Interview/Memoir of Paul Steppe, Korean War, Veterans History Project, Voices of War : National Geographic
Paul Steppe, Marine Corps, Korean War
The best part of my equipment, aside from my weapons, were the new boots issued in late fall. Everyone had seen movies about the seriousness of taking care of their feet. The gravity of that was due to the many foot soldiers of the various countries fighting under the United Nations Colors getting frozen feet during the winter of 1950. Many toes, feet, and legs were amputated due to frostbite that was either not treated immediately due to the war situation or ignored by the afflicted. These newly issued boots that I now have were a gift from Heaven. Requiring only one pair of socks, the boots are waterproof and insulated and have at least an inch and a half sole and larger heel. They are a little heavy but absolutely great! They keep my feet warm and comfortable.
The United Nations forces had established a front line of defense, called an “MLR,” or main line of resistance.
The night watch starts just before darkness sets in at the end of another long day. Everyone has finished their evening meal, the canned heat is out, the weapons have been checked, loaded, and ready for use, extra ammunition is accounted for and placed in logical locations, and the wristwatch is checked for accuracy. It is entirely up to the two persons assigned to their bunker how long each watch will last, but generally it is two hours in cold weather and two to four hours in the warmer months.
The same activity is occurring in each two-man bunker across the entire MLR. The sentry expects something to occur when it is least expected; therefore he must discipline himself to always expect it. The sentry feels totally alone in the darkness. No talking, no whispers unless there is a need, no humming, and doing nothing but watching and listening. These cycles of anxious and tense moments wear on the sentry. Soon he is ready for sleep, just to get away from the presence of war.
Steppe’s battalion saw its first action in June.
With every mortar shell that came in screaming. I thought it had my name on it. My eyes caught something moving to my left about thirty yards away. I turned and saw an NKPA [North Korean soldier] moving southward on another smaller ridge line consisting of soft dirt or sand, which made running away difficult. I sighted him with my rifle and pulled the trigger. I know that I hit him, but so did about four other marines. The guy was picked up off the ground from the impact of the bullets and moved sideways about a yard and fell dead. I didn’t feel any remorse for that soldier, perhaps because U was not the only one that shot him. I had heard that the first kill was the most difficult, and many marines were killed because they hesitated in squeezing the trigger before the enemy did. The soldier was running away from battle. He could have been shot by his own colleagues.
That was the way it was, waiting, attacking, digging holes, attacking, waiting, and more hills to climb up and down. That was Korea and its famous mountain ranges. Engagements were sometimes swift with little defensive reaction, but often they became fierce, and men were killed or injured and most were never seen again.
I think your worst war memories are your buddies being killed. It’s a buddy system. You have a bond and brotherhood when you’re overseas. Watch the man on your left, you watch the man on the right, and they do the same for you. They do best by replacing that man as soon as possible, to keep you talking, to keep you occupied. I lost six buddies over there. And they were senseless. That’s when I started considering war senseless, when I started losing my buddies.
On watch, December 24, 1951: My buddy was awakened at 6 P.M. and he prepared to stand the first watch. After being relieved I went to sleep and slept soundly. Two hours later, at about 8:00 P.M., I went outside to relieve my buddy from his watch.
While scanning areas toward my left, I heard a “pop” over my head to the right flank. I knew it was a grenade because I saw the fuse from the Russian grenade flicker several times. I yelled out, “Fire in the hole,” and bent forward and heard another “pop.” By then I was bent over on my knees and partially around a corner of the trench. Both grenades landed to my rear and exploded. The first one merely threw dirt all over the place, but the second one found me. It blew my right boot completely off with its shrapnel and injured my right foot and buttocks.
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