Sixty years ago today, July 27, 1953, at 10 p.m., found me with the 90th Field Artillery Battalion, 25th Division in Korea.
Exactly 12 hours earlier that day in Panmunjom, four generals from the United States, South Korea, North Korea and China finally signed off on a cease-fire agreement that remains in effect to this day. The 12-hour delay was intentional, giving all combat units enough time to communicate that the 10 p.m. cease fire was for real.
The last day of combat was surreal.
Apparently the Chinese, whom we were facing, were unloading old, unreliable, artillery ordinance. There were no patterns to any incoming rounds. It became common to see pointless fire on nonoccupied hills all around us. Nothing they were sending made sense. The new-found quiet that evening brought much relief and celebration. Interestingly, most of us had trouble sleeping for some nights without the noise and rumble of small arms, as well as mortar and artillery fire.
The last several weeks along the MLR (Main Life of Resistance) had seen much action. The negotiating at Panmunjom finally seemed to be making some progress and the Chinese seemed to be obsessed with acquiring high ground. This effort became very expensive in personnel for them, with little if any ground gained. I actually felt sorry for those infantry troops trying to cross 500 meters of flat rice paddies in an effort to take heavily fortified positions up steep ridges in the face of machine gun, rifle, mortar and heavy artillery fire.
My battalion was composed of three batteries, each with six, 155MM (about 6 inches) howitzers. During one 24-hour period, of the time I’m describing, we set a record for more ammunition expended by any similar unit in the history of the U.S. Army. The reader cannot begin to imagine the churned up world in “No Man’s Land,” when the Chinese retreated to their own position. The carnage haunts me to this day, 60 years later.
As a 20-year-old draftee, I was angry and hyper-critical of President Truman, who had sent me a draft notice a half year earlier to engage in a war I thought was unnecessary.
Time, however, has proven Mr. Truman correct, eventually sending 500,000 young men like me to Korea. The cost was high. The U.S. lost 50,000 men in the three-year war. Eight thousand, five hundred men remain listed as MIA, mostly lost in the winter of 1950-51 during a disastrous retreat following the Chinese sending 100,000 troops across the Yalu River in support of North Korea. Russia was also heavily involved via supply and air support.
Today, a thriving South Korea is a classic example of the benefits enjoyed by the citizens of a free society. The sad little nation north of the 1953 DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) speaks volumes regarding Truman’s wisdom as he responded to the North Korean invasion in June, 1950. Many have seen the space satellite photo of the nighttime world depicting lights from thriving nations shoring the stark reality between free nations and totalitarian-run states.
Would I go again? Yes, as I had three older brothers during World War II, each of whom advised me to serve well, do my best to stay alive and to keep my head down. The whole experience helped me to grow up and be more aware of how dangerous this world is and can be.
The Korean tour lasted 16 months for all army troops. Overall, draftees served two years of active duty plus six years on ready reserve. I returned home after my tour, received an honorable discharge, went to school, thanks to the extension of the WWII G.I. Bill, earned a degree and a teaching credential and did my best to serve young people for the next 38 years.
The sad, dangerous experience of combat cemented a strong desire to lead a useful and productive life.
Now at 81 years of age, my two years of service represent a mere 2 percent of my life — but a most significant two years.
William Gallagher lives in Grass Valley.