Fred Dickey's Island of Human Drama
FACE IS FAMILIAR, WAR HEROISM ISN’T
FACE IS FAMILIAR, WAR HEROISM ISN’T
By Fred Dickey
Originally published September 10, 2012
We send our youth off to war to kill people and break things, and when they do it and then return, we rarely ask how they did it. Protect us from the nasty details.
So, legions of veterans keep their dirty secrets bottled up and just hope — often forlornly — that people will understand why they sometimes act out living with demons or find life too grievous and end it. What they often get for understanding is a head-shaking tsk, tsk.
Bob Baker of Rancho Santa Fe is a face that San Diegans for decades have seen on their TV screens pitching cars — a full head of silver-laced hair and a big smile, and always the closing signature: “It’s so nice to be nice.” He’s actually an auto sales magnate with ownership over the years in 25 dealerships.
However, there’s another side to this 80-year-old’s life, one that was not so smiling and not so nice. Its focal point was a pockmarked hill overlooking a valley in Korea, not many miles northeast of Seoul. The valley was the Iron Triangle and the hill was Outpost Harry, and he was there …
Cpl. Baker was a 20-year-old paratrooper, a volunteer from the streets of Los Angeles, assigned to intelligence and reconnaissance duty with the 3rd Division in June 1953 when the United Nations command was close to a cease-fire with its North Korean and Chinese enemies. But before war’s end, the Chinese tried one more test of strength — and wills. They attacked in great numbers against a significantly smaller force mainly of Americans, a detachment of Greeks and South Koreans.
The battle for Outpost Harry started on the evening of June 10, 1953, and went for eight days until the Chinese withdrew. It was the last major battle for Americans in that war.
When the battle broke out, Baker was in regimental headquarters behind the lines. He saw thousands of artillery rounds streak the sky all night long, incoming and outgoing. The next morning, officers approached him and asked if he would volunteer for a patrol from which they cautioned he might not return. He and two buddies volunteered. Why?
“I was single, had just gotten a ‘Dear John’ letter from my fiancée, so I figured I didn’t have much to lose.” But that was a feeling on which he would later change his mind.
When the patrol-in-force began at dusk the next evening, Baker led two squads behind the Chinese lines where they eventually clashed with the enemy. One of his men ran across his front and was shot three times by a Chinese soldier. Baker killed the Chinese, then helped the wounded man back to safety. Years later, he learned that the man had gone to pieces when he got home after the war.
In the main defense perimeter, “the Chinese would overrun our trench line, and we’d have to call in our own artillery to aim for our own position. Our men would lower themselves and the air bursts would kill Chinese. If a shell landed in a trench, it would kill us.” He said they killed so many Chinese, “we were even using them to build up the trenches; even our own soldiers got blown up and mixed in with them.”
At the end of one particularly dangerous volunteer patrol, Baker and his few men were to occupy a line in advance of the main American entrenchment to provide an early warning of the certain nightly attack. Then, he learned that the Chinese had moved their attack to another sector. At that moment, when he learned he would live another day, Bob Baker decided he wanted to live for a long time.
In the heat of the battle, Baker saw bodies and body parts strewn all over the landscape; mostly Chinese, but Americans, too. He recalls American soldiers who had lost buddies approaching a row of dead Chinese and using rifle butts in a rage to smash the corpses’ heads in.
He said that after each night’s battle, the Chinese would pick up what bodies they could reach, load them on trucks then sink them in rice paddies to try to conceal the extent of their losses.
Somewhere in China, families would wait in silence, and their silence would be unending.
The Chinese would rush the hill in a human wave. The first wave would knock the barbed wire down; the men behind would pick up the dropped weapons and continue the attack. “They didn’t care how many men they lost because they didn’t have our armaments, but they had manpower, so that was how they had to fight. As much as you can of people trying to kill you, I felt sorry for them. They were brave soldiers.”
In one clash, Baker blanked out, but was told later he had broken off a bayonet in a Chinese soldier. “You see death all around, so much that you get numb to it. We were under direct shelling all the time. You’re shelled so much that you get numb to it, also. But if you don’t hit the ground right away, you’re going to be dead. I counted nine different times when I figured I’d be killed. By rights, I should have been.”
Not all soldiers were equal to the inhuman demands placed on them those eight days. Always present were the constant danger and the nauseating stench of thousands of corpses rotting under the summer sun, the Chinese bugles at midnight, the live-or-die necessity of killing as many humans as possible, and the overpowering desire just to survive. Especially loath to risk death were draftees who wanted nothing more than to return to their families, and World War II veterans who figured they had survived one war and didn’t want to chance another.
Baker, as a patrol leader, had the job of recruiting men to accompany him behind enemy lines. “A lot of them would break down. They just didn’t want to go out.” Baker said he didn’t resent the reluctant soldiers. “No, not at all. You had family men there. We were street kids who had volunteered. If you’re going out on a night patrol, you don’t want to be with someone who’s going to hover in a trench.”
Returning from one patrol, one of his soldiers was walking ahead of Baker in the dark as they silently moved toward the American trench. Suddenly, shots sounded and the man fell dead; not only shot by friendly fire but by a good friend.
“To this day, this man, a friend of mind, refuses to talk about that incident. It has haunted him every day for almost 60 years,” Baker said.
As the battle ended, as all battles must, the dead were zipped into body bags, and the wounded limped off to nurse their wounds: some would heal quickly, others, invisible, perhaps never. Baker said the Americans suffered about 1,200 casualties, and the Chinese about 30,000, by military estimates.
The Korean War soon ended, and American troops headed home. With a Bronze Star in his duffel bag, Baker was placed on a transport for the long voyage back to San Francisco. He spent long hours sitting alone on the fantail of the ship taking stock of the life that he almost lost. He was no longer the L.A. street kid from a broken home. He swore to God that he would get an education, marry the girl he really loved, and become a successful businessman; always trying to pay back the debt of his survival.
Bob Baker remembers the haunted men who came off the hill that was Outpost Harry when he sees similar men returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
And he understands.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at [email protected].
© Copyright 2012 The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. An MLIM LLC Company. All rights reserved.