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Personal Stories

How We Got a Citation
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.

     The position 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.

     There was 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.

     One morning 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.

     Our 155mm 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 battle.

     Ammunition 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.

     The survey 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.

     Sleep was 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.

     The bombardment 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 by.

     Some time 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.

     Our artillery 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.

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