The Hero of Highway 313

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic
Just so there will be no misunderstanding, this story is fiction. It is cobbled together from bits and pieces of tales told to me by various Korean war veterans over the years, but, in the final analysis, it is a fantasy.

Submitted: July 01, 2015

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Submitted: July 01, 2015

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With my supervisor's blessing, I took an unpaid leave of absence from the company. I flew to Maryland to be with my father during his terminal illness. I was there in his room early in the morning at the VA hospital when they wheeled him away for surgery. The nurse said the operation would take a few hours and recommended that I go to the cafeteria for breakfast.

As I wandered slowly down the long, empty, forlorn corridor in that dismal institution, a man in one of the other rooms caught my eye through an open door. He crooked his finger, motioning for me to enter.

He was such a pitiful sight. He was hooked up to all manner of tubes and wires, connected to an IV drip, urine catch bag, oxygen tank, heart monitor and heaven only knows what else. He looked like a cyborg nightmare in a Mengele experiment.

As I approached the bed, he extended his hand and feebly grabbed my sleeve. He drew me close. He coughed, attempting to clear his throat of phlegm. "I want you to hear my confession." he said.

"But, sir, I'm not a priest." I replied.

"Do you see any priests out in the hall, Sonny Boy?"

"Well, no sir, but . . ."

"Then you're all I've got, Sonny. You'll have to do. The Good Lord will have to sort out the details later. Trust me, He knows what He's doing."

How could I refuse? Just like my father, the man was a veteran. The same as my father, the shadow of death hung heavily over his emaciated body. I gripped his hand reverently. I bowed my head and heard his confession.

**********

Straight out of boot camp, we were hustled aboard a convoy of busses. We drove all night and all of the next day, stopping only for fuel and restroom breaks. At the Port of Embarkation in New Orleans, we were packed like sardines in a troop transport ship. Traveling via the Panama Canal, it took us 22 days to cross the pacific and reach the port of Chinhae, Korea in the Pusan perimeter.

With only one day's rest, we were herded aboard trucks and sent to a forward staging area. A week or two earlier, all hell had broken loose when the hordes of the Chinese army had stormed across the Yalu river sweeping away everything in their path. The UN forces were falling back, attempting to establish a defensive line in the rugged hills of the interior. Every available warm body was being sent to the front.

I was the driver of the company commander's jeep as we headed north on Highway 313 near the head of a large convoy of troop and supply trucks. Actually, it wasn't much of a highway. Heck, it wasn't even a proper road. It was just a pair of ruts in the desolate, snow dusted wilds of Korea. It was only called a highway because it was marked as such on old Japanese maps dating from World War II.

Dawn was peeking through the clouds as we crested a low hill. The convoy came under small arms and machine gun fire. I slammed on the brakes, and everybody rolled out to hit the dirt. GIs, a hundred or more, poured out of the trucks. They stormed over the rise, laying down a hail of fire. It was over in less than five minutes.

Everybody mounted up to continue the trek north. Well, everybody except myself. My jeep had taken a hit that had punctured the radiator, and it wasn't going anywhere under its own power. The colonel in charge ordered me to stay with the vehicle and to get it towed back for repairs. Thus, before I had time to think about it, I found myself alone somewhere in Korea in the middle of a war.

It was less than an hour later when I spotted maybe a couple dozen soldiers approaching from the northwest. I didn't recognize the uniforms. They definitely weren't ours.

The 20 round magazine in my M-1 carbine wasn't much comfort. There appeared to be more of them than I had bullets. I hunkered behind the jeep and began to pray. Maybe they wouldn't see me. Maybe they would just go away.

Right then, I heard a throaty whine coming from the opposite direction. It sounded like wind blowing through a hollow log. I spun around and saw a navy blue jet come up over the ridge, making a low level pass. I can't say he was at treetop level because there were no trees in Korea, leastwise not any that I can remember.

The jet laid a pair of eggs that exploded like humongous sparklers. They were white phosphorus incendiary bombs. We called that stuff willy peter, and it was exceedingly nasty. It would fragment into a gazillion, white hot globules. If any of it landed on a person's skin, it was impossible to brush it off. It would immediately melt right through the skin down to the bone, down to the marrow of the bone. The Chinese screams when they were engulfed in the phosphorus flares have haunted my dreams ever since.

Before noon, a Sherman tank came down the highway heading south. It was covered with soldiers, all of whom appeared to be wounded. They were hunched over, motionless, in the attitude of defeat. I saw it in their eyes as they rumbled past. They looked in my direction, but they didn't see me. They stared right through me as if I didn't exist. They were the stares that'd rip out a man's soul.

Another hour passed. I heard artillery in the distance. It sounded just like thunder. I was wondering whether it was theirs or ours when four soldiers came trotting south. They were pacing themselves for a long distance run. They came over. They threw me against the jeep. They punched me in the face, breaking my nose. They turned out my pockets and stole my money and cigarettes. Deserters! The bastards! They proceeded down the road, giggling like hyenas and fighting over my smokes. If I had had my wits about me, I would have mowed them down with my carbine, but I didn't think about it until it was too late. I was still a novice at the business of warfare. I still had a lot to learn.

During the early afternoon, a few trucks passed by, in ones and twos, heading south. I tried to flag them down. I wanted to get a tow for my jeep, but it was to no avail. The drivers averted their vision, pretending they didn't see me. They were spooked. They were getting the hell out of Dodge, and they weren't about to stop to pick up stragglers. I could see the guilt written all over their faces, the guilt and the fear.

The thunder of the artillery grew louder. The Chinese army was on the march. It seemed that nothing was slowing its advance. I, and a broken down vehicle, sat squarely in its path. It was only a matter of time before the enemy would be swarming over the hill. I wondered if I should surrender. I wondered if the Chinese were even bothering to take prisoners.

Finally, a jeep came hustling south down the highway. Since it was full of soldiers, and since I had already succumbed to fatal despair, I didn't bother to flag it down. Thus, I was totally surprised when it screeched to a halt right in front of me. I was even more amazed when a cigar chomping brigadier general hopped out. I could tell that this guy wasn't defeated. His boots hit the ground with all the authority of a John Wayne movie. He had a chrome plated .45 automatic with ivory grips stuffed in his belt. He looked over the Chinese bodies strewn about and still smoking from the bombing run. He spit out the corner of his mouth.

He had a reputation in Korea. They called him ole Tough-as-Nails, but his troops were a little more colorful in their description of the man. They said he ate nails for breakfast and shat hand grenades for lunch.

The general had a reporter along for the ride, a man with a camera. He had the guy take photos of the dead Chinese, the disabled jeep with the hole in its radiator and my bloody face with the crooked nose. He then had us mount up. With a jerk, we started our journey south. Since the jeep was full, I had to stand on the rear bumper, holding onto the spare tire for dear life. According to the history books, we were that last five men to make it out of Hagaru-ri alive during the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.

By then, the artillery was walking its way down the road. The shells were exploding in our tracks, obliterating the ruts in the desolate Korean landscape, the ruts that were formerly known as Highway 313.

Eventually, we made our way to the port of Hungnam in time to be evacuated from North Korea along with the rest of the X Corps. On the last evening there, the general took me aside so no one could overhear our conversation. He offered me a cigar. I declined.

"I'm putting you in for a medal, Private." he said.

"But, general," I protested, "I didn't do anything. I didn't even fire a shot."

Adopting a fatherly tone, ole Tough-as-Nails gave it to me straight. "Son," he said, "you're young and naïve. You can't see the big picture like I can. Right now, the war is going poorly, and the defeatists back home are agitating for us to get out of Korea. They are saying a useless bunch of muddy hills on the other side of the world isn't worth the cost in lives. What America needs most at this critical time is a hero, someone who will prove that we are on the right path. Heroes I have aplenty, but they are all dead. You are the only live one at my disposal. This is the most important mission you will have in your Army career. It could well be the most important thing you will ever do in your entire life. Your country needs you, so you are going to put on your best spit and polish uniform, you are going to accept your medal with pride, you are going to smile for the newsreel cameras and make patriotic small talk with the movers and shakers of the Washington establishment. The entire Army is depending on you. Who knows but the fate of the whole world may rest in your hands? I'm sure you won't disappoint me. You certainly had better not."

"Yes, sir, general." I replied.

Having spent barely a week in Korea, I was sent home to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. The citation said that I was the only survivor of Baker Company, 147th Infantry, Ohio National Guard. It claimed that even though I was wounded I had remained at my post guarding Highway 313 and keeping it open as a vital link for the withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir, an act credited with the saving of countless American lives. It mentioned my disabled jeep and the fact that it was found surrounded by the bodies of 50 deceased enemy soldiers. Furthermore, the media had plenty of photos as evidence of my valor. They were displayed in every news magazine throughout the free world.

From then until now, I have lived a lie. I have pretended to be a hero, the Hero of Highway 313. I have accepted the accolades of my unsuspecting peers and the public at large. It is time now for the truth to be known.

**********

"I'm depending on you to get the word out, Sonny Boy." he said. "You are my only hope, but I would ask of you one favor. Please, don't reveal my dirty secret until a couple years after I am gone. Once the grass has grown over my grave all nice and pretty, they will be less inclined to dig up my old bones and toss them in a dumpster."

"I will do as you ask." I replied.

His grip on my sleeve went limp. He closed his eyes, His breathing became slow and shallow. The old man had found peace. He was ready to meet his Maker, ready to stand before the Judgement Seat of God and humbly to accept the verdict of the Almighty. With a lump in my throat and tears welling up in my eyes, I backed out of the room, silently, leaving the Hero of Highway 313 to pass over to the next life undisturbed.

Who is to say what is right? Wars aren't always won or lost on the battlefield. Vietnam is a prime example. That war was lost when the homeland turned against its soldiers, forcing the president to (falsely) declare victory and to withdraw from the conflict. At the very least we didn't lose the Korean war. We fought the enemy to a stalemate and forced the North Koreans to sign an armistice. There is no telling what effect the Medal of Honor winner had on the outcome, but one thing is clear. He did his duty as ordered by his superior. What more can a country ask of a soldier?

Copyright © 2015 W.C. Bell; All rights reserved.


© Copyright 2018 Whiskey Charlie. All rights reserved.

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