Friday, January 25, 2019

Next Stop: Korean War

U.S. Army photo
Early July 1950.  The U.S. Army's 34th Infantry Regiment's Headquarters Company is seen here arriving at the Taejon rail station. This rail infrastructure was built well before 1940 during the Japanese occupation.  Ironically, the U.S. Army would employ the same infrastructure to move its assets and personnel for a "police action" against the North Korean invasion. The quarter-ton jeep trailer in the foreground holds a couple cases of trip flares, entrenching tools, and jerry cans for gasoline. A curious mix of civilians are gathered for the arrival.

Friday, January 18, 2019

This One's for You, Bud

Marine PFC Sterling G. Patterson of Eagle Rock, California guards a shipment of beer rations forwarded to the front lines.
September 15, 1950.  It was a good idea - at least on paper. Milwaukee's Blatz  and Jos. Schlitz Brewing Companies each offered to donate 600,000 cans or bottles of beer to American fighting men in Korea. Not only would it boost recipients' morale, the exposure would be a marketing coup for the suppliers.

The U.S. Army's initial contribution to the Korean War included a preponderance of teenage boys. About half these troops, like PVT Philip Hughes, were age 20 or younger. Quartermasters were accustomed to providing beer rations, but word of this treat filtered back to the U.S. in letters that the boys sent home. A domestic cry of indignation arose from the Women's Christian Temperance Union, among others, who lobbied Congress to cease and desist in the provision of beer, lest the American youngsters fall prey to alcoholism. It was also true that cigarettes were integral to Army rations, but that's another story.

The Army initially reacted to pressure by instituting a beer ban. General Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the U.N. forces in Korea, had other ideas. Nominally a Milwaukee native, MacArthur ordered that fighting men would continue to receive one free can of beer per day. Complicating the issue was the fact that taxpayers footed the bill for battlefield brew. Back in Washington, D.C., Secretary of the Army Frank Pace Jr. prevaricated for days over the brewers' offer. A compromise was reached on September 27.  The Army would accept the beer, as long as its alcohol content by volume was 3.2% or less.

It took a while for the beer to transship to Korea. The first rations were served to the intended recipients along with chow on Christmas Day. Many of the boy soldiers wrote letters of thanks to the brewers. At the end of the Korean War, Army troops found that empty beer cans were perfectly dimensioned to store unused hand grenades. This became standard operating procedure which, according to the United Press, saved the Army $20,000.

Friday, January 11, 2019

James Williams' Not So Easy Ride

1950. Korea. An intrepid jeep driver and crew race their cargo under fire. Photo by PFC Hancock, U.S. Army.
Ward and Mary Williams of East Alton, Illinois may have struggled through the Great Depression, but they provided as best they could for their two sons.  In 1940, Ward drove a taxi, while Mary worked in a munitions plant.  They had enough resources to seek medical remedy for the younger of their two sons, James, who was born with a cleft lip.  Surgery improved the condition, but did not totally erase evidence of the ailment. James joined the Army as a teenager, and was counted among the first boatload of American soldiers sent from Japan to Korea upon the outbreak of hostilities there.  He arrived on July 4, 1950.

"You could tell he was self conscious about it," as Lacy Barnett, age 91, recalled James' cleft lip in a recent email.

Lacy and James Williams served together in the 34th Infantry Regiment's medical company. Curiously, there were then three young men named "Williams" in that company during July 1950. Lacy knew them all.

The Army assigned the occupational specialty of "light truck driver" to Ward and Mary's boy. James was performing this vocation on July 20, 1950.  On that day, the 34th Infantry was trying to hold on to the city of Taejon just one more day as North Korean tanks and infantry bore down from the north. The 34th's third battalion held a tenuous line around the airfield just north of the city.  Outnumbered and surrounded, the battalion was preparing to withdraw, hoping to make it back to Taejon and eventual escape southward by rail.  But first, they had to break through the enemy encirclement. They had wounded to evacuate.

It was James C. Williams' job to drive a litter jeep - a vehicle that bore 2-3 stretchers each with a wounded soldier. The North Korean encirclement of the airfield was not complete, but it was effective enough. James and the wounded comrades he carried were killed at some point on the gauntlet to Taejon. James was not yet 20 years old.

All three of the medical company's Williams boys died that day during the North Koreans' advance on Taejon. Several survivors would later provide written statements that they returned the remains of James C. Williams to a collection point. However, July 20 was not a good day for the U.S. Army. The Americans' withdrawal turned into a panicked rout.  To put it mildly, the remains of James and many other soldiers were hastily abandoned. Nevertheless, James was officially listed as "missing in action." His name was added to one of the granite slabs in the Courts of the Missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.

That was pretty much the end of James' story until January 3, 2019, when the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency news release announced the positive identification of PFC James C. Williams. The boy with the cleft lip will be repatriated for burial at home. A rosette will be inscribed on the slab next to James' name in the Courts of the Missing - to indicate that he has been accounted for.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

A Time to Heal

Photo by William Straeter (AP)
July 4, 1951. Korea. In lieu of a Fourth of July Parade back home in Cleveland, Ohio, Sgt. Harry Hildreth is content to sunbathe on the banks of the Imjin River. Soldiers in Korea had periodic access to their regimental service company's modular shower facilities, trucked into place as conditions permitted.  When those facilities were not available, skinny-dipping was the alternative. While Hildreth, a 28-year-old veteran of World War II, was somewhat removed from the front lines, he nevertheless is prepared for potential hostilities. Next to him are his helmet, boots, a musette bag, and carbine with an expanded-capacity magazine. Sgt. Hildreth's uniform is nowhere in sight. It may be that his service company was providing laundry service at the time. Harry Hildreth survived the Korean War, but passed away in 1984 at the age of 62.