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Able Dozer Crew - Chris Sarno Memoir

Over the months that Sarno was assigned to the Able Company dozer tank, the crew members came and went. Punchy Barr of Hamburg, Pennsylvania, had served with him on the dozer tank as a gunner. So had Corporal Blasi [Kansas], who helped Sarno learn his first on-the-job combat skills. "He was a very soft-spoken guy," recalled Sarno, "but he could be a holy terror if he wanted to be. He helped me out when I needed it, but he didn’t baby me." Sarno noted that both Blasi and the dozer driver, Sergeant Burke [Colorado] used their status as "old salts" to help newcomer Sarno learn the ropes of combat. "When I joined Burke’s crew late in July of 1951," he said, "I was the last guy to get a pistol. I lugged my M-1 on the tank and had to sack out on the deck with cut pine branches while the rest of the crew slept on cots. That used to piss Burke off to no end. He hounded his buddy—a former police sergeant we called "Sergeant Skuzzy"—to get me a cot."

Another time, when it was Sarno’s first time to stand watch on a high machine gun outpost with three other Marines, Burke and Blasi followed Sarno. "They gave me a poncho and sleeping bag that I needed for the night watch above the company perimeter," he said. "Little things like that remain in my memory—how he looked after me. Burke didn’t have to do that, but he knew how green I was to combat." Sergeant Burke left the dozer crew in November of 1951 when he rotated to CONUS. The next time Sarno saw him was in 1954. Burke had apparently lost his stripes, because he was a private first class at the time.

Barr, Sarno, Blasi, Antrim lived in the dirty tent in the background while with members of the Able dozer crew. Photo taken in November of 1951 in Reserve.

Burke was a veteran tanker who had seen combat at Inchon and in Seoul. By the time he left Korea in 1954, he had survived the Chosin Reservoir, Operation Killer, and the Punchbowl campaigns as well. "Burke said that when they were going through Seoul, there was a sniper," Sarno said. "The assistant driver saw a gook in the gutter who fired at the tank, disappeared, and then came back up again 20 yards in another hole on the same side of the gutter to fire again." The assistant told Burke what was going on, so the next time the North Korean popped up, Burke just drove the blade right over him.

Sarno noted how fleeting life can be in a combat zone. Sergeant Burke had seen lots of action since his arrival in Korea, and his life was on the line many times. However, his life could have been extinguished in a moment—not by enemy fire, but by a simple mishap with the tank. One time after the tanks had returned from a mission, Burke was coming out of the driving compartment of the tank when the .30 caliber coaxial machine gun just above his head suddenly fired. "As Burke started to come up," Sarno said, "a round cooked off and went out just above Burke’s tank helmet. If he had jumped up quicker, he would have got it in the back of the head or the back. It was just a round that was in the chamber. The rifle barrel was hot. It was just cooking at a certain temperature when it exploded and out came the round. After all the hazardous times Burke had been through, he could have been killed like that. Burke just dropped down into the driver’s seat like a big marshmallow, knowing what could have happened. Gee, you never know. What a way to die." But, Burke’s time was not up here on earth. He survived the mishap.

Sarno understands the meaning of "survival" when it comes to combat. As an example, he told about the taking of Wolmi-Do during the Inchon Invasion. Just off of the west coast of Korea, very close to Inchon, is a small island called Wolmi-do. For the safety of invading allied forces, it was necessary for the Marines to secure the island in advance of the main invasion thrust. After aerial bombardment to soften the landing ceased, the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines landed on Wolmi-do on 15 September 1950. Able Tanks landed ten tanks, including two dozers. These tanks came in handy when ground troops met resistance from enemy forces dug into a low cliff along the shoreline. One dozer took care of that resistance when he plowed his tank into one of the emplacements, burying its occupants alive. "I’ve seen numerous films that Marine Corps photographers took of Wolmi-do," Sarno said. "I was looking at the film and saw this Marine Corps dozer tank. They were describing it. Some of the North Koreans wouldn’t surrender, so they just buried them with this tank. As the tank came through, you could see the number ‘44’ on its side. You couldn’t see the ‘A’, but you could see ‘44’ thinly stroked. That’s the way our number was on A-44—it was a thin 44."

While someone who has never experienced combat might think that burying someone alive is cruel beyond necessary, Sarno thinks otherwise. "Those people are far removed from what combat is all about," he said. "It’s about survival. If you hit the enemy over the head with your entrenching tool, what’s the difference? You had to survive. You can’t argue or plead with the enemy—come on, that’s not real. This is war. And I always had that gut feeling that no Chinaman was going to take the last breath out of my chest. A couple of times in Korea I thought I was going to die, and I was petrified thinking that I didn’t want to die like that. Nobody was going to take my last breath if I had something to do about it." Up on a Punchbowl mountain top, however, the enemy certainly tried to take Sarno’s last breath from him. They failed – but they sure tried.


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