Police Action: A day at Precinct 355

by Royal Gelineau

Even after fifty years, people still seem to have difficulty getting their mind around identifying what took place in  Korea as a War and still insist on referring to it as an  'Armed conflict' or a 'Police action'; well, I think we would all readily agree it certainly was an armed conflict,  as all true wars are,  but I think the 'police action' label falls far short of defining  what transpired there in the early fifties. The following is a mental diary of one twelve hour period I recall from my term of service there which might help in placing this action in the proper category.  

On the sixth of October, 1952, I was a junior NCO with Able Company, 1 Battalion of The Royal Canadian Regiment and we were in the front lines on a hill commonly known as Hill 355 and also referred to as Little Gibraltar by the Americans or Snowden by the Brits; personally, I think 'Gibraltar' defined it perfectly.  The companies were rotated monthly and it was our turn to occupy the forward slope of the hill and two outposts known as Vancouver and Calgary; Edmonton outpost was to the left and manned by Easy company.

My section was located on the extreme right front of our platoon and I shared a bunker and Bren slit with Harry Brooks on the front of the hill and the remainder of my section was in two slits off the crawl trench leading to ours; this position provided an excellent view of Vancouver outpost, Hill 227 (the main enemy hill) and the valleys between us . We did not have any camouflage netting over our trench and all the vegetation around it had been blasted away by enemy shelling so we were highly visible to the enemy and they would fire at us with mortars daily and occasionally with 120mm self-propelled guns.   Lt Calloway, our platoon commander, was well aware of this and gave us the option of leaving our position during daylight hours and returning in the afternoon, or staying and acting as artillery spotters reporting coordinates of enemy guns firing on our hill.  We agreed to stay; they gave us a phone that connected to Ops lines, a map, and we were in business.       

On this day however, when first light broke, we could see the enemy had set up an observation post just below the peak of hill 227 and were directing fire on to Vancouver outpost.  It soon became clear that this was not simply harassing fire for which they normally used mortars, but artillery fire from an SPG and they meant to obliterate the outpost. The first shells had been directed at the forward positions and they were proceeding systematically down the connecting trenches with such precision the craters were touching like a string of pearls.

As soon as we realized what they were up to, we called our OP and requested tank fire on the enemy OP.  Although we could see them clearly from our position, they were shielded from the tank's gun by the hill and the shells just blew up a lot of dirt or went over them into the valley beyond.  When that didnít work, we requested heavy mortar support from the British support unit which was attached to our unit.  We asked that they use air burst shells because the enemy spotters were right in the open behind the peak.  If the mortars didnít kill them, it would make them keep their heads down and give our boys a chance to get away or to better cover.  

This worked for a while and they stopped firing on the outpost but soon figured out who was spotting them and turned the SPG on us.  The first shell took down a tree about 20 feet to the right of our trench, the second about the same to our left.  I went into the bunker after the second round but Brooks just stayed out there shaving with his straight razor and didnít come in until I yelled at him.  "We're bracketed, get in here" (he knew that, of course, but he liked playing it close).  He just made it inside the door when the third round skimmed the parapet where he'd been standing and hit the stone wall behind the bunker; the concussion had us hearing bells for quite a while.  We had put a sandbag wall in front of the bunker door the night before and it was riddled with shrapnel. It must have looked like a direct hit to the enemy because they stopped firing at us, then about 15 minutes later resumed stringing their deadly necklace on the outpost.                          

The men in the outpost took advantage of the break in the action while the guns were trained on us and took cover in the largest and best bunker on the outpost rather than abandoning it and returning to company lines.  As soon as they resumed firing on the outpost we called in the coordinates of the SPG and requested suppressing fire from heavy artillery to try to knock it out.  We succeeded in reducing their rate of fire considerably, but I donít think they actually got the gun .                                                                                                                                                            The outpost trenches were shaped like an H with the legs parallel to the enemy and the centre connecting trench continuing through the back leg towards our lines and exiting the hill.  When we resumed our observation, the front leg of the H was a line of shell holes and they were almost finished the connecting trench when one of the rounds fell short from the pattern by 20 feet or so.  It went directly into the doorway of the bunker the men had taken refuge in.  They were all killed instantly.  I do not recall how many men manned the outpost but I know there were six bodies in that bunker so there may have been one or two survivors that did not go in and somehow got out alive.                                                                                                                                                        
We did not know of the direct hit or of any casualties at the time.  All shelling of the outpost and our position stopped all of a sudden.  We did not observe any movement at all on the outpost, so I left my section to report to Lt Calloway and to attend the evening Orders group.  He informed us of the casualties and stated the outpost had been remanned.  A detail of ROK army porters was standing by at the Company OP to retrieve the bodies and they needed someone to lead them out.  I donít recall if I volunteered or was asked but told him I was very familiar with the trail leading to the outpost and it's layout and could take them out.  He agreed and I left immediately to join up with the detail.

The porters were very capably led by an RCR nicknamed Peanuts who knew enough Korean to get the job done.  It was pitch black when we started out down the trail  and with all the activity that had been going on, we were all pretty tense; we made it all the way to the base of the outpost without incident.  However, as we arrived the Yanks fired a Starlight parachute flare directly overhead which lit up the entire area like daylight.  The shelling had stripped all the vegetation and man made cover from the hill so that we were all standing completely exposed as in a well lit arena where the audience was fully armed and decidedly unfriendly.  We held our breath and waited for all hell to break loose ... but after a few minutes, it appeared they were going to allow us to retrieve our dead unmolested so we got to work.  We were led to one huge crater that had been the bunker and which contained all the bodies fully exposed.  (There was no roofing materialólogs and suchóin the crater indicating the shell had exploded inside the bunker blowing the roof and walls away.)  Several were missing limbs and  we had to hunt around for those but the torsos were relatively intact with dog tags so we wrapped each up in a blanket and secured each body to a pole the ROK porters had brought along.  They didnít have body bags in those days so your old army issue grey blanket with the black stripe was your burial shroud and I think we used telephone wire to tie them up.  We left the outpost replacements behind to man the outpost and returned to the main hill with the bodies.                                                    

By this time the Starlight flare had expired and we were in the dark as we approached the first trenches.  The porters were walking along the side of the trenches because it was easier  when all of a sudden, the enemy opened up with a barrage of mortars right in the area we were walking so Peanuts ordered the porters into the trenches for cover and fortunately, were able to complete our mission safely with no further casualties.  However, the men we left behind at the outpost came under heavy attack when we were being mortared and unfortunately, I do not know the outcome of that action. 

However, if I remember correctly, they stopped manning that outpost after that  and I was informed that the Chinese dug tunnels or caves into that hill to use as an aid station for their wounded in any large scale offensive they were planning and in fact carried out, when they attacked the hill en masse on the 22nd of October.  The forward position was occupied by Baker Company. Enemy shelling and mortar fire increased considerably between the 6th and 22nd but we did not suffer any more 'group' losses until the attack. 

I thought of that day many times over the years, and when I found Harry Brooks again in 1978, I told how I was still haunted by the fact we couldnít save those men.  Harry told me we had done everything humanly possible even to the point of having tried to take out that enemy OP with our Bren gun.  I had forgotten that little item, which was probably why they tried to take us out, but appreciated his reassurance. As I said in my opening paragraph, if this wasnít a war, it sure felt like it and I donít think I would care to participate in another such whatever. It is very sad that whenever world leaders become embroiled in ideological and political differences, it is the poor soldiers in the trenches who wind up defending these values and making great sacrifices, sometimes paying with their lives. 

Royal Gelineau completed his term of duty with the Royal Canadian Regiment in October 1953 and returned to civilian life as a public servant with the Department of National Defence in Air Materiel Command.  He started in a clerical position, learned data processing and computer operations from the ground up and, over the years, advanced to senior management in computer systems administration.  Royal retired in 1986, but returned as a consultant for 10 years before entering full retirement.  He and his wife, Winnie live in Kanata, a suburb of Ottawa.  They have five children, 11 grandchildren and four great grandchildren.  Royal Gelineau  is a member of KVA Unit 7.

                                                                                 

 

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