The week before James Hawn of Port Charlotte, Fla. graduated from Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. in June 1950 the Korean War began. He and the other recruits in his company became part of the 1st Marine Division that played a major role in the Inchon Invasion and the historic march to the Chosin Reservoir and back during the coldest winter ever recorded in North Korea.
“I went to Japan with the 1st Marine Division, the finest fighting force in the world,” the 85-year-old “Leatherneck” said. “We boarded the invasion fleet and sailed for North Korea and Inchon.
“It was one of Gen. (Douglas) Mac Arthur’s smart moves. The North Koreans had no big guns at Inchon. The fleet sailed right into the harbor where we went ashore and marched right on to Seoul and liberated the city cutting off the North Korean Army from its food and ammunition.”
The 1st Division then boarded ships and headed for the east coast of North Korea. They went ashore at Wonsan. From there they were ordered north to Hagaru-ri and the Chosin Reservoir. Up a single-lane dirt-road along a treacherous drop off they marched 75 miles from the coast from where they were put ashore.
“We were going to the Yalu River separating North Korea from China where we were to meet up with the U.S. 7th Army and form a border protection at the river,” Hawn explained. “We kept capturing Chinese soldiers on the way north. But Mac Arthur’s intelligence idiots kept telling us there were no Chinese in North Korea.”
Hawn was part of a 155 millimeter Howitzer battery: K-Company, 4th Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment.
“I was an ammo corporal. It was my job to carry a 98-pound projectile to the ammo tray. From there it was rammed home. Then a 20-pound bag of powder was put in, the breach closed and the gun fired. We could fire a shell about nine miles.
“We would set up four miles behind our front line. We could cover any enemy activity up to five miles in front of our lines,” he said.
“When the fight with the Chinese began I was down at our headquarters with four South Korean soldiers picking up ammo. A helicopter flew in and a captain got out. He told us we were surrounded by thousands of Chinese infantrymen,” Hawn recalled.
“I immediately sat down and wrote my mother and father a letter explained that we were surrounded by enemy troops, but not to worry because we would fight our way out. I asked the captain if he would mail it for me. He agreed to see that my letter made the mail.”
By this time the temperature started falling. In quickly reached 38 degrees below zero at night. U.S. troops weren’t clad for weather this cold.
“I was cut off by the Chinese from my artillery battalion because I had come for ammo. They took a bunch of us and turned us into a rifle company and provided us with M-1s,” he explained. “Every Marine is trained as an infantryman first.
“A day or two after Thanksgiving 1950 a couple of companies of Chinese came down and took this key hill where we were. From that hill you could look right down on the main road going south out of the town of Hagaru-ri. You could control everything from there.
“We were ordered to take the hill. We took the hill back from them and spent three days and nights up there. When we got to the top of the hill our sergeant told us to dig in, but we couldn’t because the hill was a frozen rock.
“So we stacked the bodies of the dead Chinamen we killed and used them as protection we could get behind while firing at the enemy when they charged us,” Hawn said. “The Chinese only attacked at night. They would blow their whistles and toot their horns before they attacked to let us know they were coming.
“They would come running toward us in a bunch. We’d fire our M-1s at them and our bullets would go right through two or there of them standing one behind the other,” he said. “Many of them were equipped with American-made Thompson sub-machine-guns. They were given the Thompsons to use against the Japanese during World War II.”
At one point, Hawn took a detail of four South Korean soldiers with him to pick up more ammunition during the battle to keep the hill. Instead of bring back M-1 ammo the Korean soldiers mistakenly brought back wooden crates of hand grenades.
“The next time the Chinese attacked the hill we held them off with hand grenades. We rained hand grenades down on them. We stopped them dead. It was a slaughter.”
By Nov. 29 Allied forces fighting around the reservoir had had enough. They began their withdrawal toward the coast. By then a Chinese army comprised of tens of thousands of soldiers were about to overwhelm the United Nations force which Hawn was part of.
“If I remember rightly Gen. Chesty Puller —a fabled Marine commander—and his regiment was holding the Chinese out of the reservoir area as we started our retreat back to the coast. Going with us on the way back was almost the entire civilian population of the reservoir area. They wanted nothing to do with the Chinese. They carried everything they owned on their backs.
“On the return march we spotted a unit of Chinese troops on the ridge line. We sent an American unit up to check them out. When they reached the summit they found the Chinese soldiers had frozen to death where they laid waiting for us to pass,” Hawn said.
“Further south the Chinese blew up a bridge across a stream hundreds of feet below the road we were on. We helicoptered in a metal bridge our engineers constructed in about a days time. It consisted of two steel treads just wide enough for a tank. After the bridge was up we all marched right on out of there.
“At the bottom of the mountain trucks were waiting for us. They took us back to our ships that protected us with their big guns once we got within 20 miles of the coast. I hooked up with my artillery battery once we reached the coast.
“I was sent to a hospital tent and told to take my boots off. When I removed my sock my toes were jet black from frostbite,” Hawn said. “They told me to put my boot back on immediately or my feet would swell up. I was sent by truck to a nearby airport and flown to a hospital in Japan.”
Hawn spent months in hospitals in Japan, Hawaii, San Francisco and finally Long Island, N.Y. He was lucky, he didn’t lose his toes.
After being discharged from the Corps in ’54 he eventually became a railroad engineer. For 37 years Hawn worked for four different railroads—Penn, Penn Central, Con Rail and Am Track hauling people and freight throughout the Eastern Seaboard.
He and his wife, Dot, who died recently, retired and moved to Port Charlotte in 1992. Hawn has three children from a previous marriage: Leslie, James Jr. and David.
Name: James Hawn
D.O.B: 85 at time of interview
Hometown: Wilmington, Del.
Currently: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: June 1950
Rank: Staff Sergeant
Unit: King Battery, 4th Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment
Battles/Campaigns: Inchon Invasion, Chosin Reservoir in North Korea
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, April 11, 2016 and is republished with permission.
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