It was the end of August 1952. The Korean War evolved into a battle for hills and firefights on night patrols.
Battalion believed that a sniper who killed Sgt. Fostine Douglas was in a bunker at the base of a cliff opposite our position overlooking the Imjin River. It must be eliminated before he kills another man.
My bunker buddy Wayne Caton was still missing in action. I was dining alone on my C-Rations when Sgt. Flaherty pulled open the blanket-door to my bunker.
“Reilly, the second squad is going to get the Gook that killed Sgt. Douglas.”
“Tonight we’ll have dry run, tomorrow we’ll practice with the bunker bomb. On Thursday Lt. Theiss will lead our squad across the Imjin, and blast the bunker.”
This news, as most news of any action was unsettling. Maybe Charley, our point man knows more about this. When I approached him, he was adding a new mass of green branches to the roof of his bunker.
“Hey Charley, I’m getting edgy. We’re going to blast a bunker on the other side of the Imjin with a bunker bomb.”
“Who said so?”
“What’s a bunker bomb? How is it set off?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I never saw one. I don’t ask questions. I follow orders.”
I should have known that this paratrooper who falsified his age to join the army, and volunteered to be the platoon point man was not someone who could ease my anxiety.
That evening, in the valley behind our frontline positions, our squad met with Lt. Theiss, our platoon leader.
“We don’t need a runner for this operation,” said Lt. Theiss. “So Reilly, you will carry the bunker bomb.”
“Where is it?”
“You’ll get it tomorrow night from Massey (our armorer).”
What a horrific way to start an evening. I will carry a bunker bomb! But all went well on the dry run.
Standing guard outside my bunker, I was distracted by the usual sounds that visited me when I was on guard duty. My nerves were placed on high alert. Sounds from crawling critters became sounds of the crawling enemy.
I abandoned my watch a month ago. The plastic crystal dissolved when I sprayed my arm with an insecticide.
When is Whitefeather coming to relieve me? He’s usually reliable. Maybe he forgot?
Whitefeather arrived on time. How this man became a paratrooper was beyond me. He was overweight and each step he took seemed to be measured agony.
With no idea what was in store for me, I went into my bunker and managed two hours of sleep.
Mail call the following day brought a letter from Elaine that consisted of a New York City weather report, her boring job, and am I taking care of myself. No, Elaine, I don’t have to take care of myself. I have Sgt. Flaherty and Lt. Theiss to take care of me.
That evening, before our rehearsal, I went to Massey to get the bomb. The bomb consisted of .30 caliber machine gun canister filled halfway with napalm, attached to a phosphorescent grenade, all connected to the end of a four-foot pole.
What have I gotten into? Why didn’t I remain a BAR man? Why did I let Charley talk me into becoming a runner?
I carried the bomb to our practice area.
“Remember men, this bunker is at the base of a cliff. No grenades. They’ll roll back. We’ll cross the river at the sandbar and make a left. The bunker is nearby. On the cliff above us, all units have been notified.
Yes. How do I get out of here?
The wait for evening seemed endless. I met my squad at Massey’s bunker. He handed me the bomb then Lt. Theiss led us down the path to the river. Could you imagine cautiously plodding through a river that begins combat boot high at the riverbank, and then swells to an uncertain depth as you wade forward? Of course you couldn’t, but who could?
Upon entering the river, Lt. Theiss, our platoon leader was at the center of the squad, I was in front of him. I could feel the water seeping through my cracked boots. We moved on. The blistering August heat was neutralized by the he cool water hugging my thighs, My fatigues were caked with a surreal landscape of bizarre stains decorated from two months of sleeping on the floor of my bunker, rubbing along the trenches, combined with sweat from the unbearable heat. But that millstone in my hands, that wooden pole with the bunker bomb connected at its end negated any pleasure I could derive from the cool river’s waters.
Oh yes, the water hid us, but as soon as we step onto that sandbar we’ll be target practice.
Halfway to the sandbar, Charley, our point man waded toward Lt. Theiss to inform him that all was well.
The water that was at my thighs was now pushing against my chest. Was there further erosion of this riverbed? No, battalion wouldn’t plan an operation without knowing the depth of the river. The chlorinated water of the Crotona Park pool where my friends and I splashed and frolicked without a care in the world is now history. Diving into the waves at Jones Beach is now history. I was drafted. I’m 22. Here I am, a dogface, tense in a river in Korea.
I lifted the bomb above my head. The water crept up to my chin. Another step and I would be sipping the effluence from the fecal-fertilized rice paddies surrounding the river’s banks of the north.
What was that?
Charley came rushing towards us.
”Those idiots on the cliff above us just threw a couple of concussion grenades at me!”
Lt. Theiss immediately put a halt to the attack. If I wasn’t benumbed by what had just taken place, I would have kissed him.
Our squad waded quickly back to the riverbank then onto the trail that brought us there. We sat on our inverted helmets to await a truck from battalion for a debriefing. Unfortunately, the stress of the operation was more than Lt. Theiss could bear. His sporadic laughter, while rocking back and forth on his helmet told us we had a wounded warrior without a shot fired.
Our platoon leader was reassigned to a motor pool in the rear and was replaced by Lt. Crowe.