In the Line of Fire

Author: James F. Walsh ’55, ’56 M.A.

We’d heard rumors that the Korean War was nearly over, given the truce talks between our side (the United Nations Forces) and their side (the North Korean People’s Army and the Chinese Communist Forces). Although I’d joined the Army in February 1951 to fight Communists, a possible truce that August was all right with me now that I was actually in a combat zone.

It was easy, stateside, to say, “I look forward to combat,” but why be thickheaded? Ten months ago I had been a third-year college seminarian. Now I was a Private E-1, just assigned to a frontline combat unit – Dog Company of the 1st Battalion, 35th Regimental Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, 8th U.S. Army, and United Nations Forces. I had just arrived at Kumhwa, North Korea, and was amazed at the height of the mountains upon which war was being waged and stupefied at generals in such haste to get me into combat.

Two major military operations reportedly had been shelved so as not to jeopardize truce talks, although the enemy came to the negotiating table only because so many of their comrades had lost life or limbs in the 8th Army’s spring and summer offensives. Actually, termination of the recent offensives had more to do with the U.S. military’s fear of the reaction to a high GI casualty count – all hell hitting the fan back home where there was already a sense of futility about fighting a useless war.

Still, the enemy wasn’t dormant. Two Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) companies, supported by tanks, had almost surrounded the patrol base of the 5th Cavalry Regiment and had fired upon a GI patrol on the supply route to that base. The outpost of the 7th Infantry Division had been overrun, the 1st Cavalry Regiment’s outpost had been driven in, and the 3rd Infantry Division’s outpost had come under heavy attack.

It was also rumored that the outpost of our regiment’s 3rd Battalion on hill 682 and 717 was in danger. Our squad leader was troubled that none of our troops was on hill 432, the halfway point of the main supply route between our main line of resistance and hills 682 and 717. If the CCF took the 3rd Battalion’s outpost and then hill 432, the results would be grim. So our whole infantry in every green valley and verdant mountain was alerted to anticipate the new moon of the autumnal season, for its pale light would offer a jewel of guidance to CCF attackers.

We hurried to clean weapons and machine gun parts, check ammo, draw fresh water and combat rations. If war he must, an infantryman cared about the fire support he got after he crossed the line of departure. He wanted every weapon the Army and Air Force could fire to precede him, cover him, follow him up the hill. An infantryman didn’t want a limited war. He wanted a choreography of covering shells, napalm and bullets. It gave strength to legs heading into enemy trenches.

With no moon shining, the CCF went after 3rd Battalion’s outpost anyway. Hills 717 and 682 first were heavily shelled, then the CCF attacked, firing rifles and burp guns, blowing bugles, hurling grenades, shouting, chanting. Several companies were already in counterattack position. Fox Company deployed across the Hantan-gang River by a concrete bridge and moved toward hill 432. But the enemy called down heavy mortar rounds, pouring intense fire from automatic and small arms. Hill 432 was infested with CCF, who beat back the GI attack. Even the recon patrol sent to pick up wounded and stragglers took heavy fire.

The night brought more fighting as King Company, moving toward the 3rd Battalion outpost, finally drove the CCF off hill 432, but then on hill 528 took lead like blows from a blacksmith’s hammer. CCF soldiers crept to within yards of the perimeter, then walked straight in, firing a heavy volley of rifle and burp gun fire. King Company thickened the air with lead, mortar men feeding tubes till they were red hot, as artillery danced shells in front of 432 and GI grenades perforated those quilted CCF cotton pants like so many needles. Machine guns crackled blue, white and red streams of flame across the skirmish sky.

With these and other movements of massed forces, Dog Company finally was being called into play, and we prepared to hike to the assembly area. The squad leader had placed me, an ammo bearer, behind the machine gun. Although firing a machine gun brought more incoming fire than a latrine draws flies, I knew orders must be obeyed. But soon I sensed the onset of internal combustion. Bad water, I’d heard, but I drank only GI water from the water bag and added halizone tablets to each canteen. Yet my innards were in convulsion. How could I go into combat with fatigues full of effluvium? So I tried the medic’s cure – bowel plug, a sip or two taken every few hours to bind what needed binding, loosen what needed loosening.

At the assembly area we mounted trucks for the front lines – this American son of Irish immigrants and the sons of parents descended from immigrant Poles, Frenchmen, Germans, Englishmen, and Eastern Europeans: craft George Shoemaker, our first sergeant from Ohio, methodical medic Doc Davidson, the caring Iowa farmer Warren, Hartland Clouse of Pennsylvania, soulful Bouton, religious Carroll Truscott of Utah, car-builder Norb Gzregorek of Indiana, Earl Diemer of California, earnest Baldy Heideman and Louisiana Bayou Boudreau.
We were men armed and dangerous, going to battle as ordered, but not before grumbling about the bloodlines coursing through the veins of military planners. We all felt the 3rd Battalion was endangered because of the truce talkers, our stutterers versus their inflammatory rhetoricians, or because our officers forgot the mobility of the CCF – soldiers in tennis shoes who’d climb at night, moon or no, to dig fox holes to cut off relieving forces.

Our ride might have been over smoother roads, but Korea had no Main Street. Sudden stops and starts had us sliding, splinters piercing our fatigues. Fine dust off the road powdered the landscape. Some of us coughed. No one complained. I swigged bowel juice and squirmed. A jerky stop stacked us like packing crates. I slurped more gastrointestinal stopper. I studied the hills. There was little greenery left between rival armies, but grotesque humpbacks and pimpled peaks, the haze from cordite clouds swirling above moonscape heights cooked by military volcanoes, napalm and white phosphorous.
The convoy jerked to a sudden stop and we marched down a deep ravine. A break was ordered, and we endured a misery of an evening. I sweated and shivered in sweat-soaked fatigues. Reflections of searchlights probing the clouds exposed GIs in the valley. Some cleaned weapons. Others stood tall, leaning on rifles. A few sat Indian-style, weapons across their knees. No one smoked. Few Talked. Someone, from out of the dark, gave the order to saddle up. Up came the tide of troops, orderly. Baker Company formed up and moved out; Dog and two other companies followed. An exodus of men went into the inky recesses of ravines and slopes, heading for Hill 432. Boots trampled through the dark. I marveled that men going to battle would strive forth vigorously as if on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. The men of the section were quiet, but quiet was fire from the heart.

I moved carefully over the rock-strewn ridge. A mortar round smacked forward. The enemy was alive and well in these hills. My carbine rode Warren’s left shoulder. My backpack carried a set of carefully wrapped spare parts – a lock frame, a bolt and barrel extension. There was extra packing for the muzzle gland and muzzle end. Three cans of combat rations and three beers were tucked inside clean socks so they wouldn’t rattle. A white phosphorous grenade rode the loop of my left pack harness to use on the machine gun if we were overrun by the enemy. Carbine ammo clips hung on my cartridge belt with a canteen, first aid packet and trenching tool. A fragmentary grenade rode the loop of my right pack harness.

The wreckage of past fire fights was strewn along the ridges: ammo boxes, expended clips, canteens, a broken weapon, the brass from expended rounds. Salvage was the chore of others. Infantrymen were the makers of waste, human or manufactured. We kept on the move across this desolate debris under the hissing of floating white flares that threw momentary garish light from the heavens.

Up beyond hill 528 I watched explosive flashes of friendly artillery fire walk the ridgeline north, clear up to hills 682 and 717. It was answered in kind, with mortar fire pelting the ridgelines of hill 528. I was awestruck by the crushing crescendo of thundering shells, the angry shockwaves that stirred air to a tempest, the very trembling of the earth as if the god of volcanoes had come home. I saw a fearsome place where infantry curled like worms and burrowed even deeper into the trembling earth. Survival was in a deep hole.

King Company, there before us, had left more than excavations on hill 432. They left trepidation, cordite as thick as milkshakes and dead CCF laying about the slopes in weird, contorted poses. I was shocked at what bullets, grenades and artillery could do to flesh and bones, mangling and slaughtering men who moments before bore intellect. The scene was appalling. I saw the vacant stares coming from now-decomposing bodies, the guts, arms and legs loose as spaghetti in tomato sauce. The stench of the dead hung over the hill like a sordid cloud, fetid stink blending with cordite, an odor of diarrhea, gangrene, violent straining, blood, vomit, mucus. The odor was the sickly reek of putrefying flesh still unburied while the living fought throughout the ghostly night.

For two hours we waited, with guard duty to pull before crossing the next morning’s line of departure. Despite watch the rats forage for food from corpse to corpse, it was time to chow down. I took hold of the can opener on my dogtag chain and, light flickering from a flare, opened a ration of cheese and bacon. I nibbled at the congealed wheel of food and washed it down with a beer, trying to ignore the rodents.

The order eventually came to saddle up and regroup on the reverse side. We had a thousand meters – more than 10 football fields – to go to take back the outpost. From here to there were crevices, ravines, slopes, ridgelines, peaks, crests and cliffs to mount in hot, muggy weather, with every meter zeroed in by CCF mortars, artillery, automatic weapons and small arms. The CCF, ensconced in rock-wall crevices, let loose harassing fire as we embarked upon the attack.

Getting uphill to the next checkpoint, a rolling area, was the key to our plan of attack. Side by side, attacking battalions would eliminate the flanking fire and free the 3rd Battalion from the jaws of entrapment. But there was scant cover of leafy vegetation against the flailing lead of the unseen enemy, and our light machine guns weren’t defrocking the enemy’s cloak. Riflemen were pinned down. Charley Company trying into Baker was imperative, so heavy machine guns were called forward. We put our weapons into action.

I took a sitting position silhouetted as if for a portrait, head erect, eyes to the front. On command, tracers chewed paths through flora and fauna up suspected crevices, across fingers, into dark black holes. Third Squad deployed under our cover. Charley Company moved across the valley and fanned out through the foliage to engage and suppress any resistance. Finally we were ordered to move up to the rallying point.

It was a torturous journey a mountain goat wouldn’t take, but we did. There was no path, save the beaten trail crushed into soil by GIs gone before. Exhausted men dispersed to seek easier ways, to blaze trails of their own. Stragglers lagged far down the mountainside. Clouse, Bouton and I used feet, knees, fingernails and teeth to grab hold, to get equipment uphill one foot at a time. Limp as rags, we eventually reached the checkpoint and tumbled onto inhospitable stones. Six morning hours had been expended fighting our way to that peak that pierced shadowy clouds. I uncapped my canteen but, fearful of running out, only sipped. More stragglers inched to the crest. Troops were strung out like boxers’ teeth – radiomen, mortarmen, recoilless rifle squads, the 1st gun squad’s ammo bearers, the 2nd gun squad, riflemen and litter bearers.

And dead GIs.

A half-dozen lay here side by side. They could have been in a funeral parlor, so neatly arranged they were. In full field dress, no limbs missing. But waxen, pale of face and hands, blood spots staining fatigues. A lone rifleman guarded them. He could have been at prayer the way he knelt.

The vague fear I had of the terrible consequences of war mounted. I recognized that life lived in combat could be very brief. I felt mortal, not helpless, never hopeless, just fragile. It was an unnerving sensation. I controlled it. I had focused on the high death toll of Chinamen, not friendly casualties, as ironic a phrase as the Army could invent. Here, were Americans killed in action, KIA. Did the abbreviation glorify military faithfully departed? Did KIA give a glow to the sudden end of a loved human being?

The sudden movement of tree leaves was not a breeze but a distant weapon’s lead. Our squads took cover. Charley’s 2nd Platoon deployed to the right, Charley’s 1st to the left. GIs rubbed themselves with grungy earth to hide facial skin. Earth in all its forms was natural to foot- soldiers who caressed its folds day and night as shelter from enemy and elements. Earth was a friend. As long as an infantryman could harbor within earth’s skirts, there was a semblance of safety.

Our machine guns were deployed, so I did a dash with the tripod to the place Warren pointed – tripod quickly to ground. Clouse brought the gun forward and mounted it. He took to the prone. Bouton dropped off the water can and ammo, getting back into a shell hole faster than a screen door snapping shit. I sat behind the gun, head erect, observing my front as if an Army photographer were there to capture me forever on film.

Dirt erupted from little volcanoes beside the gun. Grit and chips leapt, some hitting my helmet like hailstones. I hit the prone, a mole deep in the soil. Clouse’s helmet fit him like a diving bell. Mine felt like a thimble. I wished my helmet was as large as my mother’s wash tub.

I hit the tripod’s jamming handles to free the three legs. The gun and cradle dropped to a low profile. I jammed tight the handles and pulled the gun and tripod to new cover. Sighting, I fired a burst of six rounds.

The riflemen of Charley’s 3rd Platoon’s 3rd Squad began moving out of their freshly dug foxholes, considerably far in advance of the checkpoint. I adjusted and fired cover. The CCF fought as they withdrew. Beyond their fighting holes, the ridgeline dropped like a saddle with a horn. Any rifle squad that rode the saddle without my help would be bucked off.

First Sergeant Shoemaker came forward. He played binoculars on CCF positions near the saddle’s horn. Machine guns ready to fire from the rocky point guaranteed GI casualties. The point had to be neutralized. Any platoon that inched past chanced a rippling by flanking fire, so we let loose heavy support as riflemen approached the saddle. Charley’s 2nd Platoon jumped an embankment and at 5- yard intervals ran just below the ridgeline of the saddle, hidden from CCF guns. I continued the machine gun beat in bursts of six, searching the saddle horn for enemy soldiers. Third Platoon’s 3rd Squad jumped off, the other squads echeloned right and left, but there was almost no visible enemy, a worrisome omen to combat infantrymen. Third Squad pushed upward, seizing the crest of the horn. The life pulse of combat seemed to be hushed. Then, a dozen meters up, a pall of smoke shrouded the enemy and shifting machine gun fire freed them to pop up and fight.

Heavy small arms fire from CCF foxholes flayed the horn. Aiming and firing rapidly, a GI Browning Automatic Rifle team pushed toward the redoubt. GI riflemen swept upward in a rush. Small units struggled. Flashes of hell roared on the ridgeline. The grimaces of death-dealing soldiers contorted young faces. Third Squad overran the horn.

Shoemaker moved the machine guns toward the horn. Distant muzzle flashes from a CCF machine gun were seen coming from a knob in front of the blackened outpost. The enemy’s plunging fire fell across the saddle. I took over a shell hole and set up, picking a point midway to the CCF gun, measuring it by football fields and doubled the result to determine distance. Four hundred yards northeast. I sent a burst of M-2 armor-piercing rounds on a projected path toward their point of impact, followed quickly by seven more bursts that searched a beaten zone on the knob. It was a duel of plunging fire, both sides traversing for the other’s gunholes.

The riflemen of 3rd Platoon moved toward the ridge, shouting, jumping rocks taller than track hurdles, side-stepping bodies. Their speed and momentum sealed Chinamen in bunkers where grenades tolled, turning CCF positions into tombs. Others fled the fighting to disappear even higher. GI riflemen blasted away, triggering round after round into bugouts. Shoemaker didn’t cotton to shallow holes or giving time to the CCF regroup. He figured the enemy had a firing card on the knob still above and would soon let loose misery. I looked upon that remaining protruding point. The whole scene was imposing. There must have been a time before soldiers mounted its ridges when it palpitated with energy and beauty, alone and far removed from village life in the valley. But there was no current charm. Somewhere were enemy troops.

It would be a steep scramble for GI skirmishers to mount the rocky ledge. The day was long on into the afternoon and there was several hundred meters more to cross under the sights of enemy guns. The outpost was a long way away. I peered across the wide divide. GIs lay as close to the ground as they could wallow. Even a few hundred yards advance without massive artillery support would become for them life’s last thoroughfare. If there were hell on earth, Charley Company’s 3rd Platoon and 3rd Section of Dog’s heavy machine guns – my unit – had now to run its gauntlet.

The order for machine guns to commence firing came in concert with outgoing artillery rounds. Tracers sparkled like flashing embers in a charcoal fire. CCF answered fire with fire, increasing in intensity, roaring to a thunderous volume. When incoming mortar rounds dropped into the draw and walked toward the platoon, Charley 3rd took cover.

Then, like knives from the brow of overhead clouds, F-84s sliced through the smoke, their cannons blazing. Metal pieces chewed hunks out of the earth around my fighting hole and all of 8th Army’s 155 howitzers fired simultaneously, thundering. In confusion, I burrowed into the gun hole’s deepest level before Clouse’s knuckles bonked my helmet to let me know the metal was spent shell casings from the F-84s. My heart slid down my throat. The F-84s turned the battle into a charnel house, a crimson glow on the far hill. The airborne’s fiery oblivion hurled at CCF infantrymen shocked me. I said one prayer for the enemy and a second of thanksgiving that our infantrymen weren’t on hill 682.

Shock quickly faded when it became clear that Charley 3rd Platoon was still pinned down by grazing fire. Automatic weapon fire rippled the advancing ranks with such intensity that further advances would be through a snarling crossfire. Mortar shells fell thick to the front, barbs hotter than branding irons. The day was twilight grey.

I stared into the gloom where enemy automatic weapon flashes freckled the dark. If there were no advancing toward the objective, how could Charley’s 3rd get back? I was firing high, having shifted fire to maintain the minimum clearance between skirmishing troops and the center of the machine gun’s cone of fire. I’d followed the machine gunner’s book. I’d laid the gun on the target with a sight setting to hit the target, then the rear sight to look through to note the point where a new line of aim struck the ground. At that point I’d set the safety limit. It was the rule, but CCF filled the safety margin with weaponry.

Taking notice of enemy gun flashes, I lowered aim and fired a double burst, tracers lining the path. I adjusted, traversed and searched, turning loose a cluster of bursts. I had targets and crossed the enemy gun holes with steel-coated lead. I placed bursts wherever I’d seen flashes, walking tracers down slope, across the line of enemy bunkers. I traversed and searched just about the assault area, lingering several bursts where I’d seen a flash. The 2nd Squad’s machine gun to my right lowered fire, sighting on my tracers. We played bursts of six across the enemy’s fighting holes. Tracers bounced where the enemy was. Flashes from their weapons faded, disappeared.

There was quiet on the outpost.

The 3rd Platoon pulled back. Medics tended GI wounded. Chogie bearers, Koreans civilians serving as litter bearers, carried casualties off the hill. To busy myself and diminish anxiety, I set about rearranging ramparts. I filled more sandbags with soil, fitting them as neatly as a craftsman interlocking stones. My hands moved dirt while my mind processed all that had happened.

I was now a killer, even if from a distance – 10 months ago I had been a seminarian with fingers folded in chapel prayer. Now those hands had pulled a trigger and turned knobs to search and kill. From seminarian to soldier, I had transformed from godly to deadly.

Surely the Holy Ghost had refuge for his Chinese children – even those clothed in padded cotton of the CCF, those raised with Buddhist philosophy. Wasn’t there more than one mansion in heaven? More than one road there? God, by any name, wouldn’t deny his presence to any who sought his sight. I was convinced that a former follower of Buddhism was as likely as a former follower of Christianity, Judaism or Islam to rediscover beliefs in a foxhole under fire. Combat was a maker of believers.

I pondered my role as a killer and wondered if I were not a murderer. Didn’t the principle of the defense of third persons free me from being called “murderer”? Wasn’t the 8th Army a part of the United Nation’s effort to defend an invaded people? Didn’t the CCF rip into the U.N. defenders of the third party because the initial perpetrator, the North Korean People’s Army, was defeated? Wasn’t killing justifiable as an emergency measure to avoid imminent subjugation of South Koreans by a brutish and deadly foe?

Yet another version of the facts arose in my deliberations. Were the CCF not defenders of a third party against U.N. aggressors? Doubts had been raised by some when we had crossed the 38th parallel into the north chasing the North Koreans. But these had been overridden by those citing the legal theory of “hot pursuit” and those citing the political theory that the 38th parallel was nothing but a line of convenience drawn for the purpose of accepting surrenders at the end of World War II. It wasn’t really a line of legal partition – nothing more than a line maintained by the Soviet Union’s Stalin, daring anyone to cross at peril. Mao’s CCF troops, as General Douglas MacArthur had learned, were the peril.

So what was the morality of combat between two defenders of third parties? Whatever the legal theorists and theologians argued, it was clear to me that the CCF would have decimated Charley Company’s 3rd Platoon had we, Dog’s machine guns, not killed. Whatever the morality of killing, it was not done by murderers but by soldiers defending freedom, by riflemen and machine-gunners, artillerymen, F-84 pilots – killers from a distance.

So would the concept of justification apply as well to governments in Washington, Peking and Moscow? Were the political leaders in these governments murderers? The latter two were in Pyongyan and Moscow, yet they had planned the invasion of South Korea to forcibly subjugate the innocent. Murder was a willful, knowing, deliberate, premeditated act that killed or caused the killing of another human being. The artificial division of Korea, I reasoned, didn’t provide a legal basis for North Koreans to invade the South. Korea stayed divided only because Stalin wanted it so. He had no persuasive influence in the South but would have if the North Korean People’s Army had taken Pusan.

So, I concluded, the Soviets and North Koreans were murderers, but not the soldiers of the United Nations who had come to the aid of the invaded. And whatever MacArthur’s motives, the law allowed the pursuit of fleeing felons, accomplices no less guilty than perpetrators. Only then had the CCF entered the Korean War. Yet I concluded they, too, were murderers, intervening with deadly force against an army justified. China’s leaders had plotted its murderous adventure.

Still, I felt the wind’s breath and wondered how a seminarian from the Midwest came to these high haunts, how I’d come to man a water-cooled heavy machine gun, singing the gun’s deadly anthem in harmony with the dread engines of war. An eerie quiet fell over the darkly shadowed trenches. Winds whispered on the outpost of the dead. The grim dust of battle shaded grisly remains of enemy in deadly poses, severed forever from senses. Mouths gaped. Lifeless eyes stared at the palls of dark flies now stuck to drying blood.

The battle for the 35th Regiment’s outpost was won in the morning. What had been a question of the replacement’s fighting heart during truce talks was answered.

After serving in the U.S. Army in 1951 and 1952, Jim Walsh attended Notre Dame. After 25 years as a social worker and 20years as a lawyer practicing in Missouri and Indiana, he is now retired and living in Culver, Indiana.