Interview of James Walsh, Korean War, Veterans History Project, Voices of War, National Geographic
James Walsh, Army; Memoir
In the fall of 1951, Walsh got his introduction to life as a private in the Army Infantry.
I was the best ammo bearer. Each ammo bearer carried two cans of ammunition into action plus backpack, equipment, and carbine. Challenged by the section’s ammo bearers to run an uphill race with as much ammo in hand as possible, I lugged six cans, each weighing 20 pounds and holding 250 rounds, up a never-ending climb to win the honor of “first idiot ammo bearer.”
In charge of the 3rd section of machine guns was 1st Sgt. George Shoemaker. “Shoe” pushed his squads to clean weapons and spare parts, check ammo, draw fresh water and combat rations while ranting, “No combat infantryman cared if he ever fired his weapon in a second firefight, having survived the first. Yet, if war he must, an infantryman cared about the fire support he got after he crossed the line of departure, the LD. He wants every weapon the Army and Air Force could fire to precede him, cover him, and then follow up along with the men climbing the hill. An infantryman doesn’t want limitation. He wants choreography of shells, napalm, and bullets dancing with him as his partner. It gives strength to legs heading into the enemy’s trenches!”
My first glimpse of dead GIs caused more surprise than sorrow. I knew GIs were as likely to die in battle as was the enemy, but I hadn’t ever seen a dead GI. Here were a half dozen laid side by side. They could have been in a funeral parlor, so neatly arranged were they. None had limbs missing. Their bodies were still in full field dress. Bodies that once were full of vigor were waxen, pale of face and hands, blood spots staining their fatigues. A lone rifleman guarded them. He could have been at prayer the way he knelt over them. I let loose a prayer of my own for the repose of their souls with God this moment.
Why did the sight of GIs stir so? Because the vague fear I had of the terrible consequences of war had become manifest. There followed the recognition that life lived in combat could be very brief. I felt mortal, not helpless, never hopeless, just fragile. It was an enervating sensation. I controlled it.
As if they were sharp knives thrown from the brow of overhead clouds above my head, F-84s sliced through the smoke of the firefight, blazing cannons flashing. Suddenly, plunging pieces of metal bit hunks out of my sand bags and in the earth around the fighting hole. I thought I was being hit from behind by the enemy. I grappled with Clouse to swing the machine gun around. He resisted, his eyes questioning my sanity. Then, as if all the Eighth Army’s 155 howitzers had at that moment fired simultaneous bursts more resonant than deep thunder, my auditory senses swelled to near eruption. In confusion, I grappled Clouse to one side and took possession of the gun hole’s deepest level. His knuckles bonked my helmet a few times while letting me know ear-shocking sound waves always followed the planes’ dives to targets. Aware at last, my heart throbbed a bit more slowly and slid out of my throat. The F-84s had turned the battlefield into a charnel house [a place in which bodies of the dead are deposited]. Pleased with themselves for leaving a crimson glow on the far hill, they shook wings and flew away. My first glimpse of airborne’s fiery oblivion hurled at Chinese infantrymen shocked me. I said a prayer for them, another of thanksgiving this infantryman wasn’t over there.
My hands moved dirt while my mind worked over Smith’s phraseology, “killer from a distance.” It was less than a year ago when the fingers of my hands folded in seminary chapel prayer. Now they pulled a trigger and turned knobs to traverse and search for communists to kill. Had I ever metamorphosed! Transformation from seminarian to soldier was done by natural agencies, changing me from the goodly to the deadly. I was convinced a former follower of Confucianism was as likely as a former follower of Christianity or Judaism or Islam to rediscover his beliefs in a foxhole under fire. Combat was war between believers. Disbelievers were safely back stateside in the chairs of universities.
In those gun pits all wild with wrath, soldiers who’d never met before or would meet again except on the battlefield, fired artillery, mortars, machine guns, and rifles to wound and kill for a hilltop between lines. It was madness when there was talk of a DMZ [demilitarized zone]! Madness to fight for the next hilltop, for there was no end.
Attachment: war interview korean war walsh