Back on the battlefield, 55 years later
Mr. Callahan, who fought in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Korean War, had brought dirt from the graveyards of his war buddies to spread across their old battlefield. He was determined to find where his unit spent a night of horror 55 years ago.
“You get me on that road, and I’ll find it,” he said. “Watch me.”
Mr. Callahan, from Dallas, Texas, served as a machine gunner in the 1st Marine Regiment on April 23 and 24, 1951, during the Battle of Horseshoe Ridge, named after a ridge line in the shape of a horseshoe.
The battle opened a new chapter of human misery during the Korean War, as Marines began to fight off a series of Chinese human-wave attacks. It had a major impact on the truce in 1953, because the battle was a follow-up to an earlier evacuation of the Marines from the port of Hungnam, near a battle against the Chinese army at the Chosin Reservoir, the longest retreat in the history of U.S. Marine Corps.
Casualties were heavy. During the 14 hours of the battle, from around 8 p.m. until 10 a.m. the next morning, the U.S. Marines lost about 210 men, taking casualties of more than 60 percent. The Chinese losses remain unknown, but a spotter plane surveying the field a day after the battle estimated that as many as 2,400 Chinese lay dead on the field, largely slain by machine gun fire as they assaulted the Marines as close as 18 meters (20 yards), according to Mr. Callahan.
“Out of 17 people in two machine-gun squads, I was the last man on the totem pole, and when we left the next day, I and one other were the only two who were not killed or wounded in action during that period from the machine-gun section,” he said. “The machine-guns were zeroed in at three places in the river, all into the water ― the far side, the near side and the middle. When the ‘civilians’ started to cross the river, we fired into the far side. They stopped. When we didn't fire anymore, they again started across, and we fired on the near side, which stopped them. After a short period they all started to come across, then we started firing into the middle of the river, and didn’t stop. When they realized we were not going to let them cross, they turned around and started back where they had came from. Then, it was very evident, that about, at least a third of the people, all dressed in white, were infantrymen, as you could see the butts of their rifles over their shoulders, and the civilians scattered to move away from them. We couldn't shoot the armed ones, as much as we might have wanted to, as there was too many civilians all around them.”
To many Americans, the Korean War is the Forgotten War, but the Battle of Horseshoe Ridge has been forgotten even by many Koreans today ― not even the people living nearby remember it clearly.
“There are certain battles that played a pivotal role in the outcome of the war, but just have not been properly documented,” said Kim Jae-chang, a Korean historian. “Horseshoe Ridge could have been one of those battles.”
Like many battles during the war, it might have had a great effect on the outcome, but has not been studied in-depth, even by professional historians.
“There were battles all over this country,” said one man who lives not even a kilometer away from the battle ground. “My father was captured by the communist army during the war. What difference would it make if there was a battle anywhere in Korea?”
By late afternoon, Mr. Callahan had finally found the site where he fought that night back in 1951. He pointed to the foxholes on a slope of the mountain, now covered in trees and bushes.
“This is it,” he said. “Damn, it makes me feel good.”
On his way down from the mountain, he picked a place to sprinkle his dirt. One of his jars of dirt came from the grave of Ruben Adam, his comrade in the marine unit from Alvin, Texas, who had a “million-dollar wound on his knee” from the war, referring to a slight wound that is still grounds for a discharge from combat.
As he got ready to take snapshots, he asked a Korean guide, Ahn Young-Ok, who during the war worked as an English translator for Wonju Air Terminal, to hold the jars of soil before a camera as a sign of U.S.-Korea solidarity.
Then he took off his hat with its rusted KSC brooch, a gift from a 16-year-old boy from the Korean Service Corps he befriended during the war (the Corps was composed of assistants such as translators to the U.S. Army during the war).
Then almost ritualistically, he took out of his bag crumpled banners made out of paper with the hand-written names of friends from his unit.
“We don’t forget Pete Petrinsky. Horseshoe Ridge, 1951, 2006, United States Marine Corps,” the banner read.
The names went on: Ruben Adame, Arthur Gersh Gersbeck, William Bill Crowe Jr.
Years after the war ended on June 1999, Mr. Callahan was talking to G. Hughes, Decision Review Officer at the regional office in Waco, Texas of Veteran’s Associations. After hours of conversation, the doctor cut off the tape and said Mr. Callahan had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“I told him to this day I still cannot celebrate the Fourth of July, because if you hear a pop that sounds like a mortar, it scares the living hell out of you, and I will not go around those sounds. This [was] from the ’50s on. I can tell you why I remember it so distinctly. I would go to a football game, and at half-time, they would have fireworks and I would have to go under the stadium in the stadium, in the waiting room until it was over, because I could not handle the noises. It was more psychological, I think, than hearing. It was more mental than physical.”
As the battle ended, he boarded a boat in Sokcho. By Jan 1, 1952, he arrived in Kobe, Japan, and from there, flew home.
“One day, I was drinking water in a ravine with a buddy,” he said, crossing the stream in the mountain on his way down to the city. “By the time we got up, there was a dead body lying right next to us. I had forgotten this happened for years. But it just occurred to me as I passed by that ravine.
“I wish it never happened, cause my friends will never have what I’ve enjoyed for decades.”
by Park Soo-mee