A Personal Narrative of the Korean War (1950, by Bob Roy)

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Korea was divided during the last week of World War II when a Soviet effort to occupy the country was stopped by American troops at the thirty-eighth parallel of the Korean peninsula. The two sides agreed to work toward establishing an independent state while occupying the territories. By 1947, however, the Cold War was already entrenched and the North Koreans established themselves as the Democratic People's Republic (DPR), a Soviet satellite. The newly formed United Nations sponsored the creation of the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south during the following year.

On June 25, 1950, DPR troops, trained and armed by the Soviets, crossed the parallel and attacked. The ROK army was ill-trained and poorly equipped and as a result suffered grievous losses until U.N. forces, headed by American troops, arrived in early July to shore up defenses. This personal narrative, written by an eighteen-year-old American soldier arriving in one of the first waves, illustrates the atrocious fighting characteristic of this dead-end conflict.

Mark D.Baumann,
New York University

See also Korean War .

When we heard the news of the invasion we didn't pay any attention to it. The officers did, but we didn't.

On the last day of June we got paid, and as usual the whole camp cleared out except for the guys who had duty. Everybody else went into town and stayed until the midnight curfew. At midnight we all came in to the barracks pretty well feeling our oats. We'd just gotten to bed when one of our lieutenants came in, threw on the lights and said, "Pack your gear. We're headed for Korea."

That's when we knew the war was on.

A lot of the guys were writing letters, hoping to get them out somehow, because the families weren't notified. Nobody knew we were going. And of course nobody knew what the hell was going to happen when we got there.

We landed near Pusan on the first of July, and it took us four days to get into position. First we were put on a train and went as far as Taejon. At Taejon we loaded onto trucks, and from there we moved a little farther north each day. I had no idea where we were going. All I knew was we were headed for the front, wherever the hell that was. I was only a PFC, and when they tell you to go somewhere, you go. You don't ask questions.

What I remember most about those four days was not getting any sleep. And the flies. The flies would carry you away. We were in this little Korean village, before we went up to our final position, and Marguerite Higgins showed up and started interviewing us, and the flies… we were spitting them out of our mouths as we talked.

And the stench. The Koreans put human excrement in their rice paddies, and God did it smell.

About seven in the morning I decided to open a can of C rations, and that's when we saw the tanks. I just dropped the can. What the hell was this? Nobody told us about any tanks.

Before I fired the first round I counted thirty-five tanks coming down the road. Everybody was shitting their pants. From what I understand now, the South Koreans had been running from the tanks, and they wanted somebody up there who wasn't going to run. But at the time we weren't told that. We weren't told anything. We were all eighteen, nineteen years old, a bunch of cocky guys. We didn't know what to expect, and we didn't think too much about it. I think if I'd been thirty years old I would've turned around and run.

We didn't realize what we'd gotten into until we saw those tanks. But by then we were in it.

We had no armor-piercing shells, so we tried to stop them by hitting the tracks. We would've been better off throwing Molotov cocktails at them. Some rounds were duds, some were even smoke rounds. We could see them bounce right off the tanks.

We fired as fast as we could. As soon as we'd get a round into the breech we'd cover our ears and let it go, get another one in, fire that one… but they went right through us, right on down the road.

A round from one of the tanks hit right in front of my gun. I saw it coming. I saw the turret turn. We worked as fast as we could to try and get off another round, but the tank shot first, and all five of us were thrown back over the hill from the concussion and the earth hitting us in the face. Our ears were ringing. We were all disoriented, couldn't function at all for five or ten minutes.

But the gun was all right. The lieutenant, he wanted us to go back and get it. The tank was still there, with its turret pointed right at us. I said to him, "I'm not going up there until that tank moves." I disobeyed a direct order. I said, "If you want that gun, you go get it."

He didn't go. The gun just sat there, and the tank waited there for a while, and we kept peeking over the hill, watching the tank, until it moved farther down the road.

We stayed there for a while longer and just watched the tanks. A few had stopped alongside the road and were firing into our positions, into the infantry, but none of them stayed around for long. Then our officers moved us across the road and behind a hill where the mortars were.

By this time, eight, nine in the morning, it was raining like hell. The mortars were right behind us, firing for all they were worth. The North Korean infantry had come down the road in trucks, and had gotten out of the trucks and started moving around our flanks. I didn't actually see the North Koreans deploy, because our view was blocked by the hill in front of us, but we knew their infantry must have come up behind the tanks because the mortars and our own infantry were all firing like crazy.

Me, I couldn't see anything to shoot at. So we got under a poncho, me and another guy, and we sat there smoking a cigarette.

An officer came by and yelled down at us, "What the hell are you doing?"

"We're having a smoke."

He says, "You're about to die."

"Yeah," we said, "we're havin' our last smoke."

That's the way it was for us. That was our state of mind. We'd been told how the North Koreans were a ragtag army, couldn't fight worth a shit, couldn't shoot straight, all that baloney. And what did we know? A bunch of kids? We just believed what we were told. And it was raining like hell. And our ammo's no good.

We had nothing at all to fight with.

We'd been in trouble from the beginning, only now we knew it.

Hell, it was even worse than we knew. By now all the radios were out. The tanks had run over the communications wire, and the ones in the jeeps got wet from the rain and just stopped working. The infantry was strung out along the ridge, and we were just behind them, and there was no communication between any of the units.

I heard Brad Smith give the order to withdraw. He was up on the hill behind us. He stood up there and gave the order verbally. Just yelled it out. I don't remember exactly what he said, if he said "Every man for himself," but they were words to that effect.

So we got the word, but I found out later that one platoon never did get the word to pull out. They were left there all by themselves. Some of those guys eventually got out, and some didn't.

As soon as we heard the withdrawal order we took off down the hill and crossed the road, but by now the North Koreans had gotten behind us. They had the high ground, and I was down in a rice paddy and all friggin' hell broke loose. It sounded like a bunch of bees. Friggin' bullets bouncing all over the place.

Normally what you do when you have to withdraw is you set up a rendezvous point. Then you retreat in an orderly fashion toward that point. But there was never any rendezvous point. Nobody told us anything. So we all took off on our own.

I was with a squad of guys who all got captured. Every one of them except me. I went over a railroad embankment, running like a bastard, because the North Koreans were still firing at us from the hills. Everybody was with me when I went over the embankment, but after running three or four hundred yards I turned around and, Jesus, I'm all alone.

I'm in the middle of all these rice paddies, and I'm thinking, Where the hell is everybody?

I found out, forty years later, that everybody else went down the right side of the railroad tracks. They went due south, where the North Korean tanks were, and they got captured. Most of them spent the war as POWs. I went down the left side, kind of southeast, because I wasn't about to go where those tanks were.

We were on the Kum River waiting to be relieved by the 19th Infantry when General Walker showed up. He stood next to his jeep and gave us a talk. "If they come across this river," he says, "you guys are to stay here and fight to the death." Then he jumps in his jeep and takes off.

And we're all saying, "Yeah, sure."

They got tanks, and we got nothing to knock them out with. I still had only a .45 at the time, and I think six rounds of ammunition.

You've got to understand what it feels like to be in combat and not have enough ammunition, or have a weapon that don't work. The feeling of helplessness. What I'm saying is, it's easy to sit back and say, Well, those guys ran. Sure we ran. But what did we have to fight with?

You read about a lot of the wounded and litter cases being left behind. But I saw guys who should've gotten medals. I saw guys carrying other guys who had been shot in the legs. There were a lot of guys trying to help other people out. I saw a buddy of mine stay behind to lay down covering fire, and I don't know to this day if he got out of there. Everybody was trying to help out the best they could.

We were sent over there to delay the North Koreans. We delayed them seven hours. Don't ask me if it was worth it. We were a bunch of kids and we were just trying to do our jobs.

SOURCE: Roy, Bob. From "First Blood," in No Bugles, No Drums: An Oral History of the Korean War. By Rudy Tomedi. John Wiley & Sons, 1993.

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A Personal Narrative of the Korean War (1950, by Bob Roy)

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