How It Was

James L. Mullaney

September 29, 1990|By James L. Mullaney

THOSE ATTENDING the recent dedication of the Korean War Memorial in Baltimore were, for the most part, veterans of that war. We were thinking back over the years to the brutal combat in which we were involved.

Korea, for historical reasons, primary being the occupation by a harsh Japan, was almost primitive and wild. The terrain was an infantryman's nightmare, spiny, rocky mountains reaching into the clouds, where a well-dug-in enemy could defend at great cost in lives to attacking forces. We attacked those mountains and ridges not unlike goats, moving straight up, at times hand over hand, with weapons slung on our backs. We dodged enemy artillery, mortars, mines, wire while climbing to get at the enemy who had to be fought at close range upon reaching the top.

Such attacking forces were vulnerable to head and upper-body wounds. The wounded often could not be reached in time and died without treatment and in agony. When the battles were in and around villages, the wounded could drown in the rice paddies or be eaten by animals wild and domestic. More than 8,000 men remain missing even now, 37 years later.

I would not offend my many Korean friends, now Americans, by describing Korea as we did while fighting there, but it is a land of extremes. The winters are beyond my ability to portray, no more than I can describe infantry combat. Words fail me to explain living in a hole in frozen ground with temperatures of minus-40 degrees. I have no idea what the wind chill was when the wind in North Korea came down from Manchuria with enough force to knock a man down.

We existed as stone-age men. Sleep, as always to a dogface, was catnip; chow was C-rations so frozen the contents (beans, horse meat, etc.) had to be defrosted in the mouth. Hot food was a remote dream; warmth of any type was only for the rear area; badly wounded men did not bleed to death as their blood froze.

Historians are well-aware of the French and Germans being unprepared for the Russian winter, yet little mention, if any, is made of the horrors endured by Americans during the winter of 1950-51 in Korea. We had ordinary field jackets (wind breakers), leather boots and second-rate dime-store gloves to withstand the cold. Equipment froze, and we found various ways to prevent weapons from freezing. It was so cold the air would crack, not unlike thunder. Our dead often had to be left as we were unable to straighten out the bodies and pry them from the fox holes or ground where they had been hit and frozen.

At the other extreme, summer reminded us of Baltimore in July and August, but very dusty. Monsoon rains came on us that made the lives of line soldiers unbelievably miserable and lasted for 90 days without let-up. It is difficult to convey how it feels to live in a stinking hole half filled with water. Cold rations were water-logged, which made them taste even worse. Wetness was a way of life; only our weapons were dry. The old infantrymen's adage -- your weapon comes first, then you. Take care of your weapon and your weapon will take care of you.

As we gazed at the monument, our thoughts traveled back 40 years. Some saw old buddies not heard from since leaving Korea. Many old veterans stayed after the politicians left, and traveled to local watering holes to talk and remember. There were no kissing, hugging or crying, but one hell of a lot of hand-shaking.

If strangers met, the misery, horror, hunger, thirst, were as often as not unmentioned. We merely gave our outfits -- 7th or 5th Marines, 15th, 17th, 31st Infantry, 5th Cav., 187th Airborne. It said it all. No one bemoaned the fact that we were not met with bands and parades upon our return. We are all happy as hell to have lived through a damn rough time.

****Mr. Mullaney is a lawyer in Harford County.

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