FREDERICK P. HENDERSON
Brigadier General | Marine Corps
Throughout his life, Louis never spoke of his service, instead locking those difficult memories with the rest of the mementos from his life in the Army in an old steamer trunk that sat tucked away in the house. His best qualities might have been forgotten along with his career in the Army - he was a distant father, belligerently demanding to see his daughter in the middle of the night after a few drinks had their desired effect, and had worked his way through at least three marriages, a couple of which were no longer than a few years.
His daughter never heard details of his 69 months overseas – over half of which were in combat – how in both World War II and Korea he never hesitated under fire and boldly faced the fray when he was most needed. Twice he was decorated for life saving, and there are undoubtedly more instances of good deeds on his part that are not documented and have faded away to time as he suppressed them and tried to forget, tucking them away along with the few precious items he kept in his footlocker.
Even before joining the service, Louis’ life was tumultuous. Army life, at least, provided stability and at most times, was predictable. Louis Sr. worked as a lineman for the railroad, trying to support his wife, Willie, twelve years younger than he, and their two children, Louis and his sister Mildred. When Louis was twelve, Mildred being fourteen, she was already married and died tragically from an accidental gunshot wound. Within two years, both his parents were remarried.
Louis finally found a stable home in the Army in 1935 and within five years was earning a solid $372 dollars per month with the rank of Private First Class. If he made Sergeant, he could nearly double that number, which seemed to be an extraordinary amount to be earning coming out of the depression. The advent of the armored forces provided Louis with the opportunity to excel, and he had earned his stripes before sailing to Ireland and on to North Africa with the 1st Armored Division on May 10, 1942.
The desert was a solar furnace of unrelenting heat throughout the day. Men baked inside their vehicles and went through lengths of removing additional pieces of armor to allow more ventilation. The windscreen, advertised as bullet proof, was discarded as drivers found it to offer little protection from incoming rounds, narrowed their field of view, and absorbed enough heat to raise the temperature of the cabin beyond uncomfortable. Machine gunners did the same with the armor shroud around their gun mount, which did little against bullets but became searing to the touch when in the sun all day.
Among their greatest nuisance and threat was enemy aircraft that buzzed over frequently, necessitating constant change in locations of ammunition and supply dumps and other crucial camps. During one assault, the command half-track was set ablaze from bomb fragments that punctured the gas tank, trapping a man inside with the vehicles basic load of ammunition and grenades. For a heavy-set man, Sergeant Long leapt rather quickly from his slit trench immediately at the cessation of the attack and broke into the burning half-track to pull out his wounded comrade back to the safety of their trenches.
From May 4, 1943 at the same time as the 1st Armored Divison Trains moved rapidly from Beja to French Morocco and to Oran, Louis was promoted from Master Sergeant to Warrant Officer to be the Division Trains maintenance officer. His work was extremely exacting as it was difficult to fight as a solid unit as noted by Major General Harmon. The 1st Armored seemed to always be bled to provide supplies and replacements for the 2d Armored while they were at the front, and vise-versa, so the men, vehicles, and materiel that Louis oversaw was constantly being taxed. The men of the unit saw action at the defense of Kasserine Pass and on the offensive at Maknassey, El Guettar and Gafsa, but it was not until Mateur that the division fought cohesively.
They soon found when traveling in their vehicles how to avoid mines hidden beneath the sands that had blown over to become smooth. As they pursued the Germans, they discovered that their paths were marked with trails of bloated bodies rotting in the arid sun, collecting pockets of sand in all sunken cavities and wrinkles in clothing. Between these corpses was an area of safe travel – beyond them laid minefields. It was a gruesome method of way finding.
The North African campaign was the trial to test the United States armored division in combat, and their successes and shortcomings of the late 1943 war in the desert lent many solutions to the organization and application of an armored division in combat.
In mid-November 1943 the 1st Armored arrived in Naples. With the other Transport Quartermaster Officers, Mr. Long moved to the staging area with Combat Command A at the Anzio beachhead where they lived for the next four months feeding the hungry division as it worked as a highly mobile defense unit. They finally jumped off in the early morning of May 23, 1944 to power up the coast of the Italian peninsula where they claimed to have the first reconnaissance units in Rome and tore another sixty miles past the city. It was a method of warfare perfectly suited for the armored division – a fast paced, hard pounding campaign for the modern age. Only the terrain slowed their advance and the engineers were essential in providing solutions to the torturous mountain terrain marked by winding roads, gorges, and streams.
At the end of June, just after the fight for Massa Marittima, Mr. Long was evacuated for hospitalization for about month and when he returned following the reorganization of the division, he went to the newly formed 11th Armored Infantry Battalion on the edge of the Gothic Line. With the divisional reorganization came a much-needed period of rest, and Mr. Long assumed duties as the assistant battalion motor officer. Combat picked up in September when the 1st Armored forded the shallow Arno River and most of the Arno Plain, clearing Mount Pisano, Lucca and Altopascio and soon they were back in reserve as combat dwindled to only patrols and small infantry clashes as the mechanized unit faced mountainous terrain in which they were to play a less colorful role.
They pushed through the mountains into October and with the changing seasons and altitude above the cloud line, the temperature dropped and chilly rains made life fairly miserable, but Bologna was thirteen miles away and in some places the men could spot the Po Valley. The Division was moving so fast, however, that supplies, ammunition and replacement were struggling to keep up with their rapid advance and a major offensive was pushed out until after winter. The first snows came in mid-November and the men dug in until a well needed rest in reserve at the turn of the new year. Louis departed the Division in early February before they were committed back to the line and he left a hardened unit credited with victories in the earliest campaigns of the war.
While Long’s war in Africa in Italy had been a hard-pounding, nearly constant push north against the Germans, his war in Korea was dramatically different during the first weeks when the 24th Division was struggling to hold back North Korean forces of superior numbers and strength. Due to post war reductions, he no longer held the rank of Chief Warrant Officer and was now a Master Sergeant, though he still had all the responsibilities of the maintenance officer in the 34th Infantry’s Service Company. Throughout July 1950, there was no break for units of any kind and men who frequently served in rather comfortable roles found themselves facing a terrifying enemy with a rifle in hand.
By July 16th, the regiment had withdrawn from the Kum River line to the city of Taejon, among the largest cities in Korea at the time and a center point for roads, railways and commerce. Buildings along the streets were of wood and concrete and the utility poles that lined the sides were often concrete as well due to the scarcity of trees since the Japanese occupation. To the northwest was a vital airstrip and immediately surrounding the city were a multitude of rice paddies typical of the Korean countryside. Only two roads led out of the city on the southeast corner – one east to Okchon and one south to Kumsan – if the regiment needed to evacuate quickly these two routes would undoubtedly be clogged with vehicle and foot traffic.
Both battalions of the regiment patrolled around the northwest sector of the city for the next few days and realized with each contact how much the enemy was building up his forces. The regiment was already weak and they dreaded the thought of another fighting withdrawal which was certain to occur, and on the morning of July 20th the enemy troops supported by fifteen tanks broke into the city. Until then, Service Company had been relatively unaffected and Louis had only heard gunfire and commotion from a distance, but the tanks began harassing them with shell fire and machinegun fire until knocked out by a brave soul with a bazooka. This was only a small victory, one of many that occurred in the streets and on the outskirts of the city, but they were not enough to claim ground and soon the fight was overwhelming. Orders to withdraw came in early morning and the chaos consumed the evacuation route.
Incessant fire from the surrounding hills and roadblocks on every street and road made organized withdrawal agonizing and in most areas this disintegrated to men fleeing on foot, abandoning vehicles that were both serviceable and destroyed, and a dissolution of leadership that left soldiers no higher than the rank of captain to make crucial decisions on how to proceed. Wounded men were loaded onto the trains at the railyard and dispatched out of the various railway routes. Many did not make it far, either from damage, abandonment by the local crews, or the engineers killed. Sergeant Long found one locomotive halted by a machinegun emplacement and took the opportunity to find a way out for the train. He organized a patrol, likely ‘volunteering’ men in his immediate vicinity, and hiked up the position of the machinegun next and killed the crew. The effort began to wear on him – he was not as fit as most of the men in the unit with a belly that hung over his belt line and a body type that the Army generally classified as obese, and his drinking habit did nothing to help his physique.
On the way back from this patrol, Louis and his section walked into a convoy evacuating wounded from the city. The driver of the lead truck had been wounded, stalling the truck and stopping the entire column from moving further. Moving the driver aside, Louis ordered his patrol onto the truck of twenty-six wounded and threw it in gear. His relief of having a place to sit for the time being was broken by having to face nine miles of mortar and machine gun fire before reaching the 34th Infantry’s defensive positions. He had led the column out of the city and knew he had rescued at least the handful of men on his own truck, but like his daring experience in North Africa it was just part of the job that had to be done.
For a couple days following the escape from Taejon the 34th Infantry spent time collecting themselves and counting their losses while in Division reserve, but even here safety was elusive and an ambitious enemy pushed through frontline units to threaten the regiment and beat them further back to the Naktong River line until they were relieved by the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade and the 9th Regimental Combat Team at the end of August. From July 2d until their relief, combat had been brutally continuous and Sergeant Long was as tired as any man. The 34th Infantry was notified it would be reduced to zero strength due to its losses: 98 killed, 569 wounded, an astounding 773 missing, and 274 non-battle casualties. However, their mission was considered a success, for they had held the line and delayed the North Korean advance until United Nations forces could arrive and enter the war.
On dissolution of the regiment, Sergeant Long was parted out to the 24th Signal Company for the fall and winter campaigns where the bolstered Army chased the North Koreans back to the Chinese border. In mid-February he returned to Japan to the reconstituted 34th Infantry for a period to train and rebuild Service Company. He completed his Korean tour with a couple more overseas bars climbing up his sleeve and a Silver Star to add to his former Soldier’s Medal for lifesaving. He stayed in the Army for a few more years and never truly found a satisfying life after that, struggling with health issues incurred from the service and of course the shadow of alcoholism that shrouded a selfless soldier who always put duty and his men first.
Vaughan, Curry N, et al. Mud, Mountains, and Armor: The 1st Armored Division From Rome to the Alps. 1949, Mud, Mountains, and Armor: The 1st Armored Division From Rome to the Alps.
United States, War Diary – 24th Infantry Division Unit War Diaries, Department of the Army, 1950.