Editor’s Note: The following article is based for the most part on Bob Hall’s memoir, “Letters from Korea.”
In late March, 1951, we were south of the village of Hoengsong, not far from a pass where a massacre of the army’s Second Division was engineered by Chinese during their so-called spring offensive. An enemy plane occasionally flew over at night but any damage that resulted was minimal.
We had created A.S.P. (ammo dump) No.4, as I recall. General MacArthur and his entourage had passed by at quite a distance, a helicopter hovering overhead to furnish security. I had zeroed on him with my baby Brownie and the result was a photo in which I could barely make him out. Our own General O.P. Smith and Mac had locked horns in the past and neither MacArthur nor his assistant, Lieut. General Almond, was held in high regard.
On the ship to Korea President Truman was widely disparaged as well.
One morning a Korean woman with a child strapped to her back strolled past our tents.
The baby, for some reason, was wailing almost as if in pain, possibly because he was hungry, though he appeared quite healthy. Some thought the woman deranged, but others preferred a more rational explanation: her ROK (Republic of Korea) husband had been killed somewhere in the area and she was looking for his remains.
Our warrant officer reported having seen her several miles away a few days earlier.
One of the men took a few candy bars out for the baby, but his mother only increased her speed. Nevertheless, the baby managed to grab some of the candy and that pacified him, at least for the moment.
Such incidents were emblematic of the kinds of personal tragedies that were taking place on a daily basis all over Korea, especially during the months that the North Korean communists were in control.
One afternoon when activity in the dump was at a low ebb, several of us decided to go on a scouting expedition into the surrounding hills without considering the possibility of abandoned mines. When we climbed up a hill we discovered an extremely deep trench just under the crest. It had apparently been dug, or at least occupied by some Chinese.
Pamphlets and other materials with Chinese markings littered the bottom of the trench, but we did not see any ammunition. Some of us in our benighted state chose to sight in our M1s on a grave marker on a distant hill.
It never occurred to us that this might be considered desecration of a grave site. I’ve regretted it in more recent years.
With regard to those ubiquitous hills in eastern Korea, most of them were deforested during the forty years of Japanese occupation when the villagers were desperate for fuel.
I’ve read that modem Korea has undertaken a robust program of reforestation. As I studied our hill I hoped that my fellow Marines hadn’t had to ascend it with full packs in the face of enemy fire.
I was staying in a tent with a group of senior NCOs, some of whom had returned from a scrounging expedition that afternoon with several steaks. I didn’t ask where they had found them. Located on a hill north of us was a medical facility resembling the one portrayed in the TV program M.A.S.H. Helicopters clattered overhead sporadically, bearing wounded for treatment. G.I’s were strapped into coffin-like structures underneath. Not far from our tent was an area where a newly attached bomb disposal squad displayed battlefield paraphernalia that they had collected on most days. There was every imaginable type of weapon from a host of countries, including the U.S., the U.S.S.R., and even Czechoslovakia. Among the items were swords, revolvers, machine guns, knives, Bangalore torpedoes, and, ominously, hand grenades.
I had just stepped out of the tent in time to see the squad returning from the battle field. They were in a jeep pulling a trailer that held their haul for the day. They were about 100 yards across an open space from our tent. Just as I stepped back into the tent there was a tremendous explosion. I dashed out of the tent, not knowing what to expect.
I was met with a shocking scene, but I don’t recall the details to the extent that I wish I could. Too many years have transpired since that event. I remember hearing objects falling down around me. Some thought they were pieces of flesh, but I’m skeptical. They were more likely just remnants of the items that were involved in the explosion.
But I do clearly remember seeing a nude man covered in blood staggering around near the trailer.
An ambulance arrived momentarily but what followed I cannot say for sure. My belief was, and is, that someone handled a bag of hand grenades carelessly and one of them detonated and there was a chain reaction among the other explosives. Anyhow, when my companions generously offered to share a steak with me that evening, my stomach rebelled and I’m not even sure that I went to chow.
Another incident occurred about the same time involving an old couple who were trying to rescue their simple belongings from a typical mud and lattice hut whose thatch roof was on fire. I suspected arson. But after the above incident, this was anti-climactic and I don’t feel justified in taking more space for this essay.