ROBERT W. SCULLY
Sergeant | Airborne Ranger
When the colonial American fighters were forced into ‘ranging out’ against the Indians and adopting their primitive styles, a new class of warriors emerged. It was simply impossible to combat Stone Age adversaries with the European style of fighting and expect to win in the forests of the New World. These tactics gained fame during the French and Indian War and developed over the centuries to become the backbone for the specialized battalions of World War II and into Korea. These men were proud to carry the title of Rangers.
In the twilight of early morning, 3d Ranger Company rendezvoused with a tank battalion to spearhead an assault across the banks of the Hantan River against Chinese Communist Forces. It was a mission for which they had not been intended, for the purpose of the Rangers was not for ambitious frontal assaults, but for covert and deceptive operations of sabotage and intelligence. Perhaps the generals in the Korean theater had not been fully briefed on the capabilities and missions of the Ranger companies, as they continued to employ them as assault troops. The Company’s instructions today were to cross the river and penetrate several miles into enemy territory to capture multiple objectives throughout the day.
This was the assignment, however, and for the Rangers there was never a question of orders. They clung to the tank hulls as the tracks slipped under the surface of waters lapping closer to the Rangers’ boots as they neared the center of the river. If anyone were to slide off it would be a shocking chill to instantly make for a miserable, soggy rest of the day, though with the constant drizzle it seemed they would all be damp anyway. Despite the breadth between shores, the section where they crossed was not deep and the tracks churned up silt that clouded water barely wetting the fenders before the tanks lurched onto the opposite bank.
Approaching Kantongyon showed how barren the Korean farmland was and how impoverished the Koreans were. Sometimes a lone farmer tended his cattle or in warmer weather, his crop, which was more population than 3d Company saw through Seoul that was little more than abandoned buildings standing amid rubble. Outside of the city was a vision of the 19th century, or even older. It appeared that most Koreans had lived the same way for hundreds of years in quiet hamlets like Katongyon – a few thatch-roofed mud huts, some animals in or out of their pens, a local well, and not much more to been seen between miles of rice paddies. There were no utility wires strung out to these rural areas, no automobiles or suitable roads, only beaten down ox paths and long dikes that latticed the paddies. The village itself seemed abandoned, probably for months since the invasion when much of the population relocated for fear of the North Koreans.
Here they stood in the cold mist of dawn, peering across spongy rice paddies at a ridge that lay behind a gray veil. Among the ranks that day was Private Robert W. Scully, creeping behind a tank as they crossed no-mans land. Drizzle streamed from an overcast sky, further saturating the sodden land that was still thawing from a brutal winter. Occasionally, a white phosphorous shell would bury itself into the earth and billow beside a column of men. They were nervous, but refused to show it. Scully hunched over, hugging the tank, and peeked around the armor hull toward the ridge they approached. He wondered what the hell lay in wait several hundred yards ahead.
Those seeking adventure and challenge volunteered for the Rangers. Three time volunteers, they were called, first having to have enlisted and then become qualified parachutists before being eligible for Ranger school. Bob dropped out of high school after his second year and joined the Army at the age of seventeen in September 1946. Perhaps it was to escape his crowded home, inhabited by his Irish great-grandmother, his grandfather, and his sister in law. Being full of vinegar, he found a place in the 11th Airborne and after a tour in Japan, he volunteered for the Rangers during the second cycle of training at Fort Benning in December 1950. Before the company mobilized for Korea, he already had two court martials on his record. Each set him back $25.00, one for appearing drunk in uniform outside of Fort Bragg and the other for being absent without leave for four days that January. The latter cost him his rank and he was busted back to private. He was just the sort of ambitious, gallivanting, fighting man a soldier wanted at his side.
Chinese entrenched on the hill opened up and bullets ripped into the mud and pinged off the hulls of tanks. Rangers dropped to their bellies, slapping as flat as they could into the mud. This was their baptism. Ahead, they heard the ‘whump’ of mortars and seconds later felt deafening explosions rock the ground around them. Captain Bob Channon and Carleton Walker, the company radio operator, had hung back to better direct the Rangers and were barely on the other side of the hill coming from Kantongyon. They watched as the 1st and 2d Platoons crept through the mired paddies as the ground puckered and swelled around them.
The Captain and Walker had no time to react to the swift blasts from three mortars that hit directly in front of them. Channon did not have a chance to assess Walker’s wounds, but it was clear his radioman could not go on and Channon grabbed the radio. He had no choice but to leave Carleton where he laid waiting for help. Captain Channon dashed forward to catch up with the assaulting platoons. He had been peppered in the legs and face with bits of the shell; his web gear and stuffed pockets absorbed the rest of the metal spray. He was amazed at how accurate those first shells had been without any rounds to register.
The mortars were keeping up with the Rangers as they moved into the open paddies, and after fifty yards, the tanks stopped. They purred deeply, idling, as Rangers wandered behind them for cover. Every man waited anxiously for further instructions for the attack. They were fifty yards into the flat paddies and totally exposed when Captain Channon caught up. He was still carrying the radio and shoved it into the unwilling arms of a KATUSA soldier. He was not going to sacrifice a valuable rifleman to carry the radio. The Korean would do, despite his reluctance.
He argued that he was only a civilian interpreter and should not even be in combat. Most KATUSAs were young men conscripted by the Korean government to augment shorthanded U.S. forces. They received a bad reputation as fighters because of their lack of training and zeal to fight. Channon forced the radio on him despite his protestation, reminding him that he was a now soldier in this fight and not a civilian anymore. He called Captain Jess Tidwell, 3d Company commander, for instructions. The Rangers were anxious and hated to be kept waiting like this in the open. After a long pause, Tidwell’s voice crackled through the radio. “You’re to move out when the tanks move out,” he said.
This sealed the fate for many men that day. Coming from Jesse Tidwell, however, there was no question that it was the right choice. The men respected the experience and care their commander offered. He was a southern boy who enlisted in the National Guard before World War II to escape his rough home life. He was commissioned in England while with the 501st Parachute Infantry before the Normandy invasion and was a 1st Lieutenant by the time they reached the Ardennes in 1944. He took a special liking to many of the young Rangers who had come from difficult homes or generally rambunctious characters.
In moments, the tanks in front of the Rangers lurched forward and ripped across the muddy plain, leaving the infantry behind. This was not how the operation was supposed to work. The Rangers were bewildered, expecting to have cover from the armor for the remaining 700 or more yards to the base of the ridge. But, the tanks were gone, probably rejoining the rest of their unit beyond the low hills to the right.
As they approached the ridge with alternating ‘marching fire,’ the nose of the ridge fell bluntly in front of 1st Platoon. From the left, 2d Platoon provided covering fire. Channon watched as Bob Scully and the others moved boldly through thick barrages of mortar and machinegun fire. He wished they would hit the dirt more, but they were full of nervous energy today, standing tall amidst the falling shells. Only the KATUSA carrying the radio was ducking from every round, but Channon had a firm grip on the radio cord and practically dragged the poor boy across the field of fire like a mother pulling her child by the ear. It might have been comical had they not been facing death.
About two hundred yards from the nose of the ridge, a heavy volley of mortars rained down into the Rangers. By some misfortune, Captain Channon again caught the brunt of these explosions as rounds landed so close that the fragments ripped into his shins, not rising above the knee. They must have been within arms reach. He felt them coming in and had leaned into them to avoid being knocked completely over. At the same time, he felt the sting of bullets ripping into his calves. He glanced over and saw the KATUSA had been wounded as well. His radiomen were having terrible luck today and the wall of fire from the Chinese was decimating the ranks of the Rangers. He intended to keep pressing on. As a West Pointer become Ranger, he saw no alternative.
Bob Scully dashed over from his close position with 1st Squad and grabbed the radio. He handed his M1 rifle to another GI whose weapon had been damaged beyond use, figuring there would be enough to choose from on the battlefield. The radio was crucial, anyway. The Rangers would be in the dark without it.
The sky darkened as a hailstorm of grenades lobbed from the trenches before them. The Chinese would often grab a handful, pull the cords and chuck four or five at once. They were extremely good at it, too, and threw so many in succession that it was as if they were torrentially spewing from the edge of the hill.
Even having the radio in hand did not guarantee communication. The tanks were still gone and there was no word from 2d Platoon until Frank Pagano appeared charging out from behind a dike. He had been sent to make contact and see what the situation was on their right at the forefront of the ridge.
He continued toward the hill, trying to stick near Channon, but the Captain was cruising ahead despite his bleeding leg wounds. At some point, he located a B.A.R. and grabbed it, knowing he was a fool if he thought he could charge up the hill without a weapon.
Cries of help trailed from a trench in the hill rising before Scully. “Help me! There’s a Chinese in here still and I can’t kill him!” The cries came with a heavy accent and Bob charged over immediately. He popped his head over the edge of the trench to find the Greek, Gus Georgiou, next to a dead Chinese one wounded before him. They were both struggling to find a way to kill the other when Bob swiveled with the B.A.R. at his hip and sent a burst into the enemy’s chest.
“Hey, Greek, don’t worry,” Bob hopped into the trench to check out his wounded buddy. “He won’t bother you anymore,” a smile almost crept onto his face. He left Gus alone in the trench – there was nothing he could do for him, but he seemed like he would be okay.