to protect the younger Marines by trying to keep them out of harm’s way if at all possible." He said, "I was too immature to realize just how keen and farsighted in understanding and judgment CO’s like Captain Snell were. I was on mess duty from 0300 to 2100 every day. All my tank school buddies went out on direct fire missions while all I did was sling hash for a cook who was one devil of a slave driver. He owned our asses and gleefully worked us into the deck. We were lower than coolies to him, and he let us know it."
The slave driver cook got his come-uppance, however, when he got into a fist fight one day with a platoon sergeant. The platoon had eaten steak and eggs for breakfast that morning at 0400 because they had a fire mission to complete. "Much later," recalled Sarno, "that same platoon rumbled into the CP at 1400. The tankers had taken a lot of gook incoming, and the crews were pretty well drawn and weary from that ordeal. Their platoon sergeant S/Sgt. Red Saunders, came into the mess tent area and told the cook that his Marines were hungry and to rustle up a quick chow. The cook was a big, brawny Texan with a perpetual sour disposition. He told Red in no uncertain terms, ‘No chow until 1700 as scheduled.’ Furthermore, he let Red see the back of his head. I have to amplify, none of the mess men gave a fiddler’s screw about this cook. Red flared up, and I sensed that today would be our day of retribution."
Red Saunders had a temper, and it quickly sparked at the cook’s remarks. "A real Marine," Sarno said, "Red Saunders went after the cook, turned him around, and cold-cocked him with one power-packed punch that sent the heavyset cook reeling backwards. Quick as a flash, Red leveled him with two more shots to the jaw. The cook hit the deck in a heap." Sarno and the other Marines who were jam-packed in the mess tent watched with glee and cheered Saunders on. "The cook was down for the count," Sarno recalled, "and Red was atop him flaying away in a rage. Two of Red’s men had to body-block Red off the vanquished cook. Red had made my day. Truthfully, Red Saunders was one platoon sergeant that always looked out for his Marines. A negative mess cook was not going to get away with ignoring or ridiculing him or his platoon, all of whom had just given their all in mortal combat." Red stayed with Able Company as platoon leader. The cook was never seen again.
Initially, due to his mess and dozer duties, Chris Sarno saw limited combat action on the eastern front in Korea. With its steep, razorback mountains, the Punchbowl area of Korea was not "tank country" anyway. The mountains there had numbers, and some of them were named by the Allied troops that fought to gain and hold them. There was Hill 1026, 1009, 749, 1007, 812 ("the Rock", also known as Luke the Gook’s Castle), and more. The granite mountains of Korea had small scrub trees on them, but otherwise very little foliage. During the Korean War, the razorbacks were robbed of their natural beauty, and instead became miserable places where humankind fought to kill and fought to stay alive.
The heat of a Korean summer did not make Sarno’s experience in the razorbacks any more pleasant, either. "It was hot in July, and even hotter in August," he recalled. During those two months when the first truce talks were underway, there was no battle action. "We had torrential rains," recalled Sarno. "We were down to bare skin during those monsoon months of July and August. It was unbearable. It was sticky too. It wasn’t sweat. It was just sticky humidity." Everything was compressed inside of the dozer tank, and there were five Marines (two drivers and three Marines in the turret) inside. "You couldn’t walk in a straight line in the turret," Sarno explained. "You had to move your body with your feet caddie corner, taking baby steps." The high temperature of the outside climate, combined with internal heat caused from firing the 90mm gun of the dozer and the ejection of the brass shell, made conditions inside the tank extremely uncomfortable. On top of that, gases from the firing lingered in the turret rather than rushing out. "That was bad stuff we were breathing in," said Sarno.
"I had two fire missions as a loader on the dozer, and then we went back into Reserve," he said. Both were in September. He recalled that on one mission, a line of tanks was stuck on one entrance to the Punchbowl. When the lead tank hit mines, not only did its track blow off, there were a couple of guys killed. All of the tanks behind it were stopped, and the entire mission had to be aborted. "We were restricted to one lane in and one lane out," recalled Sarno. "We couldn’t drive the tanks into the paddies because they bogged down. When the North Koreans spotted tank activity, they came in at night and mined the tank approach." When the lead tank got hit, all of the personnel in other tanks in the line got out to see it. "I remember very vividly two casualties who were taken in litters past me. They were the first casualties that I saw in tanks. One was Red Wheeler. He was the platoon sergeant of the 3rd platoon, and he was on a stretcher when I saw him. All I saw was the bloody mass of his head. I figured half his head must have been blown off. When they brought out the driver, they said that both of his legs were crushed. He took the percussion of the mine explosion. Red Wheeler died at Easy Med, our aid station behind the Main Line of Resistance (MLR)."
With the mission aborted, a retriever tank (which worked on the principles of a tow truck with a big boom on it) picked up the disabled tank. "They just picked that thing practically up and dragged it up," he recalled. "We always retrieved our tanks. Very seldom did we leave a disabled tank out there. We always went back for it. There were isolated incidents of a tank not being towed back, but that happened very, very little."
On his second firing mission with the dozer, Sarno saw the North Korean enemy up close for the first time. "The gooks could get into positions in the mountains where it was tough to get them out," he said. "You had to spot them, and even then they could always go into another crevice. The gook was a resolute enemy, especially the North Korean. The Chinaman fought and then he withdrew if he could, but the North Korean basically fought to the end like a Jap. I don’t consider them as equal to a Jap, but the North Korean would fight to the death because it was his country."
In this particular mission, when the tanks stopped, two North Koreans came across a rice paddy and surrendered. "Everybody was dying to kill them right out in the open," recalled Sarno. They had no weapons, so the lieutenant ordered the tankers not to shoot the prisoners. "Don’t shoot," warned the lieutenant. "Not this time. If they throw grenades we’ll wipe them out, but let these guys come in. We want the prisoners." The surrendering North Koreans wore quilted winter uniforms and canvas sneakers that were in shreds. "These guys were pretty good-sized with big Mongol heads," he recalled. "They had lice all over them." All of the sudden, everyone heard noises going over their heads. "We all scattered," Sarno said. "I had never heard this noise before in my life. It was frightening." The tankers discovered that the noise was made by part of their company behind them, out of sight and firing further up. "Now we knew the horrendous sound of a 90mm shell overhead," said Sarno.
The sound of that shell overhead shook all of the guys up, and it lead to a serious mistake on Sarno’s part that could have resulted in death or injury to him. When the noise stopped, he got back up on the road and returned to his dozer. "There was a gook right beside me," recalled Sarno. "He was my size. He said to me, ‘chow Joe, chow.’ He was hungry—starving to death. The next thing I knew, Corporal Affleck pushed me aside and clobbered the gook. He just hammered him in the shoulder blade with the butt of his .45." The seasoned tanker told him not to ever let any of the prisoners of war get too close to him. "They could go for your weapon," he explained to Sarno. "We don’t know what’s on their mind." The MPs came up and hauled the North Korean POWs away. "You can’t trust your enemy," Sarno learned.
In spite of the dangers of getting up close to a treacherous enemy, Sarno felt that being on a dozer tank would not give him the kind of combat action that he wanted to see and the prospects of which had caused him to join the Marine Corps in the first place. He liked his fellow dozer tank crew members, but he continued to yearn for the type of combat duty that he felt he could only get if he was assigned to one of those beautiful M-46 tanks. "I just loved the appearance of it," he said. "It was the modern tank," and Sarno wanted to be assigned to one of them. With tons of fire power that could be decisive in obtaining objectives against the odds, the mere presence of a tank terrified the enemy. The 90mm gun on the M-46 could shoot rounds of 45-pound weight with a velocity of 3,600 feet per second. "The infantry never wanted to see a tank either, unless they knew they were getting the stuffing beaten out of them," Sarno said. "Then they wanted the whole damn shebang."
Sarno got his opportunity to be on a 46 due to a casualty. "We were unloading all of our willie peter (white phosphorus) ammunition, which was ten rounds per tank," he recalled. "It was old, so ordnance was bringing up fresh willie peter rounds for us. As we were digging them out of the deck row, we heard a muffled explosion up on tank 41. I saw Rendoza running toward the river bank screaming his head off. I had gone through a tank school with him so I knew him. He was a big, tall, affable Mexican kid who was always smiling. What happened was that, when they handed him down a willie peter round, it went off and exploded on his chest. That stuff had a chemical on it that thrived on oxygen, and it went right to the bone fast. You had to smother it to try to save yourself. He dove into the river. This was November and the water was ice cold, but he got in. That’s how desperate he was trying to cover it up. And you know, he was out of his mind." Rendoza was evacuated to Easy Med where they patched him up. "They said that he was alive, but they wouldn’t let us see him," Sarno said. "I don’t know whatever happened to him. That’s how I ended up going on gun tank A-41. I took his place."