Naktong Notes

by Harry Maihafer

Harry Maihafer is the author of "From the Hudson to the Yalu," the story of several members of the West Point Class of '49 in the Korean War, and many other books. This segment is a part of contemporary notes he kept at the time. -- Jim Fine

... Captain Dick Daschner, the S-3 Operations Officer, was quiet, confident, friendly. First Lieutenant John Watkins, West Point '48, was the S-4 Supply Officer. John was a tall, clean-cut officer, an "army brat" whose father had also been graduated from the Military Academy. With my insecurity in this new environment, I jumped at the chance to have a West Pointer to lean on a little. It wasn't that I wanted to talk "old school tie," or as the saying went, "to knock rings" with him, it was just that I had many, many questions, and it was far easier to talk with someone with a common background.

John said he had been with the unit in Japan and had been leading a rifle platoon when they first came to Korea. He told me about the basic code system, how the three battalions of a regiment were "Red, White, and Blue." Thus the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry, was "Diamond Blue." As the S-4, he was "Diamond Blue 4." As the S-2, I would be "Diamond Blue 2." Seconds in command, or executive officers, were called "5", commanders were "6." (So that, I realized, was why they called Colonel Stephens "Big Six".) Our 3rd Battalion had four companies: rifle companies I, K, and L (Item, King, Love) and the weapons company, M or Mike.

John told me of the first days of the war, the hastily established positions, the infiltrating enemy who appeared to your rear, the demoralizing retreats, the disastrous day of July 11th, at Chochiwon, when the 21st had been overrun and it had very nearly been every man for himself. 23 men had come out with the surviving officer of L company, Lt Bernard. Casualties had been high, and only a fraction of the original battalion had escaped. Among those killed that day were Lt. Colonel Carl Jensen, the Battalion Commander, and Lieutenant Leon Jacques, the S-2. It was a strange feeling to realize Jacques was the man I was replacing. Maybe a battalion headquarters wasn't the safe harbor I had presumed it to be.

Things were fairly relaxed the rest of the day. Now that we had air support, the enemy seemed to have established a pattern of night attacks, so it was only after dark that we would all go on full alert.

As darkness fell, we crowded together into the small operations tent. Contact with the companies on line was by both phone and radio. The phone line to one of the companies had just been re-established, and the wire crew restoring the line said the old line had been cut. John said he wasn't surprised; phone lines between battalion and the companies were cut rather frequently. It gave one an eerie feeling.

Companies were required to report in every hour, or whenever something significant took place. Mac gave me the job of maintaining the battalion log. It was a routine task at best, but I was thankful finally to be making some sort of contribution. As S-2, I wrote down a summary of all messages, including the hourly negative reports. When all units had reported in, I relayed a negative report to "Diamond 2" at Regiment on behalf of "Diamond Blue."

The night wore on, and according to instructions, two of our units sent out patrols. Then a chilling message came in. One of the patrols, from the regiment's I & R platoon, had wandered into a minefield laid by the division's engineer battalion. L company's only officer, Lieutenant Bernard, said they would be going out to investigate.

An hour later Bernard called in again. He gave some coordinates for a rendezvous; requested a litter jeep from Battalion to meet him there. He had one wounded and one dead man to be evacuated. After some delay the rendezvous was made and Bernard headed back to Battalion to report.

While Bernard was en route back, John Watkins told me about him. In the early days of the war, when enemy T-34 tanks seemed unstoppable, Carl Bernard had knocked out one of them single-handedly with a puny 2.36" rocket launcher.

For his actions on that occasion, Bernard had been recommended for a Distinguished Service Cross. Time and again Bernard had shown incredible courage in action. When the fighting was over however, he had broken down emotionally and it had been necessary to evacuate him for psychological reasons. He was just now returning from the hospital, and was quite probably still on the edge.

It was an incredible tale, and I looked at him with almost a feeling of awe. And as I looked, he began to cry. At first it was a quiet thing, but it turned into violent sobs. I led him out of the operations tent, to a sheltered spot where he could rest.

"Damn it all, Harry," he cried, "why do I have to get this way? Why can't I keep hold of myself and be like the rest of you guys?"

Ironic. Here was the bravest man I had ever met, talking to me, an untested newcomer, as though I were one of the strong ones. In the morning Carl Bernard made ready to return to his company. I asked to go along. Maybe I felt guilty about remaining in comparative safety at the CP without having even seen the Naktong River we were defending. Then too, I had decided that I could help my S-2 message interpreting by taking a map board, going to various spots along the line, and marking the to show what could be seen from where. Then, when reports came in of enemy activity, we could tell which front line locations could either observe the enemy or take him under fire. I also thought Carl would be a good man to know better.

Carl said he would be "proud" to have me come along. It would be good for the men, he said, adding, with just a trace of bitterness, that it would be the "first ever" visit to that location by a member of the Battalion staff.

The first leg of our journey was by jeep. Along the way we came to an outpost, actually two men and a machine gun at a bend in the road. Using a poncho, they had erected a lean-to shelter to shield themselves from the August sun. Carl jumped from the jeep and proceeded to bawl them out soundly.

"Stupid! That poncho is like a big flag giving away your position. It also cuts down your visibility, and makes you too comfortable and careless. What do you want--to get a little shade or to stay alive?" Sheepishly, they started taking down the poncho.

We drove on, and I said it seemed a long way from the Battalion CP to the Company. Carl agreed readily, saying he felt the Battalion staff was playing it safe and staying much too far to the rear. Finally we came to a cluster of huts at the base of a mountain, which Carl said was "Love Company Rear." Six or eight Americans were there, loading ration boxes onto the backs of a Korean "carrying party'". The Koreans, called "chiggi-bearers" by the Americans, wore A-frames which distributed the weight high up on their shoulders and allowed these short, wiry men to carry incredible loads.

Carl had a warning for the soldiers at Love Company Rear: "Someone back here has been taking the fruit cans from some of the C-ration boxes. With no water on that mountain, the fruit is the only part of the ration anyone really cares about. Stealing that fruit is pretty low, and if it happens again I swear I'll have every one of you up top in a foxhole while someone from up there takes your place!"

This was getting real. I was learning a whole new set of values. In the hot sun, on a mountain with no water supply, a can of fruit, and the moisture it contained, was one of the things that really mattered.

As we climbed, I learned more about Carl. He had taught school for a while, had then decided to enter the Army. He was currently on a "competitive tour", at the end of which a board would decide if he could qualify for a Regular Army commission. Right now, though, he said he'd settle for a new pair of glasses. His present ones had been cracked and one lens was patched with a sliver of adhesive tape.

The trail up the mountain was long and steep. By the time we reached the top, I was nearly exhausted and had to stop and rest every few yards. I marveled at the frail-looking Bernard, who wasn't even breathing hard.

As we were climbing, Carl pointed out the "bug-out" route, the predetermined path for an emergency retreat. "Bug-out", a new term coined in Korea, seemed very much on everyone's mind. At last we reached the crest. Looking down, I could finally see the famous Naktong River. Several hundred feet below us, and about a hundred yards to our front, it flowed serenely, looking more like a picturesque tourist attraction than a military barrier. Carl introduced me around as "the new Battalion Two, come to visit." The soldiers were a lean, scruffy looking bunch, ones who seemed to show the results of having fought, and lost, too many times the past month.

I met Hugh Brown, the Company First Sergeant, a young, farmerish-looking fellow with straw-colored hair. He seemed competent and sure of himself, and I suspected he was a good man to have around. Proudly, Sergeant Brown showed me a dozen fresh eggs he had just acquired. He was sheltering them in a straw basket, and treating them with a good measure of tender loving care.

It was late afternoon by the time I had looked around and done some plotting on my map board, late enough that I decided to stay the night with Love Company. I called back to let Battalion know.

On the far side of the Naktong lay a wide sandy beach edged by a two-lane dirt road. Beyond the road a mountain similar to ours rose abruptly; I wondered if there were Communist soldiers on it looking across at us.

"L" Company began calling for artillery fire, registering specific concentrations which they might be calling for during the night. Two nights before, they told me, enemy trucks had appeared on the road across the river. The convoy must have been lost, since the trucks had come driving along in full view with all headlights shining! Artillery and mortar fire had been brought down on the convoy, destroying enough trucks to block the road, and after that the men said it had been like picking off ducks in a shooting gallery. Through my binoculars, I could see some of the "remains", hulls which were still smoldering.

Soon after dark it began to rain. I put on my poncho and tried to use it to shield my map board as well as myself. An ominous message came from Battalion--at midnight the company would withdraw from the mountain.

Midnight came, and in the darkness, carrying my weapon and my map board, I joined one of the squads which was starting single file down the narrow path from the mountain. The rain had slickened the trail and suddenly I pitched head first, with helmet, weapon, and map board flying. I managed to retrieve them, and myself, and to keep sliding along. Others were falling too, cursing softly since this was supposed to be a silent withdrawal. I fell again; my hands and feet were coated with mud. Clumsy! Somehow I was glad the darkness made me anonymous.

At the base of the mountain, someone was shining a dim light, probably a flashlight with a filter on it. The rain had changed to light mist as "L" Company huddled in the dark, near a cluster of buildings I recognized as the "Company Rear" where Carl had accused men of stealing cans of fruit from the rations.

I wasn't sure what was happening; my only information came from Hugh Brown, the First Sergeant, who said they had been told to stay where they were for the night. I noted admiringly that he had managed to make it down from the top without cracking a single egg. I decided I might as well stay with their group; there seemed no reason for returning to Battalion before morning.

A messenger with marching orders arrived just after daybreak.We started out, and after walking more than an hour, ...

This is all of Harry Maihafer's private notes pertaining to Love Company disclosed to us. jf