By Bob Harbula
Ninety-two-year-old Bob Harbula has shared his story at several Veterans Breakfast Club events and in our podcasts over the years. Historian Patrick K. O’Donnell used Bob’s combat narrative in his excellent book, Give Me Tomorrow: The Korean War’s Greatest Untold Story —The Epic Stand of the Marines of George Company (Da Capo Press). You can also see Bob in the PBS documentary, The Battle of Chosin. Of Bob’s many awards and decorations, the three Presidential Unit Citations earned for separate campaigns over just seven months in Korea remain his most cherished.
Chosin Marines (USMC)
It was 1948, my senior year in high school. I gazed out my classroom window and wondered what I was going to do when I graduated in June.
I didn’t want to follow my father and uncles into US Steel’s National Tube Works in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, or into one of the other mills that occupied miles of real estate on both sides of the Monongahela River outside Pittsburgh.
Bob Harbula 1950 (Bob Harbula)
I recalled four years earlier, when I saw US Marine and Medal of Honor recipient Mitchell Paige, hero of Guadalcanal, waving from the back of a Ford convertible as he paraded through our hometown. He’d graduated from my school. I knew everything about him. He looked great in his dress blues. I wanted to be just like him.
My older brother John had the same thought. He’d joined the Marine Corps after he’d graduated two years ahead of me. He was already a sergeant. He’d come home on a Thursday and return to base on a Tuesday, every other week. Like Mitchell Paige, he looked great. He also had money in his pocket, a new car, and girlfriends.
John was the “Chief Mess Man” in the Marines Corps. I didn’t know what that meant—I figured it was something special—but that’s what I wanted to be also.
So, I joined the Marine Corps.
But instead of mess duty, the Marine Corps sent me to Marine Barracks Washington “8th & I,” the legendary post in the nation’s capital that handles ceremonial duties and security for the President of the United States.
I was in 8th & I for two years and served on the famous Silent Drill Platoon. We weren’t allowed to sit in our dress pants.
We guarded President Truman when he went to “Shangri-La,” as Camp David was called then.
I talked with the President several times. He was down-to-earth and loved military people. He’d served as an artillery captain in World War I, a highlight of his life. He asked me where I was from and how I liked the Marine Corps.
Bob Harbula at 8th & I (Bob Harbula)
It’s hard to imagine a better assignment for a young Marine. The President’s daughter Margaret allowed Marines to use Shangri-La’s pool in the afternoons. And, back in DC, we were constantly set up on dates. Officials would call up our Sergeant of the Guard at our guardhouse and say, “We need ten Marines for a party at the YWCA.” And, if you wanted to go, you signed up. I ended up having a lot of girlfriends.
On March 1, 1950, the Warner Theatre in downtown Washington, DC, hosted the premiere of a new John Wayne movie, The Sands of Iwo Jima. The Marines of 8th & I were chosen to serve as ushers for the film’s run. We escorted Congressmen and their families and other dignitaries to their seats.
The Warner screened the movie twice a day. I sat through it six times. It got to me. I became hungry for real Marine action. Like Sergeant Stryker or Mitchell Paige. I was sick of twirling my rifle and doing fancy parade ground tricks. I wanted to fight.
I turned to my buddy after a screening and said, “I need a war.”
Three months later, I got my wish.
North Korea launched a surprise attack across the 38th Parallel against its non-Communist counterpart to the south on June 25, 1950. President Truman pledged American forces to South Korea’s defense.
The Marine Corps called for volunteers. They wanted ten of us from 8th & I. I made sure I was one of those ten.
Word was they were putting together a special Marine Raider battalion. Later, as plans for US intervention evolved, the Pentagon realized it wanted a whole Marine Division on the ground in Korea.
But in 1950, the downsized Marine Corps didn’t have any full-strength divisions. The Marine Corps had shrunk ninety-percent in five years. Those remaining were spread out all over the world. They had to strip other units, every duty station, every embassy, of just about everyone to man the 1st Marine Division. Gaps were then filled by Reservists called to active duty by President Truman.
At Camp Pendleton, California, I was assigned to a machine gun squad. I hadn’t even laid eyes on a machine gun during my two years in the Marine Corps. That’s because they were all packed away in Cosmoline and crated after World War II. Our job was to open the crates and clean the 30-caliber guns off. We had no time to train on the weapons. Training, we were told, would happen aboard ship.
Apart from cleaning weapons, our time was spent walking up and down the hills at Pendleton with full packs. “What is this?” I wondered. “I want to train to fight.”
Later, I’d be grateful for that preparation.
We loaded out of San Diego in August. It took us thirteen days to cross the Pacific to Japan. For the first seven days, most of us were seasick and couldn’t learn anything. As we recovered, we got to know our Browning M1919 .30-caliber “light” machine gun. We broke it down and put it back together countless times. They’d put us in a pitch dark room with parts spread on the deck and have us assemble the gun by feel—often deliberately leaving parts out.
The Korean War in Five Maps
Our training at Camp Otsu in Japan largely consisted of running up and down hills in full packs as we awaited gear and equipment to arrive. Then, we shifted to the port at Kobe and boarded amphibious Landing Ship, Tanks (LSTs).
By this time, the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) had steamrolled South Korean defenses, pushing them and their US and United Nations allies to the southern tip of the peninsula around the port city of Pusan. Our side was hanging on by their fingernails, one slip away from falling into the Sea of Japan.
Our job, we learned, would be to relieve the pressure by landing up north, just southwest of the capital city of Seoul, at the port city of Inchon. It was supposed to be a surprise, behind enemy lines, and intended to cut off the NKPA’s forces besieging the Pusan Perimeter from their northern supply lines.
Once aboard our LST, someone pointed to stacks of two-by-fours. “What are these for, building a house?” I wondered. No, we were told, our job was to make ladders.
There we were, a bunch of combat-ready Marines hammering ladders in the East China Sea.
Inchon, it turned out, wasn’t a nice sandy beach. No Sands of Iwo Jima for us. Instead, we’d be climbing an urban sea wall.
The tidal range at Inchon is one of the largest in the world. The difference between high tide and low tide is thirty feet, so drastic that boats drop to a mud seabed twice a day. That meant resupply would be difficult, so we had to pack as much food and ammunition as possible. We became human pack mules, loaded with a hundred pounds each, plus a carbine. Our ladders had to be sturdy to handle all the extra weight.
I landed at Inchon as a member of George Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, 1st Marine Division. Our regimental commander was Colonel Lewis “Chesty” Puller. We came ashore at so-called Blue Beach to the south and received sporadic fire as we landed. It was my first taste of combat.
Corporal Albert Barnes was ahead of me as I climbed my ladder. He was already up top, cutting barbed wire, when a shot ricocheted and pierced his neck. I watched him die as a corpsman worked on him.
It wasn’t like the movie.
Things moved rapidly. There was no time to process what you saw and little time to rest. We secured the beachhead, then pushed on towards Seoul, twenty miles to the northeast.
We crossed the Han River under sporadic mortar fire in amphibious landings vehicles, the same DUKWs now used in city tours. We dug in for the night on the south bank, preparing for our assault on Seoul.
George Company was the first to enter Seoul. We made our way up Ma Po Boulevard, the capital city’s main thoroughfare.
The scene was surreal. American flags festooned the street with a large banner, in English, reading “Welcome, Truman’s Police Force!”
“What the hell is this?” we asked.
The North Koreans were taunting us. Headlines back home blazed with President Truman’s recent retort to a Congressman who wanted the Marine Corps to be represented on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“For your information,” Truman growled, “the Marine Corps is the Navy’s police force and as long as I am President that is what it will remain.”
Seoul was a modern city with an electrical grid, trolley system, block-sized buildings, and sewers. We hadn’t trained for such urban warfare, fighting street-to-street and house-to-house.
We learned on the job. I was nineteen years old and followed the lead of our corporals and sergeants, veterans of World War II. They taught us how to fight.
One of my mentors and role models was First Sergeant Rocco Zullo. He was a veteran of Guadalcanal and prepared us well at Camp Pendleton. In combat, he was inspiring. He wouldn’t say, “go take out that machine gun.” Instead, he’d say, “Come on, let’s take this,” and he’d lead from the front.
We did whatever he said. We were more afraid of him than the enemy. He gave us confidence. He made George Company the heroic unit it became.
Our first combat in Seoul was at a railroad trestle that crossed Ma Po. We went under the overpass and into a hail of fire from NKPA machine guns on top of the embankment. Five or six of our squad fell just like that.
Unlike Inchon, Seoul was heavily fortified. Every building, every intersection, had stacks of burlap bags filled with rice or sand with machine or anti-tank guns behind them, mines in front. Burnt-out office buildings harbored North Koreans—often women—armed with Russian burp guns. They’d spray us with fire and then move out and up Ma Po to another hidden perch.
We fought block-by-block. There were two squads of us, one on either side of the street, my machine gun squad staggered behind a rifle squad. With no room to maneuver or flank, we met each bunker and nest head-on, methodically silencing them before moving on.
You can tell Seoul had once been a nice place, lined with mature sycamores, little shops and residences. Now, it was a hellish battlescape with charred churches and blasted stone buildings. On the side of the road, we saw South Korean soldiers, hands bound behind their backs, dead from execution. There were dead women and children, old men, all massacred. Hatred of the enemy seared our hearts and bolstered our fight.
Our 180 members of George Company took on NKPA units many times its size. We destroyed a whole NKPA regiment during one attack. Our casualties mounted, but we helped secure the city for the South Koreans and gained enormous confidence as Marines.
This is when General Douglas MacArthur made the first of several bad decisions. MacArthur had been tapped by Truman to command the whole United Nations war effort in Korea. The landing at Inchon had been MacArthur’s masterstroke. But what came after cast a pall on this war-saving operation.
By October, the 1st Marine Division was in a perfect position to cut off enemy soldiers retreating from points further south. The NKPA from the Pusan Perimeter were taking the eastern route north around Seoul, heading back along the coast to their supplies and reinforcements. We should have attacked east to stop them. Instead, MacArthur ordered Marines to leave Seoul and return to Inchon.
MacArthur thought it would be quicker for us to sail around the Korean peninsula to the eastern coast city of Wonsan and head the enemy off from there. By the time we boarded, sailed, and arrived in port, the NKPA was long gone.
That’s because Wonsan turned out to be one of the most heavily mined harbors on earth. The North Koreans, the Soviets, and the Chinese had all contributed mines of various types and sizes. We were ten days aboard ship before the harbor had been swept clear enough for us to land. Our LST ran out of food. By the time we entered port on October 26, Bob Hope had already entertained occupying troops with a USO show.
A holiday mood prevailed as the weather shifted swiftly from autumnal to frosty. “Home by Christmas!” was the cry. The enemy was running fast to the China border and the North Korean capital of Pyongyang had been captured by UN forces.
“The war is very definitely coming to an end shortly,” declared MacArthur. “With the closing of that trap there should be an end to organized resistance.”
Our battalion’s job became securing the Wonsan area by manning a blocking position at Majon-ni, a crossroads town twenty-eight miles west of the port city.
We arrived at the crossroads shivering. Our winter gear, we learned, was just then being unloaded at Wonsan.
On November 3, my .30-caliber machine gun squad was among those assigned to drive back to Wonsan, drop off some NKPA prisoners, and pick up our winter clothes. We watched the POWs closely, almost waiting for them to make a move so we could avenge what we’d seen in Seoul. But they were docile. Cold, hungry, and scared.
We emptied our ten trucks of prisoners at Wonsan and loaded them with parkas, gloves, and snow boots. We rumbled single-file back to Majon-ni on rugged mountain roads.
My squad leader, Sgt. Hurt, rode shotgun in the second truck. I sat on the tailgate of the third truck with two ammo carriers next to me.
We climbed a summit and took a sharp left turn. A large boulder appeared on our left. Two North Koreans then emerged and started firing at us with burp guns. The guys next to me got hit and fell to the road. I didn’t get hit but fell with them anyway.
They lay motionless on the road, while I rolled off to a berm.
It was an ambush. The Marines in the trucks behind us stopped, set up a skirmish line and returned fire at about 150-200 NKPAs attacking from the left.
I still had my M1 carbine. Instead of joining the skirmish line, I crawled ahead to see what had happened to Sgt. Hurt in the second truck. We’d become close, and I wanted to help him if I could.
Boulders had blocked the road ahead of our convoy. Five or six Marines lay motionless on the ground near the first three trucks.
The driver of my truck was under our vehicle. I motioned for him to stay put and snuck up to the second truck. In the cab was Sgt. Hurt with a serious shoulder wound. I looked ahead at the first truck. In front of it, about thirty yards ahead, were four NKPA soldiers in the middle of the road.
I returned to my truck which had our .30-cal machine gun sitting on the top of the crates filled with our cold weather gear. I hatched a plan with the drivers of the second and third trucks. I would surprise the soldiers up front with machine gun fire. That would provide cover for the drivers to turn the trucks around on the narrow mountain road.
I grabbed some webbing and wrapped my left hand to protect it from the barrel’s heat. Then, I picked up the gun, signaled to the driver to get ready, stood up, and started firing from the hip from the back of the truck.
The first burst hit three of the four NKPA soldiers. Another Marine, PFC Jack Dunne, fired with me from his M1.
“Let’s go!” I yelled, and the two trucks started turning around in tandem, heading back down the hill.
The plan, at least in my mind, was to stop where the seven other trucks behind us had set up a skirmish line. But that was not what the drivers did. Instead, they blew right past the stopped convoy, barely squeezing by them on the narrow mountain road with a steep cliff to the left.
We sped down toward the base of the mountain, jogging back and forth in wild turns. As we neared the bottom, an oxcart lumbered slowly toward us. Then, a grenade or satchel charge exploded.
The truck I was riding in swerved violently and tumbled down an embankment. I jumped clear out the back and then ran down the gully to check on the guys in the truck. They were unconscious, but alive.
The second truck saw what had happened and stopped to help. They picked me up, and we sped to Regimental Headquarters to report our situation. We spoke directly to our commander, Chesty Puller.
Bob Harbula and British Royal Marine Sgt. John W. Whiting after Chosin (Bob Harbula)
Colonel Puller ordered his first sergeant to get all his men together, cooks and clerks included, and we headed back to the ambush site. The enemy had fled.
Sgt. Hurt and PFC Dunne, unconscious at the base of the ravine, were evacuated to Japan. Out of the fifty men on that mission, nine were dead and fifteen wounded.
I became the new machine gun squad leader. That’s how it worked. I was the only one left from my original squad that landed at Inchon, so it was my turn to be in charge.
We lost a lot of people as we fought in Korea. A lot of officers and NCOs. So, PFCs like me become squad leaders, and sergeants become platoon leaders. And then the PFC slots were filled with replacements, fresh from the States.
We received our first draft replacements about a week after the ambush. These guys were Reservists who’d been called up in August, given maybe four weeks of combat training—often, no Boot Camp—and rushed to Korea.
It was near-criminal to put these men into combat without extensive training. My squad was entirely green except for one, Pfc. Joe Rice, who was added from another squad just to give us a bit more experience. It was my job—a grizzled nineteen-year-old combat veteran–to get these recruits ready for what was to come.
This is where the war should have ended, where we thought it would end. The replacements I trained back at Wonsan while we guarded X Corps Headquarters thought they’d never see any action. Thanksgiving approached, and we expected Christmas would find us in a victory parade in San Francisco.
The NKPA had been routed. The Republic of Korea (ROK) forces alone could have wiped out the remnants of it. We had enough manpower and firepower to defend the ninety-mile east-west line from Wonsan to Pyongyang, the high narrow waist of the Korean peninsula.
But MacArthur wanted more. So he pushed the US Eighth Army and ROKs into the danger zone, where the narrow waist opens up like a fan into sprawling mountains near the Chinese border. Fighting there meant manning a 650-mile front with huge gaps between units. It was a recipe for envelopment.
While the western-based Eighth Army approached the Yalu River, which separated Chinese Manchuria from North Korea, we in X Corps sat tight down east, waiting for the great combined offensive that MacArthur expected to finish off Communist forces in Korea.
MacArthur didn’t know or didn’t acknowledge that almost 400,000 Chinese troops, the so-called People’s Volunteer Army (PVA), had already crossed south of the Yalu and were conducting probing attacks to assess enemy capabilities. This small war was about to explode.
The great combined offensive to end the war began on November 25. We were, on that date, still 180 miles south of the Yalu. We’d inched north by ancient train up to the Chigyong area.
Our route was to take us away from the coastal plain of Chigyong into the forbidden mountain wastes of the interior, past a man-made lake more than 4,000 feet above sea level we called the Chosin Reservoir.
Even if all went perfectly, our division would still have been stretched out hazardously thin across inhospitable terrain.
There was one road in and out of Chosin, though to call it a “road” is a stretch. It was little more than one narrow lane of gravel in many places, barely wide enough for a car, let alone a military convoy.
Trucks were our immediate problem. We never had enough. It speaks much to Army-Marine Corps relations in 1950 that the Army got twice the number of trucks per capita as we did. That meant while the rest of our 3rd Battalion headed to the mountain village of Hagaru-ri, at the southern tip of the reservoir, my George Company waited around for transportation. We were not only late getting into the mountains, we also couldn’t bring many supplies, weapons, or ammunition with us.
I thank God for our 1st Marine Division commander, Major General Oliver P. “O.P” Smith, who understood our precarious situation and did all he could to improve our supply route and keep our division stocked. He was skeptical of MacArthur’s cheery predictions of quick victory and worried that Chinese forces were much larger than MacArthur suspected.
His main superior, commander of X Corps, Army Major General Edward M. Almond, was also O.P. Smith’s main adversary. Almond was MacArthur’s parrot, and he seemed not to care about or understand what we Marines needed to achieve the mission assigned to us.
We finally departed up the mountain on November 28. Our arrival was supposed to bring our 3rd Battalion up to full strength.
We climbed the ancient road in canvas-topped deuce-and-a-halves. A Siberian front had swept in, and each foot above sea level seemed to remove a precious degree Fahrenheit from the air.
It seemed like we were passing into a Lost World, a frozen moonscape like I’d never seen. It was hard to imagine anything living on what appeared to be a terrestrial iceberg.
We made it as far as the village of Koto-ri, about eleven miles south of Hagaru-ri, where the road split to go around the reservoir’s western and eastern shores.
Road to Chosin (NARA)
Our 2nd Battalion was dug into a defensive position. They told us the Chinese army–not the NKPA—was blocking our way to Hagaru. The rest of our 3rd Battalion was encircled. And north of them, west of the reservoir, were the 5th, 7th, and 11th Marines. Also north, on the eastern side of the Chosin, was the ill-fated US Army 31st Regimental Combat Team (RCT) spread across ten miles.
All were stranded, all surrounded.
The 1st Marine Division had walked into a trap. One-hundred-twenty thousand Chinese soldiers had us encircled.
X Corps commander Almond refused to see the obvious. He ordered the 31st RCT to begin its offensive. “We’re still attacking and we’re going all the way to the Yalu,” he exhorted the soldiers. “Don’t let a bunch of Chinese laundry-men stop you.”
The only thing saving us was that O.P. Smith understood and had anticipated our predicament. He began plotting our breakout, and even provided for the swift construction of an airstrip at Hagaru. But the key was keeping that thin road—our main supply route and exit–open and passable.
We had no idea, at this point, that the US and UN war effort was crumbling across all of North Korea. The Eighth Army was retreating in chaos toward the 38th Parallel. In the face of a gigantic PVA counteroffensive, poorly-trained Army units were fleeing in terror.
In all of Korea, our small unit was the only one fighting north, toward the enemy. Colonel Puller cobbled George Company together with some British Royal Marines, an Army infantry company, and some Marines from Division HQ. We became “Task Force Drysdale,” named after the British Colonel in charge.
The Chinese were well embedded on both sides of the road leading to Hagaru. The steep undulations gave them plenty of cover, and they picked us off at will. We called the area “Hell Fire Valley.”
The Royal Marines and George Company leapfrogged each other methodically, advancing through the hills bracketing the road. The British secured the first promontory, then we followed up and fought for the next one, Telegraph Hill.
The fighting was murderous. We were outnumbered ten-to-one with no armor, which hadn’t arrived up the perilous mountain road yet. It was probably the worst fighting of the war for me. We hid behind small rocks or humps in the road. We could only see muzzle fire from above. I told my guys to shoot back at the flashes.
We might not have taken Telegraph Hill if my friend and role model, Sgt. Zullo, hadn’t stood up to fire a 3.5 rocket launcher from a couple hundred yards away. He scored a direct hit on a crucial enemy bunker. Surviving Chinese soldiers stumbled out in shock, shaking their heads.
But, in truth, we were as good as dead on the road without tanks. The Chinese used roadblocks of trees, rocks, and barrels filled with gravel to stop and dissect us. They chopped our column to pieces with half our vehicles destroyed. Our task force lost integrity. Two-thirds of the convoy, the rear two-thirds, were stopped: killed, wounded, captured, turned around. George Company was part of the one-third keeping up the fight. But, without armor, we’d never get to Hagaru.
Our tanks, twenty-nine total, were slowly making their way up the mountain road. By 1100 hours, they’d arrived at Koto-ri for refueling. By then, my squad had been whittled down to half the size we’d started with. We held on until 1600 hours, when darkness started to fall, and the first tanks rumbled into view behind us.
I’d never seen such a beautiful sight. Finally, we thought, enough firepower to break through to Hagaru. We scrambled aboard the behemoths and rode them like chariots. We paid back our tankers by preventing Chinese soldiers with satchel charges from sneaking up close and blowing the tanks up. We kept them at bay with our machine guns and rifles.
The landscape was now draped in pitch-black darkness as we reached a crest in the road. Up ahead, we saw a strange light, like a star had fallen from the sky and landed on the ground, still burning.
“What the hell is that?” we wondered.
Soon, it became clear. Our Star of Hagaru were floodlights used in constructing the Hagaru airstrip.
My fellow squad member Joe Rice turned to me and said, “we’re gonna make it.”
“Thanks to the tanks,” I replied.
Hagaru came into view. We approached some tents belonging to the 10th Engineer Battalion. What looked like Americans soldiers emerged and opened fire. They were Chinese dressed in captured helmets and parkas.
Only a third of our task force made it to Hagaru-ri. Another third were killed and wounded. The rest were either captured or made it back to Koto-ri.
One of the last casualties before we entered Hagaru was Sgt. Zullo. He’d been hit in the wrist and abdomen while manning a .50-caliber machine gun. A Navy Corpsman glanced at the wound and ordered he be taken to the temporary morgue, the “dead tent.”
Losing Sgt. Zullo was tough. He was the heart and soul of our company.
Imagine my shock when, in the 1990s, I saw Sgt. Zullo at a George Company reunion.
He told us that he coughed in the dead tent, and the Corpsman retrieved him. The subzero temperatures had caused the wound to freeze and his blood to congeal. Otherwise, he would have bled to death.
There was no rest at Hagaru. No showers, warm cots, or hot food either. Instead, I was called into a meeting of squad leaders and ordered to assault East Hill where a division of the PVA was staging for an assault on our base camp.
The exhaustion we felt is hard to describe. We’d been through thirteen hours of constant combat, where one step is the equivalent of three.
But, up the hill we trudged at 0800 hours on November 30. The path was a sheet of ice, so slick we had to chop our way up using our entrenching tools and bayonets. It was literally two steps forward, one slip back.
Three quarters of the way up the hill, anti-personnel shells began exploding above us. The airbursts sent shrapnel flying into our ranks. A big piece hit Joe Rice in the back of his head. He died in my arms.
Dusk fell, and the Chinese attacked, charging downhill. We’d prepared for this. We weren’t able to dig foxholes because of the frozen ground. What little cover we had was from the bodies of dead Chinese we piled around us. We set up our machine guns and waited.
The attack came almost as a blessing, not only to break the tension but to get our blood flowing. Temperatures had dipped to thirty degrees below zero.
The PVA soldiers ran screaming, bugles blaring, cymbals clanging, whistles crying, and flares bursting in bright colors.
As the enemy neared, I gave the order to fire. I squeezed the trigger on my light 30. Nothing. The infantryman’s worst fear. My weapon was frozen.
The Chinese penetrated the perimeter.
“Grenades!” I yelled.
The small explosions bought us only a few moments. There were just too many of them.
In fact, there were more enemy men than there were enemy weapons. The first wave was armed. The second wasn’t. These later Chinese picked up the weapons of their downed comrades to continue the fight. Those who turned and ran back were often shot by a third wave of armed Chinese, who were also shooting at us.
I drew my .45 pistol and emptied the clip. Every round must have landed. There were that many bodies coming at us. I then took off my helmet off and swung wildly. I heard some noses break and skulls crack.
An officer cried behind me to pull back and reform our line.
I dropped into a shell hole to reload my pistol. Four motionless Marines were sprawled out in the hole. I assumed they were dead. But one quiet voice cut through the chaos.
“Bob, don’t leave me.”
I looked down and saw Cpl. Dick Haller with his eyes open. He was first platoon’s other machine gun squad leader. His weapon was also out of action. He’d been shot in both legs.
I grabbed Haller by the hood of his parka and headed for the reverse slope, firing my .45 as I stumbled. We reached the slope and some Chinese appeared. I threw my empty pistol at them and screamed, “Shoot, you bastards!”
I have no idea if they fired or if they were even armed. As I dragged Haller downhill, a sharp pain suddenly radiated up my leg. I blacked out from the pain. Then, I came to and continued dragging Haller by the hood.
At the bottom of the hill, I saw Pfc. Jim Feemster with a jeep.
“Get us to sickbay!” I yelled as I loaded Haller in the back. We made the quick drive to the tent, and just as we exited the jeep a bullet slammed Feemster in the right thigh. I delivered the two wounded Marines to sick bay.
As I hobbled toward the exit, a Navy surgeon ordered me to stop and remove my shoepac. The knot in the back of my heel told the story: a ruptured Achilles tendon.
“You’re out of action,” he said. “You’ll have to be evacuated.”
“I can’t leave, sir. My men need me.”
“Too bad,” he retorted. “They’re going to have to do without you, boy.”
Then, the surgeon turned to an aid. “Tag him for air evac.”
Five days later, what was left of George Company—“Bloody George”—were relieved by the 5th Marines.
I rejoined Bloody George near Masan, South Korea, in January 1951 after four weeks of therapy in Japan. The men greeted me with joy. They’d all heard I was Missing in Action. That’s what my parents had heard also, through a somber telegram delivered to the house.
Mail from home caught up with me. There was a letter from my brother John. I opened it.
“Dear Bob,” it began, “Why didn’t you tell me you were a hero?”
It turns out, John had been driving from Camp LeJeune back home to Pittsburgh and had picked up a Marine hitchhiker on crutches. They got to talking. The hitchhiker was Dick Haller. My family now knew my story.
George Company was a mostly new unit. Only sixty-seven of the original 255 men who’d landed with me at Inchon were still there. I began greeting the 170 or so replacements.
We were soon back in combat, fighting the PVA well below the 38th Parallel in South Korea. More hill fights, more hand-to-hand, more death and horror. How I survived, I’ll never know. At one point, each man in Bloody George dug forty-five foxholes in forty-five days. That’s a month-and-a-half without bathing, brushing your teeth, or changing clothes.
There were many close calls. Several in my squad died from friendly fire. One was a 105mm shells that exploded in our midst. It knocked me out, face down. I came to covered in blood and gore. “This is it,” I thought.
But I could move my legs. I could move my arms. I wiggled my fingers. I looked back and saw a pair of boots with feet in them. That’s all that was left. Why him and not me?
I left Korea in June 1951 on a slow ship back to the States. Once aboard, I was told I owed the Marine Corps one more year. Truman had extended all of us.
With little else to do, I started running a blackjack game in the ship’s hold. My luck in surviving Korea was compounded by my luck in card playing. I made much more aboard ship than a year’s worth of my $82-a-month Marine Corps pay. I used the cash to buy a brand new 1951 Oldsmobile 88.
Like my brother in 1948, I was now a Marine with a shiny car.
Back home, no one had heard of Chosin, and few wanted to talk about the war. I never spoke about it. I never saw another member of George Company for forty years. It was all like a distant nightmare, a great adventure, but as far as I knew, I was the only one who remembered it.
Even World War II veterans failed to welcome us. The VFW turned us away because we hadn’t fought a war, but a UN “police action.” Even VA denied Korean War veterans hospital benefits because Congress hadn’t approved an official war declaration.
I was twenty-one years old when I got my discharge from the Marine Corps. I thought I’d make a good security guard, so I applied for a job at a new Westinghouse military research and development facility in my hometown, the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory.
“You’re not old enough,” said the personnel director. “Come back when you’re twenty-five.”