|Back to "Memoirs" Index page|
Morton "Pete" Wood, Jr.
Bethesda, MD -
On his Korean War experience -
"Somewhere during those days the old patriotism kicked back in. Maybe it was while watching those young soldiers as they plodded beside me up those miserable bullet-swept, shrapnel-laced hills, falling wounded or dying as they grimly followed out orders which, right or wrong, had come from me. Oh God! Who couldn't be proud of a country which could produce kids like those?"
- Pete Wood
A Collection of Life's Experiences
Timeline - Military Experiences
Total military time: 6 years active, 5 years related activity
My name is Morton Wood, Jr., named after my father. I was born on February 20, 1923 in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., the son of Morton Wood Sr. and Edith Erminia Hall Wood, both citizens of the United States who were born here. I had one older sister who was also born in Georgetown. She attended William and Mary College and became a lawyer. She is now deceased.
My mother was a linguist and my father dabbled in real estate and tended properties of family members. He also worked in the building trade, injured his back, and eventually became our caretaker while my mother worked. My mother taught English to the immigrants at the Americanization School in Washington, D.C. and helped prepare them for naturalization. She retired from this position.
I spent my childhood in Georgetown, never leaving except for college and the military service. I finally moved to the suburbs in Maryland in 1959. I grew up in the Depression but was only vaguely aware of it. I suppose we were better off than some, which speaks of the wisdom of my parents. I was an ordinary child, neither good nor unusually bad. Both my sister and I were taught to respect all people and have good manners. I was close to both my parents and sibling, plus a large extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins. I attended the neighborhood public schools and Western High School, all public schools, and very good ones. I liked school as much as any youth, and my teachers as well.
I was not in any formal sports while I was in high school because of my size. I was a small thin child and rather shy. I had many neighborhood friends and my father took us to a local golf course where we shared collected clubs and learned the basics. Several of us went to a farm not too far from us where an interesting family conducted "camp" for us while we learned chores and farm activities.
During my three years at Western High School in Washington, D.C., the Cadet Corps was my only extra-curricular activity. When entering a public high school, a male student was given the option of taking physical education or joining the cadets. I chose cadets because, even though I loved sports, I was too short and skinny to compete with the other kids my age. It didn't help that I had skipped a half grade in elementary school, which increased the gap. In the fall of 1937 when the cadets at Western formed up on the street behind the school, the senior cadets lined up all the underclassmen in order of height. After a minor scuffle with another first-year kid, I ended up being judged the shortest. The line was then divided into four parts and the tallest boys were assigned to H Company, the next tallest to L Company, then to K Company, and the smallest to G Company. By default I became the last man in the rear rank of the last squad in Company G. The guys in the other companies were unmerciful, and the school paper predicted, as it did each year, that Company G might do okay in the competitive drill if it didn't get lost in the high grass out in left field.
I soon learned to love the drill and worked up to Captain as a senior--the shortest officer in the regiment. I practiced marching on the way to and from school, and used our coal shovel at home to practice the manual-of-arms. It had the grip the same size as our Springfield '03 rifles and weighed somewhat more. The Western High Cadet Corps had a lot of military brats from families stationed at Fort Myer and other posts in nearby Virginia, and had always done well in competitions with the other D.C. high schools. G and K Companies had a disadvantage in drill because they had to stretch their legs too much maintaining the required thirty-inch-long steps. The taller companies could do that easily.
The following year I was a corporal and leader of the shortest squad (naturally), and we won the prize for best squad in G Company. In my senior year I was promoted to Quartermaster Captain. Duties included supervision of the armory where the rifles were stored. My sergeant and I would unlock the armory right after school let out on drill days so the guys could grab their rifles, and lock up again when the rifles were returned and counted. That's where I got into trouble. One afternoon we were locking up and found two spare rifles were missing. It could only be assumed that they were stolen on our watch. The result was that the tradition of giving the "Prize Officer" award to the Quartermaster Captain could not be upheld that year--a major blow to my parents and me.
VPI Honor System
In 1940, Virginia Tech had a "rat system" tougher than VMI or any of the other full time military school in the country, including West Point. I did okay though, because of the high school training. I chose mechanical engineering as my major and got good grades. The military system left little time for anything other than studying, and good grades were helpful in getting promotions in the cadet corps. I had gotten into the Coast Artillery branch of the corps because that was the end of the campus where the taxi dropped me off. Infantry and Engineers barracks were at the other end.
Freshmen were quickly made aware of two top requirements: 1. Treat all upper-classmen as gods. 2. Treat the Honor Code as an even higher authority. The enforcement systems for both were student-run, and scared even the bravest and purest of heart. On the bright side, we could leave things like jackets, books, valuables or even money, anywhere on campus, indoors or outdoors, and find them there when we returned. Exams were not proctored because it was assumed there would be no cheating. On the darker side, the enforcement mechanism was such that a student witnessing a violation and not reporting it to the Honor Court was considered to be as guilty as the violator. It wasn't long before the Code became for us a norm of campus life, except for perhaps a handful who wouldn't, or couldn't, avoid the pitfalls. The system was always there in the back of our minds. Simple: no lying, cheating or stealing, and, lest we forget, don't keep it to ourselves if we hear it or see it happen.
Early on, we were given a taste of how the Honor System worked. A sophomore cadet had been tried by the Honor Court and found guilty of copying from another's exam paper. The entire Cadet Corps was marched on the drill field in parade formation. The Adjutant stepped forward and announced the name of the violator. With a cadet guard on either side, he was escorted forward from the ranks to face the Corps Commander. The Commander shouted out the cadet's name, the charges against him, and the punishment: dismissal from the Corps and from Virginia Tech. To drum-roll accompaniment, the Adjutant ripped off the brass buttons, one by one, from the cadet's uniform. The poor guy was then marched back through the ranks and on toward his barracks by his guards, where he waited for his parents to come take him home. The ceremony was concluded with a "Pass in Review" parade as the band played its spirited marches. The Honor Code had been even more deeply implanted in our minds. This ceremony was repeated several times during my four years at Tech. It was a cruel system, but it worked.
I had two close brushes with the Honor System. One Sunday during our spring break three of us decided to go fishing on a close-by mountain stream. Two of us had fishing licenses, but I had to borrow one from another cadet. A dumb move. While we were moving upstream to find a good spot, a deputy sheriff emerged from the bushes and nabbed us for fishing on Sunday. We had crossed into a county where it wasn't allowed, and he was lying in wait for someone to do just that. He hauled us to a Justice of the Peace, who fined us about 20 bucks each and told us that the next time the fine would be much higher. Thank the Lord he ignored the fact that I had a borrowed license. We all could have been in trouble had he reported the incident to the college--me for misrepresenting myself and the other two for not reporting me. We were all lucky.
The second brush came just before graduation. Our last exam was in a tough course. My friend Ray was having trouble with it and asked me to help him study for it. We had a hunch as to which problem the professor would put on the exam, because he had stressed it throughout the course. I helped Ray with it that night. No Honor Code violation so far. But he was taking the exam a day ahead of the rest of us. He said he would let us know if we had guessed correctly. I thought he was joking, but he wasn't. As he walked past my open dorm window after his exam, he shouted out my name and the textbook page number of the problem we had studied. Did anyone else hear him who would have known what he meant? It didn't matter. it was a clear and stupid violation of the Honor Code. My duty was to turn him in to the Honor Court and to notify the professor in case he wanted to change the exam. I waffled and did nothing. I was furious with Ray, but he left for home before I had the chance to confront him.
To make things worse, I had promised my roommate Bob to help him that night with the same exam, which we would take the next morning. So what now? Bob needed help because a low grade could keep him from graduating. I rationalized that if I helped him on several other problems along with the real one, it might appease my conscience a little, so that's what I did. As it turned out, we all passed the exam. I'm sure Bob didn't realize what had happened, so he came through with a clear conscience. As for Ray, I can only guess. But my own guilt lingers to this day, along with residual anger toward Ray. From that day on, living with the memory has kept me on the straight and narrow, and with a squeaky-clean record about anything related to cheating, lying or stealing.
Through the years I've wondered if Virginia Tech or other colleges still have Honor Systems as effective as the one we had back in the 1940s. Has computerization of education made cheating easier or more difficult? And what about lying and stealing? In any case, I consider my own close escapes, and the resulting mental punishment, to have been lifetime lessons, more valuable than all the college courses put together.
Lonesome Road to D.C.
It was drizzling as we crossed the mountain. He turned on a farm road a few miles west of Warrenton, wished us good luck, and took off. There we were, near midnight, in our dress uniforms, and no headlights as far as we could see in any direction. A real mess. It looked like we were there for the night. The good thing was, the drizzle had stopped. The bad thing was, it was getting windy.
On one side of 211 we could make out a beat-up farm shed over in a plowed field. We tromped over to see if it would offer shelter. It was about half the size of a buggy shed and had a dirt floor, but looked fairly dry inside so we thought we would try it out. Well, we sat there on the dirt floor, wind sweeping in through the cracks, chilly, uniforms filthy, and nothing to do but smoke our ten-cent-a-pack Raleighs. It was getting more miserable by the minute, but hey, we had matches! We decided to start a fire. Brilliant. We brought in some dry leaves and twigs, got one going, and then must have dozed off for a while. I don't remember who woke up first, but the wall nearest the fire had started to burn and the shed was full of smoke. What did we do? Like rats leaving a sinking ship, we got the hell out of there and back on the road.
We walked as fast as we could to put some distance between us and the fire. Then our luck changed. A bakery truck making morning deliveries stopped and picked us up. The driver said his helper was sick, and if we helped him unload at his stops, he would drop us off at my home in Washington. What could we say? His route hit every little store within ten miles of U.S. 211. Back and forth, north and south. We must have covered three times the normal distance to D.C. By the time he dropped us off, we were almost a day late and exhausted. But maybe we had done some farmer a favor by getting rid of his old shed free of charge. We had our uniforms cleaned and took the Greyhound back to Tech.
When World War II broke out, I was in my junior year. R.O.T.C. programs across the country were closed down and those of us entering our senior year were sent home to wait for induction into the Army. When called in we went to basic training, which was fairly easy because of our previous training. In the summer of 1943 I took basic training at Fort Eustis, Virginia, which is located on the James River near Newport News. I got a weekend pass along with Van and Jerry, a couple of my buddies, and we decided to visit my family in Washington, D.C. It was the first time away from camp for any of us since induction.
We had planned to hitchhike, but after a long wait outside the gate we were approached by a guy who said he could drive us to Union Station in D.C. and back again Sunday evening. He was obviously not a cabbie; just a patriotic soul who wanted to help out his country's servicemen. (Yeah, sure.) He told us the one-way price before we got in his car, which didn't sound too bad, but after we piled in he said he would have to collect now for both ways because too many guys had failed to show up for the return trip, leaving him to drive home empty. We said okay and paid him. It was probably close to half of our monthly pay, and closer yet to pure stupidity, but we were getting anxious. He drove fast, and we made the 180-or-so miles by mid-afternoon. He let us off at the station and said he would meet us near the ticket windows at 6 p.m. Sunday and get us back before midnight.
We hopped a streetcar to my folks' house in Georgetown. I don't remember what we did that evening or the next day, but I do remember what we did Sunday evening. We were back at Union Station by the appointed hour, but guess what! Surprise! Our man wasn't anywhere to be found. What we did find was a different guy standing near our planned rendezvous with a sign saying, "Fort Eustis" and giving the cost: a whole bunch.
What else could we do? We checked at the ticket window for the next train and were told that we would have to change trains in Richmond and would get to Eustis by noon Monday. AWOL on our first overnight pass? Not good. So we went back to the guy, paid the price, got in his junk-heap, and took off. Then things got really bad. He was a rotten driver. After a few miles we decided to change drivers. I got the job because I knew the way. Things got even worse when we got to the Yorktown ferry. A big Army truck ahead of us drove on too fast and stopped suddenly, which snapped a tie rope and pulled the ferry about two feet away from the dock. I stopped just in time to keep our front wheels out of the river. Lucky. Anyway, we finally got on the ferry and were back to Eustis by midnight, much poorer and, hopefully, much wiser. Next time, if there was one, we would try hitchhiking again. It was probably much safer, and certainly cheaper.
After basic, I went back to college in the A.S.T.P. program while waiting for openings in Coast Artillery Officer Candidate School. This was fortunate because we got in about a third of our senior year.
Officer Candidate School
Toward the end of our O.C.S. ordeal, we had a field exercise using blank .30 caliber ammunition. The school staff had kept us guessing as to where we stood regarding graduating or busting out, so we were all pretty much uptight. My job for the exercise was Squad Leader, which was a bad omen because it meant they were still testing my ability to be a troop leader. Being small and without a powerful set of lungs, I figured it was nip and tuck at best. One of my duties was to draw ammunition for my squad from the supply room, and then return any unused cartridges after the exercise. Shouldn't be a problem.
Everything went along fine during the mock battle, and our side was judged to be the winner. It was an important exercise because some of the leaders on the losing side were busted out the next day. After it was over, I made a serious mistake. We had some blank ammunition left over, which I had stuffed in my field pack to carry back to camp, but had forgotten to turn in to the supply room. I didn't discover it until the next day. Ouch. What was I to do? If I turned it in to supply then, they would bust me out for sure.
The best answer I could come up with was to hide it in my trunk in our barracks storage room. Then, assuming it wasn't discovered in a surprise inspection, I could sneak it out of there and take it home. We had ten days home leave right after the commissioning ceremony and I could worry about what to do with it there. The scheme worked perfectly. But what was I to do with it once I got it to my home? One possibility was to turn it in at a local military base and lie about where the ammo had come from. That seemed too risky, so I decided on what should be a safer way. We lived in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., only a few blocks from Key Bridge, which spans the Potomac River over to Virginia. One evening I put the stuff in a canvas bag and strolled casually down to the bridge, which has a sidewalk down both sides with waist-high railings. I walked halfway across, waited until there were no cars, pedestrians or boats in sight, tossed the satchel over the rail, watched the splash, and strolled back home. The non-rust brass cartridges are surely still there, attracting glances from passing carp. When I'm forced to drive across Key Bridge these days, a silent "splash" of guilt reminds me of my sin. It is a secret I've kept since May 27, 1944.
O.C.S. was very tough both militarily and academically. I was very happy to make it through. They had some sort of quota system. About half of our class was from Virginia Tech and all but two, who had physical problems, made it. The remainder, mostly from Fordham University, didn't fare so well. At graduation they handed us our commissions in one hand and order "detailing" us to infantry in the other. According to the Virginia Tech Magazine, Fall 2006 issue, the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets is known for its embodiment of the traditions at Virginia Tech and its focus on the motto Ut Prosim, meaning, "That I may serve." The Corps also has an enviable track record in producing leaders. More than one hundred alumni have risen to the rank of General or Admiral and seven alumni have been awarded the Medal of Honor, numbers surpassed only by West Point and Annapolis.
Black Panther Division
We had been taught for about four years that artillery was the best and most important branch of the Army, but our retread course at Fort Benning convinced us that infantry was where the real war was, which I still believe today. After Ft. Benning, I was assigned to the 66th "Black Panther" Division at Camp Rucker in the swamps of southern Alabama. The 66th was going through final training for overseas. I was given a rifle platoon in Company "I" of the 264th Regiment. About half of the platoon had been with the 66th since its formation in 1942 and were pretty good soldiers, but the other half were either Air Corps bust-outs or guys from A.S.T.P., which had just closed down. Needless to say, they were upset about being "dumped" into the infantry. In spite of this we ended up having a pretty decent platoon before shipping out. We had an excellent platoon sergeant (Tech Sgt. Ed Buckley) and platoon guide (S/Sgt. Jim Doherty), two good squad leaders and one cranky one. Being a brand new 2nd Louie, I needed lots of help. After about two weeks I had learned a little bit about what I was supposed to be doing.
Shortly after reporting in as a brand new 2nd Lieutenant to the 66th Division in Camp Rucker, I was given the nasty job of Courtesy Officer in the nearest town of any size--Dothan, Alabama. It was only for one day, but one was enough. It was a miserably hot day. Corporal Brush, one of our company jeep drivers, and I reported in to Division Headquarters early in the morning for instructions. We were told to check in with the M.P. headquarters in Dothan, then walk up and down Main Street and enforce uniform regulations on any 66th Division soldiers we bumped into. They would be easy to identify because of their Black Panther shoulder patches. We would be wearing M.P. armbands.
Brush had done the duty a couple of times before. As we were driving to town, I asked him how many guys he thought we would have to nab to satisfy the Brass. He said seven or eight should be enough, at least that's what had worked for him before. We were to look for necktie off, rolled-up sleeves, shirt not tucked in, no cap, typical steamy weather stuff like that, plus noisy or bad behavior. If we spotted a private or a corporal, Brush was to accost him, take down his name and outfit, and I was to come up and tell him he was being put on report for whatever his violation was. If sergeant or higher, I was to do the accosting while Brush took notes. (I wondered later what we would have done if the guilty party outranked me. Probably looked the other way.) We were to report all violators to the Dothan M.P. Headquarters. They would then turn the names in to Division Headquarters at Rucker and the man's Company Commander would administer punishment.
As I recall, we got started around 11 a.m. The first kid we nabbed had his sleeves rolled up. He wasn't surprised, but we could tell from his glare what he thought about the whole thing. Like, "Work my tail off all week, try to relax a bit, and Bam! I'm in trouble." So that's the way it went, and by around 2 p.m. we had about a dozen names. We stopped for lunch at a diner, then went to the M.P. station, handed in the names, and took off back to Rucker. We felt like rat-finks, and were glad it was over. The punishments probably weren't too severe. No passes to town for a few weeks or something like that unless the guy was a trouble-maker. I'm sure there were good reasons for the Courtesy Officer program. To instill pride in being an infantryman could have been one, because too many of us thought infantry was the pits. Later we found out the hard way that it was the best.
In the fall of 1944, we had two weeks of maneuvers out in the hills and swamps of southern Alabama. We were divided into two armies, the Red and the Blue, which staged mock battles against each other. An umpire from each of the four companies in our 3rd Battalion, 264th Regiment, was assigned to a company in a battalion of the 262nd Regiment, and I was one of the lucky (?) guys picked to be one of them. The idea of the umpires was that when elements of a Red company and a Blue company were about to clash, the two umpires would stop the action and meet to decide which force had the most men, weapons, etc. The loser then had to retreat a certain distance and the winner could advance.
One advantage to umpiring was that after the day's battles were over we were free, while the competing "armies" remained tactical--blackout, sentries posted, stuff like that. One night near the end of the exercise, the four of us were sitting around after chow and one of the guys, a real operator, said something like, "Hey! I know a gal that lives near here. I'll give her a call and see if she can get some other gals and borrow a car. They can pick us up and we'll buzz into town for the evening." He knew how to get connected to the outside through the Army phone system, and pretty soon we were fixed up with dates. After dark, around 9 p.m., we snuck down to the Ozark-to-Enterprise road running through a corner of Camp Rucker. Sure enough, along chugged this old 1936 Ford two-door. There were only three girls, but what the heck, you can't have everything.
We piled in and started off to town, cheek-to-jowl and bums-to-butts. We got about 20 feet down the road toward Enterprise when the motor made a funny noise and quit. Of course, all four of us claimed to be experts and tinkered around under the hood, but succeeded only in running the battery down trying to get her started. What next? Let 'er cool off and try again. No luck. This kept up for what seemed like forever. A really lousy date. It got on towards 4 a.m. Man! We knew that we had to get those girls and that heap out of there because at 5 a.m. the next morning the Red Army was going to attack in force, preceded by a live-ammunition artillery preparation. The Ozark-Enterprise Road was the line of departure. God knows what terrible things could happen, besides us being declared A.W.O.L.
Here's where the good luck kicked in. Along came the only vehicle we had seen all night--a garage wrecker. It whizzed on by as our poor driver ducked under the dash to hide because she recognized the truck and didn't want to be caught with the car, which she had "borrowed" from a cousin. The wrecker skidded to a halt, backed up, and the man hopped out. He looked under the hood, did something in there, and told our driver-gal, who was already resigned to her fate, to hit the starter. It grinded slowly and started. Whew! The guy slammed the hood, hopped in his wrecker, waved goodbye, and took off. No questions asked, but no question about it, he knew the car and the girl. The four of us piled out of the car, told the girls bye-bye and "hope you get home okay," and then we sneaked back to our tents and called it a day. A non-heroic, but very lucky day.
After we muddled through our final field exercises and maneuvers in November of 1944, we vacated the swamps and sweat-holes of Camp Rucker, Alabama, and moved by rail up to Camp Shanks, New York for final tune-up before shipping out to Europe. I had orders for a week's home leave but it was cancelled when the move to Shanks popped up. Most guys can remember the P.O.E. routine: shots, lectures, orientation films, weapons and equipment inspections, more shots, pack and repack, etc. While there I had a day pass to New York City with some buddies, where we got tickets to the Notre Dame-Army game (44 to 0, Army! Great!) and had a mild fling around Times Square.
Finally, we were ready to go except for one chore: watch the "Why We Fight" film. Most of us had seen it two or three times, but I guess that wasn't enough. Being the newest 2nd Looie in Company "I", and having seen the film only once, I was awarded the privilege of marching the company to the post theater. We got lined up in the company street, did a left face, and started off, trailing the rest of the 3rd Battalion.
Everything went along fine. "Hup-Hup-Hup-Hup-1-2-3-5," road guards out at intersections, keeping 20 paces behind Company "K". Easy enough. At about the third intersection, I made a super-goof. I was too late getting the road guard out. Road guards from another battalion got there first and we had to wait what seemed like a half hour. Meanwhile, our battalion kept on going. When we finally got started again, what I assumed was Company "K" was only a block or so up the street, so we double-timed, caught up and marched happily along. Shucks, the rear ends of all companies look pretty much alike, except maybe the Regimental Band. Surprise! Instead of the theater we ended up at the dispensary where we had gotten our shots the day before. I shouted to an MP directing traffic, "Point me to the theater." He hollered, "Other end of the camp" and pointed to the road we should take. Yikes! Off we went, double-time, the hell with road guards and all that.
When we got there, it was too late. The doors were closed and the movie was half over. We were ordered to come back the next day at 0800. Just fine, except we all thought the next day was load-up-ship day. So I marched the Company back to our barracks, all of four blocks, told Captain McGregor what happened, slinked back to my bunk, swallowed a stiff scotch, and waited for the hammer to fall. So what happened? Nothing. Load-up-ship day was actually a day later than we had thought, so we saw the movie okay. I took solemn note that the Captain put a Sergeant in front of the Company, just to make sure we got there.
But my "what if" nightmare wouldn't go away: newspaper headlines - "Massive Convoy to Europe Delayed 24 Hours by 2nd Looie Goof-up! Ike HQ Predicts Delay in V.E. Day!" Just to keep the record straight: V.E. Day did, for us, come one day late. Our little piece of the war took place around the isolated German pockets on the coast of France (Lorient and St. Nazaire) which had been by-passed during the Allied sweep through France. We had our own V.E. Day because the Germans in the pockets surrendered 24 hours after those on the main front. You can look it up. Did we get an extra day of combat pay? Don't think so.
On December 1 we boarded the troop ship USS George Washington, a large converted liner which took a good portion of our 66th Infantry Division from New York to England. She was built in Germany but commandeered by the British in World War I. She served as the largest troopship, after the Leviathan, in that war. In World War II she hauled troops all over the world. After the war, when laid up in reserve in Baltimore, she was badly damaged by fire and partially sank. She was raised up and broken up for scrap.
The trip over in a large convoy was uneventful. The only memories I have of the voyage to England are of standing in the monstrous chow lines twice a day, watching "Why We Fight" and "How to Behave in England" training films, and calisthenics on deck. We arrived in Southhampton December 12th and were trucked to camps near Puddleton, Piddle Hinton and Piddletrenthide. (Why do I remember those names? So silly but so British, I suppose.) Our stay in England was mostly hikes and more training films. I was lucky to have gotten an overnight pass to London and day passes to nearby Dorchester and Bournemouth.
It is natural, I believe, in time of stress or danger for a person to limit his focus to what immediately concerns his own situation, plus, hopefully, the situations of those for whom he may be responsible. The "Big Picture" for an individual seems to cover an area just about big enough to swing a cat in. The general situation at that time was that the Battle of the Bulge was in full swing. When the 66th Division was suddenly alerted for shipment to the continent (I was with the 3rd Platoon of Company "I", 264th Regiment of the 66th Division), we assumed that we were headed to France to help plug a hole in the line. We packed up in a hurry and were trucked to Southhampton before daylight to board our convoy. This was Christmas Eve, 1944. Most of our 264th and 262nd Regiments got on the SS Leopoldville, a dingy old converted Belgian passenger liner with Belgian merchant marine officers and Belgian Congo crew. Built in 1929 and named for the old capital of the Belgian Congo, the ship had been hauling troops back and forth all over the world for several years.
Sinking of the Leopoldville
We found out quickly that the troop accommodations on the SS Leopoldville were dismal, at least as compared to the George Washington which had brought us from New York to England a month earlier. The compartment for "I" Company was several decks below the loading deck, down a vertical ladder that passed through holes about a yard in diameter at each level. We could "hear the sharks banging their noses against the hull."
I had first duty with the company in the hold and didn't get to my own bunk until being relieved a couple of hours later. During my duty period the ship left port and swung into the English Channel and into some rough seas. At least half of the guys raced for the head a few moments later.
Sometime during that period a "meal" was served. Infantry soldiers don't expect first-class service, but this was last-class. A bucket of green, smelly sort of stew was lowered on a rope down through the ladder openings. It paused at each deck long enough for each man, if he had the stomach, to scoop out some stew with his mess kit. Most of it ended up clogging the latrines. I didn't have to try any because I knew that officers' mess was later in the ship's dining room.
As I mentioned, the Leopoldville was a converted Belgian passenger ship under the supervision of the British, but commanded by and crewed by Belgians and Belgian Colonials. Lunch, or dinner, or whatever it was, brought about a revelation as to the differences in the treatment of enlisted men and officers in European maritime. After seeing the enlisted mess, I couldn't believe the officers' mess. We had tablecloths, jacketed waiters, good food, and if I remember correctly, a glass of wine. I wasn't shocked enough to pass up the feast, but I remember hoping none of the guys in the platoon ever found out about it. This memory is one of the strongest of my military service and helped to turn around any good opinions I may have had about "rank has its privileges." My thought at the time was that this sort of privilege may work in the British Navy or the Belgian merchant marine, but would never work for more than a couple of minutes in the U.S. Army.
Sometime during the day we had a boat drill. This was where they sounded the alarm and everybody put on life jackets and scrambled up on deck to assigned positions. We had been briefed on this and it came off okay. I was off duty by then and went to my cabin when it was over. The cabins were not fancy, but were quite comfortable. There were six of us to a room on two triple-decker bunks. I had a top bunk. One bunk-mate was Lt. Corbie Truman, a nephew, we were told, of President Harry Truman.
I was in my bunk when the torpedo hit around 6 p.m. I was thrown against the ceiling but not hurt. The alarms sounded and we went through boat drill again, this time for real. We heard somewhat later in the evening that a torpedo or mine had hit the other end of the ship and that there were a lot of casualties.
It is hard to remember how much time had elapsed, but as I stood there on deck surrounded by men of the 3rd Platoon, someone using a megaphone on a higher deck announced that the ship was not sinking and we would be towed to port. (Cherbourg, we found out later, was only a few miles away.) However, after that some of the crew started lowering lifeboats. There was some cheering from the troops who thought the crewmen were getting the boats ready for us to use, but it stopped when we realized that they were abandoning ship themselves. Looking back, it is hard to criticize them too much. They had probably seen a lot more of the war than we ever would and many had probably gone through other sinkings. Our feelings at the time, however, were not too kind.
The seas were quite heavy and the crewmen had a bad time with the lifeboats. They kept getting the ropes snarled and had trouble lowering the boats to the deck level so they could get in. One boat and probably others judging from their screams, tipped over and spilled the crewmen into the sea. There did not appear to be any rescue attempts for them by the other crewmen. They kept trying to lower more boats. The ship had begun to list and there were rumors that we might have to abandon ship. We still knew little of what was happening at the other end where the torpedo had hit. Our "megaphone man", whoever he was, was doing a good job keeping us calm and warnings not to leave the ship.
A very special thing happened at about that time. The picture is still vivid: hundreds of infantry soldiers, standing on the deck of a ship that was probably going to sink; lifeboats gone or hopelessly snarled; crew abandoning ship; lights glowing on deck in the pitch-black night inviting further attack. A soldier close by started singing The Star Spangled Banner! Others picked it up until everyone around was signing. It did not matter that not many knew all the words. I didn't, but I could hardly sing anyway because I kept choking up with emotion. I still do each time I think of it, even when we sing it at Redskin games, 44 years later.
A British ship (HMS Brilliant, a destroyer) at some point had pulled alongside. Built in 1931/32, she rescued about 700 of us from the Leopoldville that day. She was badly damaged when driven by the heavy seas against the hull of the Leopoldville during the rescue operation. In 1948 she was broken up for scrap.
We were told by the "megaphone man" that some troops would be allowed to jump over to the HMS Brilliant, but only when and where directed. The seas were still very heavy and we could see the destroyer bobbing up and down as the two ships took the waves. After a while the "megaphone man", who was on the deck above us, pointed down at me and said something like, "Lieutenant, line up your platoon and bring them up to this deck." We didn't waste much time climbing the ladder and found ourselves in the line leading to the point where men were jumping over to the destroyer. There was a gap in the railing where one man at a time could jump. Two friends of mine from Company "K", 264th, Lt. Ben Trailkill and Lt. George Washko, were directing the jumping. They stood on either side of the gap and judging the relative movements of the two ships, gave the signal, and sometimes a shove, to each man at precisely the moment when the two decks were close enough for a reasonably safe jump. This meant judging both the vertical and horizontal distances between ships, which were changing constantly.
I have no idea how many got off at that spot, or whether there were other gaps where the same thing was happening. Most of my platoon did get off there (five didn't make it) and a good portion of the rest of "I" Company also. My own leap was fairly easy, although I turned an ankle landing among some sort of depth-charge devices on the destroyer deck. My jump was made easier because I had given my life jacket to a man who had left his on his bunk in the hold and said he couldn't swim. I remember being reprimanded by someone for not having mine on, but it was too late to do anything about it. Nobody was going to go back down to the hold to look for one.
As we landed on the destroyer we were led in turn by British seamen to a cabin below decks and given hot drinks and blankets. Greetings went up as each new leaper entered the cabin and was recognized. I was glad to see that most of the third platoon was already there. I never found out what happened to the five who didn't make it. They were presumed drowned when the ship finally went down. My best guess was that somehow they didn't make it to our assigned spot on deck during boat drill, possibly because of being on kitchen or latrine duty, away from the platoon, when the torpedo hit. I have always regretted not making more of an effort to find out. As it is, I can remember only one name: Staff Sergeant Doherty, our Platoon Guide, an excellent young soldier. Other names learned more recently: PFC John Worden, Pvt. Gregerio Contreras, PFC Thomas English, PFC Marvin Barton.
The destroyer delivered us to a dock at Cherbourg. Since we had actually been bound for Le Harve, the authorities at Cherbourg had to scramble some to receive the survivors (about 1300 in all of the approximately 2100 troops on board). The American Red Cross took over and put us up in a large tent, fed us and issued dry clothes. The story of the sinking ends there for the 3rd Platoon. We took on some replacements and within a few weeks were in combat against the Germans, but not in the "Bulge."
The first real indication of the magnitude of the tragedy came to me several hours after our landing. We were standing on the dock as other survivors were coming in. A small rescue vessel pulled up to the dock and five or six men got off, among them a former classmate at O.C.S., a platoon leader of, I believe, Company F, 262nd Infantry. he was apparently unharmed physically, but was thoroughly shaken. "My God! This is all that is left of Company F--five men!" He said that Company F had been in the compartment where the torpedo hit.
I have tried to include only my own observations and experiences. Books, documents, records and other writings tell in detail of the actual torpedo strike, the heroism of those who went down into the stricken hold to pull up the wounded, the stories of those who went down with the ship and were rescued by the efforts of men from other craft. My own personal heroes were some guy with a megaphone, two guys named Ben Thrailkill and George Washko, some brave and efficient British seamen and whoever started singing The Star Spangled Banner.
We learned much later that the Leopoldville was torpedoed by German U-Boat U-486 and that U-486 herself, under the command of a Captain Meyer, was sunk a few months later by British destroyer HMS Tapir.
Pockets of Germans
After our survivors were collected from the various ports in France and England where the rescue vessels, some just fishing boats and patrol craft, were unloaded, we got somewhat reorganized and were sent on a train in 40x8 boxcars to two pockets of Germans still holding out on the French coast after being bypassed in our sweep across France. We had been scheduled to reinforce the Allied Divisions fighting in the "Bulge," but were too decimated at that point. We replaced the 94th Division around the German pockets at Lorient and St. Nazaire. The 94th took our place at the "Bulge" and suffered heavy losses there. In that sense those of us who survived the Leopoldville sinking were doubly fortunate.
When we were kids back in the 1930s, the World War I veterans used to talk about their train rides in France in 1917 and 1918. They often had to ride in boxcars called "forty and eights," which were designed to carry forty men or eight horses. We never dreamed we would have to ride in them when our own turn came in World War II. We thought the French had progressed beyond that. We were wrong. The boxcars were about half the length of freight cars. They had a sliding door on one side, depending on which way the train was going, a splintery wood floor covered with straw, and a ceiling maybe seven feet high. There were no windows, and each car seemed to have at least one wheel with a flat place to thump us to sleep, if the screeching of wheels on rails didn't keep us awake.
When our 66th Infantry Division arrived in France in late 1944, the war had already passed through the coastal regions, leaving behind battered railway beds and tracks. As a result, the trains moved very slowly, and often were shunted to side tracks when one came the other way. Rail was still the faster way of moving masses of troops because the highways were also battered, and were jammed with trucks hauling arms and supplies to the fast-moving front. Our first ride was a short one from Cherbourg, where we had reorganized after our English Channel troopship disaster, down to our little piece of the war on the Brittany coast. Next, when the war in Europe ended, it was a long ride to Coblenz, Germany. Then about a month later, an even longer one to the southern tip of France near Marseille. After that came a roundabout journey, through France and a corner of Germany to Salzburg, Austria. My last railroad trip in Europe was in a regular passenger car from Austria to LeHavre, France, the first leg of my trip home.
The typical load on the boxcars was forty men (what else?) per car, including a lieutenant and a few non-coms. I'm not sure where the higher ranking officers were. (The rumor was they had their own car, with tables and easy chairs.) Stops for track-side pee-calls left time for mad dashes up to the locomotive for a helmet-full of hot water from the boiler for shaving or wash-up. We had to make sure there wasn't a train coming the other way before jumping out, because there wasn't much space between the tracks. Meals were "C" or "K" rations. There were no passageways between cars, so roll call and other communications were by walkie-talkie radio.
German artillery was continuous and there were several attempts by them to break out. We were told that if the "Bulge" reached Liege, a major breakout was planned. We were spread out in a thin line across the front, about 500 yards per platoon, and each platoon operated pretty much on its own. Somewhere in there we got replacements for the men lost in the sinking, but too late for many of them to be of much help. We got to be a close-knit bunch and many of us stay in touch today. I was proud of the fact that in a 66th Division reunion a few years ago, my platoon had more men there than any of the 124 infantry platoons in the 66th Division.
We were trucked down to the reserve positions behind the 94th Division, which was surrounding a German pocket around the port city of Lorient on the coast of France. We were to replace the 94th when they moved up to the main battle going on at the Bulge. We settled in a camp near Dorchester in the south of England, where we began our final preparations for joining the war. The plan was that Companies K and L would move up on line and our Company I would remain in reserve for a while. This was okay, except that Company K was short one rifle platoon leader and our company had to provide a temporary replacement. The three of us drew straws and I was the lucky (?) winner.
One day, our platoon was sent out on a map reading and physical conditioning hike. The instructions were to start at a certain country road junction, follow a compass bearing for a certain country road junction, follow a compass bearing for a certain distance, then follow another bearing, and so on until we ended up where we had started from--hopefully. It sounded like a nice stroll, until they told us we would be carrying full packs and weapons.
Other than the beauty of the hills and dales and babbling brooks, I can remember only two things. The first is when one of our BARmen got exhausted from the weight of his weapon. Trying to impress my platoon, I volunteered to swap weapons with him for a while. Bad move. I almost crumpled to the ground when he transferred it to my shoulder. After stumbling along for a hundred yards or so, Sergeant Buckley came up quietly and said, "Lemme have it for a while," and handed me his little carbine. That proved to me that BARmen should be big. The second memory: As we moved up a valley, I could see what appeared to be little whirlwinds here and there on the hay-covered hillsides. I pointed them out to one of the guys, who happened to be a farm boy. He borrowed my binoculars, scanned the hills, and said, "Yep. Just what I thought. Pairs of great big rabbits makin' love." (No, those were not his exact words.) Also, in case you were wondering, the Brits called them hares. When we got back to the road, we found that we had missed the starting point by about a half mile, but closer to camp. Not too bad for a city boy.
When we got close, we could hear something like "coo-coo, coo-coo" coming from in front of the dugout, and a similar answering sound from behind it. The sounds repeated every few seconds. Well, jittery, expecting the worst, and having been warned in training that the Germans were good at signaling each other, I thought maybe that was what it was. On second thought, it sounded more like a couple of birds talking to each other, so I picked up a couple of pebbles and tossed them toward one of the noises. We could hear a big bird taking off, "flip-flop-flip-flop," cooing away, followed by another one doing the same.
But that's when I made a big mistake. I said to the messenger, "Well, I guess that will satisfy them," as we started to sneak back to our Platoon C.P. I was referring to the guys at Company HQ, but I guess it sounded to those in the outpost that I was talking about them. Well, "in addition to your regular duties," I was company censor and had to read and slice out anything in letters home that said anything more than "Hi! I'm fine. How are you? Request a package." Miserable job. The next day, a letter written by one of the guys from Outpost "Jim 1" said something like, "We've got a stupid new 2nd Looie who thinks he's hot stuff, etc., etc." It made me realize I was stupid. I should have been more careful. Or course, I had to slice it out of the letter. I should also have talked to the man and explained why I had said, but I didn't have the guts. I guess I figured I would be going back to my own platoon soon, so why bother. A bad start.
I had no idea where Kerautro was. The sergeant suggested that since he knew the way, he could lead us out and I, being by rank the patrol leader, could lead us back. Sounded good. I liked that guy. Off we went to Kerautro. There was snow on the ground, which had melted some during the day but re-froze with a crusty top after nightfall. "Crunch! Crunch! Crunch!" went the ten pairs of combat boots, producing echoes from the hillsides.
The sergeant thought we should try stepping in the footprints of the men ahead of us so there would only be one set of crunches. It was a good idea, but it lasted all of about 20 feet as we slowed to a standstill trying to find footprints in the dark. We just shuffled on noisily until we got to a shallow creek, also re-frozen. There were much louder crunches as we broke through the ice. If the Krauts hadn't heard us by then, they must have had too much Schnapps. Anyway, we kept going and stopped worrying about the noise. We took several turns following old roads and hedgerows, and finally got to Kerautro. We lined up behind a hedgerow where we could peek over at the blown-out village.
The Germans were suspected of using the shells of houses as outposts at night. We were to wait there for an hour or so, and try to take prisoners if anybody showed up. It was getting pretty cold just crouching there, and after about a half-hour I learned my first lesson about night-patrolling: relieve yourself thoroughly before starting out. I suddenly had to go and didn't want to do it there, so I crept back a few yards, got modestly behind a tree (why, I'll never know) and cut loose onto the crusted snow. It sounded like Niagara Falls. Live and learn. Happily, nothing happened, so when our hour was up we started back with me up front, as agreed. It had suddenly gotten pitch-black when clouds passed over the moon, and I couldn't see our old footprints. Super-Sarge stayed close behind me and whispered when to turn, when to watch for the creek, and when to expect our outpost sentry to challenge us. God! He was great. (I learned much later that he earned a battlefield commission during the Battle of the Bulge.) Luckily, I remembered the password, so we got home safely. I learned a lot that night, and when I got back to my own outfit a few weeks later I could brag, "Hey! I've been out on a patrol! Have you?" Fortunately, nobody asked me for details.
Hill from Hillsville
I felt pretty bad about this situation because only a few days before, one of the other platoon leaders (whose "in addition to your regular duties" job was Mess Officer) had asked me to help him inspect the mess tent. In the process, which was pretty simple because the Mess Sergeant was the boss and didn't want any stupid 2nd Lieutenants telling him how to do his job, we discovered an open box of "D" rations and snitched a few. Precious stuff. Furthermore, Private Hill was a great little guy (he was only about five feet tall) and a good soldier. Everybody liked "Hill from Hillsville."
Anyway, I got Hill and got him started digging. I watched for a while, then told Platoon Sergeant Buckley to take over while I went back to my dugout to censor some mail. After chow, I went back up to relieve Buckley. It was dark by that time, but I could see what looked like six or seven men helping Hill dig the pit. I think they were all from my platoon. My guilt took over and I got my entrenching tool and jumped in with the rest of them. It wasn't long before Captain McGregor came out of his bunker to check. He looked toward me and said, "Is that you, Woodie?" I just sort of turned away as if looking for "Woodie" and kept on digging. McGregor just mumbled something like, "Well, I'll be damned," and went back to his dugout. After a little while, 1st Sergeant Swenson came out and said, "Okay, men. That's deep enough. Tidy it up some and get on back to your dugouts."
I didn't hear anything more until a day or so later when I was told to report to McGregor's bunker. After we finished whatever business he wanted to discuss, he said, "By the way. I guess we taught Private Hill a lesson, didn't we? But, you know, I really admire the spirit of your platoon. Hope you didn't work up any blisters on your hands." I felt really good about that. I think Hill and I both felt we had paid for our sins, and were proud of our 3rd Platoon. Not long after this incident, Private Hill returned the favor in a roundabout way.
While we sat there pondering, we heard footsteps behind the chateau and were sure then that Krauts were out there. We decided on the old infantry maneuver of encirclement. Sergeant Buckley and I grabbed our weapons and snuck out the front door. Buck crept around to the right and I to the left. In back of the chateau we were much relieved to find a G.I. checking out our phone line. He identified himself as Sgt. Harold Hickson from the Battalion Communications Platoon and said he had just fixed a break in our phone line and was ready to head on back. We went back in and found the phone working okay.
Harold Hickson. Why did that name sound familiar? I asked him if by any chance we had been in the same grade at Fillmore Elementary School in Washington, D.C. back in the 1930s. He said maybe so, because that's when he was there. I don't think he remembered me, but it sure rang a bell in my brain.
I soon forgot about the incident, but some 50 years later, while looking through the 264th Infantry Regiment World War II publication, I came across the name and photo of Harold M. Hickson, which re-rang the bell. I found his name and address in the nearby Fairfax phone book and wrote him a note. He verified that he was, indeed, that person, and we began an exchange of old memories and photos of school days, school kids, Army days, and Army buddies. His training and experiences in the war led to a life-long career with (what else?) the local telephone company.
One night in April 1945, our 3rd Platoon was again in the "Jim" positions on the lines around Lorient. We were ordered to take out a recon patrol close to the German lines and see if anything was happening in or around the little town of Lezevoir. We had been there before, so we knew that the shortest route was out through one of the 2nd Platoon's "Dog" outposts. We had about seven or eight men. I was carrying a walkie-talkie radio so we could notify the outpost when we were coming back in.
Everything went along okay until we got close to Lezevoir, where we got into a small fire-fight with a German patrol. Nobody was hurt--at least on our side, and we had accomplished our mission: Yes, there was something happening around Lezevoir, so it was time to go back home. We escaped without damage, but were forced to go back through a different outpost from the one through which we had left. I decided to go back through our own Jim 3 Outpost. I knew the way, and we could notify Jim 3 by radio. When we got within calling distance, I tried to radio the outpost but apparently the battery had died. We had no choice but to go in that way. We knew the outpost would fire at any noise out there to their front, so we snuck quietly toward the outpost, feeling along the ground every inch of the way for trip wires connected to grenade pins which we knew were strung across the trail. When we felt a trip wire, we each whispered "trip wire" to the guy behind, stepped over it, put the hand of the guy behind us on the wire, and hoped that we all got past them without setting one off, which we did. Our plan was to get close enough to whisper the password and hope they would let us in. When we got to about ten feet from the outpost, the sentry whispered "Halt." We exchanged passwords and went on in the dugout. Inside, where they had a gas lantern, I could see the sentry, Private Hill, was white as a sheet. He said, "You'll never know how close I came to shooting you." I asked him how he knew we were there and he said, "I could see the glow of your wristwatch dial."
Near the middle of March 1945, we were in our "Jim" positions on line. It was a bright day and, except for the continuous artillery rounds whirring overhead in both directions, it was fairly quiet. I was manning the phone at our 3rd Platoon Command Post when a whispered message from Jim 2 Outpost came in. "We can see some Germans out there behind a hedgerow about 200 yards out. They keep peekin' over the hedgerow. I think they're gettin' ready to attack us." I said, "Keep watching. I'll be right out." I grabbed my binoculars, headed out to Jim 2, and had a look. Sure enough, in a few minutes a helmeted head popped up. I thought it didn't have a square shape like a German helmet, and when the guy pushed it back to use his own binoculars, a shock of bright red hair tumbled out. "Well," I thought. "This is gonna be interesting. I think I've seen that hair before."
A few weeks before, a batch of new West Point 2nd Looies had been assigned to our 264th Regiment. Instead of being sent out to serve with the troops on line, they stayed back at Battalion Headquarters and took over newly-formed "Battle Patrols." The idea was that they would relieve the line troops of some of their patrolling duties. a great idea, for us, anyway. When they reported in they were taken around and introduced to the various platoon leaders. So that's where I had seen that red hair before. I was positive it was a friendly patrol which had gotten lost, or maybe just turned around. We had to get word to them before something bad happened to them, and maybe to us. Luckily, Communications Sergeant Ryan with his big backpack radio was with us. He said he could reach the battalion network and, if they were tuned in, the patrol.
It worked. I told Ryan to tell them they were headed for our lines and for their leader to stand up and wave and we would wave back. That happened and we told them to follow the hedgerow over to the wooded area to their left where they would be hidden from the Germans, and follow the path there which would bring them on in. When they got in, the Lieutenant was upset and accused us of being in the wrong place, according to his map. He finally realized he had his map upside down and gave up. He thanked us for getting his patrol safely in, and led them off down the road toward the rear. The whole thing was sort of comical, and we felt good about getting the best of a West Pointer. But I did then, and still do, admire all West Pointers, including that redhead, for being the backbone of the U.S. Army.
360 in a Meadow
In town and turned loose, the guys did what soldiers always do: head for the bistros and other establishments of entertainment. Me? I did some sight-seeing--beautiful bridges, churches, you know, like that. (Yeah, sure.) At sundown, we regrouped, climbed aboard, and headed back, semi-blackout with peepers, full speed ahead. Most of the guys in back were asleep and I was maybe half awake when we came to the little crossroad village, roared through and kept on to the roadblock. This time the French were serious and fired into the air to try and stop us, but no way was that gonna work.
Soon the road began to look unfamiliar, narrower, then just tracks, then ruts, and finally pure meadowland. I think the driver and I hollered at each other at the same time when we figured we were headed for the German lines. All decked out in our Sunday suits and no weapons. Yikes! The other truck, which should have been following us, had long since disappeared. Our driver found a gap in the hedgerow, cut a 360 in the meadow, and headed back through the French outpost, waved goodbye, found the village, and got us home. The Battalion Adjutant counted heads and said, "Where ya been? The other truck got here fifteen minutes ago." I mumbled something about having to take a couple pee breaks. He said okay and that was that. The guys in the back of the truck never had a clue.
Just prior to the German surrender (which took place in early May of 1945), we went on a 20-man combat patrol to the village of Kerautro. I led because I had been there several times before. We had our Battalion C.O. and several other high ranking staff officers. When we got there we lined up across a hedgerow facing the German lines and opened fire with rifles and BAR's. The Germans quickly responded with 50mm mortars. One round fell close beside me but didn't explode. Another bit of luck. We went back to our lines shortly after that. I'm convinced the purpose of that patrol was to give the High Brass the right to say they had been in combat and thus were qualified for the Combat Infantryman's Badges they were already wearing.
End of World War II
When the war in Europe ended, the celebrations were spontaneous and largely uncontrolled. I remained there with the army of occupation until December of 1945. We rounded up the remaining Germans in the pockets and went in boxcars to spend a month or so of occupation duty in Coblenz, Germany. My job there was Battalion Wine and Beer Procurement Officer, going around to the various hidden cellar caches and commandeering the best stuff we could find. I'm sure the Battalion Staff got first pick of the loot.
Two incidents I remember as being special during the trip from Brittany up to Coblenz. The first was crossing the Rhine River where we stopped and got a good view of the famous Remagen bridgehead where our pursuing armored divisions had forced their way into Germany. We crossed on a pontoon bridge beside the original bridge, which was being restored. The second incident was when I discovered that two of my men were missing when we got started again. I let Captain McGregor know by radio and waited for the axe to fall. Since there was no way of stopping the train to find them, we kept chugging along to Coblenz. I was greatly relieved to see them waiting there at the station when we pulled in a day or so later. I tried to dig it out of them where in hell they had been and how they knew where to meet us, but no way would they tell. I lucked out because the captain, an understanding guy, said he didn't care as long as they got back to us okay. Many years later at a 66th Division reunion, I badgered one of the guys about it. He mumbled something like, "We missed the train at Remagen and caught a ride with a jeep driver from another outfit who knew where the 66th was headed." Shucks. That was a lot more than we knew. I've always had the notion that a couple of Frauleins were part of the story, but I didn't want to press the matter with one of my good buddies.
In the early spring of 1945, our 3rd Platoon Command Post was in a big farm house in the village of Manc'Guillo. The house was about twenty yards behind our front-line bunkers. It had obviously been a magnificent old chateau before being shelled, probably by both sides, as the allied advance passed through Brittany in the western coast of France many months before. Two large port cities, St. Nazaire and Lorient, had been by-passed and besieged by American troops. It had been decided that capturing the cities would be too costly and would delay the advance. Our 66th Infantry Division, depleted by the sinking of the Leopoldville, had been diverted from the main thrust and relieved the 9th Division, which took our place. We were part of the forces surrounding Lorient, and had used the chateau several times as a command post. We shared it from time to time with artillery observers, who used an attic dormer window as an observation post because it looked out toward the German forces defending Lorient. From the attic they directed the fire of their 155mm Howitzers as they shelled the German positions and the monstrous submarine pens which were still being used for repairs and as a home base for active U-boats.
Sometime in April 1945, a crew from the artillery battalion, led by a Captain, drove up and started to saw down two large trees which had started to leaf out, obstructing the observers' view from the dormer window. They had long, two-man saws and were beginning to make a little progress on the nearly three-foot diameter trunks. We watched for a while and then it finally dawned on me that the trees helped conceal our chateau. If the trees were removed, they would surely send in more fire on us, which was way too much already. So I called our company command post and asked our C.O. what we should do. He asked me the rank of the man in charge, and when I said he was a Captain, he said to try and stall them a bit and he would take care of it. Sure enough, in about ten minutes our Battalion Executive Officer, a Major, drove up in his jeep and chased them off, saws and all. That was the end of that.
Later, the 66th was sent in boxcars again to play housemaid to a monstrous tent camp in a desert in southern France near Marseilles. There, we took over the "housekeeping" operation of two big tent camps. Our tent camp, near the city of Arles, was on a big, flat, arid, sandy desert. It was divided into checkerboard blocks by gravel roads. Each block had enough canvas tents to house roughly 1000 men. The tents were in rows about 20 feet apart and held about 50 men each. There was a similar camp nearby at St. Victoret. It was in these two camps that Ordnance, Transportation Corps, and Quartermaster troops were being processed for shipment direct to the war against Japan instead of getting home leave like combat troops were getting. They were mostly black battalions, some with white officers, and felt discriminated against. Combat troops with enough "points" (awarded for each battle star and combat medal) were to get home leave before going to the Far East. In those days, with a few very notable exceptions, there were no black infantry regiments because blacks were considered to be unfit for ground combat. (This was proven wrong by some heroic all-black regiments in the Italian campaign.) Needless to say, the guys were unhappy about not getting home-leave like the combat troops, and it's hard to blame them. Their officers and non-coms had a tough time trying to control them. They refused to use the box latrines and used the surrounding ground instead. They disliked the food prepared for them by our cooks.
Our High Brass had some ideas about what to do if the war against Japan ended before our camps were emptied and closed, but they didn't work out too well. They had suspected there would be some celebrations if that happened, and their scheme was to send one block at a time out on training hikes while we went through the tents to find and confiscate any unauthorized equipment or weapons. But when word got out about Japan's surrender (September 2, 1945), and that they would go home instead of the Far East, the camp exploded. We had missed all sorts of weapons and ammunition buried in the sand under the tents. The celebration included light machine guns and rifles firing down the company streets, flares, grenades, and God knows what else. A well-planned affair. So far as I know there were no serious injuries. Soon the troops were on the waiting ships which took them straight home, leaving us to gather up the weapons and turn them in. I guess some other outfit inherited the job of tearing down the camp and, I hope, restoring the area to its original condition--desert.
At that point the 66th Division was filled with high-point men from other outfits, sent home, and disbanded. We low-pointers were transferred to various occupation outfits, in my case the 42nd "Rainbow" Division in Austria. Nice duty. I was Regimental Recruiting Officer and went around trying to get guys to sign up for another hitch. If they fell for my spiel they were immediately discharged, re-enlisted on the spot, given a big bonus, and sent home for a 30-day furlough. But then they had to come back and serve for two more years. That job made me feel like a dirty rat-fink because most of the poor guys would do anything just to get home for awhile. I did all of that work, including paying them off and swearing them in, from the back of a 2 1/2 ton truck.
Just before Christmas 1945, my name was drawn from a hat for a 30-day home leave. The Lehigh Victory carried a shipload of us home. The ship was one of 90 or so nearly identical troop transports built during World War II. On that crossing we spent several days in a terrible storm in the Atlantic, which severely twisted the ship's plates. She lay in reserve until broken up for scrap in the early 1970s.
After a very rough voyage from LeHavre, France to New York, we were trucked to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. I think we were there three or four nights. One evening, another 2nd Louie and I decided we would go into New Brunswick, just a few miles down the road, for a decent meal and a few beers. They weren't issuing any passes at that time, but we had heard from a fellow returnee that there was a gap in the fence down at the far end of camp where we could sneak out. Sure enough, we found a spot where the fence had been pulled back enough for a guy to squirm through, and right across the street was a cabbie waiting for fares. So off we went to town to have our own little welcome home party. Coming back, we grabbed another cab at the nearby stand. We told him we wanted to go back to Kilmer and he asked, "Main Gate or fence hole?" We answered, "Fence hole." And that was that. We were back in the sack by midnight. Several years ago I responded to a request in a military magazine from Tom Oblinger, who wanted to correspond with World War II vets who had returned from Europe in December of 1945 and were processed through Camp Kilmer. I responded to his request and he wrote back to thank me for the information I had sent him. He added, "Guess what! During the time you were at Kilmer I was one of the two cabbies working the evening shift at what we called the 'Kilmer gap.' I must have hauled you guys one way or the other."
When I got up to New York for shipment back to Austria, I found an order on the bulletin board outside the Adjutant's office saying that those on home leave could apply for immediate discharge, which I joyfully did, and was a civilian again in three days.
At that time I elected to remain in the reserves and remain in infantry instead of reverting back to Coast Artillery. That was probably not a wise decision considering how things turned out six years later. I still had several months of college classes left to graduate, but they were not going to start until fall, so two days after getting out of the Army I went to the Veterans Administration employment office. They gave me the names of some engineering firms in search of employees. The first one I visited was H. Walton Redmile Associates, a consulting engineering firm in Washington, DC just getting restarted after the war. I took a job as a draftsman there for the summer. I wasn't very good at making drawings, which in those days was done with ink-on-linen. Being left-handed meant that my hand swept across the drawing and often smeared the ink. Later on, we changed to pencil on drafting paper so it got much easier and faster.
Ella Myrtilla Boothe was the secretary. She had started a few days earlier. I thought, "Wow! This is one beautiful girl, but I'll never have a chance with her." There were several other new guys much taller and more handsome than I, and I was very shy. Ella had met H. Walton Redmile, an engineer recently retired from the Navy as a Commander. Still in her teens, she had become acquainted with him while in her first job after coming to Washington from Louisiana. She was with the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics. Mr. Redmile hired her to work for him, as civilian jobs with the armed forces thinned out.
I worked at Redmile's office until going back to college to finish up. When classes resumed at Virginia Tech, I went back. That is when I learned that many of my classmates had been killed or wounded. After the experiences of war, this was what one expected. Four months later I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering and I went back to the Redmile Associates engineering firm. By that time Ella had a firm grip on the front office. Her post-high school education at Strayer Business School in bookkeeping and shorthand had given her the edge.
My only opportunities to be alone with Ella came during the summer when I had an evening job at a golf driving range a few miles beyond Ella's apartment in Price Georges County. I drove her home occasionally during that period. If I remember correctly, she and some friends came out to the range once to give it a try.
Ella Myrtilla (her spelling) or Mertella (according to her birth certificate) was called "Myrt" by everyone back in her hometown of Covington, just across Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans. Her father was a do-everything farmer, tool maker, repair man and did whatever else was needed to support his growing family. Her mother, much younger than her father, was from the same area. Ella, the first-born, became at an early age the main caretaker of her brother, three sisters, and one half-brother as they came along every year or so. To this day, the remaining siblings depend on Myrt (they don't understand why I call her Ella) for motherly advice, which she gives freely and volubly on the telephone.
I had stayed in the active reserves after World War II, but the only local infantry reserve outfit was a glider regiment. After a few meetings with them, I thought just plain infantry was bad enough but gliders, which had a poor survival record in Europe, was going too far. So I stopped going and was reverted to inactive reserve status. As it turned out, the first recalls for Korea came from the inactive reserves. I guess that made sense because it meant they didn't have to immediately deplete the ranks of active reserve outfits. I was recalled to active duty in January 1951 as a 1st Lieutenant. I was a little miffed about ending up in the infantry after more than three years of artillery in R.O.T.C. and one in the Army. I had survived a troopship sinking which killed 800 men, then five months of infantry combat as a 2nd Louie rifle platoon leader in Europe. Lucky guy! By then I was gung-ho infantry, but couldn't wait to get out and go home when World War II ended, just like everyone else. Then six short years later, along came Korea and a recall notice. I left a good job with a promising future, thinking, "Oh no. Not again!" Gung-ho by then was a vague memory.
When the recall notice came, my boss, my minister, my mother's boss, my mother's doctor, my father's doctor, and a neighbor (active duty Major General Parker) all persuaded me to file for a hardship discharge. The main arguments were my father's poor health (bedridden and requiring full-time care), my mother's age and frailty, loss of income if required to serve, plus the great importance of a pending engineering project (design of a new Air Force base in Puerto Rico, which was awarded to another firm later on). Letters of affirmation of these reasons, plus my own plea, were forwarded to the Army. The result was a one-week delay in reporting for duty while the request was considered. Nothing happened during the week so I gathered up what few uniform items I had in the attic and traveled to Camp Stoneman, California. Ella Boothe and some others from the office drove me to Union Station to catch the train to Camp Stoneman. After goodbyes and promises that my job would be there when I got back, Ella gave me what I hoped was a loving kiss, which helped sustain me through that miserable period with dreams of a possible, if improbable, future with her. I knew she was too beautiful and desirable to her many boyfriends to stay unattached much longer.
I had a short refresher course down at Fort Ord, then was sent back to Stoneman. I had literally one foot on the gangplank of the troop ship to Japan when a telegraphed order came from General Parker to report immediately to the 3rd Infantry Regiment at Ft. Myer, Virginia. That regiment did parade and ceremonial work, and furnished the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
Ft. Myer was about ten minutes drive from our house in DC. My request for discharge was to be considered further. Most of the guys selected for the regiment were tall, erect men because of the ceremonial duties, so once again I was the shortest guy around. I marched in some parades, but never had any guard duty. At five foot, eight inches, I felt like a dwarf among the giants who were selected for parades, walking post at the Tomb of the Unknowns, escorting Cherry Blossom Princesses and conducting military funerals, among often demanding but sometimes very pleasant duties.
This was not too bad until I was assigned to a provisional company which gave basic infantry training to new recruits. Fort Myer had no field training facilities, so we were trucked to other camps up and down the mid-Atlantic coast. A tough way to train. ( We spent more time in trucks bouncing up and down Route U.S. 1 to other camps than we did training.) We were allowed to use our own cars, but there was no mileage allowance. One of my two platoons was the "baseball platoon" which had a bunch of pretty famous, just-drafted major and minor league ballplayers who were selected for the 3rd Infantry because of their size and shape. Some of our better-known players were pitchers Johnny Antonelli and Bob Purkey, catcher Sam Calderone and shortstop Danny O'Connell. They led Fort Myer to an undefeated military league season against the other military teams around Washington, including the Quantico Marines, while we tried to give them and about five hundred other infantry recruits basic training at a post with no training facilities. The other recruits were good and bad, just like in any other outfit. We had a couple of young Lieutenants just out of West Point who were eager beavers and could be overbearing, but I admired their dedication to the Army and their ability to lead. I think we need guys like that because "it ain't supposed to be all fun and games."
When General Walton Walker was killed during the early stages of the Korean War, his body was shipped back for services and burial with full honors at Arlington Cemetery. My primary duty that day was to be in charge of directing traffic around the approaches and crossroad at the Tomb of the Unknowns and the adjacent amphitheater where the funeral service was to be held. President Harry Truman was to attend, along with hosts of other military and government V.I.P.'s.
One of our major directives was to make sure that the funeral procession, with the caisson pulled by white horses with symbolic empty boots turned backwards hanging from an empty saddle, which had started out from across the river in downtown Washington, was not held up by traffic when it arrived at the amphitheater. Another directive was to make sure that President Truman's motorcade, which was to arrive a bit earlier, was ushered through without delay. Tight security was the order of the day. Everything went along nicely until it became evident that Truman's sizeable party, coming at flank speed with motorcycle escort, was late and was going to show up from a different direction at the amphitheater crossroad at the same moment as the caisson. Oh-oh! Who goes first and who waits? And guess who would get the hatchet if the wrong one had to wait?
My Number One sergeant, who was posted at the key intersection about fifty feet away from my position, waved at me as if to ask, "Which one?" I froze for a few seconds, then shouted something brilliant like, "the horses." I figured that, President or not, the funeral was the main show. So the caisson and all the attendant vehicles and slow-step marchers and drummers filed by as the President's police escort sat there on their bikes revving their motors and glaring at us with blood in their eyes.
Well, everything seemed to work itself out and the ceremonies started on time. Later, as we went through the process of getting all the vehicles sorted out and on their way home, the Major in charge of ceremony logistics whizzed by my post and gave me what I hoped was a "Well done!" signal. Or was it an "I wanna see you in my office right away!" signal? I didn't hear any more about it, but couldn't help wondering if it had anything to do with my getting orders to Korea very shortly thereafter. I do believe, though, that President Harry, secretly from his limousine, and General Walker, silently from his casket, approved of my decision at that crossroad.
One of my more adventuresome airplane flights was from Hartford-Springfield to Orly Field, Paris, that summer of 1951 after being recalled for the Korean War and while I was stationed at Fort Myer, Virginia. Another officer there, Lt. Joe Rapp, and I received orders for Korea and were given a short home leave. We decided to take a free "space-available" flight to France. I had been there during World War II and wanted to see it again, so I persuaded Joe to come with me. We had a great time there. We traveled to France on an Air Force four-engine transport outfitted with bucket seats for paratroopers. We had to strap on parachutes. Being the highest-ranking casual passenger, I was appointed as courier for a sealed message to someone in Paris, and was issued a .45 caliber pistol for protection. At Orly Field, I turned the envelope and pistol over to an armed guard. I don't have a clue as to what it was. Returning from Paris a few days later, one engine of our two-engine Army transport conked out shortly after we left the coast. We continued on to a scheduled stop at an air base in the Canary Islands, where we boarded a return flight to Paris. After a long wait we were put on another flight back to Andrew Field outside Washington, and I was back at Fort Myer a day later than planned, but still with a day of leave left.
Pipeline to Korea
With the hardship discharge finally disapproved, I was on my way to the west coast at Ft. Lewis, near Seattle. Joe and I flew out to the West Coast together and then went through the "Pipeline" to Japan and on to Korea. That perfectly-named system of planes, trains, ferryboats and two-and-a-halfs dumped me off, bag and baggage at 1st Cavalry Division Headquarters, Korea. Joe ended up in the 2nd Indianhead Infantry Division, survived several months of combat as a staff officer, came home safely, and stayed in the Army.
En route to the war in Korea, the first uneventful legs of my journey were to Denver and Seattle. The next leg on a two-engine C-47 from Seattle To Tokyo had stops at Anchorage for fuel, and overnight at Shemya in the Aleutians (high security, no leaving the barracks). Then on to Tokyo. From there it was by train and ferryboat to Korea. The Japanese ferryboat that took us on our overnight trip from Sasebo, Japan, across to the war in Korea was jam-packed with replacement troops lying on rice mats. We made it okay, but heard somewhat later that the ferryboat sank in a storm with much loss of life somewhere in the East China Sea. This ferryboat was the last of five ships on which I sailed during my military service. They're all gone now, victims of war and weather. Since then, all of my long trips over large bodies of water have been made, quite safely, by air.
We got off the ferry from Japan at Pusan, South Korea, and took a train that made the daily run from Pusan in the south up to where the various Division Headquarters happened to be at the time. It took replacements and guys coming back from furlough or hospitals and brought back guys going the other way. What struck us as a reality on that smelly, sooty old train as it slowly chugged its way through the heart of Korea and stopped at towns I had heard about over the past months like Taegu and Taejon, was that this was truly a United Nations war. There on that train were troops from Australia, New Zealand, Britain, India, Canada, USA, and many other countries. It fortified my feeling that we were doing the right thing. There was not much sleep on that train, but there was plenty of booze.
Although my stay in Korea was short, my training and experience in World War II served me quite well in Korea. We had received "refresher" training at Ft. Ord, California, before going to Korea. Once in Korea, I was assigned to 1st Cavalry Division. Three days later, on September 30, 1951, I was leading a rifle platoon of Company C, 5th Cavalry on a major attack against the Chinese. I was wounded and sent back on October 16. During that entire time, we were in violent combat. Somewhere during those days the old patriotism kicked back in. Maybe it was while watching those young soldiers as they plodded beside me up those miserable bullet-swept, shrapnel-laced hills, falling wounded or dying as they grimly followed out orders which, right or wrong, had come from me. Oh God! Who couldn't be proud of a country which could produce kids like those?
The 1st Cavalry Division at the time was straight infantry, no more mechanized than regular foot infantry divisions. The Battalion was in reserve when I joined it and had been brought up to full strength with a lot of replacements. Our 5th Cavalry Regiment was part of the 1st Cavalry Division which operated in Korea as straight foot infantry. They had been fighting the North Koreans and later the Chinese since early in the war. By October of 1950 the Cav had advanced far up into North Korea, but had been driven back when the Chinese swarmed in with a massive attack from the north. A record-setting winter had descended on the northern hills and our troops were ill-equipped to handle the weather, let alone the Chinese assault. After a heroic but costly withdrawal to 40 miles or so south of Seoul, and then a turnaround, by June of 1951 a new front had been established on a jagged line angling from coast to coast, most of it north of the old political boundary drawn at the end of World War II along the 38th parallel.
A difference between Korea and World War II was that American combat troops were not integrated until after Korea came along. There were some famous and heroic black combat outfits in World War II, but for the most part blacks were in non-combat outfits. Not too long after I got to Korea, some black regiments were disbanded and the troops assigned as replacements in white regiments. When we started out, my platoon had about ten blacks out of the forty men, including a few non-coms. As the days went on, two became squad leaders. I don't remember having strong feelings about it, but it did take a little while to get used to it. As the days went on, skin color didn't seem to matter. There was one incident during my short stay in Korea that one might say was "forced integration." We were dug in one night when an artillery barrage started coming in. My foxhole was pretty small, with just enough room to crouch down behind the parapet. About five yards away was a black soldier in his own hole. I told him to get the hell back to his own hole but he wouldn't budge. He said, "That last shell landed in the back wall of my hole and I ain't ever goin' back there!" I told him he could stay until the shelling stopped, but it kept up most of the night. In the morning we took a look at his hole and sure enough, the shell had passed just above his head and buried itself in the back of his foxhole before going off. It must have been a small caliber, armor-piercing shell, which would have directed the explosion straight forward into the ground. I suppose he felt the same about being cooped up all night with a white man as I did being cooped up with a black man. He probably had a nice headache for a couple of days. When I joined Company C on September 30, 1951 as a rifle platoon leader, our ranks had been filled with replacements like myself, and a good number of the black transfers.
The officers were Captain Shaw, whom I had known from being in the same outfit in World War II; Executive Officer 1st Lieutenant Heminger; Weapons Platoon Leader 1st Lieutenant Lieb; 1st Platoon Leader 2nd Lieutenant Cochrane; 2nd Platoon Leader (me); and 3rd Platoon Leader, 2nd Lieutenant Walsh (or Welch--not sure which). Of those, Lieutenant Cochrane and I, and possibly others, were new replacements. Captain Shaw lasted about two days. I was told at the time that he had decided he couldn't do the job and just quit. I never heard what became of him. Heminger took over the company and we had no Executive Officer from then on. Lieutenant Cochrane was killed on the third day and Lieutenant Lieb on the fifth day.
Something which puzzled me at first was that each platoon had a Korean civilian. His job was to tag along with Platoon Headquarters and help us out with jobs like digging in, getting water and chow, lugging ammo, and just about anything else. The Korean assigned to us was "Cho" and he was a cheerful, capable guy. The strange thing was that if an attack by us or by the Chinese was about to happen, they somehow knew before we did and disappeared--to where we didn't know. After it was over, they reappeared and got back to work. There must have been some kind of underground communication network.
We headed off early on the morning of October 1 from outpost line Wyoming on the northeast side of the Imjin River. The Chinese seemed to be withdrawing, but not without harassing us each step of the way. When we started out, I had a platoon of 40 men. Sixteen days later there were ten or twelve men left and I had taken over the remnants of the 1st Platoon, which also had ten or twelve left. Our casualties were very heavy during that period. The entire time over this period of 16 days was spent in operations getting to and trying to take Hill 346, which is in the Yonch'on/Chorwon area north of Seoul and east of the Imjin River. We were either attacking the hill, being thrown off the hill, or sitting on the hill south of it, defending our positions and waiting to attack again. We called it "Old Baldy" because we watched it being transformed from a wooded ridge to a barren rock mass from air strikes with rockets, napalm, bombs, plus mortar and artillery fire.
We were on an approach march to secure a line of hills through which another battalion was to attack the next morning. The main Chinese defensive line extended across Hill 346 and adjacent Hill 250. Charlie Company was on battalion point. Light resistance was expected. We had a few light skirmishes, but no serious casualties. Toward evening when we were within about a mile from our day's objective, my platoon (2nd) took over the company point. We were leading the battalion. I didn't have any doubts as to where we were headed because we had good maps and aerial photos and I could see the hill in the distance.
When we reached the foot of the hill, we followed the standard Ft. Benning attack plan: form a skirmish line, two squads up, one squad back, fix bayonets and charge the hill. If it had been occupied, it wasn't when we got to the top, so we started digging in around the perimeter. I sent out small patrols to both sides to contact the platoons which should have been on our flanks by that time. They both reported back, "Nobody there." About then I got a radio message from the Battalion CO saying, in effect, "Do you know where in the hell you are? You're way out in front of the whole battalion and we're digging in back here. You went too far. I'm sending a messenger up to show you the way back." But I was sure we were where we were supposed to be so when the messenger came I told the Platoon Sergeant to keep digging in and that I would be back soon. When I got back to battalion, the Colonel lit into me and said what a "dummox" I was. At about that time, the S-2 officer came running over, shouting and waving his maps. He told the Colonel that the battalion had stopped a mile short. The Colonel just said, "Get on back up to your platoon. And where in hell is your weapon?" I had left it on the hill beside my foxhole. About half an hour later we could hear the rest of the battalion coming up the hill, cussing and fuming. They had been dug in and had chow, and then had to pack up and move. I couldn't help feeling a little self-satisfied about being right, but sort of stupid for leaving my weapon behind, which was a major no-no. So that's how my first day went.
Our first attack on 346 was on about October 6. The 3rd Platoon moved out first and my second platoon followed. By the time we caught up, the 3rd was already starting to withdraw. There was not enough cover to make any progress. Small arms fire was intense from the Chinese who had a complete line of trenches and dugouts across the face of the hill near the top. We found out later that they had tunnels from the trench line back through the hill to the rear side to move men and supplies up. They had full view of us and there was no way we could advance, so we withdrew back to our company lines. Apparently the flanking platoons had the same problems. As we withdrew, the Chinese followed with a counterattack which pushed us back a half mile or so. During that battle my Platoon Sergeant was badly wounded and one squad leader was killed, among others.
Our second attack was two days later. This time we got started earlier in the day and had an intense artillery preparation first. We were told that there would also be an air attack, which didn't come. Again the 3rd Platoon went first and we followed. (By then the 1st Platoon was no longer intact.) We advanced fairly well this time because the Chinese were still buttoned-up against the artillery fire. The 3rd Platoon reached a point where they could establish a base of fire from a shallow gulley and my platoon moved through and on up the steepest part of the hill. We got to where we were within grenade-throwing distance of the Chinese but they just stayed in their trench and rolled grenades down which were exploding around us. Our attack was about to falter at that point, I'm sure, but the delayed air strike came. I'm sure they didn't realize that we were up there. An order to withdraw came instantly from the C.O. by radio, which we did. We had to. I'm sure we left some dead and wounded men on that hill. This is my saddest memory of Korea--a scene I'll never forget. Some of my men, two I think, were too far ahead of us to hear our shouts to fall back, so they kept on up the hill. They must have been either killed or captured, but I've never been able to find out. Should I have gone after them or at least send someone else after them? That still bothers me.
There was one other incident involving that attack. As we were waiting to begin, I happened to be beside the foxhole of a man from another company. He said to me, "Your carbine looks a little dirty. Let me clean it for you while you're waiting." I said sure, so he did. Then as the attack progressed and I had the occasion to fire it a few times, I realized what a useless weapon a carbine was in combat conditions. The slightest amount of dust or grime caused it to jam, which of course happened, and I was without a weapon for the rest of the battle. As we withdrew we got back to the same hill we had started from and I happened for some reason to pause beside the same foxhole. He asked me how it had gone up there and I said, "Not so good." Darned if he didn't clean my carbine again, wished me good luck, and then we went on.
We withdrew on back to our positions on the hill facing 346 for a day or so and watched them bombard and napalm again. First a "Mosquito," a small, slow-flying plane built mostly of wood, came in and indicated target areas with tracer bullets. Then the Marine Corsairs, lurking overhead out of ground-fire range, swooped in with napalm, rockets and machine gun fire and plastered the Chinese trench line. Between air strikes our 4.2 mortars opened up. This reduced the hill to rubble, but did not appear to have too much effect on the Chinese. The minute the strikes let up, we could see them repairing damage with shovels, logs, and sandbags. I'm sure many of them were killed, but as we found out, there were plenty of them left the next time we tried.
During the time between assaults, we did some defensive work at night against Chinese patrols. Night was especially scary because our walkie-talkie radios could always pick up eerie sing-song Chinese radio voices from patrols coming within range. Then we were sent back a few miles to a peaceful area where we got showers, clean fatigues (not our own but whatever they handed us). I ended up with buck sergeant stripes instead of silver bars, but who cared? We also got clean underwear and socks. After that we got three cans of warm Budweiser each, which probably lasted about ten minutes. Then we practiced night attacks on a nearby hill. I guess the higher-ups finally realized we were never going to take that hill in daylight. The idea as they explained it to us was to line up the whole company abreast across the valley at the foot of 346 and sneak up just short of the trenches. Then at daybreak we were to jump in and rout out the Chinese. We were to be equipped with extra grenades plus "satchel charges," which were big hunks of explosives with fuses. Well, we practiced this--without the explosives, of course. It worked okay in daylight, but we had serious doubts that it would work at night. Our supply truck didn't have enough grenades so some of us found an unguarded ammo pile belonging to a 3rd Infantry Division tank company bivouacked close by and stole several boxes. I guess we figured, "What in hell do tankers need with grenades anyway?"'
Our assaults on 346 and 250 were unsuccessful and many of our men had been lost. By that time we were so decimated that they sent up mail clerks, non-coms from Battalion staff, cooks, a few new infantrymen straight from the States, and anyone who could carry a weapon. Two of our six company officers had been killed, and one had decided he couldn't handle the job and was relieved of his command. Two black non-coms in my platoon had moved up to assistant squad leader and squad leader during this period.
A Master Sergeant who was ready to rotate home was assigned to my platoon. He stayed one night and disappeared the next day. I don't really blame him. I also remember a young replacement rifleman who was assigned to my platoon along with several others. I don't remember his name of anything else about him except that right from the start he would disappear for a while, return soon, and then disappear again. He was a nice kid and accepted his punishment without complaint. He seemed to be terrified by the war and one wonders why he ended up in the infantry, for which he seemed to have no skills. One day he didn't return. We could only come up with three possibilities: he had run off to the rear; he lay dead or wounded somewhere; or he had defected and given himself up to the Chinese, which wasn't all that uncommon at the time. One can only hope that somehow he made it home alive in one piece. My own lingering suspicion, however, is that he defected. Somewhere in the Army archives there must be a record, but I think I'd rather not know.
Sgt. James Beever, a farm boy from Indiana, I believe, was transferred from another platoon to replace my wounded platoon sergeant while we were back off the line in Korea for an overnight respite. Over our precious 3-can rations of Budweiser, we didn't talk about plans for tomorrow's third assault on Hill 250-346 because we had already practiced them that afternoon. Instead, we told each other about our families, our friends, and hour home towns. By the end of the next day, I was back at M.A.S.H., wounded and out of the war, and he lay dead at the top of that miserable hill. He was one of the very few of my men in Korea I'd had the privilege of getting to know well, if only for a few hours. A small statue stands in my yard now in his honor.
The morning of our third assault, we had chow at about 3:00 and were then trucked back up near to our favorite hill facing 346. We picked up the extra supplies, snuck down to the bottom of the valley, got lined up (sort of) and waited for the time to come to move out. It was a pitch-black night. Almost immediately after we moved out things got snarled up. We could hear another platoon or whatever moving very slowly across in front of us at right angles. Either we were 90 degrees off course or they were--or maybe it was a Chinese patrol. I never found out, and really didn't want to.
We were late getting started and it was tough going in the dark. We stumbled over rocks and tree roots, cussing, dropping stuff on the ground. I'm sure the Chinese knew something was going on down there before we got anywhere near them. We were much too late getting to where we wanted to be when daylight caught us about two-thirds of the way up. By that time the Chinese were firing at us with mortars and machine guns.
I was hit in the right hip by a Chinese machine gun during my platoon's third assault (a pre-dawn attack) on Hill 346 or "Old Baldy," near Yonchon. Private Brooks was the first to notice I was hit and called the medics over. He was a black soldier who was new in the platoon like myself. He was fat and chubby, looked about 15 years old, and was terrified. How he made it through basic training and got assigned to infantry I'll never know. He kept leaving his squad and hanging around me as though somehow I could protect him, and I kept chasing him back to his squad. He finally got the message and stayed where he belonged, but wouldn't fire his rifle or anything. On my last day, when we got caught in the open going up that hill at daybreak, I noticed Private Brooks was doing okay. I was grateful to him for calling the medics over to me. Hope he made it through.
Being one of the first to be hit that morning, I received immediate attention from our platoon medic, who gave me a shot of morphine and temporary bandaging on the penetration through the right buttock. Bleeding was not too heavy. I tried to get up, but the leg would not hold weight. Some litter-bearers came up and we began the trip to Battalion Aid Station, one hill back. Chinese automatic weapons and phosphorus mortar rounds were coming in and the litter bearers were forced to stay low and move in quick spurts. Being hazy from the morphine, I don't remember much of the trip except the bravery and strength of the litter bearers, who seemed oblivious to the mortar rounds falling around us on the trip back over the hill. They were a brave and fearless bunch. I hollered at them to take cover when rounds came in, but they had work to do and kept going.
At Battalion Aid I was examined by the Battalion Surgeon, who decided there were more serious cases coming in, so I was laid aside for a while. My main complaint was of severe pain in my right foot, so I thought I had been hit there as well as in the butt. A medic removed my boot (a new pair I had just bought in Tokyo on the way over) but found no wound there. I remember worrying more about the boot, which I never saw again, than about the wound.
The M.A.S.H. helicopter (just like the TV episodes later) made a couple of trips back before getting to me. It had a plastic bubble over the litter rack on each side of the cabin. I had another morphine shot before the pick-up, so I was feeling relieved and even happy about being out of the battle, if only for a few days. The scenery seemed beautiful as we swooped along, hugging the valleys and ridges.
My stay at M.A.S.H. was about three days. They cleaned out the wound and put on a cast covering the entire right leg up to the waist and across the hip and butt. An opening was left at the crotch. I still complained of serious and continuous pain in the right foot, but they couldn't find any damage there. It felt like it does when you hit your "funny-bone" and your arm goes to sleep. Because of the cast, I had no way of knowing the foot and lower leg were paralyzed. General Orders #21, October 19, 1951, awarding Purple Hearts to 23 others and me, were added to my 201 file during this period.
Some "meatball surgery" (television term) uncovered serious nerve damage in the hip (more accurately--the ass), which was causing the foot pain and paralysis of the leg, so it was back home through various hospitals to Walter Reed in my home town. On about the fourth day a littler-truck took a load of us to an airfield, and a C-47 outfitted with litter racks stacked three rows high, took us to Johnson Air Force Base in Japan. The truck was tough and so was the take-off into a high wind. Some guys were dumped on the floor and there were screams and moans, probably a few of my own. The constant groans from all of us were genuine. I found out many years later while having an examination of the paralyzed leg that there was an old bone break just below the knee which had knitted itself around the sciatic nerve leading down to the foot. The Army doctors thought that might be a source of the paralysis and continuous pain in the foot so they tried, unsuccessfully, to correct it. I am fairly sure that the break happened when our plane taking off from Korea got tossed around. Anyway, the Army has tried everything to fix me up and I have absolutely no complaints.
In the hospital in Japan, I had a nice cot, friendly ward-mates and good meals. One fellow patient gave me a swallow of his glass of bourbon-and-ginger ale, the highlight of my day. The original telegram to my parents said, "Your son has been slightly wounded," which probably was a fair description since the after-effects were unknown at the time. Major treatment at Johnson was weaning me off morphine and down to Demerol and sleeping pills. I was beginning to like the morphine and couldn't wait for the next shot. The foot pain (a phantom pain because it originated in the nerve penetration in the butt) was not relieved by morphine, but it felt like the pain was off to the side and belonged to someone else.
The next move, around November 19, 1951, was a peaceful flight to Tripler Army Hospital in Hawaii, where we were put up overnight in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Next day we flew to Travis Air Force Base Hospital near Los Angeles. That evening we were entertained by some Hollywood types, including a stand-up comic whose act was so foul it was embarrassing to most of the patients, nurses and Grey Ladies. I broke down and sobbed for the first time since childhood. Dreams of "mom and apple pie and the girl next door" took a dive back to the real world. A Grey Lady wheeled me back to my room. By that time the upper part of the cast from butt to waist had been removed. They cut it off with what looked to me like a rotating saw. I fussed at the technician because I thought he was being careless and would cut me up, but he showed me it was just vibrating and not rotating.
Walter Reed Hospital
The transfer to Walter Reed Army Hospital came toward the end of November 1951. They had me in a typical airliner reclining seat instead of a litter. We landed at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington and were bussed with police escort, sirens and all, direct to the hospital. At Walter Reed the treatments and attempts to repair the damage began in earnest. My mother, God bless her, would stash a six-pack of beer in the nurses' station fridge each time she visited. I'm not sure how she got away with it. I would sneak out a can when the nurse was away.
Medics deserve all the praise they can get. Many don't get much, especially those who don't make it to the battle zones. Two of my heroes, so far as I know, never left the States, but they certainly made life better for many hospitalized soldiers. One medic, a "ward boy" (do they still call them that--I hope not!) at Walter Reed, did a good deed which no doctor or nurse probably should have, but it needed doing. It's difficult to describe in socially acceptable terms, but I will try.
I was just back from Korea in a cast from waist to toe, and internally plugged up by whatever potions they used in those days to keep me off the potty until a bullet hole near the anal cavity healed. One morning the cast was hacked off and I was more or less free to move around some, which shook things up internally. This brought on my very first post-op "nature call." I hollered for Ward Boy. He shouldered me through the ward to the latrine, sat me down, and said to give it a try. He said that if I couldn't push it out, he would give me a hand, which is literally what he did. When my grunts and groans couldn't move the massive blob, he stood me up, leaned me over, reached in and dug it out clump by clump, plopped it in the latrine, cleaned me off, washed his hands, helped me back to bed, and hurried off to his next task. Just another clean-up job, but probably not listed in his job description. A hero? Many times over!
Months later, when we were more or less ambulatory, a couple of us were in our bunks, moaning about not ever being able to play golf again. Freddy had an artificial leg and I had an in-place but paralyzed lower leg. Ward Boy (another one) was nearby doing his chores, and we heard him mumble something like, "You bunch of cry-babies oughta quit bitchin' and give it a try." This sounded like a challenge, so we took him up on it. When his shift ended, he loaded us in his flivver and drove us to a nearby nine-hole goat pasture. We rented a few clubs, quaffed a couple of brews, and teed it up. He held us up when we tried to remember how to swing, picked us up when we fell, and goaded us through the nine holes. The whole thing was hilarious. He was as bad as we were, but he took us for a couple of bucks anyway.
I think from that day on Freddie and I stopped feeling sorry for ourselves and began to join the real world. Rehab comes in many disguises, from masked surgeons to efficient nurses to do-what-it-takes white-jacketed ward boys. Or should we say Ward Angels?
The sequence of treatments at Walter Reed is hard to record because many forms are not dated or are not scribbled clearly by the doctors. (So what else is new?) However, the following things did happen:
It was finally accepted by all departments that the pain and drop-foot condition were permanent. Physical therapy, exercises and occupational therapy continued to restore my health and mental outlook. I was transferred to the hospital annex at Forest Glen. Social life was good because we could date the therapists who lived in a dorm at Forest Glen and took their meals at our mess hall. I fell in love with several of them, but got no further than a goodnight kiss or two.
Somewhere during my trip through the hospital system after being wounded, I received a letter from the office which included condolences and get-well messages, among them a nice one from Ella which re-lit my hopes. A visit while in Walter Reed Army Hospital did the same. The hopes, however, were still just dreams.
I elected to take Army retirement instead of being discharged and going with the V.A. In August of 1952 my case came before the physical evaluation board to determine my percent of disability. My medical representative at the board meeting had a nerve wound similar to mine and was able to convince the board of the permanence of the pain. I was astounded when I learned I had received a disability rating of 80 percent. (Seventy-five percent was the maximum for pension calculations.) My roommate Fred, with a lower leg off, had received only 40 percent. Retirement was set for September 30, 1952. I was allowed to take outpatient physical therapy for about a year. A major benefit of taking Army retirement instead of V.A. was having full medical services for life for myself, my wife, and my children, should there be any, plus use of military facilities such as officers' clubs, recreation areas, campsites, post exchanges, plus a sense a "belonging."
Adjusting to civilian life after Korea was not difficult. I returned to the Redmile engineering firm where I was employed before I went to Korea. By the time I was well enough to go back to the office, it was located downtown in a three-story row house. We designed and supervised construction of mechanical and electrical systems for schools, churches and public buildings, with a residence or two for good measure. Nothing exciting, but always challenging. My main work was designing heating and air conditioning systems for schools, office buildings, churches, medical facilities, and homes. While the buildings were being constructed we inspected the work regularly, considered and approved or rejected proposed revisions to the work, and authorized final payments to the contractors. Then, when the typical one-year guarantee expired, we were done with it except for an occasional grievance when someone wasn't satisfied with an aspect of his building. Luckily, none of those resulted in serious consequences.
Ella's office was on the first floor of the three-story house and my work place was on the third floor. I waved hello and goodbye on the way to and from the stairway, and sometimes we met in the hall to transfer work stuff back and forth. One summer day I went to one of the Chesapeake Bay beaches for a swim with Ella and her church friends. I figured I was invited because I had a car. I could swim some, but with my bum leg I couldn't join in the other beach activities like volleyball. There I found out that Ella was quite an athlete. Years later, I enjoyed watching her play basketball at the YWCA. When she took up golf, I could usually beat her at that, but not by much.
Our first real date was on a Saturday afternoon. We worked only four hours on Saturdays then. I wanted to go to the horse races that afternoon at Pimlico and offered to drive Ella home, which was in that direction. On the way, I asked her if she would like to go to the races and she said yes. It was payday, so we both had a few bucks to spare. We had a great time and lost only a few dollars each. I thought I was an expert and played the Morning Telegraph picks, but Ella, I think, bet the horses with nice names. That evening when we got back to her apartment door, we kissed for real--a long, hugging kiss. I told her I loved her and she responded in kind. It was no longer just a dream! Then came wedding plans, a simple but beautiful wedding, a fantastic honeymoon in Bermuda, and all the good times and not-so-good times which are a part of life. It all melds into a long string of good memories. I am one lucky guy!
After Mr. Redmile retired, the three associates, George Runkle, Fran Benz, and I, were advised by our attorney to form a corporation, WRB Inc., all the stock of which would be owned by us at the rate of 40, 30 and 30 percent. My percent would be highest because I was the only registered and licenses professional engineer. Very complicated, but legally necessary. In 1977 I retired from the business because I felt I hadn't kept up with the new equipment and mechanical systems which were being continuously introduced into the construction industry. I was president of the company at the time. George and Fran wanted to continue, so with the help of even more lawyers, they bought my 40 percent shares of the corporation and partnership for a father nominal sum and I was on my own, business-wise. Being 53 years old and still in need of income, I continued to do engineering work for some of our previous clients. I was extremely careful not to interfere with or cross paths with the old firm. Small fix-it-up projects, mostly for the Montgomery County Public School System, kept popping up and I was very busy for the next fifteen or so years working out of my home. I found out, happily, that being self-employed was so much simpler and satisfying than dealing with partnerships, corporations, lawyers and employees. I charged a reasonable hourly rate and if things didn't work out exactly the way the owner wanted it, I could work it out with them face to face. We all knew and trusted each other. That all faded away a few years ago. I don't really need the income now, and probably couldn't stumble safely around the projects even if I did.
My health condition hasn't changed over the years, except the ability to walk better with new and improved leg braces and splints, which fit all types of shoes. The pain hasn't changed. I chose early-on to refuse any pain relief medication because of fear of addition. However, I soon discovered that a couple of beers or drinks at supper time would move the pain aside as though it belonged to someone else for a while, long enough for me to get busy with something or to fall asleep. A doctor familiar with my case once advised me, off the record, never to take any pain-killing drugs because anything which helped would be addictive. "I don't care if you get half tight every night, or even if you become alcoholic. You'd be better off than if you become addicted to drugs."
In 1979 I went to Walter Reed with a sore knee not related to the wound. New X-rays revealed an old healed-over bone fracture below the right knee, and that a portion of the sciatic nerve appeared to be imbedded in the healing of the fracture. The doctor thought that at least some of the pain and paralysis could be coming from this embedment. I told him of the rough take-off of the evacuation plane from Korea, where the break may have happened. He performed exploratory surgery and found the nerve to be too deeply imbedded for successful extraction. I was disappointed, but I greatly appreciated the effort, and told him so. It could have worked had the fracture been discovered when it happened, but, under the circumstances, that would have been next to impossible.
In 1980 I went to a pain clinic at Walter Reed. I passed a multiple-choice test designed to identify guys trying to fake the intensity or type of their pain. The outcome was to have me try Tegritol, which might interrupt the transmission of pain signals to the brain. This wasn't effective. Later, at the National Institute of Health, I was given Busiperone and Desiprimine for pain relief, but, again, no improvement. Throughout the entire period I have been provided with upgraded leg braces and, later, plastic splints.
During forty years as an engineer in the building construction industry I have been able to scramble around jobsites without too much trouble. Until recently, I played golf regularly since 1954, usually walking and carrying my own bag. I've done some backpacking in the mountains, and taken long hikes in the adjacent hills. Ella, my wife since 1954, has been a tremendous help by keeping after me to stay active and do the right things to stay healthy, plus joining me in things we both enjoy. I feel as though I've been treated fairly and competently by the Army medical establishment. Since 1951, I've had only one justifiable complaint: doctors' penmanship.
Writing has been an enjoyable hobby for me since retiring from engineering work in 1990. Until then, writing was pretty much limited to technical stuff like construction specifications for mechanical and electrical systems in various types of buildings. Much of that was copied from previous projects, tweaked a bit to suit the job. Since retirement, I've had the opportunity to reminisce a little and record some of life's experiences, and to invent a few others which didn't actually happen, but had I been lucky or unlucky enough, may have happened. Much of it relates to military service. I recently took a course in writing, which was fun and helpful, but showed I had a long way to go to make any money at it. So this is all free of charge.
Our 66th Infantry Division's Panther Veterans Organization (PVO) ran a trip to Europe in the fall of 1999 to visit famous sites in England and France and our combat areas in France. It was organized and led by Bob Hesse, who had been a sergeant in our 264th Regiment during World War II and had been president of the PVO since shortly after its inception in 1945. About 60 of us, including wives and other family members, gathered in Kennedy Airport in New York and flew to Heathrow Airport in London. I happened to sit next to Jim Dale from Iowa, and we became roommates throughout the trip. Our tour guide, Linda, was from Salisbury, England, and she stayed with us all the way, as did Keith, the driver of our double-decker bus.
In England we stayed at the Thistle Tower Hotel and toured London, Stonehenge, and many castles and cathedrals. At our welcoming ceremony and banquet (which seemed to happen wherever we went), we were surprised to meet two sailors from the HMS Brilliant, the ship which had rescued so many of us when our troopship Leopoldville was sunk during the war. At Southhampton we boarded a huge ferry, the Duc de Normandie, for an overnight crossing to France. It had small staterooms, a dining hall, and room for a whole fleet of tour busses.
We saw the famous D-Day sites at Caen, St. Lo, Utah Beach and Omaha Beach, plus Avranches and the Brittany-American Cemetery where many of our 66th Division comrades are buried. We got a good bit of physical exercise when we walked to the top of Mont St. Michel. I must have been in good condition from our backpacking days because I was first to reach the top.
Next we went to Lorient, the by-passed city where we besieged and fought against the Germans until the end of the war. More welcoming ceremonies and banquets there. The people seemed genuinely thankful for our part in their liberation some fifty years before. A big surprise there was a group of young French boys who called themselves the "Black Panther Motor Club" after our 66th Division shoulder patch. They had old U.S. Army trucks and jeeps which had been left behind when the war ended. They had restored them to first class condition and used them in ceremonies and parades. We also saw some monuments dedicated to the 66th.
At Lorient, we visited the massive submarine pens where the Germans repaired their U-boats during the war. The structures were said to be made of eight foot thick reinforced concrete. Our continuous shelling and bombing of them had done very little damage. The French still use them for submarine repairing. The tour then went down the coast to St. Nazaire, where other portions of our Division had laid siege to the Germans. There they saw similar submarine pens. Three of us, Jim Dale, Arnold Schuppert and I, skipped that day's tour, rented a car, and drove out to find our old positions on line around Lorient.
First we visited one of our front line platoon command posts in a chateau near the village of Caudan, where we met with the owner. This meeting was one of the high points of the entire trip. As we drove into the courtyard, we could see that the home had been thoroughly restored and that the farm was in full operation. The owner, M. Le'Annec, a man of about 70, was outside pruning some shrubbery. We identified ourselves and tried to explain why we were there. He seemed to understand about as much English as we did French, so we were able to communicate. He invited us in, showed us around his beautiful home, opened a bottle of wine, and we had a great visit. He explained that he was the son of the owner, who, along with his family, had vacated the estate during the war and had been able to have it restored afterward. As we were about to leave, I remembered the two trees. Sure enough, there were the healed-over saw cuts. The beautiful elms still dominated the estate. I tried to explain what had happened there, but couldn't quite get through to him. I've corresponded frequently with M. Le'Annec and, with the help of an interpreter, he now understand about the two trees and is very thankful for what we did. I think, on balance, helping save the two trees was my most lasting contribution to the restoration of France to its former beauty.
We left the chateau to explore more of the nearby areas where we had engaged the German troops, to finish off the best day of our entire tour. We walked out to some of our dugout positions on line, which were somewhat overgrown but pretty much the way we had left them. One was a German concrete pillbox built to stem the invasion, but useful to us in our defense against them. We followed some of our old patrol routes through the woods and villages. I had brought along the maps of the area which I had used during the war. We found the villages of Kerautro and Lezevoir, where we had had shoot-outs with the Germans. I'm not sure that anyone else on the tour had been able to find their own special places. Most of the countryside seemed unchanged except near the bigger towns closer to Lorient. It was a great experience for the three of us, which gave us bragging rights for the next few days.
We had a few hours left that day so we drove up to the town of Quimper, where we had had a fling or two on day passes while in reserve positions. The town had scarcely been touched by the war, so it looked just the way we remembered it.
The tour then took us to the number one experience. The French Navy minesweeper Audaceous picked up those of us who had survived the Leopoldville torpedoing and took us out in the English Channel from Cherbourg to the exact spot where the ship still rusts away on the bottom. Our regimental chaplain, the Reverend Arnold Olson, himself a survivor, conducted a moving ceremony, and wreaths of flowers were tossed into the sea as "Taps" was sounded by a bugler. There was not a dry eye on the ship, including the French crew.
The tour ended a few days later after a visit to Paris, where we took a cruise on the Seine, saw the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Palace at Versailles, were honored once more at the Museum de la Liberation and, finally, a farewell banquet. I'm sure we all had gained at least ten pounds. A bus trip to the airport and uneventful flights home finished off our 12-day memory-jogging trip.
In the fall of 2000 I signed up for a "Return to Korea" trip with California Pacific Tours, Inc. The owner and operator, Roy Montgomery, had been leading tours for Korean War veterans and their families for several years, and still does. This trip took nine days, including travel time to and from home.
Each tour concentrates on places where the various army outfits fought during the war. Our tour was for men from the 1st Cavalry Division, which had been in Korea from near the start in 1950 until early in 1952. It operated as straight foot infantry at that time.
The tours are sponsored by the South Korean Government in recognition of America's contribution to the war effort. Unless the political situation changes, I suppose the tours will continue as long as there are Korean War veterans physically able to make the trip. As of this date, an uneasy truce remains in force between the two governments, and a sizeable U.S. force stands beside the South Korean Army, combat-ready, to maintain it. The daily meetings between the two sides within the demilitarized zone at Panmunjom continue. Grievances are discussed, but little of consequence can be done about them.
I flew from Dulles to Los Angeles on an American Airlines Boeing 767, about a six-hour flight, where the group from various parts of the country formed up. We met our leader Roy, went through customs, changed money to Korean currency, had an orientation meeting, transferred our baggage, and boarded an Asiana Airlines Boeing 747-400 to Seoul, Korea. The crew was Asian, so we got our first taste of Korea's version of airline food. Not too bad. Yet.
That leg took about 14 hours. At Kimpo Airport in Seoul we got on a bus for what they described as a "leisurely transfer" to our first hotel, in Taegu. (We learned that traffic in South Korea is 24-hour bumper-to-bumper, so "leisurely" was an accurate description.) A young Korean woman, Vivian, joined us at Kimpo as our hostess and tour guide. She spoke English, with an oriental accent, and was good at clearing up the little glitches so common in foreign travel.
At Taegu we had our welcoming banquet, and got our first authentic Korean meal, which featured Kimchi, a cabbage dish. I believe it came in various flavors, but to us they all seemed pretty much the same. At some stops they offered more familiar foods like hamburgers and fries, but they still took some getting used to. Food is not a featured attraction in Korea for westerners. I suppose that foreign tourism is not big there, and that business travel is more important.
We covered most of South Korea, traveling by motor coach, and stayed at three different modern hotels. Battle sites and cities we visited, including Taegu, were the Pusan Perimeter, "Bowling Alley," Kasan Mountain, "Atrocity Hill," Naktong River, Uijongbu, Seoul, Iron Triangle Memorial Hall, the edge of the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea, Chorwon, the U.S. Army's Camp Casey, Chipyong-ni, Kumwha, the Korean War Museum, some Buddhist temples, and an ancient Korean Dynasty King's Palace.
The most memorable visit was the ride on U.S. Army and South Korean Army vehicles up to the truce talk building at Panmunjom, where we watched up close the North Korean and South Korean guards as they stood peering at each other at each end of the truce building, motionless and foreboding. Inside the building, we had our pictures taken beside a South Korean guard.
Another memorable, but disappointing, visit was up to an observation point on the southern boundary of the demilitarized zone. It was foggy and we could see only a few feet out toward the north. We were told that on a clear day we'd have been able to see our Hill 346, "Old Baldy," where so many of our 5th Cavalry men, including me, had been killed or wounded. Unfortunately, it turned out that our tour leader, along with many others, had mistaken another hill, 266, called "Baldy," for ours.
I had brought with me the actual maps I had used during the war, which showed that our hill was actually just south of the demilitarized zone, and possibly could be visited on subsequent tours. Next day, I showed the map to our leader and he promised to check it out. Since then, his tours for the 1st Cavalry Division have included our Hill 346.
Our tour in Korea ended with another disappointment when a lady from our group lost her passport and we had to wait for hours while she got it replaced at the Embassy. This caused us to miss out on a visit to the famous Inchon Landing site. I do think, however, that we'd all seen enough and were looking forward to the flight home that evening. As to the flight home, it was an event in itself.
The back-breaker trip from Seoul, Korea, was over 13 hours non-stop to Kennedy Airport, New York, on a monstrous Japanese airline. My seat faced a barrier wall about six inches from my knees with a continuous flight path screen just above head-level indicating where we were and showing how many miles we had come and how many still to go. And there was no way to avoid watching it. Four pairs of knees to squeeze past to reach the aisle, and long waiting lines at the restrooms made the decision to go difficult. Meals seemed non-stop, and were a Japanese/Korean version of good old American food. But who could complain? The entire trip, over and back, was largely financed by a grateful South Korean government for men who had fought there some forty years before. A quick little hop from Kennedy Airport to home on a two-engine Lockheed, even though the pilot got lined up on the wrong runway for take-off, seemed like a walk in the park.
Korea changed me mentally by adding to my memories of war time events during World War II in Europe, where I was an infantry rifle platoon leader in the 66th "Black Panther" Division. Korea changed me physically because I was wounded in the right hip by a Chinese machine gunner and ended up limping around on a painful right leg to this day. I am sure others noticed a change in my physical condition. I hope they didn't notice any change in my mental condition.
I think the United States did the right thing about Korea. Communism was by then becoming a serious threat to our way of life here as the influence spread. The 38th parallel was an artificial boundary, drawn conveniently and with good reason. It was easy to locate map-wise. But to defeat the enemy, it was the proper goal to keep going. As it turned out, the Chinese intervention was too massive for that to be possible.
Regarding United Nations or United States mistakes, mistakes are common in warfare. Decisions must be made quickly and often without adequate knowledge of the entire situation. You can't say, "Hold on a minute. Let's chat about this a bit." An alternative could have been to hold off, re-institute the draft, build up massive armed forces and have World War II. I do not think we were ready for that so soon after World War II. I think that the good coming out of the Korean War was that we did the best we could under the circumstances. Our intentions were good but we were still recovering from World War II, spiritually and financially.
Who knows what would happen if we did not have troops stationed in Korea now? One can envision another invasion which would quickly wipe out South Korea and who knows what else. Let's keep troops there until it is actually known that it won't happen.
Lots of people want to forget the "forgotten" war--too small, unimportant, etc., etc. Who cares? People with any sense, even if they were not involved, know that no war is forgotten. Who invented that term--some idiot? I think the Korean War's place in American history belongs somewhere below World War II, World War I, the Civil War and the Revolutionary War--on an even keel with the Vietnam War and the present mess in the Middle East, and somewhat above the many conflicts with American Indians and the Hispanics. Those were scattered and more a part of civilization than organized warfare. World War II was a popular war but Korea was questionable. I think many people feel we should have found a way to avoid service in Korea, as many guys did, but patriotism kicked in for most of us.
To describe my time in Korea in a nutshell: miserable, sad, determined to accomplish mission, partially satisfied with accomplishments, disgusted with myself for stupidity and failures. I have told my Korean stories to many people (we have no children) through many conversations and through my "Collection of Life's Experiences" booklet which has gone to about 100 families. I have no reason to not tell them to anyone.
My time in Korea was very short before being wounded, so I didn't get to know anybody well. I have found a few names in military magazines and correspond with them. They remember some of the incidents we shared, but didn't seem to remember me. (Everybody looks pretty much like everybody else when clad in helmets and uniforms. Voices, sizes, and rank insignia differ, but not grimy faces. My closest association with a Korean War vet has been with an occupational therapist, Lt. Janet MacDonald, who treated me at Walter Reed Army Hospital.
Service in the army shaped my life in many ways. Non-military types consider us to be either heroic or stupid, depending on their own attitudes. Back in civilian life, it doesn't take long to tell which is which. Those who could not serve, for whatever reason, were sympathetic. Those who avoided serving for whatever reasons, were, I believe, secretly ashamed but outwardly wanted to appear more intelligent.
After military service, I joined the following groups: Panther Veterans Organization (66th Infantry Division), The Old Guard (3rd Infantry Regiment) Association, and the 1st Cavalry Division Association. I joined mainly to seek out old friendships and hear the tales of others. Our local World War II-Korean War-Vietnam War Vets group meets monthly, with speakers from all over this part of the USA.
Better get myself together; clock is movin' on.
Check my weapon. Say a prayer. Tell Sergeant Buck I'm gone.
Loose the barbed-wire strands, sneak through, hook 'em up again.
Time to take my hour's watch at Outpost Charlie Ten.
Skirt the booby traps, creep down to where the foxhole's dug.
Whistle soft so Swede can hear, give his sleeve a tug.
"Any sign of Chinks?" I ask. He whispers softly "Nope."
Grabs his gun and bandoliers and squirms back up the slope.
Ease myself down in the hole, adjust the bipod stand.
Get my Browning pointed north, ammo close at hand.
Lay a couple hand grenades behind the foxhole bank,
Pins pulled half-way out to make 'em easier to yank.
Press the muted walkie-talkie up against my ear;
Helmet cocked aside to snug it close enough to hear.
Eerie accents comin' through from off tomorrow's hill;
Sing-song nasal Asian babble haunts October's chill.
Muscles tat as bow-gun strings, nerves stretched banjo-tight
Sense Oriental strategies unfolding in the night.
God! Was that a bulge blast? Or just my tortured brain,
Playing evil tricks instilled by fear's unholy strain?
Ease up, stupid! Calm yourself. Brrr! It's getting' cold!
Better stay awake. Keep dreams of Ella's kiss on hold.
Sputter! Crackle! Whispered message: Outpost Seven there.
"Chinks are comin' through the paddy! Send us up a flare!"
Thunk! Pop! A drifting beacon. Shadows stalk the world.
Burst of fire! A scream! Then silence. Dark once more unfurled.
More babble from the radio. Better keep it low.
Been here seven minutes. Jesus! Fifty-three to go.
The night wears on, so slow; so fast!
I pray for dawn yet loath the light.
The light which makes things real at last
But brings again the dreaded fight.
Faint groping sounds of friend and foe,
Which haunt the darkness, slowly yield
From guessing games to "Here we go!"
As dawn-light sweeps the battle field.
The plans, as ever, disappear
Within the cloud of mortar dust,
Of screaming shells and mounting fear.
But on we go, as go we must.
We slog through stench-fouled paddy muck;
Who cares? Can putrifaction kill?
Then sprint across the fetid brook
And start the climb to storm Hell's Hill.
And all the while the bullets fly.
Our comrades fall and medics bend,
Heedless they themselves may die;
Their mission: Others' lives to tend.
Up and up the scabrous crown
We scratch and claw 'til near the crest,
Grenades with alien shapes rain down.
The bunkered foe has stemmed our quest!
We, who by fortune's random hand
Have slipped between destruction's schemes,
Now falter, turn about, descend.
How much like yesterday this seems!
Tonight: Count heads, re-arm, dig deep,
Assign new frightened, untried men.
Make plans. Pass orders. Pray for sleep.
Tomorrow: Up Hell's Hill again!
Nobody cares if I'm bitter,
Nobody cares if I'm low.
To the hats with the brass
I'm a name on a pass
A serial number, a Joe.
Nobody cares if I'm desperate,
Nobody cares if I'm sunk.
But the gist of it all
Makes me happy withall
Because nobody cares if I'm drunk.
Although I am no ball of fire,
Dear Sir, you do a poem inspire.
And since I have no news for youse
It just presents my private views.
No profounder thoughts you'll find
Than questions weighing on my mind.
Such as, are you still a power
Under General Eisenhower?
Or perchance, Sir, did you go
To feature in MacArthur's show,
where you are performing for us
In the front row of his chorus?
Now: how's your undies holding out,
And have your toes begun to sprout
Through the holes in all your socks
From too much walking on the docks?
Has your chow become much better?
How's your puppy Henrietta?
Or, in far more cheerful vein,
Are you on the bounding main,
With your pockets full of pay
Heading for the U.S.A.?
If unmolested you would live,
These, and other answers, give.
Has there ever been anyone, of any age, of any era, or any background, social strata or religion, who has not openly or privately expressed disdain for people of other races? Some may claim complete lack of prejudice. Some may have stretched out their innocence at birth into their early years, but who among us has been able to fend off for a lifetime the pressures leading to prejudicial thoughts and actions of their own? Such a person would truly be a saint!
As a white male, and being guilty of prejudice against blacks, I'd like to examine the reasons, be they real or perceived, and try to decide in each case if it was justified. Does it extend only to certain individuals, or to the race as a whole? It's tough to draw a line.
I think I became aware of racial differences when our family moved from an all-white area of Washington, D.C. to a row-house in Georgetown. Our house had a back yard which abutted the back yard of a row house on the next street. An invisible black-white line ran along the seven foot wooden fences stretching through our block and several adjoining blocks to the north and south, interrupted only by cross streets.
My father's parents had owned slaves in southern Maryland. His attitude toward colored people was formed early: tolerant but distant. Mother grew up in Colorado, where Mexicans were the dominant minority. She treated them fairly, I think, but not as equals. In Georgetown, she was ambivalent about how to regard colored people, but seemed to avoid being affected by the prevailing anti-negro feelings of our neighbors. Basically, I think our family was prejudiced, but tried not to be.
Here are some incidents which caused, or, conversely, eased my prejudice against blacks:
So where does this leave things? My view, at 80, after this exercise-search for true feelings, is that my prejudice against black people has been based not on their being black, but on the unpleasant episodes involving blacks. However, wouldn't those episodes have been just as unpleasant had they been with whites? Or with any other race? And haven't I been in as many such episodes with non-blacks as with blacks? Prejudice starts early and doesn't go away on its own. It takes work, and I hope this has helped me move along that path. - Pete Wood, September 2003
How does one qualify to be called Christian? Are there specific rules or guidelines? Is being born to a Christian family and ushered through the various rituals from birth to christening to confirmation enough to make the grade? If your parents and siblings, your close friends, ministers, and people of other faiths assume you are a Christian, does that make it so? Would Jesus have called you a Christian? Or does being Christian merely describe the way you try to live your life?
I was born into a Christian family in the early 1920s. Both of my parents were descendants of English citizens, were life-long Episcopalians, and faithful attendees of and contributors to our neighborhood church. I was christened in that church, attended services, went to Sunday School (sometimes), sang in the choir, and even did a stint as altar boy at communion services.
I considered our long-time pastor, the Reverend Tucker, to be just one step down from God, but I think my main fascination with church was the music. Participating in the harmonies and rhythms of our all-male choir kept me coming back more than anything else. Discipline imposed by adult choir members during rehearsals and services also kept us kids pretty much in line. I accepted the rituals, prayers, and sermons as part of being a church member and for a while, believed almost every word.
Later on, by 15 or so, I began to find the Bible stories contradictory and hard to understand, let alone believe. Did those old men for whom the books of the Bible were named really know what they were talking about, or was it from hearsay, or of their own invention? I suspect that this is not an unusual shift in teenagers' religious feelings when so many changes, mental and physical, are taking place within them. In high school and college, my church attendance dropped off. I went occasionally to please my parents and, perhaps, to ease my own conscience. Other activities became more important.
Throughout those years, I made friends of many denominations but didn't seem to have much serious contact with people of other religions. Our few Jewish classmates and neighbors were thought to be somewhat different from us, and were seldom embraced as friends. The reasons for this were not clear. However, I could sense a feeling in our family and among our friends, and, on occasion, I shared the feeling of contempt for Jews as people, but not necessarily because of their religion.
Looking back, contempt is probably too strong a word to describe the feeling. Dislike, perhaps, pushed along by an unrecognized envy of their industriousness and often superior grades in school, may be the better word. In literature, including stories studied in school, Jews were often portrayed as greedy money-lenders and merchants, or sly, devious people plotting an edge over fellow workers. Movies conveyed a similar image, and even though they were seldom identified as Jews, we "knew." I believe that religious differences had then, and have now, very little to do with my feelings toward Jews. But there is still a degree of unease and discomfort in our relationships, socially and otherwise.
The word "Islam" was not commonly used during our youth. We read in Kipling's books, and in other tales about Eastern lands, of Mohammadens, Moslems (Mussulmen), Minarets and Infidels. The Crusades and other conflicts between Christians and Moslems were real, but came to us through novels and movies as exciting and heroic, although also costly and accomplishing little in terms of Christian mission. Islam, in today's climate of in-depth and politicized media coverage, is presented as either a noble but highly-persecuted faith or a cruel, oppressive, and vindictive one. Which is it? Or is it a little of each? I don't think we really know.
The numerous oriental religions seem remote and don't seem to be brought here so overtly by immigrants. While these faiths are certainly present, they are more in evidence to us as cultural than political or missionary forces. My brief stays in Korea during the war and in a recent "return to" visit revealed no evidence of emphasis on religion other than the elaborate Buddhist temples and historical structures.
Christianity is pretty much accepted as the norm in America, so there are some non-religious advantages to being Christian. Not having to identify oneself as being something else to new acquaintances is a plus. Not being automatically considered a physical or ideological threat by suspicious neighbors or co-workers is another. I'm sure there are many more.
In the Army during the 1940s and 50s, our dog tags were stamped with a P (Protestant), a C (Catholic), or an H (Hebrew). I'm sure the official reason was to assure that a Chaplain of a man's faith could be summoned in the event of serious illness, wounds, or death. The knowledge of a man's faith (I must confess to guilt here) was also used for personal reasons in matters or promotions and duty assignments. I don't recall having been required to attend any services except occasional non-denominational ones in the field to pray for safety in a coming battle, or to commemorate a successful or a costly outcome.
Later, as an engineer in the construction field, I often wondered about the demand for costly, towering, ornate and often under-utilized church buildings. Are they to impress prospective members? Or prospective clergy? Are they to enhance the religious experience? Or couldn't the money given by parish members be put toward more vital purposes? These same questions could be posed about the structures erected by other faiths. Many successful congregations, large and small, manage well with modest and easier-to-maintain facilities and probably, deep down, enjoy the rewards of their religious activities more.
Some churches share their buildings with congregations of another faith either as temporary accommodation to a new or relocating congregation or on a permanent basis, where days or hours of worship and other uses don't conflict. Owning, operating, and maintaining a religious building is a business matter as it is with all complex buildings, and any variations in seasonal programming can lead to inconveniences that congregations may not understand. Our own Presbyterian leadership solved most of those problems by jointly financing an attached worship facility for the Jewish congregation, which had shared our building for many years. This also helped separate the different religious atmospheres desired by the two faiths. Symbols and decorations could remain in place in the two Halls of Worship.
Looking back for reasons for the lessening of my faith, I can identify only a few. Being attracted to another religion, I'm sure now, was not one of them. Lacking inspiration to participate in church activities was probably the main reason. I had dropped out of the church choir when my voice range got beyond alto and rehearsals interfered with high school cadet drill.
Things changed abruptly when I married. My wife Ella was an active Baptist, which put us pretty much at opposite ends of the denominational scale. Our wedding ceremony was performed jointly by her Baptist minister and my Episcopalian minister in my church. I think we were both surprised it could happen that way. Ella had to put up with a thorough indoctrination by my minister before we would agree to the arrangement. It all settled out a year or so later when we were accepted by a Presbyterian congregation near our new home. The compromise was accomplished with a short schooling in beliefs and practices, which demonstrated, among other things, why the name "Presbyterian" was given to a cocktail made with half-sweet and half-dry vermouth.
Ella soon became active in church affairs, especially with the children's programs. I was drafted to help make decorations and gadgets for her Sunday School lessons and rearrange classroom furniture to suit various situations. I felt useful, and learned to appreciate the good things done by church members and staffs. Ella and I discussed religion from time to time and I discovered that Ella shares some of my doubts about the Bible. I also found out that she loves the Bible stories and loves teaching them to children, and can extract good lessons from them and impress them on young minds. Many of the kids, as they mature, seek her out to thank her for those earlier lessons.
My revived interest in stories of Jesus and his good works convince me that he was a wonderful person, and taught his followers the right ways to conduct their lives. Because of that, I am secure in the feeling that the principles of Christianity, in spite of the actions of the few who misuse them, hold a key to a better world. Were I to become more familiar with other faiths, perhaps I could equate them, but, conversely, I may find the opposite, so I'll be content with what I have. I hope this is sufficient qualification to be considered a Christian. - Pete Wood, December 2003
|Back to "Memoirs" Index page||back to top|
© 2002-2012 Korean War Educator. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use of material is prohibited.