Military history


The War on The Hills

Through the last two years of the war, for all the periodic surges of tactical activity, the ferocious struggles that cost thousands of men on both sides their lives in pursuit of hill numbers or map references, the strategic situation in Korea remained unchanged. From time to time the planners in Washington and Tokyo conceived grand initiatives for airborne drops or amphibious landings behind the enemy flank, designed dramatically to concentrate Peking’s minds upon the negotiating table. Among many parallels between Korea and the later experience of Vietnam, as Dr. Rosemary Foot has written, was “the maintenance of the assumption expressed in the 1950s that using increased force can generate concessions at the negotiating table.” The confidence of many American commanders in their ability to smash the Chinese line and reach the Yalu once more, if the leashes were slipped and the UN armies plunged all out for victory, remained a source of deep frustration. But the political realities ensured that their hopes were stillborn. The American public was weary of Korea. It was narrowly possible to sustain America’s national will for the defense of a line across the peninsula until a compromise was reached, for avoiding the concession of defeat to the Communists. But the political consequences of any action involving many thousands of casualties—as an all-out offensive must—were intolerable. There was no possibility that America’s allies would countenance any dramatic expedient. It was proving difficult enough, diplomatically, to sustain the United Nations’ support for a tough stance at Panmunjom. The possibility of a decisive outcome had vanished in the spring of 1951 when the recall of MacArthur plainly demonstrated Washington’s rejection of all-out war with China as the price of victory in Korea. The Western Powers were unhappily reconciled to the concept of Korea as a limited war, in which their highest aspiration was to demonstrate that their own will to defend the status quo ante would remain unbroken.

For many Americans at home, coming to terms with the limits of their own nation’s power was a bitter process. Yet it was much more so for hundreds of thousands of men in the bunkers and foxholes from sea to sea across the Korean peninsula. Each day they faced the prospect of death or disablement without the prospect of compensating glory or even respect at home. A British officer spoke of the unhappiness among some of his subordinates in 29 Brigade when they received letters from their wives at home describing the public indifference and ignorance about Korea. In the Second World War men were sustained by the knowledge that their entire nation, on the home front, was committed to the struggle and understood what those on the battlefield were seeking to do. The wives of men in Korea found, instead, that some neighbors inquired clumsily where their husbands were and showed surprise to be reminded that a war was still being waged in Asia. For the professionals, of course, this was less disturbing. If a British Regular soldier was not in Korea, he would be in Malaya, or on the Rhine, or in the deserts of the Middle East. A Frenchman might be in central Africa or Indochina. An American might merely be stagnating at Fort Bragg. Korea offered career soldiers opportunities for combat experience and for distinction. But for those who were conscripted, the equation was different. British National Servicemen in Korea were irked by the meager pay they received, alongside that of Regulars sharing the same risks. Death along the 38th Parallel signified the termination of an adult life before it had usefully begun. The Western nations in Korea had borrowed the lives of some thousands of their young men in a cause few of them appreciated. Yet for more than a few, the loan was transformed into permanent confiscation.

In many ways it was remarkable that the morale of the UN forces held up as well as it did, until the summer of 1953. Private James Stuhler of the U.S. 3rd Division, who later served in Vietnam, remarked that his generation of soldiers had been brought up in the “Yours Not to Reason Why” tradition: “The army in Korea was much less well-informed than the army in Vietnam. In Korea, guys on line read comic books. In Vietnam, you’d see men reading The Wall Street Journal. That later generation was better educated, much more questioning. We just got on and did it without thinking much about why we were being asked to do it. “1 Some officer veterans of both wars suggested another important contrast with Vietnam: “In Korea, there was nothing to do but fight.”

For some miles behind the front a zone had been systematically cleared of all civilians, so that the defenders could be certain that any unidentified figure was hostile. With dogged cunning, a few prostitutes periodically defied the expulsion orders to ply their trade in primitive “rabbit hutches” a few hundred yards behind the line. A sprinkling of refugees and infiltrators continued to test the vigilance of the outposts, despite the brutal risk that if they fell into South Korean hands and their bona fides was suspect, they would be shot out of hand. But for the most part, the forward area remained resolutely military territory under military discipline. There were no officers’ clubs or bars, no drugs or movies or diversions. There were only the mountain ridges, surmounted by the defenses which both sides now dug with extraordinary care and caution.

Along most of the line, the United Nations and the Chinese faced each other a mile or so apart, from foxholes and observation posts sited on the forward slopes. But these were no longer the casual scrapes of troops in constant motion across a battlefield: they were fortresses, honeycombs of bunkers and tunnels bored into earth and rock by engineers with bulldozers and pneumatic drills, roofed with steel supports and timber, surmounted by many feet of earth or sandbags. They resembled the diggings of an army of monstrous moles, the setts of a great legion of badgers. Some were surmounted by carefully emplaced tanks, providing not only direct fire support but night illumination from big searchlights mounted upon their hulls. By day the only sign of human occupation of the ridgeline was an occasional fluttering national flag, or a defiant gesture by a man recklessly exposing himself on the skyline. Most men were asleep below ground on bunks woven from planks and telephone wire, or standing watch at a BC scope whose lenses filled the narrow firing slit in front of a bunker. “You could always tell how dangerous a position was by the size of its front apertures,” said Sergeant Tom Pentony of the 5th Marines. “A big aperture meant no one was doing much shooting. A small aperture meant you were in trouble.”2 When the World War I veteran Field Marshal Lord Alexander visited Korea, he observed at once that the manner of warfare reminded him of Flanders.

It was only at night that intense, muffled activity began, with men shuffling forward in the darkness to work on improving defenses or leading patrols through the wire into no-man’s-land. Down the slope from the bunkers, a host of ingenious and intricate devices had been created and deployed to break the momentum of an assault: wire, minefields, trip flares, booby traps, and a few uniquely Korean innovations, such as barrels of napalm or white phosphorus that could be unleashed and ignited by a wire pulled from a foxhole. The slightest movement observed or imagined in no-man’s-land attracted the sudden pop and dazzling light of a flare. For no apparent reason, a sector of the front would suddenly erupt into an artillery duel that might last for weeks, with men lying in their bunkers while shells pounded overhead for four, five, six hours a day. Even the knowledge that the positions could withstand bombardment on this scale was scant comfort for the nerves of those within, or for the patience of the unit signalers, who knew that they must emerge, when it was all over, to replace every telephone wire in the area for the hundredth time of their tour.

On the reverse slopes behind the position more open movement was usually possible. Here, company headquarters were sited, with telephone wires running back to battalion, perhaps a ridgeline farther to the rear. By day files of men seemed to be toiling up and down incessantly in the Sisyphean labor of moving food, water, and ammunition from the nearest point in the valley below that a truck could reach. American or Commonwealth fatigue parties were assisted by hundreds of the inevitable “chiggies,” the Korean porters with their A-frames on their backs, whose dogged support even under fire became one of the most vivid of all foreign veterans’ memories of Korea. Most units spent between two and three months at a time “on line” before being withdrawn into reserve or to a rest camp. Even when there was little fighting it was extraordinary how great remained the strain and exhaustion of maintaining positions, standing watch, mounting patrols. There were aircraft recognition panels to be set out each day in different patterns, laundry to be gathered for the Korean “dhobie-wallahs,” physical-training sessions in most British units, and always digging, digging, and more digging. It was a modified animal existence. When there were scant facilities for washing, many men did not trouble to shave, and almost relished their shagginess. Ignoring personal risk, some of the British heated their bunkers and cooked on tins of petrol. For the men of all the UN formations in winter, life centered upon the precious space heaters that were among the vital weapons of survival. They carried a spoon on a D ring on their belts as a universal eating tool, occasionally supplemented with a bayonet. They wrote interminable letters home, detailing the tedium of their existences and the weary speculation about the end of the war. After a time they scarcely noticed the tinny bellow of the propaganda loudspeakers from the Chinese lines: “Come over, British soldier [or American, or Australian, or Turk, or whoever they might be], you are on the wrong side!” Radio operators sometimes found a Chinese voice coming up on their frequencies: “Hello, Tommy. You must be very cold. Missing your wife?” It was all very odd. But the young Private Alan Maybury was frightened on his first day in the line when he heard the Communist loudspeaker proclaim: “Welcome, 1st Battalion Durham Light Infantry!”3 The enemy did his best to create a propaganda impression of omniscience.

Amid it all there remained the ceaseless danger of a sudden Chinese attack, a night when, without warning, a wave of screaming, bugle-blowing Communist infantry would hurl themselves upon the wire, seeking to rush a position before its inhabitants could call down their devastating artillery fire support. Each platoon on each hill lived a self-contained existence, very conscious of its isolation. Few men took off their boots at night, and many slept on top of their sleeping bags rather than inside them, for fear of being surprised. The Commonwealth Division circulated repeated warnings to units about the need never to relax vigilance: “. . . Constant occupation of the same defensive positions tends to make infantry overconfident of their defensive works. Few positions will stand up to concentrated shelling, and many fire bays, weapons, and stocks of ammunition are bound to be buried during the softening-up stages of an enemy attack.” “. . . counterattack troops must be moved into assembly positions immediately there is the slightest real suspicion of an enemy attack, and must be launched BEFORE or AS the enemy penetrates the position. False alarms will be many, but this must be accepted.”4

Major John Sloane of the Argylls had formed his knowledge of Chinese soldiers in Burma, “where they were always half an hour late for the attack.” But those men had been Kuomintang. Their successors of the PLA “Volunteers” in Korea were different. Western respect for the enemy had increased immeasurably: “The Chinese infantryman is well-trained, well-equipped and efficient,” declared a Commonwealth Division report. “He is an excellent night fighter, very brave, with good morale and good at finding his way in the confusion of battle. His limitations are due to lack of equipment and communications. The Chinese are prepared to take casualties and can therefore patrol in strength. There is little doubt that the war in Korea has been fought to suit the Chinese. His limitations in communications, his lack of air support and absence of heavy equipment and vehicles would make him a very vulnerable opponent in a war of movement.”5

On the night of Sunday, November 4, 1951, the Commonwealth Division suffered a characteristic surprise Chinese attack. The 1st King’s Own Scottish Borderers were manning their positions on Hill 355, seized from the Chinese during Van Fleet’s October limited offensive. For three hours an intense bombardment rained down upon their bunkers. Then, with the usual horn and bugle accompaniment, the Chinese infantrymen stormed through what remained of their protective barbed wire. The KOSB’s mortars ran red-hot as they fired their counterbombardment, until the mortar platoon commander felt compelled to order his men to pour their precious beer ration down the tubes to cool them. Two platoons of B Company were driven from their positions. In the early hours of the morning, the company runner, a vast, slow Cheshireman named Bill Speakman, with a fearsome record of disciplinary offenses, clambered to his feet in company headquarters, stuffed his pouches, shirt, and pockets with grenades, and strode purposefully out into the darkness. “And where the hell do you think you’re going?” demanded the company sergeant major. “Going to shift some of them bloody chinks,” replied Speakman. He charged alone onto the ridge, grenading as he went, then returned for more ammunition. This time, others went with him. After repeated counterattacks through the night, at first light the KOSB’s positions were once more in British hands, at a cost of seven killed, 87 wounded, 44 missing. Four DSOs were awarded for the night’s work. Private Speakman, twice wounded, received the Victoria Cross. The story of his lonely action—and the legend of the alcoholic stimulus that played some part in it—passed into the history of the British Army. The battle? The battle was nothing, in the context of Korea—the kind of local action that units up and down the front found themselves compelled to fight at regular intervals through two years of positional war. If they won, they could pride themselves on a job well done. If they lost, the Communists had gained another hill and some other hapless unit would sooner or later have to pay the price for displacing them from it.

• • •

The UN troops were impressed by the dedication with which many Chinese soldiers would fight, and the lengths to which they would go to avoid being taken prisoner. Wounded Communists sometimes struggled to resist the attentions of British or American medical orderlies. Nor did this always appear to be the product of mindless fanaticism but of skilled indoctrination: “On the average,” concluded a British intelligence report on deserters, “the Chinese Communist soldier disposes of more information regarding commanders’ plans and intentions than would normally be available to similar ranking soldiers in non-Communist armies. Once again this is believed to be the result of the frequent political meetings, when all ranks are encouraged to discuss future operations, even to the extent of criticising commanders’ plans.”6

The familiar military routine of briefing took on a new meaning in Chinese hands. It was an article of faith among the leaders of the PLA’s “volunteers” in Korea that hours each week were devoted to before-and after-action discussions on tactics and political education. Such familiar slogans as “Aid Korea to Fight America and Defend Our Motherland,” “Love the Korean People, Love Everything in Korea” provided texts for regular harangues in a fashion not so very different from that in which verses from the Bible armed Christian padres for their sermons. It remains a measure of the success of political indoctrination that it proved so difficult for the UN forces to take prisoners, and that defectors remained few in number, despite the torrent of propaganda leaflets promising good treatment with which the UN deluged the Chinese lines.

For the Communists, life on the line was troglodyte in an even more absolute fashion than for the UN. The UN’s command of the air made it possible for its soldiers to move with relative freedom during daylight, as long as they were out of direct sight of the enemy. The Chinese had no artillery ammunition to waste upon random barrages. For Peng’s men, however, every inch of territory in the forward areas was under constant threat from the air. Camouflage became an obsession, for they knew that if the Americans observed even a single moving figure in the open, a devastating barrage of bombs or artillery would follow. The Chinese lived, until darkness fell and often beyond, in the incredible honeycomb of tunnels that they created along their front, exceeding all that mechanical ingenuity achieved on the UN side. “The tunnel became a great Chinese institution,” Hu Seng, one of Marshal Peng’s staff, said wryly. Within its confines, the men of the “Volunteers” passed their day in a mirror image of life on the UN side: listening to Peking radio, reading, playing poker, singing and dancing to music made on Chinese violins and instruments fashioned out of shell cases. Many men who went to Korea as illiterates used the opportunity lent to them by boredom to learn to read and write in the flickering candlelight beneath the mountains. Disease, in those dripping caverns, was a chronic problem. Fever thrived in summer, and men welcomed the healthier chill of winter. If they were ill, or wounded, they depended almost entirely upon traditional Chinese herbal remedies for a cure. Modern drugs were almost nonexistent. Many men, much of the time, went hungry.

The Chinese suffered almost as acutely from the sense of distance from home as the men of the UN. “Because we were fighting abroad, it was more difficult to sustain morale than during the Liberation War,” said Li Ben Wen, a regimental propaganda officer.7 Few men even possessed a photograph of their families, for cameras were a rare luxury. Once every two weeks or so they might receive mail from home—letters written, for the most part, by their village’s professional letter writer. Leave was almost unknown. Rarely, a man might be allowed to visit his village for compassionate reasons, if a close family member died. Wang Zhu Guang, a staff officer at 23rd Army Group, spent six years in Korea and went home only twice. His wife, a factory worker, sent him such occasional remittances as she should spare from the upkeep of herself and their small daughter. Wang, like the rest of the “Volunteers,” received no pay—only cigarettes.

In assault, the Chinese specialized in infiltration and envelopment, at least one attacking group making immediately for the defender’s line of reinforcement. Thus, all-round defense was essential. As the war progressed, organization and training improved markedly, with rehearsals for attacks being carried out behind the lines. Messages were passed in plain language over such radios as they possessed, or more often by telephone. “Encirclement and deep penetration are standard,” in the words of a British assessment of Chinese tactics.

The Chinese claimed to find mei juin—the Americans—less formidable foes than the Japanese: “They lacked the fighting will of the Japanese,” according to Li Hebei of the 587th Regiment. The Communists developed night fighting to a fine art, because only in darkness could they overcome the overwhelming problem of UN air superiority. As the war progressed, their antiaircraft capability increased dramatically: 35-mm, 37-mm, 100-mm guns provided by the Soviets. “We also became more and more experienced in dealing with ‘choke points,’ “said Wang Zhu Guang. “We became accustomed to the way the Americans would bomb in fixed places at fixed times, and more skilled in moving trucks in the intervals.” Asked what shortages the Chinese felt most acutely, he replied unhesitatingly, “Aircraft.” The size of China’s forces in Korea was restricted by the number of men for whom supplies could be moved south across the Yalu. Manpower as such was never a problem—thus, the vast, ruthless sacrifice of lives in attack. “We suffered very heavy casualties,” conceded Wang Zhu Guang, “but it was worth it. We won the battle.”8 More objective observers might reject his assessment. Even many Chinese officers today appear to look back on the tactics of the Korean period with some embarrassment.

On the UN side of the line, opinion varied from unit to unit about the scale of risk that was acceptable in pursuit of the domination of no-man’s-land by night. Among the Americans, Southerners often seemed the most enthusiastic soldiers. There was a West Virginian in Private First Class Mario Scarselleta’s platoon of the 35th Infantry who was constantly volunteering for patrols: “He’d say, ‘Oh Lord, please send over fifty gooks!’ He loved it. I wish we’d had 50,000 like him, so the rest of us could have gone home.” Many men felt infinitely less inclined to take risks after the armistice negotiations began. “It made it awfully hard to get people to do things, to go out on patrol,” said Corporal Bill Patterson of the 27th Infantry. “A man would just say, ‘Aw, I’m on short time.’ “9

Yet because it was plainly indefensible to expend men’s lives except in pursuit of worthwhile objectives—whatever these might be—senior commanders in Korea also faced serious difficulty in checking the ambitions of professional soldiers who came to the country bent upon achieving a battlefield reputation. There were not a few American major generals who arrived to take over divisions for a tour in the line and had to be decisively checked in their determination to mount an attack in order to further their own reputations. An officer with an outstanding reputation for courage earned as a battalion commander in World War II came to take over a brigade of the Commonwealth Division: “Brave as a lion,” as one of his colleagues said of him. Yet as a brigadier in Korea, his offensive instincts, his determination to carry the war to the enemy, appalled his subordinates. When he organized an attack on the Chinese positions which they believed would decimate their units, his battalion commanders protested strongly to the divisional commander. The brigadier was quietly relieved of his post. By the standards of conventional war, his enthusiasm was admirable. By those of Korea, it was merely foolish. Lieutenant Paul Sheehy of the U.S. 7th Division reflected the feelings of many UN soldiers about overzealous officers when he wrote to his parents in Maine in June 1952:

We have a new battalion commander who is a “son of a gun.” He came over to Korea in Sept 1950 when the division landed at Inchon, and he refuses to go home. He came over as a master sgt and is now a major. He is crazy for power and loves war. I believe he is actually crazy and should be sent home to a hospital. He talks with a gleam in his eyes about the killing of Chinks in the coming operation. He hasn’t any heart, and sent a brand-new 2nd lt., fresh from the States, out on a patrol the night he came to the battalion. And this crazy man is in charge. The high brass think he is No. 1 soldier. Boy will I be glad to get out of this outfit, I’ve sure had enough of Korea,

God bless you both, your loving son, Paul10

The British Commander in Chief in the Far East, General Sir Charles Keightley, visited Korea in April 1952 and reported to the War Office that “the views of commanders there from top to bottom are really all in line: that the Chinese Communist policy is directed from Moscow, and a forecast as to what will happen is as unpredictable as the rest of their actions throughout the world. The majority guess that it will be a stalemate. This sort of war, where the enemy is prepared to launch attacks apparently quite regardless of whether the losses are worth the objective, is a new one to us, and produces some quite new lines of thought. I was much impressed by the fact that the Chinese was showing himself a very skilful as well as tough fighter.”11 Keightley described the main tactical problem as enemy infiltration at night, which was being met by “wiring on the 1914–18 standards, thickened up with mines.” He was impressed with the men’s morale, but dismayed by the extent of the chronic problem of venereal disease throughout the American and Commonwealth contingents. Keightley suggested making the cure more unpleasant, “reintroducing some of the pre-war methods instead of penicillin.” The UN Command was constantly preoccupied with the problem of staleness among the men on the line: “Ridgway says that if he had his way, he would change every man, divisional commanders included, every 90 days!” Senior officers were exasperated by the number of gunshot accidents; a senior army doctor visiting a hospital found fifty-nine cases resulting from enemy action and twenty-four accidental gunshot wounds, “the great majority of which were self-inflicted. “12 It was so in every war of this kind, that for every man who died facing the enemy, another was killed in some wretched truck accident, bar brawl behind the lines, mishap with munitions, or a fatal step into an unmarked minefield.

• • •

Many of the British of the World War II generation, serving as infinitely junior partners to the Americans in Korea, found the experience of decline too recent not to gaze somewhat sidelong at the new dominant force on the globe and cherish unworthy thoughts about how much better the old team had done it. An American unit in the Commonwealth Division area posted a sign over its camp entrance proclaiming itself “SECOND TO NONE.” The Australian radio relay station a few hundred yards farther down posted a sign proclaiming itself “NONE.”

If there’s any two things that I can’t stand

ran a characteristic little ditty in the Commonwealth Division newssheet, Crown News,

it’s a North Korean and a Chinaman.

We’re moving on, we’re moving on.

See the chinks coming up 355,

the yanks pulling out in overdrive,

they’re moving on, they’re moving on.

The last verse, of course, referred to a hill crest the Americans had allegedly abandoned without reasonable cause. From General Cassels downward, the Commonwealth Division argued that it was more economical to hold a position under attack than to adopt the American tactic of maintaining only a light screen in forward positions, which gave ground under pressure and left it to a set-piece counterattack in strength to regain. A British company commander who found himself posted alongside the Turkish Brigade was exasperated to receive constant phone calls from its liaison officer, accustomed to take a skeptical view of American tactics, demanding, “You still there, Tommy? You still there?” The Englishman assented crossly, adding, “And let us be clear that we have not the slightest intention of going.” Colonel William Pike, Cassels’s CRA, said, “It is a paradox that the British like Americans very much, but do not have great respect for them as soldiers.”13 Pike and many of his British colleagues, with their reluctance to accept casualties in pursuit of objectives which seemed to lack any wider strategic value, much disliked the local attacks they were periodically called upon to mount: “If one had wanted to finish that campaign, it would have been perfectly possible to concentrate a corps and drive through. Instead, we would be asked merely to capture some hill. The Chinese would allow us to get on top, then retire into their bunkers while they called down mortar and artillery fire. These small attacks seemed to us singularly expensive. It would have been far more logical militarily to mount one good, big set-piece attack which could have taken us to the Yalu.”14 But by 1952 the war in Korea was not an exercise of military logic but of national will.

The static campaign in Korea was justly described as a platoon commander’s war because so much of the fighting followed small-unit encounters in no-man’s-land. Some units awarded seven days’ leave to any man who could bring in a prisoner, and patrols went to extraordinary lengths to achieve this ambition, cutting Chinese telephone wires and then laying ambushes for the wiring parties that came to repair them, spending night after night with blackjacks clutched in their hands, awaiting an opportunity.

• • •

Spring came with dramatic suddenness to Korea. The thaw followed by the monsoon rains played havoc with the fabric of laboriously dug positions. Yet this was the most welcome, indeed perhaps the only really enjoyable, season in Korea. The hillsides burst forth in a riot of colors. Men were astonished by the speed with which vegetation grew, and the variety and profusion of wildflowers. Then, with the coming of summer, the heat became crippling. Western soldiers toiling up the mountainsides under loads envied the infinitely greater endurance and carrying power of the little Korean porters. Infection and disease prospered in the damp warmth of the bunkers. The insects proved marginally more endurable than the stink of the repellent issued to suppress them, which was principally employed to soak rifle patches and make night-lights. Rats scurried among the garbage behind the positions, and often in the tunnels beneath them. Some fortunate units possessed streams near enough to hand, and sufficiently screened from hostile observation, to wash. Those who did not were periodically ferried to the rear for showers. But most men were coated in sweat-soaked dirt most of their time on line. NCOs checked feet and socks to guard against chronic foot infections. Dust coated weapons, vehicles, food, clothing. Men in the forward positions counted off the days until they were rotated into reserve. But when their turn came, and they found themselves facing the same discomforts a few miles to the rear, constantly employed on fatigue parties, yet earning only half as many points toward their release date, they began to feel that it was better to be on line. Even the hardiest Chinese soldiers in the opposing positions declared that the Korean summer was unbearable.

Until winter came, that is. Then, as men plodded between positions with the studied clumsiness of spacemen, movements muffled by innumerable layers of clothing, they gazed in awed disbelief as the thermometers plunged to new depths. Starting a vehicle engine became a major undertaking. Laying or clearing mines was a nightmare in the frozen earth. The British cursed their ridiculous 1939 vintage “Finnish pattern” snowboots, their inadequate camouflaged windproofs. The gunners found that the range of their weapons could vary by as much as 2,000 yards, according to the air temperature. An hour of carelessness in exposing a corner of flesh to the naked air was punished by frostbite. They experimented with hand warmers, foot warmers, belts stuffed with body warmers. They relieved the monotony of the rations by shooting the quail, pheasants, and ducks that populated the countryside in such profusion. They devised crude practical jokes to make each other laugh—putting an electrical charge through a latrine seat by attaching it to a communication wire, lighting the ends of a screwed-up newspaper between a sleeping man’s toes. But there were pitifully few trees to chop for firewood, pathetically few diversions beyond lying on one’s back in a bunker listening to Hank Snow singing “Moving On,” Patti Page or Teresa Brewer, Connie Stevens or Eddie Fisher heart-throbbing across the airwaves from a real world a planet away. All the UN forces observed a “one winter” rule in Korea. No man, it was decreed, should be asked to endure more than one season of that terrible cold in the forward areas.

Every few months most men were granted a week’s “R & R”—rest and recuperation—which almost all of them spent in Japan. The memory of Japan in the early 1950s is the most lyrical that most veterans brought back from Korea. “At that time,” said Colonel William Pike, “it really did still have something of the romance of the Orient.” Men who sought a civilized release from the animality of the line found it in Japan, together with a real friendliness and kindness from the Japanese. For the British, it was a little painful to see recent enemies already in possession of consumer goods that were unobtainable in their own country, food beyond the dreams of rationed families in London or Glasgow.

But most men went to Japan seeking, above all, a woman and a drink. Many retained memories of the bar girls they met there until the end of their lives. A man stepped off the transport from Seoul, took the truck into town, and made a bargain with a girl for the three, four, five days he was at liberty: “It was the land of the big PX,” said Private Warren Avery of the 29th Infantry. “You drove to the Hotel Sun, got a girl, a room, and all the beer you could drink for five days for sixty dollars. I fell in love with Japan.”15 So did hundreds of thousands of UN servicemen who fought in Korea. And for Japan itself, the war provided a staggering economic opportunity. The first, critical phase in the creation of Japan, Inc. was made possible by the wealth the Korean War poured into the country when it served as aircraft carrier, repair base, store depot, commissariat, hospital, headquarters, and recreation center for the United Nations forces in the Far East.

• • •

In February 1953, Van Fleet handed over command of the Eighth Army in Korea to the veteran paratrooper Maxwell Taylor. The outgoing general disappeared into retirement with bitter complaints that he had been prevented from launching an all-out offensive to drive the Chinese out of Korea once and for all. His frustration was widely shared by other senior officers. It seemed profoundly un-soldierlike to that generation, which had come to maturity in World War II, in which defeat and victory were absolutes, to allow an army to stagnate upon the mountains of Korea, restricted to patrolling. Van Fleet was probably correct in believing that, with the vast firepower at his disposal, the Chinese line could have been breached and eventually rolled up. But such a campaign would have cost many thousands of UN casualties. There was never the remotest possibility that Washington or the allied capitals would entertain the plan. Yet the last months of the war saw some of the fiercest fighting since the 1951 spring offensive. The Chinese made a series of determined attempts to test the UN’s will on the battlefield as negotiations at Panmunjom reached a critical stage. On each occasion they were thrown back—but only after bitter struggles.

“Old Baldy,” a hilltop in the midst of the peninsula that possessed no unique strategic significance, nonetheless became the focus of intense Chinese offensive effort in the summer and autumn of 1952. In March 1953 they at last gained possession of it after the collapse of a Colombian regiment rashly entrusted with its defense. Taylor was reluctant to lavish lives upon its recapture. But the Communists quickly made it clear that they proposed to make use of the advantage that they had gained to advance another bound: Old Baldy overlooked a feature named “Pork Chop Hill,” garrisoned by two understrength platoons of the 31st Infantry of 7th Division. Soon after 10 P.M. on the night of April 16, 1953, an American patrol moving into the valley between Pork Chop and the enemy positions opposite encountered two companies of Chinese sweeping forward to assault the hill. Within minutes the ninety-six Americans on Pork Chop found themselves isolated under furious attack. The lieutenant in command lost radio and telephone contact with the rear, but summoned emergency artillery cover by flare. But when the barrage at last lifted, the Chinese stormed forward again. By 2 A.M. they held most of the hill. Two hours later an American counterattack managed to link with the surviving defenders on the high ground, but was not strong enough to recapture the lost positions.

All through the next day some fifty-five Americans clung to their precarious foothold on Pork Chop, pinned down by the Chinese. At Eighth Army, the decision was made that at all costs, American dominance of the position must be reestablished. It was essential that the Communist delegation at Panmunjom should be denied the opportunity to claim a victory on the battlefield. At 9:30 P.M. on the night of April 17 two companies of the 17th Infantry struck the western end of the feature from both sides. The battle continued all through the following day, with a stream of reinforcements being thrown in by both sides. By the night of April 18 the Chinese had conceded tactical defeat. They withdrew their surviving elements from Pork Chop while the Americans began an intensive struggle to rebuild the defenses before the next assault came.

The battle for Pork Chop continued at bitter intensity deep into the summer of 1953. The U.S. garrison of its blasted slopes grew to five battalions, under incessant Communist mortar and artillery fire. On July 10, a fortnight before the armistice was signed, Taylor and his commanders concluded that the cost of maintaining it, still under constant surveillance from Old Baldy, outweighed even the moral benefits. It was evacuated. The struggle for Pork Chop became part of the legend of the U.S. Army in Korea, reflecting the courage of the defenders and the tactical futility of so many small-unit actions of the kind that dominated the last two years of the war. It was said that there were eleven stars’ worth of American generals at the regimental headquarters behind Pork Chop at the height of the battle. The divisional commander, Arthur Trudeau, won a Silver Star for personally leading a counterattack battalion reconnaissance party onto Pork Chop under fire, after switching helmets with his driver. Some of the allies were deeply skeptical about the price the Americans paid to regain the position. General Mike West, who succeeded Cassels in command of the Commonwealth Division, was asked what he would have done to recapture it and answered, “Nothing. It was only an outpost.” But this view reflected, yet again, the interminable conflict between military reason and political interest.

A succession of almost equally bitter battles was conducted for possession of a ridge within a few miles of the western coast of Korea named “the Hook.” On the night of October 26, 1952, the U.S. 7th Marines fought a successful defensive action under the most unfavorable conditions. Thereafter, the Hook passed into the hands of the Commonwealth Division. The British lost more casualties on its steep flanks than on any other single battlefield in Korea.

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In the last months of the war the names of the hills Carson, Vegas, and Reno became forever identified with the U.S. Marine Corps, who fought so hard to retain them. Sergeant Tom Pentony was an artillery forward observer with the 5th Marines. He had found boot camp untroublesome after the rigors of a Catholic upbringing in New Jersey, “where the nuns taught you that you would die as a martyr if you went fighting communism.” On March 26, 1953, Pentony was with the 3/5th behind Vegas when the Chinese overran the American “Combat Outposts” and the Marines went in to retake the position. Pentony watched, appalled, as the Americans fought their way up the hill under punishing Chinese fire: “I used to think officers were smart. Now I felt, ‘This is stupid. Do they have any plan?’ They just seemed to think, ‘The Marines will take that hill, frontal assault, that’s it.’ “16 On the afternoon of March 27, Pentony’s senior gunnery officer, a major, was so appalled by the spectacle of infantry still struggling forward, having lost all their own officers, that he received special permission to go forward and lead them himself. His radio operator returned two days later with his pistol and watch. The March battles for Carson, Reno, and Vegas cost the Marine Corps 116 men killed out of a total of over a thousand casualties, and inspired some of the most remarkable feats of American courage to come out of the Korean War.

Pentony found that his own mood, his attitude to the war, vacillated greatly from day to day: “It was like indigestion: some days you felt very brave, nothing bothered you, sounds at night didn’t worry you. Then on other days, for no special reason you were scary, jumpy—the smallest thing bothered you.” The atmosphere on the Marine positions was consciously “macho” by comparison with that in the army lines. When the Chinese propaganda loudspeakers began to blare forth their raucous messages with their customary exhortation—“American soldiers and officers!”—the Marines at once interrupted to shout back, “We’re not soldiers! We’re marines!” Many men were reluctant to be switched out of the line into reserve, not only because they were earning less points toward their day of release, but because reserve units were nagged by training and inspections and were still liable to be called forward to fill sandbags and dig trenches, often more dangerously exposing them than the men on line.

The American points system was regarded as one of the most pernicious innovations of the campaign: a man needed thirty-six to go home; on line, he earned four a month; in the combat zone, three; in country but beyond reach of enemy action, two. Thus most men serving with an American combat formation might expect to go home after about a year in Korea, while support personnel served eighteen months. It was a discipline which earned intense dislike among professional soldiers and commanders because it caused men to become increasingly cautious and reluctant to accept risk as they grew “short” and approached release date. It mitigated strongly against the unit cohesion the British achieved, by shipping men in and out of Korea by battalions, because each soldier focused upon the schedule of his own tour in the country. Yet the system persisted in Vietnam throughout the 1960s, with equally negative effects upon the U.S. Army there.

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Private James Stuhler was a New York high school dropout who had run away to join the Marines at sixteen, been sent home again, and finally went to Korea for the last few months of the war with the 3rd Division in the Kunwa Valley. An initial irony struck him on his way to the front when the truck in which he and his draft of replacements were being carried forward was stopped and booked by the military police for speeding. Even at this late stage of the war, the routines and strains of life and death on the line were undiminished. They spent their first days in new positions digging incessantly, for the only contribution the unit they relieved had made to its own defense was to hang out a Chinese skull on a long pole. A squad leader in his platoon, obsessed with fear of being killed, deliberately shot himself in the hand, maiming himself for life. To pass the time, they fitted a telescopic sight on a .50-caliber machine gun, stabilized its tripod with sandbags, and sought to snipe at Chinese forward observers.

Then their company commander, an eager young first lieutenant, planned a raid to relieve the monotony. It went disastrously wrong. During their advance through the darkness, they walked into the American covering bombardment. Dankowski, their platoon leader, was killed almost immediately. “O.B., what the f**k are we going to do?” Stuhler cried desperately to O’Brien, their radio operator. The Chinese were now firing into them, hitting their squad leader as he ran along a ridgeline. Stuhler’s machine gun jammed. He pulled out a .45 pistol and fired in sheer fear and frustration. To his horror, he found that he had narrowly missed shooting an American lying in front of him. Then a rock splinter struck him on the finger, numbing his entire arm. A grenade exploded, horribly wounding his fellow machine gunner in the face. Stuhler looked in horror at the man’s eye, hanging loose from its socket. “Pull back! Pull back!” shouted O’Brien among the chaos of explosion and pyrotechnics now breaking up the night sky. Discipline collapsed as they stumbled away into the valley toward their own lines. Stuhler hastily wrapped a field dressing on his companion’s ragged face and told the man to hold his collar while he guided him out. His helmet had fallen off, and a moment later he was stunned by a flying rock hitting him on the head. The New Yorker never knew how he got back. He and his companion waded chest-high through a creek, and were told later that they had walked through a minefield. Toward dawn a sudden burst of machine-gun fire ripped over the exhausted men’s heads. They threw themselves flat, the wounded man groaning, “We’re gonna get killed! We’re gonna get killed!” Stuhler yelled to the Americans in front of him to hold their fire. They dragged the casualty in. “Oh for chrissake, will you look at this guy?” said the shocked medical orderly who examined his face. The victim was still conscious, and Stuhler said furiously, “You’re not supposed to say things like that.” Around half the platoon that had set out were dead or wounded. Stuhler received a Bronze Star for bringing back his buddy. To their fury, the company commander, who had never left the lines, was awarded a Silver Star. The battalion area was named Camp Dankowski in memory of their squandered platoon commander. This pathetic little drama unfolded barely a month before the armistice was signed. Of such stuff was the Army’s weary disillusion with the Korean War made, by the summer of 1953.

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