Friday, April 30, 2010

From the Pages - War Stories of the Infantry

From the muddy trenches of France in World War I to the arid landscape of Iraq, American infantrymen have always represented the unsung heroes of our armed forces -- those who do the lion's share of fighting and dying for their country while protecting the freedoms and liberties that many take for granted.

In the following exclusive excerpt from War Stories of the Infantry Jack Clifton Burkett describes his experiences as a Private in the U.S. Marine Corps during the the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War.
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When I arrived in Korea (the Inchon landing on September 15, 1950), I was a member of Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines. The weapons company was attached to George Company. Once we got to Inchon, we spent several hours watching the strafing and the bombing of the invasion area from the deck of the ship. We were briefed on what was going to take place just up ahead. The naval ships in the area all had big guns. I do not know if any were battleships; most of them were probably cruisers and destroyers. There were a lot of landing ships in the area. My rough estimate is that there were at least a hundred ships near the harbor. It was an awesome display of firepower as we watched the shelling of the hills surrounding Inchon. We could hear the explosions of the large naval guns and the strafing of the fighter planes. I saw many of those fighter planes strafing the hills. Many were also carrying bombs.

After the capture of Seoul, we thought it was just a matter of time before we could go home. We moved into North Korea and had their army in full retreat. We took many prisoners. By this time, they were surrendering en masse. Most of the prisoners I saw were very frightened and quiet. I do not personally recall any that were belligerent, but I heard that some were. On occasion, I had to take some of them back to the rear, where they were being held. I remember one group in which one of them was so badly injured that he could hardly walk. I directed several of them to carry him. Even though this was the enemy, I saw no reason to be inhumane.

While north of Seoul, we received orders to return to Inchon. We had no casualties during this return. We rested at Inchon before leaving by ship for a port city on the east coast of Korea to make an amphibious landing at Wonsan. The enemy was retreating so rapidly that the town was under United Nations control by then.

The trip from Inchon to Wonsan, North Korea, took approximately a week, I think. I believe it was a Japanese boat that the United Nations leased from Japan for that purpose. I do not recall the name. (I do not believe I ever knew.) It was not a fancy troop ship by any means. I believe we heard that it was a large fishing boat. The crew all spoke Japanese, so we were not able to understand them.

Since this was to be a large-scale invasion, there were many ships in the convoy. The fact that there were not enough U.S. Navy ships available indicates that there were any ships there.

When we finally landed on October 26, 1950, we walked ashore without opposition. Other units (I think they were Republic of Korea, or ROK, troops) had secured the area before we got there. The North Koreans were in full retreat. Our unit did not go directly to the reservoir area. We first moved from the Wonsan area to a place called Majon-ni. This was a strategic location for preventing the enemy’s retreat north. We took many prisoners while in this area. Most of the enemy soldiers surrendered willingly, but we did have to fight off several attacks. I was up in the hills, where we were holding the high ground, therefore I was not close enough to observe the attitude of these enemy soldiers, who were basically rounded up on the road. I doubt if many were belligerent. They had been completely routed at this point and were pretty much on their own in their attempts to escape our entrapment. The prisoners were taken to the rear by other Marines than those in our units. I believe the military police handled this job in general.

On November 10, 1950, I was somewhere south of the Chosin Reservoir and still with Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines. I am not certain of the location, however, I remember that we had an excellent hot meal. I believe we also had a birthday cake, since it was the Marine Corps’ birthday.

From Majon-ni we went to Koto-ri and then on to Hagaru. The 5th and 7th Marine Regiments were further north of us, having reached Koto-ri (which was about thirteen miles north of us) before we got there. It seemed like those in command (including MacArthur) refused to believe the Chinese would enter the war. We did not get the word that the Chinese had attacked the 5th and 7th Marines until about the time we left Koto-ri to move to Hagaru to reinforce the units there.

It was considered probable that Chinese troops were in the area, but we became certain of it when we were attacked. While moving north from Koto-ri to Hagaru, our column was ambushed by the Chinese. This battle became appropriately known as “Hellfire Valley,” but the official name of this battle was Operation Drysdale, after the commanding officer, a British Royal Marine colonel. The Royal Marines were attached to George Company and suffered many casualties at Hellfire Valley. They were an outstanding unit and fought with considerable valor. They were always neat and well dressed compared to the Marines, who were not. This is the only unit of another nationality that I was alongside in Korea.

We were able to keep moving toward Hagaru with the tanks leading the way. I remember it was late at night when we reached the roadblock at Hagaru. I could look back and see the destruction that was being inflicted on most of the column behind me. Many of the trucks were burning, and ammunition in them was exploding. Most of our equipment and vehicles were destroyed.

We reached Hagaru on November 29, 1950. Once we reached it, we were placed on the perimeter surrounding it. I was in the foxhole close to the road leading to Yudam-ni. Hagaru was in a valley surrounded by high ground. We were dug in near the southern tip of the Chosin Reservoir. We could see the engineers attempting to build an airstrip. They worked day and night using floodlights at night. This made them especially vulnerable to enemy small-arms fire. Because of the airstrip the engineers managed to scrape out of the frozen ground, we were able to evacuate many wounded by air. I do not recall if any dead were evacuated by air.

Hagaru appeared to be an especially desolate village. The cold winter weather made it appear even bleaker. We could only escape the wind by huddling up in the corner of a foxhole. We were under attack at various positions along the perimeter almost every night after reaching Hagaru. On several occasions, they broke through our defenses and into the village. The company suffered the most casualties attempting to take and retain a hill to the east appropriately called East Hill. It was a steep hill that made climbing up a difficult chore due to the mud and snow. This was, of course, even more so when the enemy was firing at us. It was crucial that we control this hill. If not, we [would] lose Hagaru, as well as the 5th and 7th Regiments attempting to retreat to Hagaru from Yudam-ni. (The regiments at Yudam-ni were involved in hand-to-hand combat.)

East Hill was strategically located because, by controlling it, the Chinese could fire on and harass the people in the Hagaru perimeter. If we had not controlled it, we probably would have lost Hagaru to the enemy. This would probably have resulted in the loss of the entire division, because the 5th and 7th Marines were still fighting their way out of Yudam-ni, and it was crucial that they be able to reach Hagaru to reorganize.

Even as much as we hated these enemy soldiers, one had to admire their courage. They kept moving forward toward our defenses even into almost certain death. I assume, however, that they would have been killed by their leaders if they had not. Their method of fighting was almost exclusively to sneak or crawl up to our lines in the dark and hope to overrun us in the confusion. They felt that this would terrorize us [because we would not know] where they were or in what number. They were willing to sacrifice untold numbers in order to make this method of fighting successful.

When we retreated from Hagaru, we passed the burned-out vehicles and many bodies of dead Marines. One Marine I knew well was a Jeep driver for one of the officers. He was sitting up in the driver’s seat just where the Jeep stopped after he was shot. He looked like he had just pulled over to the side to rest. His body was frozen solid. One of the trucks carried mail. Our letters were strung out all over the area. I wondered if any of those letters were mine.

We could only control the road by controlling the ridges running parallel to the road. We had to leapfrog from one ridge to the next. We would hold a ridge until the column cleared, then move forward to the front. The Chinese toppled any structures they could by dynamiting them so that they would fall across the narrow and only road. For the most part, they stayed off the road and fired at us from high positions above the road. They attacked those on the ridges at night. The ridges running parallel to the road were steep and slippery. It was a tremendous burden to climb them. It was even a great burden just to walk under the weather conditions that existed. This was made even worse by the ammo and other equipment that we had to pull up with us. All of this occurred while the enemy was shooting at us. Snipers were always a threat. I recall walking behind a Marine who was much taller than me and was presumably taken for an officer. He fell dead from a sniper’s bullet, and I fell over his body.

I was in Korea from October to the following May. I did not see much of the summer heat. January and February were cold, but nothing like it was in the Chosin Reservoir. There, the weather was miserable, but we were too cold to expound on the temperature. We were just as miserable at minus twenty as at minus thirty. The wind seemed to cut right through our seven to eight layers of clothing. We had a high percentage of frostbite. The ground was covered with snow, but it did not snow all the time. It was fairly worn down in most places, but certainly deep on the surrounding hills. We had to eat the snow in order to get water, since all of our canteens or water containers were frozen solid.

I do not even recall having a cold while I was in Korea, in spite of the weather conditions. In the Chosin Reservoir we wore several layers of clothes. Starting from the inside we had thermal underwear, next a wool shirt, next a dungaree jacket, next a wool sweater (this created an air space which held body heat), next a field jacket, and finally, a hooded parka. We had thick mittens with a single trigger finger. We wore shoepacks that did not do the job. First, they caused the feet to sweat and then freeze. It was critical to keep the feet dry to avoid frostbite. I had four or five extra pair of socks between the layers of my clothing. Every chance I had, I changed to a dry pair. I believe this kept me from getting frostbite. In spite of this, it was still miserably cold in the twenty to thirty degrees below zero weather we faced in Chosin. Some people got to spend some time in tents with stoves, but I never had that opportunity.

The M1 rifles and especially the carbines froze up on occasion. Many of us tried to find single-shot rifles rather than trust the semiautomatic ones. The canned rations were frozen solid because it got down to thirty degrees below zero. When we could, we all had to chop the ration cans open with a bayonet, chip off a block, and put it in our mouth until it thawed out. The same applied to water. Obviously all of our canteens were frozen solid. [We could] . . . eat snow to get water or do without. The one food that was most available was the Tootsie Roll. We had our pockets filed with them. We could bite off a part of one and hold it in our mouth until it thawed out. The biggest problem was eliminating or urinating. It was impossible to do so without working through seven or eight layers of clothing and then risking the possibility of frostbite or freezing. Any vehicles that were not kept running continuously would not start. In the event that happened, they were pushed to the side so that they would not hold up the rest of the column. Most were destroyed so that the enemy could not use them.

The spirits of the Marines were low. We knew that there was a chance that we would never be able to break through the numerically superior Chinese forces. If one was lucky enough to avoid frostbite on the nose or the feet or hands by keeping active, the biggest effect of the cold was becoming lethargic and sluggish. It was a burden to just move. I began to doubt that I would ever escape alive. I even envied those wounded that were being flown out to a warm hospital environment.

The weather affected air support, because if the pilots could not see the enemy, they could not support us. There were many days when this was the case. Air support was one of the main reasons we were able to escape the entrapment. If the enemy had had the type of air support we had, we likely would not have made it. We received airdrops of ammunition, rations, and medical supplies. They were life saving. Some landed outside of our perimeter and fell into enemy hands, some were damaged in the drop, and sometimes a parachute would not open. But those supplies we managed to receive were mostly usable.

The best way for me to describe my own personal experience in the withdrawal from Chosin is to describe a particular night that stands out in my memory. We were moving south out of Hagaru, and I was sent up to the top of a hill along with fifty or so other Marines. Our units were in no particular place by now, and many were from different platoons or companies. The officers just grabbed whoever was available. We reached the top with about an hour or so of daylight still left. We formed a line along the top of the ridge with a machine gun on our right flank. There was a natural depression in the earth there. It was an ideal place for the machine gun.

We could not dig into the frozen earth and therefore had little protection from enemy fire. It was so cold there that it felt like our bones were going to crack like an icicle. The cold Siberian wind blew right into our faces. I knew we were going to be under heavy attack in a few hours. This hill was strategic, because if we lost it, the enemy could fire directly down onto the convoy on the road below. I was so hungry my stomach ached, but I could not eat since the food was frozen and also because of my fear of dying. I had not slept in several days but could not sleep for thinking about what lay ahead. It was truly one of the most miserable days of my life. As I lay there that night amidst all those miseries, I thought to myself that maybe dying would not be that bad. At least the misery would be over. But then I could see the pain that this would cause my mother. I was twenty years old and too young to die.

Shortly before midnight, I heard voices in Chinese. One of the words I heard sounded like “chongin.” I have no idea what it means in Chinese or even if I am correct in the sound I thought I heard, but I will always remember it as that. I began firing in the direction of the voices. Soon all hell broke loose. We were all firing into the darkness where we thought the enemy was. Then the machine gun on the flank opened up. That machine gun never stopped firing until dawn. I kept praying that the barrel would not burn up. The ammo carriers spent the entire night hauling ammo up to that gun. It was located such that it could cover the entire rise at almost 90 degrees. I could hear enemy bullets striking the ground all around me and the cries of Marines on both sides that were hit. It was the longest night of my life. There were many times when I felt in danger in Korea, but I felt in the most personal danger that night. None of us were sure we would ever get out alive, but we held together and defended that ridge.

The cold weather helped us in the sense that had the Chinese rushed our lightly manned positions when we first opened fire on them, they could have easily overrun us. However, they were as cold as we were, and they were likely unable to move fast enough to charge us. I lay there firing into the darkness for at least six hours. All this time the machine gunner continued to sweep back and forth across the rise that they were crawling up. Several of his assistant gunners were killed, as were several ammo carriers. Nevertheless, in spite of the enemy fire being primarily directed at him, he was never hit.

Dawn was a beautiful sight because the Chinese always began to withdraw when it began getting light enough for us to see them. I let out a sigh of relief, feeling that I had survived another day in that hell. As it became light enough to see the enemy casualties, the view was awesome. I had never seen that many dead in one place. I doubt if many people have. The count of the dead bodies was way up in the hundreds, my guess being at least five hundred. We had that machine gun and its gunner to thank for our lives.

I have no idea what hill we were on, and I have never since talked to any other Marine that was there. I have never heard what the official count of enemy dead was, but that machine gunner must certainly have been among the top in enemy kills in the Korean War. The only thing I can remember for certain was that his name was Whitehead and he was from Louisiana. I always wanted the chance to thank him for my life, but never saw or heard from him since. There were many heroes in the Korean War, many of whom were never recognized. Private Whitehead was one of them.

An hour or so after the sun came up, we ventured out to see if there were any living Chinese. I could only see frozen bodies. On one of them nearest to me, and therefore one I could have killed since he was closest to my position, I saw a pocket watch. I took it from his body for a souvenir, and I still have it today. It has a Chinese inscription inside the front cover. Someday I intend to have it interpreted.

After we arrived safely in Hungnam, and when I had the chance to reflect on what I had just been through, I was sad and depressed to think of all the Marines that were killed in the Chosin Reservoir. I wondered why in the hell we were in this godforsaken land in the first place. I was also unhappy with the thought that we had been driven back by the enemy. At that time, I would never have believed that this could happen to Marines.

The following excerpt was taken from War Stories of the Infantry: Americans in Combat, 1918 to Today by Michael Green and James D. Brown. For other "War Stories" books from Zenith Press, visit

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