Osan, South Korea, July 5, 1950
By Norman Fosness, “B” Company, 21’st Inf. Regt.
“----, all that will be left of this unit by morning will be a handful of dog tags”
I was seventeen when I enlisted in the U.S. Army on Nov. 29, 1948, at Minot, N.D. I took my basic training and a six-week leadership course at Fort Riley, KS.
In June 1949, I found myself in Camp Wood, Japan, where I was assigned to Co. B, and 1st. Platoon 3rd squad of the 21st. Infantry Regiment. I was a Corporal, and was a Browning Automatic Rifleman (BAR); my assistant was a draftee named George Pleasant.
Pleasant, the only draftee in our company, was small in stature and was about 3 or 4 years older than me. He made a good foxhole buddy; I don’t think I would have made it out without him.
We were quite isolated at Camp Wood; all the media we saw or heard was in Japanese. By June of 1950, we had begun hearing rumors of war; but we really never thought we’d be involved. But the girls in town thought differently as they listened to Japanese radio and read the newspapers.
Camp Wood went on Red Alert on June 25th after the North Koreans crossed the 38th parallel. Late on the night of June 30th, we were told to pack our gear, and go to the armory and withdraw 240 rounds of ammunition and two hand grenades each.
The following morning we were loaded on trucks and taken to Itazuki Air Force Base. It was late afternoon when we boarded the plane and headed to Korea, but after we had been airborne for some time, we turned around because we were unable to land at the Pusan runways.
Rather than spend a night in the airport hanger, we decided to head to a nearby town. But as soon as we arrived, the M.P.’s found us and sent us back. When I got back I discovered my helmet and 45 handgun had disappeared. I managed to find another 45, but not a helmet.
We again boarded planes the next morning. I remember Wolford Ransome Jr. being excited because he had been filmed as he boarded the plane (this scene appeared in the movie “Korea, the Forgotten War”).
This time we landed, and loaded on some old army trucks that took us to a railway station. We weren’t at the station long, but it was long enough for me to win $450 in a crap game! This was unusual as I didn’t usually gamble for that high a stake.
The luckiest dice player in our unit was Benjamin Jordan; he won $1,400 in one night! But even though he won a lot of people’s money, he was still well-liked. Jordan dreamed of buying a farm, and we didn’t mind donating to his cause. (Unfortunately, Jordan never lived to get his farm!)
On the train to Pyongtaek I overheard a WWII Sergeant say: “A few bandits crossed the 38th parallel; when they see the American uniform they’ll run back.” That helped ease me some.
We arrived at Pyongtaek that afternoon and dug in for the night near a schoolhouse. On the afternoon of July 3, I heard the roar of airplanes and saw three coming toward us with their machine guns blazing. I dove into my foxhole. None of us was hit.
We moved to new positions later that same afternoon. As we walked out of the schoolyard, I saw two dead South Korean soldiers in a ditch about four feet from the road. The planes had mangled them pretty bad. One had a hole in his head about the size of my fist, and the other’s arms and legs were just dangling.
I quickly turned my gaze away from them. This was the first dead person I had seen; it was my first ‘real’ scene of war!
I wondered what was going to happen to us next; could this soon be me? The other men in our group were thinking the same as they walked past the two dead soldiers. No one spoke. Everyman was in his own thoughts.
We stayed at our new positions that night and the next day, July 4. We had C-rations that evening. This would be the last time I would eat or sleep for two days!
About midnight we loaded on trucks. “Pop” Thornton, my squad leader, told us, “We’re going north to set up a road block, and we are to hold it until reinforcements arrive.”
Vincent Vastano replied, “S---, all that there will be left of this outfit by morning will be a couple handful’s of dog tags for them to pick up.”
Charles Hendrix said: “I wish I would have written to my mother, I haven’t written to her in a long, long time. Now it’s going to be too late.” (It was as Charles was among the dead.)
Alton Christie and my best buddy, Haden Lacey, were also having somber thoughts. For some reason I didn’t feel quite like that.
I stood in the back of the truck as we traveled with the lights out through mountainous roads. We unloaded about 3 a.m., and walked a short distance down the road. It was pitch-black; we couldn’t see anything as we stumbled to our positions.
I was only a BAR man in a rifle squad so I didn’t know where the rest of the units were positioned.
Chapman, from the weapons squad, and Jimmie Mien and Charles Hendrix of the 3rd squad were all assigned to positions down by the road.
Thornton positioned Pleasant and me about 40 ft. in front and a little to the right of a 75-mm. (57 mm ?) recoilless rifle; we were to protect it.
I couldn’t see another GI or foxhole anywhere around us. I could hear the guys on the 75mm gun talking behind us though. We were spread really thin.
The ground was hard and rocky, and we had to chip away with our trenching tools. It began to rain -- real hard.
I couldn’t see very far; there was a hill in front of us.
Suddenly a T34 tank came into sight as it came around a curve in the road maybe 1,500 yards away. Then another and another!
I started to count the tanks. I quit at 16! I knew we were in big trouble!
I knew then that this was not just a few bandits crossing the 38th parallel! And they didn’t run when they saw American uniforms!
At about 1,000 yards, the North Korean Infantrymen walking along with the tanks peeled off to the right along the hill.
I aimed high and opened fire on them. They ducked, but then they continued on. I heard Pleasant say, “Don’t shoot, you’ll give them our position.”
As the tanks got nearer, the 75mm started firing. It made a huge BOOM, and the back-blast knocked rocks and dirt splattering on us. I then thought of my missing helmet; I felt like a turtle without a shell!
Down by the road, an intense fire-fight between the tanks and our infantry soon developed. I could hear the tanks’ cannons firing, the chatter of machine-gun and rifle fire and bazookas going off. (But although I didn’t know it then, our 2.36-inch bazookas were as effective as a bb-gun against those Russian-built T-34’s.)
I really felt sorry for the guys who were down by the road--Allen, Hendrix and Chapman!
The tank column continued passing on through our positions. When the end of the tank column came through, two of the rear tanks peeled off to the right side of the road, and the another tank just stopped on the road.
They began to rake our hill with their 85- mm. cannons and machine guns. The 75 mm continued to fire. .. . BOOM! BOOM! The tanks returned fire; they had spotted the 75- mm. recoilless rifle and were trying to take it out.
Then artillery and mortar shells began to hit our area. They were definitely trying to knock out that 75.
Shells were landing all around us, and all we could do was get down in our foxhole and pray that we would not be the victims of a direct hit.
Then, Pleasant and I started wondering: “What if the NK infantry overruns our position?” We took turns looking over the edge our hole.
There were bushes 2 to 4 ft high in front of our position; soon I discovered that the North Koreans had camouflaged themselves to look like a bush. It was still raining, which made them even more difficult to see. But when I saw a bush move I opened fire and sometimes I just fired at anything in front of me.
All the while that 75 continued firing. Then it stopped and I heard someone yell that it was hit, and to destroy it.
At about 3 in the afternoon, a company runner came down the backside of our positions hollering
“Retreat.... retreat… everyman for himself . . . retreat!”
I fired my BAR as Pleasant jumped out of the foxhole and headed to the backside of the hill. I then pulled the pins on my two grenades, and threw them down the hill. I jumped out of the hole and ran to the rear side of the hill where I thought I would be safe from rifle and machine gun fire.
But as soon as I arrived, we were again under small arms fire. It was coming from the hill on the west side of the road, where, unknown to us online, the North Koreans had overrun earlier. We ran down the hill straight back to the rear under heavy small arms fire. Pleasant was running in front of me.
We came across some boxes of C-rations. He ran toward them but as he approached, a hail of fire tore the C-ration boxes into shreds. We decided we weren’t all that hungry after all, and continued on down the hill empty handed.
At the bottom of the hill there was a ditch where the hill met the rice paddies. It was about 8 to 10 feet deep with about 2 feet of water in the bottom.
I dived into the ditch in a hailstorm of small arms fire. Sgt. Schellenger, who was one step behind me, was not so fortunate.
He got hit in the knee by a bullet and fell head first into the ditch. We pulled him out of the water and propped him up against the bank.
There were about 10-12 guys huddled in the ditch. We wondered what we should do. I heard Sgt. Thompson say: “We can’t stay here and be taken prisoner.”
I thought the longer I stayed the more chance I had of being killed or captured.
Someone yelled: “We got to do something, we can’t just stay here and be captured!”
Then, I heard Pleasant yell “Come on Fosness,” and he took off running in the rice paddy.
He hadn’t gotten more than 75 ft. when a machine-gun opened up on him. He fell head-first in the paddy with a hailstorm of machine gun bullets spraying the water around him.
He lay motionless in the paddy. I was sure he was dead! Then, after maybe a couple of minutes, I saw him unhook his ammo belt and push his rifle to the side. He began crawling away on his stomach through the paddy.
Someone else decided to make a try for it. He took about three steps from the bank. Again the machine-gun splattered the paddy water a couple of feet in front of him. He froze and then came back.
Then, I decided to make my break. I ran as hard as I could into the paddy determined to make it through. But after only about 50 feet, I fell flat on my face; running in that rice paddy was impossible. I sank in mud and water almost to my knees.
I crawled on my stomach in about eight inches of paddy water for about 100 yards all the while bullets spraying the paddy around me.
I came to a ridge about two feet high, and found I was able to crawl without exposing myself too much. I couldn’t see anyone else around me; for all I knew I was the only one left!
I didn’t know where I was going, and didn’t know what the hell I was going to do when I got there!
I ran and crawled on my hands and knees for what seemed like a mile. Eventually, the paddy’s ridge I was on turned toward the road.
I didn’t want to go that way, so I jumped up and ran forward, and a little to my left. I saw four other guys running crouched by another embankment. I crawled up the embankment where I had seen them.
By this time, I was further from the North Koreans range of fire so I took the chance of running in an upright crouched position.
Then, I came on a group of about twenty men in a drainage ditch. Was I ever glad to see them! Pleasant, Fasnacht and our platoon Sgt. Thompson are the only ones I remember. I was the last one to arrive there.
I still had my BAR. But it was caked with mud and jammed. And it seemed even heavier.
It was then that the shock of the last eight hours hit me. The horror seemed unbelievable.
I reached in my pocket for a cigarette, but the packages were all crumpled up and wet. Fasnacht took off his helmet and retrieved a dry pack and gave me one.
We could still hear rifle fire from the hill we where had been. But, it was very sporadic now.
I think they were shooting the wounded and prisoners.
I don’t know how many men were killed or wounded crossing the rice paddies. The ones that made it out were mostly walking wounded. One guy had four bullet holes through his trousers and shirt but he didn’t have a scratch. Another one had the tip of his nose shot off.
We headed south with Sgt. Thompson in the lead; we kept to the rice paddies and hills.
None of us had a map or compass. We talked about going to the coast and hijacking a boat back to Japan.
We didn’t know if there were any more American troops coming over, or what was going to happen to us few GI’s that were in Korea.
Would we all be overrun before we found our way back to Pusan?
Late that afternoon we came across about 40 Korean soldiers; we couldn’t tell if they were North or South. We watched them from the drainage ditch.
We decided that if they came our way we would have to surrender since only half of us still had weapons, and we had hardly any ammunition. They took off in a different direction and we continued.
Shortly after that, we decided to dismantle and throw away our remaining weapons; we were exhausted and they would be of no use to us anyway since we didn’t have any ammunition. I kept my 45 though.
As we were dismantling our arms, one GI accidentally shot himself in the upper part of his leg and was unable to walk. Two guys volunteered to stay with him and take him to a village a short distance away. I didn’t know any of them, and I never heard of them again.
Soon we came to a road. We decided we were far enough ahead of the North Koreans so we took the road.
We came to a village where we found a large building and decided to rest for a while. About an hour later a South Korean civilian yelled that North Korean tanks were entering the town.
So off we went again to the rice paddies and the hills.
That night was pitch-dark. We stopped for a short break. I laid down along side the paddy terrace to rest--and fell asleep! A bit later the column took off, but I didn’t know it!
The last man in the column slipped off the muddy terrace and stepped on my head wakening me! God, what if he had not slipped; I would have awakened hours later all alone not knowing where I was or what the hell to do. I still shudder at the thought!
We continued walking all that night and into the next day. We were close to a road now and could see an endless line of refugee’s fleeing south.
Pleasant and I, and another soldier whose name I can’t remember, went down to the road and mixed in with the refuges. We were able to get on some carts being pulled by oxen and rode. The rest of our group continued walking the paddies and hills.
Late that afternoon the refugee column came upon a group of GI’s. When we saw them, the three of us left the column and went to the GIs. It turned out to be “A” Company, 21st, and they were getting ready to go into battle.
When we arrived, a couple of officers quickly took us to a tent and began questioning us. I can’t remember who they were or what ranks they held.
They asked if there were any more with us. I told them there were around twenty in my group and that the others we were with were still going south and walking in the paddies and hills.
They wanted to know how many escaped.
I told them as far as I knew, we were the only ones.
They asked about Colonel Smith, and if he escaped, and if he was bringing out some more men.
Again I didn’t know.
I told them that we were almost surrounded and under heavy fire when we got the word to retreat. And that we were told that it was every man was for himself.
They brought us C-rations.
I hadn’t eaten in two days, but I couldn’t eat. I took about three spoonfuls of the beef stew and just couldn’t eat any more.
I thought about the last two days and felt like throwing up. It was hard to hold my emotions.
We were then taken to Taejon to rejoin Task Force Smith.
Late afternoon of July 7, we fell into formation to get a head count of survivors. Only eight were there from the first platoon: one from the 1st squad, three from the 2nd squad, and four from 3rd squad (the squad I was in). There was none from the 4th squad, the heavy weapons squad.
Thomas Santiago and Pop Thornton rejoined our unit two or three weeks later. They had been slightly wounded.
Replacements arrived, but it was really hard for me to see another man standing in my friend’s place. I had nothing against the replacements, but it just hurt too much. They did not fill in the emptiness I felt inside.
I lost a lot of good friends.
A part of me died July 5, 1950, at a place called Osan, South Korea!
Norman Fosness, “B” Co, 21st Inf. Regt. 24th Div., as written by his daughter, Lisa Sholl, in the 21st Gimlets Newsletter, Fall 2007, permission granted. ###
Editor’s note: I checked most of the names Norman mentions in this article in the 24th Division Casualty Database on the web, http://www.2id.org/24-casna.htm.
Almost all are listed! I think the author wanted to show his fallen comrades names.
Mr. Fosness himself is listed. That date is February 14, 1951. It states: Seriously wounded in action by a missile; Returned to duty.Fosness, Norman, 2007, The Taro Leaf, Vol 61(3&4), Summer-Fall, pp 29-33.