Fighting Brush Fires on Korea's DMZ by Richard K. Kolb

By Richard K. Kolb

Reprinted from the March 1992 issue of VFW Magazine

Overshadowed by a more pressing war and largely concealed by Washington, the brush fire war that flared along Korea's Demilitarized Zone in the 1960s went virtually unnoticed by the U.S. public.

Lonely does not begin to describe the campaign waged by GIs in the small strip of land separating South from North Korea. Those infantrymen assigned to the hostile area of operations in the sixties were only a fraction of the total U.S. forces then stationed in South Korea.

Worse yet, their own government refused to recognize the reality of duty on the ?Z.? Now, over 20 years later, perhaps that recognition will finally be forthcoming. After all, 1991 marked a watershed on the peninsula. On October 4, the last GIs were removed from the DMZ, and on December 12 a non-aggression pact between the North and South effectively ended the Korean War.

That America owes DMZ vets some acknowledgement should go without saying. But this has not been the case, and the men feel it. William Hollinger, an operations officer (S-3) with the 1st Bn, 31st Infantry, 7th Infantry Division in Korea in 1968-69, expressed this hurt in his novel, The Fence Walker.

"If we're killed on a patrol or a guard post, crushed in a jeep accident or shot by a nervous GI on the fence, no one will ever write about us in the Times or erect a monument or read a Gettysburg Address over our graves. There's too much going on elsewhere; what we're doing is trivial in comparison. We'll never be part of the national memory."

That theme is a familiar one. Dennis Kulak, who served with the 2nd Infantry Division in 1969-70, put it even more simply. "Being on the DMZ during the Vietnam War was like being in between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Grunts did what had to be done many times without recognition."

Call to Battle

Hostilities on the DMZ were timed to coincide with events in Vietnam. Kim Il Sung, North Korea's dictator, issued his declaration of war in a speech on October 5, 1966: "U.S. imperialists should be dealt blows and their forces dispersed to the maximum in Asia?" Within weeks, North Koreans were probing the DMZ in preparation for a major strike.

That the premier was coordinating his actions with Hanoi's Ho Chi Minh became abundantly clear with the later Tet Offensive and the capture of the USS Pueblo in 1968. For a while, though, the Korean Communist regime was content to send infiltration teams south, wreaking as much havoc as possible.

Their battleground was well-suited for clandestine warfare. Korea is divided at the waist by the 38th parallel. The so-called demilitarized zone runs 151 miles long and is 2.5 miles wide on either side of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). The MDL is a six-foot wide barbed wire corridor designated by 1,292 yellow markers.

The "Z," as GIs called it, is not a pretty place. "It is a landscape of nightmare," wrote Hollinger, "this wasteland of a demilitarized zone: artillery craters, barbed wire, minefields, graveyards, the skeletons of villages and the remains of rice paddies. The earth has been shelled, mined, overgrown, booby-trapped, burned and abandoned to grow wild yet another time."

In 1967, a barrier defense system was erected on the southern boundary of the DMZs U.S. sector. It consisted of a line of obstacles?concertina wire, tanglefoot and anti-personnel mines; a 10-foot-high chain link fence with triple concertina wire on top and six-foot steel pickets driven into the ground; and a line of towers and foxholes inter-connected by landline and radio.

Of the fence, Hollinger wrote: "My God, I thought, how can such a thing be beautiful? Its rusted chain links caught the light from the morning sky and the light turned it red, and it became a soaring red curtain rising and falling, following the contour of the hills."

Ultimately, the 18.5-mile U.S. sector north of the Imjin River and south of the DMZ (an area comparable in size to the District of Columbia) was recognized as a hostile fire zone. Belatedly, in 1968, the Pentagon acceded to reality. A Commander-in-chief of U.S. Pacific Forces memo stated: "The men serving along the DMZ are no longer involved in Cold War operations."

"They are in every sense of the word, involved in combat where vehicles are blown up by mines, patrols are ambushed, and psychological operations are conducted on a continuing basis against Korean Augmentation troops with the U.S. Army (KATUSAs)."

Added to the sheer ugliness of the DMZ is rugged terrain and a severe climate. "The land is incredibly harsh and unforgiving," wrote vet William Roskey in Muffled Shots: A Year on the DMZ. "In the winter, the winds and ice and snow come lashing down through the mountains from Siberia and Manchuria, freezing the very marrow in one's bones. "

"In the summer, the searing heat is sometimes almost indistinguishable from that of a Pittsburgh blast furnace. It is a land where a man can get frostbite and malaria all within the space of a few moments."

Manning the Ramparts

Dating from November 17, 1954, when the Mutual Defense Treaty formalized the U.S. Republic of Korea (ROK) relationship, GIs had been positioned along the border as a deterrent to renewed North Korean aggression. The last of six U.S. divisions departed Korea by March 1955, leaving only the 24th Infantry Division along the Z.

Rotation brought the colors of the 1st Cavalry Division back to Korea on Oct. 15, 1957, replacing the 24th Division on line. In 1961, the 1st Cav was the only combat-ready division in the Army. Its 13,000 men were dispersed among 112 camps. Squadrons (about 610 men in each) of the 4th, 9th and 12th Cavalry took turns patrolling the frontier.

During their 13-month tours, cavalrymen spent 193 days in the field. Two weeks of day patrol was followed by two weeks of night patrol. At this time, units were composed mostly of enlistees. On several occasions in 1962-63, troopers were hit by marauding North Koreans.

On November 23, 1962, the 9th Cavalry's A Troop at Outpost Susan was attacked with grenades, killing one American and wounding another. Less than a year later, July 29, 1963, a jeep from the 9th was ambushed: two GIs died. During pursuit of the raiders, one U.S. soldier was killed in action (KIA).

Unit colors again changed hands July 1, 1965 when the 2nd Infantry Division returned to Korea to relieve the 1st Cav. Headquartered in Munsan, the famed "Indianhead" Division fielded the 9th, 23rd and 38th Infantry Regiments.

Under the 2nd's operational control was the 2nd Brigade of the 7th Infantry Division, which had been in-country since 1951 and held in reserve since the armistice. A rotation system was inaugurated in October 1967 whereby infantry battalions of the 2nd and 7th divisions alternated duty on the DMZ. "Bayonet" infantry regiments included the 17th, 31st and 32nd.

Two brigade headquarters and five tactical battalions (four from the 2nd ID) (about 4,000 men) faced the North Koreans north of the Imjin River. In addition, "In Front of Them All" in the Joint Security Area (JSA) surrounding Panmunjom, was the 8th Army's Joint Security Force Company.

Attached to each of the U.S. combat units were Korean auxiliaries known as KATUSAs. Issued GI clothing and equipment, these enlisted men (who served three years) provided a direct link to the Korean people. On July 21, 1968, a KATUSA shielded a GI from grenade fragments, earning the Bronze Star.

Besides all the combat support units in the rear, Special Forces A-teams from Okinawa backed the grunts. Green Berets were inserted into the rugged mountains of South Korea in the summer of 1967 to track down infiltrators who made it past the first line of defense. Infantrymen were also instructed.

"Joe Chink"

Confronting GIs on line was a highly trained, specialized unit of North Korean infiltrators. The 2,400-man 124th Army Unit of the 283rd NK Army Group trained for guerilla operations in the South. They were lethal adversaries, and cut from a different mold than the average North Korean regular.

Stealthily slipping across the border, they carried radio gear, cameras with powerful telephoto lenses and Soviet or Chinese arms. The infiltrator's favorite weapon was the old Russian PPS4 submachine gun, and he was well-versed in its use. He could run for miles with a full load of equipment, expertly conceal himself and negotiate minefields with long steel rods.

A fanatically dedicated communist, the NK would commit suicide with a grenade rather than face capture. "The only thing you find in the morning," said one sergeant, "is a body with its head and a hand missing."

NKs operated in a world of darkness: infiltrating, ambushing committing sabotage and assassination. Their characteristics and tactics were similar to those of cousins in Vietnam.

"Joe Chink is not much different than Charlie," said Special Forces Maj. Roger Donlon, Medal of Honor recipient from Vietnam and commander of the Advanced Combat Training Center in Korea in 1967. "He fights the same way, with ambush, surprise and cunning."

Ambushes were selective, though. "Joe Chink never strikes unless he's got the drop on you," said one seasoned U.S. officer. "You just can't make mistakes out there or you?re as dead as you?ll ever be in Vietnam."

Psychological warfare was another NK specialty. It was especially directed at infantrymen manning guard posts at night. "Communist broadcast speakers transmitted messages of defection and discontent, constantly playing mind games with GIs along the DMZ," remembers Dennis Kulak.

"Attempting to turn GIs on KATUSAs, a typical broadcast would be: "Hey GI, look at the man next to you, are his eyes round or slanted? Will he cut your throat while you sleep?"

Life on the Line

To counter NK infiltration, U.S. troops occupied guard posts, patrolled the DMZ and Fence and set "stakeouts." Rules of engagement (ROE) varied according to positioning. Automatic weapons were banned in the DMZ by the armistice agreement, but allowed along the Fence.

Also, a clause in the agreement prohibited the use of helicopters on the DMZ. "If someone gets seriously hit, it would take us four or five hours to get him out and by that time he would be dead," said one officer. "And don't think the kids don't know it."

A string of United Nations Command (UNC) guard posts (GP), strung along the entire 151-mile front, served as the initial line of protection. Placed on the crest of 600-foot hills, they evoked images of stockades on the Western frontier during the Indian wars.

GPs were circular installments with fighting bunkers extending outward from a circular trench. Bunkers consisted of sandbags and timber. An observation post was in the center. Perimeters were surrounded by two or three strands of concertina wire with Claymore mines staked to the ground with wire.

Each U.S. GP was operated by 10 to 30 men, and manned on a 24-hour basis. Normal tours lasted from seven to 10 days. Living conditions were Spartan to say the least. Sanitation and disease-bearing rats were a never-ending problem. Personal deprivation, combined with the constant tension, produced stress, fatigue, fear and loneliness.

Major action occurred at night. Armed only with rifles, M-79 grenade launchers and hand grenades, the men depended heavily on searchlights, flares and starlight scopes. Strange noises?a ?groan? in DMZ parlance?often prompted fire. ?It?s a spooky feeling,? said one GI. ?You always think the groan is Joe Chink?and sometimes it is.?

Most significant enemy contact, however, occurred during patrols. Designed to deter infiltration and detect signs of enemy activity, they ran 24 hours a day. Quick fire techniques were stressed to deal with surprise encounters. "Hunter-killer" teams, with one man armed with a 12-gauge shotgun, prowled the DMZ. Others staked out known or suspected infiltration routes to intercept enemy agents.

Patrolling the southern boundary, where the decision to fire was left to the individual, was also an eerie experience. "Things are sensed or heard before they are seen along the fence," wrote Hollinger. "You can see nothing, only the mist, and the voices have no source, they are the cries of ghost soldiers raining down from an unseen sky."

In the event the barrier system was breached, mobile reserves were maintained in a high state of readiness. Each battalion had gun jeeps and armored personnel carriers ready to roll. In the 7th Division's area of operations around Tongduchon and Tok-ko-ri, foot patrols and airmobile searches were employed in counter-guerilla sweeps.

Patrols lasted from a few hours to several days. Moreover, isolated radio relay sites were reinforced by ad hoc security detachments made up of scouts, cooks, supply clerks and medics.

Kim's "Anti-Imperialist War"

Combined, these efforts thwarted large-scale infiltration. Skirmishes with NKs in the post-war ?50s were rare. Occasionally in the early ?60s a firefight erupted, and by 1965 with U.S. engagement in Vietnam, the tempo of activity picked up. Lee Tucker, who arrived in July 1965 to serve with the 2nd Division, remembers "several firefights in which GIs were wounded."

But the opening salvo of the communists' border war began with an ambush south of the DMZ of an eight-man patrol from the 2nd Division on November 2, 1966. With machine guns and by hurling grenades, the NKs killed six GIs and one KATUSA. Each of the bodies were found riddled with bullets, mutilated and bayoneted.

Pfc. David L. Bibee, a 17-year-old, was the sole survivor. Wounded by shrapnel in the leg and shoulder, he survived by playing dead. "The only reason I'm alive now is because I didn't move when a North Korean yanked my watch off," he told reporters. "And he almost took my hand off getting the watch."

In an effort to save his fellow patrol members, Pvt. Ernest D. Reynolds had launched a one-man counter-attack, blazing away at the NKs until they cut him down. Recommended posthumously for the Medal of Honor, the Kansas City, MO native had been in Korea only 17 days before being killed.

Spring 1967 witnessed a dramatic increase in losses due to ambushes, sabotage and mines. From May to year-end, 300 hostile actions in the U.S. sector claimed 15 American lives and 51 wounded. In the first day-long firefight, lasting 18 hours, NKs assaulted a guard post with .30 and .50 caliber weapons.

When the Tet Offensive erupted in Vietnam, Kim took his cue and escalated the fighting in Korea. Thousands of Vietnam-destined troops were diverted to Korea in the first months of 1968. The 2nd Division was reinforced, and tours extended for some of those already stationed there.

Throughout the year, firefights became part of the routine for DMZ grunts. Some 700 hostile actions were recorded. In one action, on April 21, a patrol from Co. B, 2nd Bn, 31st Infantry, engaged a force of up to 75 NKs south of the DMZ. It was perhaps the largest U.S. fight of the border war.

In 1969, action tapered off substantially. Nonetheless, men continued dying. On March 15, a 10-man work party from the 2nd Division was replacing markers on the MDL when it was hit. A patrol sent to assist lost one KIA and 2 WIA. Tragically, seven more lives were lost when the helicopter evacuating the wounded crashed.

The last GIs killed in the brush fire war died October 18. Four men of the 7th ID were hit in a daylight ambush. Their truck was clearly flying a white truce flag. Each man was shot through the head.

As in Vietnam, U.S. forces on the DMZ gradually began to disengage from the front lines. "Koreanization" was complete by April 1, 1971 when South Korean soldiers replaced the last 4,000 GIs guarding the DMZ. A symbolic U.S. contingent was left to guard the access road to Panmunjom.

The 7th Division was officially deactivated, after 24 years in Korea, at Fort Lewis, Washington on that same day. "Indianhead" troops moved to reserve positions north of Seoul. For the first time since the end of the Korean War, the ROK army manned virtually the entire DMZ.

Defending the "Z" cost America 44 of its sons as well as 111 wounded from 1966 through 1969. If the seven GIs killed previously, the sailor from the Pueblo, 31 men of the Navy plane shot down in April 1969 and the seven Americans killed in the ?70s are included, the total comes to 90 dead. That?s nearly three times the number of Americans killed by the enemy in Grenada and Panama combined.

In addition, the ROK army lost 326 killed and 600 wounded through 1971. Some 715 North Koreans died in action. Such casualties certainly contradict the notion of the DMZ as a "non-combat zone."

Fight for Recognition

Yet at home, a public numbed by and preoccupied with Vietnam knew or cared little about what was going on in remote Korea. Author William Roskey, a veteran of the DMZ, regretfully wrote: "The old romantic notion of the 'home front' with stars in the windows, a 'stage door canteen', war bond rallies, and support and approval and even sacrifice by those at home died" during the '60s.

Not surprisingly, it was a battle even within the Pentagon to extend due credit to DMZ troops. Hostile fire pay--$65 more a month?did not become effective until April 1, 1968. Receiving it required at least six days a month in the hostile fire zone north of the Imjin River. (Formerly, only the month in which a GI was actually wounded was counted.)

Standards for the Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB) were stringent: assignment to an infantry company or smaller unit, minimum of 60 days in the hostile fire zone and authorized hostile fire pay, minimum of five firefights and personal recommendation by commanding officer. As one vet was told, "You'll get your CIB along with your Purple Heart."

While these requirements may be justified, the time delineation period is difficult to fathom. Only those who served after Jan. 4, 1969 are eligible. That means those who actually met all the other conditions in 1967 and 1968 are not qualified for the CIB. (The 7th ID created its own unofficial infantry badge featuring a bayonet and division patch in the middle of wreath.)

On the other hand, every U.S. military person who served anywhere in Korea (the entire peninsula, offshore and airspace) between Oct. 1, 1966 and June 30, 1974 received the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (AFEM). Americans who faced the same hazards between mid-1954 and Sept. 30, 1966 and since mid-1974, have not been recognized with a campaign medal or ribbon.

As Capt. Wilfred A. Jackson of the 1st Cav's Troop C, way back in 1963, said, "Units serving on the line (the DMZ) should have and deserve the recognition of the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal."

Veterans of the various Korea eras have some valid questions about recognition from their government and countrymen. DMZ vets, like their Vietnam counterparts, "returned to become strangers in their own lad," felt Roskey, who served in the Z in 1966-67.

Many feel just plain left out. Despite all this, GIs who did a stint on the peninsula since the armistice should be proud, especially the grunts who fought the brush fires on the 38th parallel.

Major Vandon E. Jenerette, a 2nd and 7th Infantry Division veteran, said it best: "There are no memorials inscribed with their names or monuments erected that extol their sacrifice. The battles along the Korean DMZ (1966-69) are for the most part forgotten except by the families of the dead."

"However, South Korea now stands as a free country and a phenomenal economic power, given its chance by the sacrifice of those Americans who died there and the thousands who served there."