A Forgotten Korean War Battle on Memorial Day
By Marc Belisle
This is from a letter I wrote to my mother on Memorial Day weekend in 2009, while I was teaching English in South Korea. Everything in the letter is 100% true.
Speaking of Memorial Day, I had an incredible experience on Wednesday. My office mate bought a metal detector, and has been going to Korean War battle sites with it. He started finding stuff at this one site, and he invited me to go with him on Wednesday. I did some research on the site, and found an article with pictures taken by a soldier who was at the battle. He had some maps, and I bought a compass, and we got a shovel and went to the battle site. At the battle about 5,000 (no one knows exactly) Chinese soldiers ambushed a patrol of about 100 Americans.
It took about an hour and a half to get there, and the site is way out in the country. There was a village called Chipyongri (which is also the name of the battle) and some railroad tracks about half a mile away, but once we started hiking we were out in the wilderness.
Using the maps and the compass, and some first-person descriptions of the terrain by soldiers who were there, we climbed up a mountain that the Americans ran up to get away from the Chinese ambush. Then we followed up the ridgeline that they ran along as the Chinese chased them. The Americans eventually found a round hill where they hastily dug in and made a stand, setting up a perimeter with machine guns and started calling in close air support, including napalm.
So, as we walked along the mountain range, we started thinking we had to have passed the hill. But I kept looking at this round outcropping, and wondered if that was the spot. It looked too small though. We went over to it, and we were looking at some of the pictures from the article, and nothing looked familiar from the pictures. There were no trees at the time though, from the Japanese cutting down all the old growth and from heavy bombing. But I noticed a distinctive mountain range in one of the photos from the battle, in the background of the photo. Looking around, I eventually saw it in the distance, through the trees. We then lined up other things in the photo with what we were seeing. So we think we found the exact spot where the photo was taken.
We started waving around the metal detector, which is a really slow process, because it’s extremely sensitive and will beep if you move it too fast or jerk it. After an hour and a half or so, we found a rectangular pit which looked like it could have been a foxhole. And there were craters about half a foot deep and a foot wide going down the hill. In the article the Americans said there were so many Chinese running up the hill that they were just pulling the pins off one grenade after another and rolling them down the hill. So we thought we found a foxhole and grenade craters. We started waving the metal detector around the foxhole, and in less than a minute, we started getting beep, beep, beep. We cleared away the underbrush and started digging. Under about half an inch of top soil we found what appears to be twenty belt clips from a belt-fed .30 caliber machine gun. As the gun fired, it would have just dropped the clips beside it. Based on the location of the clips, assuming they hadn’t been moved, the gun was firing heavily in one direction, and a few times in almost the opposite direction, possibly after being flanked. The gun position may have been overrun or had to retreat, since the Americans took over 90% casualties.
Anyway, I didn’t have my hopes up, I figured there was a good chance we would get lost or not even find the right place or if we did, not find anything. So it was an amazing surprise to find the place, then have photographic proof we were standing right where they fought, to see the terrain they dealt with, to see the scarring on the earth left by the battle, the foxholes where they fought and died… It was quite an adventure, very spooky and gave me an enormous appreciation for the terror and ferocity of the war. I sort of felt like maybe there was a spirit looking over my shoulder, guiding me to see what he went through. It was an intense reminder of the sacrifices that other people have made so that I could have the freedom to live and teach abroad in peace and security.
Have a good Memorial Day weekend.
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