ORLAND E. HUNTOON
First Sergeant | Infantry
Legend and embellishment surround the old soldier lauded as GI Joe himself or Kilroy incarnate – that he enlisted at fifteen to serve in France during the First World War, was wounded and barley escaped Kasserine Pass, and survived Task Force Smith as a 61-year-old “hard bitten, battle tested and combat wise” veteran of all three wars. Even his official record includes errors reflecting this lore. For a man born before the turn of century with service through three wars and a life of adventure in between, the truth is not any less interesting.
When he joined the Army in 1918, Orland Huntoon saw very little of his native South Royalton for decades thereafter. After completing grammar school, he forwent high school to work on his parents’ prosperous and substantial farm. The Huntoon family was well known in their village, known to be descendants of the original settlers of Vermont and regular New Englanders full of warmth and generosity. Orland was the only son of Enos and Lettie, the couple having two daughters before him. When he was eight his mother died of a sudden illness that left the family and the entire town grieving. His father remarried in 1913 to Bertha who fulfilled the devoted and affectionate role of wife and mother. Despite this loving family and fulfilling life on the farm, Orland seized the opportunity for adventure and enlisted in the field artillery at the age of nineteen.
Originally joining the 11th Field Artillery slated for France, he was instead sent to Arizona for service near the Mexican Border. He was categorized as a Class B soldier, defined as "Not quite fit physically for general military service, but free from serious organic disease; able to do an average day's work; able to walk five miles; to see and hear well enough for ordinary purposes; able to perform duty equivalent to garrison duty, labor battalion, shop work (in a trade), at home or abroad or combat service at home (United States Guards)." This classification was a result of his lack of childhood diseases and subsequent exposure in the Army and he was essentially quarantined instead of going overseas. Most of his service was with the newly formed development battalions that gave uneducated soldiers an opportunity to attend school. He was then assigned to the U.S. Guard 40th Battalion. These guard units were short-lived, however, and Huntoon received his discharge at the very end of the year when the Guard battalions were among the first to be demobilized after the conclusion of World War I.
After returning to New England, Huntoon worked as a logger in rural Maine until April 1920 when he moved to Canada to take up a wheat ranch in Alberta. His sponsor to immigrate was Harry Fair, a veteran of the Canadian Expeditionary Force who served in four campaigns in France before getting shot in his right eye in the final month of the war. The two found work throughout the vast country from Orland's original idea of a farm in Alberta to gold mining across the frontier in British Columbia. From his brilliant acres of wheat fields bounded by mythical-looking mountains to thick pine forests amid lakes and gorges, the geography of Northwest Canada was diverse, rugged, and incredibly humbling.
When none of his exploits retained his attention for long, Orland proved his self-sufficiency and breadth of skills before returning to the reliable job of soldiering in 1934. He crossed the border into Montana and for three years served with the 4th Infantry out of Fort Missoula. The fort was originally established in 1877 and over fifty years later radiated a feeling of early life on the American frontier. Surrounding the camp for miles were expansive plains that rose sharply to white mountains in the infinite distance. By 1937, a year after his father’s death, he had moved to the more heavily forested state of Washington for service with F Company, 7th Infantry, a unit that became his home into the early part of World War II. For the first time during his twenty years of exploration, he visited his sisters at home in the spring of 1940.
In the years he was with F Company, 7th Infantry Regiment, Huntoon earned stripes quickly and was soon the Captain’s top man. The company commander frequently confided in him before junior commissioned officers as the Sergeant was quick to understand the tact and diplomacy required to communicate between ranks and units. He handled about 200 enlisted men of the company, held inspections and accompanied the Captain when in formation. His position as first sergeant was equally loved, feared and respected by all ranks and it came to define his character over the next fifteen years. At a meager 5’3”, Orland managed to uphold a commanding presence from barking obscenities over the slightest infraction at inspection or when boldly leading alongside the company commander in the field.
Among the first to fight in Operation Torch, the 3d Division crossed the Atlantic and prepared to assault the Moroccan coastline in the first week of November 1942. The wooden landing craft of the early war suddenly felt very fragile when pummeled against rocky shoreline of North Africa. The devastating surf that happened to be roughest during that time of year swept the first two waves of the regiment – E Company and Huntoon’s F Company – five miles east of their target beach. Their unfortunate arrival required an immediate long march along the railroad toward Fedala. When they settled for the night in freshly dug slit trenches, they were filled with relief though they found their accommodations uncomfortable. Their uniforms were still soaked through from the landing and the cold night was chilled further by an ocean wind.
They crossed the line of departure the next morning with nervous energy having yet to encounter any resistance. In widely dispersed approach march formation, the company covered plowed fields, stone walls, fences, copses of wood, and thickets of cane with only a few shots fired by the rear guard. By early afternoon, they were still over eight miles from Casablanca. The regiment had put significant distance between itself and the other units of the 3d Division, and the order came to dig in. They worked with difficulty on slit trenches in the rocky earth again for the rest of the day and, still damp from the landing, experienced another night of little sleep.
At midnight, the battalion departed toward Casablanca hoping to reach the outskirts under cover of darkness. They reached a smooth highway, a welcome surface under their boots after miles of marching through soft fields and rocky earth. A persistent drizzle ensured they would not be dry any time soon and the wind continued to add to their discomfort. An hour before daylight, they reached their jump off point at Beaulieu Ain Sebah. The town was an abrupt transition from the open fields behind them and the companies entered the thin streets of stucco houses and factories partitioned by uniquely tiled walls. They patrolled into the alleys of the suburb in the pre-dawn dim light ready to fight with grenades and bayonets, but soon ran into an extensive road block which F Company was tasked with flanking.
Before they could approach it, artillery fire rained down on their positions and they buried themselves in roadside ditches. The French were well prepared in their defense of the town. Patrols and snipers posted throughout with supporting artillery stalled the entire battalion through the morning. One well-placed shell struck Huntoon’s company commander Captain John Casteel with shrapnel, killing him instantly. As the sun rose, two naval vessels off the coast began lobbing shells and it became evident they were not friendly, but French Colonial as their fire hurtled closer and closer. With Casteel dead and malfunctioning radios, it became difficult to attack in unison with E Company. After hours of great difficulty, the objective suddenly changed in late morning and the attacked shifted to another battalion, easing up on 2d Battalion for the remainder of the day. Orland reported that only sixteen men within his immediate command survived the engagement unscathed. The battalion used the quiet moment to recover their casualties.
The 3d Division remained in Casablanca after their initial fight and survived the ‘North African Interlude’ on the Spanish Moroccan border. The Army was already pinning Orland for old age at forty-four when he was hospitalized at the end of March 1943 for arthritis with a record card noting ‘incapacity for field duty.’ He left the regiment before their gallant invasion of Sicily and Southern France, but even the surviving veterans who fought through the entire war clung onto the initial campaign from Fedala to Casablanca with fondness as a high point of triumph despite its brevity.
He spent several months in the States after his return from North Africa. He married for the first time, though he departed his bride Leona shortly after to resume his Army career. Orland longed for life on the front lines and continued to apply for a return to combat, stating that “Country boys can be taught, but I would rather fight than drill green troops from cities.”
Regardless of his opinion, he was given the task of training these green troops across camps in the southern states. During a blackout drive during maneuvers on December 14, 1943 a truck loaded with men slid from the road and overturned in a ditch. One man was immediately killed and several were injured, including First Sergeant Huntoon. The overturned vehicle was a mess of tangled people and equipment and Huntoon smelled gasoline. Immediately drenched in mud and quickly chilled through, many had the instinct to strike a match for visibility, but Huntoon quickly ordered them not to for fear of a violent combustion. He oversaw their exit from the truck until the last man. He was commended for his heroism, his third commendation for such action, having previously saved a drowning man by jumping in after him, though he himself could not swim, and another time had saved several men from drowning by tossing boards to them.
Orland’s request to return to combat finally came in 1945 and he sailed over with the 65th Division for the final days of the war in Europe. They arrived in the cold gray winter that had taken hold over the western front. Their accommodations at Camp Lucky Strike were dreary, the camp being half finished when the unit responsible for its construction had been whisked away to fight in the Ardennes. It was a miserable month-long stay in the tent city. When they finally left for the front, the Division was still lacking supplies and equipment moving across the Atlantic. Their new accommodations in quaint farming villages were far more primitive than the tents of Camp Lucky Strike, but the GIs welcomed the primoradial existence knowing they were within days of combat and their long wait was over.
After the first week of March, the 65th Division was a front-line unit located along the Saar valley area on the German border. Huntoon’s A Company, 259th Infantry was sent in days later to capture Saarlauten proper. First combat came on March 18th during a night time battle along the Seigfried line. The Germans were holding staunchly to defend their Fatherland. The battlefield transformed overnight and daylight revealed craters and ravaged earth littered with killed and wounded. Pockmarked pillboxes stood silently to their front. Only hours earlier they were violently ablaze with flashes from machineguns.
From their initiation into combat, the move across Germany was rapid. Periods of combat were sporadic, lasted days at a time, and were suddenly over as the Germans retreated deeper into Germany. The regiment crossed the Werra River and streaked through ancient towns with names of Gruezberg, Altdorf and Newmarkt after a sharp fight on April 23d. In little over a month, they had nearly reached the opposite border along Austria, passing ancient castles and ruins of fortifications between quaint towns and villages.
The entirety of combat that spring was damp, rainy, and cold. Trench foot was rampant without time to change shoes and despite their best efforts to dry spare pairs of socks in their armpits, the soldiers suffered through an uncomfortable rotation of not-quite-dry socks. A week before the war ended in allied victory, Orland was taken off the line due to what surmounted to be physical and emotional exhaustion.
Ronald E. Locke Collection - 65thdiv.com
He wrote sparingly if at all, but after hostilities regaled his aunt and uncle with a letter from where the unit settled in Kunenstorf:
“Well, the war is over at last in this part of the world. When it ended, I could hardly believe it as I had been crawling around in the dark for so long that when the lights were turned on, it seemed like a different world. It has been a long road and at times the outcome was rather doubtful – whether I would be coming back or not, but I guess I will make it after all.
“Perhaps I can tell you a little about this part of the country. It is the same as any of the New England states, except for the rocks, as there don’t appear to be many. Farther to the south of course the mountains show; form where I am I can see them. They are the Bavarian Alps with snow-covered ranges the year around. We are about 40 miles from the Swiss border and 100 miles from the Italian border. With this high altitude the days are rather hot while the nights make very good sleeping.
“It sure is nice here. This morning the mountains show up plain as anything with their snow-covered peaks. We are in a sort of valley here, about a mile across, I would say, with small farms through it. People have started to cut their hay, all by hand, no machines. There are orchards as well as other trees growing in the fields. Up the valley to my left there is a mill of some sort, and on the left of the valley there is a river, the Enns. Not any of the people of Germany are allowed to fish, that is, until we came along; now everyone is out fishing- all but the GIs – and they are catching some nice ones.
“I was in the hospital for a few days, nothing serious, just tuckered out. At that time we were moving day and night, on foot, trucks, tanks and any way to get along, and of course the way was littered with all kinds of German equipment – guns and everything else – prisoners, Poles, English, Czechs, Russian prisoners, French and of course a lot of American soldiers. All of these had been in German prison camps from one month to five years, not mentioning the horrors of some of the camps where they were held. My outfit liberated several camps and the things that I saw I could not put on paper, but will say they were the most horrible things to see.
“Well, it is over and I am coming back to the states to take up civilian life for a change.”
When he returned home a second time, he purchased 90 acres of land in South Royalton and attempted a life of farming again. For four years he raised Ayrhsire cattle in South Royalton, but it was short lived and in April 1949 he sold the farm and explored North America. He fished in Maine, visited his old ranch in Alberta, toured Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, and traveled the Alcan highway to Alaska. His vacation concluded in August of that year and he departed for California, having apparently not contested the divorce of his wife that July. Nothing satisfied him the way that life in the service did and Orland was happy to marry the Army instead. It was, as his sister recalled, the only life he knew.
Though his sisters wrote to him regularly wherever he was, the Sergeant replied sparingly and only visited again in 1948. His sister Ursula believed that at 52 he was far too old to be a professional infantryman - he was one year and eleven months over the maximum age limit to reenlist, but Orland was granted a waiver and he was quickly sent to Japan for duty with the occupation forces. The Army stated he was fit for all duty not including marching over two miles or strenuous exercise. While garrison duty in Japan allowed for this, the early days of Korea certainly did not and it was exactly what the Sergeant wanted. When the 24th Division was committed to repel the North Korean invasion, the remaining divisions in Japan were stripped of personnel to bolster the skeleton of a unit. Huntoon was one of the many on the list slated for Korea.
The group of replacements arrived in Korea where they were hastily assigned to their companies at Pusan. Orders struck days later put his assignment on paper as C Company, 21st Infantry. It would be days before they met and organized properly. Instead, Huntoon and the other replacements were loosely attached to A Company to rush north to join the forward elements of 1st Battalion. Without train schedules, manifests, supplies and a mixed bunch of replacements, Orland found the arrival chaotic. Loading and unloading train cars proved to be difficult due to the language barrier as well as the Korean Army redirecting railway officials to do something other than what the Americans required. Even when possible to organize to this point, engineers frequently refused to travel north and had to be encouraged under guard.
The reinforcements quickly learned B and C Companies of Task Force Smith were getting hammered and moved to a low ridge east of Chonui along the Chochiwon road to delay the enemy storming south. Early in the morning of July 7th, the North Korean Army began to attack under cover of a dense fog. The attached replacements were not spared from the fight. When they were nearly surrounded, Colonel Stephens, who had spent the night on the hill with the battalion, ordered for a withdrawal and every man for himself. Huntoon could do little to control the unorganized group of new replacements as the partial battalion scattered down the hillside.
By the time the companies were united and whole again, it was difficult to tell they were forming a cohesive battalion. The reinforcements had suffered their own casualties, many stragglers were missing or holding out with other units, and they were already understrength in number and becoming weary. It had taken a few days, miles of marching and several hours of fighting, but the old man was finally serving in his proper capacity as field first sergeant of C Company, 21st Infantry. An AP photographer captured the grizzled sergeant crouching with his carbine for a photo published alongside his legendary story. The editorial that appeared in Collier’s later that year was artistically embellished, but fitting for Huntoon’s reputation and at least honest in the respect for his duty as an infantryman, stating: “there are common factors which Sgt. Huntoon has found in all three conflicts. There is danger. There is mud and dust, rain and sweating heat, discomfort and aching fatigue. That’s the life of a foot soldier.”
For the next week, the company under Captain Dasher fought several battles against the North Koreans in a series of delaying actions until they reached the south bank of the Kum River and ultimately Taejon which fell on July 20th. The regiment moved to the Yongok-Pohang-dong area on the east coast where they had a moment to pause and undergo some reorganization due to their severe losses.
Lieutenant Wyrick assumed command of C Company and was immediately subjected to the irate sergeant’s rantings about supply problems in the Korean theater and despite his bitterness, the Lieutenant was pleased to have such an experienced first sergeant. He was at times amused by how bitter Orland was, often comparing the shortcomings to the smooth operations of World War II and was frustrated when he did not receive the materiel he requested in the time he required it. In those early days, though, he recognized the impossibility of his needs, but even improvements over the next weeks did not satisfy his demand to outfit his company properly.
Their area of responsibility was teeming with stragglers and guerillas who proved to be a violent nuisance for the days they were there. Huntoon’s C Company stayed behind when the remainder of the regiment relocated. Along with a mortar section from D Company, they remained behind to support the ROK attack in retaking Yondok. After several days on high alert, the company returned to regimental control.
After fifty-five consecutive days in combat, the Division went into reserve allowing for some relaxation, hot meals, and entertainment. The staggering heat and brutal terrain wore the First Sergeant faster than the younger members of the company. His arthritic back which had bothered him in the last war was flaring up and in the first week of September, Orland was transferred to the regimental Headquarters Company. Since the stubborn old man still yearned for line duty, he was granted the role of platoon sergeant in the I & R Platoon. The assignment satisfied his innate need for adventure while keeping him out of a more taxing rifle company. The platoon patrolled roads, hunted for infiltrators and stragglers, and reconnoitered open areas where the infantry troops were not positioned. Orland often worked directly with the intelligence officer to deliver information, though without Korean interpreters, intelligence often came with difficulty.
The old sergeant managed to work in this capacity for little over two more months before he was forced out of the infantry and sent to the 8069th Replacement Battalion at Chechon in the center of South Korea. Orland missed the thrill of hiking up steep ridges to fight the enemy face to face, but the treacherous conditions particular to Korea had bested him at last. Several times since Africa in 1942, again in Europe in 1945, and finally in the worst place to fight a war, Korea, 1950, he had succumbed to the conditions of his aging body and the Army did their best to reassign him to a rear echelon job. Somehow he always managed to find a way back to the front. The 8069th supervised thousands of men each month through eight troop trains, mess facilities, clubs, recreational facilities, and educational and orientation programs. New troops arriving in-country as well as hospital returnees for all United Nations forces passed through the depot on the way to their destinations. The tour with the depot concluded his first Korean tour, ending in June 1951 when he rotated back to the United States.
For the next two years all he wanted to do was return to Korea. As early as November 1951, only about three months after his return, he waived his right as a Korean veteran to remain stateside and applied for further service in the Far East. Like he had years earlier, he managed to witness the first and last days of the war at the front with the only division credited with serving in Korea twice. The old man, finally holding the rank of Master Sergeant and still maintaining the duties of First Sergeant, managed to get back to his familiar C Company, 21st Infantry. The regiment which was stationed in Japan in March 1952 was the same in title only – enough time had passed that no personalities remained that Orland recognized. He met Kinuko Matseemoto whom he married that July. By May of the next year, they had a son, his first child followed by two girls when he eventually returned to the United States. Their marriage, unlike his first, would last. Another year passed before the hopeful infantrymen of the 21st returned to Korea.
When they arrived in July, the regiment occupied the island of Koje-do, tasked with guarding thousands of North Korean prisoners. The Chinese offensive that erupted gave those like Orland hope that they might get into the lines, but the armistice came quickly and they continued with their guard duties and began assisting in the repatriation of prisoners. Once operation Big Switch was resolved, the Division rotated with the 45th Division and occupied the line along the 38th parallel at the beginning of February 1954. They were well trained and prepared for any breach of the truce at any time.
After his two-year tour with the 21st Infantry, he was assigned to his last overseas duty assignment at Camp Matsushima, Japan. First as Quartermaster Storage Supervisor and later as First Sergeant of a company under Colonel Brophy, Orland excelled at his duties, particularly in the workshop. His years of understanding the bureaucracy of the Army were of extreme advantage that the officer took note of, as well as his undying love for the Army itself. A commendation accompanied this praise, his fourth among his unblemished record, yet by his retirement in 1957 he held no medal higher than a Good Conduct. Though a Purple Heart had mysteriously appeared among his service file, on most occasions Orland wore a minimum selection of awards knowing that the quantity of service stripes up to his elbow, service ribbons for World War I, Europe and Korea plus his second award of the Combat Infantry Badge were enough to illustrate his dedication to a life in the infantry.
Sergeant Huntoon as field first sergeant of C Company, 21st Infantry. 1953. SC444886
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Special thanks to Lisa Sholl for additional information and direction.