by Joe Carvalko
ON JUNE 25, 1950, IT RAINED HARD ALONG the invisible line separating the two Koreas. Sometime in the early morning, rumors flooded Seoul that the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA), had crossed the 38th parallel. Three days later, the NKPA stormed into the capital killing, wounding and capturing thousands. Taken by surprise, the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) government based in Seoul set up operations twenty miles south, in Suwon. President Truman ordered troops flown into the country, in what he described as a police action—giving the impression he was sending forces in for crowd control. Less concerned with how it played at home, General Douglas MacArthur ordered the 1st Battalion, 21st Regiment, 24th Infantry Division to Suwon, to hold the line of advancing NKPA. Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Brad Babcock, a contingent of four hundred and six men departed from Itazuke Air Base, Japan on the morning of July 1. Included among the troops were a few war horses, like WWII veteran Sergeant Joe Johns, a burly thirty-year-old with one ear, and a large contingent of green privates—like Roger Girardin, the lanky twenty-three-year-old.
Accounts of well-orchestrated troop movements going awry litter military history, and Korea was no exception. Instead of flying to Suwon, the Air Force dropped the men on a landing strip outside of Pusan, hundreds of miles south of the intended destination. Babcock quickly organized a caravan and moved seventeen miles to board a train that would take the troops partway to Suwon. Since the train wasn’t ready for boarding, Babcock ordered the mess sergeant to break out a chow line, but when his adjutant informed him that, except for the sergeant, the rest of the cooks were left in Japan, he revised his order—C-Rations. The troops were off to a shaky start.
Roger and his fellow neophytes deploying to the front for the first time did not dwell much on food but on the abstract anticipation of combat. They feared the unidentified, saw a boding evil in everything—from the orderliness of lines to the simplest staccato commands—that seemed loud and exaggerated. On the platform, waiting to board an old steam train, Roger watched the officers, hushed and heads lowered, sluggishly moving toward the rickety, wooden second-class cabins.
Sergeant Johns stood at the front of the formation.
“This fucking place smells like shit,” he grumbled.
“Smells like rotten cabbage, Sarge,” blurted the man next to Roger.
“No one asked you, soldier.”
A local high school band played a Sousa march near the locomotive, as commands were shouted over horns, calling for the men to climb aboard. In the brown boxcars coupled behind the officer’s second-class cabins, the stench of cabbage gave way to the smell of hay, piss and animal crap. Each man found a spot suited to his level of anxiety: edgy talkers and listeners, readers (comics, novels, bibles) letter writers, poker players. Most men were sweat-soaked to the bone. Roger chose a corner strewn with hardened nuggets of dog shit, pushed them aside, and flopped down onto floorboards suspiciously stained with dried blood.
A steam whistle blew. The cars jerked forward as the locomotive chuffed from the station, spitting and spewing a silver-white vaporous exhaust, its sound swallowing the oompah-pah of the golden tubas. A steady acceleration, a repetition of articulating connecting rods, the mechanical growls as the wheels bore down on the tracks—muffling the bass drums that had earlier drowned the shouts of the officers bringing the men to order. In due course the train relaxed under a steady quickening, its cadence eventually calming Roger’s unease. He pulled Julie’s last letter from his knapsack, and his eyes closed before he finished reading the last line.
At 0800, July 2, the train pulled into Taejon, its whistle startling Roger out of a restless sleep. Some diehards were still playing poker. The men jumped from the cars and assembled in rows ten feet from the tracks. On command, they broke formation, found a dusty space alongside the dirty, gray, clapboard station, opened rations for a second time and shot the breeze—reminding Roger of the Boy Scouts he once saw headed for summer camp.
While the men bivouacked, Colonel Babcock and a band of soldiers, including Roger, drove jeeps north to Osan to survey and choose a location they would defend if the NK headed toward Pusan as predicted. A few miles south of the village of Suwon the colonel found what he was looking for: a group of small hills that crossed a road—a pinch point for troops moving through. He designated one—a three-hundred foot elevation, Hill 116—to serve as his “vantage point.” That night the troops boarded another train to Pyongtaek, leaving them with a ten-mile march that began at midnight. Three hours later, in a light rain, they reached a muddy flat one-half mile south of Hill 116, where men from the 52nd Field Artillery Battalion were setting up artillery armed with high explosive anti-tank shells.
Roger woke at dawn to the sound of radio chatter. “T-34 tank from the interior. Look to the north, sir.” Two lookouts about twenty feet away heard the report, too. One of them poked his head out of the brush, scanning the horizon through field glasses blurred by a steady downpour. Handing the glasses to the man next to him, he snarled, “It’s crawling like a motherfuckin’ bug.” Thirty minutes later, other tanks were visible. The radioman reported, “I think there are eight, maybe more, sir.”
“Recoilless! Recoilless rifles!” Babcock hollered. Johns repeated the order, and men on the forward slope fired the first American rounds of the war—sending a shudder through the troops huddled behind boulders dotting the hill.
“A splash of mud, sir, the mark’s short. Tank’s advancing,” reported a veteran.
Babcock radioed the bazooka men lodged in a drainage ditch alongside the road, “Hold your fire until they’re on top of you!” When the lead tank came within twenty yards, an explosive fire and thunder shot out from the turreted gun. A second later, a concussive vibration rattled the hill, followed by a sharp cracking sound from several toppling hardwoods. The radio chattered. “Tank’s still coming.” From another direction, “Medic, medic.” Roger saw three men covered in branches sprawled in a clearing next to the felled trees.
The men of the 24th crouched or leaned behind the trees and large boulders. A short while later the point man spotted twenty-five more tanks moving from the north, outside the range of small artillery. A howitzer from the south encampment blasted off two rounds in succession targeting one of the six forerunners.
“Bug’s on fire!” shouted the point man. The five remaining tanks turned to outflank Babcock’s howitzer 105s. Within two hours, the first of the group of twenty-five T-34 tanks had completely bypassed Hill 116. Roger heard chatter again.
“Sir, one o’clock.” Roger lifted his head from behind his rock and through the rain saw a column of trucks and troops that stretched out as far as his eye could see, reminding him of the panic he felt the first time he saw a five-foot water snake slithering along the ground at his uncle’s farm. He felt like shitting his pants.
Another hour passed before he heard the rattled pulse of sprocket driven tracks; fifteen minutes later the metallic cadence stopped. Enemy infantry emerged like green ghosts out of the downpour. Three hundred yards north of Hill 116 an NK tank faced the troops. It raised its turret and fired. Following a thud, screams of “Corpsman, corpsman.” Babcock’s bazookas returned fire, but the shells bounced as they fell short. Roger saw the colonel, a few lieutenants, a dozen noncoms and as many grunts zigzagging toward the top of the hill. He followed, bolting up a narrow path and tripping over a man gurgling in his own blood. “Corpsman,” someone yelled. Roger kept running until he saw a three-boulder fortress, and he fell safely into a cranny, shaking as much from fear as from the cold rain coming down in sheets.
From his new position, he saw a steady stream of enemy infantry, arcade-like, crossed the base of the hill, two hundred yards out, firing blindly. The Americans fired back at phantoms—partly due to the rain and partly due to the enemy darting in and out, but the firing seemed to retard an all-out assault. Roger, like most of Babcock’s new recruits, did not conserve the two hundred rounds of ammo issued in Pusan, and by late afternoon, he had less than thirty rounds in the extra two magazines he carried in his field jacket.
As the afternoon passed on, rain limited visibility to feet rather than yards. Over the staccato rifle fire, Roger heard garbled orders shouted out in the distance. About an hour later, in the last light of day, he saw hazy figures of men fleeing their positions. To his astonishment, he and a few men had been left behind. The yelling earlier had been orders to retreat. Everything was still, and he felt the enemy was waiting for dusk before charging murderously. When he could not see farther than the end of the barrel, he heard the bugled death-knells and a swell of fire from the base of the hill, followed by horror-filled shrieks that filled the air—the sounds that living things make when impaled, sliced and blasted in the soft extremities. Guys in front of him were being massacred. He held fast—frozen with the dry heaves—but he knew had to get his jelly-like legs moving. He started running away from the screams, south by southwest, where the hill flattened into a murky no man’s land. At the edge of an open rice paddy, there was a gully where he found Sergeant Johns crouched. Together, they headed away from the gun fire, turning east, south, southeast following a half-frozen muddy irrigation ditch. Three feet apart, they now most feared losing one another in the desolate night. Only when near-terminal exhaustion set in and Johns said he could not go another step, did they stop.
The pair crawled into a dry part of the ditch and slept. Next morning, the horizon began to reveal what seemed like the end of the Earth, a long, flat, empty plain. The men followed the narrow channel as it wound through the outskirts of several adjoining paddies. In the distance, Roger thought he heard small-arms fire—.45 caliber.
They followed the trench, and the shots got louder. A half-hour later, Roger poked his head over the edge. About two-hundred-fifty clicks, a steam shovel was parked near mounds of dirt, and next to it a pair of diesel trucks and three black cars with silver emblems, and milling about, were a dozen South Korean grunts. Beyond them were a half-dozen men in black suits standing on top of a long levee, firing into he figured was a creek.
Neither man could tell what was happening, and they stayed put. Fifteen minutes later the firing stopped. Soldiers got into the unmarked trucks, and the men in suits got into the cars and drove off.
Roger and Johns waited another half-hour before approaching the levy, which turned out to be dirt-piles ten feet high. As they climbed the pile, their boots sunk to the tops of the laces. When Roger came within a few feet of the top, he gagged and had to cover his nose in his field jacket. Smelled like a rotting carcass. At the top he saw wide trenches. Inside a large hole, were dead bodies, white shirts, suits, women in dresses. His stomach turned upside down. Johns fell to his knees, stuck his head between his thighs and puked.
Roger, hands shaking, pulled his camera from his belt and, holding his breath, clicked off half-dozen frames of hundreds of bodies heaped on one another, arms and legs tangled. Gray tones, dirt, matted hair, black sludge, exposed bones, bared nipples, twisted, doubled over, eyes facing all directions. Innards and entrails reminded Roger of the time he bagged a buck and sliced its belly open. Snap. He wound the next frame. Snap, snap, exposing the blacks and whites of the devil’s work against condensation—threads lazily rising from the pit.
Roger and Johns laid back behind the elevated berm habituating to the sweet stench of death.
“Holy Christ! What the fuck?” Johns grumbled, in a voice just above a nervous whisper.
“Korean Commies, maybe?”
“Maybe the guys who shot ’em were . . . who the fuck knows . . . we better not hang round,” Johns advised, grimacing.
Roger, committing to memory what logic rejected, looked into the pits one more time. Thoughts raced back in time trying to connect things he had read, stories he had heard, pictures, paintings, bad dreams—anything that might have prepared him to process what reality dished up. No match, no reference.
Hidden as before, Roger watched three flatbed trucks hauling yellow bulldozers come bumping over the fallow ground, stopping thirty yards from the pits. He snapped three more frames. Workers in green coveralls emerged from the trucks to crank the dozer engines. In two hours, the machines had leveled the grave, its secret intact. Roger loaded more film and snapped pictures of the workers driving the dozers back to the flatbeds. When the engines were shut down, a quiet swept over the land—except for a few birds of prey.
In the distance, a brown sedan approached. It stopped, and two men got out and walked over to one of the truck drivers. From Roger’s vantage they appeared to be U.S. Army officers: a major and a second lieutenant. Later, Johns would indicate he wasn’t sure. They decided to stay put. As Roger finished one roll and loaded a fresh one, he quipped, “Damn, that guy looks familiar.”
Johns warned, “Be careful, sun may reflect off the lens.”
Rogers snapped a few more frames: the officer leaning against the door of the sedan, trucks with soot spewing from vertical exhausts, dirt road, barren field and the horizon—beyond which, the men would later learn, Suwon lay torn asunder.
Roger lifted his notebook from the knapsack lying on the ground and opened it to jot down that memory, putting pencil to paper and wiping the tears that added a residue to the carboned script:
“A no man’s land, faux vacancy, methane of the dead bodies twisted in sculptured poses, pyres of flesh, wire, gas, guns, stench, cold, killed in the trench, buried . . . the improbable mug staring back . . . .”
The men remained holed up until nightfall, then followed the maze of ditches to Ansong, arriving close to two in the morning. They ran down a narrow street with darkened houses, which led to an avenue with a roadblock. Two police cars were parked across the road. Johns said worriedly, “I don’t know if it’s safe to just go over to the two guys sitting there. You stay here, cover me.”
Roger watched Johns—carbine slung over his shoulder, pointed forward, safety off. One of the policemen jumped out of the car. Johns held his ID in front pointing to where he had come from. Roger heard him say who he was.
Johns nodded, and the other guy got out of the car. They took stock of Johns’ ready rifle. They motioned to him to get into the car. John said he had a buddy and waved Roger out of the shadows, and the four drove less than five minutes, passing a sign that read: U.S. Army—Post Headquarters. MPs at the entrance escorted them to the CQ’s barrack. A duty corporal poured the men coffee while Johns told him what he had seen. The CQ picked up a phone relaying the matter to the officer-in-charge. At about 6 a.m., two first lieutenants from Pyongtaek, who had been flown in June 29 from the States with an intelligence unit, woke them. Lieutenant Jacoby, the apparent leader, was a five-foot-five talky guy from Texas. Roger thought he looked like Napoleon. Lieutenant Samuelson let Jacoby take charge. Johns described what he saw. “Blood looked like it was still wet. Most were men in white pants. Women there, too. Bodies over bodies in all directions. I wanted to puke even before I knew what I was lookin’ at.”
“Could you tell how many, Sergeant?”
“Figured four, five hundred. Mostly guys. All dead, I figure. Saw one, two move, but I’d seen the dead move before. Had to be . . . dead.”
“Were they wearing any special clothes, anything odd about them?”
“Don’t remember. Mostly peasants. Lots of them doubled over, poor buggers. Saw lots of white. Probably remember because,” he paused. “Honestly?” He paused again. “There’s lotsa, lotsa blood . . . a few men in white shirts. Few women in long dresses.”
“Could you tell if they were mostly shot in the head?”
“No, sir, could not.” He paused. “Honestly? Remember a young girl, stared straight up. Didn’t look that long. Saw what I saw, didn’t need to gawk.”
“What about you, Girardin? What’d you see?”
“Sir, can’t add nothin’.”
“You must have seen something.”
“Yeah, but you know, was like a bad dream, a picture of hell.” He hesitated and added, “The ‘Souls of the Wrathful.’”
“What’s that soldier, what’d you say?”
“The Souls of . . . it’s a painting. Dante’s hell, bodies lying all over the goddamn place.”
Samuelson and Jacoby looked at each other.
“Dante who?” asked Jacoby.
Lieutenant Samuelson, the more introspective officer, dropped his gaze to Roger’s waist. “Take any pictures?”
Caught off guard, Roger replied straight away, “No . . .” Then remembered the Leica tied to his belt and quickly countered, “ . . . ’cept for the film that’s in there.”
“Let me have the camera.”
Samuelson rewound the film, opened the back and removed the film Roger had loaded earlier. He returned the camera. Roger’s hand passed over his pocket—he felt the rolls of film he had put away and wondered if he should turn them over. He looked at Johns, got no sign; he left things where they were, one roll for them, three rolls for himself. Later that day, Roger and Johns hitched a jeep ride to Pyongtaek, where Roger bundled the film rolls into a package and had the mail clerk send it to his father’s attention. The note read: “ . . . hold until I return.”
In August and early September, victory continued to elude the Americans. At one point, the better conditioned NK soldiers captured nearly the entire 19th Regiment, leaving dozens of American POWs shot in the head, hands tied behind their backs. This hit the newspapers. American sentiments about the U.S. engagement sank precipitously, and the political arm of the CIA considered it all the more essential that any atrocities be kept top secret.
Based on the interrogations of Johns and Girardin, the intelligence officers generated an incident report. They wrote “Secret” on the envelope and inserted the report, along with the photos they had developed. The package was delivered to Major General Church, in Pyongtaek, fifty miles away. The general would emphasize its importance in his cable to Washington, but the matter of the pits did not register in the organizational mind of military intelligence or the CIA until mid-September, nearly two and a half months later. Meanwhile, forces south of Seoul could not push the NKPA back from the advances made in August. But on September 15, 1950, U.N. forces under MacArthur’s command launched a surprise amphibious attack at Inchon—well above the NKPA units in the south—effectively severing their connection to the northern supply lines. By the end of the month, MacArthur’s forces had recaptured Seoul and pushed the enemy back across the 38th parallel.
In late September, when CIA chief Walter Smythe learned about the pictures, he fumed, imagining the political consequences if anyone learned that the ROK, under orders by President Rhee, had massacred thousands of political prisoners and citizens suspected of being friendly to the communists. Smythe ordered Paul McCallister, the U.S. Embassy military attaché operating out of temporary headquarters in Seoul, to have Staff Sergeant Joseph Johns and Private Roger Girardin immediately brought back to HQ X Corp for sequestration and questioning.
On September 30, two senior Army officers, thirty-year-old G-2 Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Barclay, twenty-seven year old a G-2 Captain Sonny Reiner, and CIA operative thirty-five-year-old Robert Perrone from Langley Field, Virginia were under secret orders to find the fast moving reconstituted 1st Battalion, 24th Division, 19th Regiment and return Sergeant Joseph Johns and Private Roger Girardin for questioning. The instructions were specific: “. . . Confiscate all cameras and film the men might have in their possession.” There was a supplemental order:
“. . . if it is deemed unfeasible to secure the subjects under the control of the military police or otherwise return the men for sequestration and questioning, then any member of the Barclay Task Force is empowered to take necessary and sufficient action to prevent Private Roger Girardin or Staff Sergeant Joseph Johns from falling under control of the enemy.”
By mid-October, the U.N. forces north of the 38th parallel were situated along a line from the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, inland to Wonsan—a seaport forty-five miles to its east. Under MacArthur’s leadership, the U.N. forces were heading straight for the Manchurian border. The 24th Division, with Johns and Girardin, crossed the Ch’ongch’on River and came within fifty miles of the Yalu River, separating Korea from Manchuria. But in November, an ominous turn stopped the relative ease with which the U.N. had penetrated North Korea.
Surprising Army Intelligence on Sunday, November 26, 1950 stated an estimated 300,000 Chinese Communist troops crossed the Yalu River. They overran Allied forces, cut off escape routes and drove them thirty miles south, killing, maiming and capturing more than 40,000 U.S. troops. On December 2, the U.S. 1st Cavalry lost a battalion in a battle with soldiers wearing Mao apparel. The next day, the 24th Infantry hit heavy resistance and, alongside large numbers of other U.N. forces, began a hasty retreat south. The men of the 24th Division again crossed the Ch’ongch’on River. The end of the war was a long ways off.
Joe Carvalko is an American author born in Bridgeport, Connecticut. His recent novel, We Were Beautiful Once, Chapters from the Cold War, (Sunbury Press, 2013), judged a finalist for Best Historical Fiction, (Military Writers Society of America, 2014), is a story inspired by a trial he conducted to find a missing POW, efforts that were later featured in a 2004 documentary Missing, Presumed Dead: The Search for America’s POWs narrated by Ed Asner. He recently authored The Techno-human Shell: A Jump in the Evolutionary Gap, about how future medical technology will transform us into part cyborg. Other publications include: A Road Once Traveled, Life from All Sides, a narrative on the fabric of American life; A Deadly Fog, a collection of poems, essays, and short stories about war in America. Published poems include: Mobius Strip, (FLARE: The Flagler Review); County Road 80, Manifest West (U. Press of CO, Oct. 2014); Registered Letter, Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, Vol. 2 (Missouri Hum. Council, & SE MS State University Press, 2013); The Road Home, finalist, (Esurance Poetry prize, 2012); The Interior, book of poetry, finalist poetry prize (Red Mountain Press, 2012). Winter Interrupted, a short story about two aging vets will be published in the Military Writers Society of America, Anthology, 2014. He has numerous published textbooks and articles related to science, technology and law. He is a Vietnam-era veteran (’59-64), USAF (SAC). He holds a BS, JD and an MFA.