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Navy Corpsman Jack Hessman: The Battle of the Chosin Reservoir
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Jack Hessman was a Navy Corpsman who served in the Korean War. He was assigned to the Marine Corps, and fought in the famous battle of the Chosin Reservoir. During the battle, he faced freezing cold conditions, and at one point had to play dead in order to avoid being killed by Chinese soldiers.
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Today, we’ll be hearing from Jack Hessman. Hessman was a Navy Corpsman assigned to the Marine Corps. He fought in the famous battle of the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War.
I was a Navy medical corpsman assigned to the Marine Corps. We're also called FMF Corpsman, sustaining for fleet Marine force corpsman and when you go to the FMF, you discard your Navy blues, you wear Marine uniform and the Eagle globe and anchors on everything, so you're indistinguishable to most people from the everyday Marine.
We got to Japan on a troopship just in time to get into a typhoon in the Harbor. We had to evacuate the ship, go on land because they were afraid two ships in the Harbor were going to collide. One had broken loose. So we spent our first night or two in Kobe, Japan. Then we went to Korea and landed at Pusan, the Pusan Perimeter port at the very Southern tip of Korea. It was the last real estate the UN held. It was small perimeter, I guess it must have been about 20, 30 miles of an arc.
I arrived with the First Provisional Marine Brigade, which was a hastily assembled group of Marines, primarily from one of the islands and from San Diego, but they were the most experienced Marines the corps had. So they put them into combat right away. And the first major battle they had was called the First Naktong at the Naktong River, where the Army people had been defeated and driven back, the Marines came in, retook the ground, turned it back over to the Army, then we fell back for rest. That's when I joined.
Next thing I know we're in the, what's now known as Second Naktong, we had to go back and retake the land again. Then they pulled us back and loaded us aboard ship and we steamed up the coast to off the Harbor of Inchon. General Douglas MacArthur had this brilliant idea to go in there with an amphibious landing and it's just a little bit south of the North-South Korean border. His idea was to cut off all the North Korean troops who were putting the pressure on down south. Most of his senior officers opposed the move because the Inchon Harbor had something like, I think, 80 foot tides, or maybe it was 36 foot, I'm not sure. Anyhow, substantial tides. Once the tide went out, you had nothing but mud flats there. So with the Third Battalion Fifth Marines, I went in on the first wave in the morning. We secured this island in the Harbor called Womi Island. It was really a small mountain in the Harbor and gave us commanding view of the whole situation, and we sort of watched the evening landing take place. It was quite a sight.
We started moving up and the weather had turned bitter cold and it got worse the higher we went and we found ourselves, most of the time, on the side of cliffs on this narrow oxcart road that took the whole convoy up. Up at the top, we went through a few villages and it was amazing. We are all bundled up in our winter gear sitting in the backs of these trucks, really suffering from the cold, but yet we passed through native villages and they're out there in their short sleeves, some of them and little kids out there with absolutely nothing on but a little tiny vest. "Bonsai, Bonsai, Bonsai," they're welcoming us. So we went on up and made camp eventually at a place called Udamnee, which was as far north as we ever got. The first night there, I noticed some activity on the far ridge and I brought it to the attention of one of our officers, he said, "We know about that. There are just some volunteers." So I gave it no further thought. Sometime way after dark, they attacked in force and the ground was frozen solid. We had these entrenching tools, which you could use as a shovel, or you lock them in a 45 degree angle and use it as a pick. In most terrain it would enable you to dig away at the dirt. Up there it did nothing. You could not make a dent in the ground with these tools. Most people gave up and slept on top of the ground. We had good equipment in that respect. We had these mountain type sleeping bags, which were down-filled, and were very good protection. I chose to go up on the hillside, found a little ravine or a little gully that was enough of a depression that served as a foxhole, and I set up my sleeping bag there and then get in and zipped it up. This was before we had any attacks.
Well, when the attacks came suddenly I was trapped in my own sleeping bag. So I decided to stay put because there was activity going on back and forth all around me, so I just played possum. Somebody and I'm sure it was Chinese troops stood right beside me, came up and looked at me for a long time and I was there in the sleeping bag and I had a 38 revolver in my hand. I figured if it got real bad I would try to shoot. Biggest problem was deciding whether to take a peremptory shot or not. I just laid very still and whoever it was moved on. I was afraid to open my eyes wide enough to make out the who the person was, not identify them, but just to see who I was dealing with. So when he moved on, then I unzipped the bag, got out of it and went down about 50 yards down and we had our company set up.
When the fighting began, we were all equipped with gloves and mittens over the gloves. Wool gloves, good quality and then these mittens that had a trigger finger. So you could take a carbine or rifle or a machine gun and still use it and keep your mittens on. That's very helpful.
All right. I'm a pack rat, so I over prepare for most situations. It's just a family trait. So I had couple of socks and we had these thermos type, what they call shoe packs. They were boots that were rubberized and you pulled them on and laced them up and they acted like a thermos bottle, except your feet would sooner or later start perspiring and the thermos effect was not good enough that eventually the perspiration froze. That's how we got a lot of cases of frostbite, and the rest of me, I had about four pairs of pants on. I had my regular field utilities. Under that I had wool Marine green trousers. And on top of that I had ski pants that they had issued to us, good against the wind. And then I had a field jacket, sweater, and cap, and then this big, heavy parka. So we had good protection against the weather, to the extent that it was possible to have any protection, but also inhibited much in the way of movement. You were just loaded down. But you did the best you could. You couldn't move anywhere very quickly because there was ice on the ground for one thing, and most of us, all of us I'd say, were really well wrapped with clothing. And the fact that if you tried to do anything requiring any manual dexterity beyond pulling a trigger, you sooner or later had to remove the gloves and your fingers would freeze instantly, within the first 30 seconds or so they were numb, you couldn't get tactile feeling from them, which was quite a problem.
That was a situation where the weather, in one respect, was on our side. A lot of the gun gunshot injuries didn't bleed very much because of the severe cold and any bullet that got through the clothing also opened up a pathway for the cold. So you didn't have to use many tourniquets or anything like that, as you would in jungle warfare.
So the weather helped us in that respect, but it also made it very difficult to try to do much in the way of diagnostic probing, so you just trusted your instincts and the main thing was to get them to an aid station where they had light and they had some degree of heat from stoves.
The frost bite, when you were dealing one on one with each other, you might hear a complaint about, "I'm numb. I can't feel a thing and my feet, I keep stopping the feet to get the circulation going," but other than that, you didn't get many subjective symptoms. It was only after they got to an aid station or evacuated to a field hospital that the extent of the frostbite injuries became known. And it's sort of like the old business about people freezing to death, it's not a painful way to. Now, couple this with gunfire injuries and bayonets, things like that, then you've got a different situation, but it's still... The frostbite, we all knew we were getting it, but it wasn't bothering us that much. People just kept going on because it was just on the same continuum as everything else that was happening to us. There's no abrupt transition other than if you got hit by gunfire.
Cold was a severe discomfort and a severe obstacle to getting much of the things done that we had to do. But other than the severe discomfort, nobody was, at to my knowledge, was all that concerned. Frostbite was something that we had heard about, knew nothing about, and that showed up later when we get to hospitals and you see the terrible toll it took.
Frostbite is insidious in that respect. When you're getting it, I'd say most people are not really all that aware that they've moved into this whole new area of disability. It's insidious because the victim is probably the last one to know about it. It's just a further progression of the discomfort, except it all of a sudden starts feeling better because you've lost your sensations, the nerves have been frozen.
By the way, one of the things about frostbite, the personal injury quite often is noticed earlier by one of your buddies, they'll say, "Hey, you better get that covered up," or "Put something around your mouth," or "Cover up your nose," and the victim doesn't feel it as a rule.
The terrain for the whole retreat, we were limited pretty much to this narrow oxcart road, which was really wide enough for one vehicle maybe. Usually, in most stretches of it, had sharply rising Hills on one side and a sharp drop off on the other side. So you couldn't have a whole lot of activity going forward. You had a column and the whole column moved or the whole column stopped. There was very little passing each other or going in two directions, only with the greatest of difficulty. And that's no way to fight a war or a battle.
I don't recall any line of demarcation there. It was just a progressive thing. The hardest part was in the middle of the night, when the attacks had let up for a while and there were massing to make other attacks. We were under attack all night long, every night, not quite as much during the day, and it was in those interim spells where there was not a lot of action going on that you started personally feeling the cold. The excitement of the battle put the cold way back in your mind and that's true of people who undergo... I'm looking for the expression, combat fatigue or a breakdown in combat, they usually don't do it in battle despite what the movies show, they do it in between battles. It's when the mind has a chance to start meandering.
Every attack was a very dynamic situation and a lot of it was seesaw back and forth. You were never sure until they cleared away who had won, who had lost, how many people you had lost, and whether your lines had held. So it was every man from himself in one sense. We were all working together, every man was looking out for the guy fell on either side, but other than that, we weren't getting much in the way of direct commands to do this, do that. When it was required, we had good officers who would make sure that everybody got the word, "We want to move over this way," or "We want to go back up and take that ground," and all that, but in the battle it was a singular experience. You were surrounded by other people doing the same thing, but you were in your own private war in one sense.
Our whole experience down in South Korea was that we defeated every enemy we faced and we kept winning and we recaptured the capital city of Seoul and we drove them out and we were victorious and we get up to the Chosin Reservoir, we were accustomed to being victorious. We felt we were invincible. Now we also got word after this battle heated up and went into days that the Eighth Army, which was on our left, was 50 miles behind us. We were up there all by ourselves and we had a small army contingent over in the right and they get clobbered by these same Chinese. It's a sad situation in the sense that they took a lot of punishment that we would've taken if they hadn't been there and they weren't all that effective against the Chinese, but as shock absorbers, yeah. And I mean no disrespect, a lot of brave men got terrible injuries up there and killed.
I'm not personally aware of any of our people who froze to death. They may have succumbed to the cold after they were injured and put on a vehicle where they were laying still because the trucks were so packed with wounded, and they were like cordwood, in the sleeping bags alive, but stacked, and then other Marines stacked on top of them and in the other direction. And some of those, I'm sure probably succumbed, but any of our people, we were too busy to freeze to death, you might say.
I remember one incident going up the road during the day when I watched a helicopter get shot down, one of our helicopters. It's probably the saddest thing I've ever seen in my life. Here's this helicopter circling and getting ready to come in, and all of a sudden it just starts spiraling down and then crash. Several of us went up to investigate and in order to get there, we had to cross over this little creek, little ravine, and there was a dead Chinese soldier laying in there. And you really had no choice, he was the best stepping stone. So every one of us that went up there, not deliberately, just that was the way to do it, stepped on his chest, and he, "Uh," and that stuck with me for a long time because do I guess he hadn't been dead that long, but other people noticed this, that he'd give out with a sigh, but no question he was dead, it was just the weight of us on his chest.
I noticed they all wore quilted uniforms, which I guess was a very effective way of keeping out the cold. The one thing that stuck in my mind, as I say, we had many cases of frostbite, mostly to the feet, the Chinese that I saw were wearing tennis shoes, that's it. And I don't know whether they had socks on underneath, I sort of doubt it, but many of them survived without all this cold weather gear and I'm sure many of them got severe case of frostbite too. But my theory at the time was that the constant flexing of the foot protected them from some of the cold effects because once we put our feet in those shoe packs, they were rigid in there. It was very hard to even warm yourself up by flexing your foot. Very hard to do, especially if you were wearing one or two pairs of socks, which most of us were. If we had extra socks and I did, I changed mine, but even as young men, we were like early twenties or younger than that, as limber as we were, it was quite a job with all these layers of clothing, like three, four pairs of pants, trousers... oh, and long underwear underneath that, to remove this tall boot and then pull it off and then remove the socks and then put on the new ones and while you're putting on the new ones, your feet are starting to freeze just like your hands would when you take off her gloves. So doing a little self maintenance was very hard to do and I know a lot of Marines were criticized for not changing the socks, but it was a very, very difficult thing to do.
I think I can speak for all of us, we did not eat. If we had some rations left over that had chocolate in them or cashew nuts, something like that, we could put those in our mouth, but the rest of the rations were in regular tin cans and if you managed to use this can opener, remove the top, all you had in there was a solid block of ice and you could not start a fire.
In fact, one older Marine I knew who had gone through World War II in the Islands, he went sort of ballistic, he broke down because he started a fire to warm up some rations for his men and that invited some water rounds to come in and several of them got killed. He blamed himself for that, he felt he should not have started the fire, but there was no way to defrost those cans. So by and large, none of us ate for five to ten days. I lost 32 pounds in one month up there because on the onboard ship as a corpsman I could into the sick bay on the ship and among other things, I weighed myself and when I got back after the Reservoir, I'd gone from 202 down to 168 in one month and a lot of that was not eating at all, which was just as well because if you ate sooner or later, you'd have to go to the bathroom and that was impossible.
There was... at least there's a theory, well, you melt some snow and sure, you could take a handful. You got to eat many, many, many handfuls of snow before your body feels it, but that's the only thing you could do is grab some snow and put it in your mouth and melt it from body heat. So there was no drinking.
I was up there from... the fighting broke out November 27th and I got evacuated, I think, December 3rd.
Corpsman under the Geneva Convention are not supposed to carry weapons. I always did. We all did. My standard issue was a carbine, smaller, lighter, easier to carry because we had musette bags with all our supplies in there, but the carbine is a fine precision weapon, but even the light coating boil would freeze. These carbines would jam and I've heard stories of people urinating on them, doing anything to get them firing. Once you get them firing a little bit, the firing will generate enough heat to keep them going, at least for that particular battle. But that's one of the reasons I relied on that revolver, an old fashioned six shooter. I figured if I need to protect myself or my patient or whatever, I've got something I can rely on, but that was a big problem and I'd love to see somebody who can calculate how that affected the outcome because it's as if we were working in a half strength or some marginal percentage.
There's good reason for pessimism because you saw so many good platoons, companies, just cut the pieces and you wonder here we are the finest troops in the world, so we were at that time and we're getting torn up, but we had an overwhelming enemy and the abrupt change from all the victories prior to that and then all of a sudden to get thrown into this, it's got to have an effect on your outlook on these things.
I wanted to tell you that probably the hardest part of each day was the long night, talking about daylight saving time back here, they had some system over there where they added five hours on each end of the night. In other words, I'm being sarcastic, but we lived and prayed for the aircraft to come in and through a lot of that, we had no air cover because the ceilings were so low. And this one night we all prayed about, "Let the planes get through," and all of a sudden it opens up. So we have our Christmas star for the chosen few and that's where our emblem came from and everybody breathed the sigh of relief and the planes were extremely effective.
I was on up against an embankment one time and the enemy was I'd say probably less than 50 yards up the hill beyond me and I'm watching these F4 Corsairs come in. It looked like they were coming to me and I knew they weren't, but it's quite a feeling to watch them and have that confidence that he's not getting you, but he's getting them, they were that good. And they'd peel off right above the ground and we really were very grateful for their support. It turned the tide of the battle.
It was slow in dawning, the reality in getting through to us because even our officers didn't have a whole lot of intelligence. I'm talking about, not smarts, but intelligence information. They weren't sure what was going on, at least if they were, they carefully did not tell us... yea because we had already felt invincible and we could do anything, go anywhere, take on anybody. Then all of a sudden we find these people, just by sheer numbers, are just tearing our outfit to pieces. I remember one part in one of the books, a field officer or an officer on the line asked for mortar fire for a ridge under attack and he said, "I want a heavy barrage," and the answer come back by telephone to "What, both rounds?" because we were running out of ammunition. A lot of fellas, I was not one of them, getting in hand to hand combat with the bayonets. Fortunately the Marines were trained to use bayonets, so they gave a good account of themselves.
We tried to conceal ourselves, stay down like in gullies or whatever, get behind some rocks or outcroppings and conceal ourselves that way. But visibility was not that big a factor because mostly they attacked at night, especially when our aircraft were in the area, they laid low. So we took most of the punishment during the night.
Well, I was in G35, which is shorthand for George Company, Third Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment and we had the lead in taking the column from Udamnee, about 30 miles, I guess, down to Hagaru and it was one series of roadblocks after another. Meanwhile, the road twists around, in one place it was like a horseshoe bend and you could talk to the fellow over across from you. But when a corpsman was called, he had to go up the whole way and come back to his unit when he was finished up up there.
There was one point there where I got called up to look at this fellow who'd been hit and the bullet had gone in upward through his chin and I tried to check his vital signs, couldn't make a decision as to whether he was alive or dead, so they were going take him along on the column and I didn't see anything I could do there for him because whatever had gone in there was still in there most likely. I always felt guilty about that and at one of our reunions, I happened to mention it to somebody and he said, "Yeah, I know who that was. It was so and so, and you know, he lived. He got back…” What happened, the bullet had gone up and ricocheted around inside his helmet and back into his head and gone out, did not do any major damage, but it certainly flattened him right there and he was unable to move or anything like that, but he did a full recovery.
When we get into Hagaru, I was having problems with frostbite and pneumonia and I'd been dosing myself with adriamycin or achromycin. I think it was adriamycin, the yellow capsules. As a corpsman I had my own supply of those, and I was trying to deal with, with what I'd diagnosed as pneumonia. I'd been getting pneumonia at least once a year for a three year stretch. So I was getting chills and fever, despite the cold and I was getting disoriented and difficulty breathing. So I was taking this ariamycin, no liquids to take it with and I'm not sure whether that affected or what, but they decided that I should get out of there. I wasn't going to do anybody any good the way I was. Also, had frostbite my hands, feet and my nose and ears.
When I get in into a tent there, they had a warming tent, they had several of them at Hagaru, and I would change my socks and I could see my feet were frozen and also my fingers in my ears, and even today I can tell you when, when it goes below 37 degrees, I get tremendous earaches. I had had it on my tip of my nose too because some parts you just couldn't cover up and stay functional.
Well, I call it a warming tent because they indeed did have warming tents, but I found a tent that had a stove in it and I was able to go in and sit down and I forget what I sat on, whether it was a bench or what or a box. Anyhow, sit down, proceeded to change my socks and that's when I started seeing what had happened and like I say, you don't notice these things when they're happening to you, but I knew the symptoms and all that.
The practice was they would set up warming tents scattered throughout the area where you're, not stationed, but there's another expression... Anyhow, where you were committed at the time, and to the extent possible, you'd go back, and get warmed up a little and then go back out in the cold. I never used one the whole time until we got to Hagaru. That was the first time I used a warming tent and I called it a warming tent. It may not have been an official one, but it was there and it was warm, is all I wanted.
We get into the village of Hagaru, where we had an outpost there and supplies and a base camp of Marines waiting for us. They fed us, they looked after us and anybody who was wounded or disabled, they were trying to get them out by air. The Air Force had a continuous stream of C47s coming in there taking wounded and disabled troops out.
The engineers brought in their graders and bulldozers and just carved an airstrip out of the frozen ground and it was a very short one and planes had a lot of trouble landing and taking off and once they got airborne or before they set down, they were under fire from the surrounding hills. A very dicey situation for those pilots.
I've heard other people say the same story, but I actually was the last man on this one flight going out. They had already closed the door and were getting ready to take off, and then they opened the door again and they saw that I was ambulatory. So they called me in and had me sit down on the floor of the plane until they got airborne and then the co-pilot got up out of his seat and had me come up and sit in the co-pilot seat and the pilot motioned for me to put on the headset and he had tuned into the Armed Forces radio network, and after those weeks and weeks of total isolation, all of a sudden I hear Hank Snow singing I'm Moving On. I just went to pieces, it was a very traumatic event emotionally, but I also had the feeling that we were in World War III and we were already losing part of it. Fortunately that did not pan out that way, but just give you an idea of the insight because you don't know what's going on all around you, except what's in your immediate vicinity.
It did mark you for the rest of your life because you saw so much carnage, so many friends, people, just all of a sudden they're gone and quite often in some horrible fashion. Plus you're fighting an overwhelming enemy and at least in the back of your mind, you're thinking, your subconscious is saying, "Am I next? Am I next?" or "When's it going to happen?"
For the first couple years, when I got back to the United States, went into college, I'd go out on a date. I'm out with a beautiful young lady and I'm looking around, "If something, all of a sudden happens, I'll dive behind that place," or "Where can I take cover?" and it sticks with you.
A lot of us still wear socks to bed. As cold as it was over there, when I got back to the U.S., I couldn't stand to even have a sheet on top of me sleeping at night. My body had adjusted to the cold to that extent. So when I get married, my wife would sleep under the covers, I'd sleep on top.
That was Navy Corpsman Jack Hessman.
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