A young vet on a float waved in a smiled at me at a recent Memorial Day parade. I smiled and waved back. He carried me back sixty-six years when I was with Company L, 15th Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division in Korea.
Our company was in the rear awaiting replacements for our casualties. It was a brutally hot and sunny day in June when a short, thin, freckle faced kid named, Wayne Caton came to replace our platoon’s wounded medic. After we exchanged our biographical data, he anxiously edged towards my cot and whispered,
“I don’t know what I’ll do when we move up to the line if I’m scared shit here, in this squad tent.”
“All of us are frightened, I replied.” It’s normal. After you meet our men you’ll feel more comfortable.”
Wayne and I became inseparable. He was Catholic, I was Jewish. He didn’t finish high school, I planned on going to college, yet the gel that bound us during the early days evolved into cement as the days had passed. But as we went through our training, I noticed that Wayne had lost his zest.
“Dan, I haven’t heard from my girlfriend since I came to Korea. She’s a cute cheerleader. She’ll have no trouble finding other guys.”
“Let me help you write to her. Maybe you’ll get an answer.”
We wrote: When I shave and look in the mirror I see your pretty face, not mine, and I’m very careful to avoid cuts. Since I haven’t damaged you, would you please write me?
No response. He didn’t expect one.
Wayne performed well in our training exercises. He became an integral part of the 2nd platoon.
Lt. Sidney, our company commander, was ordered to move the company up to the MLR (Main Line of Resistance). Wayne and I occupied a bunker overlooking the Imjin River in the Chorwon Valley. It was a peaceful landscape marred by mutilated trees overlooking a carpet of barbed wire.
After a few days of relaxation, Company commander Sidney assigned the 2nd and 3rd platoons to attack the Chinese-occupied Hill 121.
Our dry run the previous night convinced us that the operation would be a walk in the park.
We stomped through a hidden path towards our jon boats scattered along the bank of the Imjin River. Charley, our point man pulled on an overhead rope bringing four men to the opposite bank.
What am I doing here? Going to a hill to kill Chinese? Why should I try and kill them? Who will return? Will I return?
We sat and waited for all the men to cross the river, and then we assembled around Lt. Sidney.
“The valley is wide. We should have no problem getting there. Make sure your weapons are on lock.”
A Centurian tank fired its cannon then showered the hill with .50 caliber bullets. A forward observer was accurately zeroing in the 105mm howitzers
As we approached, a searchlight company illuminated the hill to make it appear like a mangled wedding cake. What’s going on here? This wasn’t in our dry run. We’ll be flickering like Sabbath candles when we attack the hill. Which of us will be blown out?”
We came to a halt. I fired a flare; a signal to cease the supporting fire. Lt. Sidney moved his fist forward to attack. Wayne and Sgt. Flaherty were ahead and to my left. We gave each other a “thumbs up” then crawled up the hill.
A concussion grenade exploded where I thought Wayne and Sgt. Flaherty might be. I anxiously waited for the area to clear, and then I crawled to the ditch but no one was there.
“Hey Gus. Did you see Flaherty or Caton?”
“Caton’s probably treating the wounded down the hill. I didn’t see Flaherty.”
Lt. Sidney signaled to withdraw. When I reached the bottom of the hill I saw Sgt. Flaherty lying on a litter. His jaw, resting on his chest, resembled a bloody sock.
Where was Wayne? I ran for the jon boats that brought us across the river. To my far right Ed Heister was carrying a mortally wounded Truman Bastin on his shoulders. Upon reaching the jon boats, I was relieved to see Wayne. He was in a heated dispute with the GI in charge of the jon boats. Truman, unconscious and bleeding heavily was draped on Ed’s shoulders. Wayne asked the GI to release a boat so that Truman could get across quickly.
“I need three more guys before I release the boat.”
Wayne removed his pistol from its holster, placed it into the GI’s gut and said,
“If he doesn’t get into the boat now, you’re a dead man.”
Truman was quickly ferried across.
Our platoon returned to the battalion headquarters tent for a debriefing.
A roar of a truck brought me running out.
“Hey Gus, did you see Wayne?”
“No, but he might be on the next truck.”
There was no next truck.
Mrs. Caton received a telegram that Wayne was Missing In Action.
Two years later, when the truce was declared, Mrs. Caton sent photos of Wayne to the repatriated prisoners. Perhaps they could identify him. No one could identify him.
Fifty-three years later, prodded by Wayne’s niece, I called Ed Heister.
“Ed. Do you remember the night you carried Truman to the jon boats?”
“Yes and the GI who was assigned to the jon boats told me to wait until three more men came to fill up the boat.”
“Do you know what happened to Truman?” he asked.
Yes, I said. Truman was ferried across the river and, after three years at Walter Reed Hospital, he was discharged. He lived until he was 79 years old.
“But what happened to Wayne?” I asked
“He went back to Hill 121 to see if any wounded were left behind,” said Ed.
Wayne was declared Killed in Action three years later.
That was Wayne, a selfless INTREPID HERO who, unfortunately was never recognized for his heroic valor.
Wayne’s photo rests on my night table. We were so young; now I am 88.