Baptism Of Fire

                        J. C. Poe, author.
Mervin Key, editor.


    The USNS Gen Buckner dropped us in Japan for zeroing of weapons and briefings on the situation in Korea. We then loaded on the Pvt Martinez, a much smaller ship, for the final leg to Korea.

    We off-loaded on to a LST at Inchon, landed, and boarded railroad cars which took us to Seoul and on to Hq 3rd Inf Div where we were briefed by Maj Gen Robert S. Soule, the CO of the 3rd Inf Div from Aug 1950 through Sep 1951, and assigned to the various regiments of the division.

    My group proceeded north to Hq 15th Inf Rgt where about forty-five of us were loaded on three deuce and a half trucks. We proceeded to a wooden sign indicating we were at Hq 1st Bn 15th Inf Rgt. There, we off-loaded and were fed a hot evening meal of regular rations at the Bn mess tent.

    After supper we were given enough space in one of the GP Medium tents to lay out our sleeping bags and sleep on the ground for the night. I was very tired and tense in anticipation of what our situation would be in the days to come. The firing of artillery in the immediate area, the periodic firing of machine guns and other small arms fire to the north at some distance, and flares lighting the forward area after nightfall caused sleep to come with some difficulty.

    Before daylight on the following morning, we were abruptly awakened by a walking guard and told to shake a leg or miss breakfast. Shortly after breakfast, we received verbal orders, from a senior NCO, assigning us to the various line companies in the battalion. There were three rifle companies in each battalion, with the 1st Battalion consisting of A, B, and C companies. I was assigned to A Company along with about nine other recruits, none of whom I knew or remember by name.

    The company consisted of Hq Platoon, three Rifle Platoons and a Heavy Weapons Platoon. I was assigned to the Heavy Weapons Platoon consisting of three 60 mm Mortar squads, three 57 Recoilless Rifle squads, and three 50 Cal Machine Gun squads.

    In those years, everything seemed to come in threes - three regiments in each division, three battalions in each regiment, three companies in each battalion, three rifle platoons and a heavy weapons platoon in each company (my assignment) and three rifle squads plus a weapons squad (4th squad) in each rifle platoon.

    Each company had about two hundred men each, depending on the casualties and available replacements, and size could vary depending on the situation and mission.

    By mid morning of the same day, representatives of A Company arrived with a 2 1/2 ton truck to pick up supplies, mail, and ten new replacements. We were driven, with care not to raise dust or break skylines, to the A Company position and were escorted to the Company Commander's Bunker where we were interviewed one at a time by the Commander, Cpt Tucker, who gave the impression of an extremely dedicated and glory happy officer.

    He indicated that the company could be spearheading the attack on hill 487 (known to us as "Old Baldy") in two days. He had in hand a brief record of my training and indicated that I must prepare myself and my equipment to a high state of readiness for the grave and serious mission at hand.

    He assigned me to the 60 mm mortar section of the heavy weapons platoon. The weapons platoon Sgt. met and escorted me to the platoon bunker. Inside, I met the radio/telephone operator. As the Plt Sgt briefed me on the current situation, the RTO made sure the canvas cover was completely covering the bunker door and lit a candle. Then, as we opened and enjoyed our cold sea rations, I was told that I would be an ammo bearer in the 1st 60mm mortar squad. By the time we had finished our meal, the 1st Sqd Leader arrived to take me to the squad's bunker where I would spend the night.

    There I learned that we were in a ready position from which we would launch the attack on Old Baldy in the early morning hours of the day after tomorrow. As I recall, the squad consisted of a squad leader, a gunner, an assistant gunner, and four ammo bearers.

    The Platoon Leader, a 2nd Lt, had recently been wounded and was in hospital in Japan, so the Plt Sgt was acting as platoon leader also. The squad bunker and a series of trenches to the mortar position were available for us to roll out our sleeping bags and spend the night. We were fairly close to Old Baldy and noticed that it was under continual and heavy bombardment by long range guns, by bombing from the air with 500 and 1000 pound bombs, and, in the daytime, by aircraft strafing with 20mm cannons and machine guns.

    Sleep came even harder that night. In addition to all the noise, we were close enough to feel those bombs when they exploded.

    The following morning, 28 Sep 1951, hot chow and the 1st Bn Chaplain were brought in from Bn Hq. After breakfast, services and communion were held in three separate sessions - Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish. Then, the chaplain gathered the company for prayer and blessing on the coming mission.

    I was given a canvas mortar pack. It was draped over my shoulders, had a hole in the center for my head and neck to fit through, and held ten mortar rounds, five in front and five in back. Each round weighed about six pounds and made up a sixty-pound load before the weight of my carbine, its basic load of ammunition, and four hand grenades were added on.

    Each man's sleeping bag and a duffle bag, stuffed with all other of his belongings were handed over to be transported to a central location by our company's supply section.

    The rest of the day was spent cleaning weapons and writing letters. We were advised to try to get some sleep because we had to be ready by 2300 hours (11:00 PM) to begin a rugged four-hour march with an arrival time before 0400 hours (4:00 AM) at the jump off point, at which time we were to be ready to act as a point element in the assault on hill 487 (Old Baldy) at 0500 hours (5 AM) on that morning of 29 Sep 1951.

    It was after 0100 hours, about two hours into the march, when we made a temporary halt while enemy outposts were being eliminated by the leading infantry platoon. The Platoon Sgt came by and checked each man in the platoon to insure we were accounted for and in a high state of readiness. We were each ordered to lock and load our weapons and were told that from this point on there would be no talking or smoking. It was totally dark and each of us followed the man in front at one arm's length. Instructions were that, if a flare should go off above us, we were to hit the ground and not to move until the flare went out.

    Shortly after we resumed the march, two flares went off over our position and everyone hit the dirt. I discovered we were on the ridgeline of a hill leading toward the much higher outline of the objective. When we were in darkness again and began to move, I stumbled over two men lying on the trail. I shook them and whispered loudly that we were moving out. The Squad Leader jerked me up and whispered loudly in my ear that they were dead gooks eliminated by the advanced party.

    I realized then that the elite advanced party was silently eliminating the enemy outposts, without firing their weapons, because there were no small arms then being fired and I had heard none earlier. At this point, the dead seriousness of the war which I had been in such a hurry to get into began to sink in to my being.

    At about 0400 hours, we reached a point just below the ridgeline of a good-sized hill right next to Old Baldy, which loomed hundreds of feet above us. Our three mortars were set up about five yards apart and just below the skyline, and we were ordered to leave two rounds per ammo bearer by each mortar.

    About that time, the bombardment by artillery and air support increased the intensity of its continuous pounding of the objective and did not let up until the sustained attack on the hill began around 0500 hours. When that bombardment lifted, our heavy weapons opened up in direct support as called for.

    We were then told to spread out five yards apart along and just below the sky-line facing the objective and await further orders. At what must have been about 0500 hrs, all hell broke loose in front of us as the infantry platoons began the assault up the hill.

    Within five to ten minutes after the assault began, there was a call for 60mm mortar fire just over the ridge line of the objective. Daylight was slowly beginning to come on and the Squad Leader told me, and the man next to me, to break out our entrenching tools and knock down some brush in front of our mortar and on the skyline. Just as we were about finished with the job, the man helping me grunted real loud and fell as a tracer passed through the right cheek of his ass.

    As the medics pulled him off the skyline to check his wound, I did not need to be told to get off the skyline. The center mortar had begun to adjust fire over the ridgeline on the objective, and we were drawing small arms fire.

    I moved about ten yards off the skyline and squatted down as I observed the wounded man being removed on a stretcher. To say that, by this time, I was pretty shook up would be an understatement. As I was squatted and wondered what was next on the agenda, I smelled human waste and I thought, "No way am I that scared". Looking down, I discovered I was squatted over where someone had earlier relieved himself. I was thankful as I moved to another nearby position and failed to find anything to laugh about under the circumstances.

    I remember that Hill 487 had a long crooked ridgeline with a somewhat higher area on either end. Along to the right of the Able Company portion of the objective, was a higher shoebox shaped feature where, after the entire hill had been captured, we would spend some time.

    By about 0930 of that already long day, our three mortars had moved to within about 25 yards of the objective's ridgeline while the enemy was still in control of the forward slope. The fighting was taking a terrible toll on A company. Another man and I teamed up to dig my first hand-dug foxhole. It was about ten yards to the right of a large bomb crater where the wounded were being placed and tended to by Cpl Lovett, a company medic.

    The two of us took turns digging while the other watched for a break through because the battle was raging and we were under continuous incoming mortar fire, most of which was either landing on the ridge line or going over us and landing further down the hill.

    We were firing the mortars with shotgun shell only, no charge, and they were going up and starting their fall before they were out of sight. The incoming mortar fire never let up and, in fact, seemed to increase. I am convinced the commander or someone called our artillery in on our position. That's because some of the rounds were landing short of the ridge and it don't take long to distinguish between incoming and out going fire.

    A small helicopter tried to get in to evacuate the wounded, but our Korean "choggie boys" and some of our men, likely from another unit, were carrying them down the hill on stretchers. The walking wounded were stumbling and sometimes falling down the hill, which was very steep on either side of the crater and had a cliff just below the peak of the crater.

    The two of us were so preoccupied with digging and ducking that we could, in no way, see all that was going on around us, but we did notice the Korean "choggie boys" who were bringing ammunition and taking out the wounded.

    By night fall, the top of the hill to our left appeared to be secured, but we barely seemed to have a hold on the crest along our immediate front and the unit on our right seemed to be in a like situation. The highest ground to our right flank did not seem to be secure and seemed to be the site of a continuous battle all night, off and on. There was no sleep that night and the entire hill seemed to be under continual illumination by flares.

    It was shortly after daybreak the following morning, maybe around 0630 hours, when we were so totally pooped that we had began to relax a little, that the enemy counter attacked in force with what seemed to be all available supporting fire. Before we were able to repel them a few got through the line. One was an over six feet tall Mongolian with four Chinese hand grenades in each hand. He came running down the hill at our position and throwing grenades as he ran. I came around on him with my carbine, but before I pulled the trigger, a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) on my right cut down on him.

    I was so stunned as I watched round after round pass through his body and saw that, as each slug hit him, he just jerked and kept coming. He finally went down five to ten feet in front of our foxhole and I hadn't fired a round.

    Meanwhile, mortars were landing all around us and I estimate there were around ten or twelve wounded piled up in the shell hole when it took a direct hit which seemed to finish the job for most of them. Cpl Lovett, a black medic, was in the hole tending the wounded and also was hit. I could not tell how bad he was hit, but knew it was in his neck area because he laid back against the edge of the crater with his hands to his throat. We were only a few feet from him, but it was hitting the fan so fast, with small arms passing in what seemed like all directions, that my last memory of him was that he looked to be choking. I never saw him again but I found his name on the casualty list in the year 2000 along with Cpt Tucker. I knew Cpt Tucker was KIA and I found out that "Doc" Lovett was only wounded at that time and later returned to duty, but not in Able Company where I stayed. He and I had become good friends in the short time I knew him.

    We had repelled the attack by around 0730 hours and the bombardment was lifted. By what I was hearing, I had the impression that the high ground on our right flank had been taken by around noon. There were hundreds of dead and wounded on the hill in our sector. I can't recall whether we pulled off the hill on the 30th of September or on the 1st of October, but I do recall helping to carry some wounded back down the hill to a very busy aid station located beyond the smaller hill from which we had launched the attack.

    I recently made a drawing which maps out (the best I can remember) the assault on Hill 487 on 29 Sep 1951. Here it is:

    After it became dark on that last night I was on Old Baldy, it began to rain; but, I was so tired that I found an un-erected tent, pulled part of it over me, and passed out for the night.

    When I awoke the next morning, my right knee was swollen and hurting so bad I was unable to walk without assistance. Someone, I think was my Squad Leader, took me to the aid station where they pulled a chunk of shrapnel from under the skin on my right knee cap. There were so many wounded and dying that a medic hurriedly dressed and wrapped my knee in a manner that prevented my bending it and sent me on my way.

    Under normal circumstances I would have been entitled to receive a Purple Heart; but, I did not know about such things at that time and the medical personnel were so over worked by the volume of casualties that my entitlement was overlooked.

    I was so thankful to be alive when the crater took a direct hit during that morning firefight, that I prayed to God to spare my life and said to Him and myself, "Lord, if it is your will, I'll even become a preacher of your Word when I get home."

    I will not attempt to remember the exact day or number of days we spent off the hill (maybe two or three) reorganizing and rearming before we returned and relieved the unit (of Filipinos, I think) which had temporarily relieved us.

    After that time spent regrouping, we returned to the same part of the objective taken by Able Company on 29 Sep 1951. The main body of Able Company moved to the right along the ridge line and made temporary camp around the shoebox shaped feature I mentioned earlier. The three mortars and at least one 57mm recoilless rifle were set up for fire missions as requested.

    The whole scene of the battle, as it was at the time of our too quick return, is shown in the photograph on the IBB page "On Top of Old Baldy" which is linked to at the bottom of this page. The three mortar squads are visible on the reverse slope and, sometimes, I am sure that I can make out myself, lying on the ground by the mortar to the left. On the forward slope, good eyes can make out one 57mm recoilless rifle and an observer sitting with his elbows on his knees and his binoculars to his eyes.

    During this brief time, another man and I collected all the canteens and returned all the way from the bomb crater and my foxhole back down the hill. At the bottom, we filled the canteens from a small clear stream running near a destroyed US tank leaning against the bottom of the hill. We had purification tablets to put in each canteen so they would be ready for drinking when we went back to the top of the hill. We were both too damned thirsty to worry about tablets until after we had our fill of the water.

    As we looked upward for the best route to take back up and moved a short distance along the small stream, we noticed the water running over a partially decomposed Chinese body. We did not linger on the thought of the water we had just drunk for there was a long steep climb ahead and there were some very thirsty friends at the top.

    On our arrival at the top, we flopped on the ground to catch our breath and rest for a few minutes. I vividly recall the scene in the "On Top of Old Baldy" photograph and am willing to believe that I am the nearest man pictured, lying on my right side with my tonge still hanging out from the effort of that difficult climb. Only the one above will ever know for sure on that thought.

    Before evening, we moved along the ridge to the right past that prominent charred stump and on to the area around the shoebox shaped feature. There, we took on a defensive posture for the night. After eating our fill of C rations, we established a guard duty routine for the night and looked well toward a new day. We were still so stressed out that sleep came easy, but we survivors knew well the importance of wide awake guard duty.

    Each day thereafter, we conducted platoon sized patrols on the range of smaller hills to the north and east. My mortar squad went with the platoon and I followed close to my Squad Leader. I carried a small radio for communications with the Platoon Leader should he call for fire support. The Chinese were operating on the same frequency and their jabbering never ceased.

    We found some very well constructed bunkers and trench work along with several tons of rice, which our Koreans were happy to carry in great loads on their powerful backs, in a southerly direction.

    After about three or four days, we were relieved by what I think was a Philippine unit and we moved to a blocking position a few miles back. I think that the 15th Rgt Hq was located there and, for the first time since my arrival at Able Company, we had access to showers, clean clothing, and GP tents with folding cots. What a life!!! We had three hot meals a day, new mountain sleeping bags, air mattresses, and no incoming fire.

    We were integrated into a perimeter defense where bunkers and trenches only required continuous improvement. We were being re-supplied with equipment and new troops to bring us back to near full strength.

    We were informed that we would soon move west along the Imjin River to relieve elements of the 1st Cav Div, which was returning to Japan. That move was made and Company A spent the rest of the winter of 1951-1952 along the short stretch of the Imjin that was then part of the Main Line of Resistance. But, that's another story.

3rd Division Page    IBB Map and Photo Index
On Top of Old Baldy    Poe at Work
IBB - Page Two     "Can Do" Photo Album, Belize
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