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Prisoner Capture at a High Cost
by Cliff (Snowy) Gale 5400194 3RAR
The fighting patrol of thirty men left the A coy forward trench at dusk. They skirted the "forward line" outpost, where so many of the Canadian Princess Pats were surprised and blown up, with nine buried in their bunkers while eating their midnight meals.
In single file they moved down the forward slope of 355, led by Lt. Geoff Smith, who along with eighty percent of his A group, would be dead before midnight. When they reached the flat of the valley they formed an inverted V wedge, with three forward scouts. I was the left flank scout.
Lt. Smith gave the word and we moved towards the rear of Hill 227 held by the Chinese. By this time a full moon had risen and visibility was excellent. Cautiously we moved deeper into enemy territory, I remember thinking with the light like this we must surely be observed. I guess we all knew we would be fighting for our lives before long. We all knew the odds were in favour of the enemy.
We had been briefed earlier on the purpose of the patrol, which was to take prisoners and in the process inflict as many casualties as we could.
Some five hundred yards from the enemy trench, from which a sergeant and four OR's intended to snatch their prisoners, we halted. There the Sgt's B group left to take up a covering position for the snatch group on the right hand slopes of the valley. I led Lt. Smith's A group across the valley and up the left hand slope for the same purpose.
Reaching a position where we had a clear field of fire, the Lt. positioned us in groups of two approx. twelve feet apart. So we waited, a half an hour later a loud frightened yell, followed by a burst of Owen gun fire, from the snatch party's objective, put us on full alert. This was followed shortly after by the sound of a fierce fire-fight from B group's position.
After a period of silence, I heard the sound of men approaching us from the foot of the slope. This was in accordance with the plan, as B group was to join up with our group and withdraw to our lines. However, I could hear Chinese voices. I thought, our blokes wouldn't let their prisoners chatter like that and concluded it was an enemy patrol. As I was on the far left flank, I couldn't warn the others as it would also warn the Chinese. In any case I thought it was obvious to the others that they were Chinese. Apparently it wasn't, as the Lt. was talking quietly on the radio when a single shot rang out as they walked into us. With the advantage of surprise, we should have blown them off the slope. We lost the advantage.
Then we started to slug it out with them. They were well trained, one would fire a burst, then when we replied they threw hand grenades, eventually picking us off one by one. The bloke next to me jumped up and joined the next two in line despite me yelling to him not to bunch up. The next minute he was screaming in agony. One of the others called out that he had copped a grenade between his legs. He died in agony.
Finally Lt. Smith who had two bullets in his stomach, rounded up L/Cpl Deveraux (POW), two wounded and myself, he said, "If we don't get away from here we will all end up like them." Referring to the line of dead and dying behind him.
As there was a lull in the firing, he instructed us to lay down, stretch our weapons above our heads and roll down the slope.
Deveraux led, followed by the two wounded, I followed them. From our right, bursts of gun fire swept all around us. After a few yards I got to my feet. I looked up to see Lt. Smith, who I thought was following me, had, armed only with a rifle turned and charged at the enemy to divert their fire from us. He was cut down in a hail of bullets and grenades. He died for us, he died a hero.
Sadly I made my way down to were the two wounded were waiting. After the war I heard that Deveraux went back up the slope to help with the wounded. He was taken prisoner.
Of the two wounded with me, one was Pte Whitey who had a small piece of shrapnel in the centre of his forehead, the other I will call Jim, a small piece in his left wrist. This must have been painful as for most of the time he gripped it tightly with his right hand. Also in his left hand he held an unpinned grenade, until I used it later to booby trap our boots.
Crawling until we were out in the valley, we got to our feet and hopefully headed for home.
The Kiwis were slamming 25 pounder shells as fast as they could along the ridgelines and re-entrants to try to block the enemy reinforcements from entering the valley. This covered our movements as the valley floor was forming a thin crust of ice and we would have been heard easily as we crushed it with our boots.
After some time the artillery stopped. From different points around us we could hear Chinese calling to one another. This led me to a decision, risk our feet or a POW camp or a bullet. Jim had asked me about surrendering if we ran into the enemy, I had replied, "We'll see." I had no intention of surrendering, both of them were quite capable of firing their Owen guns, and after what Lt. Smith had done for us, I couldn't do anything else. The boots won.
Sitting down we took our boots off. Taking the grenade from Jim, I used a lace and a slip knot tying it under the boots so that when they were lifted 'Boom'. I had just completed this when I heard the sound of bodies crawling towards us in the grass. We moved on.
We could only see a few yards in front of us as the haze from the heavy shelling and the fog from the cold was around us. I lost my bearings completely and unknowingly turned north-east, away from our lines and deeper into enemy territory.
After a while we stopped for a break on top of a small paddy. I was amazed when Jim and Whitey fell asleep. As I sat and listened, a Chinese patrol emerged from the gloom and started padding towards us. Jim picked this time to start snoring loudly, so I quickly eased him over and clapped my hand over his mouth. The Chinese were only six feet away but they kept going and disappeared.
We walked for another half hour until a small bare hill looked up in front of us. We ascended to the top where a few small bushes were, I decided to stay in among them until daylight. Jim and Whitey were soon asleep.
Around 10 o'clock next morning the mist started to clear. I knew then we were 'up that creek'.
About a mile across the valley from Hill 355 you can see a large Chinese trench which runs vertically from the valley floor to the top of the feature. A re-entrant about 400 yards wide separates the trench from the next feature. We had walked straight up this re-entrant and were perched right among the enemy.
I don't know why I did what I did next, but I shouldered my Owen gun, got up and walked up the slope to the rim of the trench. Jim and Whitey followed me, wondering what the hell I was going to do next. Hearing a lot of Chinese voices coming from the trench I checked, then made our way back to the bushes.
Looking down the re-entrant where the trench exited, I made out about six Chinese soldiers walking in and out of a tunnel. An officer appeared out of the trench, hands in pockets and whistling away. He spoke to the men, then walked back up to the trench. Towards the centre of the re-entrant a soldier appeared out of a bunker, which we must have nearly walked over the previous night. Relieving himself, he then dropped out of sight. To get out into the valley we had about 200 yards space between these soldiers and the next feature which was full of bunkers.
Having no choice but to get going, I told Jim and Whitey that we would trail our guns, stoop forward wide and six inches deep and hope that the Chinese would think we were their own men with business out in the valley. We smoked our last Lucky Strikes then moved out. A hundred yards from the tunnel a soldier appeared at the entrance and sighted us, he pointed for more to come out to look. They were standing and watching us. I kept up the same slow jog, drew level, then we were past, two hundred yards later we were out in the valley. Out there with a mile to go, we were fair game for machine guns and mortars from either side. Luckily we were left alone.
Reaching the bottom of the track that led to our trenches, I could see rows of grim faces looking down and guessed they were thinking 'three out of fifteen'. I did get a lift when the OC came running down the hill regardless of snipers, and with great emotion said "Oh good show Snowy!"
Note. In the whole of the Korean War, only two other engagements by 3 Bn RAR received more KIA: Pakchon 5 Nov. 1950, 16 KIA and Kapyong 24 Apr. 1951, 33 K1A. A Coy patrol 12 KIA.
First Published in The Voice, April 2007