Winter on the Mountain Top - Chris Sarno Memoir
|Just days after the beer run to Wonju detail returned to the Reserve area, members of Tank A-41 were ordered
to go back up on the Punchbowl mountains to relieve Charlie Company tankers of their duty on five Dog Company
tanks. "Dog Company tankers had patiently negotiated five (5) of their M-46 Patton-class tanks up this goat’s
trail in late October," Sarno explained. "With the emergence of heavy weather predicted, it was ruled by tank
battalion honchos to relieve tank crews rather than the impossible task of risking heavy armor along this icy and
Sarno’s tank crew remained on the top of Hill #1026 from 15 December 1951 to 28 February 1952. Their job was to provide direct fire missions for grunts from the 1st Korean Marine Corps Regiment, which was defending the Hays Line of Defense. "This majestic sweep embraced the most extreme northern allied penetration into North Korea," Sarno said. "Two miles to our rear on the southern rim was the stabilizing ‘Kansas Line’, which positioned itself similar to a snowcapped zenith of a denuded sentinel protecting the frozen-over Soyang-Gang river spilling its way on the valley floor below."
Sarno and his fellow Marines were trucked to the base of the mountains. He recalled, "The truck couldn’t get us too far up the mountain because the road got too narrow for a 6-by, so we walked up the rest of the way. There was not only snow and ice, but gale force winds as well. That wind never stopped the entire time we were there. It was brutal and lethal cold. We eased our way up the treacherous mountain side. There was ice all over the place, so one wrong step and we would be expressed to the valley floor. Just going up the side of that mountain road in December was pretty eerie. There were no trees; there were just stumps. And they had a purple haze on them. While we trudged along in this rarefied thin air, our breathing became somewhat laborious, and it sapped our oxygen supply. When we arrived at Dog 31 tank, the Charlie Company tankers manning the Dog tanks were glad to see us. They had manned D-31 tank for forty-five days and nights, and they didn’t conceal their relief and glee to have us take over. The impact hadn’t yet hit me as to what we were in for on that mountain top."
The tank to which Sarno’s Able Company crew had been assigned was frozen in place. "D-31 tank was bellied up in a revetment with only the fighting turret exposed and the supreme 90mm pointing straight into Goonyland," Sarno recalled. "It would have to be a direct hit on the top of the turret to render us useless. Certainly the earthen pocket enveloping the tank hull was frozen rock solid; thus, no fear that a 76 AT shell or worse could get at our tracks or hull. The entire topography from eye to eye encompassed a skier’s dream of a white, blue and icy panorama. Silently I whispered to myself, don’t be lulled into making a mistake with all this winter majesty about; indeed, once you let your guard down you are bound to get one right between the horns with compliments from a patient gook sniper."
It didn’t take long for Sarno and the others to understand why the Charlie tankers were so happy to see their replacements arrive. "Let me tell you," he said. "We froze our gajonies off each and every night on that coldest of steel chariots. It was cold beyond imagination. We knew it was cold down in the valley, but on the mountain top, the wind never stopped any day or night. That wind coming out of Siberia was incessant, and at night time the temperature dropped to 35 below and lower." Sarno said that everything was iced up so much that they didn’t even receive competition from the enemy. "We had everything the Marine Corps could give us to keep warm," he recalled, "but our first two nights were ungodly unbearable. We thought we were properly clothed, but by two o’clock in the morning we were crying—crying body pain from the cold. The intense cold contracted our muscles so tight the pain was excruciating, so much so that it caused tears to flow." He said that by the end of their guard duty that night, their only goal was to just stay alive in the cold. "For sure," Sarno said, "this was our devilish frozen hell on earth, and our internalized mission was to fight and to endure." He said that the temperatures were so low that all five tanks had to be started up every three hours and left to idle for one hour to prevent the gasoline-fed engines from freezing up solid.
Pfc. Lionel Durk was the driver, and Sarno was the assistant driver while on this freezing cold guard duty. "Every night our assignment was to stand night watch on the tank," he said. "I can count on one hand the nights I never had watch while in "A" Company tanks." He and Durk were supposed to stand on the engine doors or stand on the tank commander seat just so the enemy would see them and not come near. "If a fire-fight ensued, we were to wake up the other three Marines on the reverse slope to man the turret. But I would say that most of the nights--90 percent of the nights in the winter time while we were up on top of those mountains--we had no combat exposure." The Korean Marines were in the trench line within sight of the tanks, and there was always activity there. In fact, the first nights of fire watch were filled with anxiety for the newcomers on the mountain tops. "We couldn’t tell if they were North or South Koreans," Sarno said. "We were in constant anxiety about possibly killing the wrong gook. They never came over to be with us. They didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak gook, but we could see them. They were close by." Sarno’s first night on the Dog tank went by uneventful, and he did manage to somehow survive the "bitter brass-monkey cold" atop that Punchbowl mountain.
The next two nights passed the same way. Sarno could not get used to the miserably cold nights, even though he was properly dressed. "We were hunched over and we could hardly move," he recalled. "So the third night—I don’t know why I did it—I took off my boots. Now these were thermal boot, not combat boots. Thermal boots were supposed to keep us warm no matter what the temperature was, but it wasn’t working in that kind of cold. So I took my thermal boots off and I remember wrapping the woolen sleeping bag around my feet as I stood up in the tank commander’s position. I got circulation back into my feet. I couldn’t walk around, so I just stood there. But with the sleeping bag around my feet, I could handle it." Of course, if the enemy had suddenly attacked their position, Sarno would have been caught bootless. "But that’s the only reason we could gut it out in those early morning hours until we got relieved every morning at 7 o’clock," Sarno said. "We told the tank commander what we had done, but he really didn’t care. Our assignment was to maintain security during the night, and it didn’t matter whether we did it with or without our boots on."
Come morning, Sarno and Durk went back to the bunker to get some sleep. "The others [Ray Kapinski, Red Carr, and Bob Hunt] would do fire missions in the daylight hours," he said, "and we would go back to the ratty bunker." When asked if he meant ratty as in crummy or ratty as in real rats, he replied, "Really rats. Even in the coldest of the cold, the rats were in our bunker. We had a sandbag roof. We also had a little makeshift stove made out of an ammo container and a small stove pipe. It was all a mom and pop thing. We had a diesel line coming in from the fuel barrel that drip-dropped into the empty steel ammo container. It would ignite and the fumes would go up the chimney. That’s where the rats were—laying up along the warm smokestack going through the sandbags on the roof. At night they came in to see if there were any scraps of food on the ground. We tried not to leave anything, but still they crawled at night. It always sent a chill up my back when I saw a rat. I always looked at Korea as a goddamned country with nothing but rats all over the place. They came from the rice paddies, which were fertilized by human waste. There were tons of rats."
The bunker was compact and had two makeshift double racks for sleeping, Sarno continued. "We’d maybe eat a little C-ration, and then we were so cold and tired we’d get into the woolen sleeping bag and get some sleep before that sun went down for another watch. I remember falling asleep and being awakened by the 90 going off. Loads of dirt came down through the overhang of the bunker when the 90 fired, but we went right back to sleep. I don't say that I slept soundly, but I did get some sleep." When the other tankers returned for a noon chow break, however, they woke up the sleeping Marines to chit chat. When night fall came, "We’d have those long hours from 6 p.m. until 7 a.m. just to freeze out there on that damn tank," Sarno said. "We did it for 60 nights. That was more imposing on me than any of the few firefights that we engaged in with the enemy. It seems funny, but when we were in a firefight, all of the sudden we didn’t even think of being frozen. I can’t say that it was a figment of my mind—when you’re cold, you’re cold! But when there were a couple of eerie firefights, we were toasty warm, even though it was still the subzero weather."
Sarno remembered his first fire fight on the mountain top. "They got damned close," he said. "Those Korean Marines were really cutting loose, and the burp guns were loud. Even Durk told me that I’d better go back and get those three other tankers up there." In the pitch black of 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning, Sarno went back over the reverse slope. Always being on night guard duty, he didn’t know that his fellow Marines had jerrybuilt a crude alarm system for the bunker. "They had a poncho in front of the entrance of the bunker," he said. "Behind it they had two empty jerry cans so that if somebody stumbled in, they would make a commotion and wake them up. I hit those ponchos wide open, and those cans and I went flying ass over tea kettle. I ended up lying on the deck. My face was about a foot away from Kapinski’s face. It was pitch black and Kapinski panicked. ‘Who’s that, who’s that,’ he asked. I said, ‘Sarno, Sarno,’ and I saw his .45 right in my face. I knew that he was a panicky kid, so I told him, ‘Don’t pull that f---ing trigger. You’ll blow my head off.’ The other guys said, ‘Who is it? What are you doing here?’ I told them that there was a goddamn firefight out there, and I woke the tank commander."
The commander just told him that the Korean Marines would handle it. "Those guys never came out," Sarno said, "even though they could hear the crack of the weapons going off. I went back out and thank God the KMCs did handle it. We didn’t have any rifles, so all we did was throw a couple of grenades. We couldn’t get the 90 down low enough anyway. We were practically useless and the Korean Marines were shooting up a storm. We could see the muzzle blasts from the North Koreans’ weapons." While Able Company Marines slept on, Sarno and Durk threw grenades down on top of the North Koreans as Korean Marines continued fighting in the dark of night.