In August of 1951, while cadets found guilty of honor violations by the Collins Board were resigning at West Point, truce negotiations broke off. Though both sides had agreed hostilities would continue while negotiations were in progress, it was obvious neither side would start an all-out offensive unless talks broke off completely. But the no man's land between the armies didn't remain inactive in the seven week period talks continued.
Air strikes, continuous artillery bombardment, constant combat patrolling, and offensive ground operations of battalion, and occasionally regimental size, characterized the fighting. The attacks were to secure key terrain, bring in prisoners, and relieve pressure on the UN lines. "Except for several offensives that grew out of intermittent breaking off of armistice negotiations, this was generally the pattern of operations that prevailed until the signing of the armistice [in July 1953]."
When the truce talks broke off in late August 1951 General Van Fleet decided to resume the offensive to drive the enemy back from the Hwachon Reservoir, which supplied water and electrical power to Seoul, and away from the Chorwon-Seoul railroad. The offensive began first in the eastern half of the peninsula, as two divisions in X Corps, the 1st Marine Division and the Army's 2nd Infantry Division, launched heavy attacks intended to secure dominant ridges to the west and north of the bitterly contested area called the "Punch Bowl."
Further west, in I Corps, the 1st Cavalry Division was one of four divisions, plus the British Commonwealth Brigade, that advanced on a 40 mile wide front from Kaesong to Chorwon. On September 21, in the area near Chorwon, K Company, Third Battalion, 7th Cavalry prepared to go up more hills, "get off the road" and "take high ground," as General Matthew Ridgway had directed. General Van Fleet, who replaced Ridgway after MacArthur was fired, continued Ridgway's aggressive, methodical approach to winning battles and punishing the Chinese and North Koreans. The 7th was to be part of an effort to advance north from Line Wyoming, to seize and hold Line Jamestown.
The 3d Battalion of the 7th Cavalry was given the mission of taking and holding a patrol base extending from Hill 339 to Hill 343, and back over to Hill 321, a 4,000 yard perimeter.
It was a mission not relished by Hughes because in the preceeding three weeks there had been three attempts by other battalions to seize and hold 339, all ending in failure, with entire companies overrun and heavy casualties. Nevertheless, up K Company tried again on September 21.
This time the fight to gain 339 was relatively easy. The Chinese set off a red flare, and simply pulled off the hill. Five minutes after K Company took the crest of the hill, the Americans found out why. Dave Hughes recalled: "They suddenly began shelling us and mortaring until I thought the roof was going to come off the hill. They kept working the front slope with a battery of 75mm and self-propelled artillery, and they shook us to pieces with more 120mm mortars...The rain of 82mm and 60mm was just incidental. The fewest incoming rounds we ever reported for 24 hours was 350, and we estimated 1,200 on the second day."
Not until the second day did the men in K Company learn why the Chinese had targeted them while hardly touching the rest of the 3d Battalion perimeter. From the Observation Post on the crest of 339, observers in K Company could see Chinese troop and gun positions, and access routes.
The Company dug in and began organizing their defense. Below them, on the slope of the hill, were dead enemy soldiers from previous battles.
The Chinese, from their positions, watched like hawks, and from the flanks of K Company could observe the rear slope of Hill 339, not an enviable circumstance for the Company. In the daylight Dave Hughes couldn't put men on the ridge top, or on the forward slope. The Chinese would immediately open fire with self-propelled artillery and dig them out of their holes. In one week, from bombardment alone, the company suffered 33 casualties from direct hits on "fox holes" by mortars, including a regular midnight dose of 120 mm mortars.
The first night on Hill 339, K Company had a scrap. The Chinese came across a "saddle", the same one they had used when they had hit and overrun C Company two weeks earlier. And they came down a road on the extreme right flank of the company. On the road they ran into a tank, which scattered the attackers. Mortar fire kept them dispersed. On the peak of 339 the enemy plastered K Company with everything they had, and the Chinese infantry came in right under their own mortar fire on the shoulder of the hill - into the teeth of a heavy machine gun. The gunner, Sergeant Malloy, held his fire until the enemy soldiers were ten yards away. When he opened up, he stopped them cold. In the dark, confusion, and noise they never located Malloy's firing position. The assaulting Chinese force continued to crawl around and pour machine gun fire on K Company for a few more hours. The next morning five enemy dead were found within those ten yards in front of Sergeant Malloy's machine gun. One had his hand draped over the parapet. K Company took no casualties from enemy small arms.
The cat and mouse game continued for seven days, while K Company sent out patrols from their base on Hill 339, attempting to locate enemy positions, and determine their strength. Dave Hughes dreaded sending out patrols. He knew his men were under observation from the moment the point man began moving forward. Each patrol normally came under heavy attack within 600 yards - slightly more than a third of a mile.
The Chinese became better at cat and mouse as the days went by, and better at holding their fire, factors which increased Hughes' concern for the men he had to send on patrols. On September 23d he was ordered to send a patrol against known enemy positions.The 1st Platoon had gone barely 200 yards when the Chinese opened up with a deadly crossfire, instantly killing the platoon leader, Lieutenant Radcliffe, the company's most experienced platoon leader, and a fine, young Canadian who had obtained a commission in the U.S. Army. The platoon sergeant, only a corporal, didn't hesitate. He ordered "marching fire" and the platoon took half the peak so the remainder of the patrol could get out. There were three K Company dead.
Every night, enemy patrols would crawl up to the hill to count K Company's positions. Every night Dave Hughes would have to calm down a squad that thought the whole Chinese Army was in front of them. But there were positive effects from all this - the men in K Company dug in tighter, kept their weapons spotless, slept during the daytime, and watched at night. The 60mm mortar crew increased its responsiveness under the leadership of its black platoon leader, Lieutenant Walker, and the Company was able to strengthen its defensive positions with additional heavy and light machine guns, to 5 and 7 respectively - by September 28.
Then came the defining day for K Company's stay on Hill 339 - an all out Chinese assault. The bombardment commenced at 11:30 pm and continued to midnight, when, for a few minutes, it stepped up to a frenzied pace, with everything the enemy had, raining into K Company positions. Then came the infantry. In a bitter, 7-hour fight with a Chinese battalion surged to within yards of the Company Command Post, the men of K Company held firm.
By 8:00 o'clock the next morning K Company counted 77 enemy dead within their perimeter. The Company had suffered 10 killed, 15 wounded, and one captured. There were no "bugouts." Discipline held. Those who gave their lives fought to the death, in their assigned positions.
In the seven days on Hill 339, K Company, including men attached to support its operation, had taken 54 casualties. On September 29, they were rotated around the Battalion perimeter, and I Company replaced them.
This was merely the prelude. Four days later, on October 3, with no replacements, K Company jumped off in the continuing Eighth Army offensive. A series of objectives, including two smaller hills, led to Hill 347, which, like several other hills in the vicinity, was nicknamed "Baldy," because the hill crests had been completely denuded of trees or foliage, during the numerous times the hills changed hands. There was another name given Hill 347 by the G.I.s who toiled up and down its battle scarred slopes. "Bloody Baldy."
Go onto Part 10 - The Culminating Battle for Hill 347
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