Linkedin Long-form Post #13
James Francis Smith
The Korean Conflict may have been forgotten, but let us never forget the men who served there. One such veteran, Al Masek. passed away in August 2014. Several years ago, Al agreed to be interviewed for my narrative history, Rory O’Donnell and the Kennedys. Because I couldn’t figure a way to bring Rory to the West Coast, therefore, I brought Al east. Rory, the story’s fictional reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin, interviewed him in Mulvey’s Tavern on Wayne Avenue. Al was a recipient of the Korean Service Medal and the Purple Heart.
The interview is presented verbatim. Al’s roguish humor is evident, despite
this segment being stripped of the activities of the two beer consumers.
“Why don’t you talk, and I’ll just listen. Do you mind if I record it?”
Masek agreed, giving Rory a grin as though he thought the whole interview process was funny. “I joined up just as WWII was ending. After surviving boot camp, the duty was easy. I was stationed in Hawaii. When my tour ended, I joined the inactive reserves because I didn’t want to become a weekend warrior.
“To be honest, I forgot all about the reserves until the Korean War started, and I was recalled. When my mom handed me the packet, I said, ‘Mom, that looks just like a set of orders.’ Since I had expected to be reassigned to Hawaii, I wasn’t too upset.
“Six of us were given a refresher course then mixed with recruits fresh out of boot camp.” Al smiled again. “The reserves were ordered not to tell war stories because the recruits were already talking about hardship discharges; something they shouldn’t have known about.”
“We were shipped to Japan then to Korea, on a contract victory ship. Two meals a day, both bad,” he said with a laugh. “We had beans and cornbread for breakfast. I wonder who brought that tradition to the navy. My first night in Korea was spent sleeping in the head at the University of Pusan. The smell would make you sick. Then we transferred to pyramid tents, straw on the floor and open flame for heat. Surprisingly, none ever caught fire.
“The only thing we had in abundance was shortages. Our WWII vintage guns and trucks broke down—often. Trained personnel were so scarce they made me a platoon leader.”
“What outfit were you with?”
“First Marine Division, Seventh Regiment, First Battalion, Baker Company,” he answered with pride.
“The first night out of Pusan, we bivouacked on a dry river bed. I knew from Boy Scout training, ‘Never pitch a tent in a dry river bed.’ A buddy and I put up our pup tent on the top of a levee. We woke to the sound of a waterlogged-tent being dragged from the roaring creek. Several soaked Marines slept under a truck that night.” he grinned, probably picturing the scene in his mind.
“The next day, our truck crossed the creek several times. On the second pass somebody spotted a wallet. I told him he would be foolish to jump in the water and get soaking wet. But he ignored my advice, which made me very happy. The wallet was mine.” Al laughed as he finished.
“Were you ever wounded?”
“A gook was huddled against the near wall of the next foxhole. I couldn’t get a clear shot until I remembered that an M-1 would fire through five-inches of dirt. I stood up and shot into the ground next to the foxhole. That got the little bugger. But that’s also when I got hit, but at least no bones were broken. I stayed on the line. We lost fifteen to twenty men every month. Things would’ve been deadly, if the old man, General O. P. Smith, hadn’t defied orders and built an airstrip at Yudam-ni. His superior, Army General Almond, asked why he needed it. ‘To take out the casualties,’ Smith answered. ‘What casualties?’ Almond asked. That goes to show you the attitude at H.Q.”
Al, like many returning veterans, didn’t mention how it felt to kill another person or to watch a friend die, and Rory didn’t press the issue.
“Our captain shot himself in the foot getting out of his sleeping bag. There are no such things as accidental shootings in the Marines. He was relieved of duty. Johnson, our new commander, had a bum knee, but still carried the biggest pack. There was a continual shortage of lieutenants. In fifty-one, Lieutenant Seaman lasted from January through May. He was shot, climbing up a hill. Before he was carried away, he briefed me on the locations of the first and third squads. Then he recommended that two corporals receive medals. Johnson refused to pass on the recommendations, stating, ‘That’s their jobs.’ We went a month an’ a half without a replacement. Finally, Eddie LeBaron showed up.”
“That name’s familiar,” Rory said. “Wasn’t he a football star?”
“That’s the guy. He played for Pacific, a small West Coast college. Eddie placed sixth for the Heisman. He stayed with us about a year.”
“That’s where I heard the name,” Rory said. “It was in forty-nine, when Notre Dame’s Leon Hart won. A couple of other N.D. guys were in the running, Bob Williams and Emil Stiko. That was one hell of a Notre Dame team,” he said, returning the conversation back to Korea, less they get onto sports and waste what little time he had. “What was the fighting like?”
“We traveled along narrow two-lane roads, with the enemy holding the high ground. To get at them, we had to climb up to the ridge line—tanks were useless. One tank, on patrol along a narrow road, turned, knocking the roof off a peasant’s hut … then the tank got stuck. My unit had to remain for eighteen hours until a tank retriever arrived. Another time, we took a tank to flush out the enemy. I always wanted to fire the fifty-caliber machine gun on the turret. I grabbed the antenna while climbing up, snapping it off. I got down quickly.” Al laughed once again, likely picturing himself scrambling down the back of the tank and sheepishly returning to his platoon.
“Another time we captured a Chinese vehicle, a Russian knock-off of a Studebaker, probably copied from a lend-lease truck. Everything was in Chinese except for a sign in English that read ‘safety first.’ We used that truck for a month before it ran over a mine.”
Just getting warmed up, Al continued, “Our outfit had a B.A.R., a Browning Automatic Rifle, which the smallest guy carried. Because being small, he’d be the hardest to hit. One night while on patrol, we encountered six gooks filling their canteens from a stream. A John Wayne-type missed when he fired our 75-millimeter recoilless-rifle. The gooks returned a mortar round. That took out the recoilless.”
“Another time when the Chinese were attacking, we had a 60-millimeter mortar tube, but no base plate. Another John Wayne-type tried to use a helmet as a base. He dropped a white phosphorous shell into the tube, then lost control. The spray hit two guys in our unit, who took off running with flames consuming their gear. Later, we went looking for the missing guys, but never found them.”
“How effective were our weapons?”
“Some good, some not very good; naval gunfire was potent, even from thirty-miles away. It made a whooosh noise, like a boxcar going end over end. I called them, ‘God’s rototiller.’ When their barrage finished, the ground was clear—not a stump left. Proximity fuses were very efficient, except they’d explode in heavy air, sometimes right over our heads.”
“Planes were useful … sometimes. Once when the Chinese were on the far side of a hill, a sabre jet made three passes, using a twenty-millimeter cannon. On the third pass, a burp gun, a Soviet submachine gun, knocked off the plane. Another time, an Indian Air Force P51 fired from ten-thousand feet—way too high. The fifty-caliber shells lost their velocity and just fell to earth. If they were going to fire from that altitude, there was no sense making the run.”
“It was bitter at Frozen Chosin (the Chosin Reservoir.) The temperature would hover around twenty-below. Our boots were our biggest enemies. Their leather tops and rubber soles accumulated sweat, melting our skin. We couldn’t take our boots off at night because they’d freeze, making them impossible to get back on. There was a story going around about a medic, who after hearing a series of clumps behind him, ordered the Marine to take off his boots. ‘They are off, Sir,’ the Marine replied.”
“We tried to keep three pairs of socks; one on our feet, one in our packs, and one drying under our armpits. Once we got lucky; we stopped an Army truck driven by a scared young draftee. He tossed out 18 pairs of socks and took off. We had hoped to get food, but were delighted with the socks.”
“There was this kid from Baltimore who had never been to boot camp. We could only use him as a runner. One time, he bought a Thompson machine gun from a tanker and wanted to use it instead of his M-1. I made him carry both. The guns weighed nine and half-pounds each. In addition, the Thompson took forty-five caliber while the M-1 took thirty. This meant he carried eighteen extra pounds. A couple of days later, we got into a skirmish. The Thompson fired two rounds before freezing up. The kid ditched it.
“Another time in early March, I crossed a pristine stream and filled my canteen without using a purification pill. I rounded a bend and found a dead horse in the middle of the stream. I dumped the water.”
“What’s your last memory of Korea?”
“Getting out,” he said with a sly smile. “I hitched a ride on a mail truck which had drawn fire the previous two days, but fortunately not on the day I left. Then I jumped a DC3 back to Pusan. There, they took away my M-1 and deloused me. Sometimes at night, I find myself reaching for my gun.”