ROBERT L. QUINTAL Sr.

Corporal | Infantry

 

Morning woke quietly with dust floating through the blanket of sun that wrapped around the mountains from the east.  A low buzzing swelled in the still air as flies gathered around bodies in the valley to the north, and the rank smell that attracted them was already thick in the air.  Some had not succumbed to their wounds yet and frail moans echoed in the hills.  A few of the moans came from the American held ridges, but most of the wounded had already been evacuated.  Now the men were shuffling about, gathering their precious belongings disheveled during the night, making breakfast, and some searching for an unfortunate comrade.  Some local children snuck out into the battlefield carrying pliers and hammers, returning shortly to the American lines gleefully with handfuls of gold teeth they had knocked out.

 

Tony lit a cigarette and pulled aggressively, the ember racing toward his lips.  Next to him, Bob Quintal sat curled up with his arms around his knees and his head bowed.  He extended his hand to Tony and without saying a word, placed the cigarette between Bob’s fingers and promptly lit another one.  He did not have the energy to hassle him to get his own and if Bob did not repay the favor, which he likely would, Tony had no problem swiping one from him.  Bob unfolded himself and rubbed his face with filthy hands.  His nails were worn down, packed with grime, and dirt and gun grease in every crack and wrinkle.  Beads of sweat ran trails through the dirt embedded on his skin – it was already getting warm.  He figured he smelled pretty awful by now, but they all smelled the same and had lost that sense of smell.

 

The cool morning warmed into a day that would be hotter than hell, Bob thought, running his eyes over the edge of his foxhole at distant peaks.  Tony Valiante stretched his legs, plowing his boots through a few spent casings and empty clips that jingled against each other.  During the night battle, they had both fired at flashes on opposing ridges and movement from enemy positions illuminated by light of flares and searchlights, but both knew they had probably not hit a man.  Bob’s ears were still ringing, but he only noticed it if he concentrated on it while it was quiet.  Hours ago, he huddled beneath a thunderous artillery barrage so severe that the earth convulsed like it was going to rip apart.  Never did a man ever feel so helpless than when tons and tons of explosives rained down in sheet.  All Bob could do was curl up in his foxhole and pray until it was over, hoping that none of the thousands of shells would sail into his little hole in the ground.  Death had come closest when a piece of shrapnel the size of his fist blew his first aid packet from his belt, leaving him unscathed except for the few torn grommets at his hip.

 

He flicked the butt of his cigarette into the corner of the foxhole where they dug their rat trap, thin blue smoke curling from the stub that was left, and leaned his head back against the dirt wall behind him to close his eyes for a moment.

 

“Quincy, come on, let’s go!” Tony kicked him in the rear, only to receive a string of profanities that he shrugged off, shoving Bob’s helmet in his hands.  “They’re taking us off the line, buddy.  You can rest after a shower.”  They reluctantly picked up their trash and filled in the foxhole knowing that tomorrow they could be on the same peak digging in again.

 

*

 

The night attack of August 31st to September 1st and ensuing patrols and small battles during the month marked Bob’s first combat and the last major offensive for the 7th Division in 1951.  The Division had rotated with the 24th Division on August 8th and settled in positions 2000 yards in front of the MLR, patrolling daily and building up their trenches and bunkers.  On August 30th the regiment received orders to seize an opposing ridge overlooking the Hudong-ni valley and the following days were consumed with the excitement of preparations and ultimately into the fray of continuous rotation between fighting, reserve, thrilling fear and excitement and period of extreme boredom.

When he enlisted in January 1951, Bob did so with the intention of escaping the draft which he figured would take him eventually, and at twenty-years-old he left his job as a pressman at Patriot Press to get his military service over with.  He had held the job for three years after dropping out of high school after the first year – at the time, the pay was more valuable than education and his family needed the income.  He first tried to enlist in the Navy, but they passed him over due to his slight build and height of five-foot-four, but the Army took anybody and added a few pounds to his weight on paper to get him through.  During basic at Fort Dix, Bob had chosen to specialize in mortars assuming that even though he was still stuck with duty as an infantryman, he would at least be somewhere behind the lines as a mortarman.  He proudly told the supply sergeant on arrival to the 31st Infantry of his skill, to which the unimpressed sergeant replied with “Here’s your M1” and shoved the rifle in his hands. 

 

He was subsequently assigned to Security Platoon of the Regimental Headquarters Company, which during the first month or so consisted of monotonous guard duty around camp.  He was passed over for the commander’s honor guard on account of being too short, yet another set-back due to his stature.  Around camp he at least had to opportunity to steal peaches and other coveted items from the officers’ mess, which he blatantly denied when questioned.  What was the worst they would do, he wondered, send him to Korea?  A classic joke for anyone in country who found themselves in trouble and all his buddies in the platoon conspired to play dumb when questioned about missing items.  Bob had plenty of practice pilfering with his friends as a child when he would sell scrap rags to a blind man and quickly run to the back of his cart, grab some the poor man had already purchased, and sell them to him again.  His mischievous nature and good humor were of great benefit to the morale of those near to him in Korea. 

 

Sometimes the loot from the mess was paired with care packages from home, especially cured meats from the Italians, particularly Tony’s family in Bayonne, but some of the products and fruit they procured when toward brewing hooch in their tents or bunkers.  Between the rain showers of the summer months, there was time to assemble walkways lined with stones, create signage, decorate the doors of their tents, and find means of entertainment to pass the time.  Though the unit had not been committed to fighting since Bob arrived in late June, it was clear that these periods in reserve were a welcome break from being on the line and under constant stress of artillery and patrols.

Though HQ Company was set behind the battalions strung along the front, whether on line or in reserve it was up to Security Platoon to conduct patrols and maintain contact with forward units, discourage infiltrators from sneaking in, and accompany the regimental commander and any other officer wishing to make a name for himself and earn a medal by visiting the front.  The Colonel stood out as a decent man among most of the staff officers as a humble commander who respected his men.  Bob’s squad mate Dick Hoffman had spoken well of McCaffery after pulling guard duty at the commander’s tent for a few days.  He took the task seriously, wanting to impress, but after a few days of sharply saluting the Colonel each time he passed, McCaffery kindly asked that he relax.

 

The platoon leader Master Sergeant Frank Pizzuto was thirty-two, an old timer who had been in the Army since the late 1938 and served through Europe during the war.  He joined the company in September and was the stereotype of a husky sergeant, focused on athletics, and favored his Italian kin – Frank Trantanella and Sal Fusco made rank suspiciously fast, which irritated Hoffman as he was the senior corporal itching for the pay of sergeant.  It may also have explained how Tony – and Bob, by extension – got away with their troublesome activities.  He may also have excused them many times as they simply did their duties well and without much audible complaint.  There were other men who were not so keen as soldiers, and one individual in particular who was extremely fond of the captain was always blundering through his chores without being self-aware of his own incompetence.  By the time he was done peeling a potato it had reduced dramatically in size, and any reaming out and discipline had no effect on his oblivious cheer.  Bob found his squad and most of the platoon to be fair soldiers and friends.  Valiante remained closest after they met in Japan off the troopship before going to Korea and they were foxhole buddies for the war. 

*

Through September and October, most of their life on the line was in bunkers, but they would often find themselves spending a night in a foxhole on a local hill acting as an outpost or listening post.  Frequently a couple men or a squad of the platoon was ordered to set up an outpost on a nearby hill and watch for enemy that no one seemed to know the location of.  Grenades were scarce, but they would grab as many as they could find and sometimes lug a cumbersome water cooled .30 caliber machinegun up a rugged ridge.  Elderly Koreans with A-frames stacked to what looked like a ridiculous load would pass them on the way up, shuffling with little steps.  It boggled the mind that these old men and women could climb a hill much faster than a young soldier in his prime.  They often followed a local Korean who claimed to have information and spent a tense night, wondering if the intelligence from the local was accurate, if the enemy would show, or if the local was a double agent.  Bob always thought it was hard to tell who the good guys were and who the bad guys were – to his western eyes the Oriental face was hard to distinguish.  It was also suspicious that the enemy always seemed to know where the Americans would end up and on more than one occasion, they caught spies returning to enemy lines to divulge plans after unit meetings. 

 

Ironically, the actual enemy Chinese seemed to be a decent human and an excellent soldier.  When Bob enlisted, he did so only to avoid the draft as he assumed the Army would take him eventually and he imagined that the Chinese plight was about the same or worse.  During the late summer in 1951, there was a lull in combat which became a bit of an unofficial cease-fire.  The Chinese and Americans would holler back and forth at each other and walk comfortably along the ridgelines – it was comfortable for both sides and obvious to Bob that the enemy was about as interested in fighting as he was and would rather just go home.  Eventually, someone spoiled the atmosphere and shot someone else and the fighting started again.

Another occasion on New Years he was on guard duty with another soldier when two Chinese appeared out of the night, startling the two Americans as well as themselves.  The two pairs of men stood in silence for what was probably only a moment, but seemed longer as Bob’s mind raced.  No one spoke, and by the demeanor of both sides they began signaling to each other, somehow making it clear that neither side wanted to shoot at the other and the Chinese turned and slipped away as quickly as they had come.

*

In mid-October, the 31st Infantry shifted its sector of operation to the Mundung-ni valley which was always thick with fog in the morning and late afternoon.  By now the nights and mornings were cool, warming moderately during the day before dropping at night as a prelude to the winter.  During this time, Bob had contact with the Ethiopian contingent who he had heard many stories of, and he found the stories of the dark-skinned warriors held true – they were extremely professional and he immediately respected them.  Operations during the period were grueling, but with weeks of experience from his earlier combat, Bob was fairly used to it.  Toward the end of November the regiment moved into Division reserve, which was a small blessing for a couple weeks during the bitter Korean winter for if one was out in a bunker or foxhole it was essential to try to keep blood flowing to prevent frostbite.  Th men could move about at their leisure and have the freedom of physical activity beyond patrolling.  Their winter clothing was barely adequate and when Bob and his buddies observed a shipment of new winter gear being distributed to ROK troops, they were delighted at the prospect of getting new parkas and other gear.  After patiently waiting for the ROK troops to disperse, they were horrified to watch as the winter gear was gathered together and burned – a discouraging sight and testament to how the Army works mysteriously.

A wet spring thawed out the frozen hills, turning the earth to mud and at the end of April the 7th Division moved from their comfortable reserve at Kapyong back into combat in the Kumwha valley and the daily routine of patrolling ensued.  Bob anxiously awaited his rotation which he knew was coming soon, and by the end of May it was time.  It was the thing he had most looked forward to during his entire year in Korea, but bittersweet to say goodbye to his squad mates who had become like family.  They bid farewells promising to write or visit, but knowing they would probably never see each other again.  It was a lonely trip home made worse when a captured Russian carbine was confiscated and a couple souvenirs including a Korean cane and a stolen .45 pistol was swiped from Bob’s sea bag.  He passed through San Francisco and across the country back home to Connecticut where he spent the next few days telling stories of the past year, but never really knowing how to explain how his life had changed and how the war affected him, so he looked forward to finishing his three year enlistment and tucked away the memories of Korea.

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