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Pork Chop Hill: When America and China Went to War in Korea

The tennis-shoed soldiers emerged from the darkness on July 6, 1953, like a “moving carpet of yelling, howling men [with] whistles and bugles blowing, their officers screaming, driving their men” against the Americans as they swept up Hill 255, recalled Private Angelo Palermo.

The lead elements of the Chinese infantry were loaded down with grenades, but they carried no rifles or submachine guns in their assault on the nondescript hill made famous by the 1959 film Pork Chop Hill, which was based on military historian S.L.A. Marshall’s book. They were trained to pick up and expertly use weapons dropped by their enemy as they rushed relentlessly forward like a large wave to engulf and overpower everything before them. Palermo and his U.S. Army buddies in Company A were outnumbered four or five to one by the Chinese assaulting the Americans’ recently shored-up trenches.

The Chinese knew what they were doing and were determined to advance over the covered trenches separating the 1st and 2nd Platoons and make a beeline toward the company’s command post located just east and below Pork Chop’s highest point. Near that point they would enter the open trenches and cut the defenses in half just below the two high points on the hill.

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Once in the covered trenches, they could continue their rapid-fire advance to the command post and seize the secondary crest while the largest group of fighters, estimated to be a company strong, would take the hill’s crest. Two more Chinese platoons would roll over the crest, one intending to penetrate the rear and the second running to take the evacuation landing zone.

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The Chinese had done their homework during the 10 weeks the Americans had taken to reconstruct Pork Chop Hill’s defenses since the failed April attempt to take the hill. The Communists under General Deng Hua, deputy commander of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army in Korea, were the experienced and well-trained 141st Division of the 47th Army and the 67th Division of the 23rd Army. The battled-hardened Chinese knew how to conduct fierce, head-on infantry assaults and were well versed in mountain warfare. They were pitted against Maj. Gen. Arthur G. Trudeau’s fairly equal-sized 7th Infantry Division of 19,000 men, which included a battalion of armor and six battalions of artillery. Both sides knew the coming battle might influence the peace discussions that appeared nearing conclusion.The Chinese knew what and where the obstacles were, and they had come well prepared with bazookas, satchel charges, automatic weapons, hand grenades, and flamethrowers. Some in the assault force even came equipped with sulfur sticks to create acrid fumes to force the Americans from their bunkers.

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Private Harvey Jordan and his machine gun crew survived a direct-fire round, either from a recoilless rifle or from a Soviet-built T-34 tank, which struck an adjacent bunker, killing two Browning automatic riflemen and severely wounding their squad leader. Both heavily fortified bunkers partially collapsed as the squad leader continued to scream in pain.

As the air cleared, Jordan checked his weapon and attempted to fire at the oncoming red tide. It spit out one bullet and then the machine gun stopped, damaged by the explosion. Jordan and his South Korean ammunition bearer started throwing grenades in a desperate effort to ward off the attackers. An incoming hand grenade knocked the American across the floor, spraying him with shrapnel and wounding one eye. He was saved by his body armor, but his Korean helper lay dead. By now the Chinese were on them, spraying the bunker’s walls and floor with their burp guns from the lip of the trench before Jordan fell unconscious.

In a nearby bunker, Private George Sakasegawa and his squad leader held their fire until the oncoming Chinese tide was nearly on them. Then they let loose with everything they had as the enemy hurled grenades, one exploding near Sakasegawa and causing shrapnel wounds to his buttocks and legs. The Chinese continued forward in their saturation attack, quickly dividing and isolating the defenders on Pork Chop Hill. Simultaneous diversionary attacks were occurring at outposts Snook, Arsenal, and Arrowhead.

Company A on the right shoulder of Pork Chop Hill came under severe mortar and artillery attack as the Chinese swarmed into the trenches in the center between the two high points of the hill. That isolated the 1st and 2nd Platoons as a major force of the enemy swept over the crest toward the rear slope, heading toward Company A’s command post.

Lieutenant David Willcox of the 2nd Platoon headed out of the command post toward bunkers 53, 54, and 41, which were under heavy attack. He became separated from the two troopers with him and Willcox found himself engaged in the fight of his life. He came well prepared to the fight. He had emptied his .38 and .45 caliber pistols, killing a dozen of the enemy at close range, when another Chinese soldier came at him before he had time to reload. Willcox grabbed one of three knives he had on him and killed his opponent, who turned out to be a fresh-faced teenager.

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