Features

The soft landing

... After the cease-fire Joe Rattigan watches his combat-
ready artillery unit slide into a formal, less apprehensive
life.  

by Joe Sullivan


A 105mm Howitzer one of the 8th Field's tools of the
trade.

                                               
It was about three weeks give or take a couple of days since the cease-fire started before they had moved to where to where they were now. Before they moved there were a number of conditions of the truce with which they had to immediately comply.
Among them was the requirement that they pull back one thousand yards from their
forward positions. Each side was to erect a fence along its new border. The fence was made up of wooden posts connected by barbed wire. This would leave a fenced-in corridor two thousand yards wide extending coast-to-coast across Korea.

The corridor would be called the Demilitarized Zone. For an unknown reason, at least to Joe "Murphy" Rattigan, the term was trimmed down almost immediately to its universal usage, the DMZ. The fact that three letters were being used to designate only two words didn't seem to bother anybody.

The withdrawal requirement meant that artillery units like Joe Rattigan's, which were already a thousand yards behind the forward positions, would stay in place while the infantry regiments that had been dug in in front of them, pulled out and
moved back first. After they had passed the artillery guys would follow along behind them.

This meant that truckload after truckload of infantry troopers would grind by Joe's
installation until all the infantry units had withdrawn from their positions. After that Joe's outfit, the 8th Field Artillery Battalion would join the group.

Joe had no idea of the location of the place that they were leaving. In the past he usually had a pretty good idea of where they were. Before he had been made a radio repairman he worked in Fire Direction whose maps would tell you where you were,
Kumwah, Chorwon, whatever. But since the rainy season started in early June the 8th Field was constantly on the move.

The storm before the calm,  

Truce talks between  the Chinese and UN negotiators had been going on for years in Panmunjom Village. Repatriation had been a key issue in the talks. The Chinese wanted all prisoners unconditionally returned while the UN side wanted each
prisoner to determine whether he wanted to return or stay. The issue finally had been resolved to a point that it would not hold up the initiation of the truce.

When Syngman Rhee, the president of South Korea found out that the UN and Chinese were on the verge of declaring a truce he gave orders to the Korean prison guards to release all the Chinese and North Korean prisoners from the POW
stockades. It was an effort to thwart the truce and keep the war going until the North Koreans had been vanquished and all Korea was under one government over which he would preside.

The bad stuff starts

The Chinese went ballistic when they found out what Rhee had done. They initiated an offensive that hammered the South Korean combat units. The problem for the UN troops, mostly Americans, was they could not let the Chinese break through and
capture Seoul, the capital of South Korea. The result was that many of the US Field Artillery units were committed to help the South Koreans contain the Chinese offensive.

Joe's battalion had been among these artillery groups. For days on end they were moved from place to place to provide fire to support the Koreans. It seemed to go on and on during the hard-driving rain of the rainy season. At least twice during
the moving and shooting involved two consecutive nights of no sleep. Joe saw guys so
exhausted that they fell dead asleep when they sat down.

The good news was that almost nobody got hurt. There had been some close calls. Charley Battery had set its tents on fire because they had to move out fast
so that they would not be overrun. The last day of the fighting when the Cease Fire was being announced to a formation of troopers an incoming round hit not twenty feet behind them. It didn't explode. Joe had been standing in that formation.

A place of memory

The withdrawal from the cease-fire position was uneventful. When they arrived at the new location Joe, this time, knew where they were. They were behind Old Baldy a hill that had become famous with the troopers for its bloody history. It had changed hands a number of times in heavy fighting. Before the pullback it had been the
property of Joe Chink.

He could keep it as far as Joe was concerned. When he was a rookie the previous November he could remember standing in his underware, field jacket thrown over his shoulders, and his bare feet in unlaced boots with no socks.  He had been awakened about 2 o'clock in the morning by a muffled sound of explosions and while everyone else in the radio bunker was asleep went out to see what the fuss was about.

The sounds were coming from a hill about a mile or so away. A heart-stopping fascination set in when he realized that he was watching an attack. The whumping sound was coming from incoming artillery rounds that were pounding the hill. They would make a purple-blue flash when they hit. Joe turned to see another young guy was standing next to him. Joh "Easy" Nunn a soft spoken Louisiana kid who was pulling the radio watch said, "Bettuh b'leve somethin's goin' on ovah' thar." For sure there had been. Word circulated the next morning that the Chinks had taken Old Baldy the night before.

For as long as he knew the7th Infantry Division had been behind Old Baldy. They still owned another famous hill, too, Pork Chop. After many, furious bloody attempts the 7th never let Joe Chink take ownership of that hill.

Joe was reminiscing when he was standing on the ground that the 7th held before Joe's Division, the 25th Infantry Division, swapped with them. Now that they were here he pledged to himself that, one way or another, he would get a close up look at
Old Baldy.

A hard to believe terrain..

The new location was not like any of the other places where they had been situated before. It was a lot bigger with a lot of flat land. There were hills, of course, but they accommodated this, a large flat area about the size of three football
fields. It was a highly unusual terrain for Korea.

A narrow road, perpendicular to the main road was on the right hand side of the field and ran all the way back to the end of the field. The 16x32 foot squad tents had been set up, side by side, facing the road. This uniformity was a complete
contradiction of the purposely haphazard set up that Headquarters w Battery would use when it was shooting at people. You don't want everything in a nice even row when the other guys start to shoot back. Too easy to hit B when he's shooting at A.

There had been a constant admonishing of the troops that the war was not over. This was only a truce, shooting could resume anytime. There were  drills, rousting the troops at 2 or 3 in the morning to take up prepared positions that formed a
perimeter around the Battery. They had been given code words so that you would immediately know a drill from the real thing. "Scramble" denoted a drill, "Hustle' meant the horse was out of the barn.

After the drill they would be told to fall out, go back to bed. Joe got a howl when some wise guy hollered out after they had been give the word to fall out. "Ollie, Ollie Infray!"

But for all the talk the troops were being fed about staying alert, Headquarters Battery was slowly moving toward the "Playing Soldier" culture as Joe called it.

The Army rule of geometry was beginning to set in. Everything in straight lines. Eventually wood floor foundations were built for the squad tents which were situated along the access road. The guys in the Survey Section used their sighting
instruments to be sure the tents would be set up in a perfectly straight line and the tents would have exactly the same apace between them.

A Quonset hut was constructed in almost no time. It would become chow hall for the troops. A beer bar was built at one end and the Quonset became a beer hall after duty hours. A small PX was set up that sold candy bars. Magazines were available, too, even though they were at least two months out of date. You could order cameras there, too. Joe bought a 35mm Cannon camera with a  huge lens for a hundred bucks. It was shipped in from Japan five, or six days after he ordered it.

There were other things, too. An open air movie theatre with movies almost every night. It was shared with the firing batteries. The guys could come over to sit on the plank benches that had been built to form an amphitheater set up. Joe frequently
sat with his pal Johnny Bonnatesta from Baker Battery. They were both from Malden,
Massachusetts and had never met until they got to Korea.

Most significantly, behavior was changing, too. You still had to wear your steel helmet and carry your weapon but the requirement was reduced to duty hours. Anyone on guard duty had to wear his steel pot and guard duty itself had reverted to its
formal stateside ritual. It included inspection of the guards by the duty officer with the sergeant of the guard beside as they side-stepped to be in front of each guard to inspect his rifle. To everyone involved it was a huge pain in the ass.

And that's not all.

R&R leave had been increased from five to seven days and you would be eligible to go evey five months. In the big field softball games, tossing a football, and a new sport picked up from the Koreans, soccer.

Joe thought about the new guys who were joining the 8th Field. This kind of relaxed living would be Korea to them. Nobody being introduced to his new responsibility by a blast of outgoing artillery fire. No sleeping on the ground. No concealed anxiety when things got tough. No up all night on a semi-regular basis. No eating cold beans out of a can for your dinner. No soaked to the skin for days on end. Joe, with a wry chuckle, said to himself, they're gonna' miss out on all the fun.

The old soldier.  

This was early September and Joe was getting long in the tooth. In another month he would be with the 8th Field for almost a year. He was wearing fatigue uniforms that had been washed so many times that their original Olive Drab color had been faded to pea green, a field jacket that was practically white from the same treatment. A
Sergeant. All the marks of an old soldier to the new guys coming in. He had turned 23 in July.

He'd be going home the next month. When you reached this point you were called a "Short Timer." He used to envy guys when they were called that. There was a delicious satisfaction to hearing that when it was said about him.

It occurred to him with the process of rotating the old guys home and their replacements coming in there would be nobody left who would know what it was
like to be in the 8th Field when it was, as First Sergeant Joe Berry Jr. always called it, "a fightin' outfit." They wouldn't know either of the quiet pride of the guys who did know, most of them who never dreamed that they would ever be soldiers. Joe knew that group included him and he knew it was something he would remember, and for a long time.

He did remember for a long time. A long, long time.


February 5, 2016  
    

   
   


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