War On The Hills

15 Feb

“Even the hardiest Chinese soldiers in the opposing positions declared that the Korean summer was unbearable.  Until winter came, that is.  Then, as men plodded between positions with the studied clumsiness of spacemen, movements muffled by innumerable layers of clothing, they gazed in awed disbelief as the thermometers plunged to new depths. . . . An hour of carelessness in exposing a corner of flesh to the naked air was punished by frostbite.

“There were no officers’ clubs or bars, no drugs or movies or diversions.  There were only the mountain ridges, surmounted by the defenses which both sides now dug with extraordinary care and caution.

“Down the slope from the bunkers, a host of ingenious and intricate devices had been created and deployed to break the momentum of an assault: wire, minefields, trip flares, booby traps, and a few uniquely Korean innovations, such as barrels of napalm or white phosphorous that could be unleashed and ignited by a wire pulled from a foxhole.  The slightest movement observed or imagined in no-man’s-land attracted the sudden pop and dazzling light of a flare.  For no apparent reason, a sector of the front would suddenly erupt into an artillery duel that might last for weeks, with men lying in their bunkers while shells pounded overhead for four, five, six hours a day.

“By day files of men seemed to be toiling up and down incessantly in the Sisyphean labor of moving food, water, and ammunition from the nearest point in the valley below that a truck could reach.  American or Commonwealth fatigue parties were assisted by hundreds of the inevitable ‘chiggies,’ the Korean porters with their A-frames on their backs, whose dogged support even under fire became one of the most vivid of all foreign veterans’ memories of Korea.

“All the UN forces observed a ‘one winter’ rule in Korea.  No man, it was decreed, should be asked to endure more than one season of that terrible cold in the forward areas.”

– Max Hastings, The Korean War

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