Key point: The value of this strategic territory was measured in lives lost.
Peering intently through a telescope, General Lemuel C. Shepherd, the commandant of the Marine Corps, scanned the shell-pocked Korean terrain in front of his position. Shepherd had made a special visit to the Korean front lines to obtain a firsthand view of the Main of Line of Resistance (MLR) his Marines were defending. In the early spring of 1952, under orders from the U.S. Eighth Army in Korea, the entire 25,000-man 1st Marine Division had moved from the east-central sector of the country to the western part of I Corps to man positions along the extreme left flank of an area called the Jamestown Line. In early March the Marines, joined by the attached 1st Korean Marine Corps, completed the move. Maj. Gen. John T. Selden, 1st Marine Division commander, now had 32 miles of harsh country to defend.
Shepherd, for his part, was concerned about the leathernecks’ difficult assignment. In front of their positions was a small speck of land protruding beyond the MLR like a huge thumb. This seemingly insignificant feature, called the Hook by those who had to defend it, dominated the approach to the vital Samichon Valley. The landscape surrounding the Hook was a defender’s nightmare—steep, rugged hills inundated the countryside. If the Chinese managed to break through the Marines’ lines, they could march unhindered all the way to Seoul, the capital of South Korea. As poor a military position as the Hook was, the Marines had no alternative but to occupy it. In enemy hands, the consequences would be catastrophic. Chinese occupation of the Hook would afford a corridor for the enemy to outflank the right flank and reach the Imjin River. This in turn would not only cut off the Marines from the adjacent 1st Commonwealth Division, but also probably render the entire United Nations position beyond the Imjin untenable.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1952, Marines and other Allied units battled the Communists for the various hills and other important terrain features. These bitter, sharp clashes were dubbed “the outpost battles.” In early October, the 7th Marines occupied the Jamestown Line near the Hook. To keep a watchful eye on their adversaries, the Marines established two small combat outposts, Seattle and Warsaw. On October 2, the Chinese struck at Seattle and seized it. Concerned about the Hook, the defenders decided to create another position dubbed Ronson (so named after a Marine had misplaced his Ronson lighter there after a night patrol) about 275 yards west of the Hook. Warsaw was 600 yards northeast of the salient.
Outmanned and Outgunned
The leathernecks’ main problem was manpower. The Marines, plus attached units, had 5,000 troops to defend the Hook. To alleviate the shortage, “clutch platoons” were organized, using Marine cooks, clerks, and motor transport personnel to perform Minuteman-type assignments. They could quickly be formed into reserve rifle platoons in extreme emergency conditions. The leathernecks were not only outmanned, but they were outgunned. To their front were the 356th and 357th Regiments, 119th Division, and 40th Chinese Communist Forces (CCF). Numbering about 7,000 men, the Chinese also possessed 10 battalions of artillery—something the Marines notably lacked—approximately 120 guns in all. In addition, the Marines also suffered from a severe shortage of 105mm and 155mm howitzer shells.
Enemy activity increased dramatically in the last week of October; thousands of artillery rounds were fired on Marine emplacements. Most of the enemy fire was concentrated on the Hook, Warsaw, and Ronson. Marine and Army artillery units responded, trying to silence the enemy guns. Air strikes and tanks guided by forward observers attempted to halt the incessant bombardment. Everyone was braced for the inevitable assault.
On the cold night of October 26, a company from the 3rd Battalion, 357th Regiment attacked Ronson’s small group, raining down mortar and artillery rounds. Trying in vain to hold on, the riflemen responded with automatic weapons fire. It was no use—every American defender was killed. While Ronson was being overrun, a large enemy force from the 9th Company, 357th Regiment descended on Warsaw, which was defended by a reinforced platoon from Company A, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines. Lieutenant John Babson quickly radioed for “box me in” fire (artillery fire that formed a protective shield around the outpost). Despite the heavy shelling, the Chinese penetrated the perimeter. The fighting was hand-to-hand. Just past 7 pm, a clutch platoon was readied to reinforce Warsaw when a radio transmission was received: “We are being overrun.” The outpost was assumed lost. However, just before 8 pm another message requested variable-time fuses to be detonated over the imperiled position. This was the last word heard from the defenders of Warsaw. Only three Marines survived the Communist attack.
As the two outposts were being decimated, a massive bombardment saturated the Hook itself. “Some 34,000 rounds of CCF artillery were used to soften the position before seizure,” Lt. Col. Norman Hicks wrote, “and when the enemy assault came, there were few able to resist.” Captain Paul Byrum’s Company C, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines guarded the important hill. He decided to reconnoiter the ridgeline after receiving a call from Ronson that they were being overrun. He and a sergeant were forced to split up because of the Communist mortar barrage. The sergeant was later killed, and Byrum was buried four times with dirt from near misses.
The Chinese Advance
At exactly 7 pm, the Chinese converged on the Hook in a classic three-pronged maneuver. In less than an hour the enemy had reached the main trench line of Charlie Company. “They were coming over the ridge, gangs of them yelling and blowing horns,” said Pfc. James Yarborough. “They had a horn that sounded like a milk cow. We couldn’t get our guns to work, and we only had two hand grenades. I threw one and my buddy had the pin pulled and was ready to throw the other when he got hit. I threw it.”
Yarborough and his friend managed to emerge from the bunker and lay motionless near the concertina wire on the perimeter. “I lay there and watched the bunker about two and a half hours,” he recalled. “My buddy was still close to it. Finally they came out and it looked as if they were going to shoot him. I still had my carbine and I fired to scatter them. Somehow I got through the wire. My buddy, he got away too.”
Chinese infantrymen breached the wire and infiltrated the trenches. A forward observation team from Battery F, 2nd Battalion, 11th Marines directed accurate fire on the enemy attackers. When they lost communications, 2nd Lt. Sherrod Skinner, Jr., directed his men to leave the bunker and continue to fight. Trapped by the overwhelming enemy numbers, he organized a makeshift defensive position and poured fire into the advancing Communists. During the intense combat, Skinner was struck twice while attempting to replenish the machine-gun squads with ammunition and grenades.
Despite their heroic stand, the Marines were outnumbered by the Chinese. Skinner ordered everyone back to their bunkers. Corporal Franklin Roy and Pfc. Vance Worster killed a dozen enemy soldiers before depleting their ammunition. Skinner felt their only hope was to play dead. As the men lay motionless, the enemy searched them. As they were departing, they tossed chicoms (Chinese hand grenades) into the bunker opening. One of the projectiles peppered Worster’s legs with shrapnel. Skinner rolled over on another one, taking the full brunt of the explosion, which killed him instantly.
Although wounded several times, Roy crawled from the sandbagged bunker and discovered a box of hand grenades. He began lobbing them at the enemy until he exhausted his supply. He finally made his way to friendly lines and informed them of what had happened. Unknown to Roy, Worster had already succumbed to his wounds. Skinner was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor, and Roy and Worster received Navy Crosses for their bravery.
The determined attack on the Hook soon forced Charlie Company from its positions. By dawn, the Communists had gained a toehold on the Hook. Marine historian Lt. Col. Robert Heinl, Jr., present during the battle, later commented, “Soon it was apparent that a serious situation confronted the 7th Marines. This was clearly reflected in the faces and demeanor of the regimental commander and executive officer. Enemy fire was unceasing, and his attack continued.” What remained of Charlie Company had climbed a crest overlooking the Hook and began firing down on the occupants. A platoon from Able Company, originally slated to go to Warsaw, joined them there, keeping the Communists in check and preventing their advance.
Retaking the Hook
More reinforcements were needed, however, if the enemy was to be driven from the Hook. Captain Fred McLaughlin’s Able Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines was tapped to link up with Charlie Company and retake the all-important position. McLaughlin had just minutes to devise a plan of attack. He told Lieutenant Stanley Rauh to take a platoon, dig in on the left flank, and deliver as much firepower as possible to create a diversion. Meanwhile, he would take the remaining force of approximately 150 men around the right flank.