Friday, December 29, 2017

The Takasago Maru

CAPTION:  1951. Sasebo, Japan. Deck-board view of the Takasago Maru, 
which saw frequent use shuttling American men and materiel to and from 
Pusan, South Korea.  Photo by Maj. Cecil B. White, courtesy of the Doug Price Flicker Site.

July 2, 1950.  Sasebo, Japan.  Seventeen-year-old Private Philip T. Hughes from Washington, D.C. was one of just under 2,000 men of the 34th Infantry Regiment who lined the dock in the pre-dawn hours.  He awaited his turn to file onto a narrow catwalk leading into the hold of a huge, white steamship.

The Takasago Maru was a Japanese-flag vessel, built originally as a passenger ship in 1937 by Mitsubishi Nagasaki for the Osaka Soshen Company.  The ship was drafted by the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1941, when it was promptly converted into a hospital ship - hence the white paint accented by huge red crosses on each side of her hull and on her two smoke stacks.  These markings provided the Takasago Maru some (but not total) respite from allied attacks during World War II. It was one of the few Japanese merchant vessels to survive the war.  After completing a series of post-war cruises to the Philippines, Indochina, and other ports to ferry Japanese combatants back home, the Takasago Maru was largely idle by 1950.

CAPTION:  Late 1945, Manila Harbor.  Five years later, on July 2, 1950, troops 
of the U.S. Army's 34th Infantry Regiment embarked for Pusan, Korea 
onboard the Takasago Maru, leased from the Osaka Soshen Company. 

The day before, on July 1, General Douglas MacArthur ordered the 34th to move to the Korean peninsula to "delay the advance" of North Korean forces moving south of the 38th parallel. Because no Military Sea Transport Service assets were available, Captain Raymond D. Hatfield, the 34th Regiment's S4 (logistics) officer, scrambled to lease the appropriate civilian shipping capacity.  The Takasago Maru would serve that purpose, moving the regiment's men and their personal gear.  Regimental vehicles - over 100 in number - would be shipped separately by LSTs. 

Philip and his colleagues queued into the ship's confines, discovering cabins that had been stripped bare of their contents, except for marble floors that remained from the ship's early days as a true passenger liner.  Many men opted to encamp on the ship's wooden deck, anticipating a 15-hour passage from Sasebo to the Korean port of Pusan. Over half of these American soldiers were age 20 or younger. 

The Land of the Morning Calm awaited them.  Some boys openly boasted that the North Koreans would turn and run once they saw American uniforms under a stars-and-stripes flag. Why wouldn't they? 

Friday, December 22, 2017

Corporal Luis P. Torres

When Corporal Luis Patlan Torres and his 23rd Infantry Regiment arrived at the Port of Pusan on August 5, 1950, they were given instructions to be ready to move to the front with an hour’s notice. They had just spent the previous couple of weeks steaming across the Pacific direct to Pusan from Bremerton, Washington. There would be no time for sightseeing. But granted, Pusan at the time had little in the way of tourist attractions.

Torres, from Eagle Pass, Texas, would recognize his 20th birthday on August 25.  The next day, his regiment was deployed near the village of Changnyeong, in the Naktong River valley.  Now part of the Pusan Perimeter, the newly-arrived 23rd attempted install a defensive line. They were so few in number that a squad of 20-25 men had to cover a segment as long as seven football fields. On top of this, they were ordered to hold the line at all costs.

After midnight on September 1, about 15 to 20 thousand North Koreans crossed the Naktong opposite the 23rd’s thin defensive line. The regiment’s outposts were systematically overrun, as evidenced by a flurry of radio messages for help swamping the battalion switchboard. The flow of these signals decreased and finally stopped before daybreak.

The best evidence of Torres’ fate came from an American prisoner of war who after the cease-fire suggested that Cpl. Torres was captured and executed. His remains were exhumed in December 20, 1950, from a shallow grave near Changnyeong. At the time, the identity of these remains was unknown when they were interred at National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.

Fast forward to May 16, 2016, when the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency laboratory disinterred the remains to attempt definitive identification. By using Next Generation Sequencing techniques with mitochondrial DNA analysis, a positive genetic match was achieved on December 15, 2016 with samples provided by Torres’ brother, sister, and nephew.

Luis P. Torres was finally laid to rest on January 13, 2017 at the Fort Sam Houston Cemetery in Texas.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Mosin-Nagant Rifle in Korea

1953. South Korea.  Jim Scannell (1930-2016) of Baltimore, Maryland displays a Mosin-Nagant rifle that was almost certainly captured from Chinese communist forces.  Despite the Korean War's "limited" scope, it nonetheless employed weaponry from a wide range of sources.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Staff Sergeant John St. Patrick Hughes

Staff Sergeant John St. Patrick Hughes, age 27, bid farewell to his wife and three little girls in Oregon when his regiment was the first to be transferred from the U.S. to join the “police action” in Korea.

A World War II veteran, Sgt. Hughes landed with the 38th Infantry Regiment at Pusan, South Korea. The date was August 19, 1950. He was about to participate in his second shooting war. By August 24, the 38th had advanced to relieve the shattered 19th Regiment. Their location on the Pusan Perimeter, west of Pusan, corresponded with that piece of real estate that would host the Second Battle of the Naktong Bulge. By the way, Sgt. Hughes was no relation to Philip Hughes, subject of “The Battle of Turkey Thicket.”

On September 6, Sgt. Hughes led a platoon tasked with planting land mines along a defensive perimeter.  For reasons we’ll never know, one of the mines that Hughes was handling exploded unexpectedly. He died later that day of his wounds. He had been in Korea for 18 days.

Today, his daughters cling to their random memories of a father who sang funny little ad-libbed songs and taught them to roller skate. John St. Patrick Hughes’s remains were returned home to Milton-Freewater, Oregon. They celebrate his birthday every year: March 17. St. Patrick’s Day.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Master Sergeant Jerry Curtis Christiansen

About July 8, 1950.  Vicinity of Ch’onan, Korea. Master Sergeant Jerry Curtis Christensen of Balaton, Minnesota has his photo taken by Life Magazine’s Carl Mydans. Christensen was age 25 at the time. He was previously employed in electrical equipment manufacturing before enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1946. At the start of the Korean War, Christensen was assigned to the headquarters company of Philip Hughes’s 34th Regiment. Christensen’s military occupation specialty was “infantry operations chief,” a title that applied to any number of administrative tasks supporting the battalion command post.

Mydans snapped this photo in the immediate aftermath of the 34th Regiment’s disastrous encounter with the North Korean People’s Army at Ch’onan during July 7-8. Elements of the 34th’s Third Battalion and Headquarters staff were cut off and surrounded. Only a few, including Christensen, managed to break out.  This photo subsequently appeared in the July 24, 1950 issue of Life Magazine. According to the caption, Christensen said “All I need is a bath.” Note the wedding ring on his left hand.

Jerry would survive 34th Regiment’s next two weeks leading up to the Battle of Taejon on July 20. He was one of the many U.S. soldiers unable to escape the enemy’s encirclement of Taejon.  Rounded up with other dazed survivors, he undertook a forced march to a North Korean prisoner of war camp at Hanjang-ni.  Jerry died there on December 10, 1950 due to some combination of illness, exposure, or wounds. His remains were never recovered.

Another blogger suggested that Jerry Curtis Christensen was the model for the January 1, 1951 cover of Time Magazine.  What do you think?

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Sergeant First Class Benjamin Hooke Milliken

1949 or 1950.  Juniata County, Pennsylvania.  Some of the soldiers serving with Philip Hughes’s outfit in the Korean War didn’t last a full day in combat.  One example (out of many) was Sergeant First Class Benjamin Hooke Milliken. He was one of about 75 replacements trucked up to the front from Pusan, arriving at Kwanbin-ni at 10:00 on the morning of July 30, 1950.

At this time, Philip’s 34th  Infantry Regiment was still attempting to reconstitute itself after its roster had been depleted from 1,981 (July 3) down to about 1,150. The regiment suffered massive losses of men and materiel in the July 20 battle and subsequent rout from Taejon. The headquarters company lacked a switchboard for communications and capacity for clerical functions—like documenting its personnel rosters. Milliken and the other replacements were enthusiastically received and within ten minutes were dispatched to the 34th's constituent units as needed.  Milliken was assigned to Philip Hughes’s B (Baker) Company.

Within a couple hours of the replacements’ arrival, North Korean forces encroached on the 34th Regiment’s defensive position at Kwanbin-ni, one of the last ridges impeding the enemy’s access to the Naktong River.  If the enemy were to succeed in crossing the Naktong in any appreciable strength, the rest of South Korea would be indefensible and thus subject to capitulation. For this reason, the 34th Regiment remained on the front lines despite its battered condition. American replacements arrived at the front just as the rifle companies were coming under fire by the North Koreans.

This was the situation in which 27-year-old Ben Milliken found himself committed. He was one of many American soldiers rushed into Korea after the outbreak of hostilities. He had already served with the U.S. Army Service Forces during World War II as a quartermaster supply specialist. The emergency in Korea changed all of that: with the stroke of a pen, rear echelon men like Ben were converted to riflemen. Ben left behind a wife and two small children in the Tuscarora Valley of south-central Pennsylvania, where his family had been rooted for at least seven generations.

July 30 was a typically bad day for the 34th Regiment’s Baker Company.  The unit was outnumbered and outgunned by the North Koreans, and the surviving members were physically spent.  They gave up the ridge at Kwanbin-ni, taking their casualties with them.  Among the wounded was Ben Milliken. He died later that day. Ben had not been deployed long enough to adjust to the time difference from the continental U.S.

Because of its administrative turmoil at the time, the Army had yet to document Ben’s unit assignment.  Consequently, Ben Milliken’s remains were interred under a headstone in Pennsylvania that describes him as being a member of the “24th Division, Replacement Company.” Korean War Casualty Databases reconciled in 1979 reveal that Ben was assigned to the 24th Division’s 34th Regiment, Company B.

Benjamin Hooke Milliken’s remains are interred in the New Church Hill Cemetery in Turbett Township, Pennsylvania.

Friday, November 17, 2017

A Well-Traveled Mule

1951. Korea. Even an event as ghastly as the Korean War provided the rare moment of humor.  Here we have the story of an Oklahoma mule raised for the U.S. Army during the early years of World War II.  Like virtually everything in the Army, this mule had a serial number - or more specifically, a brand, which read "OK80." Once it grew to the appropriate size, the mule was shipped across the Pacific Ocean to carry supplies required by Stilwell's forces in the China-Burma-India theater.  As World War II came to a close, OK80 was transferred under lend-lease to the Nationalist Chinese Army, for whom it labored into the late 1940s during Chiang Kai-Shek's civil war with Chairman Mao.  In 1949, Mao's victorious army absorbed assets from the Nationalist army, including mule OK80. The animal was subsequently put to work by the Chinese People's Volunteer Army as it was deployed in Korea in 1950.  Having survived any number of battles and attacks by U.S. air power, this and several other mules were abandoned by their retreating Chinese keepers during the spring of 1951.  It was then that U.S. Army soldiers found OK80 and its undernourished colleagues grazing on a hillside.  Quartermaster personnel gathered these animals and rehabilitated them over a number of days with a diet of cereal and sugar.  OK80 was subsequently put to work - once again - for the U.S. Army.

Friday, November 10, 2017

North Korean T-34 Tank

June 1950.  Seoul, South Korea.  A Russian-made T-34 of the North Korean People's Army parades before civilian onlookers.  It was fast, rugged, heavily armored, and available in large numbers. Opposing forces found this tank nearly invincible during the early weeks of the Korean War.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Last Watch

1953.  South Korea.  Salvaged by a farmer, these remnants of an Army uniform have been fashioned into a scarecrow that stands sentry over a barley field.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Private Edward O. Cleaborn

Edward O. Cleaborn of Memphis, Tennessee got far more adventure than he imagined when he joined the U.S. Army in February 1950.  He shared the same fate as Philip Hughes, in that they both enlisted at age 17 and found themselves cast into the early days of the Korean War.  Like Philip, Cleaborn survived the Battle of Taejon on July 20, 1950 when the U.S. Army was thoroughly humiliated by the North Korean People’s Army. These men, both holding the rank of private, were committed to the ensuing Battle of Naktong Bulge a few weeks later.

Philip and Edward would lose their lives in combat, with their remains returned home for interment. But while Philip’s return to Washington, DC was hardly noticed, the City of Memphis feted Private Cleaborn with a large scale memorial service in February 1951.  The reception was certainly justified; Cleaborn was bestowed with a Distinguished Service Cross (among other decorations) for the action in which he was killed.

On August 15, 1950, he was part of an infantry platoon that maintained a tenuous hold on a 400-foot-tall ridge just east of the Naktong River.  Decimated by enemy fire throughout the early morning, Cleaborn’s platoon had seven men not yet killed or wounded.  As casualties were being evacuated, Cleaborn and the others fired from a trench atop the ridge line in an attempt to hold off the encroaching enemy. SFC Roy E. Collins led these men. 

Cleaborn’s view of the battlefield was compromised by the rough terrain. Intent on neutralizing a North Korean machine-gun team, he climbed atop the ridgeline to fire from a standing position. Cleaborn yelled at his adversaries while expending clips of ammunition at a prodigious rate. “Come on up, you sons of bitches, and fight!”  By mid-morning, with the enemy closing in on their position, Sgt. Collins ordered his men to fire off one more clip of ammunition and pull back, carrying wounded with them. Deciding to cover his colleagues’ withdrawal, Cleaborn once again stood atop the ridge to enhance his field of fire.  That’s when he took a bullet to the head.

Today, Private Cleaborn’s descendants are lobbying for him to receive a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor.  News about this can be found online.  All parties involved in this effort may wish to note Private Cleaborn’s correct unit affiliation.  For whatever reason, current day articles describe Cleaborn, an African-American, as a member of an “all-black combat unit.”  This is a mistaken conclusion, and it’s easy to see why. 

When the Korean War started in 1950, the U.S. Army had yet to implement President Truman’s 1948 executive order calling for the integration of racially separate units.  Follow these designations closely: among the units sent to Korea was the all-black 24th Infantry Regiment, a component of the 25th Infantry Division.  By coincidence, the (white) 24th Infantry Division was the first U.S. Army division sent to Korea. One component of the 24th Division was the 34th Regiment.

Private Edward O. Cleaborn was part of 34th Regiment of the 24th Infantry Division.

So how did this happen?  Faced with the emergency in Korea, the U.S. Army endured manpower shortages so acute that it found segregated assignments to be impractical.  The Army required trained soldiers as soon as they completed basic training. Accordingly, Cleaborn was notable for something in addition to his heroism: he was one of the very first African Americans to integrate a previously all-white infantry unit in Korea.  In fact, as a member of second platoon, Company A, First Battalion of the 34th Infantry Regiment, Cleaborn died covering the withdrawal of white troops.  His story is a subplot in Russell A. Gugeler’s “Combat Actions in Korea.” Cleaborn’s casualty record also corroborates the unit affiliation described here.  That is also online in the National Archives’ Korean War Casualty File.