Alex Magno was a 17-year-old Italian boy from Chicago who joined the Army and ended up in L-Company, 3rd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division in Korea a month after the Korean War broke out in June 1950.
“We landed at the port of Pusan on July 26, 1950.Things were so bad we thought we might have to make a beach-head landing,” the 78-year-old North Port resident recalled. “The 1st Cavalry Division along with the 23rd, 24th and 25th Divisions were holding the Pusan Perimeter with cooks and clerks they rushed in from Tokyo. We relieved the 1st Cavalry and the 24th Division at Pusan.
“After reaching the Main Line of Resistance (MLR) we saw our first action one night shortly after arriving. Tall grass in front of our line started swaying and we could hear some grunting.
“Our sergeant yelled, ‘Halt! Who goes there?’ several times without reply. Finally he yells one final time, ‘Halt! Who goes there?’ Nothing.
“I took the safety off my M-1 rifle as the sergeant gives the order to fire. Three or four of us opened up with our M-1s.
“We killed the biggest pig you ever saw. We gave the remains to local villagers,” the old soldier said with a grin.
As the war progressed the 2nd Division moved north with the rest of Gen. Mathew Ridgeway’s 8th Army troops.
“One night several of us were laying anti-personnel mines along the approach to a bridge that spanned the Naktong River. We put a guard on the bridge as we went about laying the mines.
“Suddenly I looked up and there was a horse standing behind me. Then I saw a couple of gooks running. I grabbed my rife and yelled for the others to grab their weapons. Seven or eight enemy soldiers were trying to get through our lines,” Magno said.
“All of a sudden a soldier, down on one knee, opened up on me with a burp-gun. Bullets went over my right ear and singed my hair. I was petrified. I jerked my weapon around and fired at him and my M-1 jammed. I took my ass out of there in a hurry,” he said.
“That was one of the most horrible nights of my life. I came very close to getting killed. I learned that night war was no joke, you could die.
“The next morning it was raining and I was sitting in the corner of a tent like a cornered rat. I was really scared,” Magno added.
He had little time to consider his dire situation. He was back on the MLR preparing for an enemy attack the following night.
“A couple of our .30 caliber machine-guns provided intersecting fire at one end of the bridge. We sent a squad out on the road leading up to the bridge. We were dug in, in foxholes along the approach to the bridge,” he said.
“It was so dark you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. But you could hear the little stream in front of our position. I heard a break in the noise the stream made, like someone was walking through it.
“I yelled, ‘Halt! Who goes there?’ I could hear North Korean voices talking in front of me. I opened up on them with eight rounds from my M-1. My sergeant let his 3.5 rocket fly into, what we learned later, was an enemy patrol in front of us.
“The firefight didn’t last very long, but enemy bullets were pinging against the rocks beside me. When dawn came there were gook bodies all over the ground.”
L-Company was in the lead when the 2nd Infantry Division moved further up the Naktong River on its fall offensive. By this time the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) and the Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) were beginning to flee north up the peninsula.
“We reached a high point overlooking the river. Without warning two incoming enemy mortar shells found their mark. My two buddies were killed by shrapnel. As for me the concussion from the mortar rounds pounded my face into the ground. I had a bloody nose,” Magno said.
“All hell was breaking loose. Hundreds of NKPA and CCF troops were attempting to escape by swimming to a sandbar in the middle of the river. I looked up and saw a British pilot chewing gum as he flew over in what appeared to be a Spitfire fighter plane. He opened up on the enemy forces in the middle of the river.
“From there the U.S. Air Force took over. Squadrons of jet fighters were called in. Their strafing runs were continuous and deadly. It was payback time for the loss of my buddies killed by the enemy mortar round,” he said.
The Korean winter was settling in. There was knee-high snow in all directions and the 2nd Division slogged its way northward.
“We reached this little village and a few of us found warmth in a barn where some soldiers had a fire going. I was lying on the ground near the fire trying to get warm and some how my right pant leg caught on fire and burned my leg,” Magno said.
He ended up in an Army hospital behind the lines. After he recovered from his injures he was near where the 8th Army Band held its practice sessions. Magno went to see the warrant officer in charge of the band and talked his way into becoming a piano player in the band.
It was about the same time he received word from back home in Chicago that focused his attention.
“I had gotten this girl in trouble and she was about to have a baby,” he recalled with a pained expression. “I wanted to do the honorable thing and marry her.”
In order to do that he would have to convince his Army superiors he should be allowed to return to the States and get married. It was a long shot.
He told his story to a Catholic Army chaplain, but struck out. Magno didn’t give up. He went to 8th Army Headquarters to present his case.
“When I got to the main floor of the headquarters building there were two of the biggest MPs I’ve ever seen in my life flanking a door about 30 feet in front of me. Over top of the door was a plaque that read: ‘Battle Room, 8th Army, Gen. Mathew B. Ridgeway, Commanding.’”
Magno was overwhelmed. There were many doors on both sides with the names off officers who were adjutants to the general. He picked a door and went in.
“There was a captain sitting there. I presented my case to him. After I finished the captain said, ‘Let’s see if we can get you an airplane ride home, soldier.’
He couldn’t believe his good fortune. After appearing before a board of inquiry to obtain permission to fly home to the waiting arms of his wife to be, Magno received final approval.
“I flew to Tokyo on a C-47 transport. Then I boarded a four-engine Pan American Stratocruiser that flew me home by way of Wake Island, Midway, Honolulu and California,” he said.
Magno married the girl and a short time later they had a baby girl. It’s not a part of his life he likes to talk about.
After the war he learned he had an outstanding singing voice, thanks to a voice teacher in Seattle, Wash. After receiving professional training he made his début with the San Francisco Opera in 1966 singing the tenor role in a Verdi opera.
Later Magno toured the world for seven years on cruise ships singing opera and Broadway show tunes for the passengers who loved him.
He moved to North Port, Fla. a few months ago but has lived in south Florida a dozen years.
Name: Alessandro Magno
Age: 28 Aug. 1931
Hometown: Chicago, Ill.
Current: North Port, Fla.
Entered Service: 1948
Discharged: 12 Oct. 1951
Rank: Private 1st Class
Unit: L-Company, 3rd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division
Commendations: Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Presidential Unit Citation, National Defense Service Medal and United Nations Service Medal
This story was first published on Monday, June 7, 2010 in the Charlotte Sun newspaper. It is republished with permission.