JOHN T. ALSTROM
Major | Field Artillery
The threat of a Japanese attack or invasion on the West Coast of the United States was not out of the realm of possibilities during the war. Units defending the coastline trained constantly to keep prepared. In the spring of 1942, the 75th Field Artillery Battalion stationed in Fort Ord, California, received orders to exchange their outdated horse-drawn 75mm howitzers for new truck-drawn pieces; this was becoming a mechanized army and the days of the traditional horse cavalry and artillery were over. With few reminders left, the unit turned in their animals and exchanged for vehicles just days before the unit received orders to depart the continental United States. First Lieutenant John T. Alstrom, a husky, clean-cut 27-year-old, joined the battalion as executive officer on the day they received orders for a new assignment in Alaska. Lieutenant Alstrom, called Tom or Tommy by his middle name, had nearly twelve years of service in the National Guard and Regular Army by 1942.
The battalion arrived at the recently completed Fort Glenn on July 8, 1942. Though it was early summer and most of the snow melted, the temperature still averaged in the mid-50s. The base was located on Umnak, and island barely over 70 miles across and on average 16 miles wide. At the time there were 50 residents on the island, though one might argue that the 15,000 sheep owned it. The land was generally a barren tundra with a few great mountains rising from the grassy plains. Since the Army had occupied the island, hundreds of aluminum Quonset huts linked by pale utility poles dotted the landscape.
For his entire assignment on Umnak, Lieutenant Alstrom served as the battalion S-4, responsible for most daily tasks including supply, transportation, logistics, and budget. The 75th Field Artillery held responsibility for manning a number of outposts covering a 25-mile radius on the island’s coastline. This was a crucial defense against the Japanese if they were to invade. Despite their duties as an artillery unit, life on the island was extremely quiet so most days were filled with work details – maintaining buildings, piers, landing strips, and equipment. After a year and a half on the dreary island, Alstrom and the battalion returned to Mississippi in May 1944. He visited his wife and daughter at their home in Kansas immediately on returning home and was able to spend Christmas with them as well.
After attending the Cavalry school, Alstrom received exciting orders for the Far East. In late June 1945, he was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Detachment in China. The month prior to his departure he had been working with the OSS in Washington, D.C. Though the infamous Detachment 101 had just been disbanded in China, there was still plenty to do when Alstrom arrived on July 5, and he spent the remainder of the war instructing Chinese parachutists in field artillery.
Heavy rain throughout the day cut the unbearable heat of mid-August, leaving soldiers soaked through with soggy feet and not a pair of dry socks. Most men of the 2d Division had been in Korea for only a week by August 14, 1950 and had already suffered staggering losses from the sweltering heat alone. A dry canteen was just as deadly as bullets or mortars. Though rain relieved the pounding heat, it made the rugged country no less miserable.
The division sailed directly from Washington at the end of July to support to Korean Campaign, having the distinction of the first division to come straight from the United States. Captain Alstrom was the 15th Field Artillery Battalion liaison officer with the divisional infantry regiments. He had put a lot of mileage on his jeep in the past week, coordinating artillery support with the infantry units fighting north to break out of the Naktong Bulge. Accuracy was crucial in the early days when supplies were short. Guns were authorized a meager six rounds per day, or 36 rounds per battery.
On the evening of August 14th, Captain Alstrom stepped into the battalion command tent, shook the rain out of his fatigues, and removed his helmet to brush his hair back. He promptly lit his pipe – he was never without it – and began reviewing maps with the infantry officers. A task force of the 9th Infantry, organized as a Regimental Combat Team had been fighting since 0630 that morning and had dug into defensive positions that evening.
At 2230, the North Korean forces began a series of fierce counterattacks to push the infantry back. Incoming mortars lobbed over the hills crashed into the command area, and only a short distance away, small arms fire was cutting into the defensive line. By 0300, the attack had pushed the lead infantry units back to the command post.
The order came to evacuate and Captain Alstrom hopped in his jeep and gunned down the road, bucking side to side through deep ruts. He had hardly made it out of area when he thought he heard a faint cry for help over the clamor of the escalating attack. He slowed his jeep and listened carefully, and again he heard the cry. He found a safe area to park his jeep and grabbed the nearest infantryman to search for what he thought was a wounded soldier. They dashed back to the area under attack, dodging the occasional shell, and searched by ear for the faint cries. Every few moments, a stray bullet zinged overhead or punched into a tree. Beneath the moonlight, Captain Alstrom finally found the wounded soldier, and with the help of the infantryman he pulled, him from the bushes. Together they carried him to safety where he received medical attention.