ELMER J. GAINOK

Lieutenant Colonel | Infantry

 

Heavy fog clinging to the valleys made for short visibility on the morning of July 10 and the North Koreans quickly slinked beneath its cover to attack the front lines of the 21st Infantry.  A and D Companies held the line while B and C continued to recover from the first few days of vicious combat.  In the distance, the 3d Battalion lay waiting for their time.

By afternoon the enemy had broken through and Lieutenant Elmer Gainok received the order for his weapons platoon to prepare for counterattack.  Ordinarily they would be well equipped, but in these early days of the war the platoon carried a meager pair of 60mm mortars with limited ammunition and no recoilless rifles.  This allotment left the remaining mortar squad and all three recoilless squads acting as riflemen.  Already he had lost his platoon sergeant and some enlisted men to persistent mortar and artillery fire that seemed to follow him everywhere he went.

 

By the time they reached their old positions around midnight, they were surprised to find North Koreans already inhabiting their foxholes and what should have been a routine occupation of old K Company positions quickly erupted into a violent fight.  Amidst the chaos, a man's world becomes very small and one was often unaware of what was occurring just a few yards beyond his immediate vicinity.  Observing the bigger picture was often very challenging for a junior officer.  Within hours, El saw that one of the frontline platoons had been completely overrun and he feared that soon it would escalate to the full company and battalion.

El rallied his platoon and led them fifty yards into the fray when a machine gun began cutting through them from the flank.  To the astonishment of his men - for only a fool or a hero commits to such action - he leapt from his position and charged at the North Koreans hurling grenades and firing his carbine, striking such an impression that they dropped their weapons and fled.  The Lieutenant casually returned to his men and ordered them to close the gap.

Despite his own efforts, those of the platoon and the entire company, they resorted to fighting south to break out from their entrapment.  On reaching Chochiwon around noon, the battalion had withered to an exhausted collection of men that appeared to be the size of only a company.

*

The problem of communist insurgency in Vietnam had grown to a serious threat by 1961 and President Kennedy increased the number of advisers in country to four times the number of the previous year.  In early September, Major Gainok was among this growing number and assigned to the Vietnamese III Corps, specifically with 2d Battalion, 48th Regiment in February 1962.  For the rest of his tour, he worked to train and organize the ARVN unit into a force suitable to quell the threat of the People’s Liberation Armed Force.  Work as an adviser was an extreme challenge for El, who was nearly forty, filled out his uniform a bit more than he had in his youth, and might have denied needing eyeglasses more consistently.  His own challenges were easier to overcome – his most difficult task began with earning the respect of those within the battalion.

The battalion was generally a disappointing organization led by an inexperienced commander with little confidence in himself or his unit.  The troops were untrained, logistics largely ignored, and communications ineffective.  This assignment tested not just El’s performance in combat or as a soldier and officer, but forced him to harness his best skills in diplomacy and tact, often with a language barrier.  Through the coming months, he earned the respect of the battalion commander and bolstered his confidence, reorganized the chain of command and staff, developed a training program that paired the Vietnamese alongside US advisers, and after convincing the commander to delegate authority and trust in his men, the unit took on combat operations.  The 48th Regiment as a whole was ultimately seen as one of the best trained units in the Vietnamese Army and Gainok received a Commendation Medal for his work.

 

Though the war at this time was not an American war, but one fought among the people of the country, El was not distanced from hardships at all.  There was a general lack of food and shelter with little personal comforts.  Combat operations consistently brought danger and though his duties focused on training, the Major accompanied the unit on any mission in order to understand their shortcomings and offer recommendations immediately when needed.  He was dedicated to their plight, perhaps seeing a similarity between the threatened Vietnamese population and the Korean refugees from his time in that war.

Lieutenant Gainok on right.
Lieutenant Gainok, extreme left.
Major Gainok on left, observing.

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