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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 challenge.

Principal Infantry Weapons of Both Sides


Bert Kortegaard on Old Smokey above the Han, 1952
Birchard Lee Kortegaard

``And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the Temples of his Gods?''

Macaulay: "Lays"

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 souvenirs?"

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 other's company.

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 understood.

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 yesterday.


"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 troops did.

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 mind?

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 right leg.

I saw shadows change in a dip in the rise and got off another burst just as a brown cap popped up.

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 times.

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 wrinkle.

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 by.

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 hear?"

That motherfucker! Must've been all over the States. Probably a dumb ass gook Lieutenant. Probably had a scholarship from the US government.

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 Schwarz.

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 earlier.

"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 hand."

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 passenger seat.

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 small units.

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 and gullies.

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 cracker.

"Wahoo, what do y'all think you'd see, looking down thisaway about two ayem?"

What a dumb ass question. You could be looking down a well at midnight

... I searched for movement across the way.

"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 while.

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 bled.

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 ambush: Proposal".


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 ready.


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 decided on.

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 sound.

Planting the board over the whole trench, I scattered dirt over the area hoping to make everything look untouched.

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 either.


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 carbine.

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 watching.

Most of them had bet some Chinese would be heading up the other hill with our balls in his pocket.


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 landmarks!

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, too!

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 tightened.

But they passed on the other side of the bush.

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 chin.

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 mind.

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 waited.

When they were about a third of the way up to Pederson, I gave a sharp little bark, like a coyote pup.

Get ready for the dance, Pete!

They froze.

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 around.

I pulled in my carbine and slid the board up. The Chinese could have no clear idea where I was hidden.

When Pederson was finishing his second magazine the flare sizzled out.

I heard maybe half a dozen more grenades, mostly ours.

Shit Pete pull the fuck back out!

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 silence.


Feet coming back down. A few running, a few stumbling; moans, grunts of pain.

Again silence.


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 loosen them.

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 shoes!

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 me.

Souvenir, motherfucker.

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 Chinese starshell.

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 move

... 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 still running.

Whatever the reason, there was no fire.

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 kid!

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 barrage.

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 rear.


If they had formed up in the gulley, they might come back now to check for survivors.

Still nothing.

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 shoulder, gently.

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, they stopped.

The gun pit stayed deadly silent. Nobody reconnoitered from the rear.

Now and then the first Chinese coughed a bubbling groan.

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 was mine.

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 him.

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, Sam?"

Gradually, Charlie's words swam into my awareness. Gradually, I came back from a time long ago.

A time unique, for many reasons, in many ways.


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.

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Murder ... or something else ? Second short story of Korean War series

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