|We Didn’t Use Billy Clubs
By Jim Kyle
Some folk refer to the unpleasantness during the 1950s on the peninsula called Korea as “The Korean Conflict.” Those who want to be absolutely precise use its official name: the Korean Police Action. But make no mistake about it, this was a war in every sense of the word. We didn’t use nightsticks and neither did the other guys.
It began in late June of 1950. I had just completed my sophomore year at OU, majoring in journalism with the intention of eventually becoming a photographer for Life magazine. But when the shooting started, it became obvious that all physically fit young men would soon wind up in uniform.
The University of Oklahoma, like all land-grant colleges at that time, required all male students (save those physically unable to do so) to enroll in the Reserve Officers Training Corps for their first two years. I had been thankful to have the weekly marching drills behind me, but as the North Korean army swept through the south’s defenders, the situation looked a bit different. President Harry Truman had asked the United Nations to take action, and in response sent U.S. occupation forces from Japan to help stem the flood — with little immediate result.
I quickly decided to apply for admission to the advanced ROTC courses, which would result in my becoming a commissioned officer upon graduation rather than being drafted as a private. Upon acceptance, I mentally changed my major from “journalism” to “military science” although there was no alteration of my official goal.
The Tuesday afternoon drills on the parade ground held more significance during my final two years, and the two-week summer camp at Fort Sill, between those years, brought everything into focus more sharply. During the first night of that camp, a tornado swept through Fort Sill. We had been housed in squad tents, eight men to a tent, sleeping on metal cots. One of my tentmates was a former paratrooper from west Texas. When the storm blew in about midnight, he detected the signs of trouble and yelled for us to get under our cots and brace them to prevent them from collapsing on us. All but one of us complied.
I never heard the traditional freight train sound; the thunder and hail were too loud to make out anything else. But when the rain and hail finally stopped and we rolled out from under our cots, our tent was nowhere to be seen. Its ridgepole and rafters had snapped, and the jagged edge of one 2×4 had stabbed into my pillow. Our uniforms, too, were gone. The one fellow who hadn’t gone to cover had slept through it all, unharmed. And we spent the rest of the night in the concrete latrine a few hundred feet from our smashed tent frame, keeping dry.
In May 1952, I received both my B.A. degree and my commission as a second lieutenant, field artillery, in the U.S. Army Reserve. Shortly afterward, I received orders to report to Fort Sill on July 20 to begin my two-year tour of duty, starting with Battery Officers Class Number 52.
BOC52 duplicated everything I had been taught in the previous two years of advanced ROTC, but it was more than a refresher course. An essential part, that we had no opportunity to pursue on campus, was the time spent running live-fire exercises on the firing range.
Two phrases from that period have stuck with me ever since. I learned quite rapidly that the “school solution” to any problem was simply “It all depends on the situation, sir.” And Captain Moore, the instructor for our live-fire training, would thunder at any student who took too long thinking, “Don’t just stand there, lieutenant. Do something, even if it’s wrong!” His point was that any action was preferable to none at all; it applies to much more than mere armed combat.
Following BOC52, most of us went to stateside units for a few months of “troop duty” before being shipped overseas. I was assigned to the 553rd Field Artillery Battalion, still at Fort Sill, so my move was a short one — from the school dormitories to the post’s BOQ or Bachelor Officers’ Quarters.
The 553rd had two sets of artillery. Like every other unit at Sill, we had light 105-mm howitzers. These were the workhorses of the artillery in those days, firing a 4-inch-diameter 42-pound shell up to some 12,000 yards (or almost 6 miles). A battalion had three firing batteries, and each battery (artillery’s equivalent of other services’ companies) had six tubes. Artillery and infantry worked as a team; each light artillery battalion normally partnered with an infantry regiment, and each of its firing batteries teamed with a battalion of the infantry.
But for the 553rd, the howitzers were extra baggage. The unit was classed as heavy artillery, and its primary weapon was the 8-inch howitzer. These mammoths, which fired 200-pound shells and had a range of 11 miles, were far too huge to be towed by trucks. We used “prime movers” which were lightly armored tracked vehicles, similar to giant Caterpillar tractors. The weapon, when fired, would usually blow a ring of flame out of its muzzle right behind the shell.
Our mission at Sill was to support the live-fire exercises of the school. Most of the time, we did so with the 105s, but every couple of weeks we would haul out the 8-inchers and drag them to the East Range. To a young shavetail still wet behind the ears, those were the most exciting times. When the big howitzer fired, its concussion would knock crew members to the ground, and the sound was unimaginably loud. I suspect, however, that regular exposure to it during those days is the prime reason I’ve had tinnitus for many years.
By January 1953, my days of troop duty were ending, but my commanding officer sent me to Chemical, Bacteriological, and Radiological School at San Antonio anyway. Halfway through the course, I got a letter at noon mail call, containing orders for me to report in February to Camp Stoneman, California, for shipment to the Far East.
Normal practice at the time was to allow 30 days’ pre-departure leave to officers, and my reporting date was already closer than that when I received the letter forwarded from Fort Sill. I discussed the problem with my instructor, went to the school headquarters that afternoon, showed them my orders, and before the sun had set I was driving back toward Fort Sill. I arrived the next morning, cleared my departure from the 553rd, and by the next day was home for what remained of my 30 days.
My parents and I drove to California, where we had relatives that we wanted to visit before I shipped out. Finally, on the appointed day they dropped me and my footlocker at Camp Stoneman. I was on my way to war.
Artillery observers were in such demand that we had to cross the Pacific by air; going by sea would take too long. Unfortunately, an airline strike was going on, and planes were in short supply; the military had contracted at least some Air Transport Service operations out to Pan-American. Consequently, I waited at Stoneman for most of a month before the word came to move out. That gave me an opportunity to visit San Francisco, eat at Fisherman’s Wharf, and have a drink at the Top of the Mark. Still, the delay chafed at not only my nerves but those of everyone else. Most of the group had been my classmates in BOC52, and we spent the time comparing notes on our troop duty experiences.
Finally, the word came to board the buses, and we motored to Travis Air Force Base, some 40 miles from Stoneman. We climbed into two DC-4s, took off about 9 p.m., flew directly over downtown San Francisco, and headed for Honolulu. My plane contained 23 lieutenants and one brigadier general, a Pentagon staff officer en route to Japan for an inspection visit. More than half of the lieutenants were from the West Point class of 1952, and several of them struck up a game of poker with the general. The rest of us dozed off and wondered what would happen next.
We landed at Honolulu shortly after noon, local time, the next day. While the planes were refueled, we had lunch and strolled down to a part of the beach that was within the airport perimeter. Then we took off again, headed for Wake Island and another refueling stop. From there it was a straight shot to Tokyo.
The day I checked into Camp Stoneman, a troopship had departed for Japan. The day we landed in Tokyo, that same ship arrived. So much for our high priority.
From Tokyo, my next stop was another round of CBR School at the former Imperial Naval Academy not far from Hiroshima. On a weekend pass, I visited that city and saw the original Ground Zero up close and personal. Reconstruction was going on, but had not progressed very far by April of 1953. The extent of the damage done there is impossible to grasp without seeing it first hand. Concrete buildings more than two miles from Ground Zero had been smashed, and even the street curbs had been shattered. It was a sobering experience.
With CBR school completed at last (I finished first in the class, thanks in no small part to having already had the first half of the course in San Antonio). I moved on to Korea itself, assigned to the 25th Division (Tropic Lightning) and landing initially at Pusan. We went by train from Pusan to Seoul; primed by Hollywood, I expected guerrilla action every moment of the trip, but nothing at all happened.
Seoul, when we arrived, was a devastated city. More than half of its buildings were wrecked, burnt-out shells. What little traffic existed was all military. I had no doubt that I was in a war zone at last.
Another train ride took me to the division’s replacement center at Chorwon, near the middle of the peninsula. I arrived there just in time for the evening meal, and after supper, everyone gathered in the mess hall to enjoy a movie. About halfway through the show, an alarm siren sounded, and the lights flickered out. “It’s Bedtime Charlie again,” someone said. A single bomb went off in the distance, then silence; the lone North Korean pilot’s nightly air raid was over.
The next morning we loaded into a truck and drove to Division headquarters, several miles away from the center. There, we received assignments to our final units. Mine was to Battery C, 8th Field Artillery Battalion. Soon, a jeep arrived and together with another newcomer I went to meet my new comrades in arms.
The 8th Field was the artillery portion of the famed Wolfhounds Regimental Combat Team, partnering with the 27th Infantry Regiment. The team had been in the fighting from almost the first day. Here’s what a division history says about its record: “Pulled out of Japan to help repel the invasion of South Korea, the 27th Regimental Combat Team (RCT) arrived in Korea on 11 July 1950 and saw their first action near Yongdong. The 8th FA’s fires were so intense that POWs wanted to see the automatic artillery the 8th was using. On 21-24 August 1950 the 8th FA killed over 3000 of the enemy as the 27th RCT halted a major North Korean attack near Teagu. The 8th FA saw intense fighting in all ten Korean campaigns, receiving three Presidential Unit Citations.”
When I joined the unit, the 27th was in reserve, and the 8th was supporting Republic Of Korea (ROK) forces on White Horse Hill. On my second day there, the observer on White Horse wanted to come down from the hill to take a shower, so we two newcomers were sent to relieve him for a few hours.
White Horse was the highest point in its immediate area, and was a key observation post. The previous year a pitched battle had taken place for its possession. The fight left the ground on the north side of the hill littered with Chinese bones, most of which were still there.
To get to White Horse from our headquarters area, one had to follow a single-lane dirt trail over some two miles of wide-open flat ground, where nothing offered any cover. The road had a right-angle curve near its midpoint. As our jeep approached that trail we could see a truck coming our way, and Chinese artillery shells exploding all around it. However, the truck made it through okay and passed us.
We paused for a few minutes and debated the wisdom of continuing the trip. Finally we concluded that if we varied our speed enough, we could confuse the Chinese gunners and cause them to miss us. We started forward and put our plan in action.
It didn’t work. As we slowed for the sharp turn at the midpoint of the journey, we could hear the whine of incoming shells. I discovered that I could retract my entire body into my steel helmet, or at least so it seemed at the time. And as we made the turn, a shell went off on each side of the road.
What saved our skins was that the bar ditches on both sides at that point were deep layers of sand, and the shells had actually buried themselves in the sand before exploding. The sand muffled the blasts and trapped the shell fragments. We suffered no damage at all and arrived at the hill a few minutes later.
The observation post was a bunker carved out of the north side of the hill. It faced directly into the Chinese lines, on the next hill to the north and only a few hundred yards away. During my turn at the spotting scope, I saw two Chinese soldiers in their trenches, and called in my first fire mission. I never knew, though, whether it caused any damage or casualties.
At the back wall of the bunker, a scrap of canvas hung from two nails driven into the dirt. One of the permanent crew at the post lifted it, to reveal the contorted and half-decayed face of a Chinese officer who had been buried there by a shell burst during the previous year’s battles before the bunker had been built. I knew then that we weren’t using billy clubs, and this was no police action. It was serious war, though nobody had declared it as such. And both sides were playing for keeps.
A few days later, on May 5, the entire division packed up and moved toward the west coast of the peninsula, directly south of Panmunjom (some 53 miles north northwest of Seoul) where the truce talks were in progress. Its assignment was to guard the approach to Seoul, as the truce talks appeared to be breaking down.
As usually happens with large troop movements, there was steady rain and the roads were pure mud. The transfer took a full day to accomplish, but by nightfall, we had reached our new locations, pitched our tents, and were ready to settle in.
When the terms for holding the truce talks had been drafted, both sides left a nice loophole in them. They created a “safe zone” around the actual talk location, and for a mile or two each side of the roads giving access to the site. Both sides agreed not to shoot into that zone.
Nobody, however, had said anything about shooting out of it, so both sides concentrated their artillery units within the zone. That was our new home! And our special assignment, as part of the Wolfhounds, was to stay ready to rescue the truce team should that become necessary.
Less than a month after we arrived at our new positions, a heavy Chinese assault was hurled at the division but its main thrust was to the east of the Wolfhounds’ area. The brunt of the attack was absorbed by the 14th Infantry Regiment (“Golden Dragons”), which repulsed it after heavy fighting. By successfully defending Seoul from continued attack from May to July 1953, the division earned its second Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation.
Each firing battery of light artillery supported a battalion of infantry, as I said before, and each battalion of infantry included three companies. Since each company needed an observer, each battery had three forward observers. I drew the assignment to Company L, 3rd Battalion, of the Wolfhounds.
Life on the hill with Love Company settled rapidly into a routine. Keep a sharp lookout, and stay in close contact with the company commander, a slender fellow from Dixie only a few years my senior chronologically but centuries older in experience, who sported an impressive handlebar mustache.
Although our guns were in the safe zone, Love Company’s position was not. Not often, but too frequently for comfort, we took incoming mortar fire. One evening the company commander and I were finishing our evening meal in the mess tent, savoring canned sliced peaches, when we heard the burble of an incoming mortar round.
They don’t sound at all like they do on TV; they make a sort of low-pitched warble, and the tone varies somewhat depending on the angle the flight path makes with respect to your location. “Hit the dirt!” the infantry officer shouted, and we both did so. The sound had alerted him that the round was going to hit very close to us. The captain and I almost butted heads as we dove to the ground. The shell exploded some 50 yards away, but caused no damage. When I looked up, the captain had peach slices hanging from both sides of his mustache — but neither of us laughed.
President Truman had integrated the armed forces before the fighting in Korea started, and as a youth reared in totally segregated areas of Oklahoma, I was a bit amazed to find a mix of races in my outfit. While not consciously racist, I was a product of my environment, and not entirely comfortable with the situation.
It didn’t take me long to learn that SOBs come in all flavors, and that the color of a person’s skin has nothing at all to do with the color of his character. That was probably the most important lesson I learned from the entire experience.
My only known combat kills happened while I was with Love Company. One involved a group of Chinese tanks that took up a position to our north, firing at the company adjacent to our area. However I had a better view than did the observer taking the brunt of the attack, so I got the job of stopping them.
The tanks were actually out of range of our howitzers, but I felt that firing smoke shells to maximum range, landing directly in front of them, would spoil their vision enough to force an end to the attack. That’s what I asked for, and what I got.
However one of the smoke shells was a “hot round” which means that it had a bit more powder behind it than intended, so it went a bit farther than planned. It apparently hit one of the tanks at a vulnerable point right behind its turret. Through my binoculars I saw the shell burst, followed almost instantly by a much larger secondary explosion as the tank’s fuel supply and ammunition went up.
The tank burned until almost midnight. When the sun rose next day, it was nowhere to be seen. Only a large spot of charred grass showed where it had been. I’m almost certain that I had a part in killing its crew; there’s almost no way anyone could have survived that explosion.
The other kill was more carefully planned. We could see people working in a field far to the front of our position, and debated for several days about their activities. I felt that they might be civilian farmers tending their crops, since unlike us, the Chinese allowed civilians to remain in the combat zone. The infantry captain agreed that this was a possibility, but felt they could just as easily be Chinese soldiers planting the next season’s mine fields. Eventually I came to agree with him, and we planned a “time on target” action to exterminate them.
A “time on target” or TOT action is possibly the most extreme destructive power on a battlefield, except for nuclear warheads. It means simultaneous concentrated fire from every available piece of artillery in the area, all synchronized to land on the target at exactly the same instant.
To accomplish this goal requires serious advance planning and careful execution. For my TOT, the available ordnance included several heavy artillery battalions, some 155-mm Long Tom guns, and even the U.S. Navy firing from offshore. I had noted that the people arrived in the fields shortly before 8 a.m. every day, so we set the impact time to be exactly 8 a.m.
The next morning I watched through a spotting telescope as the clock crept towards 8. The white-robed figures appeared in the field, on schedule. Then, a few seconds before 8, they began to run for cover. Apparently one of our units had either fired a few seconds early, or had a couple of hot rounds. In any event, two rounds exploded before the bulk of the fire hit, and I watched two figures running for cover as the entire field erupted in smoke and flame. Still watching, I saw white cloth fluttering down, and knew that at least one of the running figures had met his maker. However, it was war, and I felt no regret. They would have done the same to me, given the opportunity.
One other incident during my time with Love Company must be mentioned. One afternoon, the company commander had me sit in while he briefed a platoon for a reconnaissance patrol that would go out that night. The plan was for the group to go out in strength for more than a mile in front of our lines, to probe the area. That would be only halfway toward the Chinese line, and should be relatively safe.
Shortly after sundown, the patrol went out, trailing telephone wire behind it and using sound-powered telephones rather than radio to maintain contact with the company commander, who stood beside me in my observation bunker. The first hour or so passed without incident. Then the platoon leader’s voice came over the phone, saying that they had seen a Chinese patrol some 50 yards in front of them, and asking for covering artillery fire.
When I cranked up my phone and asked the battalion fire direction center for a fire mission, the operations officer immediately got on the line and yelled “Lieutenant Kyle, don’t you know there’s a friendly patrol in that area?”
“I certainly do, sir. They asked for the fire,” I replied. The operations officer demanded to talk with the infantry commander and I handed over the phone. After a minute or so, the captain handed it back to me just in time for me to hear, “On the way” from the FDC. Not long afterward, the proximity-fuzed shells were bursting just ahead of the patrol’s location — and almost immediately, tracers began erupting in the area also. The patrol was in a firefight.
It went on for what seemed like an hour but was probably only a few seconds, and then a brilliant white flare burst over the site. “Cease fire! Cease fire!” the captain yelled into the line connecting to the patrol. That flare’s color had signaled that this was a “friendly firefight” and since our single patrol was the only friendly force within half a mile, it meant that the platoon members were shooting at each other.
While it may not be widely known outside the military family, such mistakes are not uncommon during wartime action. Many situations require that you shoot first and ask questions later. Apparently what had happened here was that the group was strung out in a long line, and after the initial contact and the artillery fire, someone near the back of the line saw movement up front, thought it was the Chinese patrol, and opened fire. Those at the front then returned the fire, and it took a while to realize what was going on. By that time, the platoon leader had been seriously injured, but he was apparently the only casualty of the initial action.
Unfortunately, one of the patrol members had pulled the pin on a grenade, to throw it, and in the confusion after discovering they were shooting each other, had dropped it. When it went off, most of the group were injured by its shrapnel.
Meanwhile, back in my bunker, things were beginning to become frantic. The captain had immediately notified his own CO, asked for, and received permission to send out a rescue party. However, we needed a more precise pinpoint of the location, so he asked the squad leader on the other end of the phone wire to send up a flare.
That’s when we discovered just how well the Chinese had managed to tap into the phone line. Nearly a dozen flares went up, creating a line of possible locations several miles wide. Obviously, they were listening, and were able to understand our orders to the patrol.
The captain finally had an inspiration, and said, “Give me a Saint Paddy.” Again, multiple flares streaked into the night sky, in all the colors of the rainbow. Fortunately, only one of them was green.
By morning, the rescue party had managed to reach the patrol and brought everyone back to our lines. Most of the wounded recovered, but the platoon leader had suffered a head wound and had spent too many hours before reaching medical care. He didn’t make it.
As for the original Chinese patrol, it had apparently decided that the artillery fire was more than it wanted to tangle with. It never contacted our group or the rescue party at all.
Normally, second lieutenants were required to serve at least 18 months before becoming eligible for promotion to first lieutenant. However, in combat situations that time was reduced to 12 months. My 12 months were up on July 20, 1953, and that very day I went before the promotion board to be examined.
About that time, the division again moved to reserve status at “Camp Casey” not far from where it had been when I joined them in April. We remained there through the signing of the armistice.
Not long after the move, I was called back to battalion headquarters. There I discovered that I was being transferred to Service Battery, our supply unit. Lt. “Spider” Webb, our battalion personnel officer, who also performed the duties of adjutant, had discovered my ability to touch type, and had tagged me as his eventual replacement. The transfer to Service Battery was to keep me out of harm’s way so that I would be available when Spider rotated home.
Life at Service Battery had certain advantages. The battery commander, Captain White, loved the chipped beef on toast concoction known to all as “SOS” and consequently short-stopped the entire supply of ground beef sent to the battalion so that he could enjoy it every morning. I liked it, too, much better than the usual breakfast fare.
I was still at Service Battery when the armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. I had a bottle of 120 proof vodka, and our mess sergeant had a can of orange juice. About noon, we pooled our resources to celebrate the end of the fighting. The sergeant was still on his feet when I staggered to my bunk to rest for a while.
A few hours later I woke up to see one of my college roommates standing over me. Lt. Joe Nicholson and I had roomed together during my first year at OU, but we found that we were incompatible in close contact. He later roomed with another friend, and we all got along nicely so long as we could get apart for a while when necessary.
Joe had been an outstanding ROTC cadet and won a regular army commission, putting him in the same category as West Point cadets. He had chosen infantry as his service; his dream was to win the Medal of Honor. However the cold Korea winters had changed his mind, and he had transferred to the air section of his division (the 45th) as an observer.
He came to share the joy of the armistice with me, and we visited for several hours before he left to return to his unit. I never saw him again. Only after my return to civilian life did I learn that he had been one of two 45th division officers killed when their plane crashed and burned shortly after takeoff, only a few months before he would have rotated home.
A few weeks after the armistice, I received word that my promotion had gone through, with date of rank as July 20, 1953. This had unexpected consequences later.
As Spider’s rotation date approached, he transferred me to Headquarters Battery to learn the ropes of his position. They were actually quite simple; I had to handle all the paperwork for the battalion, plus any additional odd jobs that the C.O. could think of.
One of those odd jobs was being Public Information Officer for the battalion. While waiting for Spider to leave, this was my primary duty. I cranked out press releases about everything we did and forwarded them through channels to the Stars and Stripes. I also wrote a dramatized account of life “On The Hill” as a forward observer, and submitted it with hopes of having it sent to one of the major men’s magazines such as Saga or True. Instead, it wound up in “Combat Forces Journal” where readers found every place that I had been uncertain of facts or taken “artistic license” with them, such as crediting the Chinese with a weapon they did not have.
During that period, I spent several days in Seoul at Eighth Army headquarters doing research for my unit’s part in a history of the division’s Korea experiences. I still have my copy of the book.
Another odd job was serving as the “Class Six” officer, charged with distribution and control of intoxicating beverages. I would take orders from all eligible personnel and pass them on, through channels, to the division’s class six officer. The ordering unit was always by the case. Division would fill the order and make it available for delivery to me. I would take delivery, distribute the wares, collect payment, and forward it to division.
With no more actual combat, we remained on alert since nobody felt that the other side could be trusted to honor their part of the agreement, but life became less enjoyable. Our executive officer, Major Bill Lanen, observed one day that, “War is hell, but peace is worse.” He spoke from experience in 1945 and 1946. When the shooting stopped, it became necessary to keep the troops occupied so that they would not become bored or restless.
So we painted the rocks around our area. Non-coms got summary court-martials for having dust on the dirt floors of their tents. Our combat commanders were replaced by officers who had seldom if ever seen battles; our new C.O. had been a professor of ancient history at West Point for many years, until just a week before he arrived to take over.
Fortunately, by 1954 Congress was eager to reduce the military budget, and we junior officers got the chance to cut our tours from 24 to 21 months. I grabbed it as rapidly as I could, and in April of 1954 embarked on a sea voyage from Pusan direct to San Francisco. I was seasick for the entire 15 days, but recovered rapidly at the sight of the Golden Gate. We disembarked and were immediately given leave. Those of us who were married had their wives waiting for them; we who weren’t went on the town to celebrate.
A friend and I made the rounds of the bars on Market Street, simply enjoying the sights and sounds and drinking very little. My highlight of the evening was seeing Jack Teagarden perform at one of the bars, singing “Saint James Infirmary” and using only half of his trombone, with a beer schooner serving as the other half.
The next morning the group of BOC52 veterans was to board a train for Camp Carson, Colorado, for discharge processing. Most of the group were married, though, and wanted to drive back with their wives rather than taking the train. We were all first lieutenants by then, but the others had not shared my luck and had not been promoted until 18 months had elapsed. That made me the senior officer and by default, the group commander.
I told them to take off and enjoy the trip; I would sign them in at Carson, and give them a couple of days of VOCO (Vocal Orders of Commanding Officer) leave if necessary — but insisted that they not dally excessively on their way.
At Carson, we all simply laid around, marking time until our 21 months to the day had expired. When my day came, they processed me out, I boarded a train, and returned to Oklahoma City. My war was over, but its lessons have never left me. They shape my life to this day.