JOHN T. ALSTROM
Major | Field Artillery
The United States Army was rapidly becoming mechanized, but there remained a few reminders of the aging horse cavalry and horse drawn artillery in the early days of World War II. When Lieutenant Alstrom received orders for the 75th Field Artillery in mid-June 1942, they had just exchanged their outdated horse-drawn 75mm howitzers for new truck-drawn pieces. The turnover was a clear indication that the Army was becoming a fully mechanized one and the days of the traditional horse cavalry and artillery were over.
The battalion had spent the past two years ready to defend the West Coast against Japanese attack or invasion. On the day they began moving from California to Alaska, First Lieutenant John T. Alstrom joined as a battery executive officer. He was a husky, clean-cut 27-year-old well acquainted with the old pre-war Army after nearly twelve years of service in the National Guard and Regular Army. Since 1930, he spent fifteen days on camp exercises each year with the Maryland National Guard’s 110th Field Artillery where he became the youngest sergeant at age seventeen. He did all he could to forge his own life away from his parents whom he hated as they made it clear he was an unwanted child. His service that began at age fifteen was broken only by one year of ROTC from 1933-34 before accepting a commission in 1940. He was a serious officer, often gnawing at his pipe, and the 75th Field’s commander, Colonel Stewart, immediately held him to a high standard.
The battalion arrived at the recently completed Fort Glenn on July 8th. 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.
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 the first year on Umnak, Lieutenant Alstrom served his second year in Alaska as the battalion S-4, responsible for most daily tasks including supply, transportation, logistics, and budget. The battalion returned to Mississippi in May 1944 and John immediately returned home to visit his wife and daughter at their home in Kansas.
The Lieutenant maintained a connection to the ways of the old Army and at the end of the year attended a six-week course at the Cavalry School for pack artillery. Despite the efforts of the Army to transition from animals to mechanized means, there were still areas of fighting between the mountains of Italy and jungles of the Far East that were inaccessible to vehicles and required mules or donkeys for transport. The use of pack animals continued and would be crucial in John’s next assignment.
In late June 1945, he accepted an assignment with the Office of Strategic Services Detachment in China. Leave and processing took a month and the long flight to the Far East was another thirteen days, but he finally reached the foreign theater where the war was still very active. The Operational Group to which he joined was tasked with forming the first Chinese Commandos out of their 1st Parachute Regiment. The program had been conceived at the beginning of the year as a way for China to combat the Japanese with the help of American training, supplies, and equipment. The Chinese were to supply 4000 men to form twenty commando units, but after the first five it became clear that the Chinese personnel were not of the physical and mental capabilities expected and the program needed to adopt significant basic training before forming the next fifteen commandos. The program experienced enough delays that the parachute training school at Kunming did not become active until the day before Alstrom arrived.
The compound at Kunming was recently built within a high brick wall perimeter. A welcome sign posted read: “China is No Place for the Timid.” The buildings were of white cement for offices, mess, security and quarters, all furnished rather primitively by scrounging equipment and recycled and repurposed materials, predominantly wood packing boxes. The area flooded twice in the summer when torrential rain drained off the surrounding rice paddies which were fertilized with human waste, resulting in about a foot of ‘night-soil’ in the compound grounds.
The country was extremely foreign even to those with varied experience in other theaters. Except for a handful of OSS men who had been missionaries or in a missionary family in China before the war, almost no one spoke any of the dialects and relied heavily on interpreters. All of John’s instructions passed through such an interpreter. With his experience and education in artillery and use and care of pack animals, his stay in China was limited to the classroom. He did attend the parachute school for training jumps, earning him Chinese parachute wings along with the rare accompanying document that stated: “It is with great pleasure, this small token of our gratitude is given, for the part played by yourself in the training of the first unit of Chinese Parachutists in the history of China."
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 14th, 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. John had put a lot of mileage on his jeep in that first 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 and guns were authorized a meager six rounds per day, or 36 rounds per battery.
The division sailed directly from Washington at the end of July to support to Korean Campaign and had the distinction of the first division to come straight from the United States. At the time they were alerted for movement, Major Alstrom was a battery commander with the 15th Field Artillery Battalion, but switched duties to the battalion liaison officer on the day they sailed from Tacoma. Time on board was spent training and schooling the replacements to the battalion who did not have experience in artillery. The journey had been comfortable with good food and quarters. Officers and men of the top three enlisted grades were furnished with private rooms that included a desk with which they could prepare their lessons.
The battalion, part of the 9th Regimental Combat Team, was first to embark and the first to land in Korea on July 31st. Almost immediately upon disembarking in the stinky Korean port, Alstrom and the others armed with pistols were issued a .30-carbine and bayonet. After three days, they moved to Taegu to prepare for combat and staff and battery officers visited the 1st Cavalry Division artillery to observe and gather information over the three days following. Eighth Army representatives also provided lessons on the employment of artillery in Korea. Finally, on August 7th, the 9th RCT entered combat along the Naktong line attached to the 24th Division and experienced the onslaught that had been plaguing the U.S. forces since early July.
On the evening of August 14th, Major 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 still never without it – and began reviewing maps with the infantry officers. A task force of the 9th Infantry had been fighting since early that morning and had dug into defensive positions that evening. Well after dark, 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 three in the morning, the attack had pushed the lead infantry units back to the command post area.
The order came to evacuate and Major 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 and grabbed the nearest infantryman to search for what sounded like 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, Major Alstrom finally found the wounded man and with the help of the infantryman they pulled him from the bushes. Together they loaded him on the jeep and drove to safety where he received medical attention.
Throughout the next thirty days, the 9th Infantry defended the line until they had their backs to the sea and were fighting daily to defend the banks of the river. The artillery battalion round limit was raised from the incredibly low six rounds per day to 25 per day which they still found to be a severe limitation. Moderate shelling throughout the day and night continued to threaten communication lines and even the regimental headquarters was not far enough from the line to be spared from danger. On September 5th, the Division attacked toward the banks again and for three days pushed against the determined North Korean forces until they succeeded in breaking them.
The last day of Alstrom’s war came on September 11th during a period of scattered operations for the regimental combat team. The 15th Field observed enemy throughout the morning and several small patrols set out to understand the refugee situation or find prisoners. It was otherwise uneventful for the Major until he was moving along the beach of the river when the ground erupted beneath him, tearing apart his foot and leg and spraying shrapnel into his hand.
His Korean service ended there on that beach and his evacuation to the United States was a blur from the initial shock, doses of morphine and several operations that came later. The Major lost his leg from the knee down, but continue to serve on active duty for a year after his recovery until he accepted a disability retirement. He had divorced by this time and settled in California where he remarried, occupied himself with advocating for disabled veterans, but remained quiet about his life and military service.
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United States, Friis, Herman R. Map Division, China Theater Research and Analysis Branch, Office of Strategic Services World War II 1945.
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