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Crud of Cruds - Chris Sarno Memoir

 
For another month and a half, Sarno and his crew continued to defend their position on the Punchbowl mountain top. By the end of his sixty days on the Punchbowl mountaintop, Chris Sarno said that he had reached the cruddiest point in his life. "We were the crud of cruds," he said. "When those firefights came up, we sweated. When it dried on our skin, it became baked-on sweat. Slime. By the next day, we felt like our skin was totally slimy and greasy. And there was no change of clothing. We only went out of the bunker to make a head call, and even then, we came back in quickly because the gooks sent in what they called H&I roundsóharassing and interdiction rounds. We did it, too. We just sent rounds indiscriminately into where we thought enemy troops might be resting, hoping that we blew them apart. So every time we went out, we went out quickly and we returned quickly. We didnít want to get hit by an H&I round." Even inside the bunker, the men wore their gung-ho caps because of the cascades of sand and dirt that fell on them when the 90s fired.

Constantly being dirty, as well as constantly being on edge due to the threat of enemy attack, caused that easy comradeship that Marines are known for to erode. "We were really cruds," Sarno recalled, "and crudiness made us angry every day. We werenít walking around with a smile. Nothing made us smile, because we knew the severity of the lethal cold. We were all angry amongst each other too. There was no cajoling. There were always snippy answers and remarks. Everybody was uptight. Nobody wanted to die, and we were filthy rotten on top of that. We had no bath at all in the 60 days we were up there. Water discipline was a critical daily factor."

There was a stockpile of C-rations stacked up in about 25 percent of the available space in the bunker, Sarno said. "The rations were edible," he recalled. "It wasnít green or rancid. Beans and franks were everybodyís favorite. We dug in to that, but according to the stencil markings on the packages they came in, the C-rations were processed in Minnesota in 1944. We had a very small makeshift heater within the constricted confines of our bunker, and we heated our C-rations on it. If we didnít heat it, the food was ice cold, and we didnít want to eat that because we didnít want to get dysentery." Atop of that mountain was no place for the Marines to get sick, because their only contact with the outside world to possibly get medical help was direct radio contact with their platoon leader, Lieutenant Henderson, who was in his own tank on neighboring Hill 702. In mid-December, Henderson had been placed in charge of the five Able Company tank crews. He could radio for help if it was needed, but "immediate" medical attention beyond the care of minor injuries and pains was nearly impossible to get because of the extreme winter weather conditions, remoteness of the outpost, and nearness of the enemy.

It was mid-February 1952, when the Marines finally got the word that they could finally leave the mountain top. Their commanding officer, Captain Albert W. Snell, arrived to escort them down the mountain. Snell, who was the tank CO from October of 1951 to March 1952, ascended Hill 1026 with a retriever crew and useful gear. "Hereís the kicker," said Sarno. "We had to drive old D-31 down this goatís trail to the valley floor. Snell was in complete command for the descent. He ordered us to throw anything under the tracks we couldórocks, thick mats the KMCs used for coverings of their chow and ammo, whateveróunder the tank in its perilous trek downward. Three KMCs even threw defective gook rifles under the tracks to give Tank Commander Sgt. Bob Hunt a chance to survive as he drove the steel beast. Only Hunt was in the tank, because Snell decided the rest of the crew was more instrumental for throwing items under the tracks rather than being aboard. Plus, if there was a mishap and the tank went over the cliff, not all of its crew would be killed. It was a driving performance worthy of a citation for Hunt, and it was Captain Snellís finest hour with us. He knew his business and was real cool about saving Hunt and D-31."

The slope of the mountain was glacial with ice. "We were well over 3,000 feet above sea level with snow and ice boulders all around," Sarno said. "There were hairpin curves along the serpentine trail downward. Hunt had to leap off the tank three times, thinking it was sliding off the cliff. Twice Hunt drove the left track into the mountainside, as he thought the tank was skidding over the cliff. On the third slip, half the tank was leaning off the trail in space. Here is where the sagacious Snell had the solution to right the tank back onto the trail surface, and Sergeant Hunt had the courage to do it."

With the fifty-ton D-31 hanging off the cliff, Snell had to make a quick decision as to what to do to save both the tank and the men. He ordered a wench from the retriever crew, telling them to run its huge manila rope around a blown-off stump and tie it onto the rear hauling rings on the back of the tank. "We all literally pulled and pulled to slide the tank back onto the trail," Sarno recalled. "Patches of ice eased the pulling. Hunt got back in the tank and that Marine tanker showed me the greatest driving performance I ever saw. He slowly and diligently mastered every snake curve, while the rest of us threw everything we could find under those tracks for secure tracking. It was slow agony for Hunt, but he got to the valley floor all in one piece."

Now down safely from the mountain, the Marine tank crew went to a hot shower unit operated by South Korean service laborers in a tributary of the Soyang-Gang river. For the first time in 60 days, they didn't have to ration water. "Although there was ice on the river," Sarno said, "they had these huge hoses going under the ice to suck the water out of the river and into huge squad tents on wooden pallets. It was steaming in the squad tent, even though it was 20 below zero outside, and we got steamy hot water." Their clothes were so cruddy that they threw them into a pile, and they were later burned. "All the baked-on smelly sweat, dirt, grime, and whatever, got wiped off of our skin," Sarno said. "I took a long, hot shower. I washed and rinsed myself, just letting that hot water hit me. But as I was drying off, I still felt crummy. So I took another shower. I ended up with three complete showers before I felt that my skin was really clean. I got a new issue of dungarees with a corpsman first class rating on the sleeve."


Tank Deck on LST 1068 prior to
our disembarkment to Western Front

(Click picture for a larger view)

Mail that didnít make it to the top of that mountain also caught up with the tankers when they went into Reserve. "I remember that after the Punchbowl episode, I wrote home to my mother and asked her to send me a large box of soap," Sarno recalled. "We had a certain soap factory that was in a neighboring city. It was called Cuticura Soap. They put out a fragrant soap that was the color of purple. It was a pumice soap, and it left a beautiful fragrance on me. Eventually, the smell got to me, so I shared it with all my buddies. We all laughed because we smelled like French whores!."

While Sarno was not adverse to asking his mother for a little soap, he never provided details to her about what he was doing in Korea. "Not once did I ever explain to my mother," he said. "I knew that she would break out with anxiety if she knew what we were actually doing. I didnít tell her that we were in the rear area living it up, but I did tell her that we had complications that were nothing to worry about. My mother said the rosary every night for me until I came home from Korea. She fell asleep saying it for me." The Sarnos were a religious family, so when a Navy Catholic chaplain offered church once in Korea, Chris Sarno attended. Upon his return from church, one of the other tankers began to mock him for attending a worship service. Sarno let him know in no uncertain terms that discussing his religion was off limits. Faith was a personal and very serious matter for him in 1951/52, and it still is in the present. It saw him through Korea, from east coast to west coast.

 

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