SHIRLEY D. McCARTNEY
Corporal | Infantry
Already an impressive river and now swollen from recent rains, the Kum River coursed in front of 19th Infantry positions offering a formidable natural boundary of defense. It stretched over two hundred yards wide with banks taller than a man in some places and had submerged many of the sandbars that offered crossing points when it ran lower. It feigned great security and Shirley imagined any enemy being swiftly carried away by the rivers current either drowning or being deposited miles away at sea. Along with the rains came mosquitoes of alarming size that incessantly pestered soldiers with a ravenous appetite for blood. They seemed to be as long as a pinky finger and left large swollen welts that oozed puss and itched terribly. A generous application of mud to the exposed skin quelled their attention by some degree and after a few days on the line, men of the regiment were thoroughly soiled and beginning to stink from body odor and the occasional poor individual to fall into a mud hole filled with feces.
Though he was on the lowest end of the hierarchal system of the military, Shirley was vaguely aware of the regiment’s tactical position from his humble foxhole. They occupied a loose line strung along six miles, with glaring gaps between platoons and battalions that reserve units attempted to plug. G Company was one of these units, sent in pieces over the last couple days to a spot two miles west of the main body of the regiment in a weak attempt to cover the area between the 19th and 34th Infantry. Had anyone in headquarters or staff officers decided to deliver the situation frankly and transparently, the troops may have panicked and been swallowed up in their own chaos, but in keeping with military tradition of lack of information, soldiers like Shirley were left to speculate and assume that someone must have some control over the situation.
Three days earlier Shirley passed through Taejon, a city still teeming with people and not yet touched by the war. Now seven miles west of the airstrip he stared out at the hamlets burning along the river that had been bombed during the day. The steady blaze illuminated the night with a dull glow and danced against the water’s reflection. In the distance he heard other units firing rifles and machine guns, but in his area the night was still. The distant shots bolstered Shirley’s confidence that he would emerge from his time in the Army as a man – that this was a turning point and an experience that would transform him from a somewhat timid boy of twenty-three to an independent man who had seen war like the veterans of World War II. Shirley had known those from his home to return changed, perhaps more distant, but revered and respected. After leaving school in 7th grade and working in the coal mines, life in army was an alluring opportunity for a step toward maturity.
The night slipped by slowly and in the early twilight of July 16 a rickety plane dropped a flare to signal the enemy. The lingering burst in the distance revealed a horde of North Koreans creeping across the river by any means – small boats and rafts or swimming and wading. A fight erupted in the 1st Battalion area and soon the flashes of gunfire had spread deep within the regimental lines. The enemy flare had dissipated and no supporting artillery seemed to be delivering illumination, leaving the area eerily dim. The gap that G Company filled was soon teeming with North Koreans by daybreak and time elapsed as a withering sun crept across the sky.
In a disorganized retreat, Shirley found himself alone with a jeep and floored it toward Taejon. He was terrified to be alone and raced down the rugged narrow road until he saw another lone soldier, to his delight the familiar face of his buddy Jim Miller waving him down. They had been close in Japan and Shirley was disappointed when Jim transferred to the 2d Battalion Headquarters Company. Jim was elated to have a ride out with his old friend. What were the chances, he thought.
“They’re killing the hell out of us,” Jim panted as he climbed in the passenger’s seat. “We’re luckier than hell to out!” Jim was wild eyed.
“We’re not there yet,” Shirley said hurriedly. “I sure am happy to see you, Jim.” He threw the jeep into gear and they lurched forward. Having a companion he knew well was a great comfort, and they rounded west behind the mass of hills they had occupied during the night.
The sun had moved past its zenith when the pair ran into a roadblock. Startled, Shirley instinctively ducked before grabbing his rifle and while balanced on his seat, began shooting over the windshield at his assailants scattered abroad the road. The enemy in pursuit to their rear drew closer and now bullets came from both directions. Shirley twisted awkwardly and tumbled from his stance following an audible ricochet. Jim leapt out of his own seat and ran to his buddy crumpled on the dusty ground – Shirley was unconscious but breathing. He was bleeding from a hole in his chest and his right wrist was broken and bleeding where the bullet had passed through. His rifle lay near him with a shattered stock. Jim kicked it off the side of the road and slapped Shirley into consciousness.
“Are you okay? Can you breathe?” Jim demanded.
“Yeah, yeah…,” Shirley was unsure as he felt his body with his good hand. “I think I’m okay,” he gasped clutching his wrist as Jim dressed his wounds while bullets whipped around them. One ripped through Jim’s rear end as he crouched over Shirley. He yelped and buckled to the ground. He cursed out the North Koreans and the two friends struggled to bandage each other under fire before clambering back into the jeep.
“Can you drive? I can’t sit right, my ass is killing me.”
“I can’t shift.” Shirley held up his bloody limp hand. “You shift, I’ll drive. Come on,” he hoisted Jim into his seat, “let’s get the hell out of here.”
He nearly floored the accelerator and the two blasted through the roadblock. The North Koreans had either fled or were too surprised to react to the bold move by the two wounded soldiers. With each bump came a stream of curses, Jim about his tender bottom and Shirley about his burning chest and throbbing wrist. At two bridges held by the Americans they slowed enough to hear the guards order them to halt brandishing their weapons.
“Halt? Damn you!” Jim hollered as they rolled past. They were nearly killed by their own men twice before reaching the city limits and reaching an aid station, and once again the pair were separated in the confusion. They would not see each other again, but they knew they had survived and would make it home.