Operation Nomad—Press Reports vs. Reality
Tom J. Thiel, “Easy” 19th
Merry Helm, in her excellent introduction to these articles, talked about the disparity between actuality and what was reported in the press during Operation Nomad. As my title implies, this article is a comparison of my experiences versus what the press reported.
While Nomad began on Oct. 13, I have no recollection of what happened to us that day. However, our 19th Regiment suffered 80 casualties that day with 10 of those killed in action. I did not recognize any as being from Easy Company.
After Operation Nomad, from left standing: Ray Salyers and Lindsey Lewis, both from IL; Whitey Barnette, AL; Dwayne Fitch, CA. Kneeling from left: Tom Thiel, OH (FL) and Don Jeffers, Duluth, MN. All from “E” Company, 19th Reg, 4th Platoon, October 1951.
For me, Nomad began on Oct. 14, when “E” attacked a significant hill (1). Our rifle platoons had split, one attacking up each of two fingers that rose rather steeply to join together perhaps three-fourths of the way to the ridge top.
My fellow 4th platoon squad leader’s (Bob Wilson, Alpena, MI) 57 mm recoilless rifle squad was attached to the platoon going up the left finger, and my 3.5 rocket launcher squad was with the one on the right. We were close enough to easily see each other. We had taken a couple of lower-lying enemy positions, but the Chinese had several machine guns where the two fingers joined. Neither platoon could advance.
My squad was asked to try knock out the guns, but there was no way we could get in a position to fire; every attempt we made was met with a withering spray of machine gun bullets only inches from our heads!
We learned that an air strike was eminent, and marked our position and pulled back slightly.
Soon four fighter aircraft arrived streaking in very low from our rear. They strafed the left finger, and dropped their shinny napalm bombs in the ravine between our two squads, close enough for me to feel the heat!
I don’t believe they even fired a shot at the Chinese machine gun!
E Company suffered at least one KIA that day, Tatsuo Arai, whom I did not know. According to the Korean War Casualty Internet site (2). Arai died on Oct. 14, 1951. The Regiment suffered 132 casualties that day; 21 of which were KIA, including Arai. Ken Dillon (current member) of Yellow Springs, OH was wounded. Dusk approached and we withdrew.
The next day, Oct. 15, we attacked again. It likely was the same hill, but the perspective was different. Again, we were not able to advance. In mid-afternoon the enemy began to shell us heavily, and we were again told to withdraw.
Our route back was through an open and rather flat soybean field. Little gray puffs of smoke told me we were under mortar fire. I tried to keep the men dispersed.
At the end of the field, there was a low saddle through which everyone was going. One of our tanks was in the middle of the saddle providing cover fire for us.
Dave Zollman, a new ammo bearer from Michigan, and I decided to temporarily occupy a small foxhole in the saddle area. We began to make it a bit larger and deeper. I was bent down getting a shovel of dirt and Dave was up tossing his over the side.
There was a huge explosion! I felt an enormous pressure all about me. My helmet flew off and hit the side of the hole and came back and hit me in the head.
Dave uttered a low moan and collapsed directly on me! A Chinese artillery round had landed just a couple of feet away!
Dave was quickly evacuated on a litter; the medics also told me to go. On the road back I learned that he had died.
My ears were ringing loudly (they still do), and my clothes were a mess. My rifle stock was full of tiny slivers of shrapnel. I was examined at the aid station and told that I was OK to go back to the line, but it was late and I stayed overnight.
The Regiment suffered 137 casualties that day; 25 of these were KIA’s, including Zollman and Louie Petro from our mortar section. Among the wounded I could identify were Whitey Barnette (Mobile AL) also of the recoilless section, Padilla from mortars, and a couple of riflemen named Idol and Simpson. The Casualty web site showed that all of them were returned to action.
This was the third day in a row that Easy Company was repulsed by the “teen-age and middle-age scrapings from the Chinese military” ( a quote from an AP report).
Early the next morning I caught a ride back up to the hill; I didn’t get a clean set of fatigues. I was warmly welcomed back by Captain Rehm, selected a Carbine from the large stack of available weapons, and rejoined my platoon.
I do not recall Easy Company’s action during the next three days. But, the 19th suffered 67 casualties (6 killed) on the 16th, 24 (5 killed) on the 17th, and 22 (1 killed) on the 18th! I could not identify any as being from E company.
But there was one event that likely happened on one of those days that I want to relate. We had been walking since before dawn and were “dead” on our feet tired. The order came back to break in place and eat a C-ration. There was a very young (maybe 17) youth named Jesse Gilliam from NC next to me. It think it was his first time under fire.
We began to eat; soon I heard him say to no one in particular: “I wonder what my mother would say if she could see me now.”
I looked at him, and saw what he meant. Dead Chinese soldiers were strewn along the trail, one quite close to him.
I hadn’t given that any conscious thought; I had seen dead Chinese soldiers since my arrival several months earlier. Sometimes they were piled on top of each other where they fell. Maybe I was just getting callused to death; it made it easier to cope when we didn’t define them as humans – so we used words like gook, chink, etc.
I do, however, clearly remember Oct. 19! We were trying to cross a river and occupy a finger of land on the opposite side. The Chinese held the high ground above.
Some members of the rifle platoon were able to cross the river, but they could not advance because the slope was too steep, and there was deadly automatic weapons fire.
We had taken cover in an ox bow, an old dry stream channel, on the launch side of the river. I told my men to dig foxholes, and proceeded to build my own, mostly from rocks.
I got in mine, and then noticed that my new gunner, Nelson Able from one of the Carolina’s, had not made a foxhole. He was lying outside mine. When I told him again to dig a foxhole he emphatically told me what I could do to myself! Before I could react, a Chinese round hit inside the oxbow and shrapnel ricocheted all around off the rocks.
Able, let out a cry. He had a small puncture wound in his upper back. It didn’t appear to be massive, and he was not losing blood externally at least, but he said he could hardly breathe.
There were no medics with us so four of us rigged up a poncho litter between two M1 rifles, and began carrying Able to the rear.
We forded a stream, and took the road, but after traveling a short distance we heard, or rather felt, machinegun fire. Instinctively we began to spring for cover, but before we could move at all, a spray of bullets twanged off the dusty road about a foot from Able.
He hadn’t said much of anything at all until then, but he turned his head and said weakly: “Get me the hell out of here.”
Ray Salyers of IL grabbed the front of the litter, and I the rear, and we ran with it for several hundred yards. We got Able to Company rear. I learned later that he was returned to duty in the Far East Command, and that he died not too long ago in Cleveland, OH.
In Jul. of 2002, I learned that fellow member Norman C. Smith of Mexico, NY (now Owenton, KY) was also seriously wounded later on that day. Smith was with Tatsuo Arai when he was killed on Oct. 15.
The 19th Regiment incurred 152 casualties on Oct. 19; fortunately, there were only 14 KIAs. In addition to Able and Smith, Max Liming of Xenia, OH, was also listed as being wounded. (Max passed away a few years ago.)
On the next day, Oct. 20, we were again moving fairly early in the morning. This was the day that Woody Keeble did his heroic MOH action near Sangsan-ni. So, E Company would have been nearby.
I had been assigned enough men to man a 3.5-inch rocket launcher squad again; Jim Kloentrup of KY was my gunner. Jim and the assistant gunner were in front of me, and the ammunition bearers followed behind.
We were walking in single file along a ridge at the tail of the rifle platoon members. The ridgeline was very steep and fell off sharply to my right.
It was a beautiful clear sunny fall day. Then, without warning, there was a violent explosion about 5 feet to my immediate right and down the hill from the trail. A mortar round had made almost a direct hit in our midst.
Fortunately for me, the round dropped just behind a rather small single rock protruding out from the hillside. I was spared even though the round struck nearest to me.
However, the other members of my squad were not so fortunate! Again the scream “Medic, Medic” went out; they were there in moments.
Both men in front of me, and the man behind me were down on the ground. The assistant gunner was evacuated by litter. Gunner Kloentrup, who was immediately in front of him, was less severely wounded and was able to walk out. Sadly the man behind me, Frank Pillon of NY, was killed instantly!
One round and I lost almost my entire squad! Again! And this was two days in a row! And Dave Zollman had been killed in a foxhole with me only five days previously. Nobody wanted to be in my squad, or anywhere around me!
This wasn’t the end of our Oct. 1951 tragedy, and there were still a number of lives and casualties to surrender to Nomad’s folly. But it is enough to tell you just a bit what it was like—at least for “Easy Company!”
It was nothing like what the AP reported! From their description, you would have thought we just waltzed into Kumsong (3).
Since the AP largely received its information from the Army and the Division, I must conclude that for reasons that Ms. Helm likely correctly surmised, Army officials decided to “color” the real events of Nomad!
Footnote 1. I never knew where I was in Korea. I really had no need to know; my job was to do what I was told, and to worry first about my tail, and the tails of my buddies around me. Since becoming Taro Leaf editor I have found most of us “cannon-fodder” GIs had no idea where were at any time!
Footnote2: http://www.2id.org/24-casna.htm I downloaded and compiled casualty statistics from this source for my Regiment, the 19th.
Footnote3: AP reports for Oct. 13-22, 1951
Tom J. Thiel
19147 Park Place Blvd.
Eustis, FL 32736-7262
The Taro Leaf, Vol 62(4) Fall 2008, pg.18-20.