There are a lot of things that appear in your memory at night because they were unusual enough to seemingly be glued there. Some of mine were from the two tours I did in Korea during the war there. That was, of course, a long time ago and should be forgotten along with all the other memories from that time period. Though unimportant in themselves they have somehow stuck only to appear on sleepless nights.
One is that every month on the front an Army shower truck would come around. Throw a canvas tarp down on the ground, or snow, and prepare to offer a one chance to clean up that month. They would even exchange your old dirty underwear for clean ones, but not the outer garments. So, after a quick scrub up–five minutes or so–you could head back to your unit a new man, more or less.
I was an infantry lieutenant so I had a Jeep and driver, and I remember one time going a couple miles back from the front to the battalion administrative area. There was also a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) there. As we approached it–this was in the winter– we saw what I thought was a 40 or 50-foot long pile of cordwood. It was several feet high and what I found unusual was that they hadn’t bothered to trim the branches off the tree trunks. As we got closer I could tell it was not tree trunks but the frozen corpses of dead GIs that were simply picked up from the battlefield as they fell and were frozen into that position.
Another time, this was in summer, I was driven back to the same rear echelon headquarters and it was under sustained shelling by Chinese artillery. The rounds were pounding down, but a few yards short of the actual battalion administrative headquarters. Never the less a lot of clerks and other administrative workers were lying flat in whatever depressions they could find. This would have been okay if it had been intermittent artillery fire. But, this was sustained fire because the Chinese presumed they were right on target rather than a few yards short. Unfortunately, the GIs on the ground were administrative types and didn’t know the difference between intermittent and sustained fire. So, as it happened I was never afraid of artillery fire and walked around among the prone bodies and told them to get up and move out of the area, which they did after seeing I was able to do it.
Another time, I was sent a new Land’s camera. You may recall this was the type of camera that had a self-developing film that would produce a black-and-white image a minute or so after exposure. The idea was that I was supposed to test it out under field conditions and see what uses it could be put to. I decided it would be good for patrol work and decided to give that a try. I took it and my .45 tommy gun that I had acquired from the Chinese after they had made a failed attempt to take one of our positions and went through some barbed wire to where our patrols would be likely to go. After snapping some photos of tank traps the enemy had dug and taking a few more of interesting features a few miles ahead of our lines, I decided it was time to get back before dark. I didn’t quite make it and our own machine guns opened up on me. As I mentioned I’m not greatly bothered by artillery fire, but machine guns are aimed where they think you are and in a whole different category. Eventually I got close enough to our own lines to talk to one of the guards beyond the perimeter. The first thing he asked me was what was the password? I didn’t know, but he was able to tell I was an American and let me back through.
Oddly enough, that wasn’t the end of the story. I wrote my report replete with several photos showing the potential value of the camera in patrol work when a few days later the three star general who was the corps commander came to our battalion headquarters and spoke privately with the major in charge. Apparently satisfied, I was called in and offered a job as unit historian for the corps. I didn’t fancy that title, though most would have killed for the chance to get back to the relative safety of Seoul. I declined saying I was happy where I was and the general went back to his headquarters.
Another item, still vivid in my awake moments at night. I remember a Chinese attack on one of our positions. It was at night, of course, so they had less to fear from our air power. As always it was accompanied by bells, whistles, and flares urging their own troops on. Those in the front were armed with machine guns. Followed by riflemen with bayonets at the ready. Last were the ones who carried pikes knowing that those first in line would be mowed down by our troops and they would then pick up the weapons of their fallen comrades and continue the assault.
I still vividly recall, the continuous attempt to capture prisoners of war. The British carried it to the extreme. They were on our left flank and I remember one time they went to great lengths to draw Chinese troops into a trap. They dug entrenchments on their very front lines and used dummies in soldier uniforms to place in foxholes that they dug. To these they tied ropes so they could be pulled up to sitting positions to add realism. Their thinking was that like them, the Chinese would also like to take prisoners. So, they sprung their trap and the dummies were kept bobbing up and down until the Chinese noticed them, but instead of swooping in to capture POWs, the Chinese blanketed the area with artillery fire not only destroying the dummies but also the troops who were pulling the ropes. The lesson learned was that because you want prisoners doesn’t mean that your enemy does. They simply want you dead.
One final thing I recall is the reason why I am deaf. We had been certain that enemy forces were dug in on the opposite side of a mountain in front of our lines. Actually it was probably only several hundred feet high, but as most mountains or (what we might call hills) had very steep sides, so it was impossible to get either artillery shells or mortars to drop onto the back of the slope, both tend to arch down rather than drop like a bomb. So, I called in some Navy fighter planes to bomb the area. Shortly, a squadron of Navy gull-winged Corsairs came in formation and peeled off to bomb the area. One of the pilots broke from the rest of the formation and decided to hit what he imagined was a target of opportunity. It was a small shed a couple hundred yards directly in front of our positions. He exploded a bomb on it and it disintegrated. But, seemingly a Chinese soldier had survived the mayhem and came running as fast as he could in the direction of the fortifications behind the mountain. The pilot let another bomb loose behind the man and I have never seen anyone run faster than him. Most runners as you may know bend forward as they run, however he was running so swiftly that his legs were pumping so fast that they were ahead of the rest of his body so he was actually leaning backward as he ran. Anyway,the rest of the planes were busy bombing the backside of the mountain, meaning that once they dropped their bombs their flight plan took them directly over our lines. Then, it happened. The bombs were held under the Corsair’s wings and one hadn’t totally disengaged. It was swinging loosely back and forth as the plane was flying directly over me. I knew what was going to happen and I hit the dirt just as the bomb came loose. It fell into a gulley directly in front of me and exploded. Since I was on top of the hill bomb fragments flew up all around me, but only the concussion did actual damage. I lost most of the hearing in the one ear facing the explosion.