They were everywhere.
It didn’t matter which direction J.C. Gallaher’s head swiveled as he frantically scanned the snow-covered battleground. Everywhere he looked, he saw the sharp points of silver bayonets aimed in his direction.
It was December 1950. He had volunteered for the Army in April, just two months before the Korean War erupted in June. He had no idea war was imminent when he signed his name and became a soldier.
Now, here he was, in the middle of a battlefield in North Korea near the Chosin (Changjin) Reservoir in a region that would later be dubbed Hell’s Fire Valley because of the horrendous fighting that took place there.
He was just a small-town Tennessee kid pinned with the label “infantryman” and dropped in the middle of this Asian wasteland, clutching a Browning automatic rifle.
He looked around frantically as his American comrades fell under the onslaught from Chinese soldiers, who entered the war on the side of the North Koreans. His heart sank with the sickening realization that he and his fellow troops were outnumbered 4 to 1 by the lowest estimate, 10 to 1 by the highest.
The Collinwood, Tenn., resident used his Browning as skillfully as he had been trained but 30,000 U.S. troops couldn’t withstand more than 110,000 Chinese.
In the blink of an eye, those pointing bayonets transformed Gallaher from infantryman to prisoner of war.
In another area of the battle, James Nielsen slowly regained consciousness after a mortar blast vaulted him from a jeep.
He lay still in the snow, trying to shake away the cobwebs fogging his memory.
As the mental fogginess cleared, he realized that all around him lay dead soldiers, their red blood staining the pristine whiteness of the snow. Somehow, he was alive, and he knew he would have to lie perfectly still, feigning death, if he wanted to survive.
Gallaher and Nielsen were part of military and world history that became little more than a textbook footnote. They were part of “the forgotten war.”
As these veterans have aged, they have been more willing to recall their time in Korea. Many say they are more willing to talk about that time so generations beyond them will remember what this war was about and how it affected the lives of those who were given a rifle and dropped in the middle of a country far from home.
“People should know what war is and what the veterans are going through today,” Nielsen said.
Japan colonized the Korea Peninsula in 1910 and incorporated rules that appeared destined to erase the Korean culture.
Challenges to the Japanese colonists were met with repression and violence.
When the Allies defeated Japan in World War II, it did not mean Korean independence.
The Korea Peninsula, instead, was divided, with Soviet troops controlling the northern half of the peninsula and U.S. forces occupying the southern half. The area of division is an invisible line called the 38th parallel.
The United Nations General Assembly attempted to unify government in the peninsula and passed a resolution in November 1947 that called for elections in Korea that would be supervised by a U.N. commission. The Soviets, however, refused to honor the resolution and denied any access to the north. Two nations were formed, South Korea and North Korea.
South Korea continued with the elections under U.N. guidance. North Korea was ruled by the communist-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The two nations clashed as each side attempted to claim sovereignty over the entire peninsula.
Then, on June 25, 1950, North Korea crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea.
Caught off guard, South Korea’s forces retreated farther south.
The United Nations immediately demanded North Korea withdraw and when the demand was ignored, the U.N. Security Council recommended that its members provide military assistance to South Korea.
U.S. President Harry Truman agreed to send American soldiers to South Korea’s aid. On July 7, 1950, the U.N. recommended the U.S. be put in command of troops sent to force North Korea back across the 38th parallel.
Nielsen, a kid from Houghton Lake, Mich., was 17 years old when he joined the Army on July 11, 1949.
He and Gallaher were members of the 7th Division, 31st Infantry.
Gallaher was in B Company; Nielsen belonged to D Company.
The 7th Infantry Division was among the forces at Inchon Landing, an offensive that took the North Koreans by surprise and resulted in the move to retake Seoul, the capital of South Korea.
It was September 1950. Later, the division moved north to the Yalu River.
They were among the first American units to reach the Manchurian border at communist China, which entered the war Nov. 27, 1950.
On that fateful, snowy battle near the Chosin Reservoir, the Chinese swept across the border. Nielsen, a machine gunner, was firing from a jeep.
“There was a swarm of them,” he said. “They looked like bees. It was dark. You couldn’t see them that well.”
No one had counted on a blizzard or on temperatures that dipped to 35 below zero. The 7th Division was trapped, separated from other allied forces.
They were overpowered during what later was known as the battle of the Chosin Reservoir.
During the retreat from the Yalu, more than 2,500 were killed and 354 wounded.
Gallaher and Nielsen were numbered among the 7,140 Korean prisoners of war.
Nielsen had escaped death once that day. Steadying his aim as best he could while on a bumpy jeep ride in the midst of battle, he fired shot after shot, but his weapon’s tracer bullets made Nielsen and his driver easy targets for the enemy.
“The tracers told them were I was shooting from,” he said.
The Chinese fired back, planting bullets into the jeep. Glass shards flew everywhere as bullets laced through the windshield. Then, a handful of mortar shells went off, hitting the jeep.
The driver was killed either by the gunfire or mortars, and Nielsen suddenly was alone with no way to use his machine gun.
With no one to feed the ammunition into the weapon, Nielsen couldn’t fire back.
It didn’t matter. When the shells hit the jeep, Nielsen was thrown unconscious.
When he came to, Chinese troops were roaming among the bodies around him.
He played dead.
“I put my brain in neutral,” he said. “I kept working my toes inside of my boot whenever I had a chance. I just tried to keep circulation going any way I could without them noticing that I’m moving.”
Nielsen occasionally tried to peek around without moving his head, just opening his eyelids a slit and moving his eyes from side to side.
There was his jeep driver’s body on one side.
A truck driver he knew also lay dead.
He lay in the snow for 12 hours. At one point, he felt his leg being lifted. The enemy was measuring his boot size.
Many of the Chinese soldiers were outfitted in what amounted to tennis shoes that weren’t standing up well in the snow and sub-freezing temperatures.
They routinely removed boots from fallen American soldiers if the size was small enough to fit their feet.
Nielsen’s was a size 10. Seeing the large boot, the Chinese soldiers realized the footwear was too big and let Nielsen’s leg drop back to the ground.
Nielsen remembered how disappointed he was when the Army issued him those boots. He wears a size 8, but was commissioned a size 10, forcing him to wear several pairs of socks to fit the boot.
Now, he was grateful.
The Chinese rolled his body, going through his pockets.
“Stay limber,” he silently ordered himself.
They took his wallet, which only had script money that the military commissioned to keep others, including the enemy, from using it.
Finding nothing else useful on Nielsen, the Chinese soldiers moved on to search other bodies.
Nielsen remained still in the snow.
When not keeping his mind blank, he imagined what was taking place at that very moment back home to keep his mind occupied.
“When I was a kid, I did a lot of hunting and fishing, and Nov. 30 was the end of deer season,” he said. “I laid there thinking: back home it’s the last day of the season and everybody’s hunting, getting their last bucks. That kept me going, laying there thinking about back home.”
But nature was playing a cruel trick that ultimately sealed his fate.
As the snow continued to fall, it covered the bodies of the dead soldiers, forming a white mound over each cold corpse.
Nielsen’s body temperature was warm. The snow melted on him. It was only a matter of time before someone noticed he was still exposed.
He knew he had been discovered when a sudden, searing pain erupted in his leg.
Monday: The death march.
Bernie Delinski can be reached at 256-740-5739 or bernie.delinski@TimesDaily.com.