March 26, 1953
Sometimes it occurs to me that any problems I have with remembering the dates of birthdays, anniversaries, and the like would not exist if all these events could have been arranged to happen on March 26. Each year since 1953 I have been keenly aware of the coming of that day in March.
I remember it as the day when the battle for the outposts Reno, Carson, and Vegas began. It began for me about a half hour before nightfall. I was standing just outside our reverse slope sleeping bunker, smoking a last cigarette before getting ready to go on our standard 100% watch after dark. From where I was standing the hill fell away sharply to a valley about 200 yards in width from north to south where the next interminable row of Korean hills rose up. At the base of the hill there was a supply/tank road that ran east and west, paralleling the MLR. Across the road and in line with our bunker was a helicopter evacuation station for the more seriously wounded. About 150 yards to the east there was a north-south road that came down through a saddle in the row of hills behind us and ended in a T-intersection with the east-west road. On the reverse slope of that next row of hills immediately adjacent to the north-south road was the position of our battalion’s 81mm mortars.
As I stood there I was facing sort of to the northeast. Before I could hear the sound I saw the greasy black cloud of an incoming artillery or mortar round blossom on the forward slope of the hill behind which our 81’s were located. I didn’t give this a lot of significance at first because it was not unusual for “Luke the Gook” to throw in a round or two now and then and hope to get lucky. This time though, before the distinctive “Kah-Rumph” of an exploding incoming shell reached me, three or four more shell bursts became visible. It was obvious to me now that Luke was firing a search and traverse mission and had some idea where our 81’s position was. All in all, I counted 9 rounds that landed in 3 rows of three shells each and formed a boxlike pattern. Fortunately for our team the adjustment after the first 3 rounds took the pattern down the forward slope toward the valley. Had the 2nd and 3rd rows of the pattern been adjusted to the south, there could have been a lot of damage done. As a mortar man I remember thinking what a nice tight pattern they had fired, and that may have been my last rationale thought for four or five days.
Just as I finished my smoke and turned to go in and get my gear the shit really hit the fan. The entire valley below us became one huge impact zone for enemy incoming of all sizes. Simultaneously the forward slope and the crest of our hill became saturated with machine gun and flat trajectory fire of every possible caliber. The fire remained both intense and constant for hours which turned into days. There was nothing to be done except take cover and wait for our big gear to respond. I cannot recall a time in my life, before or since, when I have been so terrified. I’m talking about abject terror here. That’s scared shitless times five to the tenth power. God Bless Chet! He’s the guy I ended up with in the bottom of a 60mm mortar gun pit. After about an hour of this exploding rain, I said to Chet, “Let’s get the fuck outta here!!” Chet says, “Great idea! Where do you wanna go?” We stayed where we were. To raise a body part above the level of the sandbags around that pit would have been an instant amputation.
Our gun pit was connected to the command post (CP) by a sound power phone network. How it remained intact that night is a marvel. We heard a whistle, which indicated someone was on the line. It was a report from the CP that Charlie Company, on our right flank, was reporting 200 casualties. It occurred to me to ask, “Friendly or enemy?” The answer was friendly! Since a Marine rifle company at that time had a full strength of only a little over 200 men, it kinda puckered your ass while you wondered if anyone was watching the store over there or if we should expect a visit from new neighbors.
Time passed with no apparent let up in the volume of the incoming shells. We were now aware that our artillery had unlimbered and was responding. We could hear the outgoing shells screaming overhead on their way out interspersed with the screams and whistles of the incoming. How these projectiles avoided colliding in midair is a mystery to me because by the sound there was no space to spare. I have no words that would adequately describe the noise level. There were shells traveling in both directions, each having its own sound, with explosions every second or two followed by the whistle and flutter of shrapnel going past. Added to this was a constant hum and buzz of machine guns and other small arms raking the ridgeline without let up. This went on for the entire night of the 26th and into the daylight hours of the 27th when some new but most welcome sounds were added to the din. These were aircraft engines, exploding bombs and 20 MM cannon fire. Corsair jockeys were coming in from the south, strafing as they came in on their bombing runs. They were so low that the shell casings ejecting from their wings that were falling into our hole were still hot to the touch.
At some point during the hours of darkness the folks in command finally determined that the Chinese objective in all this was to capture the three outposts in front of Charlie Company, 5th Marines. These three hills were called Reno, Carson, and Vegas. The risk factor associated with the namesake cities was not a coincidence. In rough numbers there were approximately 40 Marines on each of these hills, so the combined total on all three was less than 150 men. After several probes all along the MLR to confuse and mislead the defenders, the Chinese finally launched an attack of 3500 men against the three Marine outposts. The sheer size of the attacking force and the simultaneous assault on all three hills precluded them from supporting each other.
Carson, which was closest to our main line at 800 yards, was able to draw fire support from the MLR and prevent the Chinese from surrounding them. The Marines there beat off several assaults by numerically superior Chinese formations and Carson remained in our hands.
The other two outposts were further from the MLR. Vegas was about 1300 yards out and Reno was 1800 yards from the nearest help. The Chinese held several hills closer to these outposts than we were. During the earlier hours of this battle we were kept busy firing missions in support of Carson and in front of our own company where there was some activity reported. I think everyone was hoping the gooks would mass for an infantry assault on our lines because then they would have to lift their barrage. Around 10 p.m. an airplane or airplanes arrived on the scene and began flying the battlefield from east to west and back again while kicking out a flare every so often. After that it did not get dark again for a couple of days because for the next couple of nights the flare planes were on the scene at twilight.
Shortly after the first flare plane arrived our forward observers were able to find targets. The enemy in company size units could clearly be seen streaming thru the valleys on their way to reinforce and consolidate their gains. One of the FO’s told me that it was like kicking the top off an anthill. The ones on their way to Reno and Vegas were beyond the maximum range of our 60mm mortar, using the ammunition as it came out of the containers. While Chet and I manned the gun, we had 4 ammo bearers in the ammo bunker breaking out rounds and adding a fifth charge to the fin assembly. The rounds came with four and firing with 4 charges and the tube at a 45-degree angle we could hit targets at a range of over 1900 yards. We didn’t know where the fifth charge would take the rounds but we knew the Chinese were outside our max range with four charges.
We fired a 9 round search and traverse and the forward observer reported back that we were right on target and should keep firing search and traverse missions on the same azimuth. The purpose was to kill Chinese, but if they could not use the corridor where our shells were landing we would at least keep them from reaching Reno and Vegas. I worked the traversing hand wheel, kept the tube at 45 degrees oriented to Reno and leveled the bubbles between shots and gave the command to fire. Chet dropped the rounds into the tube and swabbed out the barrel every so often.
We fired this mission for a couple of hours and then sometime in the wee hours of the morning several things went wrong within seconds of each other. The night firing device that illuminated the sight and allowed me to check the elevation and bubbles went dead. This happened just as I was struggling to maintain an angle on the tube that would put the rounds into the target zone but also clear the crest of the hill we were firing from. What had been happening gradually as we fired with five charges was that the increased recoil was causing the base plate to sink into the ground. This continually changed the relationship of the tube and the bipod to the base plate, making it ever more difficult to be sure we were going to clear our hill.
I had no choice but to call the CP and report the gun out of action, knowing full well what the response was going to be. I was right on the money too. The orders were repair the night firing device and reset the base plate and get back into action. During all this time there had been no discernable let up in the rate of incoming fire. The gooks must have been stockpiling ammo for months to sustain that rate of fire. I guess that’s why they bothered with the truce talks because it gave them opportunities to do stuff like that.
Being a rational person, and one who was scared shitless to boot, I took a very logical approach to the order just issued. It made no sense to me to reset the base plate if I couldn’t see the sight on the mortar. Resetting the base plate might involve all of us having to leave the gun pit to collect rocks upon which to reset the plate. So while logical but not too rational we took the night firing device into the ammo bunker, which was covered so we could work on it there—not too rational because in order to see what we were doing we had to light a candle. A candle in an ammo bunker? Hell, it was a lot safer than leaving that hole in the ground. The sandbags around our gun pit had more metal in them than they did dirt.
While I was working to get the device to illuminate I had the ammo humpers use their helmets to scrape as much dirt as possible from the floor of the ammo bunker and fill several sand bags half full. Against my better judgment and definitely not in my best interest, I somehow got the goddamned firing device to light up. Now Chet and I crawled back out into the gun pit, dug out the base plate, and salvaged any rocks that had not been pulverized by the recoil. By using the sandbags the ammo guys had filled and placing the salvaged rocks on top we were able to get things close enough to level to reset the gun. The twelve or fourteen concentrations we had pre-registered could no longer be fired with any certainty of accuracy and most of our fire would require adjustment by an observer to get on target.
Our first fire mission after I reported the gun back in action was to fire illumination to our company front. Illumination rounds burst in the air and so range was not as critical as elevation. However, I never knew a mortar man who liked firing illumination ammo. The very act of firing these shells ignites a powder train fuse that ultimately sets off the flare itself. The burning powder train creates an arc of burning sparks in the night sky that leads directly back to the muzzle of the firing tube. Over the course of the next three days we spent somewhere around twenty hours a day in the gun pit either firing missions, resetting the base plate, reregistering concentrations, or restocking ammunition supplies.
One thing of interest that occurred in one of the other gun pits during this period was a casualty we had in a most unusual way. One of the assistant gunners was dropping rounds into the tube with both hands. It seems he got the round in his left hand over the tube just as the previous round was exiting. The round on its way to Goonieland collided only slightly with the round being held in his left hand. Enough so however, to drive the round deeper into his hand and the fin assembly severely lacerated his palm. To his credit he stayed on the job until there was enough of a break to get a dressing on it.
The real fight was taking place on Vegas. The decision had been made not to try to retake Reno, and Carson had been reinforced and was holding, but both sides wanted Vegas. I suppose to keep us from applying too many resources in the recovery attempt, the Chinese used their limitless supply of humanity to bring pressure to bear at many different points along the front. They got pretty close to our company front one evening. I remember the casual manner in which the Gunny came into the hootch and after asking if everyone was ok and ready to go on 100% alert, he said he and the skipper thought it would be a good idea if we fixed bayonets tonight. Gulp! The gooks did come calling but were stopped at the wire.
Other than the troops who were on the outposts at the time of the assault it was the guys who were in reserve who bore the brunt of the recovery of Vegas. The 2nd Battalion 5th Marines was in regimental reserve and the first units called forth were supplied by them. As the battle grew and the Chinks kept reinforcing it was necessary to bring forward units from the 7th Marines who were in division reserve. The second, third, and fourth days were all too similar to the 26th,and in some ways worse. The noise levels were still painfully high, the incoming was still well above usual levels if not constant, and the aid stations were overflowing with wounded Marines.
I have done a lot of reading from a variety of sources on this battle. Some historians compare this battle to WWII’s Battle of the Bulge, and some rate it as even harder fought. For the first 20 minutes of the attack artillery fell on the Marine positions at the rate of one round per second. After that it fell at a rate of a round every forty seconds. The number of Marines killed and wounded over the four days of this battle was very close to1000. This may have been thought to be the last major battle the Marines would fight in Korea, but on the very day the ceasefire was signed the 1st Marines were engaged in a battle similar to this on outposts Berlin and East Berlin at the eastern-most point on the Marine MLR. Berlin and East Berlin were only about 325 yards in front of the main positions and so could be well supported in comparison to Reno and Vegas.
This experience was a defining moment in my life. I would be proud to report to you that I acted heroically and played a major role in the defense of our positions. The truth is I am still a little ashamed for being as fear struck as I was. I do take a small measure of pride in having been able respond to orders and not letting my comrades down but I can’t brag about that.
I had just turned twenty-one a week and a half before the shit hit the fan, and I had serious doubts about ever being able to legally buy a beer in the USA. Many times since, when life has not been as easy as I would have liked it to be or if there was a situation at work that seemed insurmountable, I have remembered how I felt in late March of 1953, and all of a sudden things weren’t nearly as bad as I had let my imagination lead me to believe. I claim no personal credit in this opinion, but I really think the Chinese just fucked with the wrong group of guys and got their asses kicked.