THOMAS D. BIANCHET

Sergeant First Class | Field Artillery

After the turmoil of July and August, the 11th Field Artillery finally had a chance to begin recovery and properly repair and maintain their equipment that they had been using ferociously since Chonui and Chochiwon.  B Battery especially had been through the most grueling and demanding fighting as strongest of the battalion’s batteries and often stayed online longer than the others.  Though the interim season never lasted long in Korea, autumn quickly cooled the blazing remnants of summer and offered great relief to the men who had frantically run up and down the peninsula since early July.  Among them was Tom Bianchet, a lean, brooding sergeant who carried a revolver low on his hip and pulled the brim of his helmet to cast a shadow over his eyes.  He was a kind and gentle man to those who knew him well, but this hard demeanor was possibly a way of concealing his sexual orientation from the Army – if it was ever discovered that he was gay it would no doubt lead to a swift discharge, but he had made it four years already and was confident he could make a decent career in the service.

 

When the war broke out and within the first days of the panic to mobilze, like most personnel and units in Japan, Tom was stripped from his battalion in the 25th Division and transferred from the 90th Field Artillery to the 11th Field to bolster the ‘First to Fight’ 24th Division and provide support with 155mm guns.  In less than a week he was in Korea and B Battery was immediately whisked away and to support the 21st Infantry Regiment that was taking a heavy beating against the North Korean steamroller.  The infantry companies were bleeding replacements as quickly as they arrived.  B Battery fired the first shots of 155mm in the war at Chonui and Chochiwon before moving to the Kum River where their guns never cooled after constant firing against enemy artillery, tanks and foot soldiers.  Between July 12th and 15th they proudly claimed fourteen tanks and the infantry were ever thankful for the shells from above after their bazooka rounds tended to bounce off the thick hulls.

After being shelled until after noon on July 16th, they were finally ordered to pull back and B Battery held while the 13th Field retreated through their gun positions.  They followed the 105mm battalion through Taejon, closing at the airfield outside the city just before midnight and prepared to defend the once populous city.  Throughout the day of July 20th, B Battery maintained a constant rain of timed and proximity fuse shells against enemy tanks and infantry, all the while meeting stragglers from A Battery who were forced to flee after being overrun.  They trickled in from late morning until night had fallen, amounting to two officers and 44 men in all out of the full battery strength of over 120.  That night the city was a dark silhouette against a massive fire beyond the city that illuminated the sky in a dull orange glow.

 

Tom was already exhausted after only about a week in combat, but the fight for the defense of Korea was only in its violent infancy.  Life as an artilleryman was no easier than the infantry and in ways it quickly became much more complicated as gunners could not simply pick up their pieces and run – they had to consider guns and vehicles to extract in dire situations.  Too frequently in the first weeks of combat artillery units found themselves surrounded by North Korean soldiers who had swarmed through neighboring American units – the 63d Field lost all of their Howitzers on July 14th and A Battery of the 11th lost five guns withdrawing from Taejon.  C Battery was short lived and was quickly parted out to A and B Batteries just three days after its ‘activation,’ though it was never close to full strength.  Even Tom’s B Battery did not escape Taejon fully intact, but as the only surviving battery of 155s they stayed on as an attachment to the 1st Cavalry Division to reinforce their light batteries for a week while the rest of the battalion took what little time they had to reorganize and equip for future action.

At the end of July, the 11th Field returned to 24th Division control and B Battery joined their old friends of the 13th in a dash to Masan and Chinju to support beleaguered infantry fighting defense back to the Pusan Perimeter.  When they reached the Naktong Bulge, they added 2d Division units.  Their five guns were stretched to their maximum usage and so were the gunners.  They knew how crucial their work was, however, and their motivation came from their social contract to keep on and provide all the firepower they could for their brothers at the sharpest end of the fighting.  Beginning with Cloverleaf Hill on August 8th and over the course of five days under a searing sun, B Battery killed six enemy artillery pieces, two tanks, four trucks and over 500 frenzied North Korean soldiers.  The next few days brought much needed rain along with the Marine Corps and while both were a relief, B Battery was stretched further to support the Provisional Marine Brigade as well as the 13th and 15th Field Artillery Battalions.  After another five days had claimed five more artillery pieces, fifteen trucks, and a staggering number of casualties of over a thousand.

The frenetic rush to defend the Korean peninsula quickly seemed more manageable as additional units arrived from Japan and the United States – B Battery was no longer holding the only 155mm guns in Korea and other full-strength battalions could take on support.  After more than two months of clinging on to survival, Tom relaxed a bit as summer dwindled and the American forces began to reclaim lost territory and regain control of the Korean situation.  September and October offered an opportunity for recovery and reflection, but perhaps more importantly for the artillerymen they had time to repair and maintain their guns.  The pursuit north was a rapid advance after breaking out of the Perimeter and while Tom was jaded from constant encirclement resulting in close quarters combat, it did not happen again as it had in the summer of 1950.  He transferred to C Battery, which had been raised again, and the artillery resumed their missions a few miles behind the front lines where they were generally undisturbed, ultimately settling into more fixed positions by July 1951 when the war became dominated by artillery to combat the overwhelming man power of the Communist forces.

 

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By next Autumn of 1951, Tom left Korea and returned home and to Fort Sill for a course in Field Artillery Intelligence and then off to Germany for another long stay – he had previously been in the country on occupation duty for 29 months during his first enlistment.  After two years with the 793d Field Artillery Battalion, he could not dodge the Army’s discriminating eye longer and their policies against his orientation caught up with him.  At the time, it was considered a mental illness and during World War II the military had created an efficient system for dispelling gays under the guise of psychopathy, further defined in 1949 regulations stating that ‘prompt separation of known homosexuals from the Armed Forces was mandatory.’  Once ousted, he was shipped back to Camp Kilmer, examined by a psychiatrist who declared him unfit for service under Section 8 and granted a general discharge, under honorable conditions – actually a rather generous farewell as homosexuals did not qualify for a general discharge, but were typically slated for ‘undesirable’ or worse, dishonorable if found to be engaging in homosexual conduct. 

 

The great minds thought that such deviancy from the norm impaired the success of the combat mission and perhaps it was insulting to them that Tom had slipped past their watchful eyes and proven them wrong for over seven years.  He first defied them on his enlistment in 1946 by answering “no” when asked directly, “Are you homosexual, or have homosexual tendencies?”  His service in Korea proved his character as a fine soldier and his conduct as a combat leader was undeniable – to cut his career short in such a way was a shame, but he begrudgingly accepted the policies of the time.  Seeking a brighter life after his bitter discharge and dark days in Korea, he left his home in Minnesota without telling anyone of his destination and spent the remainder of his life in California.

Sources:

Mackowiak, Robert C, and Jane Bianchet Carlson. “Tommy Bianchet.” May 2017.

Bérubé Allan. Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two. Penguin Books XIII, 1991.

United States, Command Reports – 24th Infantry Division,  July-October 1950.  Record Group 407: Army-AG Command Reports, 1949-54. National Archives at College Park, MD

Hanson, R. L. The Guns of Korea: the U.S. Army Field Artillery Battalions in the Korean War. Lulu.com, 2010.

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