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Task Force Zebra15923 Reads  Printer-friendly page

Korea I was born in Aalborg, Denmark on April 8, 1922 and immigrated to America with my mother and two older brothers Kaj and Poul in 1924. My father, Niels Christian, had come to America the previous year in 1923. After a two week sea and train journey through Ellis Island and Canada, we finally arrived in Chicago where we settled in a Danish neighborhood in the Humboldt Park area. Our family suffered greatly during the depression years but with the help of the Danish community we survived.

When the United States entered World War II my brothers enlisted and served with distinction in Europe with the United States Army. During World War II, I was a medical student in Chicago and was, therefore, deferred from military service.

When the Korean War began in 1950 I was drafted as a Medical Officer. At the time I was married, a father and was in general practice on the north side of Chicago. I was given an intensive, but short, medical/combat training course at Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. I was then sent to Korea via the emergency airlift out of Travis Air Base in California. I ultimately ended up in the front lines as a Battalion Surgeon, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Regimental Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. In May of 1951, I was assigned to Task Force Zebra, which was comprised of the 23rd Regimental Combat Team plus additional special units. We moved to the eastern sector of the 38th parallel to a town called Chaun-ni at Hill 1051. This narrative is about a great battle I witnessed and participated in which erupted on May 18, 1951 between Chinese, North Korean and United Nations Forces.

One cold, damp, spring day my medical battalion settled in along the main road adjacent to the foundation of a small school ravaged by the war. We set up a squad tent that was dug deeply into the ground for protection as casualties were already coming in on May 16th. Task Force Zebra took a defensive position on the east central front behind several South Korean units. Our aid tent was large; probably 10-20 stretchers could be accommodated. The sick and wounded were brought down to the aid station by my "boys" (the medics), given appropriate treatment and care and then evacuated, if possible. Medical personnel, myself included, were armed with carbines and pistols. None of us had Red Cross identification and our tent was camouflaged to avoid detection by infiltrating enemy soldiers. This ensured or added to the safety of the wounded and ourselves, as being conspicuous was unwise for this made us targets. It was not a gentleman's war.

On the night of May 16th, the Chinese began making contact in our area. On that same night the South Korean forces began a disorderly withdrawal ... in spite of orders to remain and fight. I personally witnessed their troops fleeing past my unit without weapons while our officers encouraged them to stop. The following day, May 17, the big push started in our sector. All day and all night we worked taking care of the wounded. This included completion of amputations, resuscitation procedures and evacuation when possible. In the early hours of 18 May (about 2 AM) a Chinese patrol got into our area, killing two men and wounding eight others outside my aid tent. Approximately ten enemy solders were then killed there. They were armed with "burp" guns, which caused gruesome injuries when used in close encounters. We took care of the injured throughout the night and at about 6 AM when it got light, the Chinese could be seen swarming over and down the hills to the south. All morning our mortars, tanks, machine guns and infantry riflemen fought the enemy on the hills. Bullets were whizzing everywhere around the aid station. Then Chinese mortar started coming in. Before noon our task force was completely surrounded by hundreds of Chinese. I saw them swarm like ants down the hills towards our position. Many Chinese were killed at my aid site. Task Force Zebra was completely cut off from the rest of the United Nations Forces as the only road out for many miles was in enemy hands.

Major Lloyd Jenson, (who happened to be of Danish extraction) 2nd Battalion Commander ordered that we remain and fight until relief could get to us. When it was recognized that relief would not be forthcoming, it was decided that Task Force Zebra would run the "roadblock" with tank escort. But this plan also came to grief -- the two lead tanks crushed a bridge making it impassable and then hit mines thus blocking the road completely. I had been ordered by Major Jenson to follow the lead tanks in my litter jeep assuming this would be a safe position in the convoy. (The convoy consisted of a total of several hundred vehicles of which 117 were trucks and jeeps, and 76 were trailers.) There were two wounded Chinese prisoners on the litters in my jeep who fell off during the ensuing fighting. Chinese infantrymen were alongside the road on the right side embankment firing at us with burp guns, machine guns and rifles. I had given my carbine to an unarmed medic and had only my 45 pistol but I managed to participate in the combat. As I remember, the lead tank hit a mine about a quarter of a mile down the road and was pushed aside by the other tanks so as not to block the road. We continued on. About a half-mile down the road, the lead tank and our jeep hit mines. In the confusion, dust, smoke, noise, etcetera, I stumbled out of what remained of the jeep and hid in a crater on the right hand side under a hill swarming with Chinese. The withdrawal was completely stopped. I could see the line of vehicles with dead and wounded GI's in and under the vehicles. The tank, which hit the mine and obstructed the road, had its track off and the men inside were being killed in the process of trying to escape through the hatch. The sight was horrible and depressing. It was a moment I will never forget.

The attempt the run the roadblock occurred in the early afternoon of Friday, May 18, 1951. As I sat in my hiding place, shocked and alone in the midst of battle, I suddenly saw two GI's run to where I was and jump down beside me. Now there were three of us separated from the Task Force, but my new comrades were young, energetic and well armed. There was a brief introduction and I instinctively felt their disappointment when they realized I was only a doctor and not a well armed knowledgeable infantry Captain. A Chinese machine gunner was shooting at us from a hillside several hundred yards away. He couldn't quite hit us but the bullets were too close for comfort. I spotted the gunner and exchanged positions with my friends so they could get proper aim. They silenced the gunner but there were many more all around us keeping us pinned down.

I remember thinking the end is near. My friends said, "this is it". We were expecting the Chinese to jump down on us at any minute. We were in the crater approximately thirty minutes when we made a decision to get up and run rather than wait to be killed. The plan was that we would meet on the other side of the river, which ran parallel to the road. These wonderful men offered to not leave me alone but I felt our odds would be better if we separated. The GI's respected my rank and my decision to separate and run across the road to diminish the target. Later on I heard they made it to American lines and inquired about me but I never had the opportunity to meet and thank them. I offered to treat them to a royal feast if we survived but this can only occur if we find each other.

After the GI's left, I waited until the shooting diminished, ran across the road, and dived headfirst into the gully along the riverbank. At this point I lost my glasses which added to my despair and confusion. My friends were nowhere to be seen. The shooting continued so I ran, waded, crawled and swam across the river, which was in its spring high. Bullets were hitting the water all around me. My adrenalin must have kicked in. All I know is that I kept going ... I fell ... I crawled ... I got up ... I crawled ... I fell ... I rolled ... I got up. Luckily, I was not hit except on my helmet. I staggered across rice paddies filled with spring rains and eventually collapsed on the far side of the valley. At one point during this frantic escape I did compose myself and tried to use reason to solve my dilemma. I had my 45 pistol and contemplated shooting myself, a subject which had been discussed earlier with my comrades who told frightening stores about capture and death especially by North Korean soldiers. I thought about home, my parents, my wife and child, my family -- how would they react upon receiving the dreadful news? I thought about life in the hereafter -- ­now I'll know the truth! I did say The Lord's Prayer to myself and even contemplated going north through enemy lines rather than south through minefields and the ongoing battle. Totally exhausted, I collapsed in a rice paddy.

Luckily an escaping American tank spotted me lying there. It came alongside, hauled me in through the turret and continued its escape going south while stopping at intervals to fire its gun. We were probably twenty miles north of the new United Nations lines where massive artillery stopped the Chinese advance. That night we reached safety and I was treated and evacuated to a hospital in Pusan. Part of my recuperation was on the Danish Hospital Ship, Jutlandia.

This beautiful ship was a converted freighter and was Denmark's main contribution to the United Nationals during the Korean War. The Jutlandia was moored in Pusan harbor for most of the war and cared for wounded UN soldiers and civilian casualties. Later in the war, The Jutlandia was the site of peace negotiations with North Korea and China. At the time I was in Pusan, the chief medical officer was Dr. Schoitz from Aalborg Kommune Hospital and he knew several members of my family in Aalborg. Several times I was invited as his personal guest to dine on board in the private officers salon and had several wonderful means, including Aalborg Aquavit, Tuborg Beer, frickedeller, et al. The meals were wonderful and I'm sure that they contributed greatly to my recovery.

After recuperating in Pusan I was reassigned to the 2ID which was in pursuit of the fleeing enemy. Then I was fortunate to be transferred to the 1st MASH (8209) as a surgeon where I had many exciting experiences until I was rotated home in 1952. I am forever indebted to the two brave infantrymen who shared those horrific moments with me in the crater along the road. I also appreciate the heroic medics of the 23rd Regiment, 2 Battalion Medical Company and Major Lloyd Jenson, my commander, who watched after my medics and me like a father to keep us out of harms way. I am sorry that I cannot recall the name of the driver of my jeep. I do know that he was a young medic from the 2nd Battalion but I cannot say whether he survived or was rescued. It was very difficult for me to get any follow-up information because of the confusion at the time and the transfers to different units. Perhaps more information will be available with the renewed interest in the Korean War and the use of the Internet. Just a comical note; the two Chinese wounded prisoners who fell off my litter jeep in all the excitement kept running down the road after the jeep apparently preferring to be with us than their attacking countrymen, but we were in no position to help them under the circumstances. I often wonder what happened to them in their short or long lives.

Captain Ernest L. Graveline, Jr. from Pawtucket, Rhode Island was the other medical officer assigned to Task Force Zebra. He was an experienced combat surgeon, dedicated to the task of treating the sick and wounded. Captain Graveline was captured on the 18th of May in the area of Hill 1051 while attending to the wounded. I subsequently learned that he was treated harshly and died while under internment. It was he who gave me the encouragement to survive the rigors of front line duty.

Note: by Erik Larsen, Battalion Surgeon, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Regimental Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division


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1950: Detachment X, 35 men of the 507th Antiaircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Battalion, was the first U.S. ground force unit to arrive in Korea. Within a short time the detachment shot down a Yak fighter with quad .50-caliber machine guns, suffering five wounded in the action.