My Life As a Combat Correspondent in the Korea War
The Korean War started in June of 1950. Since I had only been out of the Army for a short time, I paid close attention as newspaper accounts warned that we could be drafted back in and would begin as a private again. I considered joining the reserves, as their pitch was that we could keep our rank and "if" we were called to active duty that we would only be used as cadre to train new draftees and that we would stay in the States.
This appealed to me, since I didn't want to lose my corporal's stripes, so I enlisted in the reserves, a couple of weeks after the Korean War started.
In mid-August I received a letter ordering me to report for active duty to Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Several hundred of us, all reservists, who reported that day in September, were marched into the chapel. A major stepped in front of the pulpit and announced. "You are hereby alerted for overseas shipment." So much for promises!
The announcement served another purpose. If we went absent without leave (AWOL) it could now be classed as desertion in the face of the enemy with much stiffer penalties. This kept a lot of adventurers from leaving the post.
We were given refresher basic training, a consolidated version of the training I had gotten in 1944. There was little new. The Army hadn't changed tactics since the end of World War II and at least some dated to the first World War, if not the Spanish American War. By November we were ready to fight again.
Ultimately I got my revenge on the Army. Our training company was moved to the staging area so that another company could train. I was the mail clerk for our staging company so I had occasion to go back to the training company area to pick up mail that had been sent there. While I was on one such mail run I happened to arrive as the new training company was being told that anyone who had less than 10 days warning when they were activated would be granted a furlough before being shipped to Korea. I knew that this had been the case with many in our company, in a couple of instances the men having only two or three days warning.
Needless to say I spread the word. Going from barracks to barracks I let everyone know that when it came time to fill out the paperwork, that by stating they had less than 10 days warning they would get a 30 day furlough. I figured it was a golden opportunity to give it back to the Army for lying to us. I knew there was no way they could - or would - follow up on our claims.
It took 60 hours on the bus to get back to New Hampshire, on my furlough, a small price to pay to get back home before heading into the battle zone. Lisa had a job, working as a waitress, so with what I could send home from my pay she was able to get along. At the end of the 30 days I reported back to Fort Campbell and in a day or two was on a troop train, bound for San Francisco.
The trip took three days. I was asleep in my bunk when we crossed the mountains into California, awaking with a piercing pain in my ear. The change in altitude, combined with a plugged ear channel really hurt, but by holding my nose and blowing I was able to equalize the pressure, but the ear stayed sore for another day.
We arrived at an Army post outside San Francisco. We all got weekend passes for the Christmas weekend and several of us wound up at a family style Italian restaurant. They treated us like heroes and piled food on the table until we were stuffed.
Once more it was up the gang plank and into the hold of a troop ship. This time I was familiar with the routine and as soon as I was assigned a bunk I headed for the office of the troop commander. I told the sergeant that I was on special orders to the Armed Forces Radio Service in Tokyo and that I would like to volunteer to run the ship's newspaper.
I got the job and once I found the cabin assigned as the newspaper office I set up shop. An announcement on the ship's public address system brought another half dozen volunteers to the door. I picked out three with some journalistic background and notified the troop office that I was ready to start work.
We produced a daily paper, picking up items from the troop commander, the ship's commander and news that the radio operators caught for us, so we were able to do a comprehensive job.
I got besieged with questions and as a result started a column with the questions and answers that I got from the appropriate officers. This turned quickly into a major morale booster and at the end of the voyage I received a commendation from both the troop and the ship commanders. This would play a vital role in a few days, when I got to Korea.
We were bussed to an Army base just outside Tokyo. The first bad news came as a representative of the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS) told me in so many words that they didn't need me. They had a surplus of announcers. My special orders were cancelled and I was shipped to Korea, to the 3rd Infantry Division, the same unit that distinguished itself in the defeat of Iraq in 2002.
When I arrived at the 3rd's rear echelon I was assigned to a tent. The next day the Division's personnel officer called me in. He had a copy of my orders to AFRS and also copies of the commendations I had received aboard ship.
Based on what he read he offered to assign me to the Division Public Information Office. Facing the alternative of going to a rifle squad I quickly accepted and became a Combat Correspondent on the spot.
That night we wanted to celebrate, as our 20 man tent now had a wooden floor and side walls, thanks to some capable Korean carpenters. We didn't have anything to celebrate with, but our neighbors did. We had a British unit right next door to us and they had more of that issue rum that I had gotten acquainted with in Germany.
We had candles that they didn't have, so quickly a swap was arranged. We had our celebration, drinking the rum straight, without anything but water for a mixer, and drinking it from aluminum canteen cups. I think we managed to consume two bottles, but I burped up rotten eggs for two days afterward.
Welcome to the War
The replacement company was some 50 miles behind the lines. I rode in a truck with several other replacements, all of whom were going to line companies. We arrived at Division headquarters (HQ) just after dark.
At 1:30 a.m. I was awakened and informed that we were being attacked. I was taken to a position on the edge of the camp and told to shoot anything that moved in front of me.
I of course had no idea where I was or what might be out in front of me. After a time I began hearing noises a little to the left front of my position. I debated firing at the noise, but my hunting training took over and I decided to wait until I had a sure target.
As it turned out, I was at the corner of a large "L." The line to my right ran along the edge of the camp, but to my left the Motor Pool jutted out almost one hundred yards. The noises I heard were the men assigned to that sector, at right angles to where I was. If I had fired at them it probably would have started a fire fight between our own men.
When morning came there was no sign of any attackers. A North Korean captain had been taken prisoner but that was about all we had to show for a sleepless night. That would change a few hours later.
Right behind our camp was a steep ridge. At mid-morning a Colonel took several civilian reporters on a tour. I went along for the ride, to get acquainted with my new duties.
We stopped on top of the ridge, looking down at the Division Headquarters camp laid out before us. The Colonel pointed out several features and as he was talking his driver wandered about. After looking down the rear slope of the ridge he walked up to the Colonel and swiftly whispered to him that there was at least a platoon of North Koreans just a few yards down the rear slope. We all piled in the jeeps and sped down the road. As soon as we were out of earshot the Colonel called in a nearby battalion on his radio.
As the troops rolled up we circled around the ridge and came in behind them, just in time to see a show of firepower. The Infantry battalions had anti-aircraft guns mounted on trucks or half tracks. In this case it was a truck, equipped with four .50 caliber machine guns.
They were commonly called "quad fifties," and were one of the more lethal weapons around. The gunner opened up on the hillside and in a couple of minutes had killed every one of the enemy soldiers hiding there. It was the largest number of North Koreans that I would see in one place during the 11 months I was in Korea.
We all breathed a sigh of relief. From where we had been standing on the ridge that morning we could literally look right down the chimney of a stove in the HQ tent. A single mortar shell could have wiped out most of the Division's senior officers. That afternoon a heavily armed squad dug in on the ridge, protecting our backs.
The PIO office had a tent in the HQ area. I reported for duty and met the major in charge, an over-age-in-grade officer who had been relegated to a safe job where he wouldn't create problems. The other officer, whom I found actually ran the office, was a lieutenant who had been an assistant editor on a San Francisco newspaper. There were two other enlisted men who both had newspaper backgrounds, so my radio experience didn't carry much weight.
The consensus after my first interview was that they would turn me into a print reporter, since one of the major parts of the PIO duties was writing up soldiers in the Division for their home town papers. I quickly fell into the routine, turning out dozens of stories.
As a Combat Correspondent I was always welcome at any unit I visited. I would talk to the officers and sergeants and usually I would get several tips on soldiers who had done something outstanding that would make headlines at home. Often I shepherded a group of civilian correspondents, careful to keep them from getting too close to the fighting.
Since I enjoyed the creature comforts I learned to time my visits to steak night. The units had steak on a rotating basis, so by timing it right I could eat steak every day.
On one outing I had a chance to interview a famous San Francisco chef who was hired by the Army to inspect the food facilities in Korea. A pertinent fact that came out of the interview was his comment that front line troops were getting lettuce in a matter of days, while it took a lot longer at his restaurant at home.
We Jong Bu
You can't be around a shooting war without getting shot at and I came in for my share. The little town of We Jong Bu was one place where I had five separate incidents that convinced me I was carrying my guardian angel on my shoulder. We Jong Bu incidentally was the location of the mythical medical center that was featured on the "M*A*S*H* TV program.
My first "welcome" was actually not a shooting incident, but it was a scary introduction to the town. There was a tiny air strip and I flew up one day in the Division's artillery spotting plane, an L-19. I was in the back seat, and as we settled down approaching the runway the pilot suddenly pulled back on the wheel, dropping the tail, which caused the tail wheel to hook on a single power line still hanging across the end of the runway.
We made a classic "carrier" landing, dropping so hard the steel struts spread and the wheels came up beside the cabin. We bounced once, and came to a dead stop. Neither of us were injured, thanks to lap and shoulder belts. The major who was in charge of the strip came out of his shack as white as a sheet. The first thing he said was, "Six inches lower and I would have come out with a shovel!"
Needless to say he was right. As we inspected the plane we found marks where the two front wheels had actually hit the wire and rolled over it, allowing it to snag the tail wheel. If we had been a couple of inches lower the wheels would have hooked the wire and we would have cart wheeled into the ground.
The area around We Jong Bu was strongly defended by the North Koreans as I quickly found out. I went up the side of a ridge with a bazooka squad that was intent on destroying a machine gun nest on top of the ridge.
As we worked our way up a saddle, we reached the point where the bazooka team decided they could do their job. They stepped to the right and I stepped to the left to get a better view. As I moved, a burst of machine gun fire came through the short pines in front of us, lopping off branches. I heard a yelp behind me and turned to find that the soldier who had been following directly behind me had been hit in the arm.
The bazooka team took out the machine gun as I watched. I went back down the hill, assisting the wounded man while the rest of the squad advanced to the top of the ridge.
On a level area at the foot of a steep hill nearby several of the Division's Sherman tanks were parked, ready to support an assault on the hill. The sun was shining brightly as I sat or stood on the back of one of the tanks, watching the American troops moving into position.
The tank's gunner spotted movement in a trench on the side facing us. There was a low spot and he could see the heads of North Korean soldiers moving back and forth. Using his big gun he decapitated several with fuzeless shells, which did not explode on impact.
Despite the fact that there was steady firing going on along the slope, we sat there for nearly two hours without a shot being fired at us.
On the east side of the town there was a level plain, with a hill in the background. I was watching the tanks out in front of me as I walked across a bridge. Looking down I saw soldiers dug into the dry creek bank. I immediately went off the bridge and down into the creek on the back side. As I came out from under the bridge a bullet hit about 10 feet in front of me, raising a spurt of sand. I realized that I had been in full view of the enemy, but the sniper who tried for me was too far away for an effective shot.
Traveling around near the front got too dangerous as time went on. I decided, with some logic, that if I was going to cover combat, the safest place to be would be in a tank. At that stage of the war the North Koreans had almost no weapons that could take on a tank. Later they would learn to fill a gunny sack with 40 to 50 one pound blocks of TNT and several detonators, which was enough to blow the turret right off the Sherman tanks.
At first their weapon of choice was the wooden Russian box mine. This contained 12 pounds of explosive, enough to blow the track off a Sherman but beyond deafening the crew did little other damage. Later I saw a jeep which had come over a little rise, the driver spotting a box mine right in his path. Somehow he managed to stop, with one front wheel touching the box. When he caught his breath he carefully backed up the slope and one of our engineers defused the mine.
The only other anti-tank weapon I saw in my 11 months in Korea was a 30 mm cannon, mounted on automobile wheels. It might have penetrated a tank, but it could really blow hell out of one of our trucks or Jeeps.
I quickly made friends with the tank people. The Division tank company was kept very busy, so I had plenty of opportunity to ride with them. On one mission we crossed the 38th parallel, the dividing line between North and South Korea. We rode several miles across the flat plain without a shot being fired. We could see with binoculars that there were no troops ahead of us.
Shortly after the platoon commander radioed in his position the order came back on the radio, "Return to base." We had run into a political decision. The officer in my tank made no comment, but ordered his tanks to turn around and go back. Thus I became one of the few who got into North Korea in the latter stages of the war.
Back at the office I had been studying the TO&E, the Table of Organization and Equipment, for the Public Information Office. To my delight I discovered that there was supposed to be a radio section besides the print section. It took a bit of talking, but I finally wrangled permission to go to Tokyo and get a tape recorder. I was given a three day pass and orders authorizing me to fly to Tokyo. I loaded into a C-47 and bounced our way to Tokyo.
It took only a few minutes to find a shop offering what were then the first primitive tape recorders in less than refrigerator size. I purchased it with the funds I had been given and grabbed the first plane back. I had no interest in spending any time in the city. I didn't mention that I had taken an instant dislike to Japan. After more than three years in Germany I was at a loss to understand what the troops in Japan saw that made them want to stay there.
Back at Division Headquarters, I showed off the new equipment. The machine was a large box, about 16 inches long and eight inches wide and deep. There was a battery to operate the recording mechanism, but the reels had a spring that was wound by turning a hand crank, like the old record players. The interesting coincidence was that it fit perfectly into the lower back pack on a soldier’s back. The pack gave it some protection from the constant dust.
I went over to the supply section and found the radio repair man. I got a speaker, a battery, a glass amplifying tube and socket and I built a miniature sound system on the speaker frame so that I could listen to the tape as it played, or play it for a room full of people. My high school radio correspondence course paid off for the first time.
My first chance to use the recorder came quickly. A jeep and driver helped me catch up with a tank platoon going out on a reconnaissance mission. I bundled the recorder and myself into the tank and we were off.
We only traveled a short distance before we came upon a small air strip. The five tanks drove up and stopped, looking across the strip. The halt was a signal. All around the strip enemy soldiers popped out of holes and started firing at us. We returned fire as I watched an enemy soldier try to run up a small hill directly in front of us. At least three tank machine guns opened up and a second later his riddled body slid down the slope.
I had my head out of the turret, describing the ambush. I heard a clank and saw sparks coming from the forward slope of the turret. I kept talking and there was another clank and more sparks. Intent on reporting I ignored the obvious, until finally I realized that someone was shooting at me. I pulled my head down just as there was a third clank, loud inside the turret. Listening to the tape later I heard myself say, "Boy! Those sons of bitches can shoot!"
One of the enemy fired a burst of AK-47 rounds at us. One of the slugs hit the tank commander's hatch, splitting into several pieces. One went into the radio between us and another went through my pant leg, leaving two holes but without creasing the skin.
Once the gunners had killed all the enemy we went up on the little hill in front of us. Lying there was the largest rifle I had ever seen. It was a .50 caliber, and lying beside it was a belt of American .50 caliber machine gun shells. The sniper had pulled the armor-piercing rounds (every fifth round) and fired them at the tank. Examining the turret we found three half-inch deep gouges directly in front of my hatch. The bullets had hit and bounced over my head.
The tape I made was a huge hit. I had to play it for everyone from the commanding General on down. It was flown to Tokyo and carried by the entire ABC radio network. I imagine they edited out my exclamation, but it convinced the skeptics that a Radio Section was worthwhile. For the rest of my time in Korea I alternated between writing or recording interviews.
As a result of the attention, I was given a field promotion to sergeant, which fitted the Table of Organization for the Radio Section.
More adventures with the tanks came along. I rode on a mission that took us several miles behind enemy lines. We didn't meet any opposition but when we at last stopped we could hear the Chinese bugles that they used to move their troops. We turned back and headed for our lines. We later found that the signals marked the start of a Chinese offensive aimed at our troops.
As we returned to our lines, we passed through a narrow passage between a rice paddy and a steep hill, the lead tank hit a mine, blowing a track apart. We managed to get a tank around it and hooked on and towed it out of the gap, expecting another mine to go off any second. At least eight or ten tanks had passed over that mine, apparently finally digging down with their tracks to where it was deeply buried. We got a tank recovery vehicle and loaded the damaged tank and we sped down the road to our lines.
I witnessed a case of "friendly fire" on another night patrol. We were stopped in line next to a bluff that was about 20 to 30 feet high. The platoon commander walked down the line to inspect a bridge we needed to cross. While he was gone we all got nervous, watching the top of the bluff above us for any enemy. The Lieutenant was walking back from the bridge when a Sergeant in the lead tank saw movement and opened up with his machine gun, shooting the officer in the foot.
Yet another patrol would bring me the Purple Heart. I was riding in my favorite spot, head out of the turret, when a mortar shell landed right beside us. The concussion slammed the steel hatch shut, crushing my elbow. Fortunately it didn't do any permanent damage, although I was bleeding from a scratch.
By this time I had become friends with several of the tank officers and enlisted men. The officers were white and the enlisted men were African Americans. I had found several worthwhile stories in the tank company to relay back to their home towns. The tankers really appreciated the information I was relaying. As it turned out my next story would involve some personal heroics.
I brought several medals home from the service, including the Purple Heart mentioned earlier. One of the medals was a Bronze Star. I knew it had been issued to me, but I didn't have the paperwork to back it up. I applied to the Army, only to be told that my records were destroyed in the fire in St. Louis at the Army's Record Storage Facility.
They had no record of my Bronze Star. I was beginning to doubt my sanity until I happened to turn the medal over and discovered my name engraved on the back. Later I found a 3rd Infantry Division document which listed the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star with "M" for merit.
The incident which earned me the medal was readily apparent in my memory. On my next tank patrol we drove several miles into enemy territory. We looked out at fairly open country, with a few small hills and several deep gullies leading away from the road we were on. The lieutenant in charge of the patrol got out of our tank and walked around it to scan the countryside with his binoculars.
As I watched he suddenly dropped to the ground and started crawling back toward the tank. I knew he had been hit, so I jumped out of the turret and onto the ground. I helped him around behind the tank and then boosted him up onto the track, where the gunner helped me get him inside. I could see blood on his pants where he had been shot in the leg.
We got him comfortable and then I picked up the radio microphone and ordered the platoon to turn around and proceed back to our lines. As we sped back toward a small village that marked our positions, I radioed to headquarters and requested that an ambulance meet us at the village. They were there waiting for us and we quickly got the officer out of the tank and into the hands of the medics, who loaded him on a stretcher and then headed for the nearest field hospital.
The immediate payback from that incident was an offer to give me a second field promotion, this time to 2nd lieutenant, in the Tank Corps. However, the promotion carried a price tag. I would have to serve seven years.
I thought about the offer, reluctant to commit for that long a time, considering that I hadn't seen my wife for nearly a year. If I took it, I'd be well on my way to a 20 year retirement, adding in the five years I already had clocked.
One of the negatives already mentioned was the increasing danger to our tanks from land mines. At that time there was no indication the war would be winding down any time soon, so the offer sounded much like signing up for an indefinite stay in Korea.
As it turned out I probably would have been discharged soon after the cease fire was signed and the Army started reducing its forces. If I didn't get discharged I probably would have wound up in Viet Nam. Had I not been married I probably would have taken the promotion, and picked yet another path at this fork in the road. Looking back, I don't think I would change my mind today from the decision I made back then.
Life in Korea for me at least was a far cry from what the line troops were enduring. We lived in large tents, sleeping on cots. Each man had a "Korean Refrigerator" beside their cots. These were home made, using a square five gallon can with one side cut out. The can went into a hole and was filled with water. Even in the hot summer the water would give our very ample beer ration a semblance of cooling.
Typically when we were awakened in the morning the first thing done was to grab a beer out of the cooler and start the morning with it. A couple of the guys would even brush their teeth with beer.
After that first tank patrol where we got ambushed, I picked up an abandoned AK-47 and took it back to Division Headquarters as a souvenir. I started carrying it, rather than the heavier M-1 Garand rifle that I had been issued. This didn't sit too well with several sergeants that I ran into. They warned me that in a fire fight if I started firing it, the distinctive sound would draw friendly fire on me. I took their advice and saved it for emergencies, which fortunately never cropped up.
After one long dusty Jeep ride I gave up and abandoned the AK-47. It was covered with dust, so I left it leaning in a dark corner of the office tent where nobody would bother it.
A couple of weeks later I decided to clean it up. I stepped outside the tent, checked to make sure the magazine was out and held it pointed up and pulled the trigger. The bolt slammed forward and set off a cartridge that was stuck in the barrel.
Needless to say the shot, in the middle of Division Headquarters, drew a lot of unwelcome attention from every officer within hearing range. I was completely embarrassed and apologetic. Several officers mentioned the dreaded "court martial" term, but when everyone had calmed down and I explained that it had been a misfire, everyone went back to their duties, but first warning me that they wouldn't be as tolerant if I did this again. After due thought I junked the AK-47.
While I was in Korea I used my spare time to further my education. I successfully passed the Army’s 2CX test, which gave me two years of college credits. I had used my GI Bill money to take flight training, but decided not to complete it when I returned from Korea.
Back to the States
I again had the job of editing the ship's newspaper when my 11-month stint in Korea was over. The trip, again on a General Class troop carrier, was uneventful, and boring. Despite having something to do the voyage more than satisfied any desire for an ocean trip. Since then my travels have all been by plane - which can also be boring and time consuming.
When I got back to Keene, NH I was out of a job. WKNE, the local radio station, didn't need me back. I went to the State Employment Service Office. After taking a test the director told me that I was at least mentally qualified to take on almost any job that appealed to me.