Chapter 1: 6 February 1951 1 6 FEBRUARY 1951
We called him “Combat” because on training maneuvers he’d go up the goddamn hill standing up and shooting. The whole platoon harassed him for not using cover, but on the next problem he’d do the same thing. Hack was an eager guy. He did things—he didn’t sit back and wait.
Captain Steve Prazenka, USA, Ret.
Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon Sergeant Trieste United States Troops (TRUST), 1947–50
WHEN I first saw them, about a thousand yards to our front, the enemy looked like little black ants racing from the village toward snow-covered hills. It was a clear, cloudless morning; the temperature hovered around zero as the tanks kept rolling, closing on the ants and the hills set astride the road dead ahead.
My squad was riding piggyback on the lead tank. It was no honor being first in the grim parade; we’d already ravaged the tank’s toolbox and knocked off some rations to eat on the way, and now our only comfort was the motor of the M46, which belched welcome heat over our near-frozen bodies.
The tank commander relayed Lieutenant Land’s order to dismount. I got the guys off like a shot and hit the ground running as the tank rolled on beside us. But when I looked behind me, I saw that the rest of the 3d Platoon had not dismounted. Maybe I’d heard wrong. Maybe I was just overeager. But it’s damn near impossible for infantrymen to reboard a moving tank, so there was no choice but to keep running, and hope I hadn’t blown it too badly with the Lieutenant.
I didn’t see the ants again for what seemed a lifetime, but I sure as hell knew where they were. In an instant, the familiar roar of the tanks was drowned out by the deafening sound of incoming—machine gun, mortar, artillery, and self-propelled antitank (AT) fire. Like a buzz saw, the deadly cross fire was cutting into my platoon.
There were at least a dozen enemy machine guns on the high ground on both sides of the road. My guys, still running alongside our maneuvering tank, were totally shielded; the other squads, on the exposed decks of their tanks, were hard hit. By the time we made it to the side of a rice-paddy wall and set up a base of fire, most of what was left of 3d Platoon was scattered across the frozen ground.
The tanks pulled off the road and rolled into position on line. Once there, they froze. Earlier, in the assembly area, a tank commander had told me his unit, the 64th Tank Battalion, hadn’t seen much hard combat. I believed him: as soon as they were fired upon, these tankers became paralyzed. They plumb forgot all their training and just sat there in those great big armored hulls, while the enemy went on throwing everything at us but the mess-hall wok.
I jumped on the back of the platoon leader’s tank, and thumped on the hatch with the butt of my rifle. The lieutenant opened the hatch a crack. “Hey, Lieutenant,” I yelled, “get some fire going at the enemy! Get the big gun going! Get the machine guns going!”
The Lieutenant was not with it. It seemed as though he had no comprehension of the fix we were in. Slugs were splatting hard on the side of the tank. The self-propelled AT fire, which was screaming down the valley, dug deep furrows all around us, and yet the tanks still sat there silently, like big, fat clay ducks at a shooting gallery. “Sergeant,” the Lieutenant finally said, in a shell-shocked kind of daze, “look… you see that out there on the ice?” Yes, I saw: it was a pile cap, a little fur ball on the ice amid my platoon’s dead and wounded, the bullets and the blood. “That’s my cap,” he said. “Would you get it for me?”
I considered shooting the sorry son of a bitch then and there, climbing inside his tank and taking command. Fortunately, reason prevailed: I just grabbed him and shook him until he looked as if he was back to the real world. Then I instructed him to have three tanks concentrate on the self-propelled AT fire to our front, and use the others to start placing main-gun fire on the hills. To give him a bit of encouragement, I manned the tank’s. 50-caliber turret machine gun and blasted one of the hills myself, until I’d used up all the ammo and the commander got his men into action.
Once the 90-mm guns got going, we were on our way to gaining fire superiority. The amount of incoming decreased as the tankers started to remember why they were there. But the tank commanders stayed buttoned up inside their turrets. No one was using the .50 calibers. I just couldn’t believe it—eight inches of steel between them and the chaos outside, yet they didn’t have it in them to help the sun come out for the guys stopping slugs with their field jackets. I went from tank to tank, pounding on the hatches and blasting away on each of the .50s until all the ammo was exhausted. This little exercise had its effect; the tank commanders got the word and started doing what they should have been doing all along. When no further spoon-feeding was required, I returned to my platoon.
There were dead and wounded everywhere. Slugs were ricocheting off the ice; we could see sparks where they hit. Jim Parker’s 2d Platoon had successfully silenced an enemy machine gun to our left, so the pressure was off enough for us to get our wounded behind the protection of the tanks and paddy walls, where they could be patched up. Our progress was hampered, though, because the tank crews kept moving their tanks. They didn’t stop to think they were exposing our wounded all over again; they were too busy trying to save their own armor-coated skins. I told the tank lieutenant, whom I’d come to view—and treat accordingly—as a recruit at Fort Knox, that the next time a tank moved and exposed our guys I’d fire a 3.5 bazooka right up its ass. There was no more movement.
I saw a soldier prone on the ice. He’d been there a long time; I thought he was dead. But then I saw movement, and rushed out to get him. My God, I thought, it’s Deboer.
Private Henry C. Deboer had been with George Company since early in the war. He was one of the few survivors from the original 3d Platoon, basically because in those first hard months of combat he had not seen one good firefight. He had an uncanny sixth sense: he could always tell when the platoon was in for a major bloodletting, and invariably he’d find an excuse to be somewhere else. Normally that excuse was going on sick call, which by regulation he was allowed to do, and you couldn’t stop him even though you knew the only thing that was wrong with him was a chronic case of cowardice. Deboer himself even admitted he was a coward, and we hated him for it. He was an outcast from the platoon; we even had a little song about him, which we’d all sing in unison: “Out of the dark, dreary Korean countryside comes the call of the Deboer bird: Sick call, sick call, sick call.” He’d pulled his stunt only yesterday, as we were saddling up for this very operation. He’d sensed the bloodletting all right, but hadn’t figured that the foggy overcast covering the battlefield would not lift and the attack would be postponed. He’d returned from the doc last night (with a clean bill of health) most surprised to see us; the rest of the platoon took great pleasure in the fact that his malingering little ass would be in the thick of things in the morning.
Now Deboer was ashen-faced, hit in the chest or gut—I didn’t know, there was a lot of blood—and well into shock. I knew he wasn’t going to make it. “Come on, Deboer, you’re going to be fine! You’ll be all right,” I said, giving him the old pep talk as I grabbed his jacket collar and started sliding him across the ice.
But Deboer said, “No, Sarge! Just leave me… you’re going to get hit! Just leave me, Sarge…” Then suddenly he groaned: “Sarge, I shit my pants…” and that was it. He was gone. I left him and ran back.
Deboer, in death, became one of the great heroes of our outfit. It was true he’d never been anything in his Army life but a coward, but he’d died right—he died like a man. He didn’t say, “Take care of me”; he said, “Leave me. Take care of yourself.” And when I told the other guys the story, old Deboer became a legend in the platoon.
The road ran north-south, and we were on the east side of it. The balance of G Company was on the attack, maneuvering to secure the high ground to the north and west. My platoon, or what was left of it, was the “fix ’em” element—tying down the enemy while providing a base of fire for Parker’s and Phil Gilchrist’s platoons. After we got organized, I had a moment to look around. I saw my platoon leader, Lieutenant Land, sort of crouched down, leaning against the rice-paddy wall, observing the whole action. John Land was a good man; a WW II vet and former G Company NCO, he was one of the few battlefield commissions in the 27th. Isn’t he a cool customer, I thought to myself now, just watching this whole thing and taking it all in. Because really that was about the only thing you could do at a time like this: stay cool, stay down, and establish fire superiority as best you could.
I examined what we had left in terms of a fighting force. “Tennessee” Mitchell, Delbert Bell, old Deboer—there were seven dead altogether, and about a dozen wounded. The platoon sergeant was gone and the assistant platoon sergeant nowhere in sight. It seemed that all that was left of 3d Platoon was the balance of my squad, bits and pieces of the other two, and a light-machine-gun team. I ran over to the Lieutenant to ask for instructions. When I got there I realized the reason Lieutenant Land was so cool was that he was dead. He’d caught a slug right between the eyes. The blood had poured down his face and chest, filled up the eyepieces of his binoculars, and frozen there. I took the binoculars and slipped the radio from his dead radio operator’s back. I called Captain Michaely, our company commander, and gave him a situation report. He said I was now in charge, that we were to continue tying down the enemy and get the wounded out, in that order of priority.
Lieutenant Gilchrist’s 1st Platoon was having a hell of a time. Their attack was being held up by fire from a hornet’s nest of well-concealed enemy automatic-weapons positions. Just as we’d gotten the wounded under control, one of our guys who’d been doing some scouting spotted North Korean fighting positions on the other side of the dike 1st Platoon was attacking. He motioned me over to have a look. Sure enough, at least a platoon was dug in there, almost in the shadow of the tanks. They were so close that the tanks’ main guns couldn’t depress low enough to hit them, nor could their antitank weapons hit our tanks. It was a Mexican standoff, but not for long. “All right, who’s going with me?” I asked.
“I will,” said Van Mieter, our platoon medic, a stud of a guy who had as great a reputation as a fighter as he did as a doc.
While the others laid down a good base of fire, the doc and I each threw two frag grenades over the dike. When they exploded we leaped through the smoke, landing front and center of the enemy. It was eyeball-to-eyeball: the two of us facing at least thirty dazed, wounded, or dead Communists. The enemy appeared to be leaderless—they were certainly in a state of shock—and we cleaned up the position with ease, using rifles and bayonets. Then two more enemy soldiers appeared out of the smoke and confusion dragging a .57-caliber antitank “buffalo gun.” We were no more than ten feet apart. I leveled my M-1 and was about to shoot when I looked down and saw that the bolt was back—my weapon was empty and it wasn’t exactly the time for reloading. I lunged forward with bayonet at on guard, shouting, “Tao zhong!” The enemy threw up their hands.
The Chinese word for “surrender” was probably the only one I knew; I’d filed it away in my brain when we were up north. I must admit I learned it thinking that someone would be saying it to me, but it didn’t matter now—there they stood, with burp guns still hanging around their necks, a buffalo gun at their feet, and me with an empty rifle. The funny thing was that these guys were Korean, not Chinese, and chances were they hadn’t understood what I’d said anyway. On the other hand, in combination with that long, razor-sharp bayonet pointed at them, they probably would have surrendered if I’d given the order in Swahili. In any event, we took their weapons and turned the POWs over to our men on the other side of the dike. Then the doc and I continued mopping up. In numbers and in firepower, these guys certainly should have outgunned what was left of 3d Platoon; from the number of bodies, buffalo guns, and other AT weapons we found, we concluded that we’d knocked off an antitank platoon that had been as green and scared as our tankers. The only difference was, of course, that these North Koreans would never tell the story of their baptism of fire.
By the time we rejoined the platoon, my guys had looted the two prisoners. The only real treasure was a U.S.-made Waltham pocket watch, which the guys gave to me. It became my 6 February souvenir. None of us spoke Korean, so I tasked PFC Charles to take the POWs back to Captain Michaely for interrogation. I was really pleased we’d nailed them; prisoners are the best source of battlefield information, and with the fight still going on full tilt around us, it’d be useful to find out what the hell was happening in the enemy camp.
The 1st and 2d platoons of George were fighting hard to take the high ground. Navy Corsairs were working the enemy over with napalm and strafing runs. Cut off between mine and Gilchrist’s platoons were enemy who’d been bypassed, so I took half a dozen of our guys and we went up the hill to do some hunting.
The North Koreans were in cleverly concealed, well-dug bunkers stuffed with straw for warmth. The pine-covered hill was a maze of seemingly unrelated positions, which we slowly worked through in two-man teams. “Fire in the hole!” was shouted again and again as we grenaded bunker after bunker, one man providing covering fire as the other edged close enough to flip in a frag. The enemy didn’t fight back; they stayed in the bottom of their holes like trapped moles. It didn’t take long before we ran out of frag grenades. A field expedient was quickly devised: we stripped tracer slugs from the machine-gun belt and clipped them for our M-1s. With one man covering, his partner would slip up to a hole and snap off a tracer or two into the position. The red-hot slugs would ignite the straw inside, and when the defender came up coughing, he’d be shot between the horns. (Gary Cooper wiped out dozens of German soldiers in Sergeant York by luring them out with a turkey call; if it was good enough for Sergeant York and Hollywood, it was good enough for us on 6 February 1951.) We moved from hole to hole, systematically burning the enemy out, until the hilltop above us suddenly exploded with gunfire. The Reds were counterattacking. As Gilchrist’s platoon fought them off only six feet from the crest of the hill, we beat feet back to the safety of our rice-paddy wall.
Paddy walls, whose purpose in more peaceful times was irrigation control, were dirt walls about a foot thick and about three feet high—perfect cover from most direct-fire weapons. Infantrymen loved them. Now, leaning against my safe paddy wall (even as 1st Platoon fought off another counterattack with the help of the 2d, which could observe the forward slope of Gilchrist’s hill and provide warning of the enemy’s intention) I realized I was starving. I opened a can of C rations with my trusty P-38 and dug right in.
I started at the top of the can: big chunks of congealed fat, under which lay beef and potatoes, frozen rock-hard. About this time an enemy sniper started firing along the top of the rice-paddy wall. It was harassing fire only; no one got hurt, but it got on all our nerves far more, even, than the larger battle still raging around us. I had just gotten down to the meat and was about to take my first bite when—zzzppt!—a slug creased a furrow in the top of the wall right above my head and showered my rations with debris. I scooped it out. I was about to try another bite when—zzzppt!—another slug, same place, did the same thing. By the third time, that was it. I was pissed off. “I’m going to get that sniper. Who’s going with me?” Ray Wells, an ace machine gunner and good old country boy from West Virginia, volunteered.
We followed the paddy wall to a drainage ditch that took us behind the North Korean antitank positions. The plan was simple: to get to the right rear of the sniper, shoot the son of a bitch, and go back and finish my Cs.
The ditch had an L-shaped turn. We stopped just shy of it, and I inched forward to have a quick peek: three Koreans manning a machine gun were lying in the prone about ten feet away, not looking in our direction. I slipped back to Wells, whispering that I’d take the first guy, he’d take the third, and we’d double up on the gunner in the middle. We stepped out in the ditch. The North Koreans looked up, but Wells and I were the last thing they ever saw. I knew they were dead; we were so close that I could hear the slugs thumping home through their padded jackets. We jumped over them and continued on our way.
With Wells covering my ass, I came up behind a little tree at the top of the ditch—ideal concealment for a quick look-see. After a few seconds’ scan, I spotted the sniper on the hill. He was in a bunker about a hundred yards away on my left flank, and I could clearly see the side of his head and his Soviet SKS rifle. I ducked down. I didn’t want to take a chance on Kentucky windage, so I adjusted my M-1 rifle sights down four clicks and got into a firing position. I had the sniper’s head sitting right on top of my front sight, but just as I was about to squeeze the trigger I heard machine-gun slugs snapping over my head, and then the weapon’s report. Oh, shit, I thought, someone’s seen me. For all I knew it could have been one of our tankers—the slugs were coming from that direction—maybe they hadn’t gotten the word we were out there. So I started to go down. But as I went down I felt the top of my head explode. I’d caught a slug.
Like most good Wolfhounds, I wasn’t wearing a helmet—helmets were a pain in the ass unless there was lots of artillery and mortar fire coming in (in which case they became as essential as air). The slug ripped through my fur pile cap and propelled me from the top of the ditch as though I’d been poleaxed by Paul Bunyan. I don’t know if I lost consciousness or not, but I do know I was stunned, with four-alarm sirens ringing in both ears. Wells thought I was dead and took off down the ditch. I couldn’t blame him—he thought he was all alone out there behind enemy lines. Meanwhile, I tried to focus on what had happened.
Blood, really thick blood, was pumping out of my head. The first thing I did was ask myself my name, rank, and serial number: “David Haskell Hackworth, Sergeant, RA19242907” came the automatic response, which made me decide that my head must still be okay, even if my ass was in the worst crack ever. I started crawling down the ditch. I had to crawl because the North Koreans on the high ground knew they had an intruder in their midst. I stayed low on the enemy’s side; slugs were spraying the ditch fast and furious, but thumping up against the other wall. I crawled until I reached the machine-gun crew Wells and I had knocked off.
Now I was faced with a dilemma. If I jumped over them, I’d become exposed to the enemy fire coming from the hill. If I crawled over them, one of them might still be alive—and the longer I looked the more my confused head convinced me that one of them was alive—and he’d kill me. I couldn’t shoot them because when I got hit I’d dropped my rifle. So I just stared at them, like a dumb recruit, wondering what to do. I pulled my trench knife out of my boot. Very carefully, I crawled over one of them, waiting for him to move. Crawled over the next one, waiting for him to move. Then I crawled over the third guy the same way, and slipped on, like a snake, down the ditch until it was high enough for me to crouch, then high enough to stand up and run. And the whole time, I was singing.
Whoever said there aren’t any atheists on the battlefield was dead right. Often when we’d be sitting around our little fires, one of the guys in the platoon would play his guitar and we would sing. The songs were all religious ones, like “Down By the Riverside,” where we’d be laying down our swords and shields, or “Please, dear Jesus, hear my plea, just a closer walk with Thee”—but they were also songs of great comradeship. And a most magic feeling would always pour out when we sang, a feeling that 3d Platoon, our platoon, was our family, our whole life. And somehow between God and our brothers, we were going to make it through.
So as I pounded down this ditch, I was singing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” with deep feeling—Ella Fitzgerald, look out. To my mind I was really talking to God. I was talking to The Man. So I’m singing and running, blood’s pouring out of my head—and then I remembered I didn’t have my rifle. What a rotten example I had set. Good NCOs don’t screw up like that; only a dumbshit of a soldier loses his rifle. So I stopped singing and started chewing my ass as I ran down that ditch.
Maybe it was because I was thinking about my lack of professionalism. Maybe it was just a second-nature thing from my training. Or maybe it was a sixth sense, I don’t know. But seconds before I was home free (Just a few feet more, I told myself, just around the corner)—I stopped. “Hey, Third Platoon! It’s Hackworth,” I shouted. “I’m coming in!”
Then I turned the corner. I found myself looking down the throat of Corporal Wesley Morgan’s mean-looking Browning automatic rifle. “Man, you were so loud coming down that ditch I thought at least a platoon of gooks was on the march! Wells told me you got it. If you hadn’t called out I would have mowed you down.”