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Ernie Kramer


Combat

What an interesting word. What an interesting concept. Before I was engaged in combat in Korea during the night of 12 - 13 June 1953, I had only heard of the combat experiences of others. Until that night was ended, I had no way of knowing what a personal , singular, unique activity combat would be for me. Neither did I have an awareness that memories of that night on Outpost Harry would live within me for decades, would cause such overwhelming terror and pain when they revisited my conscious thought - regardless of how much effort was put into not thinking about the events.

The year was 1953 early in January when I landed in Inchon and then proceeded north by rail, truck, and foot to a replacement depot. Shortly thereafter, I was assigned to the 10th Engineer Combat Battalion somewhere on line and finally to a squad of Baker Company (Company B). Within two hours after arriving, I was driving a "deuce and a half" (2 1/2 ton truck) with a convoy of several other trucks hauling dirt to a forward position. The blackness of the night was eerie and I had never before followed tiny cat's eyes taillights of the truck in front of mine. I had no idea where I was, where we were going, or where my Company area was.

I dumped my load of dirt and was about to lower the truck dump bed and follow the other trucks out of the area. We had dumped the dirt within a few yards of several large rocket launch vehicles which at that moment fired their rockets.. I had never seen that kind of armament in basic training. The surprise of firing, the noise, the light, smoke, and heat of the launch really unnerved me so much so that I drove with my dump bed up in the raised position for a couple miles before I realized it. I was really rattled trying desperately to keep up with those tiny cat's eye taillights of the truck in front of me.

I was a very confident young man up to that point , but I knew then I had learned an important lesson about self control and vulnerability. From that moment on, I paid a great deal of attention to details.

I truly loved the work of the Combat Engineers. I worked without taking breaks much to the annoyance of other guys in my squad. This was never a matter of trying to be different, but simply that, before entering the Army, I had never taken breaks and I was not about to do something that I didn't feel the need for and which I considered a waste of time.

During the winter, I was on an assignment with a small crew to repair the road approach to a bridge over a river (name unknown/not remembered). The river was frozen from shore out to about 50 yards to open water. Our work was done and we joined some Greek soldiers at the river's edge to say hello.

These soldiers had built a sauna inside the back of a deuce and a half and had it fired up really hot. They had an oil fired stove inside the truck and the heat pipe going out up through the truck's canvas top was cherry red, but functional. I accepted their invitation to join them. Even though it was quite cold outside, I was sweat soaked from working, so the idea of a sauna really sounded great. After about a half hour inside the truck, I told them I was going out to roll around in the snow, but they had a better idea. One of the Greek soldiers ran ahead with two grenades and blew a huge hole in the ice near the shore. Most of us jumped into the water and this was the end of the best sauna I have since enjoyed.

I knew at that moment these Greeks were great guys. Some time later when the weather had warmed, I was temporarily assigned to a Greek outfit for a couple days. I had expertise in demolition and was assigned to assist in building a 105 mm howitzer firing position an the front side of the hill for direct point blank firing at the enemy. The Greek soldiers and I had great fun building that firing position. I never did see the howitzer fire at the enemy, but heard later that the effort met with some success.

Enemy forces were close, but inactive. They could be seen by naked eye digging out their trench lines with shovels immediately following a 7 to 8 hour air and artillery strike on their position directly in front of the Greek position. I was told that the enemy was reluctant to encounter Greek forces because the Greeks were such fierce and courageous fighters. I found no reason to doubt that.

As I recall, only two of the Greek soldiers spoke English, their commander (a Colonel, I believe) and the mess Sergeant. I had no problem communicating with the Greek soldiers - the common language we shared was hand signs and pig-English - very effective.

I did notice same differences in attitude between American and Greek forces. I thought Greeks were very casual in presence of the enemy. American forces generally observed some precautions (armored vests and helmets always worn within sight of enemy forces and only in small groups because large groups of GIs seemed to draw mortar fire.) The Greeks were much more relaxed in their conduct seeming only to disperse and to wear helmets and armored vests if they were under fire.

At about midday an the first day of assignment with the Greek force, most of us were on the back side of the hill awaiting the noon meal. That is when I met the mess Sergeant and had the pleasure of enjoying one of the finest meals I had eaten in Korea. Long lines were formed as we picked up our food trays and meals from the mess trailer which the Mess Sergeant had brought up from a rear area. What a banquet: each man got half a roasted chicken, two loaves of bread still hot from the oven, fresh green salad and fruit (I hadn't seen that for weeks) and steaming hot, strong, delicious coffee. We all went through the chow line and gathered in groups of 10 to 15 to thoroughly enjoy the meal. My thought at the time was - it's no wonder these are great guys - they eat like kings.

This was my expedience with the Creek forces in Korea. I remain proud to have had the opportunity to serve with them. Even today, when I eat in a Greek restaurant or when I meet someone either from Greece or with Greek heritage, I reflect on and I often mention my personal respect and high regard held for the courageous effort made in Korea by this small nation's great sense of commitment to humanity.

And now - to my recollection of one night of combat. At the close of an uneventful day after the evening meal in a rear company area of the 10th Engineer Combat Battalion somewhere in Korea, my Squad Leader, Asbury Cole, told me volunteers were being sought for a detail in front of Outpost Harry. Of course I volunteered - I volunteered for everything as a young man. Approximately 13 of us from Baker and Charlie Companies were to lay a triple belt antipersonnel minefield to slow down enemy personnel anticipated to again attack Outpost Harry. We were told that the 15th Regiment held the OP on the night of the 10th and had sustained high casualties. There was allegedly less activity from the enemy on the night of the 11th and the expectation was that they would strike again in force on the night of the 12th. If we could lay these AP mines, it would deter the advance expected that night.

This panorama was made from two pictures taken by Bob Brandon who was on OP Harry in March of '53.  He made the shots from the left forward flank of the OP.  The view is directly North from that vantage point and shows Star against the sky about 1/3 of the way in from the left margin.  The darker ridge leading from Star to the barbed wire below the excavation at the right was one of the routes of approach to the OP for the CCF.  A CCF trench can be seen at right center.  (Photos courtesy of Bob Brandon as stitched by James Jarboe)

Thus, our force of 13 Combat Engineers (2 officers and 11 enlisted men) proceeded to the OP. I was not aware that we had any officers with us on that assignment, but learned of it many years later upon receiving a copy of the Morning Report of the 10th Engineer Combat Battalion from 10 June to 20 June 53. That report indicates that of this group of 13 Engineers, 4 enlisted men were killed that night and 2 officers and 7 enlisted men were wounded. We were transported to the OP by armored personnel carriers. There were approximately 10 12 Katusas (members of the Korean Service Corps, non military Korean men aged 36 to 50 years of age conscripted to assist UN Forces - mostly manual labor.) The Katusas assisted us that night in carrying antipersonnel mines to the site.

Since the enemy was anticipated to attack, as was customary, during early hours of the morning, we proceeded to ground in front of OP Harry at approximately 1830 hours. Before all AP mines could be laid and armed, we were receiving small arms fire of a large force from positions to the northwest, north, and northeast of our position, so we withdrew to the OP. Shortly thereafter, a small force of enemy managed to gain the trenches on the south approach to the OP after the hill received enemy mortar and artillery fire. 

(The photo at right is used courtesy of Chic Pellegrini and shows the east slope of Outpost Harry looking North toward Star.  The CCF trench from Star is clearly shown in this view.)

Armored personnel carriers could no longer reach our position to evacuate the Engineer detail and we were told that we would stay the night and function as Infantry.

Lieutenant James W. Evans, commanding Company A, 5th Regimental Combat Team, which occupied OP Harry during the night of 12 - 13 June 1953, recalls that during the night, there suddenly appeared in the command bunker a Lt. Colonel of the l0th Engineer Combat Battalion asking him, "... if there was anything he ( the Engineers) could do to help."

I was in the trench on the southern approach to the OP when the enemy soldiers first appeared having come through artillery fire (I assume through their own fire.) The enemy (I was to learn weeks later in an article I read in an army hospital) were members of the 8th CCF (Chinese Communist Forces.) We thought we were fighting North Koreans.

I recall vividly their black pajama-like uniforms and black flat baseball caps. The first 3 enemy I saw suddenly appeared at the east edge of the trench immediately above me. I was still hunkered down as deep in the trench as I could get during the incoming artillery and mortar barrage. I half expected they would appear soon because you could clearly hear shouts and those terrifying, infernal whistles nearby just moments before.

It took me only a moment to realize that I had to fire - this was the enemy - that is what had to be done or die for hesitating. I had borrowed a camouflaged helmet and a carbine for this mission from my squad leader, Asbury Cole. I have wondered for decades if he ever found out his helmet and his carbine were blown apart and destroyed on me that night. I have tried to find him for years - unsuccessfully.

I had 3 double clips of ammunition (a total of 90 rounds) for my weapon and I fired 15 rounds at these 3 soldiers. They tumbled into the trench almost on top of me and I immediately unloaded, reversed the clip, and fired 15 more rounds into their spastic bodies. They were all immediately still - no movement at all - very dead. My first thought was that my ammo would not last if I continued to fire at this rate. I had to gain control of myself.

There were 3 young soldiers dead at my feet - dead because I killed them. They were the first human lives I had caused to end. They looked so young. Where were their uniforms? Where were their weapons? They carried no guns - one had a short stick. Why were they wearing those old fashioned rubber sneakers on their feet? Is this what the enemy used instead of combat boots? How could kids that young be involved in this grisly business of killing? Nevertheless, they were very dead. I expected more would come. But when?

I attached my bayonet and double checked that it was secure. I again thought about those 3 dead enemy. I felt no worse than when I killed ducks, geese, rabbits, crows, squirrels, pheasant, or grouse years earlier. This was the same process - except that there was no time for stalking, taking sure aim, or hoping for a chance at a second shot if the first one missed.

I was surprised I had no sense of regret or sorrow -  this had to be done. I moved a few feet away in the trench and there were 3 more soldiers standing/crouching at the top of the east side again. They jumped into the trench right on me. I fired one shot into the one on my left. The shot went low into his neck and I can sometimes still hear the loud gurgling sound he made for a while. As I moved my carbine to the right, the second soldier fell right unto my bayonet. I was knocked to my knees. The third soldier landed on my shoulders and back. We fought, punched, wrestled and scrambled until his neck snapped loudly when I slammed his head into the side of the trench. I scrambled back to the second gook where I had lost my weapon. My bayonet had penetrated the center of his chest and he was still draped over it - twitching and dying. I rolled him over and tried to retrieve my weapon. I could not pull my bayonet out of his chest - even by standing on his throat and pulling as hard as I could. I fired a few rounds into his chest, worked the bayonet up and down, and was able to retrieve it. The blade was clean. That made me gag and wretch. I did not throw up. I had to conserve my ammo. I still had 3 full 15 round clips and part of another. I still had not thrown my 3 frag grenades - one was on each shoulder and one at my right hip.

And then - nothing. This was scary. Where were they? I looked at my watch and it was a little before 2300 hours. There was still dirt so thick in the air you could barely breathe or see. Listen - harder. Don't move. Don't make a sound. Listen again. Where are they. Where was everyone else? Was there anyone else? Where? Listen! What happened to the trench? It was deeper down below - shallower ahead. Wait. Listen. No voices. Who is moaning? where is it coming from? Enemy friendly? Moaning stops. What in hell is that GI doing laying up an the top of the west side of the trench ahead. Maybe he's hurt - check it out - maybe he needs help. "Hey, buddy, are you all right? Get down in the trench? No answer. Quiet. A flash. His right arm is hanging down into the trench - he's Negro - was he with us?

I stood up and grabbed his right shoulder to help him into the trench. "Oh Cripes, no wonder he didn't answer, his face is gone". His face was scooped out of his skull leaving just his lower jaw - really healthy looking, teeth. Inside the back of his skull was clean - so clean - strange. Over the years I have wondered and felt really terrible about not pulling his body down into the relative safety of the trench. Was his body ever found? Was it identified? Did the rats eat him too? Who was he? Did I know him? Why didn't I look for his dog tags? Where is everyone else? Where are the guys I came here with? Where are the bunkers the 15th is supposed to be in? Is anyone else on the hill - supposed to be the 15th? Do the gooks have the hill now? Why is it so quiet - what's going on? Where am I? Quiet - listen - harder - still no yelling - and no whistles - where are they?

There was sporadic shelling for the next couple of hours. Even though I looked for them, I was unable to locate any bunkers in the trench. I knew there were bunkers there an OP Harry. I had been an a work detail some months earlier to repair and reinforce bunkers with 12 by 12 timbers, rocks, and dirt. I thought about what to do if I found one of the bunkers. Who would be in it - enemy - friendly? How would I let them know who I was? If they were enemy, would I use my pineapple to neutralize them? How could I be sure?

(The photo at right shows bunkers on OP Harry and was taken by Bob Brandon)


I crawled along the trench slowly up and to the north and suddenly realized there were two other GIs there with me - on either side of me. We said very little listening intensely. Overhead an artillery burst nearby momentarily lit the dirt-laden air with a bizarre brown glow for perhaps 2 to 3 seconds and then darkness again. Then there was a loud buzzing sound like a model airplane engine screaming - getting louder and louder. Where was it - what was it? Then something slammed into my flack jacket behind my right shoulder with a force that knocked the wind out of me. I thought "grenade" and immediately turned in the trench to find it to throw it out. Right next to my right knee I found the "grenade", which was not a grenade after all, but a shell fragment so hot that it burned the inside of my right hand. We were OK.

These 2 GIs chose to stay there and I moved up into the trench on to the northern slope. This would be where the gooks would come from and where I could do most good. Relative quiet - spooky, weird quiet continued - unnerving me when sporadic mortar or artillery rounds would again calm me down after realization that I was still OK. The worst scare was not the heat and deafening noise of nearby blasts, but the close ZZZIP and THUD of shell fragments and shrapnel burying into trench walls just inches from my face - time after time after time - making me wonder just how many times can I beat the odds. Noise was beyond deafening - that sense was temporarily no longer functioning. The blast of concussion from nearby bursts would repeatedly shudder loose clothing anywhere on my body. Where are those bunkers? I've got to get out of this trench and into some kind of shelter - anything would be better than being out here in the open.

At approximately 0200 hours hell became reality and reality became hell. There ensued an intensity and frequency of explosive detonations far beyond my capability to describe it. After the first few minutes of this ever increasing barrage of earth shattering madness, it's devastation expanding beyond my capacity to imagine it, I felt a strange calm. I knew at that moment that there was nothing on earth I could do to influence this situation. I realized how infinitesimally small and insignificant my life was. I realized that I should probably have been terrified, but strangely I was not even frightened. There was work yet to be done and to do it, I had to rely on myself. I could not count on anyone else - there was no one else. I was just an observer along for the ride completely unable to alter the course of this ride - no matter what the outcome. I thought if I was to come out of this battle alive, it would be good to do worthy and beneficial things with this gift. I changed an important point of view which I had held up to that point in my thinking life - I realized at that moment that Man, in fact, had created God, not the other way around.

Over the next few hours, this geographic bump called Outpost Harry, some 300 yards high and located some 400+ yards northeast of the 8th Army Main Line of Resistance (then) and some 300+ yards south of a much larger hill mass known as Star Hill (occupied by enemy forces) engendered importance beyond its size. It was highly sought by enemy forces at the close of the Korean conflict and worthy of costly defense to UN forces because its height, which was not equaled within a mile, offered occupying forces excellent observation of the enemy's intent and preparation for movement to the main line of battle.

Occupation of this hill was paid for at a terrible price of lives lost, bodies maimed and with equally intense tragedy, the denigration of minds. Can anyone who was there in the fight on Outpost Harry really find any sense or meaning in calling the Korean conflict, "The Forgotten War". I think not. It is for each of us to resolve the personal burden of dealing with memories of OP Harry each in his own way for as many years as it takes. It is inevitably and finally a personal resolution. Talking about that one terrible night I spent in combat on 0P Harry sometimes brings me sleepless nights, frightening nightmares I would rather do without, short temper, and other activities that seem to lie dormant within me - all of which it would seem I could just forget about and be done with. Maybe this time it will work... Back to the hill.

Shortly aver 0200 hours, I found a pocket in the wall of the trench where recoilless rifle rockets were stored. I squeezed myself into that niche to find some kind of cover from the rain of shrapnel. There were enemy troops everywhere an the northern slope in and out of the trench. They seemed to be on the move to somewhere and acted as confused as I was. All I focused on was - if it moved, if it wore black pajamas and sneakers, I had to kill it before it tried to kill me. The fighting was intense at that point.

I saw only two enemy troops with weapons that entire night. The first one held a grease gun. He was standing up on the edge of the trench holding his weapon pointing away from me. In the momentary light from the burst of an artillery round, I could see his face clearly - a large square block face with slits for eyes. He saw me below him and before he could bring the muzzle of his weapon around to his right, I shot him squarely in the face. From that moment, I knew that the head shot was the thing to try for - clean kill, decisive, and took only one round to preserve my ammo. Most of my remaining shots were head shots because the enemy was on us in the trench.

The second weapon I saw that night was a stick grenade. This was carried by a rather large soldier who had it cocked back in his right arm ready to throw. He was losing his balance gaining the trench when I killed him - another clean head shot. I was rattled for a moment thinking the grenade was going to drop into the trench, but it fell to the downhill side where he came from and all was quiet there for a short time.

What kind of an enemy was this - so young, so poorly armed and equipped? This was sheer insanity and these guys were trying to kill me.

At approximately 0230 I was still leaning into the rocket storage cache when I was hit by a grenade (probably) which blew the forestock off of my carbine rendering it unworkable, taking with it some of my hand, and blowing a hole in the back right side of my helmet big enough to pass a tennis ball through. I was momentarily stunned, heard a high pitched ringing in my ears, and could taste and smell blood, Nothing really hurt. I was just numb and then got angry when, in the dim momentary light of shell bursts, I thought surely I was going blind. I had thought about that and blindness was the one thing I did not want to happen to me.

Colonel Albro L. Parsons, Jr., commander of the 10th Engineer Combat Battalion from about April until December of 1953 had indicated to Colonel Louis Feroni, commander of the 36th Engineer Group, some time after this night, that he was slightly injured by shrapnel from the same grenade that hit me. The irony is that I did not find out about that until months later from Colonel Feroni. At the time of battle, I did not know that anyone near me was wounded or I would have asked for help with the tourniquet. I knew I could not look at my hand after I tied the tourniquet. I knew it did not hurt. I knew the fight was not over.

When I regained my senses, I could see fingers of my left hand laying back down on my wrist and I had a major pumping bleed - not good. The light was poor and only sporadic, there was dirt thick everywhere in the air. From the first aid kit on my belt, I tied a tourniquet around my wrist to stop the blood flow. I tied it off and tightened it with a piece of wood. The blood flow stopped and I moved to the south to find another weapon.

There were bodies and body parts everywhere. This was a nightmare. As before I was hit, I removed more bodies from the trench to retain same cover. The trench was now less than 3 feet deep in same areas. In all, I threw (and later lifted) 7 dead enemy out of the trench to gain cover. In this area there were 4 dead GIs, whose bodies I left in the trench. I needed the cover they were taking, but it didn't seem right to expose their bodies to more harm out of the trench. The thinking we undergo is strange in the afterglow.

Some minutes later, I found an Ml rifle with part of a clip in it on a dead GI. I knew he was dead because both his legs were gone, so I took the rifle. There was a round in the chamber, but I didn't have reason to fire it (and may not have been able to even if I had to.) A GI nearby said I was hit and should move ahead to the command bunker which was, he said, just about thirty yards ahead.

I made my way to the command bunker and cautiously proceeded inside where I met the Commanding Officer of the 5th RCT . This man, I found out same 40 years later, was in fact, Lt. James W. Evans, who has become a steadfast and true friend. The CO looked me over, told me to give my weapon to another officer in the bunker, and to get over into a corner of the bunker out of harm's way. I gave my M1 to the other officer and proceeded back out of the bunker into the trench. I thought this officer had lost his senses because there was work to be done out in the trench where the enemy still was. I also knew if the enemy found this bunker, anyone inside it would surely be killed.

There were two cases of concussion grenades in the trench at the entrance to the bunker. I dragged one case with me heading toward the southward slope where I thought most of the enemy were entering the trench.. Over the next several hours, I threw a grenade every time I heard voices or other sounds of the enemy outside the trench. The grenades had two second delay fuses in them and I counted off one second after releasing the handle before throwing the grenade. That way, I was confident these grenades would not be thrown back into the trench. I had thrown almost the whole case of grenades by daylight and sustained no further injury. The only thing that really hurt during that entire night was my eye tooth, which got really sore from pulling the pins from the grenades.

A recurring disturbing memory is of having to crawl over dead bodies and body parts, arms, legs, heads, hands - many hands, feet, footless boots and sneakers, torsos, and several heads. All these body parts of friend and enemy alike were slippery and soft. It was a horrible sensation to have to crawl, sometimes walk on them and feel them give way underneath my weight. It still makes me shudder to recall that sensation - this was a slaughterhouse. The noise from some corpses was unnerving. In each case of noise, I made certain that a live person was not making the noise, just a corpse - there were so many - so many.

I didn't see another live GI in the trench until hours later - well into sunrise when it was obvious that the fighting had stopped . I think I was headed down the southward slope of the hill, but was not certain because of the incredible change in appearance of the hill and of the trench. This part of the trench could not have been 2 feet deep now. Just a few hours earlier this same trench was at least 5 to 5 1/2 feet deep.

Much later, at the bottom of the hill, I was really tired and sat down to rest against-  I don't remember whether it was a tree stump or a pile of dirt - to await help. I kept dozing off. I woke to the sound of someone saying, " My God, this one's alive." A GI kneeled in front of me and carefully removed my helmet. When the helmet finally came off, huge clots of coagulated and fresh blood flowed down over my face and neck from the scalp wound received earlier. This poor GI just lost it. He must have thought he pulled off the top of my head. He wretched and vomited all over my boots. I felt sorry for him.

I was loaded onto the left rear corner of the floor of a personnel carrier. Another wounded GI was loaded in above me in a litter and we were on our way to an aid station, I guess. When we started moving, the noise inside was very loud. Blood from the GI above me would pour down over me at each bump and worse at each turn. I yelled to the driver to stop this guy's bleeding, but he couldn't hear me.

When we arrived wherever it was we were taken, people placed me on a litter and took away my remaining grenade. Someone looked down into my face and said " Take this one first". My litter was loaded onto the pod of a helicopter (starboard side), a Plexiglas canopy was secured over my upper torso, and I woke up some 3 days later on a hospital train on our way to Taegu ( I think.)

After some surgical interventions at the 279th Army hospital in Osaka, I was shipped to the valley Forge Army Hospital in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, where I remained a patient until my discharge from military service some 8 months later.

I came out of Korea alive and perhaps somewhat wiser and very grateful to have survived. What did I learn from this? I learned that in combat we exist alone and we survive sometimes because of our singleness of purpose and attention to detail. I have heard many references to the camaraderie of troops in battle, to finding God, to the strength of togetherness. In the heat of battle, I have experienced none of this. It may well be that several people were responsible for getting me off that hill alive, but I am unaware of it. I learned about self reliance. I learned about the strength of loneliness. I learned that persistence is omnipotent. Most importantly, I learned that life is fleeting , it is fragile and it is precious.


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ęCopyright 2002, Ernie Kramer.  All rights reserved