04 July 2004

A Foxhole View of the Korean War

In June 1950, Pfc. Susumu Shinagawa of Able Company, 34th Infantry, found himself heading north from Pusan, at the southern end of Korea, to stop the North Korean troops advancing south.
The train chugged to a stop just before daylight at Pyongtaek. There was a light, steady drizzle as we got off the train and waited in the muddy streets for our orders. Without a poncho, I was soaked to the skin. When the orders came, Able and Baker Companies were to set up blocking positions on two hills about 2 miles north of the town. Charlie Company was designated the reserve company somewhere behind us.

The rain stopped when we started the 2-mile hike to our objective. When we got to the hills Able Company veered left and occupied the hill to the left of the road and Baker Company peeled off to the right of the road. Separating us were rice paddies, a rail line, and the road. I could see a small bridge several hundred yards farther north. Five hundred yards separated our company from Baker Company.

We paired off and dug our foxholes. I can’t remember who my foxhole buddy was at the time. About this time we were sloshing around on the hillside, slipping and falling, which made it difficult to dig our holes.

The 3d Platoon was on our left and the 1st Platoon was in the rice paddies to our right. My platoon, the 2d, was in the middle. There were no friendly units to the left of the 3d Platoon.

From my position I could see refugees moving south on a road to the left of the 3d Platoon. My squad leader came by and told my buddy and me to camouflage our position with some branches and leaves. Then it began to rain. It rained for about an hour. I was already soaking wet from the earlier rainfall when we first arrived at Pyongtaek.

Nothing happened that night except that it rained all night. My steel helmet kept my head dry—the only part of my body that wasn’t wet. Within a couple of hours there was more than a foot of water in our foxhole. My feet were sloshing in my oversize boots. In July the weather was very, very warm and, despite being soaking wet, I wasn’t cold. I got out of the foxhole and sat on the edge of the foxhole. My buddy was asleep, curled up in over a foot of water. When I gazed north into the darkness I asked myself, What am I doing here? How can events turn so drastically in such a short time from one of ease and comfort to this miserable situation that I am now in?

Sometime after midnight I was startled by several explosions coming from the north. I didn’t know what caused them but later someone explained that a patrol from one of the other companies had gone to destroy the small bridge just north of our positions.

Just before daylight, a light morning fog settled on the hill but did not affect our visibility. Then I heard a loud bang. I peered through the fog and saw three tanks making their way toward us on the road near the blown-up bridge. We knew that Task Force Smith, which was north of us, didn’t have tanks so we knew the tanks were North Korean. Then puffs of smoke appeared from the enemy tanks and a split second later we could hear the sharp blast of their guns.

To the back and left of the tanks I could see more tanks, followed by North Korean infantry. Then another line of tanks and more infantry came into view on the right side of the road. Our mortars located in the rear started firing and I could see the rounds exploding among the North Korean tanks and infantry. Our mortars had no effect on the tanks. When the line of tanks was about 300 yards away, a few of the men opened fire. I fired my M-1 rifle for the first time in more than a year. My right shoulder got sore after emptying a few clips at the North Koreans.

Then enemy tanks turned their big guns on our hill, the bursting shells showering the area with shrapnel, dirt, and rocks. The fog had now dissipated and I could clearly see the North Korean infantrymen as they ran past the blown-up bridge and fanned out on both flanks. We were in danger of being surrounded.

“Pull out! Pull out!” came frantic shouts from the top of the hill. I was only too damn happy to obey the order. I grabbed my gear and hauled ass with several other men to the top of the hill and down the reverse slope. We headed for the village behind the hill. There were no officers around to give us any instructions.

While we were retreating, several shots rang out. No one knew where the shots came from but this meant the North Koreans were probably very close. Before we got to the village, we were fired on by North Koreans who somehow got abreast of us on our left about 200 yards away. Not only were they behind us, but they were in a position to surround us. We dove to the ground and fired back. I emptied a clip, firing blindly, when my rifle jammed. I tried kicking the bolt free but it wouldn’t budge. The North Koreans stopped firing, so we decided to move again.

We came to a granary that was just outside the village and stopped to rest. While we were deciding what to do, a Korean civilian ran toward us and told us the North Korean soldiers were coming. We hurried inside the granary and hid behind some bundled rice straws.

The North Koreans knew where we were and threw hand grenades into the granary. They also just shot it full of holes with their burp guns. Wood splinters and rice straws filled the air above us. My rifle was still jammed so I couldn’t return fire. All of a sudden, I felt my right arm being thrown back. I tried to move it but could not feel a thing. I thought, Good God, my right arm is blown off! I turned my head and reached out with my left arm to find out what was wrong and saw my right arm bent back in an awkward position. Instinctively, I pulled my right arm back in place. Through all of this I don’t remember feeling any pain. I was relieved to know that I had not lost my arm and stuck it in my shirt like a sling. We didn’t have a chance to fire back. Someone yelled, “We may as well surrender or we’ll all be killed. Okay?”

For a brief moment no one said anything. Finally, during a lull in the firing, one of the guys yelled, “We surrender! We surrender!” The firing from the outside stopped, and he got up and walked to the door. We all followed him out of the granary.

For the first time I came face to face with North Korean soldiers. Man, they looked mean. One had a uniform different from the others and I guessed he must have been an officer because he had red epaulets on his uniform. Gesturing with their weapons and blabbering in Korean, which none of us understood, they herded us in a single file on the road and pointed north.

I really felt terrible having to surrender and I thought this day would be the last day of my life.

As we were walking out, I realized that I was also shot in the thigh just above the right knee. It was a clean wound where the bullet passed through and I felt little pain. With wounds on my right arm and right leg, I wondered what was going to happen to me. But both wounds bled very little so I was lucky in a way. While our captors were deciding what to do with us, one of our guys opened up my first aid kit and helped me apply sulfur and bandages to my wounds. For the next five or six days, that was all the treatment I had.

We were taken to a village, where we joined about a dozen captured Americans, including a couple of ROK soldiers and a lieutenant from our company. There were now a couple dozen of us and about a dozen North Korean soldiers.

They questioned us and wanted to know why we had come to Korea and all that bull. After they were done, we were marched to the rail line, where we thought we were going to be shot. At this point I really didn’t care much and accepted whatever they were going to do with us. No one cried or complained. I guess we were too numb to realize the seriousness of the situation. Instead, they lined us up by the color of our hair. Those with red, blond, and brown hair were put in one column and those with black hair in another column. “You are all Japanese,” a North Korean said, pointing to us with black hair, “and you are all Americans,” he said, pointing to the light-color-haired men. No one tried to explain we were all Americans. It wasn’t funny then, but recalling that incident later in the prison camps made me laugh.

Except for me, because of my injured right arm, all the prisoners’ hands were tied behind their backs with commo wire. I was allowed to keep my hands under my shirt to support my injured arm. We were then marched north along the rail line. It was dark when we arrived at a small village after about four hours of walking. We were all crowded into a jail house that had wooden bars, just like the ones I saw in Japanese movies back home. My arm and leg didn’t hurt too much that night and I was grateful for that.
SOURCE: A Foxhole View: Personal Accounts of Hawai‘i’s Korean War Veterans, edited by Louis Baldovi (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2002).

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