Valleys of Death, page 1
Table of Contents
CHAPTER ONE - WAR
CHAPTER TWO - FORMING THE BATTALION
CHAPTER THREE - MOVEMENT TO THE FAR EAST
CHAPTER FOUR - PUSAN
CHAPTER FIVE - BAPTISM OF FIRE
CHAPTER SIX - DARK DAYS OF SUMMER
CHAPTER SEVEN - TIDE TURNS
CHAPTER EIGHT - PURSUIT TO THE 38TH PARALLEL
CHAPTER NINE - THE GENERAL
CHAPTER TEN - WE CAN’T HOLD THE BRIDGE
CHAPTER ELEVEN - TRAPPED
CHAPTER TWELVE - DYING ONE BY ONE
CHAPTER THIRTEEN - BREAKOUT
CHAPTER FOURTEEN - CAPTURE AND ESCAPE
CHAPTER FIFTEEN - DEATH MARCH
CHAPTER SIXTEEN - VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN - REMINISCENT OF ANDERSONVILLE
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN - THE MORGUE
CHAPTER NINETEEN - TRUMAN’S RUNNING DOGS
CHAPTER TWENTY - PREPARATION FOR ESCAPE
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE - THE LAST YEAR
CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO - FREEDOM
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Richardson, Bill (William J.)
eISBN : 978-1-101-47514-0
1. Richardson, Bill (William J.) 2. Korean War, 1950-1953—Personal narratives, American.
3. Korean War, 1950-1953—Prisoners and prisons. 4. Prisoners of war—Korea (North)—Biography.
5. Prisoners of war—United States—Biography. 6. Soldiers—United States—Biography.
I. Maurer, Kevin. II. Title.
This story is dedicated to the combat infantrymen who
fought and died so heroically from the Pusan Perimeter
to Unsan, North Korea.
And to those who died and survived the horrors of prison
camps in North Korea.
And to my wife, Claire, with all my love.
Without her this story would never have been written.
Over the years a number of individuals have contributed to bringing this story to fruition. I will forever be indebted to the following:
David Halberstam for his friendship and encouragement on the writing of this book. It was sad that his untimely death took place just as his latest book, The Coldest Winter, was published.
Thomas Richardson, my brother who conducted the research in the National Archives of the Eighth Cavalry Regiment actions in Korea up to the battle of Unsan. His research confirmed the timeline and actions I had placed in my initial drafts.
Richard Boylan, chief of the U.S. Government Military Archives for assisting my brother and helping to locate my dossier of the debrief on my return from North Korea.
To my friends in the Department of Defense, MIA-POW, Dan Baughman, Philip O’Brien and the rest of the outstanding personnel for their help over the years.
Tim Casey, CSM retired, for his friendship and correspondence over the years. He has been a reservoir of knowledge on U.S. Korean POWs.
My niece Nancy Richardson Patchan, for the editing of my work on the first attempt at writing.
This is not a history of the Korean War. It is a down and dirty look at some of the soldiers who, five years before, had experienced combat in the second world war. It is the story of the men they would lead, a new generation of courageous young soldiers in what would be the last true Infantry war.
The heroes of this story are the young men of the Third Battalion, Eighth Cavalry Regiment and in particular the men of the weapons platoon of “L” Company. Most of them died in combat or in the horrible conditions of a prison in North Korea.
The story is told through my own eyes. I have made a strong attempt to avoid adding to the story what others have said or what I have learned over the last fifty-seven years. But there are a few truths that are undeniable.
Korea was a war that neither the country nor the military was ready for, and we paid a high price for our lack of readiness. The disaster at Unsan written about in this book was caused by a lapse of leadership from the highest echelon down to the battalion level. Mistakes we paid for with the blood of the most heroic men I have ever known.
Some may ask why I waited so long to write the story. Although my experience in Korea guided my career through the years, I never felt that it was any more than a unique experience that very few men had.
Also, while I will never forget Korea, some of the details were buried deep in the recesses of my mind, much like the weapons platoon rosters I buried by a bridge abutment in North Korea. No matter how much I try, I cannot recall many of the names in my unit. For one, many were replacements whom I met in the midst of combat. Also during the thirty-four months in prison, survival was paramount in my mind. Therefore, I could not provide every soldier’s name or recall his upbringing or his hometown. Over the years the loss of men’s names is the one thing that has haunted me and caused me a great deal of sadness. I can still see their faces and they are men that will be with me forever, even without names.
Ten years ago, I was given the opportunity to share my experience with young Special Forces soldiers who were participating in a three-week course on survival, evasion, resistance, and escape (SERE). It was through this program that I met a young reporter
It was shortly after that I asked Kevin if he would consider collaborating on a book. I needed him to break me of my military style of writing. He was continuously after me to tell the story the way I did when I spoke to the soldiers. In turn, I had to educate him on the Korean War, our equipment, organization, and the language we used back in the day. When I was young I liked to associate with older people. Now that I am considered old I like to be with younger people. Our relationship worked well.
During the production and publication of this book, my young friend and coauthor Kevin went back to Afghanistan to write about the new Greatest Generation—the less than 1 percent of our great nation’s youth who are sacrificing their lives in order that the other 99 percent of us can enjoy our freedom. Kevin will, much like Ernie Pyle, put a face on these young warriors.
So here is the story, the good, the bad and the ugly.
The world looked just great before the morning of June 25, 1950.
That morning, halfway around the world, under a dismal rainy sky, the North Korean Army crossed the 38th parallel, overwhelming the South Korean Army and sending them running south. I was home on leave in Philadelphia. I’d spent the last four years in Italy, Germany and finally Austria, on occupation duty with the U.S. Army. At my mother’s house in Philadelphia, the radio kept a steady stream of updates. Outside at the newsstand, the headlines screamed off the page.
REDS INVADE SOUTH KOREA!
ARTILLERY SMASHES INTO SOUTH KOREAN TOWNS AS
TANKS STREAM ACROSS THE 38TH PARALLEL!
KOREAN REFUGEES STREAM SOUTH IN FRONT
OF THE NORTH KOREAN ONSLAUGHT!
Meeting in emergency session, the U.N. Security Council voted to defend South Korea. The Soviets were boycotting over the U.N.’s refusal to recognize Communist China. The U.N. put the United States in charge and named General Douglas MacArthur the commander of U.N. forces. This would be the U.N.’s first war.
Fifty-three countries registered their support, and twenty-two of them offered troops and other help. But the United States would carry the main military load—something it wasn’t prepared to do.
That night, President Truman told the nation that he was committing U.S. forces to Korea. I reported for duty at the replacement center at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. There were a number of men waiting to be discharged. It had been the same scene when I reported to Fort Dix, New Jersey, a few weeks earlier.
At Fort Dix I was standing in line at the replacement center, a hastily built wooden building created to house troops during World War II, with transfer papers in hand. I watched man after man get his discharge. I didn’t want to get out and hoped to get an extension. I’d met a girl in Austria and hoped to get back over to Europe with a new unit.
After an hour, I made it to the front. A sergeant in a crisp uniform, with chestnut hair, stared up from her small desk. She wasn’t bad looking, but she had a lethal demeanor, like a cobra ready to strike.
“Name, rank, serial number,” she snapped.
“Corporal William J. Richardson, RA13150752.”
She looked down at my personnel file and then back at me.
“Corporal, we are discharging you for the convenience of the government.”
The words hit me like a hammer. I stood there stunned and muttering.
“What? I’ve got more than four months on my extension.”
Then I got mad.
“Goddamn it, I don’t want to be discharged”
She looked up again. Her eyes narrow. Angry.
“Well goddamn it, you’re going to be. Like it or not,” she snapped back.
I swallowed my anger and took a deep breath. I knew I wasn’t going to argue my way back into the Army.
“Hey, Sarge, I’m sorry I came on so strong. Look, I really want to stay in,” I said, trying to be sincere. “I sure would like to have the rest of my time to figure out what I want to do when I reenlist.”
I smiled sheepishly. I really needed the remaining time on my extension to determine how I was going to get back to Austria or how I was going to get Rose, my girlfriend, over to the States. Rose and I met when she was a domestic working for two officers’ families in my unit, and I hadn’t thought of much else since I’d left.
“Come on, please. Give me a break.”
The sergeant stopped writing in my file and looked up at me. Sweeping a lock of chestnut hair out of her eyes, she stared at me like she was trying to see through my facade. Was I full of shit? I hated that coldhearted bitch, but I held on to my smile until my cheeks hurt.
Finally, she smiled.
“All right, damn it. I’m going to reassign you to Fort Devens,” she said.
Where the hell was that? I almost asked for Fort Dix, but I held my tongue.
“Gee, Sarge, that’s great. Thanks.”
I made it to the replacement center at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, a few days after the North Korean invasion. That night, President Truman issued an executive order extending everyone for one year. He was going to make a stand against Communism in Korea. Only a few of the soldiers in line were there to be assigned to a unit. Most wanted to get discharged, especially with the news coming out of Korea, but they were now being assigned to new units. Units that were likely headed to Korea.
Everyone thought it would be over quickly though. Hell, we didn’t even really care about Korea. When Secretary of State Dean Acheson had highlighted American interests in the Pacific a few years before, he didn’t even mention the Korean Peninsula. That turned out to be an invitation to North Korea, backed by Russia and China, to test their expansion desires. We didn’t leave tanks there after World War II since the terrain was not suitable, a fact the North Koreans dismissed when they crashed into South Korea with their Russian-made T-34 tanks.
The next morning ten of us were in the parking lot joking and laughing about all the other guys being extended. Who, by the way, were pissed.
The joking and laughter stopped when a deuce-and-a-half truck pulled into the dusty parking lot. We piled on and were taken to the Third Battalion, Seventh Regiment, Third Division headquarters. It was a typical old World War II building with white wooden slats. I handed my file to a sergeant who put me in L Company. The commander wanted to speak to us at the base theater. I figured it was a normal welcome brief. I got to the theater with a few minutes to spare. The lights went down and I settled into my second row seat.
“THIS IS THE INFANTRY ” splashed across the screen.
For the next eleven minutes I sat through a World War II film showing scenes of men charging enemy positions with bayonets gleaming in the sunlight. The next scene showed soldiers racing through artillery fire with rifles in hand. Finally, they were on a hill recapturing one of the Aleutian Islands from the Japanese. The action faded to a final scene: a company of soldiers standing ramrod straight in formation as an officer pinned medals on their chests.
“For every man that is decorated for bravery another five go unrecognized but proudly wear the Combat Infantryman’s Badge,” the narrator boomed.
A picture of the badge, with its long musket flanked by a U-shaped oak wreath, flashed on the screen before it faded to black.
Just as the lights came up, Lieutenant Colonel Harold K. Johnson stepped in front of the screen. A slight man with short-cropped gray hair, he wasn’t overly impressive but had an air of authority.
“You men already wearing the Combat Infantryman’s Badge will soon be wearing a star on it,” he told us. “And the rest of you will be wearing the badge. We’ve been ordered to Korea and will be leaving in two weeks.”
I looked around me and there were only two or three rows occupied. There weren’t enough men to make a good company let alone a battalion.
“There’s a lot to be done in a very short period of time and there’s no time to waste. It’s going to be action packed,” he said. “May God bless you all.”
There was a great silence as we filed out of the old theater. As we walked back, a young sergeant who had been sitting next to me finally broke the tension.
“God, I just got married and I’m on CQ tonight.”
“I’ll take your duty tonight. I just got here and have nothing to do,” I said, introducing myself. Charge of Quarters, or CQ in Army lingo, is usually pretty boring. You answer phones and make sure the barracks don’t burn down. It is like a nighttime front desk job.
“Sergeant Roberts,” he said, shaking my hand. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
For a second I thought he was going to hug me. Back at the company we got clearance from the first sergeant and I took over the duty for the night. I settled into the desk that evening. My mind started to wander back to my last few weeks at home.
After getting my transfer to Fort Devens a month ago, I’d grabbed the last bus to Philadelphia. Sliding a scrap of paper with my mother’s new address on it out of my pocket, I climbed into a cab at the bus station. I’d never been to the new house before. She’d moved soon after I left for Europe.
My sister Dottie had sent me the new address with a letter a couple of months ago. She’d also sent a picture. I didn’t recognize her at first and knew I wouldn’t recognize my other three siblings either. They’d all grown up since I’d been gone.
I got to the house just before midnight. It was one of a dozen two-story row houses. I jumped out of the cab, tossing a few bucks to the driver, snatched my duffel bag from the seat and ran up the old white steps. It was late, so there were no lights on in the house. I banged on the door and rang the doorbell.