Anti-Tank Company - Chris Sarno Memoir
|Sarno was assigned to Anti-Tank Company, which was up near the Hook command post on the Samichon River and
valley. The company was made up of two components—five tanks and two or three platoons of 75 recoilless rifles.
He said, "AT-7 was commanded by Capt. Timothy Kearns, who was an outstanding combat CO. He had much combat
experience and ran a tight and cohesive outfit with high morale. To me, his greatest attribute was that he
over-identified with his Marines. I only served with Captain Kearns from late September 1953 to late
December 1953, when he rotated home. AT-7 was never the same after his departure. A new wave of non-combatant
officers drifted in/out of AT-7, thus causing a huge decline in morale, as I will allude to further along in this
The photo to the right shows some of the tanks of Anti-tank Company, 7th Marine Regiment CP, July 2, 1954. The far skyline was held by Chinese troops on the western front of Korea.
"We complemented each other," Sarno said. "But they were basically grunts and we were tankers. The CP never moved one inch in the 14 months I was there," Sarno said.
"I was assigned to a tank platoon of five M-46 tanks. Our platoon lived in squad tents with the 75mm recoilless rifle platoon. We were five miles away from regiment. Just over a big foothill were 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines grunts. Right away I sized this tank CP and outfit up as a bastard outfit. Hardly any of the tank platoon had ever gone through tank school. About 60 percent of the ‘tankers’ were reject grunts from other 7th Marines outfits, and all officers were grunt officers from regiment. I know for a fact that two officers in Tank Platoon hardly ever came to the Tank Park at all, and when they did crawl over their tanks, they knew nothing about them as their chatter gave them away. This outfit was a far cry from Tank Battalion. I had it made. They really needed me. I kept a quiet profile, but a lot of tankers came to me about tank talk. Some names that I recall are Johnny Vaneer, Cooper, Wrightson, Thompson, O’Donnell, King, Warren, Tyson, Lorne Bayliss, Swinderman, and Wilson."
For Sarno, whose combat tour in Korea included "squared away duty" in the tank battalion, some days in AT-7 were trying, to say the least. The men of Tank Company were assigned to guard the Main Line of Resistance. "After the truce was signed," he said, "we destroyed all of our fortifications by hand or by dozer. We withdrew a mile back of a trench line that happened to be on the other side of the Imjin River. We were constantly on watch to check to make sure the gooks would not break through." Although a cease fire was in effect, Sarno said that duty on the MLR was not like stateside duty. "We were constantly on watch 24 hours a day, ready to repel and attack," he said.
When intelligence sensed possible trouble, or when regiment just wanted to test "readiness", a state of alert was pronounced. According to Sarno, "Condition Red was sounded at random times day or night. The tanks of AT-7 would crank up fast and go to our assigned revetments, where we would remain on station for up to two or even four hours." They were in direct radio contact with the regiment communication section. "We were timed as to how quickly we could get to our station to thwart a gook invasion," Sarno said. "We always took these alerts seriously, realizing that the gooks would pile down the valley as it was the traditional invasion sector that Mongol tribes/hordes always traversed to capture Seoul. Throughout my 14-month tour in AT-7, we were frequently hit with Condition Red, winter and summer. It got to be boring, because we would get into those revetments and stay there two or three hours just facing goonyland." The tank commander kept in communication with regiment via a headset. Those times when Condition Red was not caused by enemy actions, the crew members on the tank slept on the engine doors to pass the time.
Sarno said that there was ever-present danger near goonyland, but nevertheless, his second tour of duty in Korea was more lax than the first one. "It was actually stand-up duty, not having to crouch down for fear of incoming all the time. AT-7 even had a softball team to break the boredom. "Softball was practiced after night chow during July and August 1954," he said. "AT-7 had the best softball team in 7th Marine Regiment play. We won the Regimental championship and then competed in a final game with a Marine air wing team on our field. The winner got to go to Tokyo for the Far East Championship 10-day playoff series. We were one lousy win away from heaven on earth—Japan. Our captain, who thought that softball was a waste of his Marines, didn’t want us to leave for Japan. He actually wanted us to lose so he could keep his command up to snuff. We made him one happy SOB, as we lost 3 to 2 to a bunch of Airwingers—lucky bastards."
Where his assigned tank battalion in 1951-52 was squared away, AT-7 differed, according to Sarno. "We had every reject from grunt units in the 7th Marine Regiment," he said. And there were more "domestic problems" because of it. "One Marine cracked up with a Dear John letter. Another Marine refused to get out of the sack. He just moaned to go home to his farm in Iowa. The tankers of AT-7 were assigned at various times to send ten-man working parties to Regiment, mostly in the winter and early spring. Those times I vented to the XO that two-man tanks was not a good idea. It landed on deaf ears, and I was told to follow orders. Our tankers went on working parties five miles down the MSR to regiment for the daylight hours. Things like that never happened in Tank Battalion—never!!"
Once or twice a month, Sarno made a trip to Seoul, where he saw the people there struggling to overcome a multitude of hardships. The country and the city had definitely been ravaged by war. "I saw the Koreans in filth, and there was pestilence, starvation, and death in the streets," he said. "After a while, I turned a blind eye. I got laid for $10; it was the needed revenue for that family to feed itself. It was strictly sex for sale—a business going full blast. I just made the trip for my needs, and then returned to AT-7. The problems were too big for me to solve. That’s what generals got paid for. Seoul in those days was purgatory…hell."
Towards the end of his second tour of duty in Korea, Sarno also saw his first violent racial incident in the 75 mm recoilless rifle platoon. It ended up in an attempted murder charge. One of the black Marines originally assigned to AT-7 was transferred into the 75 mm recoilless rifle platoon. There, he was constantly harassed by a private first class from Vermont. The black Marine ignored comments like, "All niggers to the back of the line" for a long time, but the months of needling finally caused him to snap. The black Marine fired a shot at his white tormentor. "The next morning," Sarno said, "the whole company watched as the black Marine left the company in handcuffs on the back of a deuce and a half. He was screaming at the top of his lungs that when he got out of Portsmouth Brig, he would be tracking that white Marine down." Unlike the all-white units that Sarno had served with and saw during his first tour in Korea, the post-war units were integrated due to the draft regulations that went into effect in the later part of the Korean War. In post-war Korea, black and white Marines patrolled and guarded the northern boundary of South Korea.
In later months and years, the small strip of land separating South and North Korea acquired the title of "demilitarized zone" (the DMZ). But the men of AT-7 did not refer to it as the DMZ "It was the defensive line," Sarno said. "There was no fence or anything like that. There was no patrolling. We were just watching, watching, and waiting for the gooks. We were just a company strung out on a little piece of real estate, in radio contact with Regiment, which might have been four miles down the road. We had our own company security 24 hours a day." For many years to come, there would be deaths at the hands of the enemy on the DMZ, but Sarno said AT-7 never lost a man. "Reports filtered in once that a Marine sentry in an outfit further away from us was found hanging from a tree. It happened on a 2 a.m.-6 a.m. watch. We were only one mile away from the gooks." This news was upsetting to the Marines, and made them wary of the fact that North Koreans were constantly trying to infiltrate. "If they got a lone guy, they tried to kill him out of spite," Sarno said. "It kept us on our toes, and like I said, I never trusted a gook, north or south.
In spite of "peace" due to the recent truce, animosity against the North Korean enemy was ever present. Not only that, there was also animosity within the anti-tank company itself. "Morale was at the bottom in this outfit," Sarno recalled. "We had officers who had never been in combat. Most of the Marines had never been in combat, either. We had five tanks and 25 tankers, and I would say that no more than six were actually trained at tank school. The rest were grunts who had screwed up in regiments and were thrown into anti-tank company as a result. It was nothing like tank battalion. In Marine tank battalion, we went to school classes. Even when we were in combat, when we went into Reserve areas, if we were not working on heavy repairs to the tanks we were going to combat classes so that when we went back into the line everybody knew what the hell they had to do. There was constant repetition."
Not so in the anti-tank company. Sarno said that the officers were nothing like combat officers. "If anything, they were distant from us," he recalled. Sarno told about one incident in particular that illustrated his point. It happened during a cold, bleak January in 1954. "They decided that ten Marines from Anti-tank Company would be driven down to Regiment to build a huge sandbag bunker for the colonel in charge," he explained. "We built this thing while the pogues in Regiment were going about their duty. We were the only guys humping sandbags up on the wire line." It was a stressful situation. "We were in territory that hadn’t been trodden over," he said. "We could easily have stepped on a land mine. We were ordered to build a huge bunker for the colonel. And it was cold." After several hours of work, they got a break to eat noon chow there. Since Regiment was way bigger than a little tank company area, there was a massive mess hall. Regiment was spit and polish, and here we were like a bastard outfit." At 4 o’clock they were finally brought down off the skyline to wait for transportation back to the AT-7 company. "We were freezing out there and the wind was whipping around," Sarno recalled. To pass the time, the women-deprived Marines watched two young girls doing laundry for the Regiment. "Being away from women," Sarno said, "we looked at those girls. It wasn’t what they looked like—it was what they could provide us with. It was constantly on our minds like that—being away from women, you know."
Finally, the motor transport personnel showed up (late) to transport the hungry Marines to the chow hall. "The motor transport pogue didn’t give a damn that he was late," Sarno said. "He wasn’t a tanker. He was just a taxi cab driver." He could care less that his delay in arriving caused the tired, frozen, and hungry tankers to be the last ones in the chow line. "That particular night," Sarno recalled, "they had hamburgers for night chow. That was sort of a treat to have hamburger. We had been living on beef and grease in a can. Shredded beef with a lot of greasy gravy. We got that constantly. But tonight was hamburger. Oh, jeez! To us, it was like a steak. We were at the back of the line and waiting and waiting. But just before we went into chow, they ran out of hamburgers and brought out this beef and grease. We were pissed."
Sarno said that the officers ate in the same mess hall as the enlisted men, but it was partitioned off. One of the enlisted men had to serve them. "That was one thing about the Marines," Sarno said. "They didn’t allow gooks in the kitchen at all. In Army units, Army cooks did the cooking, but gooks washed and did odd and end jobs like setting up and all that. But I give the Marine Corps credit, right until the last day the Corps was in Korea, even when the war wasn’t going on, no gooks were allowed to prepare food or serve it as a precaution from them poisoning us. We had washee boys who did our laundry for $15.50 per month, but no gook ever got into our mess hall to prepare food."
On the night the cooks ran out of hamburgers, it was bad enough that those Marines who had worked the hardest that day on "shit wire and sandbag detail" had then been relegated to the back of the line, and were served crummy food. But to add insult to injury, the company dog—a Scot terrier named Lady--was treated better than the visiting Marines. "One of the lieutenants threw hamburgers to the dog. We looked at each other thinking, ‘That dog is more important than us.’ "Sarno and the other Anti-Tank men were angry. Near them was a garbage bucket where, having had his fill of hamburgers, Lady was crawling and munching on the garbage. Nearby was also a 55-gallon barrel of hot boiling water where the Marines dipped their mess gear to sanitize it. "I took a canteen cup of that boiling water and I dumped it right on the dog’s ass," Sarno said. "He shot into that barrel, hit the bottom of it, and came running out heading to the lieutenant, screaming dragging his ass. All the guys were cheering. That was our only way of getting even with our officers. We had to hurt that poor bastard dog. But that’s how mad we were. We wanted those hamburgers, but the lieutenant threw them on the ground to his dog. These officers didn’t care about their men." Sarno explained that Marine officers were taught from almost Day One at Basic School that officers eat last and enlisted men eat first. "When they’re sure that all of their men have been served, then it’s time for the officers to eat," he said. "That’s the traditional way, but that wasn’t the way it was in this company. Here, the officers had their fill before even checking to see if all of the men had gotten their hamburgers first. They knew we were on a steady diet of beef and grease, but they didn’t care. They just fed their dog while we were dying for those hamburgers."