Japan and Korea July 1950
It was a perfect morning. Sun shining, birds singing, a slight morning breeze scented with fresh-cut hay in the field. And a breakfast made for a king. A breakfast only his mother could make, perfectly cooked pancakes with sausage and hot maple syrup. After a breakfast like this, a man could do anything. The only imperfection was the song a bird was singing outside the window. There was something wrong with that bird.
“Swede! Swede! Get up, man. We gotta pack up, we’re on the move again.”
Paul Larson jumped the time warp from his mother’s kitchen to the sweaty darkness of his pup tent. Hadn’t he just collapsed on top of his sleeping bag after coming off guard duty? His red-headed tent-mate, Ray Parker, was kicking his feet a little harder than Paul thought he ought to.
“Hey, take it easy. I’m awake.”
“No man, really. Get outta the sack. The whole company is packin’ up. We’re outta here.”
“Here” was a dry paddy - full of tents - in Japan. Just nine months before, Paul Larson had enlisted in the Army. The oldest of four children on a small farm in western Minnesota, he had graduated high school just a year ago. With no money available, Paul had seen the Army as the means to broaden his limited horizons and start saving for college. World War II was long over, the world a peaceful place, so his parents were not completely against the idea. His father just asked he wait until the fall harvest was in before he left.
“Swede” was born on an early November morning on a parade ground at Fort Riley, Kansas. It was part of an age-old tradition when the drill sergeant put his scowling face inches away from the recruit’s nose and growled, “Where you from boy?” The look and tone gave the distinct impression that whatever the answer, it would be distasteful.
“Minneota, Minnesota, Drill Sergeant!”
“Never heard of it. Name somebody important from Minnie-owe-tuh Minnie-sew-tuh,” sneered the drill sergeant.
Without hesitation, Paul gave the name of his hometown war hero. “Val Bjornson, Drill Sergeant!”
“Jeezus! Bee-yorn-son from Minnie-owe-tuh, Minnie-sew-tuh! We got us a Swede boy here,” the sergeant yelled in an exaggerated drawl. The newly named Swede did not react as the sergeant insulted anything and everything Swedish. He kind of reminded Swede of his high school basketball coach, but with a lot more profanity. Besides, somebody bad-mouthing the Swedes didn’t bother Paul Larson - all his ancestors were Norwegian.
He was young but not stupid, so “Swede” didn’t bother to correct the drill sergeant. He tried to maintain eye contact, knowing looking away would be a sign of weakness and then the harassment would increase. He had learned that lesson at an early age working with his uncles on the family farm and had it reinforced as the country kid on the high school basketball team. Paul had grown up working side by side with his father and uncles. His work ethic and demeanor around adults had earned him respect in the community. He was given responsibilities beyond the norm for a teenager, and that had given him an early insight as to how the world worked. His new name didn’t change Paul a bit on the inside. Melvin R. Sweet, two ranks back, had a different outcome.
“Melvin are Sweet are he? Get down and give me twenty, Melvin Are. Best you learn right now there’s nuthin’ sweet around here.”
Master Sergeant George W. Tucker had been around a while. He had served in China when he was younger than Swede and waded ashore on quite a few islands in the Pacific during the war. He had served with good leaders and bad, officers and NCOs. More than once he had been forced into taking charge because there was no one left above his pay grade. Those experiences had not always had a positive result, and he had the scars, both physical and emotional, as proof. Since then, he had made it a personal crusade to help develop leadership skills in troops under his command, whenever he could, in whatever way he could. This was his Army, and it needed good people.
The veteran drill sergeant saw more than a fit-looking, blue-eyed farm boy in front of him. The newly named Swede stood just under six feet, broad through the shoulders but otherwise slim. Tucker grabbed the kid’s hands to inspect his fingernails for cleanliness. The hands were callused from hard work. His eyes, never flinching, gave a distinct sense of intelligence. So, the kid was added to his list for admittance into the Tucker School of Keep Your Head Out of Your Ass. Swede and two others in that batch of recruits were given extra duties and responsibilities. He tried to make them understand almost any problem they might encounter in his Army had a solution in the Manual. They didn’t have to re-invent the wheel. The manual was based on years of experience. But sometimes problems had solutions only found outside the manual. Sometimes you found yourself in situations where no manual existed. He found Swede to be his best student and spent extra time with the Minnesota boy, usually in the form of profane rants on his lack of ability to perform to his full potential. They were followed by quieter, detailed suggestions on how to improve. The profanity was for the benefit of the rest of the company. The detailed discussions were for his students.
Swede responded well to the entire experience. He was enjoying the Army. As the oldest of his siblings, farm work had made him fit. Since age twelve he had been allowed to hunt on his own with the family .22 rifle and soon after with the .30-30 his grandfather had given him. He was used to hard work and life in the outdoors. Swede and the Army seemed to be a good fit, even if their breakfasts didn’t match up to his mother’s pancakes and sausages.
By early spring of 1950 Swede was in Japan, assigned to the 24th Infantry Division. The long boat trip across the Pacific had given him a quick look at Hawaii and the Philippines. Not bad for a kid who had never been more than fifty miles from home. Swede tried to soak up the foreign atmosphere of it all. He was in Japan, a place he had only seen in National Geographic! Life was a grand adventure.
Parker was right. They were “outta here.” Trucks pulled up next to the bivouac area, sending diesel fumes and dust swirling through the hot air. A few hours later, the trucks rumbled up to a dock and the men hustled aboard a ship. Rumors bounced around about a problem in Korea, but most of the guys figured the whole thing was just part of the maneuvers. They spent the night at sea and their small flotilla pulled into a harbor the morning of 13 July. It could have been the Japanese coast for all they knew, but their captain confirmed it was Korea. That was all he confirmed. No one told them where they were or where they were going. Still, Swede was feeling good about being smart enough to enlist in the Army. Here he was in his third foreign country and just 19 years old.
But soon things got serious. They were told to grab ammunition and grenades and hop into the waiting trucks. As they started filling their ammo pouches, trucks pulled in loaded with wounded. Up to this point, many in the company were like Swede, too young and too ignorant to be afraid. Most of the guys in the unit had never fired a shot off the rifle range and had never been shot at. But a look at those wounded started them thinking maybe this was not Kansas anymore. They climbed aboard their trucks which took them to a railroad yard where they boarded a train. The scene was straight out of an old western, steam huffing out from the engine, the cowcatcher on the front, the old wooden bench seats. The company rode on the train for most of the day, constantly stopping and waiting, the cars screeching to a halt and then jerking forward again. Much of the conversation was about how soon this would all be over, and they could go back to the good life in Japan. Most of them were young and convinced they would win this little war, just like the Army had won the last war. Their age made them forget how long it had taken to win that last war. Most did not understand how poorly trained they were and how old their equipment was. So, they talked smart, partly from ignorance, partly from fear, but mostly because that’s what young soldiers do. They talked smart and played cards, doing neither very well, but it passed the time.
Swede spent most of the time watching this new country. There was no war in sight, so his mind could still appreciate the beauty that rolled by. Brilliant green rice shoots stood in rows, the sun reflecting off the flooded paddies. Village after village of brown thatch-roofed huts contrasted with the green hills beyond. When the train stopped for the last time, they boarded trucks again and headed out of the town. The few Koreans they saw were walking along the same road - headed in the opposite direction. Most adults had a woven basket or an A-shaped frame on their back, the contents bending them forward as they trotted along. A few cows pulled two-wheeled carts. No one waved at the soldiers.
A few miles after crossing a river the trucks stopped in a little valley. By then some of the company had not slept in over twenty-four hours and all of them had only been fed once. Just when they needed some food and a rest, they were hustled off the trucks, marched up the valley, and then up the steep hillsides to what they were told were the front lines. The guys already on the hill looked more tired and hungry than the new guys. They also had a look about them Swede hadn’t seen before. He learned soon enough what that look was - fear.
On Swede’s hill there were two platoons. They had only their rifles - no automatic weapons, no mortars, no bazookas. The NCOs put the troops to work preparing better firing positions and making the hill more defensible. Nobody got much sleep that night. They were tired, hot, and hungry. Dirt and sweat added to their discomfort. They could see and hear artillery fire way out in front of them and it seemed somebody was constantly spotting movement coming up their hill and firing off rounds. Before daylight the next morning, the men were rousted out of their foxholes to the sound of gunfire and the light of flares overhead. Their gunfire and their flares. Swede couldn’t see a thing other than glowing fog. He didn’t see any of his buddies getting hit and he couldn’t see anything to shoot at. His grandfather had taught him at a young age not to shoot unless he could see exactly what he was shooting at. Given the language he heard from the platoon sergeant, it seemed he agreed with Swede’s grandfather. So he sat back against the side of his foxhole and tried to enjoy the cool of the morning, hoping breakfast was on the schedule. It wasn’t.
A couple of hours later the fog lifted and the shooting started up again. This time they could see movement about a half-mile away. Their fox holes looked out over a low area of fields or paddies, with another ridge beyond that. Some points on that ridge were higher than they were. Paths of brown created a random pattern through the green rice paddies. On the far side a road traced the bottom slope of the distant ridge. Terraces stepped their way up that slope.
As Swede looked out over his M1, trying to find a target, there was an explosion far to his left. Caruumph! Without thinking, he stood up to see what was happening. They had never trained with mortar fire, so he had no idea he was in danger. Suddenly there was another explosion just thirty yards away. Before he could react, there was a third. A wall of noise and pressure slammed into him. As Ray pulled him down, there was a sharp blow to his arm. Then they were curled up in the bottom of their foxhole, crushing their helmets down on their heads. The ground bounced, again, and again. Dirt and rocks rained down, convincing them the next round would drop directly on their heads. Their senses were almost overwhelmed by the noise and the smells but when the sergeants started yelling at them to get up and point their rifles down the hill, Privates Larson and Parker did as they were ordered. There was nothing there.
After the first mortar barrage, they didn’t take much rifle fire. There were a few North Korean tanks and troops in the valley to their front and more troops on the ridge beyond. They seemed to be ignoring the Americans on the hill. The platoons fired sporadically at the men in the valley, but distance and dust made it hard to see how effective they were. Probably not very, given the Koreans paid them little attention except for the occasional mortar round and machine-gun bursts from the far ridge. In between the incoming rounds, a medic patched up the wound on Swede’s arm while reminding him to keep his head down. At mid-afternoon they were ordered off the hill by squads. By then most of Swede’s ammo was gone and his canteen was long empty. Fear has a thirst.
The squad, or at least those still moving as a squad, didn’t see anybody, American or North Korean, as they worked their way back to where the next line of defense was supposed to be. Later in the day they met up with what turned out to be a counterattack headed right back to the hill they had just left. They followed their mortar and artillery fire back up the hill just as full dark hit. Swede and Parker ended up in their old foxhole. Swede immediately set to work making it deeper and piling more dirt in front. He only did as Master Sergeant Tucker had so recently taught him, but many other foxholes on that hill would not have met with Tucker’s approval. That fact was clear to the platoon sergeant as he went down the line. He realized Swede was doing exactly what needed to be done without waiting to be told. Swede was promoted to Private First Class on the spot and put in charge of the squad in the foxholes to either side.
The fact he had been promoted made Swede even more aware of their predicament. With only a few instructions he had the six foxholes in the center of that hill brought up to par. He then sent Parker and one man from each of the other foxholes to get more ammunition. They each came back with two bandoliers of loaded clips and more hand grenades. Then they sat back and waited.
An hour later the platoon sergeant came around handing out more ammunition and grenades. He whispered to them to toss one grenade each if they had movement in front of them but to be sure their imagination didn’t run wild. Swede looked at him without saying anything and reached out to grab even more grenades and ammo from the box. He scooted over to the other foxholes and divvied up what he had. He designated one man in each foxhole to toss grenades and one to fire his rifle. “Place your bandolier where you can easily grab a new clip but not where it will get dumped in the bottom of the foxhole. When they hit us, start tossing those grenades. When the last one is gone, grab your rifle and join in. If you can, try to time it so we all don’t have to change clips at the same time. But whatever you do, make your shots count.”
Most of the company had only been out of basic training for a few months. At first the whole experience wasn’t much different than basic. But that day had given them a fresh sense of reality. And now they were sitting in the dark waiting for the Koreans to come charging at them. They could see and hear an attack on the ridge to their right, noise like they had never heard before. There was a lot of noise in the valley in front of them, tracers drawing lines through the dark, and finally, the bugles. It sounded like the whole North Korean Army was blowing bugles.
A command was shouted down the line. “Fix bayonets!”
At that point there were no thoughts about home or any kind of pie. They were too busy trying not to be afraid, trying not to let the other guys see they were afraid, and trying to do what they were trained to do, wishing the attack would come before the fear broke them. One last bugle call and they got their wish. A flare went up and with no hesitation Parker tossed out his first grenade. There was a wall of men charging up the hill right at them, yelling and firing. Swede yelled at Parker to keep tossing while he opened fire with his rifle. All their training had been for this exact moment.
Parker was tossing them out as fast as he could while Swede kept up a rapid fire - point and squeeze, point and squeeze, spriiing, new clip. Picking his targets was simple, there was nothing but targets in front of them. Flares swinging from parachutes created a black and white field of dancing men and shadows. It was a county fair nightmare. One target fell down and another popped into view. But these targets were shooting back. Each man operated on training and reality, doing what had to be done while pushing back at the fear that said differently. Their only thinking was limited to the right here and now. No yesterday, no tomorrow, just now. The noise and heat and screams and fear of now. When the grenades were gone, Ray swung up his rifle and began firing.
A wall of men was charging at him, making so much noise Swede was transported to another place. A place where his hearing was almost gone, but his vision was crystal clear. He was aware of everything around him, but it was all in slow motion. There were flashes and smoke from this wall of men, silent explosions among them. At some point he emptied a clip and realized he had no time to reload. The wall was right in front of him. He pushed aside slow-motion bayonets with his rifle, stabbing back and swinging the butt at strange faces. The eyes in the faces didn’t look at his, but beyond, as if he wasn’t there. Objects thudded near his feet. He kicked them away without looking. More objects thudded near his feet, only these were bodies that he had dropped there. He realized he was almost out of ammunition. Finally, swinging his rifle back and forth, looking for his next target, Swede realized he could hear again. He and Parker were yelling, but there was nothing more to yell at, nothing more to shoot at, no more angry faces with blank eyes. Swede wasn’t sure if it had all lasted two minutes or two hours.
The Koreans had pushed through their thin line and kept on going. Swede’s squad had kept up such a heavy barrage of grenades and rifle fire the Koreans had, for the most part, gone around them like a rock in a stream. Some thought the Koreans had seemed more focused on getting over the hill than on killing the men in front of them. Others in the platoon hadn’t been so lucky. As their hearing came back Swede and Parker could hear shouts from the wounded and dying. While doing what they could for the wounded, the surviving NCOs came around and started organizing a withdrawal. Some soldiers were out of ammo and most were down to their last few clips. Nobody had any water and nobody had any food.
The platoon sergeant pointed them in the direction they needed to go and sent them off the hill by squads. It wasn’t long before there were just four of them - Swede, Parker, and the two guys who had been in the foxhole to their left. Four young kids who were aging quickly. After stumbling off the hill just following the man in front of him, Swede wasn’t sure what direction they were headed. Nobody had a compass. He held up the other three while he tried to get a fix on the North Star but couldn’t find any stars. They kept turning away from gunfire until they could have been heading north for all he knew. By dawn they were lost and running on empty. They hadn’t eaten in three days. They were exhausted, thirsty, hungry - and terrified. It was obvious there were North Koreans all around. The four crawled into some thick bushes to stay hidden during daylight. The plan was for one to stay awake for a few hours and then wake the next guy to keep watch. That was the plan.
The next thing he knew, somebody was kicking his foot. Swede figured it was his turn to keep a look-out. He opened his eyes to look up the barrel of a cannon held by a grinning midget. Later he realized the man wasn’t that small and the rifle not that large. It was 15 July 1950. He had been in the Army just eight months. He had been in Korea just two days.