The old adage about "...hours and hours of boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror..." doesn't come close to describing what men face in infantry warfare. If a man doesn't listen, doesn't learn every day he survives, his chances of survival - never mind success, only diminish.
Dave Hughes' first battlefield lessons were of defeat and fighting withdrawals - retreat. Not the best beginning. But his education began the day he arrived in K Company. Teachers, and men he looked up to, were John Flynn, First Lieutenant Shanks, Master Sergeant Abeticio, who later got a rare battlefield commission - and other veterans who had "been there."
But he also had to learn much about himself and the puzzling, ugly randomness of war, small things that loomed large in the struggle to live and lead soldiers the way they deserved to be led.
Ears. Hearing. Alertness to sounds. The ability to pick up sounds, instantaneously interpret them, know where the sounds are coming from, and what type of weapons are being fired. Ears, discriminating ears, were the most crucial to survival on Korea's infantry battlefields.
Almost unconsciously Dave Hughes developed the habit of jerking his helmet off his head when the enemy opened fire - a habit most would consider unwise, when bullets were flying. "Crack - Thump!" Machine gun? Where is it?
"Ka - choonk!" Incoming mortar round. A 60 millimeter? 82mm? 120mm? Each was more deadly than the other. Each dug more deeply than the other upon detonation, and the shrapnel spray patterns were different, progressively more lethal. A split second's hesitation in interpretation of a whistle overhead, and the decision could be fatal for him, and many more. The 60mm is hard to beat, but smaller. The 120 is a killer, but slow. the 82 matches a man's reaction, and is deadly.
Eyes? Yes, they were terribly important. But in Korea, as in all preceding wars, at night eyes were severely limited by darkness, the time when the CCF and NKPA far more frequently attacked. Even when flares illuminated the night battlefield, eyes could be severely confused and impaired. And when flares weren't launched, muzzle flashes, and the flashes of exploding enemy rounds induced temporary night blindness.
Luck? Fate? Charmed life? Guardian angel? God's will? What was it? Why do some men repeatedly walk or run through barrages of exploding artillery and mortar shells, automatic weapons, rifles, and grenades, yet never get hit, while others' survival is measured in seconds? To dwell on this could be both maddening and fatal.
One day, a 120mm mortar round impacted so close to Dave Hughes, he couldn't possibly hope to survive the explosion. He heard it coming, and knew instantly what it was. He knew it would be close. He dove for the earth's cover, flattened himself as much as humanly possible, hugging the ground. The projectile's tail fin broke off on impact, severing the weapon's arming and fusing chain. It didn't explode, a "dud". He received scratches when the tail fin broke off, tumbled, and struck him on his arm.
In an assault on a steep hill, his platoon was pinned down close to a strong Chinese defensive position, and the enemy began throwing grenades. Someone yelled "Grenade!" near Hughes. He rolled over, felt something against his leg, and looked down just in time to see the handle of a "potato masher" a Chinese hand grenade - against him. "Blam!" The handle gave him a real "Charlie-horse" in his leg, and problems with one eye for awhile, but not a severe puncture. His minor wounds brought the award of his first Purple Heart. The grenade killed the man lying next to him.
Enemy tactics and enemy ruses. When, during an assault, allied infantrymen overran an enemy defensive position, the Chinese would keep out of sight in a bunker or "spider hole," or play dead. Then, after the attackers went past, stand up and open fire from the rear.
Dave Hughes nearly lost his life one day, because of this tactic. He was still carrying the M-2 carbine as his weapon at the time, a .30 caliber, semi-automatic weapon issued to officers - As the platoon leader he routinely carried the carbine, a map, and a hand held radio - a "walkie talkie", so he could control his unit, and coordinate supporting fires. The carbine had a tendency to jam, not a desirable trait in close combat. It also was light, and more easily affected by grit than other, heavier weapons.
They were in the assault, pushing hard to take high ground, and overrunning Chinese defensive positions intent on keeping the assault going. Then out of the corner of his eye, Dave caught sight of a wounded Chinese soldier rising up behind him. He wheeled to fire his carbine, and the weapon jammed after one erratic round.
Time is one of the several enemies in such circumstances. Slow reaction is another. Allies are training, adrenaline, and practice at clearing jammed weapons. Dave was able to react, clear the jam, and fire before the Chinese soldier could take aim. From 15 feet away Dave Hughes' second round was more accurate. He killed the enemy soldier.
Another lesson. Get rid of the carbine. It had very nearly cost him his life, and would be of no value if he had to save the life of one of his troopers. He grabbed a Thompson submachine gun from a dead Chinese soldier. Ironically, the American-made Thompsons had been shipped to the Nationalist Chinese during the 1940's, lost to the Chinese Communists, and now were being used against American soldiers in Korea.
Dave Hughes was left handed. He rigged the weapon with a sling to carry it on his left shoulder, muzzle pointing forward, so he could fire from the waist. The Thompson had a heavy bolt - which could crunch through lots of grit. No misfires.
In the heat of a furious fight, men quite literally at times run on automatic. No time to think, reflect, discuss, or consult. Decisions have to be instantaneous and correct, under the worst of circumstances, or the result can be catastrophic loss of life. And the lessons can't be learned overnight. Not in one fight, not two, or three. The learning has to go on and on, layer upon layer, as experience and responsibility expand, especially if an officer is to be ready - to assume greater leadership responsibility.
Dave Hughes "ran on automatic" many times in his months in Korea. The first independent offensive action K Company participated in was an assault his platoon led. When the operation was over, much to his astonishment he realized he had taken a hilltop almost single handedly. The hill was steep on both sides. His troopers met heavy, resistance, and the attack bogged down. He couldn't get them to move. He lost his presence of mind and stormed the crest of the hill. When he got to the top he realized he was alone, and he didn't remember what he'd done - but the fight was over.
John Flynn recommended him for the Silver Star. Dave was perplexed, ambivalent about the nomination. This was his first real fight in the assault, on the offensive. He remembered how little he really knew at the time, and how much he had to learn. Leading in combat was an art, and he hadn't practiced the art well. Discomforting thoughts to go with a decoration.
In the spring the Assistant Division Commander selected Dave to be his aide, and Hughes was able to rest, get cleaned up, and look civilized. He quickly got bored and unhappy. He felt he belonged in the fight, and his boss knew it, and understood. He sent David back to K company.
When Captain John Flynn received serious wounds in June of 1951, while the Collins Board and its aftermath were grinding on in confidentiality at West Point. The wounds earned his evacuation to the States. John didn't forget K Company. He wanted to know what was going on, how they were doing. His replacement tried many times to answer John Flynn's inquiries, but the letters went unfinished, never seemed adequate, always out of perspective - at least until March of 1952, when David Hughes was on a Japanese ship, bound for the United States.
Hughes had assumed command of K Company commander. By June Dave had been at the top of Flynn's leadership succession chain. It wasn't entirely a matter of skill, or the art of his leadership. Much of it had to do with luck, surviving, gaining experience while surviving. The rest of the company's lieutenants had been killed, wounded, or rotated, and their replacements had met the same fate. Turnover among lieutenants is high in line infantry units engaged in battle.
Though he was now company commander, the battlefield lessons continued for David, some far more difficult and painful than he remotely imagined. Cruel choices forced by impossible circumstances, followed by years of suppressed regrets, regrets that had to be immediately swallowed or buried.
Once, while his depleted company was preparing to launch a pre-dawn assault against a heavily defended hill. He received approximately 30 replacements in the early hours after midnight. He couldn't see their faces, and if he could have, he wouldn't remember them. The acquaintance was too brief. Dave Hughes had no choice. His officers and noncoms had to assign the replacements in the company's platoons, immediately, to strengthen the attacking force. In the dark of night, the young soldiers had no opportunity to see or become acquainted with other men in the company, their squad leaders, platoon sergeants, or platoon leaders.
David Hughes never forgot the number of casualties his company suffered that day - 22 cut down. Several of those hit were among the 30 replacements he received during the night. Grievous losses. He hadn't seen their faces, and they probably never saw his. Yet he bore the responsibility, the losses, and the buried frustration, anger, and pain, along with their parents and loved ones. He swore to himself that would never happen again. He would never accept green troops in the midst of close combat, nor would he send them to units already engaged in a fight.
In another long, seven hour night fight, when K Company was holding an important outpost assaults by four enemy companies - a battalion - began to take a heavy toll, encroaching ever closer, nearly collapsing one flank of the company's defensive perimeter. After repeated assaults, the enemy succeeded in overrunning positions on their left flank, to within 35 yards of the company command post. Hughes sent his First Sergeant with orders to direct the pull back of a 57mm gun section, which was now in an untenable position because of the advancing Chinese. A Chinese soldier came up the hill with the withdrawing K Company troopers and penetrated into the company CP. After a tussle in the CP, he jumped into the hole with Hughes, who killed the enemy soldier with his submachine gun.
In the advance up K Company's left flank, the Chinese took three prisoners. During the heat of the engagement Dave Hughes rightly concluded he didn't dare risk his entire company, and loss of the key hill, by sending a rescue force after the three prisoners. One prisoner was pulled immediately from the area of the fighting, down the hill, not to be seen again. The other two they pushed up the hill with the assault force. One of the captured troopers, seeing a K Company heavy machine gun kill every man in a Chinese mortar crew, and cut down the enemy attack wave, kicked his captor, jumped over the side of the steep ridge, and escaped. The third American soldier was killed by fire from his own company.
In the fall of that year a classmate, Lieutenant John Ross, was assigned to K Company. But in his first hard action his arm was shattered by machine gun fire, ending his brief stint in combat. Hughes remembered the odd feeling of commanding a classmate, and sending him, possibly, to his death.
Go onto Part 9 - Night Defense of Hill 339
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