Thank God No Sonuvabitch Lives Forever

Since my father never talked about his service in the Korean War, I went on a research binge a couple years ago to figure out what he went through.  I devoured seven books on the subject.  I tried to be there with him.

To my astonishment, I discovered that Dad fought in the bloodiest battle of the war, The Battle of Chosin Reservoir, in which nearly 6,000 soldiers were killed and nearly 12,000 wounded in only two weeks.  Compare that to the 6,300 American dead from the eight years of the Iraq War.

Family 260I can’t tell you exactly why, but discovering what Dad went through was like unearthing my own hidden roots.  I wanted to know if he was in the thick of battle or protected from it.  I wanted to know how he was formed by the experience.  I wanted to know what he knew about courage.  I wanted to know if courage is a sham.  I wanted to know how he behaved when he was at the end of his tether.  I wanted to know what he cried about.

I didn’t get all of my answers, but in the end, the story of one Marine who made it into the history books summed it up for me.  It was the story of Lieutenant John Yancey, who was in the 5th Marines, same as my Dad.  (His story is told in Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950.)

In November, 1950, the Marines were marching into North Korea towards the Yalu River, which for centuries has separated Korea from China.  Mao Zedong (nee tse Tong), who in 1949 led a successful communist revolution in China, had vowed to join the North Korean forces against the U.S. if MacArthur approached the Yalu.  But MacArthur considered the Chinese an inferior force–“a bunch of laundrymen,” as he put it–so he pushed forward, anyway.  He wanted to reunite the two Koreas that he been split five years earlier.

As a result of MacArthur’s thrust, Mao drafted millions of Chinese soldiers at gunpoint and sent them on a suicide mission into North Korea.  They were inadequately armed, fed, and clothed.  The weather ranged from -40 to -20 degrees F.  Eventually, over a million Chinese died in this suicide mission.  They wore white jackets and pants, and whenever a U.S. reconnaissance plane flew overhead, they all dove face-down into the snow and blended in.  MacArthur’s Army and Marines met at the Chosin Reservoir.  By November 27, the fight was starting to get hairy.

“A shot rang out at long range and the spent bullet grazed Yancey’s right cheek and lodged in his nose.  Calmly he removed one glove and plucked it out,” wrote Martin Russ in Breakout.

Yancey: ‘Blood was oozing down my cheek into my mouth, but then it froze up.  I didn’t say anything about this to anyone.’”

After thinking about this for a long time, I can’t figure out how someone can get shot in the nose and just pluck the bullet out.  The fact that it was a “spent bullet” (one that is going at a velocity that doesn’t do much damage) apparently had something to do with it, but the idea seems weird on the face of it.  Obviously, though, it happened.

The fighting was so intense that some men broke.

“To Marine officers in command posts among the positions at Yudam-ni, it seemed that every unit in the two regiments was reporting itself under attack that night….[The 3/5th’s company commander] ‘froze’ in his position, and his men could not be moved until another officer was hastily dispatched to take his place.  All through the hours of darkness the Chinese hurled themselves again and again upon the company positions of the two Marine regiments.  It is a remarkable tribute to the quality of units reconstituted only three months earlier, heavily manned by reservists, that they mounted so dogged a defense under the most appalling conditions.  Almost every man who returned from the hills above the Chosin Reservoir brought with him an epic story of close-quarter combat amid the flares, mortaring, grenade and small-arms duels.”

Certainly Dad must have brought back some of those stories, as well.  But we will never know them.  We will only get a taste of them by reading of other soldiers’ stories.

Easy Company of the 5th Marines was parked on Hill 1282.  They’d been idle for a couple of hours when they began hearing odd noises down at the bottom of the slope, “like hundreds of feet walking slowly across a big carpet of cornflakes.”  They tried to shoot up some illumination rounds, but the cold weather slowed their burn rate, and they hit the ground before they flashed.  Suddenly, the company heard an Asian voice shouting shrilly in awkward English.

“Thank God nobody lives forever!”

Lieutenant John Yancey had a violent reaction to those words.

“I decided he must have learned his English at a Christian missionary school.  The son of a bitch had been fed and sheltered and given a good education by Americans—and here he was leading Red troops against us.  That annoyed me.”

Finally, they got up an illumination round.

“Thank God nobody lives forever!”

Wrote Russ: “Yancey spotted the officer in front of the first rank of troops, holding a machine-pistol in one hand.  The Marines were shocked to see several ranks of Chinese arrayed behind him, spaced ten or fifteen yards apart, the whole formation ascending the slope.  The battle of 1282 began in earnest….”

“Thank God nobody lives forever!”

Lieutenant Yancey yelled back: “You’re damn right nobody lives forever, you renegade bastard!”

With that, Yancey shot the lead Chinese officer with a burst from his carbine.  The enemy soldier hit the ground, but other soldiers continued to ascend, wailing another chant in a minor key:

“Son of a bitch Marine we kill.  Son of a bitch Marine you die.”

Soon, Lieutenant Yancey was moving from foxhole to foxhole, passing out ammunition, when an explosion blew him off his feet.  When he regained his bearings, he realized that he had sustained a strange injury: a piece of shrapnel had pierced the roof of his mouth.

“After that, blood kept trickling down my throat and I kept spitting it out,” he said.

Grenades were coming into the 5th’s lines so heavily that “they looked like flights of blackbirds,” according to Yancey.  At one point, a Chinese grenade landed in the snow beside Staff Sergeant Robert Kennemore.

“Kennemore scooped it up and sidearmed it down the slope before it exploded.  Another landed nearby and there was only time for Kennemore to put his foot on it, driving it into the snow, as a third grenade landed beside it.  Kennemore, willing to die to save his fellow Marines, dropped his knee on it and absorbed the force of both explosions.  The three crewmen were temporarily deafened but otherwise unhurt.”

Miraculously, Kennemore survived both blasts but lost both his legs.  They whisked him off the medic’s tent and shot him up with morphine.  At one point, Kennemore awoke and asked with concern if his genitals had survived.

“What the hell,” the doctor said, “you wouldn’t worry about half a tank of gas, would you?”  Kennemore eventually fathered seven children.

Out on the battlefield, Yancey was continuing the fight when something strange happened to him.

Author Martin Russ: “A Chinese soldier about twenty yards away fired a burst in Yancey’s direction, and one of the rounds hit him under the right eye, jarring the eyeball loose from its socket and knocking him over.  With his left eye Yancey saw the soldier crouch down and jam another magazine into his weapon.  Yancey groped around for the carbine and, not finding it, took the .45 from under his armpit and pumped two rounds into the soldier.  Then, as carefully as he could, Yancey removed his gloves and pushed the eye back where it belonged.  ‘It was like pushing a hard-boiled egg into a knothole, but it went in and stayed there.’”

Despite the three exotic injuries, Yancey continued to fight.

When the moon went down behind the mountain, Yancey had a reaction to the sudden darkness: he thought he saw ‘all sorts of boogeymen.’  The Chinese corpses down below came to life: wriggling, rolling over, crawling, sitting up, getting to their feet—turning into nightmare monsters,” writes Russ.

At a certain point, Yancey dislocated his jaw, as well, although he was never sure how it happened.  To hold it together, he tore off a strip of blanket and bound it up, then continued fighting.

Finally, Yancey spotted Captain Jones.  He walked up to him.  It was his duty, he thought, to give him a briefing on the status of Hill 1282.

“[Yancey’s] face was covered with crusted blood, one eye was closed, and he was groggy from all the concussion grenades.  Captain Jones took one look and told him to join the walking wounded being escorted down the hill,” wrote Russ.

When Yancey reached the aid station, they noticed the bleeding from the roof of his mouth.  They had to keep him upright so that he wouldn’t choke on his own blood, so they tied him to a tent pole and took care of the other soldiers first.

Many old soldiers now consider Lieutenant Yancey to be a hero.

“None of us would have survived the night if Yancey hadn’t been there,” said Corpsman Claypool.  “No one else could have bullied his troops into standing and facing almost certain death the way he did.  Sometimes I wonder if maybe Yancey singlehandedly saved the Marines at Yudam-ni, not just the Marines on 1282, because if the Chinese had taken 1282, they would have poured through the breach and overrun the 5th and 7th Marines command posts.  All I know for sure is that the Chinese would have overrun 1282 if Yancey hadn’t been there.”

My father was in the midst of that chaos.

For a long time now, I have pondered the events of November 27.  I wonder if he knew Yancey, Kennemore, or Claypool, who were all in his same regiment of up to 4,500 soldiers.  I think of what he might have seen, and marveled at how seeing things can scar you.  Feeling things can scar you, tie you up in Gordian knots, rip off your skin.  Dying can scar you.  Not dying can, too.

When I was growing up, I didn’t think of Dad as scarred.  But knowing that he was helps explain much about the stoic relationship that he maintained towards the family.  My father was an exceedingly decent man.  He was without guile, and to this day, I am drawn inexorably to the guileless like a moth to the darkness.  He didn’t plot or manipulate, the way my mother sometimes did.

I remember Dad coaching my Little League baseball team, dressed in his black baseball cap with a B on the front.  I was proud of him.  I remember playing catch with him in the backyard, using the same muscles that had thrown grenades.  I remember us all watching “Star Trek” in the living room and him raising his eyebrow like Mr. Spock.  He was sitting on his easy chair in the same way that he had sat on the frozen Chosin ground on November 27, 1950.

At family parties, Dad would stand apart from us all.  He would lean on his elbows on a railing, sitting outside of the group, watching it all but not letting himself be drawn in.  He loved us, I know, but I also know that he didn’t want to love us too much.  He loved his buddies dearly, too, and he learned all too quickly what happened when you felt too strongly about people.

For other posts about the Korean War, click here:


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20 thoughts on “Thank God No Sonuvabitch Lives Forever

  1. Very touching. I have a similar story, with my grandpa and WWI, but haven’t done all the research. I know there was a big battle where he was, but as a bugler, I don’t know if he was ever actively involved. This story encourages me to look into that more. History is a wonderful thing. Too bad we don’t learn anything from it until we’re old enough to have lived through some of it.

  2. Wow – really brings home the horror of war, back before you could remotely obliterate your enemy while reading the daily news on the john while puffing on a cigarette.
    Mad stuff though, people in offices ordering men to fight in their deranged schemes. Great writing.

  3. Sometimes I feel like you are talking about my dad who flew 30 missions as a tail gunner in WWII. He didn’t show emotion, but I know he felt things deeply. He was always in control, even when he wasn’t! I think you know what I mean by that. April Van Tassell

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