Foxholes and Choppers

MK note: All un-attributed comments on this page were emailed to me by Richard Coate. MK.


This "foxhole" photo of me and my buddy, Carlos Montoya, was taken several days after General MacArthur, on 24 Mar 1951, passed by the 2nd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, while it was on the MSR and while I was both indifferent to his presence and/or too busy reading my mail to pay much attention.

As of 1 Apr 1951, the 15th Infantry Regiment was in I Corp Reserve in the northwestern suburbs of Seoul. A letter I was in the process of writing to Betty at 10 PM, April 22nd, was interrupted with an alert to prepare to move out. After it was deemed a FALSE ALARM, I continued my letter to Betty with my response to Truman's dismissal of MacArthur from FECOM. I can see the headlines even now - "MACARTHUR INITIATES ROTATION PLAN."

As it turned out, the alert was not a false alarm. The Chinese, in launching the anticipated spring offensive, had struck the 3rd Infantry Division sector on the Western front and the 15th Infantry Regiment would revert to 3rd Division control when it returned to the front on the morning of the 24th. On the 25th, it would, by truck convoy, move from the MSR leading to Munsan-ni in the western sector to the MSR from Uijongbu to Chorwon, the western apex of "The Iron Triangle." As we moved up, we would witness the massive withdrawal, either by truck convoy or foot, of men all headed south. As we learned later, the line all across Korea had collapsed and, in our sector, it was the Chinese objective to retake Seoul. That night, setting up a defensive perimeter just off the MSR and digging in proved to be near impossible. The hill, for the most part, consisted decomposed granite. The Chinese, having broken through the Filipino defense in the valley to our front, engaged the elements of the 65th in an all night fire fight.

Under siege ourselves, we were relieved when, toward dawn, the fight subsided. We were preparing to move out with first light when all hell broke loose. The air panels had just been removed and the pilot of a spotter plane, mistaking us for enemy, called in three navy jets. They zoomed in for a severe strafing and made three napalm drops. But for the heroic action on the part of Staff Sergeant Leonard Cusson, our Commo Chief, Co. "E" might well have been annihilated. Following the second napalm drop, he managed, without thought for his own life, to reach the crest of the hill in time to see the third drop on an adjacent hill. While all others were making frantic attempts to seek cover, he waved the panel over his head in a desperate attempt to gain the attention of the pilots. The strafing ceased when they, realizing the error, waved their wings before zooming out of sight - but never out of the minds of those who experienced the horror. It had been a devastating blow; and, the traumatized men would remember, for the rest of their lives, the horror of what had happened on a hill in Korea at first light of April 26th . Eyewitness accounts, confirmed by Declassified Command Reports as late as 1991, reveal what constituted an Army cover-up of the event for the better part of four decades. It was one of the many "friendly fire" cover-ups during the Korean War.

The officers, having summoned the men to return to their positions, went about reorganizing the defense and tallying the losses, while the medics tended the wounded. Though seven Easy Company men were killed [five of whom were Koreans] and twelve GIs were wounded, we were lucky that more were not lost. My own research revealed that a number of men from Easy Company, 65th Infantry Regiment were also killed or wounded by the third napalm drop and the follow-up strafing. Though Dolcater's History of The Third Infantry Division In Korea, published in 1953, mentions that 2nd Bn forces crossed into Line Golden on the afternoon of the 26th, it makes no mention of the fact that they constituted the Killed and Wounded as a result of "friendly fire". For all intents and purposes, the part of the 2nd Battalion, 15th Infantry, in what is considered by many historians as the foremost battle of the Korean War was literally written out of history.

Once Regimental Command issued orders to continue the retreat, we were to discover that the 2nd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, would serve as buffer to what has been labeled in Command Reports as an "orderly retreat". A long line of 2nd Battalion troops found themselves walking in a cold, drenching rain, one company leapfrogging another, as we trudged south on the MSR leading back to Uijongbu. By the night of the 26th, having reached our designated objective, we climbed a hill in pitch blackness. Difficult as it was for a GI to see the man to his immediate front, we carefully planted one foot in front of the other of the slippery, treacherously narrow path on the finger leading to the crest of the hill. One misstep would send a man careening down the slope to an abyss of darkness. Once we reached the crest, Chinese bugles, trumpeting from somewhere in the darkness below, blared into our ears, aggravated our frayed nerves, and served as ample warning that no one would get any sleep that night. The unrelenting rain was pelting our ponchos, our feet were sopping wet, and there was nothing we could do to ease our misery as we set up a defensive perimeter.

By dawn of the 27th, barring rest in snatches, we had gone without sleep for seventy-two hours. The rain having subsided before first light, one platoon at a time was permitted to descend the rear slope of the hill for the courtyard fronting a Buddhist temple. Warming ourselves by a fire while heating our C-rations, our mood was somber as we surveyed our surroundings. What with the huge golden Buddha within the temple and cherry trees in full bloom in the courtyard, the bizarre juxtaposition of the horror of war against the spiritual, contemplative setting was not lost on the bleary-eyed, bearded GIs. All were well aware that we had yet to beat the odds for we had no way of knowing how much further we had to go before we were out of harm's way. As we returned to the hill and waited for the order to move out, time seemed to stand still - and all eyes and ears were alert for the enemy we knew to be close at hand.

Well aware that we were outnumbered should the Chinese hurl themselves into an attack, we were all relieved when Co. "E," 15th Infantry Regiment was given the order to move out. We found ourselves to be the last unit in the buffer action, with nothing between us and the Chinese. It seemed that they were veritably breathing down our necks. About 2 PM in the afternoon, we were the last to pass through Line Golden, north of Uijongbu. As one of the last three to board trucks, I recall directing my gaze north in realization that we had beat the odds. We all had the sense of tremendous relief as the convoy headed south toward Seoul.

However, Dolcater's History of The Third Division In Korea makes no mention of the fact that the 2nd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, played an important role in what became known as "the epic battle of the Imjin River."

This photo of the helicopter lifting off with a load of wounded only to wend its way through the hills headed for a Mash unit is reminiscent of the opening scenes of the M*A*S*H TV series, with the Company Clerk , Radar, of the fictional 4077, having a view similar to this.

My account of Operations Cleanup I & II can be read on pages 154-155 of the first of the three volume set, The Encyclopedia of The Korean War, A Political, Social and Military History, published in the fall of 2000, Spencer C. Tucker, Editor. The Virginia Military Institute.

MK note: I hope Richard forgives my (few and, maybe, misguided) edits. Let's just call it "publisher's privilege". If anyone in our Bunker has an "add-on" for this page, "Can Do". MK.

Donald Sonsalla (#3) email (24 Jun 2001) add-on: Baker Company had a hell of a fight taking hill 747 (Easter Egg Hill) on March 24, 1951. We lost a lot of men in that battle.  While charging up the hill, I was wounded by hand grenade shrapnel . Don Sonsalla.

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