Saturday, January 11, 2020

The Last Word

Photo by the author
I first encountered Philip Hughes in 1995. Or to be exact, I encountered his name on a small memorial plaque in a Catholic church in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. A reader would note that Philip was “Killed in Korea” in 1950 at the age of eighteen. All other context about this boy and his story was lacking. I figured that he must have experienced Rehoboth’s sun and surf, maybe 40 years before I did. Whatever story this kid had to tell was virtually lost to oblivion, reduced now to an obscure little plaque bolted to a wall. 

Inspired by pathos of it all, I would spend over twenty years pursuing this boy’s identity and eventual fate. Philip, I learned, was from my hometown, Washington, D.C. He was an orphan, nurtured by a Catholic community. But he was also a runaway and ultimately, a teenage soldier. Philip would become one of the first and youngest of the U.S. Army troops committed to the Korean War. My years of intermittent research yielded Philip’s story, presented in a book entitled “The Battle of Turkey Thicket,” published in 2018.  

This blog was intended to complement and thus promote the book. Even after all those years of research, new factoids arise that would have been included in the book had they been available prior to publication. The passage of time ensures that there’s only so much to know about Philip himself. Inexorably, the blog’s focus increasingly spotlights the gritty details of the post-World War II U.S. military occupation of Japan and the Korean War’s chaotic summer of 1950. The shift in focus left Philip’s memory to once again teeter on the verge of oblivion.  

The study of war does nothing for Philip, whose remains have rested in Arlington National Cemetery since February 1952. It can also be a drain on the author. One can study war but so much before it begins to rob the soul. For that reason, and after a period of reflection, I’ve decided that it’s time to stop adding to the blog. The content will remain as long as Google allows it to do so.

It is wholly appropriate, then, to give Philip the last word in this forum. Fortunately, history provides excerpts from his last letter home, written on the battlefield on August 29, 1950. Having survived ten weeks of combat, Philip opted not to complain; rather, he asked his adoptive mother to issue prayers of intercession for the many friends he lost at Taejon, Kochang, and the Pusan Perimeter. That Philip took this approach reveals a selfless character and enduring faith born of deep reflection. For the record, these are Philip’s enduring words:

Do me a favor, Mom.  Pray for all the boys who were killed.

As the inscrutable current of time carries me forward through life, I have learned to take inspiration and solace from Philip’s demonstration of faith. As you read this, I hope that the same words resonate with you.  If so, please join me in ensuring that Philip’s legacy lives on, embodied in prayer to the Holy Spirit embodied in us all.

Peace be with you.     

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Life and Death

August 17, 1951. 121st Evacuation Hospital, Yongdong-pu, Korea. A seriously wounded soldier of the 116th Engineers is stabilized in a field hospital prior to evacuation for extended retreatment and rehabilitation in Japan.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Man at Work in War

27 July 1950. As war engulfed the Korean peninsula, life nevertheless carried on for beleagured citizens.  People have to eat, right?  Here, a man employs an ingenious water pump to irrigate a rice paddy.  His identity, fate, and politics are unknown.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Christmas Chow

Christmas 1952. Forward air base of the First Marine Air Wing, Korea.  The war in Korea orphaned an awful lot of children.  The Americans helped these kids when they could, if only to share food and provisions.  Here, Marine Corporals Benton Cook, Jr. of Chicago and Mariano Angotti of Des Plaines, Illinois break bread with one of those orphans.  She seems to approve of the Marines' chow.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

The Selfless Trek of Dowell B. Hudson

Photo Courtesy the U.S. Army Center of  Military History
July 26, 1951.  This is 1LT Dowell B. Hudson of Abbeville, Louisiana.  He was age 27 at the time of this picture.  LT Hudson, a member of C Company, 38th Infanry Regiment, was already a veteran of World War II, having enlisted in January 1943.  He is seen resting here in Korea during his trek from Hill 1171 to a medical aid station in the rear.  By this point, Hudson had already walked for six hours with a leg wound. Accepting only the help of a crude walking stick, Hudson refused a stretcher because "others need it worse than I." This injury would incapacitate him until September 3, 1951. He returned to combat only to be wounded again on October 13. He would be hospitalized in Japan again until November 24. He celebrated his 28th birthday during that second convelescence.

Dowell Hudson survived Korea.  He finished his Army career as a Lietenant Colonel. He retired to Abbeville, Lousiana, where he attended St. Theresa Catholic Church.  He died in 2006 and was buried at St. Paul Cemetery.  His wife Irene was interred beside him in 2011.    

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Will YOU Remember Don Webb?

LEFT: From L to R - Jim Christiansen, Don Webb, Pete Pace, Atlanta GA, 1948. 
RIGHT: Don Webb, "Joan," Unknown.  Yokohama, Japan, 1950.

The following was distilled from the 2004 memoir of James Henry Christiansen, as presented on The source material is a frank, candid, and extremely well-written reflection of a young American man's life before, during, and after the Korean War.

Don Webb and Jim Christiansen were best friends from Atlanta, Georgia. The two boys, both tall and lanky, bore a strong resemblence to each other. They would often take advantage of this fact to cause mischief. Don was amiable, friendly, and outgoing. He played tennis and trombone. His girlfriend was the granddaughter of baseball player Rogers Hornsby.

Don and Jim exited high school in 1948. A quick survey of their employment prospects convinced them that military service was the best option. Don expressed initial interest in the navy, but ended up joining the army per Jim's insistance.

The boys joined a cohort of enlistees who embarked from Atlanta to Fort Jackson, South Carolina for basic training. Vocational training followed. Don and Jim opted for radio school at Camp Gordon. There, they learned to type, to send and transmit via Morse Code, and to operate SCR-399 radio. This massive, truck-bound appliance was powered by a 10kW generator towed on a trailer behind it. Radio school training was self-paced; you graduated when you mastered it. Jim Christiansen finished the curriculum in six months. He would part ways with Don Webb, who required another eleven weeks of training before finally attaining the military operations specialty (MOS) code 5740, "radio operator, intermediate speed."  Jim would later surmise that those ten weeks cost Don Webb his life.

Jim Christiansen as assigned to a signal battalion in Japan. He arrived in the late summer of 1949, when the U.S. Army's post-war occupation was in full swing. Don Webb would later arrive in Japan to an assignment with the 16th Recon Company of the 1st Cavalry Division. While Jim and Don failed to meet up in Japan, they kept track of each other's whereabouts. Each boy - they were 19 years old - developed his own circle of friends, including civilian female companionship. 

Then came June 25, 1950 and a brand new war in Korea. The U.S. Army's haphazard and piecemeal deployment placed Don in Korea in July, more than a month before Jim Christiansen's arrival. The exigencies of combat in 1950 forced many rear eschelon troops - including radiomen like Don Webb - to pick up a rifle and function as infantrymen. 

On September 7, 1950, Jim wrangled a pass from his post to visit Don. Jim hitched a ride on a chow truck to Don's position on the Naktong River. This was the front line; North Koreans were on the opposite river bank. All the fighting took place at night. Jim was there long enough to learn first hand from Don and his colleagues that the war was not going well for the Americans. But Don was committed to his job; he was getting paid to fight. Jim's brief visit ended when he departed with the chow truck upon its return to the rear. He vowed to return again three days later, on the 10th.

Frederick Chorney served alongside Don Webb. In his own recollection posted in 2009, Mr. Chorney recalled his friend Don. On September 10, they were part of a movement to take a hill. Advancing under fire, Don and Fred took momentary refuge behind a rock. They paused long enough to simply look at each other while each caught his breath. Don was the first to move on to continue the climb. That was the last that Fred Chorney saw of him.

Jim Christiansen returned to Don's unit as promised on September 10. The men dodged Jim's queries as to Don's whereabouts. No one wanted to tell Jim that his friend was killed in action only a few hours before. Over the decades that followed, Jim had recurring dreams of running into Don to find out that he wasn't killed after all. Over time, as Jim aged to 30, 40, 50 years and more, the Don Webb encountered in his dreams was still a teenager. 

Don Webb was buried in Atlanta exactly one year after he was killed in action.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Harold Hillery: Last of the Lucky Men

Left: Capt. David Bisset of Savannah, Georgia; LT (later CAPT) Harold Hillery (USAF), New York City; and LT Arthur Clarke, Boone, Iowa.
July 20, 1950.  Taejon, Korea.  The city in which the U.S. Army's 24th Infantry Division made its headquarters on this day was becoming systematically overrun by North Korean Forces. PVT Philip Hughes was fully occupied with his part in the combat withdrawal of the 34th Infantry Regiment from its defensive position north of Taejon.  In the city, however, the headquarters was still staffed by men operating with little sleep and poor lines of communication with its field units.  As the day progressed, these men would prepare to abandon their post under the command of Major General William F. Dean

Attached to Dean's headquarters was 28-year-old U.S. Air Force LT Harold A. "Tank" Hillery of the 35th Fighter Interceptor Wing. Rasied in Harlem by a widowed mother, Hillery enlisted in September 1942.  He lucked his way into pilot training with the famed "Tuskegee Airmen" of World War II.  Like so many other officers, Hillery was now fighting his second war in Korea. He did not suspect on that day that he would become a historical footnote.

As with other U.S. military units in Japan, the 35th FIW was rapidly mobilized for wartime activity. Harold Hillery was based with this unit at Yokota Air base on Honshu.  Like so many other officers, Hillery brought his family with him to on-base housing in Japan. In the newly-integrated U.S. Air Force, Harold, his wife Ginny, and two kids would cautiously navigate the social millieu as his squadron's only African-American family.  The advent of war imposed new hardships as the 35th FIW would relocate its base of combat operations to Korea.  Its forward base at Po'hang offered rough accomodations, but greatly reduced the time-in-transit to the war zone.          

On July 20, Hillery complied with his duty rotation by commanding a tactical air control party (TACP) - a handful of U.S. Air Force personnel who functioned on the ground as liaison between combat forces and the USAF's airborne assets. To do this, Hillery swapped his F-51D Mustang for a jeep with a powerful (if somewhat unreliable) two-way air to ground radio.  His role as TACP commander put Hillery in direct contact with the officers on Dean's staff.  As commander of the TASP unit, Hillery oversaw not only the life-line to combat air support assets, but also a channel for General Dean's communication with command levels above the 24th ID. 

The day did not go well for the U.S. Army in Taejon. Enemy blockades and ambushes forced the Americans to dismount their vehicles amidst vicious urban street fighting.  Those who survived the battle took to the hills. Fortunately, neither General Dean nor LT Hillery were killed that day; rather they and many other Americans went missing in action. From there, their fortunes diverged. After three weeks of wandering the countryside by himself, Dean was captured and would spend the rest of the war in captivity.  Hillery, who endured similar wanderings, was one of the lucky Americans to rejoin friendly forces.

By the end of July, "Tank" Hillery was back in the cockpit, conducting dangerous ground strikes on NKPA forces. On August 10, his F-51's engine quit during a mission.  Hillery bailed out, splashing into the Sea of Japan.  Luck accompanied him once again: he was picked by a U.S. Navy submarine which would host him for a few days until the sub made its scheduled berthing in Japan. Luck, however, did not accompany Hillery on this cruise as he ended up losing a lot of money to the sub's poker players.

Harold "Tank" Hillery, one of the last of the lucky men to escape Taejon, would advance to the rank of major before retiring from the Air Force.  He died in 1994 at the age of 72, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.