Captain Robert W. Sullivan

Robert Sullivan
Robert W. Sullivan, in uniform, shortly after his return to the United States.

The following account is an edited version of Captain Robert Sullivan's experiences in Korea, focused on Outpost Harry, and submitted by his son Steve Sullivan.




It was the summer of 1950 and I was 19 when war broke out in a faraway land called Korea. Most of us had never heard of it. Just as I was just about to start my third year of college, I decided that duty to my country was more important and enlisted in the army. This may seem surprising to some, but at the time, there was a strong feeling of patriotism among my generation. Our military had recently won decisive victories in concluding the hostilities of World War II. Those, who fought in that war, were looked upon by my peers with almost an awe-like reverence. They were all heroes to us. Despite the gold stars in the windows, acquaintances that did not return, the occasional maimed or disfigured who did, and the brutal battle scenes shown in the newsreels, we (the males) felt somehow cheated that we were too young to have been a part of it. The naivety of youth attached an almost romantic aura to it.

Our teen years, except for rationing, blackouts and curfews were little different from those of today. We spent a great deal of time trying to determine who we were, and in finding a comfortable place in the social pecking order. On dates we walked, used public transportation, or had occasional use of the family sedan.

There were no computers, so we spent most of our free time playing sports. In high school I played football, basketball, baseball, and occasionally hockey when God was good enough to supply natural ice. In college I played football at the highest level. These activities defined my social position and I interfaced with guys and gals easily and naturally. When one put on his country’s uniform, however, he or she jumped to the head of the line of acceptability. One quickly learned however that military service was not a game and training was conducted with the utmost seriousness. At times I thought it was overdone, but this only proved how naive I really was. My sports background made the regimentation easy to accept, and barracks life of every manner of dress and undress, as normal as sweat dripping off your nose on a ten-mile run.

I had scored well on placement exams and was sent to Artillery Officers’ School in Oklahoma. The mental part was fairly easy but the physical part was much more taxing. For two months we were hazed unmercifully by the upper classmen, not much worse than being a fraternity pledge. This was supposed to test your ability to take it as well as give it out. We lost about half the class before we graduated as 2nd Lieutenants. Once again I scored well and was assigned to the first Guided Missile Brigade being formed at White Sands, New Mexico. We underwent intensive training on missile launching and nuclear weapons training in Nevada. Six of us were then selected to go to Korea to use tactical surface-to-surface missiles with small nuclear warheads against the North Koreans. The terrain was ideal with many deep valleys surrounded by high mountains to contain the radiation, etc. It was felt that one or two strikes would end the conflict quickly. By the time we arrived in Korea the U. N. forces had broken out of the Pusan Perimeter and the Inchon landings had destroyed the cohesiveness and spirit of the North Koreans. Our mission was clearly fruitless and was scrubbed. Some generals wanted to continue the mission as a test. They were overruled.

I was angry that all my training had been for naught. This decision has to be looked at in light of the prevailing mood in the country. President Truman had laughingly called the war a “police action.” Most people did not take it as seriously as we took WW II. There were no great satans like Hitler or Tojo to punish, only a small group of unknown Asians. There were no shortages, no rationing, no curfews, no blackouts and no propaganda to engage us. People got the war in sound bites and were sure we would soon punish these Oriental miscreants. The anti-nuclear movement was gaining much publicity and most people agreed that the use of the atomic bomb on Japan was proper in that it saved hundreds of thousands of allied soldiers and millions of civilians' lives that would have been lost in an invasion. Russia however had recently demonstrated nuclear capability making our use of the weapon too risky in the event of retaliation.

By 1952 the flow of replacements and supplies was slowed to mop up levels. Since I was artillery trained, I was assigned to Battery B, 39th Field Artillery, 3rd U. S. Infantry Division. I was posted to Charlie Company of the 15th Infantry Regiment as a “forward observer.” I rode in the lead jeep of the "point squad" some half-mile in front of our advancing lines. It struck me as ironic that the army claimed it had cost over a half million dollars to train me as a missile officer, and here I was in a position with the lowest life expectancy of any officer in the army. In any event, the great Chinese (CCF) offensive had stalled and we swept north with little opposition hardly ever stopping long enough to set our guns to fire. We had occasional sniper fire and incoming mortars. Our jeep was hit several times but no one in it was. As we moved through the northern part of South Korea one fact became evident: the North Koreans had taken no prisoners. We saw the bodies of many GIs with their hands tied behind them with barbed wire; shot through the head. Like most GIs in Korea, I quickly developed a sense of no sympathy for the North Koreans.

By this time, the CCF had taken over military operations from the North Koreans in the “Iron Triangle” or Chorwon Valley region of Korea. The Chorwon Valley led directly to Seoul less than 60 miles away. UN Forces had total air superiority and our intelligence had improved so that we knew when the enemy was coming and where. U.S. Military Intelligence had determined that the Chinese were massing for a major attack in the “Iron Triangle” and so, in the spring of 1953 the 3rd Infantry Division was given the responsibility of holding the Chorwon Valley. Having learned a bitter lesson at the Chosin Reservoir we knew we had to take the high ground as well as the valleys. Armor did most of the work in the valleys, but the good old foot soldiers (grunts) did all the work on the high ground. After we had re-crossed back into North Korea we were confronted with three high hills in our Division Sector.

In a typically American approach, we named them "Tom, Dick and Harry." "Harry" was in my sector and had the key, commanding view of the entire Kumwah Valley. We were determined to keep the Chinese off of “Harry.” Both sides unleashed every gun available and the noise was terrifying. The cumulative concussions felt like a heavy weight on your back. The noise was so loud as to make voice radio communications almost impossible and you could not talk to anyone except the person next to you. You pray for them to charge so that the big guns would stop. There was no escape. The opening scenes of "Saving Private Ryan" were a good recreation, but real battle was at least twice as loud. The true sound would have driven you from the theater.

We learned an interesting lesson when the onslaught came. The Chinese had an almost limitless supply of soldiers, but few weapons by comparison. They came at night in wave after wave. Only the first wave had weapons and attacked through their own mortar and artillery fire. The succeeding waves picked up the weapons of the fallen and advanced and so on and so on. The objective was to get the weapons into position where the seventh or eighth wave could use them effectively.

As the holding company on “Harry” had been overrun and requested support, I was asked to accompany a reinforced infantry platoon in a night attack to reinforce “Harry.” I was still acting as a forward observer and had long surpassed the life expectancy of an FO in Korea.

"Harry" was about a 1300 foot climb at a 60 degree angle through barbed wire, booby traps mortar and machine gun fire. Not much fun. After a short bombardment we took off in proper combat formation. After about 10 minutes one of the guys tripped a booby trap and all hell broke loose. We were only about a quarter of the way up. We got hit with mortars, hand grenades, machine guns and Chinese AK47 automatic rifles. We kept going. Most of the mortars and machine guns were landing behind us. Lots of guys got hit. No one called for a medic. That just made you a special target for every Chinese within range. About two-thirds of the way my radio Sgt. fell next to me. He carried a 40 lb. radio and he was dead. My reaction was "Damn, now I have to carry the radio." Not a sane reaction. We tried not to get too friendly with one another so that sudden death was easier to deal with. As we neared the top, a grenade peppered my left shin. I kept going. There was fighting in the trenches. In the fog of war, it becomes difficult to tell friend from foe, and at one point I came face to face with a Chinese officer. He was carrying a "burp" gun (the sound it made on full automatic). He fired first and I heard "click, click." His cheaply made weapon misfired. Mine did not.

I finally reached the top of “Harry” and as the firing closed, I called off all the artillery and mortars. The Chinese did not. We held a quick meeting and discovered that only 18 of the original 60-man assault team made it up. Four were wounded but still in fighting shape. We re-dug the position into a small figure 8 to ward off counter-attacks. Since the platoon leader and all three sergeants were dead, I was put in charge. What I know about infantry tactics, I had learned on the fly. We were supposed to be relieved, but someone screwed up and we had to stay. We were attacked over a narrow ridge twice that night. Anything but the small force they sent would have pushed us off. The next day the heavy weapons squads managed to climb the hill with two 50 caliber machine gun crews and with two Korean Service Corps. members, each with 100 lbs. of ammunition on an A frame. We set up for visitors that night. They came in Army strength. I called in every artillery piece within range, every mortar and even antiaircraft guns. We were lucky. They stuck to the narrow ridge approach. Those that got near enough, ran into the machine guns, a BAR, and our riflemen. It went on for six hours. No one made it into our positions, but we lost eight more guys to mortar fire. About half way through a mortar exploded right in front of me. I was prone with a pair of field glasses in use. Shrapnel hit the glasses, my helmet, my shoulder and parts of my face. Thank God for the field glasses. The concussion blew out my eardrums, but we kept firing. Near morning a phosphorous shell went off near me and I was temporarily blinded. It took a month for my hearing and sight to return.

On my way back to a MASH unit (yes, they were real, thank God) I tried to sort out my feelings. My Korean tour had begun as the great adventure, nuclear devices, etc. morphed into disappointing resignation, changed to "kill or be killed" reality, and finally at Outpost Harry, resolved itself to Duty, Duty, Duty. No one remains sane, as you would define it, in all-out combat. One either goes "shell shocked" to escape the reality or one does his duty because there really is no alternative, and if you die, it was God’s will. I was awarded the Silver Star, Purple Heart, the Bronze Star and the Combat Infantry Badge for actions on "Outpost Harry.” I deserved none of them. The men we left there and those who came back with me deserve them. The Purple Heart, I will keep.

I was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and sent back to Korea as a Battery Commander. I saw aerial photographs of "Outpost Harry" showing over thousands of dead Chinese the morning after our big battle. A totally revolting and disgusting sight that remains with me to this day.

Later, while stateside, and serving in the reserves, I was promoted to Captain and ended my Military Service in 1957.

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Copyright 2010, Robert Sullivan.  All rights reserved