Shoot Us if You Can
|We were going to make like a fat, sitting duck for their shore guns. Then, if we were still around, we were going to join the invasion.|
Thinking of it made the steak and eggs stick in my throat. Sure, steak and eggs, a special Navy breakfast. You filled your stomach with good food and tried to keep it down as you clapped a helmet on your head and waited for death to come spewing at you. It was there, waiting on Wolmi-Do, nestled in the yawning mouths of at least 140 known gun emplacements, and God knows how many others. The destroyer DeHaven was there to find out.
The deck of the gun mount shuddered under my feet as the DeHaven swung slowly toward Wolmi-Do. Except for the sound of the ship's engines and the scraping and clanking of equipment, all was quiet. The men of the DeHaven stood at their stations, faces drawn tight with tenseness. I grabbed the gun shield to keep from shaking as the DeHaven moved. I was trying to forget what the skipper had told us about Wolmi-Do and our mission.
We had known something was in the wind the last time we left Sasebo. They had pulled us out of the Japanese sake parlors and cabarets and shoved us out to sea. Somewhere in the middle of the Yellow Sea, on a pleasant, sun-drenched September day, Captain Lundgren gave us the bad news.
"We are very fortunate," the skipper's voice had droned from the squawk-box, "in having been selected to give fire support to the ground forces invading Inchon on September 15th." That was a big laugh.
Even the greenest seaman on board knew that Lundgren and the commander of the U.S.S. Mansfield, a guy known throughout the squadron as Vitamin Flintheart, had volunteered for a dangerous mission. This was it, Task Element 90.62, known forever after as "The Sitting Ducks."
I didn't feel any fear as Captain Lundgren briefed us on the mission. The thought of death was remote and alien, something that happened to someone else. It wasn't there when the skipper told us about the heavily mined channel and the chance of getting trapped when the high tide fell. It wasn't there when he described the stacked deck of gunfire waiting for us.
I shoved my empty tray at the mess cook who scuttled down the gun mount ladder and picked his way through the towing cables spread on the main deck. They'd be needed if the tide caught us.
The cables lay coiled on the deck like a family of huge, slippery snakes, and I turned back to the guns, a bitter taste in my mouth. I didn't like snakes, and I didn't like sitting in the open with North Korean guns staring down our throats. But, with an invasion going on, a gun loader like myself didn't have much choice about where or when he looked death in the face. And what the hell¾ who wants to live forever?
As if I'd yelled the question out loud, the air was split with the explosive whine and whoosh of panther jets and Corsairs from carriers. They swooped low over Wolmi-Do, the sunlight flashing on their wing tips. The little green jewel hung for a moment in suspenseful silence, then erupted in a crimson blossom of fire. Napalm bombs and 500-pound demos smashed down and planted seeds of destruction. This was it!
I gulped and shoved the memories of the good time liberties in Sasebo far out of my mind. This wasn't the time to be thinking about rice wine and Japanese dancing girls. The 500-pound demos hit Wolmi-Do with loud, jarring smacks and I shook with the deck of the DeHaven, as if someone had picked up the world and shaken it like a throw rug.
Miller, my mount captain, turned from the sound-powered phones and snapped the order to give equipment a final check. I stepped away from the gun shield as Henderson swiveled the mount in a semicircle, and Taylor swung the gun barrels up and down. We had practiced this routine until it was automatic.
Without thinking, I rolled down my sleeves and buttoned the collar of my dungarees for protection in case of gas attack. My jaw tightened as I fastened my helmet band and checked the M-1s and Tommy guns slung over the shield.
This wasn't practice, I realized; this was the real thing. It wasn't like the fire drills in school back in Norman, Oklahoma, where everyone joked and had a good time away from classes. Those earthshaking thuds meant Koreans were dying. In a little while I might be in the same spot.
The weapons slung over the gun shield weren't there for show. The DeHaven was going to play sitting duck for those unknown North Korean guns. We'd be anchored just 1,100 yards off Wolmi-Do. There was a good chance we'd have to repel boarders. I prayed that wouldn't happen.
My throat felt dry and scratchy, and I began wishing for a cigarette. It was a silly thing to wish for. Just one burning spark and the whole gun mount would be scattered over Inchon harbor. I couldn't have that cigarette, but I kept wishing for it. Anything to keep my mind off that deadly, green island, now becoming a blackened mound of mushrooming fire and smoke.
Miller touched my elbow and nodded. I grabbed the phones to relay the message to fire control. "Control mount 41¾ testing," I gasped, trying to control my breathing to keep the fear from my voice.
The headphones crackled for a second, and a calm, flat voice filled my ear. "Hear you loud and clear." Then silence. The final check was over. It was September 13th, 1950. In a few weeks I was going to have a birthday. I hoped I'd make it.
The fear began its numbing path through me as the DeHaven swung in behind the Mansfield, set to drop anchor off Wolmi-Do. Our mission was to sit there and let the North Koreans use us for target practice. If we were still there when they got through, the invasion would be on. First Wolmi-Do, the island fortress, then Inchon itself.
Hours seemed to pass as we sat in the harbor, waiting for the operation to begin. I had plenty of time in those few minutes to wonder what I was doing there, with a good chance of getting killed for my troubles. The more I wondered, the more my hands shook. To keep from breaking I started wishing for that cigarette again, keeping my mind away from that little blackened island off our starboard side.
The smoke poured upward from Wolmi-Do. Bright red flames dotted its jutting hump of mountain. I felt better, watching the carrier planes knife in from the sky and splatter the ground with burning, exploding death. With some luck, those hidden gun emplacements might be knocked out. It was a thin strand of hope, but enough to keep me from cracking up.
I watched the planes circle and head back out to the open sea, to their nests among the main invasion task force. The Panther jets whooshed over, leaving a little pocket of silence in the air. For one split second it was quiet and peaceful. Then my heart jumped as Miller grabbed the crackling phones. '
The world tipped and rolled as the DeHaven's five-inchers belched fire. I stood paralyzed, my ears ringing with an unholy din, as the DeHaven heaved and shivered with the blast of its guns. The 40-millimeter guns in my mount coughed. I was drowned in the heavy smell of burning brass as the hot, rejected casings slid through the open ejection hatch.
There was a sharp blow in the middle of my back and I yelled, crazy with the fear of being hit. Behind me, the ammunition handler cursed and I snapped back to reality; the many days of constant practice winning out over my fear. I grabbed the clip the handler had shoved at me and slammed it into the coughing gun.
All I can remember now of those two days is a burning, screaming haze of hellish noise and color. Life narrowed down to a constant blur of motion, grabbing the clips of ammo and shoving them into the ever-hungry guns. It seemed as if life would stop if I stopped.
From Wolmi-Do and the bayfront around Inchon, the North Korean guns winked and flashed, sending death singing around our ears. Before me the waters of the channel and harbor churned and foamed like the contents of a vast washing machine. The North Koreans were trying to bracket the sitting ducks, circling the ships with the high, foaming waterspouts.
The gun mount swiveled, following the signals from fire control center. I moved without thinking, turning and grabbing the ammo clips. There wasn't time to worry about the machine-gun bullets spitting from the scores of beached sampans-ringing Inchon harbor.
I heard the bullets whistling their deadly melody in the halyards above my head. Once, as I turned to grab the ammo, a trail of slugs marched across the gun shield. A shell exploded above our heads and I ducked, feeling something pluck at my sleeve. A slug clanked off the shield and hit the gun mount deck,, spinning like the ball in a roulette wheel. My fingers traced the ragged edge of the tear in my sleeve, then picked up the slug.
I was lucky, I told myself, tucking the bullet away in my dungarees, thinking of that birthday. Another shell exploded and the first shock of anger hit me. I was being shot at. It wasn't happening to someone else. I shouted something, I don't remember what, grabbed another ammo clip and jammed it into the gun. I wanted those 40-millimeters to eat up everything in sight. I wanted revenge.
I shut the world from me and concentrated on loading the guns, following the mount as it swiveled toward its targets. The hot anger pounded in my ears as loud as the guns smashing Wolmi-Do. The little ball of fury inside me carried me through that living hell, through the two-day operation.
The fury crawled outside and perched on my shoulder and glared when the U.S.S. Collett was hit and we paused outside the channel to bury one of their men. When we sailed toward Wolmi-Do again, there were no shaking tendrils of fear inside me, only a white-hot anger: I stood up in the open gun mount, watching the Mansfield pull into position, its guns up and bristling like the horns of an angry dragon's head. When the guns roared again, I was ready with a clip in my hand.
It was the same nightmare, a world full of exploding fury. My ears rang as I turned and loaded, ducking as the shells exploded around us and the bullets pecked away at the steel mounts and decks of the DeHaven. There was nothing to remember about that day. Nothing to put your finger on when you try. There was nothing but the constant movement, the concussion of guns firing and the smoke and fire hovering over everything on shore. Then, as suddenly as it started, the firing stopped. It was dawn.
The sun was still hidden under the far edge of land and water. It was like the early September mornings back in Norman, when I'd wake up early and wait for the paper boy to sail the morning edition against the front door of our house. I tried recalling those times, wishing I were back in bed listening for the paper to bounce. I sat in the open gun mount, counting the seconds as the first light of morning spread over the water.
Miller coughed, his head bent in-concentration as he listened to the phones. It was September 15th. Time for an invasion.
I lost count of the seconds and jumped at every rustle of clothing, at .every slight noise. Miller straightened up and I held my breath, checking the time on my watch: 5:15.
The world lit up like a huge Roman candle.
For 20 minutes the complete invasion force pounded Wolmi-Do and Inchon, trying to flatten everything. By the time the sun was riding in the sky, I could hear the deep-throated rumble of the landing barges, moving in toward the blackened island.
Wolmi-Do was an easy target. Toward noon, the mess cook came to take the breakfast trays away and told us the island had been taken without a casualty. We all grinned at each other, trying to relax. Inchon would be easy too, we said, thinking of sleep and the next port. What happened came as a deadly surprise.
The DeHaven pushed back into the harbor that afternoon, picking away at targets of opportunity. Our gun mount was switched on local fire and we slammed away at the beached sampans. The North Koreans had machine guns set up inside those boats. We had to knock them out.
By late afternoon there wasn't enough answering fire from shore. It sounded like we had done too good a job. I tried to relax, feeling the fatigue creep over me. I leaned against the gun shield, feeling uneasy over the silence from the guns of Inchon. It was too quiet.
As the sun burned low in the western rim of the sky, the landing barges began grouping. The motors of the LCIs grumbled and muttered as they tossed in the receding waters like small corks. With a start I realized the tide was pulling out. It was our time to withdraw. From the gun mount it seemed as if the DeHaven was sinking. As the LCIs crawled slowly ahead I began fidgeting, feeling uneasy, watching the shoreline.
The North Koreans pulled out their ace in the hole as the LCIs lined up with the DeHaven. A shore battery we had not knocked out opened up. There was a sharp explosion ahead and a huge spout of water sprayed over the gun mount. Just short!
I felt the DeHaven shudder and swing over in front of the crawling line of landing barges. I don't know what my face looked like. The rest of the crew's were slack and white as anemic ghosts. We stood in the gun mount feeling helpless and lost. The DeHaven was not going to move. We were going to protect the landing forces even though the tide was falling fast and the Korean gun had us almost zeroed in.
My hands shook at another sharp explosion behind us. This was fear, and it couldn't be hidden. There had been one short and one long; we were bracketed. The next one would come roaring in on top of us, or be a near miss.
I could hear my heart pounding as we waited, silently praying. The gun mount swiveled, piloted by an unknown hand in fire control. The motors of the LCIs coughed and barked behind us. I saw the barrels of the DeHaven's five-inchers rise, pointing toward Inchon. One lucky shot, I prayed. One lucky shot!
I jumped as the DeHaven's guns roared and the ship rolled. My hands gripped the gun shield, turning the skin around the knuckles white. Another ripping salvo sent the ship pitching. Then silence.
I held my breath, counting off the seconds in my mind as the DeHaven shuddered, bucking the dragging anchor. I couldn't look up, afraid to see death sailing down from above. The seconds dragged by. Still no last shot from shore. A heavy, brooding cloud crept across the sun.
Miller broke the silence in the gun mount. "A lucky hit," he sighed. "We got 'em."
There was a loud roar from behind as the LCIs moved toward shore. I slumped against the gun shield, feeling washed out, picked clean. It was over.
The DeHaven squeezed out of the harbor with just enough clearance to get into the channel. As we floated, the rain started, popping and sizzling on the warm gun barrels.
We got out the tarp and covered the guns; grinning at each other like a bunch of dope-addicted apes. Down on the main deck someone was whistling, "It ain't gonna rain no more, no more . . ."
I reached in my dungarees for that long-awaited cigarette. My fingers touched the bullet I had picked up from the deck. I had wanted it for a souvenir, but it didn't mean anything now. All I wanted was a cigarette and a soft bunk to fall in. I tossed the bullet away, losing it in the gathering darkness.
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USS DeHaven Sailors Association
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