The Hero - Chris Sarno Memoir
|Many Purple Hearts would be awarded as the result of combat actions in that gateway. Nevertheless, a Purple
Heart was not something that the Marines generally or intentionally sought. After all, the criteria for receiving
this special award was that one had to be wounded in action to be eligible for it. In early April of 1952, the
inexperienced new commander of A-41 decided that he wanted to get a Purple Heart on his very first fire mission.
"He surmised," said Sarno, "in a cocksure and lordly manner, that if all of us young jarheads had been awarded
Purple Hearts, he could obtain one there in the Bunker Hill sector of Korea. While all of us were wolfing down an
early chow of cold C-rations in the confines of our rat-infested bunker, we collectively snickered at the
sergeant, and tried to rationalize with him on just how we came by our wounds. All in chorus, we had a damn good
laugh at his phony bravado. Imagine, this stateside pogue had the brass to actually tell us he was going to win
the war for us, and ‘John Wayne’ had arrived on the scene to save us."
Sarno said that orders came down the very next day enjoining five tanks in a combat operation. Tank A-41, commanded by the Purple Heart-seeker, was to be the point tank. "Within minutes," recalled Sarno, "we eased into the revetments overlooking enemy terrain. The range was no farther than 3,000 yards. This was considered very close firing distance to our tank gunners manning the supreme 90mm weapon, along with 50s and 30s machine guns. We all opened up on targets of opportunity, such as 76 AT bunkers and automatic weapons emplacements, as well as anyone who was stupid enough to be caught in the open on their forward slopes."
"We anxiously kept waiting to receive small arms fire or heavy artillery," Sarno continued, "so far—nothing. Close to two hours lapsed, with each tank blasting off 40-some rounds of H.E. into the enemy camp. New orders crackled over the SCR 300 radios to secure and return to the CP posthaste. When the driver started up the engine, right away the sergeant began to commiserate about what a shame it was that he couldn’t get his Purple Heart that fine April day. He was moaning about no resistance from the Chinese enemy. Lo and behold, a Willie Peter [white phosphorus] (WP) round landed about 300 yards in front of us. Seconds later, another WP exploded 200 yards or less behind A-41."
The inexperienced sergeant had not yet realized that the Chinese forward observers were bracketing A-41 with 122mm mortars. Sarno yelled at him to move the tank over the ridge line 200 yards to their rear and into a defilade zone for cover and concealment. "I noticed the sergeant was peering out of the vision blocks of the tank commander hatch, taking in all this bombardment while chewing gum a mile a minute," Sarno said. "His eyeballs were bulging out of their sockets. This inexperienced pogue didn’t realize that the next salvo would be on top of our turrets. The shells were coming down all around us. One could easily hear the plink, plink against our steel turrets as the searing shrapnel flew through the air. Concussion effects from the bursting shells blew both of our front fenders off. The Chinese had a field day on the five tanks caught out in the open terrain. I frantically cursed at our tank commander to crack open his hatch and stick his head out. I declared, ‘You’re going to get your Purple Heart today after all. Go ahead, stick your friggin’ head out you hero S.O.B. You have the tank, you’re going to do this and that, you’re going to win the war for us—open your hatch.’."
But the hatch remained closed. Sarno said that the inexperienced commander, "just gave out a low and scared laugh, sweating and looking out the vision blocks, still chewing gum rapidly, his eyes still bulging. "Thanks to divine providence," Sarno said, "we rumbled over the ridge line to a safer spot. Later I huddled outside with my crew. We were drenched with the sweat of fear, and we all silently gazed at our tank commander with a look of disdain and contempt. So he wanted to be a hero!" Instead, he froze in combat. Many fire missions followed this one. In none of them did the A-41 tank commander reach his coveted hero status or receive a Purple Heart.
The same tank commander froze a second time on another fire mission that followed his very first one. "They sent a young lieutenant out with us," recalled Sarno. "We looked at him with his gold bars and his starched dungarees, and we were cruds. All of the sudden he showed up and he was going out on a captain’s tank in charge. We called him ‘Lieutenant Candy-Ass.’ I don’t know where in the hell he came from, but the XO told us to break this guy in and give him a little combat time. It had been raining like hell, and it was treacherous moving 50-ton tanks out there. We knew we shouldn’t go out that day, but the lieutenant was fresh out of the states and going by the book." Sometimes, Sarno said, you don’t go by the book in a combat zone. No wonder that he and the other tankers were apprehensive about taking orders from somebody who didn’t have any combat experience. At that time, in an effort to conserve ammunition, the 8th Army had a restriction on the amount of ammunition that the tanks were allowed to fire. "We could only fire nine rounds," Sarno recalled. "So I said to the lieutenant and asked, ‘What if we get in a jam? We will have to blast our way out.’’" That would be hard to do with a nine-round restriction. "The lieutenant was playing tank commander," Sarno said. "We couldn’t see anything and we were in No Man’s Land with no protection around us. I said to myself, ‘This is crazy. We could get wiped out with a bazooka, and we won’t even see it coming.’ That’s what was on our minds."
But the possibility of a bazooka attack dimmed in their minds as a bigger threat became more immediate. The gunner fired a couple of rounds with the tank’s 90mm, but the inexperienced "Lieutenant Candy-Ass" wouldn’t let the crew throw the expended round outside of the turret and on to the ground. Expended rounds give off a thick gas. "It just dries up your nose and throat," Sarno said. "Lieutenant Candy-Ass wouldn't let the tank commander throw the rounds out and the next thing I knew, Kapinski said, ‘Uh oh. We’ve got trouble up here.’" An inexperienced tank commander, who was taking orders from an equally inexperienced go-by-the-book young lieutenant, meant double trouble for the crew of A-41. The tank commander once again froze under combat conditions. "He was chewing gum and his eyes were popping out again," Sarno recalled. "He panicked. Someone who freezes up like that shouldn’t be in combat. He was going to get us killed up there, I thought."
Meanwhile, the green lieutenant hadn’t yet realized that something was amiss either. Even when he finally realized there was a problem, he apparently neither truly understood the situation nor did he know what to do about it. "We were buttoned up like a turtle," said Sarno, "way out in front of the USMC trench line in No Man’s Land. Injun territory. If the commander of our tank collapsed on the deck," he explained, "the turret couldn’t have traversed at all." The level-headed Ray Kapinski took immediate action, Sarno said. He pulled the tank commander to safety by risking his own life. "Ray had no other option except to crack the lieutenant’s hatch and lift that lame-ass up by his armpits and outside onto the side of the tank [sponson boxes], open my hatch, and dump him into my compartment," Sarno said. "I slithered up under all the fluid pipes into the gunner’s seat. Kapinski then told me to go back down and open up the hatch under the assistant driver. We just dropped him in there, closed the hatch, and secured it. Then Ray jumped back in. He could have been killed, because any gook close to us could have popped him off." Thank goodness the weather was lousy with fog and rain. "The gooks were hiding," said Sarno. "Thank god."
Even still, Sarno said that Kapinski was ‘scared shitless.’ "When he got back in the turret, he had that ‘I’m gonna die over stupid stuff’ fear. He was all keyed up like he had just had a vision of dying. When you get to the point that you think you’re going to die, you don’t care what happens. He told that lieutenant off. ‘What the hell are we doing out here?’, he yelled. ‘Let’s get the hell out of here.’ " The green lieutenant managed to get them back to the CP alive, but none of that day’s battle reports—which were filed by the gum-chewing, battle-shy tank commander—reflected the true events of that day. "Then I went in to the executive officer and told him what happened to the tank commander," Sarno said. "I also told him about the lieutenant’s indecision. I didn’t care. I was scared for Ray, and glad that he didn’t get popped. I told 1st Lieutenant Corson that our tank commander shouldn’t be a tank commander because he had freaked out and frozen up twice. He was useless." In spite of Sarno’s negative report to the XO, neither one of the less-than-competent officers in charge of the fire mission were reprimanded for their conduct that day. The third time, however, would "be the charm." In a May fire mission the tank commander came up short in his leadership role once again.