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The Draftees - Chris Sarno Memoir

Right after the Fourth of July, Captain Hunter told his men that the company was going to get three drafted personnel from the States. According to Sarno, these type of Marines were originally Army draftees who were then forced into the Marine Corps whether they liked it or not because the Marine allotment needed boosting. The release of soaring casualty lists from Korea was responsible for the decline in young men joining the Corps at that time. One of the draftees (Pfc. Johns) was assigned to Tank A-41. "We bitched," Sarno said. "He was short and stocky, and he wore coke bottles for eyeglasses. He wasn’t heroic-looking at all. He was our new crewman, but we didn’t accept him for probably three weeks. We told him what to do and he did it, but none of us wanted him on A-41, so we complete ignored him. We hardly drew him into a conversation or anything. Simply, we were volunteers. We wanted to be there." The Marine Corps has always been known to be a branch of service for volunteers, so being a draftee was unacceptable at that time. Johns was "quiet as a church mouse," according to Sarno. As time went by, the crew accepted him and liked him. "That draftee kid—Pfc. Johns from Missouri—might not have looked like a poster Marine," Sarno said, "but he was a tireless worker."

Johns had a rough start on Tank A-41. Soon after he arrived, the crew went out on another fire mission. "We weren’t receiving any incoming on that particular day," Sarno recalled. "We were in bare skin, firing away. I was the gunner and Johns was a loader. I knew the mannerisms of the 90mm, and I knew that it had its own quirks. After a round was fired and the shell was ejected, the brassing ejected from the chamber. A rush of fire came down the tube across the breach block for a couple of feet. A ball of fire. I wanted to teach Johns the hard way. The first round I fired with him, he was fumbling along behind the breach block to pick up the brass. Down that fire came across his back. He screamed his head off and went through the top of that turret. I told him that he was learning the hard way not to fool around the back of that breach block until he had seen that ball of fire fade out. As time went on, I had to begrudgingly give that kid credit. He took all that crap we gave him, and he turned out to be a reliable loader."

Johns proved his mettle as a Marine, withstanding even the chilliest of fears, Sarno admitted. "One hot and pitch black night in July," he said, "it was my turn to stand machine gun outpost from 0200 to 0600 with Pfc. Johns. I felt responsible to protect this boot by warning him about boot-mines and trip wires along the path to the outpost. We manned a light .30 caliber machine gun, plus we had two boxes of fragmentation and illuminating grenades. In addition, both of us were armed with a Thompson submachine gun, .45 caliber pistol, and a last resort measure—the K-bar. Our field of fire faced to the rear with a view of the Imjin river, which was 500 yards on our range card." Due to the monsoon season, the river was swollen. "We settled into the trench and spoke in whispers," recalled Sarno. "The rice paddies surrounding our location were alive with the usual chatter of frogs, insects, and water rats. This was the way we persevered in this damned place, and there was nothing we could do about it. The old DI verbiage rang true, ‘you are going to take it and like it’."

Suddenly, the two Marines spotted the beam of a flashlight about 200 yards near the river. Sarno cursed, "Who the hell is this crazy SOB? He’s either a hopped up gook or one dumb-ass jarhead." The light continued to move in their direction. "I have to say," Sarno admitted, "I had been through a belly-full of combat these past eleven months, and prided myself that I had never lost my control amidst the confusion, din, and bedlam of battle. However, this was the moment for me. All of the sudden my two knees locked together, and I couldn’t separate them. When I did, they knocked and became welded together. I tried to right myself, and Pfc Johns asked me if I was all right. I assured him with a snarl that I was okay. I was also ‘P.O.’ed’ at myself because here was a non-combatant draftee, cool as a cucumber, and I was physically distraught." Once again, Johns inquired, "Sarge, are you okay? What are we going to do about that light down there?."

Whoever the intruder was, he (or they) were getting way too close to the two Marines waiting silently at the machine gun outpost. If they fired the machine gun, it would give their position away. Sarno regained his composure and whispered to Johns, "We’re going to throw a case of friggin’ grenades down there so they’ll think a damn battalion is up here." He said that he and Johns both hurled twelve frags in a rapid fire relay in the general vicinity of the muffled sounds below. Fire in the hole! "After the initial report and all the explosions ceased," Sarno recalled, "all became silent, with a heavy pall of smoke and gunpowder smog. At dawn shortly thereafter, we gave our report to the tank gunny. Then we all pooped and snooped our way down to see what we had. We found a damaged Chinese-made flashlight and some blood spots, but no bodies—dammit all!"

Known for his "lock and load" attitude in combat, Sarno was not pleased with himself for his initial hesitation in this incident—hesitation definitely caused by fear. "Several times I have related this one instance in the company of scores of other combat Marines at our Marine reunions," Sarno said. "It was our consensus that, fear can sabotage the bravest heart. A host of other combat Marines and I can readily attest to that facet of close combat. We were trained when we got to Korea, but there was nothing like facing your enemy and being scared to death that you’re going to die." Nevertheless, having admitted that much, they would also be quick to tell you that, "The United States Marines never bugged out in Korea - never!"


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