Saturday, July 11, 2009

Summer Shorts: Death On A Sandbar

Snapshot of Sgt. James (Rudy) McElhannon, Korea 1950
(with apologies for the quality of the print)

By Pat Browning

My Cuzzin Rudy, the late James (Rudy) McElhannon, didn't say much about World War II but he never stopped talking about Korea. Korea haunted him until the day he died.
The McElhannons descend from Ulster men who came to this country just before the Revolutionary War, and Prussians who left Europe about the time of the Thirty Years War. Something in that DNA, and a whole lot of luck, got Rudy through some perilous times.

By the time he was 17 he was aboard the light cruiser USS Cleveland headed for the invasion of North Africa. World War II was in full roar, and after North Africa the ship went on to the Pacific. Its itinerary was a road map of that theater ... Guadalcanal, New Georgia, Bougainville, Truk, the Solomons, the Marianas, Corregidor, Subic Bay, Manila, Okinawa, Tokyo Bay ...

Rudy was a Chief Petty Officer when he left the Navy in 1946. In 1949 he joined the Army as a Sergeant First Class. He was, he said, "an old man of 25" when he got to Korea. He sometimes quoted Ernie Pyle, the famed World War II correspondent, who said that a combat soldier's view of war is 200 yards wide and 1000 yards long.

Cuzzin Rudy was much on my mind during the July 4th holiday, so I'm sharing a couple of blogs I wrote about him in 2006. Call this one Death On A Sandbar. Tomorrow, Sunday, will be Orphans of War.

From my blog of May 28, 2006 - an excerpt of a story I wrote for The Hanford (California) Sentinel in 2003.
Seared into McElhannon's memory is the view of a sandbar in the Naktong River, white sand glistening in the early morning sunlight. Getting across the river was part of an operation known as the Pusan Perimeter Breakout, timed to coincide with Gen Douglas MacArthur's landing at In'Chon ...
The platoon had been told that the crossing would be a piece of cake.
McElhannon swam out the night before to cut a double-apron barbed wire fence the North Koreans had stretched the length of the sandbar. He marked the best landing spots on the other side with flags. But the crossing, scheduled for 2 a.m., began well after daylight because the boats were late arriving. As McElhannon tells it:
"When we got to the cut I'd made in the barbed wire, all hell broke loose -- artillery, mortars, machine gun fire. Men were falling, yelling, screaming, trying to dig foxholes in the sand."
McElhannon started lining up boats to get the river crossing underway. Then came one of those bizarre incidents that beggar belief.
From the sandbar, McElhannon watched a boat take off, with men on the sides paddling while a man in the back steered, his head bent over, looking out from under the rim of his steel helmet. Suddenly the boat began to wander.
McElhannon swam out and pulled the boat back up on the sandbar, yelling for help. The men with the paddles had taken cover in the bottom of the boat. The man in the back was dead. A bullet had gone through the top of his helmet and down through his head, coming out between his neck and shoulder.
"I covered him with my poncho," McElhannon says, "and then a mortar shell landed and took his right leg off. I said, 'Doesn't look like they're through with you yet, buddy,' and I put his leg under the poncho with him.
Finally two guys in a litter jeep came along and picked him up. As they got up onto the levee, an artillery shell hit the jeep and blew it to pieces. All I could do was just stand there and watch."
That day, 120 men died on a sandbar roughly 100 yards wide and 250 yards long.
Some stats: South Korea is slightly larger than the state of Indiana. North Korea is slightly smaller than the state of Mississippi. That's not a lot of ground, but the casualty figures are staggering.
Americans: 37,000 dead; 103,000 wounded; about 8,100 still missing.
North Korean and Chinese military: 1-1/2 to 2 million dead; possibly 1 million North Korean civilians killed.
United Nations military: almost 500,000 killed, wounded and missing; about 1 million South Koreans killed.
Total human casualties: 4-1/2 million people.
James Brady, who was a Marine in Korea, has written about his experience in a novel, THE MARINES OF AUTUMN, and a memoir, THE COLDEST WAR. Both are good reading.
Tomorrow: Orphans of War


Marvin D Wilson said...

Love your shorts. Ooops - erm, that didn't come out right - lol. Seriously, well written. I have an uncle who fought in the Korean war and he described it as hell on earth.

The Old Silly

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

That must have been horrifying to live through. I can certainly imagine being haunted by those images for the rest of your life...

Mystery Writing is Murder

Jean Henry Mead said...

War is hell! (Can't remember who said that). My eldest brother was stationed in Korea and said that he and his comrades had holes in their boots because the supply sargeant sold their replacements on the black market.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Unfortunately, the Korean War is still going -- you just don't hear much about it. I spent a year over there flying the F-4, prepared to die defending South Korea. Tensions have always been high on both sides, but North Korea's missile launches have elevated that even more.

The interesting thing about visiting post-war locations is nature's indifference to mankind. In spite of our many indiscretions, nature's beauty always manages to prevail.

Anonymous said...

Marvin, Elizabeth --

I have a brother-in-law who won't even say the word "Korea." We family members never bring up the Korean War. He won't watch war movies of any kind -- no matter which war.

Jean, I think it was Gen. Sherman, the guy who burned Atlanta on his "march to the sea."

Pat B.

Anonymous said...

I have a "Fresno Skywriter," the PR paper put out by North American Aviation when I worked there in the mid-fifties. It's dated Aug.30 1957 and is mostly about neatness, safety, the bowling team, etc. but there are a few mentions of the F-86D Sabre Jet. Fresno was a test facility but nobody talked about the planes.

I filed the daily performance reports without ever looking at them. What did I know? The test pilots were treated like royalty when we all got together after work at a place called The Outpost.

Pat B.

Chester Campbell said...

Pat, the F-86E was our answer to the MiG-15 in Korea. My job in the Estimates Division of the Directorate of Intelligence at 5th Air Force Hq was to follow enemy air activity. I had to read all the pilot debriefing reports from any missions tht encountered hostile aircraft. The F-86s pilots did a great job against the MiGs, though much of the time the MiGs flew at high altitude to avoid contact.

Anonymous said...

I keep getting my wars mixed up. The Korean truce was signed in 1953. I thought the F86 came along for Viet Nam.

Remembering my own life -- war was the last thing on my mind in 1957!

Incidentally, my old Fresno Skywriter has an article about Air Force Secretary James H. Douglas who was talking about the promising future of a "new, long-range, supersonic bomber" as opposed to missiles.

Pat B.