Letters from Korea

“The following article is, for the most part, an excerpt from Bob Hall’s Korean war memoir entitled ‘Letters from Korea,’ which was based on letters he wrote home to his family. Additional articles are scheduled to appear from time to time highlighting other memorable life-time experiences.”

Nov. 2, 2016

Dear Editor:

I had no inkling of what lay before me when I enlisted in the Marine Corps inactive reserve in Red square on the UW campus in the spring of 1950. I was about to receive a B.A. in Education. The world was at peace and the future looked bright indeed.

That summer I went back to Orcas Island in the San Juans to earn a few dollars to supplement my G.I. bill stipend and complete the fifth year required to earn my secondary certificate.

Within a few weeks the world was shocked to learn that 80,000 well-trained North Korean troops, following dozens of heavy Russian T-34 tanks, had crossed the 38th parallel and within days captured Seoul, the South Korean capital. Brushing aside a few ill-trained and poorly equipped South Korean troops and a few American occupation troops from Japan, the North Koreans soon occupied most of South Korea.

Without hesitation, President Truman decided to defend South Korea, and the UN Security Council, in the absence of the Soviet representative, called on its members to join the Americans. We inactive reserves received our presidential greetings, often before the active reserves, and soon joined other Americans being funneled to the Far East.

Soon the struggle for the Pusan perimeter, the Inchon landing, and the intervention of hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops hiding in the frozen hills in North Korea would be history. So would the “bugout” of UN troops in western North Korea. In the even colder mountains of eastern North Korea. just past the frozen Chosin reservoir, the men of the First Marine division suddenly found themselves surrounded by about 100,000 Chinese troops. Chairman Mao was gleefully anticipating the imminent demise of the hated Marine division, but his plans were thwarted when the Marines fought their way out of the trap, and under constant attack made their way down a narrow, sinuous mountain road all the way to the port of Hungnam, from which they were evacuated, along with 80,000 other troops and North Korean civilians, by the U.S. Navy.

The survivors of the First Marine division had just arrived at Masan in South Korea when I joined them in on January 1, 1951, about six months after the North Koreans launched their invasion. I found myself in Ammo company, 1st Ordnance battalion. At 26 years of age, I was one of the “old men” of the unit. I was handed a book on ammunition and asked to memorize as much as I could before the division returned to action. All around us were visible reminders of recent North Korean activity.

In March the division returned to the front at Wonju, well south of the 38th parallel. Our job was to follow the division as it advanced against the Chinese and North Koreans by setting up ASPs (ammunition supply points, or dumps.) Some of these were small and others more elaborate, perhaps acres in size. The job of my section of company headquarters was to maintain an up-to-date inventory of supplies and submit a daily report to division headquarters. Occasionally we were near the headquarters, but often several miles in the rear. In the latter case we had to make the trip in a jeep, one of us riding shotgun, through what amounted to a kind of no man’s land where there was a possibility of guerrilla activity. But there was hardly a safer place in Korea than behind the Marine division.

Eventually we reached Chunchon, once a thriving city north of the parallel. Now it was mostly in ruins, with only a few civilians living among the rubble. This was as far north as I would ever go. We built up a large, well laid-out dump replete with ammo consisting of projectiles for 105 and 155 mm howitzers, 90 mm tank guns (including high explosive and white phosphorous), hand grenades, bangalore torpedoes, etc..

We were surprised one day to learn that the South Korean 6th “Blue Star” division had collapsed during a Chinese attack and bolted to the rear, abandoning their weapons. This meant that our left flank was exposed, necessitating a retrograde movement on our part. There was a shortage of Marine trucks to move the dump south so the dump was wired for possible demolition. Fortunately, several convoys of army trucks arrived at the last moment (bless them) and we were able to save the ammunition.

I will never forget the night we left Chunchon on the journey south. Huge army mobile vehicles labeled “Red Devils” with 240 mm guns, as I recall, were firing toward enemy positions. Six of us piled into the open truck bed of a Marine truck. Up front behind the cab sat the sergeant major in a cane chair looking for all the world like a reigning monarch. As we headed for Hongchon, what remained of Chunchon was in flames, our version of a scorched earth policy. We were just one truck in a long convoy.

We had had little sleep in the last 48 hours and we hoped to make up for it on the way south, but the narrow road was muddy and it was hardly a smooth ride. We were partially in our sleeping bags and dozed intermittently. Once I looked out to see Korean soldiers and then civilians lining the road. We passed a sleeping army camp, the whole area bathed in an eerie green light from two huge search lights, the light reflected from low-hanging clouds. I read later that it was a common practice to discourage the Chinese from making their frequent night attacks.

I had just about drifted off to sleep again when I felt the truck drifting off to the right side of the road. Suddenly I was weightless, followed by a hard landing on the ground. I heard the edge of the truck bed hit the ground nearby with a thud. Then all was silent. I made my way carefully down the side of the ravine to learn the fate of my companions. My memory of subsequent events is somewhat hazy. Our young, red-haired sergeant lay near the truck and we fashioned a stretcher out of some rifles and a blanket and carried him up to an ambulance that had suddenly materialized out of the gloom. At the ambulance a corpsman ordered me into the back though I saw no need for it. I did want to follow my fellow workers and report back to my unit on their conditions.

When we arrived at the hospital tent I was ushered inside where a doctor examined me, expecting to find serious injuries because the entire front of my field jacket was covered with blood. I had had a nosebleed from hitting the ground when the truck tipped over and was completely unaware of it. I complained that I did not need hospitalization, but the doctor said that all of us looked exhausted and could use some rest. I received two “shots” on my hip and spent two and a half days in that facility.

I felt out of place to be among men who presumably had been injured in battle. Yet I felt honored as well. We rear echelon men had enormous respect for the front-line troops who did the actual fighting. They sometimes used derogatory terms to describe us, but we didn’t take them seriously. I am reminded of two Marines, who represent those men who dodged the bullets and shrapnel: Mike Ladich, a former colleague at F.H.S., who was awarded a Silver Star on Iwo Jima; and Vern DePew, a former student, who lost his life in Vietnam.

After a brief stay in casual company at division headquarters, I returned to my unit, where I received a warm welcome. I heard that two of our men were evacuated to Japan and three others to Pusan. Only two or three returned and we were short-handed for a while. I soon made sergeant and took charge of the section. I worked directly with a first lieutenant, regardless of protocol, and we became good friends, even exchanging e-mails after we returned home until one day his son reported that he had passed a way in Virginia.

I had lost my rifle and cot during the accident, but a sergeant had assured me they would be returned to me. Bad advice. Furthermore, I learned later that some of the truck’s tires and the carburetor had turned up missing along with a tent and some more of our gear. I never learned who the culprits were, but the army would confirm that the Marines included some of the most proficient scroungers on earth.”