JOSEPH J. DROZD
Corporal | Infantry
Men from a mixture of units clutched their orders and waiting for a sergeant to call their names above the commotion. Among them was Joe Druss (Americanized from the Ukranian Drozd for the Army’s benefit) who was nearing the end of his three year enlistment when was pulled from the 35th Infantry to bring the 21st Infantry up to strength for Korea. The flood of soldiers assembled into a frenzy at a station platform in Kyoto to embark for Korea.
“Joe-san! Joe-san!,” called a familar voice behind him. The young Japanese checkpoint guard he befriended at Camp Maizuru was chasing after Druss. It appeared he now worked for the railway. He approached his old friend and touched his left arm.
“You go to Chosen…I am sorry!” He shook Druss’ hand sadly before departing.
At Pusan Baseball Stadium, the 1st Battalion received their company assignments. Druss was nearly split from his buddies and allotted to A Company, but missed the Sergeant’s order after he decided to change into new boots. When he returned, he was fortuitously assigned back with his old friends in B Company.
They headed north through the humble country. Korean women offered green tea at each stop until they disembarked south of Chonan. From there, they were to march on foot. Not long into their journey, the entire column of replacements paused to dispose of the bulky contents of their field packs to lighten their load. There was also the assumption that they would not be around for long – only a few days to discourage the North Koreans and end the invasion that started a week prior. Druss gave his shelter half, pegs, a blanket and mess kit to two old Korean mama sans and kept only one blanket in the lightened pack.
After finding a point suitable for defensive positions, the group of replacements settled in.. They still had not reached the 1st Battalion. He spent a quiet day with his foxhole buddy John Garland watching farmers in the valley, growing suspicious as they were not tending to their crops but studying the American positions. They scattered after a few well-placed rifle shots. Garland, a combat medic of World War II, was growing a bit anxious as groups of straggling American soldiers began passing through the area, who Druss discovered were members of the 34th Infantry. They passed by throughout the night and into the next morning.
Word filtered through that there was not much left of B Company for Druss’ replacement group to join. The original company was decimated with Task Force Smith days earlier and by July 7th the replacement draft was attached to A and D Companies of Task Force Alkire. A heavy fog settled in the valley before them by mid-morning and the area was eerily quiet. Druss expected a sea of North Koreans to burst out of the fog, but he waited for an hour with no action until it dissipated. As soon as it cleared, the wave he was anticipating erupted. Enemy machinegun, tank and artillery fire raked the hill, particularly from one gunner who seemed to be targeting Druss’ foxhole. Every time he tried to peek over the edge, the dirt just in front of him sprayed up from a peppering of bullets.
“Get your head down before you get killed!” Garland pulled him back. “That machine gun has our foxhole zeroed in and we’re in big trouble.”
When it became clear that the group of reinforcements were about to suffer the same fate as Task Force Smith, Colonel Stephens ordered a retreat with every man for himself. Druss was ready to bolt, but Garland clutched a hand grenade claiming he would take his own life before becoming a prisoner of the North Koreans.
“I’ll go down fighting some of them,” Druss told him, “But if you want to kill yourself, don’t pull that pin until I’m out of this foxhole!”
He teased the gunner a few times before leaping out of the hole with Garland close behind him. Swarms of men sprinted, stumbled and rolled down the hill and nearby slopes. Druss thought a Lieutenant behind them was hit and he hesitated for a moment, but the officer reassured them that he only tripped and to keep going.
At the base of the hill, they met a group of familiar soldiers who had run down the opposite slope. They joked that so far things had not been like maneuvers in Japan and set out back to friendly lines. The group split when they came to a fork, disagreeing about which path would lead to safety. Druss suspected the path leading left would take them to their lines faster. Along the way, they passed the home of a Korean farmer who was hiding with his wife, child and cow. Sights like these would become frequent and familiar, but no less heartbreaking.
The high-pitched, rapid rip of a burp gun broke the silence of their journey. The group ducked out of sight and circled around to get back on the trail and avoid meeting any guerillas. When they returned to the path, a young blond GI approached from a nearby hill. He was barefoot, without equipment or a cap, and reported that he came from C Company. He refused to join the party and continued on his way. Why he wanted to remain a solitary wanderer was a mystery.
Though they tried to suppress the feeling, after several miles they could not ignore the unbearable heat any longer and Druss’ group was succumbing to thirst. They stopped to communicate with a farmer where they could fill their canteens. He gestured at the water of the rice paddy he stood in, which Druss knew was likely contaminated with fertilizer and he became suspicious of the man. With so many guerillas posing as civilians, it was hard to trust anyone. The nearby farmhouse appeared to have a well which surely had clean water. Druss eagerly approached it when three men abruptly exited the farmhouse, another suspicious sight considering they were all of military age and not a typical Korean family. Assuming they, too, were guerillas, Druss ushered his men out of the area and climbed over the nearest hill to reach the road again.
At the summit, they could see the 52d Field Artillery withdrawing down the road toward safety. They knew they were in danger when the artillery pulled out. Behind them, rockets streaked out of P-51s and jet fighters that strafed their old positions. For miles across the front, small groups of GIs were making their way over the terrain to reach the safety of 24th Division. It was late afternoon by the time Druss and his group met a larger force assembling in a small village. A couple of trucks and several jeeps waited for stragglers such as themselves. The officer who was apparently in charge ordered them onto jeeps wherever they could find a spot. Just out of view of Maggie Higgin’s camera, Druss found a spot on the hood of a jeep in the column.
Had they been any slower they would have missed the transportation and it might have been days before they found their way back. Within five minutes, they were off and in only a few miles they reached another village where the battalion seemed to be regrouping. Food was available and the starved soldiers happily revived themselves and reunited with friends they had served with in Japan.
The next morning, they were moving again after a short night of rest. The replacements finally began to integrate into their proper companies, B Company under Captain Jack Doody. Their new positions around Chochiwon were in the hills with great visibility down into the valley below. Druss began digging a one-man foxhole, a process which became impossible before he was two feet deep. The earth below was so rocky he could not penetrate any further and resorted to stacking stones around the edge of the hole to compensate.
A single tank rolling down the thin dirt road meant the beginning of an attack late in the morning. The T34 paused in front a small bridge and turned off, barreling over a stream and back onto the road. Druss could not figure out why the mines laid across the road were not detonating – it turned out the engineers had forgotten to pull the pins. The lone tank was a terrifying threat and Druss was ready to become as compact as he could to hide in his hole. As he attempted to curl into his smallest form, an American Sherman turned around the base of the hill and fired a round at the T34, scoring a direct hit. When the T34 returned fire, it was apparent that the shot from the Sherman was negligible, and a direct hit of their own instantly knocked out the Sherman, leaving it a smoldering wreck at the base of the slope.
This exchange began another frantic delaying action. The North Koreans swarmed across the valley toward the understrength American positions who held them for a while before given the order to withdraw. They abandoned the hill and once there was enough space between them and the enemy, the men began to collect themselves. Several gathered around an aqueduct to wash up and became victim to the shrapnel from a nearby mortar. Corporal Ralph Harless began to tire and lag behind after they continued the long march south.
“I can’t go any further,” he gasped, crumpling in the middle of the road. “I’ll have to surrender.”
“Ralph, you can’t give up…I’ll help you.” Druss pulled him to his feet and slung his rifle over his own shoulder.
They marched on together until they made it to the Kum River where civilians were crossing in a raft anchored to both banks by a thick rope. To the north, North Korean trucks were barely in sight, but within a couple miles and nearing. The ferryman was waiting to fill up the raft before crossing and refused to send Druss and Harless across if it was only half full. He directed the two to a shallow crossing point instead. The two gathered their rifles, cartridge belts and bandoleers above their heads and waded in, surprised that the water reached up to their necks. When they made it to the far bank, they each took of their boots, wrung out their socks, and cut open the blisters that had formed on their heels.
They walked until reaching railroad tracks, by which time their fatigues had dried in the summer heat. Druss and Harless continued south along the tracks until they came upon a small station occupied by three ROK soldiers. The trio were busy dismantling a telephone mounted on the wall, but agreed to transport the two Americans once they finished. Their transport was an old railroad maintenance car with the large handle to propel it. While Ralph and Druss sat on the front with their M1s laid across their laps, the ROKs furiously pumped the handle. They eventually reached a larger train station where the two reported to a major on the concrete platform. He was anxious to leave, but asked whether or not Druss had seen any other stragglers. The pair reported they had been alone for miles, which seemed to satisfy the major and he quickly ushered them on the train bound for Taejon.
Once at the airfield, Druss officially joined Sergeant Gilbert’s squad in B Company’s 1st Platoon. The reinforcement groups he was part of were no longer scattered across the battalion, but part of Smith’s 1st Battalion. After two battles at Chonui and Chochiwon he had experienced some of the worst kind of fighting to occur during the war. As he reflected on the past days of combat, someone offered him a cold Coca-Cola. He savored the first truly refreshing drink he had in weeks as he watched men of the 19th Infantry head north toward the Kum River.
That night his squad was assigned to guard a group of engineers working on detonating a tunnel on the south side of Taejon. Druss remained vigilant throughout the night and spotted a glowing tip of a cigarette bobbing along slowly on the ridge across from them. He warned the squad, but they held their fire and they waited throughout the night. Dawn revealed five men across the ravine, acting rather boisterous for a combat patrol. They left the North Koreans alone as they passed through, hopefully reporting to their commander there were no Americans in the area. The engineers finished their work and blew the tunnel just as a T34 was approaching the other side. They leapt in the truck with the engineers and sped off.
In mid-September the Division was fighting north again and the 21st Infantry prepared for the Naktong River crossing. The men of the regiment rested in an orchard while waiting for jump off time at dawn. Each squad had an assault boat waiting for them at the edge of the orchard, which they carried with them to the banks of the river. It was difficult to navigate the sandy, dry riverbed while under fire with the heavy boat overhead. Machinegun and mortar fire hit all around them, startling a nearby squad enough to drop their boat. Progress was terrifyingly slow. When Druss noticed an abandoned boat bobbing at the water’s edge, he yelled at Sergeant Gilbert that they should drop their boat and hop into that one. The squad did so willingly and dashed to the empty boat, furiously paddling out to the middle of the river. Unmanned boats taken by the current drifted by, revealing bodies of dead Americans killed in the onslaught.
When machinegun and mortars splashed too close, the two ROK soldiers of the squad dropped their paddles and crouched in the front of the boat. Druss pushed one aside, grabbed his paddle and began calling cadence. Sergeant Gilbert followed suit and they began to make it through the area of the river where the current was strongest. Mortars sent up geysers of water that sprayed into the boat, saturating everyone on board. Paddling to the far shore was agonizing, but they finally made it to the embankment and clambered out. The B.A.R. man Raymond Wirth jumped off the back of the boat and nearly disappeared beneath the surface. He did not realize how deep it was and the weight of his equipment quickly pulled him down. Two members of the squad frantically grabbed his wrists and dragged him back in. Druss ordered the engineer to exchange his new B.A.R. for Wirth’s which had become clogged with water and silt.
The squad ducked from incoming fire and spread out along the edge of the river, returning several volleys of their own in the direction of the enemy fire. A lieutenant who made his way over asked if they were C Company, which seemed to have no influence over his order to attack the mountain in front of them anyway. Between the Naktong and their objective was a broad cornfield. Bullets split cornstalks around Druss as he made his way through. He passed a North Korean soldier bleeding out from a bad stomach wound. He was clearly much younger than Druss and he could tell he was dying. He passed by with remorse that the poor kid was dying alone.
The squad continued up the hill without artillery or air support. By the time they were on the slope, they were at least beneath the line of fire. A Russian built automatic weapon left in the grass had blood covering the stock. Druss assumed it was from their shooting at the river. A proud platoon leader passed by, touting a ‘gook kill’ which could only have been the dying boy in the field.
The North Korean mortars were debilitating to the regimental advance. Back across the Naktong, a group of engineers working on a pontoon bridge took a direct hit. Behind them, columns of infantry behind tanks were getting bombed. When the dust cleared, Druss could see bodies of dead and wounded where the neat two-by-two column had once marched. A flight of Corsairs finally flew in an disrupted the mortar fire, but they quickly resumed again once the planes departed. A North Korean sniper just missed Druss when he reached the summit of the hill. The single round hit just to his right – none followed so someone must have killed him.
The river crossing finally reached its apex when the engineers completed the pontoon bridge and tanks began rolling across. The threat of American armor encouraged the North Korean mortar to retreat, as that fire appeared to cease and they were in full retreat. Reinforced combat patrols ensured this was the case, and Druss’ squad climbed onto a tank in pursuit. The five tanks from the 6th Tank Battalion headed north along the nearby mountain road. The tracks barely squeezed within the narrow width of the path. They proceeded cautiously over a particularly dangerous area, causing the edge of the road to crumble after the fourth tank passed over. The fifth could not pass over the gaping hole that had sent rubble tumbling down the side of the mountain, but the first four continued.
For Druss’ squad, the day was a success. No one of their small group was killed and they learned later that a few thousand enemy troops surrendered.
After nearly four months in combat, Druss was seeking a souvenir. He had not had an opportunity before since the pace of the war was so rapid and they were never in one place for long. By late October, however, the 21st Infantry was operating more routinely with small patrols to route lingering North Korean forces.
On the outskirts of Sukchon, they approached a small village in the brisk autumn air. Evidence of the 187th Airborne’s drop days earlier remained. Smoldering vehicles sat immobile on the side of the road and the area was littered with the khaki clad bodies of North Koreans. Druss immediately spotted the North Korean flag on a bamboo pole at the opposite end of the village. Under a clear sky, the bright red and rich blue silk stood out against the drab autumn landscape. It was quiet and calm and with no threats, Druss pursued his prize.
“Ray,” he called to the B.A.R. man, “come over here and cover me while I get this flag!”
He was startled when three North Koreans in white civilian clothes emerged from a farmhouse with their hands up. The communist soldiers had discarded their uniforms and were eager to surrender. Druss and Wirth searched the trio and sent them to a group of other prisoners a couple hundred yards away who sat in a large cross formation in a dry rice paddy. The trio eagerly left to join their fellow prisoners and end their war.
Druss proceeded to untie his prize from the top of the farmhouse and stuffed it into his pack. He also noticed an identification card on the ground in front of the farmhouse and tucked that away. He carried these across Korea until he was wounded in the hand during a night battle on Hill 296 in early February. Sergeant Hazlett’s hand was also mangled and they were evacuated to the United States for several months of recovery. For years after his return, his souvenirs lay tucked away along with his memories of that brutal period of combat in Korea.