An Intrepid Hero
By Daniel Wolfe, Army
Writing Type: Prose
Sgt. Flaherty entered our bunker as I removed my metal spoon from the mess inside the can.
“In three days we're going to raid Hill 121,"he said. “Tomorrow night we'll have a dry run, and the following
night we'll use live ammo.”
'Let's go, Mail Call!”
Some men from Company L gathered under a grove of trees on the reverse slope of their bunkers.
Our terrified mail clerk braked his jeep with the mail. He quickly called out a number of names, handed them their mail, tore back to his jeep then sped off to the rear. Charley observed, “He looks like he just scared as hell.”
I had a letter from Elaine to me, with a photo of herself in a bathing suit. Charley, leaning over my shoulder came up with his expected comment, "Yeah, these Jewish girls look good, but give them two years and they blow up like a Macy's Thanksgiving balloon. Charley had every ethnic group labeled and categorized.
I returned to our bunker where Wayne Caton, my bunker buddy and platoon medic who was struggling to compose a letter to his girlfriend. With a flickering candle trying to fight the gloom and dampness, it was difficult to elicit terms of endearment from a ballpoint pen. He hadn't heard from her since that day in reserve when he came to our company. We became buddies then and shared this hovel when we moved up to the front line.
"Tell her you're the same handsome guy as the day you left,” I told him.
"Cut it! I'm not handsome and she knows it. That's why she isn't writing.”
"It's her loss. I'm sure that your replacement cannot be the dependable and decent person you are, you’re the best. I saw you tend to our guys on the Hill 117 raid two days ago.”
"l’m no hero. I just do what I've been trained to do. What am I going to do after my three-year enlistment? I don't even have a high school diploma. Maybe I'll reenlist.”
"Yeah, I'm with you. I don't know about the other guys in the platoon, but raids and patrols leave me scared witless. We walk into the night without a clue as to where the Chinese are hiding. Ah, forget the Chinese, forget the patrols, I'm hungry".
While struggling to digest the salty, inedible corned beef hash from an embarrassed C-ration can, Sgt.Flaherty, with his mustache leading the way, dropped into our bunker to report:
"Reilly, go to Massey (our armorer). Get an M-1, a grenade launcher, a flare and a bullet to fire a flare.” "What's this all about? My weapon is a carbine. A flare? Tell Charley to get it. He loves these things.”
"Charley will point the way. We don't need a runner on the next raid, so you will fire the flare."
"Next raid? Where are we going? When?”
"This is a big one. In three days we're going to attack Hill 121. Come to my bunker tonight and bring everything crap. We'll go to the rear with the rest of the company for a couple of practice runs."
In the evening, Flaherty and I crossed over two cratered ridgelines behind our position to practice firing the flare.
"Connect the grenade launcher to the end of the barrel. Fit the flare into the end of the launcher, then put the bullet into chamber. OK, now place the stock of the rifle firmly into the ground. Good. When I tell you to pull the trigger, have a firm grip on the rifle, and make sure you close your eyes tightly. A blinding flash will come out of the chamber. I'll count to three, then pull the trigger".
I pulled the trigger. A silver bolt streaked out of the barrel and rocketed into the blackened sky.
"We never used a flare on a raid, why this one?”
"A British Centurion tank is moving up to the bank of the Imjin River. The 105mm howitzers and the tank are going to bombard the hill. You will fire the flare as a signal to ceasefire. Then we attack.
Remember, shut your eyes when you fire the flare.”
Three days passed. Company L was ready. Some snapped on their armored vests, some buckled their helmets. Some wore neither an armored vest nor a helmet. All of us left for Massey's bunker to pick up grenades, ammo, white phosphorus rounds for the recoilless rifle team and a bullet for my flare.
Under a grove of trees, Lt. Sidney, our company commander made sure our weapons were in the locked position. To ease the tension, he called us by our names and casually adjusted our fatigues or armored vests.
Frye, who had a serious marital problem, had just returned to the company from stateside. He was in a daze, wearing a greasy beard, a blank stare and unfocused, bloodshot eyes. We were on our knees as the chaplain read the 23 Psalm.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with...
Where was thou on our last raid when Massengale, Moen and Camacho were killed? Where was Thou when Nunns, Gehrig, Francis Mette, and Dickson were severely wounded two days ago?”
We left the chaplain for the jon boats and the heavy rope that was suspended over the Imjin River. Like empty sardine cans in the backyard of my tenement, the jon boats, were scattered along the Imjin shoreline. They held four men. Charley grasped the overhead rope then pulled us across the river. At the other side of the river we assembled at an unmanned outpost called The Bubble, where Lt. Sidney reviewed the order of attack.
We could always depend upon Coy Jaegers, who never brought home a grade higher than an F, to ask an in-depth question.
"Why can't that big ole tank go with us when we attack? We need pertekshun".
"What's between that tank and us"?
"Trees?" The men roared.
"The Imjin River we just crossed.”
This exchange slightly loosened the tension that had been mounting from the time we left our bunkers. The boys had a good laugh.
"First platoon, out and into the valley.”
After they covered a short distance, we (second platoon) stepped out.
How many of our guys will I see when we return? Will I return?
Bereft of trees, the Chorwon Valley was naked, dry, wide and long. The first platoon set up on a ridge in the valley. The second and third platoons followed, and then the heavy weapons. Suddenly, the sky above us was pin-striped red from the Centurion's tracer bullets as Hill 121 was being bombarded by the howitzers, the cannon and machine guns from the tank. The recoilless rifle team set up on a small hill opposite Hill 121.
What's this? I can't believe it! Amid the crater blasts on the hill and the clatter of the machine guns, a searchlight company just reflected their beams off the low-hanging clouds and lit up Hill 121 like a birthday cake. Will we be the blown out candles when we arrive?
Finally, Lt. Theiss signaled to fire the flare. I placed the stock of the rifle firmly into the ground, but curiosity got the best of me. I opened my eyes when I pulled the trigger. A blinding flash burst out of the firing chamber. Lt. Theiss waved to attack. We ran up the hill. Like a swarm of bees, burp gun bullets zipped at us. Whenever I blinked, I was blinded. The hill was ringed with concentric trenches so the defenders could move to the trench behind them if necessary. I stepped forward into space. I hit my head on the lip of the trench then fell to the bottom. My helmet went somewhere. Dazed, I found a firing step, grasped the top of the trench then pulled myself out. In a stunned frenzy, I joined the men from my platoon and made my way up the hill. This candle was still lit!
Flaherty and Wayne were further up front, to my left. A Chinese concussion grenade kicked up a cloud of earth near them, I waited then ran over to see if I could help. Neither Wayne, nor Flaherty was there. My vest plowed the earth as I crawled toward Gus.
"Hey Gus, did you see Wayne or Flaherty?”
"Wayne's probably with the wounded. Our litter bearers carried someone down the hill.”
Human shrieks temporarily drowned out the buzz of the burp guns and the clatter of our machine guns. On ridge to our rear, our recoilless rifle team spotted a squad of Chinese attempting to ambush us.
Three phosphorus rounds from their rifles carbonized them. Thank you Lt. Sidney!
Lt. Theiss signaled to withdraw. I ran down the hill avoiding the trenches. But where was my buddy Wayne? I 'Il check with Flaherty as soon as I see him. I caught sight of Flaherty lying on a litter at the base of the hill, The concussion grenade pulverized his jaw. It was resting on his chest like a wet, bloody sock.
Like sprinters, we crouched and ran through the men of the first platoon. I wanted to leave my skin because it wasn't moving as fast as my heartbeat. Was there any more adrenaline left in my adrenals? Speeding on, Ed Heister was frantically running with a wounded man who was collapsed on his shoulders. But, where was Wayne?
Finally, we reached the jon boats! I joined three shaken men. We pulled ourselves across the Imjin then plodded to a battalion truck that was waiting a half a mile from the river. Frye, Charley, Whitefeather and Konnerth joined me. We lowered the slatted benches inside the truck and then collapsed onto them.
Sitting on the bench opposite me was Frye. He had the same glassy, vacant gaze, as if in a hypnotic trance. The motor rumbled. We were underway. Frye stood up, lifted his BAR, stuck his finger onto the trigger and squeezed. Everyone fell to the floor. We didn't rise until the truck, with its shredded canvas cover, arrived at battalion headquarters. Within minutes the medics came and evacuated Frye.
Sitting on the ground in benumbed silence, Charley, Whitefeather, Konnerth and I waited for the next
truck. A motor hummed in the distance. The truck pulled up.
"Hey Gus, did you see Wayne?”
"Don. Did you see Wayne Caton?”
"Maybe he's on the next truck.”
There was no next truck. Where was he? Eventually, Wayne was listed as Missing in Action. I kept in contact with Wayne's family. No news. I wrote to the Department of the Army, perhaps they knew. No, Wayne was still an MIA. A month later I was sent to Japan to train for an attack on the east coast of North Korea. It never happened.
Finally, after two years in the Army I was discharged. Wayne's mother and I exchanged letters. She sent photos of Wayne to the U.S. repatriated prisoners at Valley Forge General Hospital in Pennsylvania. No one was able to identify him.
After the truce was signed in 1953, I thought this was the end of the story. Some years later, I received an email from Wayne's niece, Holly. She wanted to know the details of our raid on Hill 121 . We had a very friendly exchange. I told her all I knew which lacked the details of his disappearance.
In 2007, my wife and I visited Wayne's older brother in Allentown, Pa. His wife and Wayne's niece, Holly were there. The only information I could provide was that the last time I saw him, he was alongside Sgt, Flaherty. Their reaction to the two photos I showed them was, "Look how skinny he is.”
In 2010, Holly was in Washington D.C. Persistent and determined to discover information about Wayne. She went to the Department of the Army. They provided her with a satellite photo of Hill 121 . With a magnified viewer, she went through the entire hill. Not a trace of Wayne. After Holly's futile effort, I contacted Ed Heister (a rifleman in our platoon). He ended the story of Wayne and Hill 121 .
Ed Heister was carrying a hemorrhaging Truman Bastin back to the Imjin River so that he could cross and reach an aid station. The jon boats that carried us across were waiting to bring us back.
Ed Heister placed Truman in a jon boat and told the GI in charge to release the boat. He refused. He said that three more men had to occupy the boat before it could be brought across.
Wayne, who was standing nearby, took out his pistol jammed it into the Gl's gut and told him if that boat was not released, he was a dead man. Truman was ferried across immediately.
"What happened after that?” I asked.
"Wayne returned to Hill 121 to see if there were any more casualties.”
That was Wayne: An intrepid hero in every sense of the word.
Author's Note:For the complete story of Company L read Ground’s Cold Grounds Been My Bed: A Korean War Memoir by Daniel Wolfe
Somewhere a Woman Is Building an Ark