Holding high ground
Korean War vet took memories back to site of battle
Three days before the signing of the Korean armistice, Harold Wadley found himself knee-deep in mud on the front, protecting Seoul from an advancing Chinese army.
His ordeal under fire came to an end on July 27, 1953, when North Korea, China and the United States signed a document in Panmunjom. The three years of fighting that began when North Korea tried to forcibly reunify the peninsula resulted in a truce without a treaty, leaving North and South Korea on the brink of catastrophe for the next 50 years.
Wadley and other Korean War veterans attended a commemoration of the armistice in the Demilitarized Zone in recognition of the 50th anniversary. The U.N. Command in Korea chose 400 U.S. veterans by lottery to attend the ceremonies. Their way was paid by the Federation of Korean Industries in gratitude for their service to the people of South Korea.
Each veteran brings with him his own memories of the conflict. Wadley, 69, a former Marine demolitions expert from St. Maries, Idaho, remembers finding God in the hell he endured holding the high ground.
“You hear a lot said about ‘there’s no atheists in foxholes,’ ” Wadley said in an interview. “I was not a Christian at the time, but I saw firsthand the deliverance of prayer.”
Dagmar was one of three outposts on hills between 800 yards and 1,300 yards in front of the allies’ western line and named for their topographical resemblance to Hollywood starlets of the era. Nearby were outposts Hedy and Marilyn.
Marines held the terrain, which Wadley said was so scarred by war “you couldn’t dig in the dirt without cutting your hands on shrapnel.”
There were 16 men in Wadley’s company, part of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, 1st Division. Their leader was Lt. Francis Quinn.
“On outpost duty, you had about two chances of getting off alive: slim and none,” said Wadley, who had left high school in Berryhill, Okla., in the the 11th grade to sign up with the Marines.
The Chinese were trying to take as much high ground as they could before the armistice, and Wadley said they had boxed in his company with mortar and artillery fire.
About an hour before dark on July 24, Quinn passed orders for all of his men to gather on the reverse slope, the side of the hill facing friendly lines.
“That ticked me because several of us had forward positions, and crawling through trenches full of mud and water was bad,” Wadley said. “It was also pretty dangerous for us.”
The lieutenant led the men in prayer.
“God, deliver this fine bunch of Marines,” Wadley recalled the officer saying. “We hardly got back to our positions when the Chinese just turned the world upside-down on us.”
The Chinese “cut loose with everything they had” – artillery, mortars, recoilless rifles and Russian-made rockets loaded with white phosphorus, which ignites with oxygen and unleashes a burning white smoke.
“All of that incoming hit our ammo bunker and everything was going off all at once,” Wadley said.
The Chinese soldiers had attempted to tunnel into the Marines’ perimeter, but came up instead right in front of his buddy’s position, Wadley said.
Wadley grabbed a shaped charge, an explosive device used to blow holes in bunkers, and threw it in the tunnel, collapsing it. But by then, about 60 Chinese soldiers were coming up over the slope of the hill through their own mortar and artillery explosions.
The battle went on through the night. By first light, the Chinese had overrun the forward positions, and Quinn’s Marines were holding the enemy to a trench just yards away.
Wadley retrieved the company’s last remaining flame thrower under enemy fire.
He doused the enemy trench with raw napalm, emptying both tanks.
The trench went up in flames. Wadley didn’t care to estimate how many enemy soldiers died.
When the smoke cleared on the morning of July 25, not one of Wadley’s company had been killed or wounded.
“You can’t tell me that God wasn’t listening to Lt. Quinn,” Wadley said.
Fighting continued the next day. “They just kept at it off and on until armistice,” Wadley said of the well-disciplined Chinese troops.
The cease-fire was signaled on July 27 at 10 p.m.; Wadley said the men were told two hours earlier that it was coming.
“Before that, we didn’t know squat,” he said. “We knew the talks were going on, but that didn’t mean anything to us. They had been going on for two years.”
Each side withdrew 2,000 meters from the site of the last conflict, creating the DMZ. In the 50 years since, neither North nor South has signed a peace treaty, despite the threat of nuclear war that continues today.
The conflict that began in 1950 cost the lives of more than 3 million soldiers and civilians from North and South Korea, China and U.N. countries involved, including 33,600 Americans killed and 8,000 missing in action.
Wadley likes to paraphrase what he calls an “old Asian proverb” that when your enemy is willing to negotiate, he no longer has the heart to fight.
“As soon as the United Nations sued for peace,” he said, “the Chinese and North Koreans knew they had us. And that’s why they sought the high ground. When they couldn’t take it, they signed the papers.”
Wadley thinks “we should have gone all the way to Beijing when we had the chance.”
Wadley returned to Korea and took an old Marine buddy with him. Allen Kelley, who lives in Richland, Wash., was in a combat engineering company with Wadley before Wadley transferred to an infantry unit.
The two of them led patrols through minefields and booby traps.
Kelley was shipped out before the cease-fire and was on a troop ship under the Golden Gate Bridge when the armistice was signed. He returned to his family farm in Wyoming and later worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Wadley remained behind in South Korea until October 1953. In February that year, he was shot in the leg at Ungok and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
In March 1953, he was in the “Nevada cities” battles in which outposts Reno, Vegas and Carson where overrun by Chinese in seven days of fighting. He was one of two Marines out 44 who survived on Outpost Vegas. He was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal with V for valor. Years later, a doctor removed a piece of shrapnel from Wadley’s scalp, a souvenir from Vegas.
Wadley returned to the United States and worked as a forester for the U.S. Forest Service for 35 years in Wyoming and Idaho; he married and had four children.
In 1967, after 14 years as a civilian, Wadley re-enlisted in the Marines and was sent to Vietnam, where he was severely wounded in the Que Son Valley. He was discharged with a Silver Star, another Purple Heart and the Vietnam Cross of Galantry.
He had been in Vietnam for 10 months. It took him nearly another 10 months in military hospitals to recover.
The end of the Vietnam War, like the Korean War, was bittersweet for Wadley and other veterans disappointed by the political outcome.
“We were there to kill every last one of them,” he said. “That’s what we woke up to do.”
By Kevin GramanA version of this story originally appeared on July 27, 2003. In July 2013, Harold Wadley took part in the unveiling of a statue of “Sgt. Reckless,” a horse that became a unit mascot and took part in the battle for Outpost Vegas, at the National Museum of the Marine Corps.