combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 05 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2007

the Historic Clash
as American Marines meet Red Chinese Volunteers
in the Korean War

The setting is North Korea in 1950 forthe battle at Sudong-ni, an overlooked yet crucial clash as the opening salvo of the vicious Chosin Reservoir campaign. Halfway between North Korea's east coast port of Hungnam and the desolate Taebaek Plateau, a small valley just south of a tiny nondescript village called Sudong-ni would host the first-ever meeting between U.S. Marines and Communist China's People's Liberation Army. The ChiCom armed forces were represented as Volunteers coming to the aid of their North Korean neighbors, which regime had been established by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II.

To back up a bit, the Marine's baptism of fire in Korea actually occurred shortly after North Korea's People's Army sudden, overwhelming invasion of South Korea on 25 June 1950. Though understrength due to post-WWII cutbacks, with General MacArthur's urging, a Marine brigade was quickly formed and rushed to Korea.

Dubbed the Fire Brigade, General Craig's brigade helped stop the enemy juggernaught now deep in South Korea and threatening the southern -tip port of Pusan. Enduring the enervating heat of South Korea in July and August, the brigade immediately deployed as a flying reserve. They were rushed to quell hot spots and potential breakthroughs as they flared up all up and down the Pusan perimeter.

Meanwhile, at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where my Marine buddies Rex Farler, Willie Greene and I were stationed, an emergency contingent was being formed for deployment to Korea. Trained and experienced as radiomen, part of a naval gunfire spotting team, we all volunteered for Korea as naval gunfire and air support spotting teams were forming. Despite the traditional military mantra of "Never volunteer for anything!", the innocence of youth and the siren-song of adventure called, so I suppose that's why we foolishly signed-on.

With the situation in Korea deteriorating, things moved rapidly. Entrained to California, upon arrival our team was assigned to the 2nd Battalion. 7th Marines. Consisting of only half regulars, it was filled-out with Marine reservists who'd been called up to active duty.

Soon we were at sea on our way to take part in September's Inchon end-run surprise assault landing. By the end of September, the division had secured Inchon and liberated Seoul, South Korea's Capitol. During these actions, our spotting team, sent to Kimpo Peninsula, west of Seoul, had the thrill and excitement of calling in fire missions from the 16-inch guns of the battleship Missouri, the renown Mighty Mo of WWII fame. I can still remember the ponderous rumble of those massive shells passing overhead and still see those huge black and red earth-rending explosions in my mind's eye ... so powerful and destructive, but on our side, and for a good cause.

The Inchon/Seoul victories quickly altered the dynamics and course of the war. Now caught deep in South Korea, and in danger of entrapment, the communist forces abandoned the Pusan perimeter and began fleeing north.

Returning to Inchon, the 1st Marine Division re-formed, re-supplied, and began shipping out for North Korea. This time scheduled to land unopposed at Wonsan, on North Korea's east coast. With the 1st Marine Division now attached to the Army under General Almond's X Corps, the 7th Marines received orders in mid-October to jump-off ahead of the division, and drive deep into the northeast Taebaek Mountains, and thence to the Chosin Reservoir.

With the war seemingly winding down, rumors were rampant. During chow one afternoon Willie Greene came up with some scuttlebutt, "Listen guys, I just heard that we'll all be home by Christmas!"

We jumped-off early in the morning on October 31st. After a day-long trek climbing a narrow, dirt mountain road, Colonel Litzenberg picked a small valley just south of Sudong-ni to bivouac the regiment for the night. The rock-strewn valley was bordered by a dry stony riverbed and that was encircled by steeply-rising hills, climbing 1,000 to 1,500 feet higher, and dominating the valley floor.

Lieutenant Colonels Davis and Lockwood set up their 1st and 2nd Battalion Command Posts in the valley, and dug-in their rifle companies among the hills. Colonel Litzenberg set up his regimental C.P. along with Lieutenant Colonel Bill Harris' 3rd Battalion around a bend in the road, about 100 yards or so to the rear.

Our team sergeant ordered us to park our radio Jeep beside the riverbed, and head for evening chow. Later we heard a rumor that Colonel Litzenberg had once declared, "The only Marines I want in my outfit are Purple Heart Marines!" Being fairly new to war and its horrors, we didn't quite know what to make of his words. However, they would soon hit home. After those disquieting comments, the fast-darkening hills seemed to take on a sinister aspect as they merged into a starless night.

Breaking out our sleeping bags for the night, the usual Marine bitching began. One was, "What idiot thought up this stupid idea of sending sea-going Marines into these goddamn mountains anyway!" That prophetic curse would be widely echoed.

Strains of Goodnight Irene filtered into the night air as one of my buddies began pulling in the Armed Forces Radio broadcast from Tokyo. Remembering our Marine band's dockside serenade as we shipped out from San Diego, I had a tug of nostalgia for home ... remember, you volunteered for all this fun.

As we hit the welcome warmth of our sleeping bags, a sharp chill in the air seemed to be a harbinger of a frigid winter soon to be howling down from Manchuria. In the desolate mountains of the Taebaek Plateau, overnight winter temperatures of -20 to -30 degrees were not uncommon. The starless night found the road-tired Marines in the sack and the valley fell silent.

"Here they come!"

Jolted awake by the unexpected shouts, a shiver of fear knifed through my system as we scrambled from our bags. Rifle and machine-gun fire began breaking out to our front. Crouching around our radio Jeep, we broke out our weapons and ammo, steeling ourselves for the sudden onslaught.

Suddenly an eerie blare of bugles began, harshly discordant, echoing and re-echoing from hill to hill above. Shadowy forms loomed from the riverbed to our left. We let go with a fusillade of .45 pistol and .30 caliber carbine fire, and the forms eerily melted into the gloom. In a night action, everything is uncertain and confused by vague forms and blinding flashes. You never know if you hit anyone, or the right someone.

Parachute flares exploded overhead, bathing the tiny valley in a ghostly aura. I marveled at the courage of our battalion officers standing tall, fully exposed in the glow of the slowly-descending flares, directing their men into a defensive line. Rising volumes of rifle fire was interspersed with the staccato rattle of machine-guns rose to a hellish din, transforming the once-quiet vale into a vortex of chaotic fury.

As mountain rivulets unleashed by a spring thaw, form, multiply, then rush downhill seeking paths of least resistance – so too came the Red Chinese. Breaking past and veering around strong points, relentless bands of quilt-garbed Orientals cascaded into, through, and around the hill positions swarming the valley below in a classic double-envelopment.

"One of you – come with me!" shouted a non-com rushing over to our position. Tossing a quick "Let's go – over there!" he motioned across the valley to our right. Marine discipline kicked in, and I took off in a low, crouching run. Though only forty yards or so, it seemed like a hundred as too many red and green tracers wildly criss-crossed the night.

Making it across untouched, I tumbled into the shadows behind a low stone wall at the base of a darkened hill mass. Readying for fast and furious shooting, I checked my .45 automatic for a full ammo clip and laid an extra clip on the wall's ledge. Surprisingly, the initial fear was subsiding into an almost calm resolve.

When the burst struck I never saw my assailant, never clearly heard the shots. Sound, feeling, disbelief; were all jumbled together in a disjointed sensation as I realized that I was hit – and badly! Warm wetness began closing around my left side and arm. As the bloody flow gathered under my parka, a sickening, overwhelming weakness took hold.

"Corpsman!" I tried to shout, but tiring rapidly, only a murmur emerged. Fellow Marines nearby took up the call as I slumped to the rocky earth. Fading rapidly, Colonel Litzenberg's words – 'only Purple Heart Marines in my outfit' – passed through my ebbing consciousness.

Reviving sometime later, a shadowy form hovered in the still-enveloping darkness. A fellow Marine – a corpsman – or an enemy? Quiet, firmly-enunciated words broke the chill night air: "In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, amen." I then realized that the shadowed form was our regiment's chaplain pronouncing the Last Rites of the Church! Growing up Catholic back home in Pittsburgh, I knew full well their somber implication. Murmuring "Am I dying Father?" I faded again – never hearing the response.

Awakening to daylight in a medical tent with other stretcher-bound wounded under the care of a Navy surgeon and corpsmen, it felt reassuring to be still among the living. My relief was short-lived however. Crack! Crack! Dirt began kicking up in the tent's floor. "Sniper!" yelled a corpsman. Quickly they began putting helmets on the helpless wounded to afford some semblance of protection as the desultory fire continued. Foolishly, our surgeon opened the tent's flap to look around. Crack! "Ugh!" he bent over in pain as a slug slammed into his thigh! Soon though, the firing ceased as Fox Company was dispatched to clear the threatening snipers from a nearby hill.

Evacuation followed the next night to division hospital at Hamhung. Then Weeks of slow recovery began under the care of Naval surgeons and corpsmen. A brief stop-over to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in California, then on to Philadelphia's Navy Yard hospital. Now 24 December 1950, I received a 30-day R&R leave back home. I returned to serve seventeen months of light duty at the Marine Air Station radio room in Quantico, Virginia. My exciting four-year enlistment concluded with an honorable discharge in June of 1952.

Years later, while searching Sudong-ni battle records, I learned happily that our unfortunate surgeon had survived his wound. Still further, I discovered that my attending chaplain, Father Cornelius "Connie" Griffin, was seriously wounded during the division's heroic breakout from the Chosin encirclement by the Red Chinese. Chaplain Griffin was comforting his young wounded and dying Marines in a medical panel truck when sheets of ChiCom gunfire riddled the vehicle, though it was clearly marked with huge red crosses. Bullets tore through Griffin's cheek and jaw and his assistant was killed instantly. Happily Griffin survived his ordeal and later evacuated.

Thirty-five years later, now a civilian, and living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I learned of a reunion of the Chosin Few, as the survivors of the Chosin campaign were dubbed. I was eager to go, hoping to run into some wartime buddies and get to fill in some gaps, having lost all contact after being evacuated from North Korea.

At the reunion we had two or three Chosin Medal of Honor recipients in attendance, but the loudest ovation was accorded our brave Navy corpsmen, and rightly so. We all knew that were it not for their courage under fire, many of us wouldn't be here.

Sadly, I had confirmation that our team sergeant was killed at Sudong-ni and that our team officer had been severely wounded.

At the next evening's dinner, a group of our comrades were honored on stage. A white-collared vet, clad in black was introduced. After thirty-five years I found myself in the presence of my wartime comforter, Chaplain "Connie" Griffin. He was about 55 years old or so, with thinning graying hair; and his deep-set eyes seemed to project an aloof sadness. Introducing myself, we shook hands as I thanked him profusely. Father Griffin was reluctant to talk much, and as I think about it, I'm sure that somber memories of Korea were roiling his mind. His scarred, emaciated face bore stark evidence of his painful Chosin Reservoir ordeal, borne long ago.

Years later, I sometimes think of Chaplain Griffin and his impact at the reunion. He bravely faced his dark Korean memories then, as he had unflinchingly attended to and comforted his young Marines in 1950 North Korea. His ordeal and unflagging devotion has inspired me to finally realize that my long-sought closure from war's trauma and it's mental residue may yet be found – within.

Though the Sudong-ni toll on the Marines was sixty KIA and over three-hundred WIA, Litzenberg's out-numbered regiment made the ChiComs pay a stiff price. More than two days of heavy combat found China's decimated 124th Infantry Division fleeing north, rendered hors de combat for the balance of the war.

Prior to the Sudong-ni clash, Colonel Litzenberg had impressed on his officers the importance of inflicting a telling defeat on the Red Chinese in their first meeting. Apparently the impact of the Sudong-ni defeat did cause the Chinese to change tactics. In the ensuing Chosin Reservoir actions, rather than sporadic piecemeal attacks, they craftily allowed the Marine division to advance unopposed to the Chosin, then encircled the division. The Red Chinese leadership had hoped to achieve a monumental military and political coup by being the first to utterly destroy a Marine division, America's elite fighting force. As history shows, the Marines fighting spirit and leadership prevailed in a memorable breakout through eight to ten Chinese divisions.

[editorial note: despite the Marine Corps' new amphibious warfare doctrine, as exemplified in the Pacific Theater during World War II, President Truman wanted to know "Why does the Navy need its own army?" during the post-WWII reorganization, with the implication of its disbandment; but the sterling performance of the Marines acting as a 'fire brigade' in the Pusan perimeter convinced him of their worth! ... on the other hand, General MacArthur denied the recommendation for the Marines to be awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, saying that "They already have enough medals!", thus the Marines achieved the distinction of being the only combat unit to fight in the Korean War that was not so honored]

by Stanley Modrak
... who is a former Marine combat veteran, now writing freelance; his work has appeared previously in this periodical.

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