Friday, February 22, 2019

Combat Calisthenics

Photo by John T. Ward and James N. Cannon of the Baltimore Sun
If you fought in Korea, you fought on hills.  It was an inescapable aspect of military strategy:  if you occupy the high ground, you have control of the territory below.  But occupying hill tops was easier said than done.  Scaling a slope under fire was itself nightmarish.  Yet holding the summit was also taxing.  Food, ammunition, and other supplies had to be hand-carried to heights not served by roads.  Helicopter technology was in its infancy at the time, especially during the Korean War's initial stages in 1950. The little Bell 47s (think of the M*A*S*H* television series) were few in number and simply lacked the payload capacity to perform any significant cargo transport duties. You shouldered your own burden.  You could gripe if you wanted to, but little sympathy came from your equally belabored brothers-in-arms.

Friday, February 15, 2019

"Bug Out Boogie"

Summer 1950. Korea. Trucks like this GMC deuce-and-a-half were an indispensible component of U.S. Army logistics throughout the Korean War.  In 1950, these and other vehicles were left-overs from World War II.  Some worked better than others. Drivers not only worked long hours, they occasionally confronted enemy guerrilla forces seeking to disrupt the Army's rear-eschelon activities.

Here on the truck, we see Charles Gilmore (left) and Louis Diggs (right), the latter of Catonsville, a suburb of Baltimore. Diggs became an author in his later years.  The young Korean boy with them is unidentified.  

This post is as good a time as any to share the U.S. foot soldier's iconic Korean War song, co-opted from a then-popular tune by the Canadian singer Hank Snow. “I’m Movin’ On” was ostensibly a truck driver’s lament rendered with a country swing. The song in its entirety was as innocent as its first verse:

That big eight-wheeler rollin’ down the track
Means your true-lovin’ daddy ain’t comin’ back
‘Cause I’m movin’ on, I’ll soon be gone
You were flyin’ too high, for my little old sky
So I’m movin’ on

“I’m Movin’ On” made its way onto Armed Forces Radio Network broadcasts. It was probably assimilated by drivers of the Eighth Army’s transport companies, who in turn shared it with men all through the combat supply chain, from the port in Pusan to the front lines. Soldiers took the liberty of modifying the lyrics to suit their circumstances. Ruminating on the dreaded strategy of delay and retreat, “Bug-Out Boogie” emerged as the unofficial anthem of fighting men in Korea. The lyrics morphed over time as the Americans fought through the summer and fall of 1950. Immediately cynical and ribald, the modified lyrics unequivocally captured the American soldier’s Korean War experience. One rendition of the song began as follows:

Hear the patter of running feet
It’s the old First Cav in full retreat
They’re moving on; they’ll soon be gone
They’re haulin’ ass, not savin’ gas
They’ll soon be gone.

That opening verse was typically modified to implicate the singer’s neighboring organization. By the end of 1950, the lyrics reflected China’s commitment to the fray:

Over on that hill there’s a Russian tank
A million Chinks are on my flank
I’m movin’ on, I’ll soon be gone
With my M1 broke, it ain’t no joke
I’ll soon be gone.

Million Chinks comin’ through the pass
Playin’ burp-gun boogie all over my ass
I’m movin’ on, I’ll soon be gone
With my M1 broke, it ain’t no joke
I’ll soon be gone.

Twenty thousand Chinks comin’ through the pass
I’m tellin’ you, baby, I’m haulin’ ass
I’m moving on; I’ll soon be gone
I’m haulin’ ass, not savin’ gas
I’ll soon be gone.

Standin’ in a rice paddy up to my belly
From then on, they called me “Smelly”
I’m moving on; I’ll soon be gone
I’m haulin’ ass, not savin’ gas
I’ll soon be gone.

Here’s papasan comin’ down the track
Old A-frame strapped to his back
He’s moving on; he’ll soon be gone
He’s haulin’ ass, not savin’ gas
He’ll soon be gone.

Here’s mamasan comin’ down the track
Titty hangin’ out, baby on her back
She’s moving on; she’ll soon be gone
From her tits to her toes, she’s damn near froze
She’ll soon be gone.

I sung this song for the very last time
Gonna get Korea off my mind
I’m moving on; I’ll soon be gone
I done my time in the shit and slime
I’m movin’ on.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Taejon Roadblock

U.S. Army photo
July 20, 1950. Taejon, Korea.  Elements of the U.S. Army 34th Infantry Regiment are seen hunkered down in the streets of Taejon.  Their convoy is made up of what would normally be considered "rear echelon" troops - medics, mechanics, clerics, cooks, and the like.  But as Korean War veteran Lacy Barnett said, "we were all front-line troops that day." 

When this photo was taken, Taejon had already been infiltrated by large numbers of North Koreans, many of whom were disguised as civilians.  The enemy set up a number of roadblocks through the city, exploiting the Americans' total dependence on mechanized transport.  The men seen here have encountered sniper fire, and most are taking cover accordingly.  Well over a hundred of vehicles queued up to escape Taejon, but not all of them made it out.  Chance played a large part in determining the fate of the U.S. troops attempting to slip past enemy fortifications. The Army would take 3,600 casualties on this day, counting killed, captured, wounded and missing in action.  The 34th Infantry Regiment would be shattered on this day, and never fully recovered before it was finally disbanded on September 1, 1950.  The photographer was very lucky that he and his camera survived the ordeal. 

Friday, February 1, 2019

The Lovless Principle

Col. Jay Lovless.  Photo courtesy of Lacy Barnett

Private Philip Hughes, age 17, arrived in Japan in May 1950.  He was assigned to the 34th Infantry Regiment on Kyushu.  Philip found a unit in sorry condition with respect to military preparedness. It was so bad, in fact, that shortly before Philip’s arrival, U.S. Eighth Army commander Gen. Walton Walker sacked the 34th’s commander and replaced him with Col. Jay B. Lovless, an experienced logistician who had also commanded an infantry regiment in Europe during World War II.  The Texan left mixed impressions during the big war.  He was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for his actions during April 1945. Yet one staff officer described Lovless as a “nervous, high-strung, impatient, dictatorial type of officer. This was of no matter in 1950, when Lovless’ skills and temperament were well-suited to the needs and challenges of a peacetime army unit.

Lovless had a formidable task.  Due to densely populated Japanese landscape, the 34th Regiment was fragmented.  Headquarters were in Sasebo, while its two battalions were located some five miles away.  The training area available to the regiment  – a rough-hewn mountaintop - could host one battalion (900 men), both not two simultaneously. Battalions took turns performing field exercises.  The limitations of the terrain meant that many maneuvers were excluded from the combat training syllabus.  

Then, of course, came the North Korean invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950.  Jay Lovless, Philip Hughes, and the rest of the 34th Infantry were among the vanguard of U.S. Army forces rushed from Japan to South Korea’s defense.  Jay Lovless was age 49 – four years above the age for regiment commanders as recommended by Gen. George C. Marshall during World War II.  Nevertheless, Lovless would lead the 34th during its initial Korean combat deployment of July 5-7. Lovless’ commander, Gen. William Dean, had his doubts about Lovless.  Accordingly, Dean made arrangements to add the combat-experienced Col. Bob Martin to his staff, anticipating a possible change in personnel.

The change in leadership was not long in coming.  The premise was this:  the 34th’s first encounter with North Korean Army resulted in an embarrassing rout of American forces at P’yongt’aek on July 6.  In fairness, factors other than Lovless’ leadership were to blame.  These included undertrained troops, dysfunctional and underpowered weapons, and poor field communications. But this was the Army. If the exigencies of combat generated career-limiting consequences, so be it.  While he monitored the shattered 34th Infantry’s activity from his command post in Songhwan, Lovless received notice that he was relieved of his command. His replacement by Bob Martin would become effective immediately.

Jay Lovless died December 10 1964, and was buried in Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in Texas.