Various newspaper clippings detailing Herb Pitts' military achievements, 1950s.Herb Pitts
Herb Pitts in the uniform of Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians) (2nd Armoured Regiment) on embarkation for Korea, July 1952.Herb Pitts
Herb Pitts at church parade celebrating 150th anniversary of the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, Toronto, 7 November 2010.Herb Pitts
Medals awarded to Herb Pitts for service to the country, 1952-2002. Note Military Cross on far left.Herb Pitts
Medals awarded to Herb Pitts from the Korea Veterans Association of Canada.Herb Pitts
"So he took about two or three steps and the ungodly explosion took place. He stepped on a mine, which was a bouncing mine, it took his head off except for his jaw."
We graduated [from the Royal Military College of Canada] on the 2nd of June in 1952 and six weeks later were in Korea. The transition was that fast. We were given 30 days leave, five days travel time, and then time to get to the dispatching depot which happened to be in Vancouver. So our class, I think there was 27 army graduates, which is very high out of a period - of a graduating class which probably totaled only about, maybe 80 at that point.
In any event, there was 27 army graduates who took up the offer of a commission [as an officer] and the chance to go to Korea. There was only about five or six who did not accept that proposition. So, the happy band met in Vancouver at Jericho Beach, waited to be dispatched on three flights to Korea. They didn’t want to put all of us on one flight, so the first flight left right on time, the second flight left seven days later, and the third flight left, well two weeks after the first one. And I was on the third flight. So I left Canada about the 20th of July.
I was told to report to brigade headquarters, and I did, and I went to the brigade major, as instructed, and he said, “You’re going to the Patricias.” I said, “To the tank troop that supports the Patricias?” He said, “No, you’re going to be a platoon commander with the Patricias.” And I said, “What?” And he said, “Yes, there are too many of you [Royal Canadian] Armoured Corps people here and the squadron cannot take five of you, so in turn, you’ll do three months with the squadron and the other nine months with infantry battalions.”
Now, this is where [Hill] 355 comes into the picture. 355 was a major feature in the area occupied by 1 RCR [Royal Canadian Regiment] when we went into the line. We were the company that was on the right side as you face the enemy. The right side of 355. Our company position initially looked along almost the front of 355 but at a much lower elevation. So the RCR company on the right hand position more or less overlooked the Patricia front.
And the connection will become evident in a minute, but that’s when I got to know my platoon, we were with them September-October and we did a lot of work in the valley. I keep using the expression “in the valley” because it seemed that’s where we spent an awful lot of time. Most of the new officers, when they got into the line, were sent to a place called The Bunker, which was a listening post ahead of the Patricias, in which the sniper section and a pioneer would take out an officer and a signaler. And maybe a small protective party, but the snipers and pioneers normally stayed with you. And I met some of the great characters, sort of, of that history, that way, because I went out twice. Maybe a slow learner, I had to go a second time, I don’t know. But in any event, it was an exciting position to be put in because you were well forward and your job of course was to observe and report any enemy movement. Which in the case of me being there, on the two occasions, did not result in any reports of enemy movement. So there was nothing that disturbed the peace of this particular outpost at that time.
We came back but we also took charge of the valley, if I can use that expression - or dominated the valley, that was the idea of patrolling on our part. And they were very highly centrally controlled, like at division [headquarters], who would pass things down to the brigade and then the brigade to the battalion, and we ended up going out. For some reason at that time, the division had a policy of having mostly officer-led patrols, mostly in my case either ambush patrols, or fighting patrols or - what do I want to say - accompanying patrols- that’s not the right term - in which we provided protection for specialist parties going out, like engineers.
I had a carbine [American-made Winchester M2], which was kind of a desirable weapon that a lot of Canadians wanted, particularly for patrolling, because it could be fired on rapid repetition, it could be fired single shot, it could have a couple of magazines fed into it, taped together, which gave you a fair amount of magazine - ammunition handy. John [Richardson, awarded Distinguished Conduct Medal] said, “Can I borrow your carbine for this patrol?” And I said, “Well sure. But don’t forget to bring it back.” And I said, “I’m going to warn you of one thing, and that is that the return, that the lever that engages rapid fire or repetition, is a bent safety pin.” He said, “What?” And I said, “It’s a bent safety pin, we can’t get parts for American weapons, and it was handed to me that way, and I know it functions alright that way, but,” I said, “you be careful of it and make sure that you hold your finger, if you can, but make sure it’s pushed home before you fiddle with it. Because if you lose it, I don’t know whether you’re going to be on permanent rapid or you’re never going to get a round off, I don’t know what’s going to happen. The change lever is the problem.” He said, “Oh, yeah,” he said, “I can handle that.”
Well, he took the patrol out, they ran into trouble, John used my weapon, in a manner I guess he saw fit, and when he came back, he’d been wounded, I said, “Where is the carbine, John?” And he said, “Oh, they got it off me at the RAP [Regimental Aid Post].” “They did?” He said, “Oh yeah, it’s at the RAP somewhere.” And I said, “Well, I didn’t expect you to keep track of it.” But there’s a depiction of him on the patrol in what was one of the army magazines at the time and it shows a silhouette of a man with flashing grenades around and a carbine being wielded over his head. And I suspect what happened in the end is he threw it at them. John is now dead, not that long ago, but every time we met over the years I said, “You owe me a carbine, Richardson.” And Richardson was a, you know, just one of the most able sergeants and he eventually became the RSM [Regimental Sergeant-Major, senior non-commissioned officer] of the 1st Battalion, Patricias.
All hell broke loose on 355, which the RCR occupied in October of 1952. We were, as D company of the 1st Battalion and in a reserve [position], were offered to the RCR as a counterattack company. So, there were two officers in the company, a captain commanding it and myself. The company was moved over close to battalion headquarters of the RCR, and Scott Campbell, who was commanding the company, and I went to the command post of 1 RCR and it was being manned by two well-known Royals, “Klink” Klevanic, [Major] Frank Klevanic, who was the 2IC [2nd-in-command] commanding the battalion, and Don Holmes, who was the operations officer. And the two of them were fighting the battalion that night.
And they said, "Okay, we know you’ve come here, however, what we want you to do is go up and replace C company on the right-hand top of the feature so it can be withdrawn, it hasn’t been engaged yet, and it can be withdrawn and be part of the counterattack force that we are putting together to go and restore the position.”
So, off we went with the company up the right-hand forward position of the Royals and we became “Peter Company” of 1 RCR, P for Patricia. And stayed with them for 10 days and did their patrolling and their contact point, junction points with our own battalion, the Patricias. And stayed even after the Patricia battalion was withdrawn into reserve in order to prepare to hand over to the 3rd Battalion. We were there long enough that we came down, went and had a shower, and then had to get on parade for the change of command ceremonies. We did not even get an opportunity to change our clothing and it was ripped in many cases, it was well worn, it was dirty. We hadn’t been out of the line since we came in, in October – in August. And in fact, my guess is that we hadn’t had very many shower parades during that time, either. We did our hygiene out of a basin and that was about the size of it. Now - so that’s my connection with 355. I won’t belabour that but when people talk about Hill 355, I think of the RCR stand there which was a very good one.
I was ordered that I would take those volunteers [soldiers] to B Echelon [support position furthest from the frontline] of the engineers and learn to lay triple concertina wire which is two rolls on the bottom and one on top[of barbed wire], in as little time as possible. So I was put together with a bunch of strangers except for one man from my platoon who had volunteered and I don’t know how he did, but he did. I guess it was, I was asleep or something. In any event, he ended up there and the other 29 or 30 people were volunteers from across the battalion.
We learned under the engineers to lay wire. Their standard was 100 yards in daylight. We learned to do it in just under - 100 yards in 10 minutes in daylight. We learned to do it just under 10 minutes at night. And it really was a great group of young men to work with. We challenged each other and I said, “Whoever is the fastest team on the time trial at the end of our training will get to lay the belt closest to the Chinese.” That’s some “reward.”
In any event, we went up to our job and I went down on a reconnaissance with the three team leaders. And we went out on exactly a path that was marked, and I know it to be the same path because we walked down, went to a datum point, which is a busted tree, and came back without incident. When we picked up the wiring team, and about 60 Korean porters who were going to bring all of the stores that we couldn’t carry, we started back down, identical path, footprints were in the snow, and before I knew it, I had turned around because somebody fell behind me and I think it was my signaler. I stepped out of line, went back, and I said to a fellow by the name of Corporal Mullin [Francis Austin Mullin], who was the best young corporal that I had ever encountered, I said, “You were down here in the recce, just keep going, go for the tree and I’ll be back.”
So he took about two or three steps and the ungodly explosion took place. He stepped on a mine, which was a bouncing mine, it took his head off except for his jaw, and the man behind him was Bill Batsch [Jacob Winsel Batsch], who was struck by one piece of shrapnel as far as I could tell, which was the ball of the trigger - on a spring. And it ended up going through his heart. I grabbed him on the ground - Mullin was obviously dead- I grabbed Batsch and said, “Where are you hit?” All he could do was gurgle at me and I started to feel and sure enough, his whole body was covered with blood underneath the parka. So we lost two men before we even got a picket in the ground and we were still on our way down [Mullin and Batsch were killed in action in late 1952].
We spent Christmas in the line on The Hook [series of hilltop features]. That’s where we spent Christmas and we spent it on the line, telephone line to each other singing Christmas carols and that kind of “junk.” And going out into no-man’s land and collecting from the Chinese, their Christmas presents to us, which were Christmas cards and tea or something. It was stuff left there on purpose with Merry Christmas banners - my platoon went out and got one, which I have a picture of and the section commanders were all there - “Merry Christmas and from, Chinese.” And so that was a memorable Christmas in itself.
Our job, on the Patricia line, mortar line, was to provide what support we could to the RCR, if needed, and of course, to look after our own people should there be a probe on us. As it turned out, one of our companies was probed, but it was a feint. We responded, but before long, the skies just opened up and the RCR on Hill 187 were in real problems. And we started to respond to fire requests, most of which came down through our mortar line – our battalion headquarters to the mortar line and my guess is that they were answering RCR requests for support.
We fired over 4,000 rounds that night, from roughly dusk to dawn. And we had to have two resupplies of mortar ammunition, one during the night and the other first thing in the morning. And our mortar line looked like a garbage dump with the amount of canisters and boxes and stuff that were laid around. We provided an awful lot of illumination, but an awful lot of close support that night to the Royals. And we had no idea how big a do it was, when it was taking place, but it was obviously a fierce battle that was taking place immediately to our left. As I said, we’d had only a feint and that was to draw our patrols, off, I guess early in the evening.
But during the course of our intense firing, we drew the attention of counterbattery from the Chinese. And we were in a bit of a bowl and the Chinese had a very direct fire weapon trying to get us from over on the right flank somewhere and they could not get into the valley. It was a flat trajectory weapon, I suspect maybe a tank or some similar artillery piece, but it could not either raise its barrel enough to get a trajectory which is going to come in and get us. They never tried with mortars, I think their own mortars may not have been able to reach that far. But we had a great shoot and we were shot at.