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Replacements Arrive - Chris Sarno Memoir

The 17th replacement draft had arrived with replacements, so there were new tankers and a new platoon tech/sergeant who had just arrived in Korea. It was with disappointment that the crew of A-41 learned that the captain had assigned a "stateside pogue with eight years in the Marine Corps," as tank commander. "Orders were orders," said Sarno, "and we obeyed." Nevertheless, none of the seasoned veterans were happy with the idea that a newcomer unfamiliar with Korea was going to take command on the trip to the sea - not only that the new tech sergeant was not a seasoned combat veteran, either.

The night before their journey began, the Marines had a chance to relax for a while and watch a movie. A couple of disgruntled Marines, assigned to tedious guard duty on the machine gun outposts set up to protect the command post, decided to liven things up a bit in the middle of the movie. Some of the moviegoers had been forewarned that machine guns might go off unexpectedly. Others, however, had no inkling that a false alarm was about to sound. "We were watching the movie," recalled Sarno, "when halfway through we heard the chatter of a machine gun going off. There was chaos up the ying-yang as somebody shouted, ‘The gooks are coming through.’ Everybody was going in every direction." The new guys—edgy now that they were in Korea’s combat zone--were especially bewildered at the situation. "They didn’t know what the hell was going on," Sarno said.

Among those who panicked in the chaos was the new platoon sergeant. Sarno said that the green officer was on dozer tank A-45 in the tank commander’s position with the intercom mike saying, "Driver, Driver. Driver, start the engine. Driver, Driver, move out." Sarno and two other combat-hardened Marines looked at him with disdain, and in spite of his rank said, "You f---ing asshole. There’s no driver down there. You’re on a tank by yourself. You’re our new platoon sergeant? What an asshole!" Fresh from the states, the platoon sergeant never had anyone of lower rank talk to him like that before. "But when you’re in combat," Sarno said, "you don’t give a damn. In a situation like that, we pegged him as an incompetent, so we thought nothing of telling him so." Although everyone started up their tanks, when it was determined that everything was secure, the word came down through the line to kill the engines shortly thereafter. "Nobody ever figured out what happened up there on the outpost," Sarno said. "But we knew those guys had kept their word."

It was the end of March and winter was still with the troops, recalled Sarno. "It was a continuous, 24-hour road march to the sea with no break. This was the only time in the Korean War that the entire 1st Marine Tank Battalion was all assembled in one spot. It was an awesome sight scanning all that mechanized might. Precisely at 0500 on 27 March 1952, the entire tank battalion hit the magneto and starter switches and, with Able Company on the point, shoved off for little Soko-ri." He recalled that the line of tanks had to go over a mountain range and then drop down to the sea coast. The tanks were combat-loaded for the journey. "Each tank had all kinds of gear lashed to its turrets," Sarno recalled. "There were helmets, Russian and Japanese rifles, C-ration boxes, tarpaulins, cammo nets, air panels, ammo boxes galore, 55 gallon gas drums, tents, etc. The Oklahoma Sooners had nothing on us as this gypsy and cutthroat band of Marines headed east, right smack into a raging snowstorm by 2200 hours," Sarno said.

Tank A-41 had gotten a lot of water in the gas tank during the winter. "It was a cranky tank," Sarno said. "It sparked and sputtered and backfired. We really had doubts about whether we would end up disabling it or whether we would end up being dragged in by the retriever." This was not good news, especially considering the fact that A-41 was the lead tank in the march to the sea. Captain Milton L. Raphael, newly-arrived in Korea and "a helluva good Marine officer and competent combat officer," according to Sarno, was assigned to the ‘cranky tank.’ Because the eastern front of the Korean peninsula was similar to the back of an alligator, the tanks had to travel over one mountain after another to get to the coastline.

Durk took the first stint driving, and Sarno curled up in the tank driver’s seat and dozed off in spite of the racket. After getting some sleep, he woke up to take over as the driver. Now 2 a.m., it was pitch black outside when Sarno took over as driver. It was his initiation as a tank driver in Korea. "It was the dead of winter. When I looked out, the snow was coming down in these big white flakes. We were up high. I said to myself, ‘Oh Jeez. It’s the goddamn Punchbowl again.’ " Ahead of the lead tank was a jeep. "They sort of scouted out any treacherous part and redirected us," Sarno said. "The snow was coming down big as cotton balls on my goggles." Conditions were dangerous not only because of the snow, but also because of the narrowness of the road. "There was just a road and a half space before we were off a sheer cliff on those mountainous, dirt roads," Sarno recalled. "It was treacherous driving. My responsibility as driver was not to slide over the side while coming down the hills. I was uptight, but I kept thinking, ‘I’m going to get my crew there. I’m not going over the side.’ I stayed very close to the mountain side of the road and decided that I would drive into the side rather than slide off the precipice if anything happened." Behind Sarno’s lead tank, the other tankers followed the glow of the tank mufflers in front of them. The tanks were about 30 yards apart from each other, following in a serpentine fashion all the way back.

At the end of the difficult journey, an outfit of Army military police stationed on the coast came up to meet the tank column and escort it to the Soko-ri beach. "A small Army MP unit proudly escorted us a couple of miles to the rendezvous point," Sarno said. "The Army couldn’t do enough for us. They gaped at us like we were from another world—and we were. We were combatants compared to the rear echelon pogues. Inwardly, I was bursting with pride in the USMC with all of this Army adulation. We all shook hands and were back-slapping with these soldiers. I recall one smiling soldier saying over and over again, ‘It’s the Marines. They rescued my butt at the Yalu, and here they are again.’ ."

Sarno said that the tankers stopped for a maintenance check, and then waited on the beach for the Navy to arrive over the horizon. "With the sun coming up fast," he said, "the beach area was packed like a giant sardine can with 105 tanks side by side. It was another eye-filling sight to see the Navy steaming in bigger and bigger off the horizon. Seven LSTs, two destroyers, and a cruiser would be our chauffeurs on the five-day cruise around the boot of Korea. Marines always loved to see the Navy, for we knew that we would have clean dungarees, hot damn good chow, showers, and a dry sack to crap out in."

With the promise of decent chow on the ships that would soon arrive, some of Sarno’s tank crew decided to give away some C-rations to native children they had seen at a nearby schoolhouse. Not yet in firm control of his crew, the green platoon sergeant gave his men permission to go to the school on the condition that they came back quickly if they saw the LSTs arriving. He had not forgotten his humiliation during the machine gun incident. "You get your asses back here fast when you see those T’s coming in," he told his men. They agreed, but along the way, they were sidetracked.

The crew members went up to a small wooden schoolhouse. "It looked like a madhouse," Sarno recalled. "Kids were up there like rats running over each other. They were screaming. It was bedlam. And the few women teachers were just relaxing." It was recess time. Once they distributed the C-rations, the Marines decided to venture further into the community. "Then we got the bright idea to go into the village," Sarno said. "Why, I don’t know. There was nobody there." Eventually their eyes turned from the empty village to the seacoast. They were shocked to see only five tanks left onshore. "We knew our ass was in a sling, and double-timed back to our tanks," Sarno recalled. "There was the platoon sergeant going aboard an LST, screaming his head off, ‘You son-of-a-bitches. I’m going to bust you all down to private.’ We went aboard a different LST. Thank god we did, because he was going to run us up this time." But at least they had made it back to the ship on time. "That would have been hell for us to miss the boat," Sarno said.

While on board the LST, the Marines took turns pulling 24-hour watch on the tank deck. Knowing what lay ahead for them on the MLR north of Seoul, they also cleaned their weapons and ammunition every day. During the five-day trip, Corporal Sarno was called before the captain. Assuming that he was about to catch hell for nearly missing the boat, he was apprehensive on his way to "officer’s country." Everyone figured he was on the way to the brig. However, when he went before Captain Raphael, he was told that ‘Almar #15’ (All-Marine Order #15) had just come through. "You’ve been promoted to buck sergeant," the captain informed him. Sarno said, "I was a year out of boot camp and now I was a buck sergeant, simply because I was in a combat outfit with casualties and rotations of personnel. If you could do the job, you got the rate. When I told the other guys, they were all happy as pigs for me." Meanwhile, on another LST, the unfortunate tech sergeant assigned to be their platoon sergeant, had suffered a heart attack and was sent off to Japan. "We had a party to celebrate my promotion, with the first toast being said for the tech sergeant’s recovery. We felt badly for him," Sarno said, "but we knew that he wasn’t ready for combat."

Once the fleet arrived at Inchon, they continued on their journey. First, however, they gave a salute to Navy personnel. "I can still envision looking back at the sea and the ships when suddenly a submarine surfaced and blared us a farewell to go get them. How about that. Even a sub for added security on that little cruise." Moving away from the seacoast, the tanks went through devastated Seoul, the railhead at Munsan-ni, over the Freedom Gate Bridge spanning the wide Imjin River, and into their sector of the MLR in support of the 5th Marine Regiment. By 1 April 1952, the First Marine Division was fixed into position on the western front for the defense of Seoul. Sarno drove A-41 tank for Raphael and Hunter for a short while after crew member and driver Durk got rotated home. Sarno was then designated as Raphael’s gunner.


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