How We Got a
by Robert J. Roberts
Robert J. Roberts served as a sergeant
first class as a Survey Chief of Party with the 937th
Field Artillery Battalion from January 1951-April 1952
It was May
in Korea, 1951. My outfit had just moved into a new position
in a small riverbed somewhere near Hongchon.
I was a sergeant
in the survey section of the 937th Field Artillery Battalion.
The 937th was made up of five batteries. I was in Headquarters
Battery. Batteries Able, Baker and Charlie were the ‘firing’
batteries. They had four guns each. Service Battery was
responsible for supplies to all the other batteries. Able
Battery was detached from us almost immediately when we
went into combat, and didn’t reunite with the rest
until after I left Korea a year later.
Our guns were
155mm self-propelled behemoths that looked like a tank,
although they weren’t armored. They were technically
rifles, because they fired a 96-pound high-explosive shell
similar to the way a rifle does, with riflings in the
barrel that cause the shell to rotate in a flat trajectory.
In case you are wondering, 155 millimeters is roughly
equal to six inches, the diameter of the projectile. Most
of the artillery in Korea was of the howitzer type. Howitzers
‘lob’ the projectile in a decided high arc.
We were told our guns could fire a projectile 14 and six-tenths
miles, and anyone on the surface within a 50 yard radius
would not survive the blast and shrapnel. They were commonly
called ‘Long Toms’ because of their range.
As far as
I know, there were only two 155mm self-propelled batteries
in Korea, the 937th, my outfit, and the 936th. Both were
National Guard outfits activated for the war. And both
of them, oddly enough, were from Arkansas. All of our
equipment was of World War II vintage--in fact, the Korean
War was fought almost entirely with old stuff. We didn’t
see anything new until we were on the way home.
we occupied that day in May was about three miles behind
the MLR (Main Line of Resistance) where the infantry did
their work. We set up in the south end of a small valley,
where there wasn’t much room. Things were crowded
there, even though Charlie Battery had been detached to
another position, leaving us with just four guns. Just
behind us was a 105mm howitzer battery, with, as I recall,
16 field pieces. I don’t remember their unit designation.
one narrow road leading south to the friendlies. That
same road also led north to the MLR, the South Korean
infantry we were supporting, and beyond them the North
Koreans and Chinese. This was not a comfortable position
for us. We were closer to the front than usual, and our
retreat route could be easily blocked. I was particularly
uncomfortable there, because I had seen the carnage wrought
in another ‘bowling alley,’ as those valleys
were called, when the exit road was blocked.
It was spring,
as I said earlier, and we were in a mild period--not the
baking, gasping heat of summer that oppressed us much
of the time. (I could tell you about the winters, but
that’s another story.) Each man had a folding cot
over which he fashioned a sort of tent with canvas shelter
halves, mosquito netting, and whatever else he could find.
It was nice being off the ground. I suppose we looked
sort of like a Gypsy encampment. We dug foxholes, of course,
but thank goodness we didn’t have to sleep in them.
The 105 outfit
was about fifty yards behind us--as I said, we didn’t
have much room in that neck of the funnel created by the
valley. When you stand behind an artillery piece it is
loud, but when you are in front it is incredibly loud,
plus you get the effect of the muzzle blast.
We had been
there only a few days when we began to notice Republic
of Korea (ROK) soldiers wandering south down the road
and almost-dry stream bed. We didn¹t think much about
it, because the Korean troops weren’t as disciplined
as the U.S. troops, and they sometimes were sent to the
rear for no apparent reason. Replacements often walked
to the front too, but we didn’t seem to see any
replacements. The Koreans kept wandering south in twos
and threes and small groups.
we woke up to the chilling announcement that there was
no ROK infantry in front of us--no one between us and
the North Koreans and Chinese. The normal reaction would
be to load up and get the heck out of there. The reaction
of the high command was different--stay and fight. At
that point we experienced conflicting emotions--the adrenalin
rush that told us to fight, and the mental, prudent wish
to flee. But we didn’t have a choice.
guns began to fire as fast as they dared, which wasn’t
very fast at all. A projectile being blown through a 17-foot
barrel created a lot of energy which resulted in the barrels
(or tubes) heating up very quickly. If a tube overheated
and a round was inserted, it could cause the projectile
to explode with disastrous results. One of them did, in
fact, explode some time later, killing one of the crewmen.
It was assumed that the tube had been weakened in this
was brought to the guns in six-by-six trucks. We took
all the trucks we could find and started shuttling them
south to the ammo supply depots, then north again to the
guns, 24-hours-a-day. The 105mm howitzer batteries behind
us were also firing at their maximum rate and ammo was
being hauled to them as quickly as possible. On one day
the two artillery units fired 989 rounds.
crew, which I was in charge of, didn’t have much
to do once the guns were positioned. We couldn’t
help the firing batteries, so we, along with the cooks,
mechanics, and others who weren’t directly associated
with firing, became the infantry. We set up a perimeter
facing north. We had mostly small arms, mainly carbines,
but we also had some 30-caliber machine guns and a couple
of 50-calibers we had scrounged in Seoul on our way to
the front. We dug, as best we could, in the rocky creek
bed and filled a few sandbags to buttress the holes.
difficult. In addition to the tremendous barrage of sound,
each gun lit up the sky when it fired. Our larger guns,
which were to our left, made a huge WHOOM sound each time,
but we were accustomed to that. The 105’s, only
50 yards behind us, made a much sharper report, more like
a huge CRACK that seemed to penetrate to the very center
of our bodies and bones. Our 155 shells had a copper band
around them called a rotating band. The rifles in the
barrel cut into these and made the shell rotate. Occasionally
one of the copper rotating bands would come loose, and
the shell screamed like a banshee all the way to the target.
We were told later that this struck great fear into the
North Korean and Chinese soldiers.
went on for about four days. The combined artillery pieces
put up a constant boom-boom-boom that created a rain of
steel, fire, and destruction ahead of us. It kept the
North Koreans from advancing and making a breakthrough,
and possibly encircling a major portion of the front.
On the fourth day we began to hear the roar of trucks
from the south that weren’t our ammo trucks. The
olive-drab-snouted beasts contained American infantrymen,
headed for the front. Truck after truck passed us, and
we stood beside the road and cheered lustily as they rolled
later we learned that the 937th Field Artillery, Headquarters
Battery and Baker Battery, along with the 105 outfit,
were awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation for their
outstanding performance in the Battle of Hongchon.
As I look
back from the vantage of old age, I realize that we could
have been easily wiped out. My buddy, Donald Wickoff,
and I set up a 50 caliber machine gun in an area with
little protection and with little ammunition. We were
young (19) and innocent. We would have been eliminated
easily by skilled infantry.
pieces could have been destroyed, and many lives forfeited,
except for the rain of steel and high explosives that
erupted from our Long Toms and 105s.
We were happy
to be alive. We didn’t feel like heroes.