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The Foundation of Freedom is the Courage of Ordinary People

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Victory in war does not depend entirely upon numbers or mere courage; only skill and discipline will insure it.



Years of Stalemate

Chapter 15

Million Dollar Hill

* Million Dollar Hill was one of the limited objectives of U.S. Eighth Army. It was several miles north of the northernmost line along which United Nations troops built and manned fortified positions during the summer months of 1951. Its name was an indication of the cost rather than the value of the hill. Lt.Gen. James A. Van Fleet (commander of Eighth Army) did not want to occupy and hold the hill since to do so would form a large bulge in the army's defensive line. But Million Dollar Hill was valuable terrain to the enemy, and it was chosen as the objective of one of several attempts to keep the enemy off balance, obtain information, capture prisoners, and prevent the Chinese from crowding too close against the United Nations' main line of resistance.

Accordingly, Eighth Army directed that the hill be captured. The order went to IX Corps, to the z4th Infantry Division, and then down to the 3d Battalion of the 5th Infantry. The attack was scheduled for the second day of August.

The 24th Division had made similar attacks against the same hill, had occupied it and then had abandoned it earlier that summer. From the main fortified defense line (Line Wyoming), Million Dollar Hill was prominent, not because it was higher than the ridges around it, but because artillery and air strikes had burned and blasted away all vegetation on the thousand-yard-long ridge, and it stood bare and brown among the other hills, which were green from heavy summer rains. Members of the 3d Battalion had named it Million Dollar Hill because they realized that ammunition worth at least that much had burst in flame and flash upon its crest. To the Chinese, Million Dollar Hill afforded good observation of the 24th Division's line. In American hands, it dominated the main enemy supply route to the north.

As a terrain feature it was like other Korean ridgelines. It was so steep-sided that a grenade falling anywhere except along the trail-wide spine would probably roll on downhill. Its bare clay top, seven hundred feet above the stream at the bottom, was an hour's steady climb for an infantryman loaded with supplies. The ridgeline was broken up into five mounds, each shaped like the hump on a camel's back. There was one large hump that was the main part of the hill and four others that became successively smaller toward the east. A few shaggy and splintered stumps remained on these humps, but the earth on the south side of the hill, where the bulk of our artillery shells had fallen, was as bare as though it had been plowed.

The attack against Million Dollar Hill commenced on the morning of 2 August and lasted for two days. Companies I and L made the assault and seized the hill. This story is the account of the defense of the hill by Company K, which relieved the attacking companies after the hill was secure. [1]

The relief of the assault companies was scheduled to begin on the evening of 3 August. It was still light when men of Company K started up the trail at 2100. Darkness during the Korean summer would not come for half an hour yet. The 2d Platoon was first in the column. Lt. Wilbur C. Schaeffner a replacement officer who had joined the company three days before was in command of the platoon.

The infantrymen moved slowly and quietly. Within a few minutes their fatigue jackets were wet with perspiration, and drops of sweat ran down their foreheads. An hour later Lieutenant Schaeffner and the thirty-one men of his platoon reached the crest of the hill and moved on out to take up positions on the east end of the ridgeline. Schaeffner split his platoon between two of the smaller mounds, leaving the smallest one the mound at the eastern tip of the ridge unoccupied.

The company commander (Lt. Robert H. Hight) brought up the remainder of the company and posted it along the two larger mounds at the west end of the ridge. This move, and the relief of the other companies, was an allnight process, and the last men were not in place until after first light the next day. As quickly as they were relieved, men from Companies I and L picked up their equipment and started down the trail and then moved back to reserve positions on the ridgeline just south of Million Dollar Hill.

Meanwhile, before dawn, the enemy was harassing Schaeffner's 2d Platoon. These men had to prepare their own positions, since neither Company L nor Company I had constructed defenses on the eastern humps of the line. Because the sides of the hill were so steep, the only good approach left to the enemy was over the eastern tip of the ridge. Schaeffner put a machine gun on top of his east mound and pointed it toward the saddle between this and the tip of the ridge and then placed two BAR men to protect the gun. Before the men finished digging in the gun or their own foxholes, several mortar rounds fell on the area. These tended to speed up the process of digging holes. Then one Chinese soldier walked up and threw a grenade at the machine-gun emplacement. The gunner and the two BAR men opened fire together and hit the Chinese, who dropped the gun he was carrying, fell, and rolled down the ridge side, apparently dead.

This action immediately drew fire from an enemy machine gun firing from the easternmost tip of the ridge not more than sixty yards away. The two machine guns traded short bursts for about forty minutes enough action to worry the men since their positions were not well organized and they had only the ammunition they had carried up themselves. The carrying parties of Korean civilians had not yet reached the top of the hill with a resupply of ammunition.

When it became light again on the morning of 4 August, the commander of Company K (Lieutenant Hight) started organizing his defensive positions. After the 2d Platoon's experience during the night, Hight decided that if the Chinese were going to get that close he should have a tight perimeter rather than outposts that might become isolated and surrounded. He arranged his men around a slender perimeter that followed the thin ridgeline so that the foxholes were just a few feet below the top of the ridge, the men almost back to back. He insisted that all men dig their holes deep.

Lieutenant Hight and his artillery forward observer (Lt. Mack E. Magnum, from Battery C, 555th Field Artillery Battalion) then planned and registered their protective concentrations around their position. Altogether they could call for supporting fire from two batteries of 105-mm howitzers, two batteries of 155-mm howitzers, and two companies of 4.2-inch heavy mortars.

The men put out trip flares and other warning devices around their area. Throughout the day the Korean carrying parties brought up smallarms ammunition, grenades, and other supplies. In addition to forming a solid defense for the night, Lieutenant Hight made up a reserve squad of eight men, which he planned to hold at his command post near the center of the perimeter, from which point he could rush it to any spot on the line that might need help quickly during the night. Hight considered this squad an important element of his defense. It gave the men confidence to know that if any break in the line occurred, it would soon be plugged by the reserve squad.

For night illumination there were on call artillery and mortar flares that were adjusted to illuminate the northern slope of the ridge. The south side was to be illuminated by three 60-inch air-warning searchlights that were placed several miles away on the main defensive lines. One of these was pointed directly at the hill and two were aimed up so that the clouds over the area reflected the artificial moonlight.

During the afternoon and evening the men slept when they could. There were dark clouds across the sky that evening and dusk came early. Just before it got dark one of the squad leaders from the 2d Platoon (SFC Raymond M. Deckard) registered the company's 60-mm mortars on the eastern tip of the ridge. The three mortars were emplaced within shouting distance of the company's command post on the highest part of the ridge so that the range was about three hundred yards.

Just as the last light left the sky it began to rain, and the searchlights came on. Lieutenant Hight set out to make the 2100 check of his positions, walking just below the rim of the ridge on the slippery clay mud. There was no enemy activity. The men were sitting quietly in the rain, waiting. Hight returned to his trench just as two flares went up in the valley between him and Companies I and L. He looked at his watch. It was 2115.

"Christ! " he said. "They're starting this thing early tonight."

The Chinese were several hundred yards away and nearer the reserve units of the 3d Battalion, which fired toward the area from which the trip flares came. Hight suspected that other groups would probe his lines soon.

Within a few minutes the machine gun at the east end of the ridge opened fire and, at about the same time, a group of Chinese came up the steep side of the ridge against the center of the company's perimeter. Hight watched the fire fights develop and decided the enemy had planned a three-pronged attack against him but that one of the groups the one that set off the trip flares had gone too far south and had not reached its objective at the right time.

The main action occurred at the eastern end of the perimeter in the sector of Lieutenant Schaeffner's 2d Platoon. A group of Chinese crawled up and threw about sixty grenades at Schaeffner's men. One of the grenades cut the wire on the sound-powered telephone that joined the opposite ends of the platoon. The Chinese were so close, and the ridge so narrow, that most of the grenades went over the men and exploded harmlessly farther down the side of the hill.

Since it appeared that the enemy might follow the grenade attack with an attempt to overrun the platoon positions, Sergeant Deckard and the two BAR men who were protecting the machine gun (Cpl. Philip B. Brumenshenkel and PFC Herman W. McKinney) gathered up their grenades and crawled a few feet up to the ridgeline where they knelt side by side like three crows on a limb peering at the Chinese below them. In the heavy rain it was difficult to see more than a few yards but, as one of them explained, "There were so many enemy on the hill we couldn't waste ammunition that night." The three men stayed there, their rumps prominent in silhouette, dropping grenades on the Chinese whom they could see or hear crawling through the brush below them.

At the same time, the machine-gunners and riflemen were aiming a heavy volume of fire across the tip of the ridge to keep the enemy from occupying that area The fire fight lasted about twenty minutes before the enemy moved back. The activity gradually subsided and the close action ended, although the enemy kept up steady rifle fire and longrange supporting fire from machine guns located directly to the north. It was now close to 2200. There was loud, rumbling thunder and the noises from the fighting reverberated from the low clouds. The rain fell steadily, slanted by a hard wind.

Except for long-range firing there was a lull for half an hour or more. The second burst of activity started when one enemy soldier sneaked up to within twenty feet of the machine gun manned by Cpl. Gilbert L. Constant and PFC Robert J. Thomas. It was raining very hard at the time and the wind and rain and thunder made it difficult for the men to see or hear anything.

PFC Walter Jeter, Jr., saw the enemy first and yelled, "Look out on your left!"

Instead of a rifle or a grenade the Chinese had a signal-flare gun. From it he fired a red flare that landed on the ground directly in front of the machine-gun emplacement and bulged up in a blinding red light. Thomas a Negro who was considered an expert infantryman by the other members of the platoon stood up to look over the light of the flare and saw several enemy directly in front. He had unhooked the elevating and traversing mechanism so that the gun swung free on the pintle. He set off a long burst from his machine gun, then stopped long enough to shout, "Now go back and count your goddam noncoms!" Thomas killed the enemy soldier who fired the red flare, but while he was firing to the front another Chinese worked up on the left and pitched a grenade in the machine-gun pit. This seriously wounded both Thomas and Constant, who called out that they were hit. The squad leader (Sergeant Deckard) told them to come on out if they could, and sent his assistant (Cpl. John W. Diamond) to take over the gun. Just as Diamond was getting out of his hole, however, a grenade burst wounded him in the face and arm. Deckard hurried over and manned the machine gun himself since it held the critical point on the line and had to be kept in action.

At about the same time both members of one of the BAR teams with the machine gun were wounded, the BAR belonging to the other team jammed, and something went wrong with the machine gun that slowed up its rate of fire. Deckard called for the reserve squad to plug his line. By this time there were five men, a BAR, and the machine gun missing from his line just at the time the action was beginning to reach the most furious pitch of the night.

The rain and the fighting increased in intensity at the same time. At the top of the ridge, Lieutenant Hight stood in his trench watching the action which, he thought, for wild fury exceeded anything he had experienced against the Japanese during three and a half years in the Pacific during World War II. There were four heavy machine guns on the enemy's main position 400 or 500 yards to the north which were firing into the area of the 2d Platoon. They left four red lines, only slightly arched, drawn across the narrow valley between the two ridges. Another enemy machine gun the one on the eastern tip of the ridge kept up a heavy and steady fire, trading tracers with the machine gun which Deckard was now operating. The lines of tracers from the two guns passed each other so closely that Hight kept expecting them to collide.

Added to the noise of this fire were about forty enemy riflemen firing at close range at the 2d Platoon, and grenade and mortar explosions which, like the other sounds, were magnified by low clouds and the rain. Searchlights against the clouds made areas of luminous white light over the ridge, and there were flares in the sky two thirds of the time during the heavy fighting. They made a hazy sort of light, like lanterns hanging out in the fog. Even in the heavy rain, which accumulated more than five inches during the night, there was light enough so that Hight could see the men slogging through the mud or occasionally standing on the ridgeline firing down at the enemy. Their helmets and wet clothing glistened in the white light. In addition to being one of the heaviest fire fights Lieutenant Hight had seen, he considered this one handled as coolly as any in which he participated. None of the men got excited, because each had confidence in the others and knew that when morning came, unless wounded, the man in the next hole would still be there.

Lieutenant Schaeffner, whose platoon was in the midst of the heavy fighting, called by telephone and asked for the special support squad, explaining that his machine gun was not working well. Lieutenant Hight dispatched the eight men at once, asked for an increase in the 4.2-inch mortar fire, and called down to his own mortar section to plaster the tip of the ridge. He also arranged to replace the machine gun with the one from the 3d Platoon. Within a short time the fire power of the 2 d Platoon was restored and, as soon as the danger was past, Hight called off his supporting fire. The 2d Platoon's fire fight continued almost without abatement until half an hour past midnight. This rate of fire had used up the original basic load of ammunition and much of the reserve supply that Hight had stored by his command post near the center of the perimeter. SFC William T. Akerley was busy taking extra bandoleers from the 1st and 3d Platoons and redistributing them to the 2d. Deckard's machine gun had already fired twelve boxes of ammunition.

Lieutenant Hight called his battalion commander (Major Ernest H. Davis) to tell him that he had the situation under control but that he needed more ammunition. Davis told him to stretch the ammunition as far as he could but to hold the hill.

"Don't worry about the real estate," answered Hight. "Just get some ammunition up here."

Davis promised to have the carrying party on the way soon. Meanwhile, Hight sent out instructions for the men to conserve ammunition. They observed this to some extent, but since it was difficult to see, there were few aimed shots and the volume of fire remained high.

The enemy's second heavy assault ended before 0100. The volume of rain also slackened a little by this time but was coming down steadily. Enemy machine guns, mortars, and some small arms continued firing from a distance. But there were no assaults, although the men expected another one soon and were concerned about their lack of ammunition. They waited, but at the end of two hours they had received neither the enemy's next assault nor the ammunition.

Finally, an officer with several tanks stationed down near the road called Lieutenant Hight to tell him that the Koreans carrying the ammunition had returned to the base of the hill after having been fired upon during the trip up. This information made the ammunition scarcity a serious problem, and Hight again called his platoon leaders to say that there would be no more ammunition available until morning. One of the men explained that they were almost out as it was, and some of them had their last ammunition in their guns.

"What are we going to do when this is gone?" he wanted to know.

"Well, by God," answered Hight, "we'll just wrestle them when we run out of ammunition."

To save the ammunition he had on the hill, Lieutenant Hight again called for the artillery and the heavy mortars to lay down his final protective lines. The fire continued for an hour and a half until 0430, when Hight called it off because the enemy's fire had almost ceased. During this time the 4.2-inch mortars alone fired 2,l65 rounds. There had been a couple of light, probing attacks during that time, but neither had the verve or force of the first two.

The rain ended soon after it began to get light on the morning of 5 August. The enemy activity was also over except for several groups that attempted to get back apparently to recover some of their equipment. The men counted 26 Chinese in these groups and fired upon them with machine guns and mortars, killing 7 and wounding others. They also counted 39 bodies in front of their perimeter, and believed they had killed or wounded others. Company K had suffered five men wounded from the action, but the morale and pride of the men were high.

Late that afternoon Lieutenant Hight received orders to abandon the hill at dusk that evening. The men fixed demolition charges and booby traps over it and marched off just as it began to get dark.


This is an example of the successful conduct of a defense. At first sight it appears to have few lessons other than the generality that a well-organized defense, adequately supported and manned by determined soldiers, is a hard nut to crack at any time. On closer examination the factors that made the defense so successful become more evident.

First of all, the defensive position selected was organized on a hilltop where the observation was excellent. To improve observation during darkness and limited visibility, arrangements were made to employ artificial lighting.

Now let us look at the organization. The platoons and squads were emplaced for mutual support. The company had a support that could be used to bolster any portion of the position which was threatened. Prior to the time of attack the supporting fires were coordinated and adjusted. The 2d Platoon's machine gun was emplaced where it could cover the most likely avenue of enemy approach, and it was protected by the fire of two BARs. Note that within the organization the integrity of the units was maintained; that communications were established within the company and with higher and supporting units; and that the company commander exercised many of the principles of good leadership by checking the positions he had ordered organized and constructed, by directing the employment of the supporting fires, by trying to maintain the ammunition supply, and finally by the use of humor to maintain morale- "We'll just wrestle them when we run out of ammunition."


1. This narrative is based upon interviews by the author of fourteen members of Company K, including Lt. Robert H. Hight, Lt. Wilbur C. Schaeffner, SFC Raymond M. Deckard, MSgt. William L. Scholes, PFC Herman W. McKinney, and SFC Warren C. Cain, Jr. The author visited the position the morning after the attack and a week later conducted more exhaustive interviews.

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