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Sergeant First Class | Infantry

The last time Gordon took a hill was on March 2 when he was smacked with the full blast of a hand grenade that lodged at least ten metal fragments from the left side of his face and jaw, along his back, and spiraling to his right buttock down his leg.  The doctors left a fragment about the size of his thumbnail just above his right ankle that he scratched at occasionally.  Another grenade decapitated the man beside him, his body darting around animatedly like a headless chicken.  Gordon crawled down the hill before the tanks in the valley below blew the top off of it.  There were no Chinese left, so they took that hill.


It took a month to recover on the hospital ship Repose before he was back as an assistant platoon sergeant with I Company.  He was twenty-four, once a simple law student from Iowa, but now had about a month of combat behind him and Purple Heart to prove it.  When he came into the company at the end of January, he was one of a few soldiers who had served in World War II, but his office job in Washington was far from field experience.  It was funny, he thought, to be here commanding men not much younger than him only because he wanted to complete school to become an attorney.


Early in the day an observation plan dropped a message for the regiment: Enemy out in front of you in regiment strength.  That soon became: Maybe two divisions of enemy and ultimately escalated with a helpless note: I can’t see the end of them.  


The 23d Infantry had been in positions for weeks as part of Task Force Zebra, building up defenses along “No-Name” line north of Chaun-ni.  The land before them was planted with mines, barbed wire, trip flares, and tanks defenses.  A sheet of snow melted slowly into spring, and foliage smudged the white landscape.  To the northwest was a valley between steep slopes, rising up from a meandering stream made impassable by huge boulders.  On either side were frozen rice paddies and cultivated slopes that cut sharply skyward to young maples and ridgelines thick with pines.  To the northeast was another valley made the main supply route by means of a wide road.


The valley filled with an ocean of bodies rushing toward their positions that morning.  As bullets and mortars cut through them, it seems two Chinese took the place of every one that fell.  By the afternoon, the regiment was shredded to bits, all of the company officers had left, and the three tanks in the valley below spun their turrets and sped south.  Madson had only five or six men left, maybe, and no ammunition.  They had held out for a grueling hour and half against three banzai charges to cover the battalion’s withdrawal and the evacuation of wounded.


He was pissed, or maybe just terrified, but he had his orders.  He ripped the bolt out of his rifle, tossed it down the hill where it thudded into soft earth, and accepted his fate.  He was, in fact, the very last of the men on the ridge, for I Company as a whole was designated as rear guard for the entire 23d Infantry Regiment as they pulled out to Hangye.  They were actually attacking to the rear, not just retreating, as the Chinese had the regiment surrounded with a roadblock before the small village and had even attacked the battalion command post from the rear.  It took all day to organize the movement south and I Company had been left to fend of an enemy force of overwhelming size.


It was useless to fight anymore when the Chinese popped over the ridge, chattering between themselves and barking at Madson and his buddies.  He lifted his arms for the men poking submachine guns at him, flashing yellow teeth that split their hard cordovan faces.  It was clear they were pleased to have some prisoners.


They grabbed his gear, field jacket, boots and anything else of value with a number of gestures to illustrate their demands.  He was left with just trousers and shirt that did little in the barely warming spring climate.  Madson withheld his role as a sergeant and hid his maps and rosters.  The Chinese might take him, but he sure would not let them find documents like that.


It took days before he could destroy the documents, and Gordon had maintained his masquerade as a private.  It took four days before the prisoners received anything to eat.  It was hardly food, but a meager helping of bug dust.  Water was only available when crossing a mountain stream.  Madson began to wonder if the regular Chinese soldier also lived like this.  Perhaps his life was not much better than that of an American prisoner.

Photo Credit: Drake University Yearbook, 1950

POW Camp #1

Gordon shown on the far right, front row in the 1952 POW Olympics - a pathetic ruse by the Communists to appeal to the Red Cross.



(1)Polito, Ann, Jennifer Krull, and Brian Landes. "Interview with Gordon Madson [11/11/2011]." Veterans History Project. Library of Congress, 11 Nov. 2011. Web. 01 Apr. 2015.

(2) Carroll, Andrew. War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars. New York: Scribner, 2001. 331-34. Print.

Holderness, Clifford G., and Jeffrey Pontiff. "Hierarchies and the Survival of POWs during WWII." (n.d.): n. pag. Boston College Personal Web Server. Boston College, 9 Jan. 2012. Web. 2 Apr. 2015.

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