Occasional coarse language is incidental to this tale
from a nearly forgotten war.
It was the language in common usage at
that time and place but in truth not language to be taken
literally. It was a venting of fear, and anger; a
diminishment of the enemy. A defiance and a
``And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the Temples of his Gods?''
My face was cooling off.
I was going to be okay, but I'd
nearly punched the kid through the wall. I'd barely
managed to stop after jerking him hard against the
counter by a fist-full of jacket.
Somehow most of me has gotten old, but
not my big hands. All my life, if I can put my hands on
something I can do anything with it I want to. But
I've always been a peaceful, patient man. It
didn't make any sense.
I was under control now but there was an
empty feeling in my gut, and it was growing.
It just didn't make sense, until
Charlie pushed aside the newspapers to make room for my
coffee cup, and said softly:
"Japanese, they looked like. Buying
I shrugged a reply as I slid into the
7-11 window booth where we old retirees like our morning
coffee. We don't talk much, but we enjoy each
The Oriental couple had given the young
counter attendant a large bill for gas, and were picking
out a few souvenirs of New Mexico while he made change. I
hadn't seen them -- the magazine stand blocked my
view -- so I had tried to pay for my coffee, seemingly
trying to push in ahead of them.
As the tourists politely brought back
their souvenir picture cards, the attendant had brusquely
shoved my money back at me.
"Wait your turn, old man! These
people were here first!" ....
He was still shooting nervous glances at
me, but now I understood.
The vast brown-black mountains across the
valley loomed through our tiny window. My coffee tasted
like rusty steel. I felt the emptiness grow, but now I
Ordinarily, nothing can bother me much
any more. Ordinarily, nothing a pimply kid might do could
bother me at all. This just happened at exactly the wrong
instant. An instant when the trivial but unexpected
combination of Asians and souvenirs let his rudeness
trigger old responses.
Old responses my mind hadn't yet
controlled by understanding. Responses I hadn't even
known were still patiently waiting within me.
As clouds cascaded down the mountains,
cool variations in gray, my thoughts drifted back to a
time long past. A time that still seems like
"Souvenirs, Joe! Souvenirs!
Get'em while they're hot."
Several small caliber rounds kicked dirt
near Garcia's elbow.
That gook motherfucker could be from Chicago
Few Chinese spoke English that well. No North Korean
Schwarz wasn't moving. Sergeant
Garcia's leg looked twisted, but he and Pederson and
the Lieutenant had rolled facing different directions and
were returning fire.
That stupid ass Lieutenant and his
Hollywood Thompson submachine gun! Couldn't hit shit
with it at twenty yards.
At least the noise is keeping the
fucking gooks' heads down.
If they'd let us go another ten feet
we'd have all been dead. None of us had real cover --
they'd dug in behind two little wrinkles flanking the
other men -- but I was in dead ground. They had to lift
up to sight on me.
I laid my Browning Automatic Rifle on the
rise they'd first fired from, and waited.
That stupid ass Lieutenant! Sar'nt
Garcia told him we'd gone this way last patrol and
they might be waiting. Why'd the fucker pick our
squad to show him the terrain anyhow!
Lieutenant Brown looked back straight in
my eyes ...
Shit is the fucker reading my
He pointed to the other side from where
my BAR was lined up. I shifted aim and squeezed off three
rounds, and the Lieutenant raised up and sprayed the
enemy troops on his side.
Puffs of dust came from his sleeve as
something knocked his left arm away from the Thompson. He
kept firing, one handed.
Pederson hoisted Schwarz in a
fireman's carry and lumbered back towards me. Garcia
scurrying after him in a lop-sided crawl, trailing his
I saw shadows change in a dip in the rise
and got off another burst just as a brown cap popped
If I didn't blow the fucker's
head off at least I put dirt in his eyes.
When Pederson and Garcia reached me,
Lieutenant Brown started back too, cradling his left arm,
but running like a cat. I sprayed the rest of the
20-round magazine over both crests, while Garcia and
Pederson put new clips in their M1's, then they
covered while I reloaded.
Schwarz was dead, hit maybe a dozen
Now that it was too late, the Lieutenant
did things by the book. He and Sergeant Garcia helped
each other back to good cover while Pederson and I
exchanged fire with the Chinese.
We were in the open, but the odds were
about even. They only gave us their head and shoulders
for targets, but that was about all they saw of us, lying
prone and facing them. If they had all raised up and
fired at once, they would probably have wiped us out.
But maybe not. Pederson was the best shot
in the Battalion and Garcia would have helped.
What held them back, though, was they
didn't know the Thompson went down with the
Lieutenant. They could imagine the Thompson on one side,
and my BAR on the other, scything them down.
Taking the safer odds, they kept popping
up and firing from different places. We kept rolling back
to different spots after we replied, costing them a split
second to relocate us each time. Now and then they kept
their heads down but lifted burp guns over a lip and
sprayed at us blindly.
These bastards are good!
... but we were good too and generally
got fire on them first.
When the burp guns fired blind, I forced
myself to ignore them entirely and concentrate on the
other areas. I knew Pederson would take the burp guns,
and I knew someone would raise up to take advantage of
their covering fire. They were Russian type guns, and
they fired wilder and shorter once he sent a couple of
them flying with rounds into their drums, at the same
time as my BAR drove a brown cap down on the opposite
Except for possibly the first Chinese I
fired at, I don't think we hit any of them hard. The
important thing, we didn't give them time to hit
either of us.
But they came close.
Gradually, we worked our way back towards
Lieutenant Brown and Garcia, and some cover. Long before
we reached it I was flinching when rounds whipped near
Bad reactions. They break the
concentration, and they're too late anyway, but
extreme tension claws the nerves to shreds.
I was getting very, very jumpy.
"You like your souvenirs, Joe?
Plenty more left. Come back soon now, y'all
That motherfucker! Must've been
all over the States. Probably a dumb ass gook Lieutenant.
Probably had a scholarship from the US
When we finally reached the cover,
Pederson patched up Garcia and Lieutenant Brown while I
stood security. I was still shaken up at first, but
seeing how cool Pederson was helped me settle down. Then
Garcia and the Lieutenant covered Pederson and me while
we worked back to where our patrol's other fire team
could see us and send 2nd platoon to evacuate them.
We knew the Chinese would be gone, and
Pederson and I went back with 2nd to carry out
Marines don't leave our dead if we
can help it. My uncle was in the 28th on Iwo, and he used
to say Marines fight a lot like we Indians did. A lot of
Navajos join the Corps, for different reasons. The reason
I did was my uncle was a true man, and I wanted to be
just like him.
"Wahoo, y'all gonna take point
from now on, boy" gasped Pederson as we struggled up
a slope, hanging on to the tarp we'd put under
Schwarz's body. Pete's baggy green utilities
wet-stiff with Schwarz's blood, from carrying him
"He never was worth shit and now
he's busting our backs. When I haul your sorry ass
out, leastways I won't need more'n one
I was almost as tall as Pederson, a lot
broader and stronger, Schwarz had been our best friend
next to each other, and we both knew he was the reason we
were alive. Leading us at the point, he'd seen some
kind of movement and fired at it, tripping the ambush
early. Most of the Chinese opened up on him first, giving
the other men a chance to drop prone and fire back, and
me a chance to set up cover.
The last I ever saw of Schwarz was his
boots sticking out from under that tarp, lashed over a
blanket on the hood of a jeep. Garcia was propping up his
own wounded leg in back, and Lieutenant Brown was in the
The Lieutenant had taken one round in
the left forearm. The round had touched a bone but he'd
kept firing while he had to, with his right hand.
Pederson had rigged a splint with a bayonet scabard and pieces
of a rifle sling, and the Lieutenant just undid a button on his
jacket and stuffed it all inside. It was still that way
when the jeep bounced off. The whole thing might have
been happening to someone else, as far as you could tell
by looking at his face.
I never knew a Marine officer who
didn't have more guts than brains.
Pederson and I kept to ourselves the next
few days. We didn't talk to anybody, and I knew the
same thing eating at me was eating at him.
Once in chow line someone bumped him. In
a flash he hopped around in his footprints like a road
runner, and had the point of the seven inch blade of his
kabar right under the man's chin. Frozen faced, real
soft, "Y'all wanna souvenir, Joe?"
The other Marine backed off startled,
half scared and half angry, but gave him more room. We
could all see Pederson didn't mean to start anything.
He was just right on the edge and acted by reflex.
Another time he picked up a sawed-off 105
millimeter casing we used as a candle holder, and threw
it down the gully as far as he could. He stared hard at
me with squinty eyes.
When the United Nations stopped at the
38th parallel in '51, and began off-and-on talks
about an armistice, we set up a Main Line of Resistance
all across Korea. The 1st Marine Division had a lot of
hard fighting on the ridge lines around the Punch Bowl,
but we got stopped when we attacked North of it.
Around March of '52, we were shifted
west to block the approaches to Seoul. Most of our
fighting after that came during patrol actions or around
outposts forward of our part of the MLR. There were some
very bad exceptions, like Baldy, Bunker Hill, and Marine
Corporal, but the actions were mostly fire-fights between
Our company held an outpost on a fairly round hill, for
that country, and the Chinese and North Koreans held a
higher, extended ridge line, a mile or so opposite. The
ground in between us was all cut up with shallow ravines
Our main defenses were gun pits and
foxholes strung along the hill top and flanking ridges.
The most likely assault lanes from the forward slopes
were also protected by concertina wire and trip flares.
Other gun positions curved around behind us on the lower
slopes to form our outer perimeter, with mutually
supporting bunkers forming an inner defense.
We normally had one rifle platoon in
position along the higher levels, with our other two
platoons in reserve, except when an attack was expected.
We were also reinforced by a heavy weapons platoon, which
manned the water-cooled 30 caliber machine gun and 60mm
mortar positions. For quick heavy artillery support we
had a two-man team (forward observer and radioman) from
Regiment's 4.2 Mortar Co.
Both sides had foxholes and gun pits on
the forward slopes, but we were too far apart for rifle
fire, and the terrain was both too broken and too exposed
for a general assault.
Since we had better artillery support,
the enemy didn't man their forward positions during
the day. Since our own forward slopes were so broad, we didn't
man our positions there after dark, relying on listening
posts, trip flares and illumination from Division
artillery to detect any advanced assault. To keep them
from staging for one, we patrolled constantly.
We settled into a pattern.
Days, we would move a platoon into our
forward positions and patrol the ridge lines in front.
Nights, they would booby-trap our patrol routes, and
often our forward positions as well. And leave us other
little housekeeping jobs.
We sent night patrols now and then to
ambush their patrols and try for prisoners, and they sent
occasional day patrols against us for the same reasons,
but mostly the days belonged to us, and nights to them.
A week or so after losing Schwarz,
Pederson and I pulled forward duty. After squatting in
our gun pit for a couple of hours without saying
anything, he suddenly climbed out and sat in the open a
few yards farther down the slope. Sawing open a C ration
can of franks and beans with his kabar, he slowly
shoveled them in his mouth with the point of the blade,
just looking around.
Dumb, real dumb, even for a dumb ass
"Wahoo, what do y'all think
you'd see, looking down thisaway about two
What a dumb ass question. You could be
looking down a well at midnight
... I searched for movement across the
"Pete, some gook might get pissed
and call in some arty!"
They had every foot of the slope taped,
but they didn't waste their artillery on obvious
morons. Unless they got pissed off.
"Wahoo, what do y'all think
you'd see if you was right down at the start of the
rise, looking up thisaway?"
I thought about this a while. A good long
I thought about Schwarz, and Sergeant
Garcia, and Lieutenant Brown. I thought about the Chinese
mocking us when we were trapped, while we struggled and
Mocking Schwarz while he died.
My pent-up anger escaped and increased.
My blood pressure gradually rose. My face seemed on fire
and the arteries in my temples throbbed. I spat out:
"I want the BAR, Pete."
He looked back at my scowling face and
grinned for the first time in a week.
"Wahoo, you dumb ass Injin. If you
wasn't so ugly I'd kiss you, but I take the BAR.
You got eyes like a owl and I can shoot the feathers off
one's ass anywheres on that slope.
"Y'all take point, and y'all
can borrow my Rooshun carbang."
That clinched it for me. He'd let me
use his prized Russian carbine, a bolt-action, .25
caliber, Model 98 with a fixed triangular bayonet and a
jerry-rigged flash protector. He'd taken it off a
dead North Korean guerilla, over near the Hwachon.
Pederson crawled in the pit again, and we
started examining and arguing about every change of
terrain from the base to the top of our hill. We worked
out a dozen different plans, but they were all based on
the same idea.
When we were sure, Pete took out a
tattered notebook, drew a sketch and outlined our ideas
on a single page. At the top , he wrote "Two-man
After being pulled back that afternoon,
we gave the plan to Gunny Parker. He looked it over
without comment, and took it to Lt. Wolfe, Lt.
Brown's replacement. Next day we were called to the
company CP. Our CO was not fond of gung-ho types, and
stiffly questioned us about our plan, in detail.
After he decided we weren't going
to get any marines killed except ourselves, he
relaxed a little and took us over it again.
He quietly studied Pete and me for a few
minutes. Estimating us. Making up his mind.
Finally, he said we'd have two weeks,
until the Company was rotated back out of the line for
our turn as reserve, and curtly dismissed us.
That same night, we got everything
By four in the morning enemy patrols had
usually pulled back, but the night was at its darkest.
Pederson carried my BAR, and I carried a shovel and a
seven foot long, three foot wide shelf we had knocked
together from ammo boxes.
We went straight down to the base of the
slope and felt around until we found the spot we had
While Pederson stood security, I dug a
trench just deep enough to lie down in along side a sorry
piece of brush, ramping up the last foot of the trench to
the angle of the slope. The board was long enough to
cover the whole trench.
If I was inside, and pushed the board
back about a foot, I could put my chin on my forearms at
the start of the ramp and see straight up the slope, to
where the ground curved back out of sight above the
lowest gun pit. If I lifted the end nearest my head, I
could pivot the board out of the way without making a
Planting the board over the whole trench,
I scattered dirt over the area hoping to make everything
When we went back through the wire at our
squad's positions, the Skipper and Lieutenant Wolfe
were sitting in the flanking machine gun placement. They
looked straight through us like we weren't there.
The troops on forward duty next day
couldn't spot the trench, and we figured this was a
good enough check. We didn't tell them it was near
some brush, but the enemy wouldn't know that
Every night after that, just after dark,
I'd mount a parachute flare on a rifle grenade
launcher, chamber a grenade cartridge, and slam home a 15
round magazine. Once the flare cleared, it would operate
just like any other M2 carbine but, with luck, that
wouldn't matter. Then, Pederson and I would sneak out
through the wire. We'd pack a box of Mark II
grenades, the launcher, my BAR, and the Russian
We'd drop the grenades off in the
lowest gun pit, and go down to the trench with everything
else. Once I got set, Pederson would put the board over
me again except for the last foot, and shovel dirt on top
in case an enemy soldier stepped on it.
Then, while I sweated my tail off in the
trench, he'd go back up to the gun pit with my BAR
and drink coffee from his canteen.
While we were on ambush duty, our platoon
had been reinforced with a squad from Second, but when
we'd pack our gear back through the wire just before
sun-up, half the company was usually there also. Just
Most of them had bet some Chinese would
be heading up the other hill with our balls in his
They came on the fifth night.
The quarter moon was swallowed up by
scattered cloud cover. In the remaining faint patches of
starlight, the approaches were almost pitch black.
They didn't maintain good noise
discipline though, I heard them about 30 feet away.
Shit! I bet they're following
Now, I think of it!
We put the trench next to the bush
because it was easy to find in the dark. Why didn't
we think Chinese patrols might like that feature,
Closing the board almost all the way, all
I could do was wait.
My hands were like ice, even though sweat
ran down my neck.
The hair on my head rose, as my scalp
But they passed on the other side of the
I knew they'd be in a file, to
maintain contact. A few seconds after I stopped hearing
anyone pass, I forced myself to push the board back. I
eased the Russian carbine up, and folded one arm under my
Looking straight up the line of the
slope, anything moving within a twenty degree arc all the
way to Pederson's position was silhouetted against
the night sky, just the way he'd seen it in his
The tail of the column was still just
feet away but, moving up the hill, they spread out into a
loose mob. Some twenty or more of them.
I forced myself to breath slowly. I
sighted on the middle of the shadowy figures, and
When they were about a third of the way
up to Pederson, I gave a sharp little bark, like a coyote
Get ready for the dance, Pete!
Probably none of them ever heard a coyote
before. There aren't any coyotes in Korea.
After a while, they decided it had to be
some kind of dumb ass animal and started moving up again.
Leaving the Russian carbine laid on, I braced the butt of
the M2 launcher hard on the ground, and thought about
Pederson needing coffee.
When they were about another third of the
way ... if you fell asleep Pete you killed my ass
... I shielded my eyes with my elbow and triggered
the M2, lofting 20,000 unlit candles high above on a
parachute. Sliding back to the Russian carbine, I got
off one possible and two flash-blinded guesses
into the vague shapes before the 5 second fuze timed out
and lit the flare.
Pederson had started flipping grenades
over the lip of the gun pit as soon as he heard me
squeeze off my first round.
The Chinese didn't know how to react.
Grenades were bouncing down on them from in front, some
kind of grenade had been launched from their rear, and
they were being fired on with a .25 caliber weapon, not
an American .30.
The flare lit the area a couple of
seconds before the the grenades started going off, and
Pederson raised up and hosed the nearest enemy with a
full magazine of the BAR. Some Chinese hit the deck, some
fired at the gun pit or wildly down my way, some just ran
I pulled in my carbine and slid the board
up. The Chinese could have no clear idea where I was
When Pederson was finishing his second
magazine the flare sizzled out.
I heard maybe half a dozen more grenades,
Shit Pete pull the fuck back
I couldn't see anything after the
flare, so I just held hard onto the carbine and waited it
out under the board.
A Chinese concussion grenade, two more
blasts from the BAR, some rattles from a burp gun, then
Feet coming back down. A few running, a
few stumbling; moans, grunts of pain.
After five or six minutes, long enough
for my night vision to mostly come back, the calves of
both my legs started cramping. Every muscle I had was
tight as a cable, and I couldn't get them to relax. I
guess they must have been like that from the time I first
heard the enemy up close.
I was supposed to keep under cover until
daylight, when the platoon could help us with any
stragglers, but the cramps got so bad I had to try and
Pivoting the board aside, I drew up my
feet and squatted down on my heels, leaning forward
towards my toes on the Russian carbine, trying to stretch
out the calf muscles.
Suddenly a shadow was coming down the
slope, just on my right. He hardly made a sound ...
Those fucking gook tennis
Steadying my elbows on my knees, I raised
the carbine and fired straight into his chest from about
fifteen feet, squinting my eyes hard closed as I fired,
to minimize the flash effect.
I still wasn't too worried about
giving my position away, that's why Pederson gave me
the enemy weapon. They couldn't be sure I wasn't
one of them.
I could just make out the first shadow sinking
into the slope when another one swept down on me,
hissing furiously in high-pitched Chinese.
I had one round left but no
time to work the bolt, and I still couldn't stand up,
so I braced the carbine butt on the ground and let him
run his stomach right down the bayonet as he plowed into
The shock of the collision knocked us
both flying and jerked the carbine out of my hands. He
disappeared into the blackness of the ground as I rolled
to my knees, blindly groping for the M2 grenade launcher,
twisting my head around, desperately trying to hear where
he'd wound up.
Then another flare went off, this time a
They knew they were exposing their
patrol, but with all the firing they felt they wanted
a visual of the battlefield. I turned to stone.
Flares only get you located if you
... or if they know about where you are.
My biggest concern was the Chinese who had run.
If those gooks are worth shit
they're in the gulley behind me and heard the
carbine. Probably one of the fuckers is sighting in on my
ass right now!
They hadn't necessarily panicked.
Veteran troops will pull back from an ambush, but then
set up a fire base to block pursuit, recover stragglers
and stage for a counter attack. The Chinese we were facing
had proven they were veterans.
Spiders seemed to crawl up and down my
back, as I waited for bullets to tear into it.
I could only hope I was covered by some
bush or wrinkle. Or that their patrol was regrouping below the
gulley lip. Or that they really had panicked and were
Whatever the reason, there was no
I had been lifting my head to hear better
when the flare lit, and I was frozen facing up towards
the gun pit.
I could see maybe ten or twelve bodies
lying around. Further up, a little beyond the pit,
Pederson. He was sprawled on his back.
Nobody was moving.
A few yards up the slope the Chinese
I'd shot was lying on his face, a Mosin Nagant slung
over his back. His arms thrown out over a BAR.
Rolling my eyes to my left, I could see
the one I'd bayoneted. He was curled up around the
blade, holding the carbine barrel with both hands,
breathing in little gasps like a shot deer.
The box magazine of a Chinese-type burp
gun was caught between one arm and the carbine.
What a little fucker!
... not much over five feet tall, his
bare head cropped close. His eyes and mouth were wide
open. He was probably at least twenty, but he looked
about ten years old ...
Shit, Sammy, you gutted a fucking
I watched tensely, but neither soldier
moved and drew fire on us.
Finally the flare went out, spitting off
and on for seconds. Fatalistic by now, I waited for
another one, or an artillery probe, or a whole
But our line stayed quiet, and so did our
artillery. And so did theirs.
The bastards probably think their
patrol hit a reinforced listening post.
For a few minutes I knelt there, working
out my muscle cramps, listening for movement to my
If they had formed up in the gulley, they
might come back now to check for survivors.
Maybe they have all they can handle just
getting their walking-wounded back!
Whatever. It was over.
When I could finally move well enough, I
recovered my M2 grenade launcher and slid over to the boy
I'd bayoneted. He didn't move. I gripped his
I sat that way the rest of the night,
gently squeezing the boy's shoulder. Listening for
movement from any direction.
Gradually, the gasps softened. Finally,
The gun pit stayed deadly silent. Nobody
reconnoitered from the rear.
Now and then the first Chinese coughed a
When it got just light enough to make out
his face, I went over to him. One eyeball glistened in
the faint light, tracking the muzzle of the launcher, but
he hadn't moved much. The black ground around his
open mouth was blacker still with blood.
I pulled the BAR from under his arms. It
Looking in the ejection port I could see
a round partly chambered at an angle, blocking the bolt.
I'd figured it had been something like that.
Pederson had done everything just right.
He'd always changed magazines when his grenades were
going off, only broke from the gun pit when the survivors
got grenade range, turned to spray them as they charged,
but the last magazine was faulty. The boy had put him
down with the Shpagin. The rounds Pete needed to put the
boy down first were there, but they might as well have
been on the moon.
I'd figured it like that, but the
arteries in my temples swelled as I thought of Pete.
Feeling the BAR jerk when the bolt fouled. Only able to
watch the muzzle blast of the burp gun, as it killed
I laid the BAR next to the Chinese
soldier's head, where his eye could look in at the
jammed round. I let him think about it a few seconds.
I thought of him pulling the BAR from
Pete's dead hands.
Stepping back to get a full swing I
booted him in the side as hard as I could, caving his
ribs in, bouncing him coughing and groaning the rest of
the way down the slope.
Another souvenir for you, ace.
You won't get home with that one, either.
For minutes I stood there in the
lightening shadows and the near silence. Images of
everything that had happened streaming over and over
through my mind. Knowing I wouldn't want to forget
any of it no matter how long I lived. Wanting to be sure
I would remember all of it exactly right.
After a time, I slung my BAR and followed
my M2 muzzle up through the torn Chinese bodies to
Pederson. He looked like he might have just woke up,
still half dreaming.
Carefully, I closed Pete's eyes.
I lifted him up on my other shoulder, and
we went home together.
Pete would have been nineteen, in a
couple of weeks.
"Another cup of coffee,
Gradually, Charlie's words swam into
my awareness. Gradually, I came back from a time long
A time unique, for many reasons, in many
A time of murderous war when an
assemblage of young men, drawn from a self-absorbed and
complacent nation, was suddenly hurled violently into the
crucible. Hurled, with little preparation or
understanding, into vicious combat which demanded skill
and resolution. An ill-matched assemblage, a disjoint
assemblage. Unremembered. Unredeemed.
A time long dead.
Rest in peace.
History On Line
Murder ... or something else ?
Second short story of Korean War series
Causes of the Korean Tragedy ... Failure of Leadership, Intelligence and Preparation
The Foundations of Freedom are the Courage of Ordinary People and Quality of our Arms