WILLIAM R. REILLY
Colonel | Infantry
Since golden October declined into sombre November
And the apples were gathered and stored,
and the land became brown sharp points of death in a waste of water and mud
- T.S. Eliot
Once lush fields and pastures of warmer months were now mired from rains and reduced to barren soil, with few gaunt trees strewn along the edges of fields, clawing toward a steel sky with stark branches. Outside of Gros-Réderching, drab tents and vehicles populated the muddy plains, teeming with the activity of the American Army. The land was softened by twenty days of rain during the month of November, inducing a dreary sogginess that squished when walked upon. Vehicles were forced to keep on hard roads, on which the Germans thoroughly deposited mines and other obstacles.
The 346th Infantry Regiment was committed to action on the morning of December 11, 1944 with the mission of storming a hill guarding the approach to a quaint French town barely two miles from the German border. A typical village-rue settled in the patchwork of bocage farmland, Rimling was now in the firm grip of German forces. Behind houses built wall to wall along the single street lay fortifications of pillboxes, tanks, and the notorious 8.8 cm Flak artillery piece, known simply as the “88.”
Infantrymen lined up side by side at 0945, separated with a few feet between each man and proceeded to move forward with marching fire. Facing the enemy, every other man took a few steps forward while those now behind them aimed their rifles, and they alternated ranks, so previously stationary soldiers would pass through the line of men in front, who had now stopped to aim down their sights and fire if necessary. Essentially, the lines leapfrogged with each other. General Patton loved the tactic, claiming that it instilled confidence in the advancing troops and hindered defensive fire from the enemy. Though it was an archaic form of assault from the 18th century, it was effective with support from artillery and mortars, and Patton employed it regularly.
This day was to be the first of many for those who would make it through the war, but nonetheless the first day where they were truly terrified; not fear of dying or being wounded, but simply the helpless feeling of being on the receiving end of artillery fire. Braving incoming shells that heaved shards of metal and swelled the earth to creep forward into the grinding surreality of combat where ones life expectancy depends on nothing but fortuity and coincidence. In these initial hours of the attack, young men saw their brethren maimed, wounded, and killed outright, and they realized with great reverence that it was going to be a tough war.
The unseasoned infantrymen ducked under nearly every shell that zipped overhead, whether it was friendly or from the relentless 88s in Rimling. They had not yet learned the subtle nuances of the whines and whistles of different types of shells. Rimling was just less than three miles from Gros-Réderching, but with little cover in the open fields, progress throughout the day was excruciatingly slow. The regiment reached an objective on the high ground by the end of the day.
Exhausted from slogging through the assault, Major William R. Reilly, 3d Battalion executive officer, unslung his weapon and settled down to rub away weariness from his face with grimy hands. He had witnessed a lot in the past ten hours and tried to reflect on the battalion’s performance. Most of the officers in the entire division had only been through training, but they were catching on quickly. All ranks of the 87th Division were, on average, of high intelligence. Many of the soldiers had come from the disbanded ASTP program and had more education than the typical GI in any theater of the war.
Reilly smashed crackers into his can of chopped ham and eggs. The texture was a meager substitute for what lacked in flavor, though he was not one to complain. The fruit bar included in his morning K-ration would be a good snack later, and he slid it into a pocket on his damp field jacket. Down the line, men shuffled about and grumbled and there was a chorus of clicking weapons as company commanders gave the order to move out at 0800. Reilly scraped the rest of his breakfast out of its tin and tossed it aside, licking his spoon clean before finding a home for it in another pocket.
A constant rain encouraged more fog that settled over the low hills and engulfed Rimling in the distance. Clouds stifled all warmth trying to radiate from the sun as it worked its way above the horizon. As the regiment began to move, the Germans let loose fire from their 88s. On this, the second day, the men were beginning to hear the difference between outgoing and incoming shells, but still flinched as they zipped overhead. They advanced only 400 yards in five hours, though meeting very little infantry. It was difficult progress in the face of artillery and ‘unfavorable’ weather. They continued to attack through the next day, nearing their objective but still moving slowly.
On the fourth day, the attack began at dawn and the regiment was ambitious to reach the town and finally claim their objective that they had been striving for. At first it seemed they would be able to stroll right through – they met minimal resistance and casualties were light. But upon reaching the edge of the town, the Germans fought back fiercely. By now, combat fatigue was also setting in and frustration and irritation were showing through. By 1250 in the early afternoon, the Americans set foot in Rimilng.
The next day, December 15, the regiment moved out again. Victory is short lived on the move. There is always one more town. The next village, Guiderkirch, was a grenade toss from the German border, and the Whermacht did not want an American boot to step into the fatherland. The 346th met heavy resistance by mortar and MG fire, but by the close of the day had captured Guiderkirch among other humble little towns and fought through to cross the German border. The men were tired, hungry, and worn out. Major Reilly assumed command of 3d Battalion after the commanding officer was wounded and evacuated after launching an attack into Obergailbach. Their sister regiment, the 345th Infantry, relieved them on the other side of the border and the 346th went into reserve.
This initiation into combat began a week of battling German forces through wooded pockets and clearing undistinguished towns until crossing into Germany. Though they were making great progress in their advance, the division received orders to stop their clearing operations and hurry over 350 miles to Belgium to counter the German offensive in the Ardennes. Rumor throughout the ranks was that the Germans had broken through American lines, but the order puzzled everyone. The division arrived at Reims on the morning of December 26 and stayed for two days, where the men showered and resupplied.
The regiment’s motor march ended in a pitch-black forest on the outskirts of Bertix on December 29 after traveling on frozen roads in icy winds. The next morning at 0745, the 346th Infantry received orders to ‘hit the road until they ran into Germans’ and gain control roads leading to Vesqueville and St. Hubert.
Limbs of proud fir trees drooped under a thick blanket of untouched snow that pillowed softly on every surface, muting the landscape. Scampering creatures of the woods left shallow prints in the white carpet, trails from fragile paws that hardly disturbed the smooth surface.
On the left flank of the 346th Infantry, Major Reilly led his 3d Battalion through the early morning fog, trudging through snow two feet deep past the Château de Banalbois, an estate built at the turn of the century not too far south from the train station at Hatrival. The construction of the château had created a beautiful clearing in the woods along the railroad tracks, and the area had once been a private home and hunting lodge before being inhabited by monks.
A platoon of twelve soldiers from K Company were at the point of the battalion, not knowing when or where they might stumble into their foe. They had departed with no time for reconnaissance, and the lack of intelligence left many officers ticked. Major Reilly, accompanied by the K company commander and Everett Hale, heavy weapons company commander, all moved forward with this lead platoon. This arrangement with officers up front was typically undesirable, especially with the lack of reconnaissance. It was, however, a reflection of Reilly’s intrepid character as a leader, an admirable quality he carried through his military career. The sooner he knew what the situation was ahead, the better he could direct and protect his men.
The men moved cautiously through the terrain. Reilly beckoned to Glen Cougill, the battalion S-2, and requested that he find a way to bring heavy weapons forward from the rear of the column, where some destroyed bridges had held them up. They were struggling to maneuver their jeeps and trailers over the stream.
Behind the column was a deep wake where powder had been squished beneath their boots, cutting gouges in the serene landscape. It was nearly silent except for the muffled conversations of childhood winters and warm homes, but mostly wondering if there would be girls or booze in the next town they would have the privilege of liberating. The Belgian winter felt familiar to Reilly, much like snowy days in Vermont, and it was almost cheerful. Thick snow provided an illusion of comfort, hugging every surface it rested on. The absence of color in the sterile landscape made it feel remarkably pure, as if any flaw or blemish would be a corruption. It was as if the column of the 3d Battalion, in shades of olive drab, were infecting the uncontaminated landscape. They covered twelve miles of road by mid-afternoon and between the trees the sky was dimming when there was a sharp snap of a bullet passing by, breaking the calm. Another struck the trunk of a nearby tree, followed by another and another. Men began ducking and dropping. A machine gun tore through the forest, shattering the hearty wood, flinging splinters about. Reilly and his officers took cover in a ditch along the road. The battalion was pinned down, and officers and NCOs had no means of communication.
Snow that was once virgin stained crimson where casualties lay where they fell. Flecks of dirt and bark peppered its surface, and hot shell casings jumped from smoking receivers and melted away into the snow.
The men of L Company, following K Company, heard the firing ahead. The 3d Platoon leader, William O’Donnell, had a quick word with the L Company commander who had been at the front when the firing began. He said that Bill Reilly, with his group, and K Company, had been pinned down and were desperate for help. After moving off the road through thick woods with his platoon and a section of two machine guns, O’Donnell spotted the two enemy emplacements that were holding down K Company with the officer’s in the lead. Unfortunately, none of the men with him had seen the MGs and O’Donnell, spotting a depression in the land, ran for it. After a quick two shots from his M-1, the Germans had zeroed in on his position in a crossfire in which they covered each gun. These maneuvers, however, freed up the men who were pinned down.
Beneath a furrowed brow, Major Reilly pursed his lips together and with a look of resolve, glanced around at his staff next to him the ditch. There was brief discussion, if any, before he dashed across the front to instruct his company commanders who were strung out over 200 yards of terrain. Clutching his helmet on his head, he sprinted across the line between spurts from the enemy machinegun, ducking at each crack from a rifle. At points he was forced to crawl through the snow. He was warm now, and his knees and elbows soaked through, soon to freeze in the raw weather. Reilly had passed through each position before darkness cloaked the forest and the only light came from the moon and the ambient reflection off the snow. Under cover of the approaching twilight, when shadows and outlines were hard to perceive, the 3d Battalion escaped the trap they had walked into hours earlier. The Germans, amidst their own confusion, pulled back toward Hatrival. K Company suffered the most casualties after walking into the crossfire first, but after Reilly’s instruction, the other companies were able to pull out intact.
The Germans were clinging to Tillet, a vital position for their reinforcement and supply. A few miles east of Moircy and two miles north of Gérimont, the town lay on an open hilltop with only a few trees and hedgerows surrounding it. Major Reilly’s 3d Battalion was assigned to take the town on the afternoon of January 6, 1945. They would not enter the burning town until days later, with help from their sister regiment, the 345th Infantry. For three days, the men attacked Tillet with no results. At night, the German sent patrols into American lines and caused a great deal of casualties. Finally, on January 10, I Company along with a platoon from L Company punched their way in and took the town.
By January 11, the 87th Division drove the rest of the German resistance out of the area and continued on to Luxembourg where they had a chance to relax, and perhaps find those girls and drinks they had been dreaming of when they were given three day passes to Luxembourg City or to Paris.
On January 29, the regiment made a night motor march from St. Vith through a sector of the 82d Airborne, intending to cross the Our River. Muffled gunfire sounded in the distance, with intermittent blasts from artillery or mortars. Someone was getting into it.
In the light of the next morning, they found what all the firing had been about the night before. Two columns of German bodies lay in the snow where they fell, some in piles of a dozen or more. Perhaps they had gotten lost in the snowstorm, but they walked right into the 82d Airborne positions.
Major Reilly, now regimental S-3 as of January 25, ordered Lt. Melvin L. Coombs to transport a task force to move into the hills behind enemy lines. From here, they would wait patiently and assault the town below the next day. Reilly went with the first group with his jeep, driven by Kenneth D. Bender. Lieutenant Coombs made a second trip to drop off more soldiers and on his return trip, ran into fifteen Germans along the road. He startled them and ordered them in the back of his truck to take them to the prisoner of war stockade. He learned later that Reilly and part of his intelligence staff had been captured and disappeared into the woods. The sky darkened and it began to snow more viciously.
Walking side by side with death, The devil mocks their every step
The snow drives back the foot that's slow, The dogs of doom are howling more
- Jones, Page, Plant
“I don’t know of a man in 3d Battalion that wouldn’t follow the Colonel anywhere he went.” Jerry Francois admired Colonel Reilly. “He was a highly respected battalion commander and a down to earth infantryman.” Jerry paused between thoughts, choosing his words with care. “He was a considerate man…and he had nerves of steel!” If Bill Reilly had not proved his character in Europe, he certainly did in Korea.
For a few days during the first week of November, Lieutenant Colonel Reilly’s 3d Battalion was staying in an old schoolhouse located in a little valley before their move north into the Fusen Reservoir. The reservoir was home to one of a number of hydroelectric plants in this area of North Korea, making the region one of the most well developed industrial bases. The energy source was cheap and offered great potential – especially to China, who had their eyes on it.
“We need wire up to this other town,” solicited Lieutenant Rybolt upon his arrival back from a critique at battalion around 7:00 PM. He also wanted to know what lay to their north and looked for volunteers. Without hesitation, Private First Class Gerard Francois and Sergeant Abbott accepted the mission to hike further north to lay wire through the small village. Rybolt anticipated that they would be moving through there in the next few days, and it would be necessary to have telephone wire in place.
Jerry Francois and Abbott gathered their equipment and set off to the town about five or six miles north. They found the town to be abandoned – and it appeared to have been for some time. After laying wire, they checked over the old maps carefully and found the locations of distilleries. At least they might be able to liberate some booze. They were disappointed to find the distilleries destroyed with nothing to loot, and made their way back from their little expedition to the vacant hamlet.
Day was breaking when they reached the battalion outpost where they stopped to chat with the sentries and grab some coffee before trudging back to the switchboard at the Battalion CP. While they warmed their bones with sips of steaming coffee, Colonel Reilly walked in, wondering where they had been all night long after seeing them come in through the outpost.
He pulled his hands out of his gloves and let them dangle from the cord around his neck. He rubbed his palms together and massaged them quickly, before removing his helmet, to which he had added a Marine Corps camouflage cover that he mysteriously procured somewhere. The parka he wore acted only as a windbreaker and offered very little insulation. It was the old style from World War II – the same type issued to the 10th Mountain Division in 1942.
“We were just laying wire past the outpost, up through that town.” Jerry shrugged it off as standard operating procedure.
“Why’d you need to go up so far?” Reilly was concerned, not angry.
“Well, the radios are real bad up here, so we’re gonna need the wire once we move up through there. That’s where Rybolt wanted us.”
“Alright, well you don’t need to go up that far again.” He was tactful about giving the order. He did not want to give the men the impression they had done anything wrong – they had not, but going that deep into unknown territory was dangerous. Reilly was about to leave when he asked, “Did you see anything up there?” He was almost hopeful. He had been itching for a fight.
The two wiremen had nothing to report, and with that Reilly left for a forward position with the line companies who were moving out for the march into the Fusen. They were shutting down the command post and M Company – the only unit to remain behind – was lining up with its trucks in column along the road when all hell broke loose up ahead. Francois thought it might just be a fire demonstration or some kind of exercise until word came from I Company through the switchboard. They had been ambushed and were pinned down.
Jerry scrambled to find someone of authority to report to. The nearest officer was M Company commander, Captain Earle H. Jordan.
“Cap’n, I just got word that I Company is pinned down up the road.”
“What kind of information have you got?”
“I’ve got none!” Jerry shrugged. “But I can get you a telephone line real quick!”
He dashed back to the switchboard with 130 line to connect Jordan with a forward observer as the Captain ordered his men to dismount and set up their mortars. In seconds, they threw down their baseplates and tubes and were lobbing shells forward before Jerry was back at the switchboard. Up ahead, muffled echoes of the firefight sounded like it was getting pretty heavy.
The ambush – as it went down in official reports – was not actually one sided. It seems both forces were equally surprised to meet each other in the snowy hills. I Company somehow walked right through the lines of well-entrenched enemy, and opened fire upon spotting them. They were dressed in unusual quilted uniforms never seen before, but they certainly were not American or United Nations. The first enemy casualties were a few cooks who dropped dead immediately as I Company rifles cracked the winter silence. Neither side knew how they got as far back into the lines as they did.
The soldiers in padded uniforms popped up from their positions and in seconds they were exchanging harsh fire with each other. Colonel Reilly ran as far forward as he could to observe the developing situation. He wanted to know who was holding up the advance of his battalion. Whoever it was, they were a determined force – and not small in number. They had foxholes all over the hills. Though he was leading blindly, Reilly directed his men, and when mortars from M Company started dropping, the mysterious enemy began to retreat, dragging their wounded away through the scrubby forests.
Francois passed through the scene of the battle with M Company some time later. Bodies of nearly 300 dead littered the ground, and blood trails ran for miles through the woods. In comparison, the 3d Battalion lost only three killed and eighteen wounded. Though they were totally startled, they reacted quickly and with great determination.
The dead bodies were very foreign. They were not from any unit anyone had seen yet, nor did they look like any North Koreans. Some speculated they might be Mongolians or even Russian. Of course, all of their equipment was of Russian origin, and the members of 3d Battalion were scavenging the battlefield for anything salvageable. They had been using captured equipment since arriving in Korea, whether it was North Korean, Russian, or even stolen from the Marine Corps. They were so poorly equipped they used whatever they could, and they still had not received any real winter clothing.
Intelligence did not have an answer for who the 3d Battalion engaged on November 8, but they kept running into the same enemy as they moved through the Fusen Reservoir. They eventually learned the newcomers were Chinese soldiers from two different regiments of the People’s Liberation Army. They were ghosts that materialized, undetected, and seemed able to simply disappear, completely hiding their numbers when needed. They snuck across the Yalu River in October, and avoided detection since then. Their invisibility was almost miraculous. It seemed the 3d Battalion, 31st Infantry was the first Army unit in Northeast Korea to make contact with the Chinese.
Reilly’s 3d Battalion snaked past the town where Francois and Abbott had laid wire a few nights before, following the railroad to make their way around a mountain tunnel that was blown shut. On the other side, they entered a small town in a canyon. It was an isolated, lonely place, devoid of color in the stark winter. In a few days, the battalion was snowed in and running low on supplies. Soon, they were without food.Orders came in that their rations were being cut in half, which became a huge joke among the men since they had no rations to cut. Apparently, it was to balance a deficit due to overdrawing during Thanksgiving of 1948.
The wire team was known, perhaps notoriously, for procuring fresh ox meat to share within a small circle in the 3d Battalion. Before moving into the Fusen, Colonel Reilly joined the enlisted men every night to fry steaks cut from the hindquarters of the oxen. He would walk from his command post, carrying his mess kit up to where Francois sat with a handful of other privates and sergeants. He was really a humble officer and enjoyed the company of the enlisted men, but also could not pass up such a delicious, fresh meal.
Just before the move to the Fusen, however, Reilly was passing by the company cooks. They had taken notice that he was skipping their meals.
“What’re you doin’ there Colonel?” One of the cooks put Reilly on the spot. They knew where he was going. “We got nothin’ to eat down in the mess hall!”
The Colonel, normally a compassionate man, knew how disappointed his resourceful men would be if the cooks became wise to the stash of frozen ox meat in the weapons carrier. “The hell with the troops! Let ‘em get their own!”
“No, it ain’t gonna work that way,” chided the cook. He may as well have been shaking a ladle at Colonel Reilly.
“Alright,” he gave in reluctantly, but knew how hungry everyone was. He could not be selfish. “Give us a couple hours and we’ll get everyone something to eat.”
So the wire team went out and shot a pig, brought it to the mess hall and asked the cooks to boil and scrape it. They were not too invested in the operation when the medical officer came over and refused to let the men eat the pig, noting that his could have trichinosis. So they disposed of the animal and demanded the wire team share their red meat instead. They had roughly 1000 pounds stashed in the weapons carrier. Colonel Reilly, at the center of facilitating the exchange, only managed to keep 10 pounds for the teams’ personal stash. He did not have supper much after that with Jerry and the other men. Of course, now the mess hall served ox steaks, too.
Around the same time they heard their rations were getting cut, General Almond also issued an order not to kill the local Korean’s animals anymore. Francois went out the same day and bagged another 700-pound ox for 3d Battalion.
The Chinese pulled out of the Fusen Reservoir after finding the power plant abandoned and incomplete and facing stubborn resistance from the 31st Infantry. In the week following November 8th, they made an impression on the battalion, but most importantly, they learned. Unlike the Americans in Korea, the Chinese had no aerial reconnaissance or any other means of studying their enemies, and relied on experience to understand who they were fighting, what weapons they used, their equipment, and tactics. They gathered the intelligence they needed and slipped back into the mountains.
After the Chinese left, 3d Battalion received orders to move out of the Fusen. The battalion tailed the Marines during the convoy south, mingling closely enough where Jerry was able to steal twenty-nine cases of 5-in-1 rations off a Marine truck.
“You know you’re stealing government property,” Reilly scolded him.
“No, sir, we’re just stealing from the Marine Corps!” Francois replied quickly, always the clever GI and proud to procure more food for the men in need.
“Well, in that case,” Reilly was reluctant but lenient. “Turn it over to the mess hall!” Despite his rank, it seemed he was still just ‘one of the boys.’
The battalion arrived in Hamhung to find the 3d Division operating out of the area. The 7th Division men were quite jealous to see them sporting adequate cold-weather gear. At least, more so than the layers of summer fatigues and field jackets they had been wearing since arriving in September. Shortly after arriving, they received orders to move back north all the way to the Yalu – and they were surviving on two days without sleep and only two meals in between. At least one was a hearty Thanksgiving dinner served when they arrived in the area. Considering their condition, the men thought the assignment was a sign that the war was over and they were simply an occupation force.
There was no chance command would send such a depleted unit into combat.
For the entirety of November 27th, columns of Reilly’s 3d Battalion snaked from Hamhung to the east side of the Chosin Reservoir in a miserable convoy that seemed to go on forever. They reached a bivouac position by dark and, though it was a weak defensive position near the inlet of the reservoir, they set up for the night. It would be a short stay if they moved out toward the Yalu at first light, anyway, and the Marines vacating the positions reported little or no enemy activity in the area.
As darkness crept in around 4:30 PM and the sun slipped away, temperatures plunged as low as -35˚ F without rising until the first glow of light. Without time or the ability to really dig in, and lacking a great deal of their sleeping bags and other equipment, the men were allowed to build small warming fires to stand by while on watch throughout the night.
Reilly distributed his companies along the ridges in the area near his command post (CP) to form a perimeter – this became the east side security for the night. Initially, he ordered his men to move out further, but seeing how weary they were after two full days and a night of marching, he cancelled the order and kept them close. Many were falling asleep standing up, anyway, and he figured they would continue in the morning.
The battalion command post was a sturdy mud house surrounded by a courtyard near the frozen inlet of the reservoir (4). Colonel Reilly found it difficult to establish outposts and run local reconnaissance patrols in the darkness with no idea what the terrain was like. It was very much like his first day in the Ardennes chasing Germans. Thinking back to that winter, it seemed that Reilly was destined for war in the cold and snow, but this tundra of Korea much less welcoming than the forests of Bastogne or even the flavorless coast of Alaska. Dusty snow yellowed as it mixed with the dirt of the grungy landscape.
Here was hostile tundra, inhabitable only by a few stubborn Korean people – not even the heartiest vegetation clung to the frozen ground, except for a few scattered trees and bits of scrub. Beyond the frozen inlet and to the east, the Taebaek Mountains blotted out the stars on the horizon. Bitter winds of the Manchurian winter howled between these jagged peaks and ridges that carved through the bleak landscape, chilling the already frozen atmosphere.
The battalion was unusually quiet that night. Everyone felt something unsettling, and the silence filled with tension. A pale moon masked by clouds illuminated an otherwise intensely dark night sky with dull, ambient light. Behind a gentle curtain of snow, hordes of Chinese padded silently in thin tennis shoes and quilted uniforms that gave them the appearance of Michelin Men strapped with grenades and ammunition.
Around 1:00 that morning, K Company was startled to hear a cacophony of horns and whistles accompanied by a violent hailstorm of grenades and gunfire. With a steady crescendo, they realized they were being overrun, opening the lines for the Chinese to attack the exposed 3d Battalion CP. The other companies in the battalion, as well as the artillery and anti-aircraft units, were suffering the same fate.
Jerry awoke in his sleeping back in the back of a weapons truck to see balls of fire streaking through the canvas canopy above his head. He leapt out in his underwear, furious.
“Who the hell is shootin’ over here?” He must have looked like a madman to the few GIs by the fire.
“There’s Chinese all over the place!” They replied without much concern.
“Well, don’t worry about it, the line companies will clean them up.”
Jerry skipped back to his truck with freezing toes and reached in to grab his clothes. He glanced up to see two figures running toward him and fumbled for his M1 when he realized they were Chinese soldiers. He dropped them not thirty feet away, breathing heavily in the cold air in only a t-shirt and undershorts. He hustled to put his clothes on and shoved his feet into his boots before fighting his way to a company command post over the hill. The Chinese were breaking through all around the perimeter.
Jerry found several men taking cover from machinegun fire behind a wall outside the mud hut. He recognized one kid from the Pioneer & Ammunition platoon and another buddy in the middle of the yard, near the outdoor latrine. It was his assistant radio operator, PFC Joseph M. Harper. He had been shot up pretty badly and was just sitting there, dying. There was nothing Jerry could do. Behind the house was a jeep marked for M Company – so it must be the M Company CP.
The perimeter crumbled and the line companies were forced to withdraw. Infantry and artillerymen mixed together, fighting off Chinese face-to-face – hand-to-hand. All units except M Company, which may have been the handful of men with Jerry, retreated to the B Battery perimeter with the 57th Field Artillery and continued to hold off the attack.
Blaring bugles startled First Lieutenant Oliver Robinson awake at the 3d Battalion Command Post. The Chinese were swarming toward the house and Robinson hastily formed a perimeter around the courtyard (8). The attack surprised Reilly and his staff inside – this was totally unexpected. Groups of Chinese came periodically, hurling grenades and violently plastering the hut with sub-machinegun fire. They attempted to break in the doorways and climb in through the windows. Reilly sat motionless, shivering in the dark, clenching his jaw and gripping his pistol with numb hands. Having no chance to venture outside the shelter of the house because of the overwhelming barrages of Chinese, he was unaware of the group from HQ Company just outside the courtyard.
Headquarters Company commander Captain Herbert L. Bryant had gathered about a dozen men and dashed the few hundred yards between his company CP and Reilly’s battalion CP. Nobody was on security detail to challenge them, and they met no other comrades outside. The area was swarming with Chinese and the group began defending the area, fighting off Chinese from only a few feet from where they were firing on the edge of the courtyard. Many had come from the south, the same direction Bryant came from out of his CP. In the mayhem, they had not had time to look for survivors, and assumed the occupants inside had all evacuated or been killed in the fray (2) (4).
A few more yards to the east, Jerry Francois was still blasting through clips trying to hold onto the M Company command post. He was one of seven still defending the house from behind cover of the small wall when the Chinese began showering them with grenades. It looked like there were hundreds of trails in the air from the fuses. They must have been throwing them by the box. Jerry looked up to see one tumbling straight toward him and he instinctively held his hand up as if to catch it before it exploded. He was knocked to the ground and the white world around him faded into blackness.
Reilly tried to move about to keep good circulation, but he was exhausted and cold to the bone, yet he kept his aim fixed on the window he was facing. If any Chinese tried to clamber through the, he plugged them with a couple of rounds from his .45 and watched them pitch onto the several bodies on the floor beneath the window. He could hardly feel himself squeezing the trigger.
The small house was riddled with bullet holes and a number of grenades had rolled in, peppering the walls and the occupants. Two officers, Major Clifton Z. Couch and Captain Melville E. Adams, lay sprawled on the ground, steam rising from their bodies after they had both been shot in the chest by sniper fire defending the open doorway (6).
There was a distorted silence just before a mortar crashed into the roof and detonated, instantly killing Lieutenant Olin A. Johnson, an Air Force liaison officer. The shell battered Reilly with fragments and left his ears ringing. He clenched his eyes and forced a yawn to rebalance the pressure in his head. While he was reorienting himself, he looked over to see Lieutenant James A. Anderson struggling to take his revolver from his holster.
“Bill,” he was nearly shouting over the din outside. “Bill, I can’t reach my gun!”
In the dim moonlight that illuminated the interior of the mud house through the hole in the ceiling, Reilly saw that Anderson’s right arm had been blown off. He was in too much shock to realize his arm was no longer attached and was becoming increasingly frustrated that he could not draw his pistol. He continued to mutter as he reached toward his holster with a tattered stump of an arm. Reilly crawled over, pulled the pistol out, and placed it in Anderson’s remaining hand, but the Lieutenant was bleeding to death. He slipped away and had no chance to use the weapon.
Most of Colonel Reilly’s staff were now dead or dying, and he was running short on ammunition. He had no clear idea what was happening outside, but the Chinese were still surging through. A new wave of explosions swelled outside and grew closer, and Reilly realized they were hurling grenades everywhere. They were bursting and popping from every direction. One streaked through a window and exploded next to the Colonel’s head. Bits of shrapnel embedded above his right eye, in his hands, and shoulders and he staggered and slumped against the wall. Snow sifted through the shattered roof, dusting his body and leaving him glistening in the shadows under a thin sheet of powder.
TO BE CONTINUED....
(1) Appleman, Roy E. "The First Night." East of Chosin: Entrapment and Breakout in Korea, 1950. College Station: Texas A&M UP, 1987. 83. Print.
(2) 1st Lt. Rasula, George. Before the Deployment: In Japan. 1950. The New York Military Affairs Symposium. Web. <http://bobrowen.com/nymas/ChangjinJournalbeforedeployment.htm>.
(3) Francois, Gerard. Jerry Francois Memoirs. Charmaine Francois-Griffith, n.d. CD.
(4) Reilly, Bruce, and King Reilly. "William R. Reilly." E-mail interview. 2016
(5) An Historical and Pictorial Record of the 87th Infantry Division in World War II, 1942-1945. Golden Acorn. Baton Rouge, LA: Army & Navy Pub., 1946. Print.
George Rasula Collection