Veteran Stories:
Thomas Wood McLain

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"I had a patrol on my birthday and we came under intense fire. We were always afraid that we were going to be ambushed. Usually the patrols were going out just to find out where the enemy was... and every once in a while we’d run across each other."


The first military school that came along I volunteered for, which happened to be a pharmacy school. And they sent me to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and in three months I was a pharmacist. And I was then reassigned back to Oliver General Hospital [Augusta, Georgia] and I spent then two years as a pharmacist. I fulfilled my enlistment and was released from the army on August 25th, 1950. And of course that’s the very day that the Korean War broke out [on June 25th, 1950]. And what I had forgotten about was that when I signed up for the military, I agreed to also be on the inactive reservist for five years. So because of the Korean War, they then recalled me and in September of 1950, I was back in the Army again as a PFC [Private First Class]. And I received orders to take a troop train from Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky to Seattle, Washington, where I joined up with a buddy that I had previously known the first time I was in the Army. And from there on he and I became inseparable. He was a lab technician and I was a pharmacist and we were put on board the [USNS] Joseph [P.] Martinez [a Boulder Victory-class cargo ship] heading for Korea. At that time we were both in the medics.

So as far as the trip over was concerned, they loaded us, meaning 500 Americans, on board the ship the day before they loaded the Princess Pats Light Infantry [The Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry]. So when they loaded up the Canadian group, they let us Americans come out from the bottom of the ship and we could look down and see the Canadians marching to the ship, of course with the bagpipes playing and the bands and the newsreel cameras and the parents and girlfriends. It was exciting but all we could do was to watch it. And so we boarded the ship in Seattle and by the time we got out to the harbour, they had finished playing a song called I’d Like to Get You on a Slow Boat to China [a popular song written by Frank Loesser in 1947] and we hit open water and started getting into a storm and just about everybody immediately got sick.

The thing that I remembered about that boat trip – and as I recall it took 18 days – but we had two huge storms that came in. And the first storm was just after we got from Seattle and the ship started rocking back and forth and really severed. And you’d stand on deck and you’d have to look up to see the water and then when it would roll to the other side you were looking down like into water. And with everybody getting sick, of course there was a bit rush to the latrine and a lot of guys didn’t make it and would get sick right in place, and so we really just had a terrible mess, just even trying to walk on board the ship.

But eventually through casualties Louis and I, each on different squads, were made an assistant gunner on the [M2] 60 mm mortar, which as you probably know is the smallest mortar that was carried. Then we lost more men and eventually we were then – Louis became a gunner and I became a gunner and we got on-the-job training. So eventually Louis was made a section sergeant and I was made a section sergeant. That was a sergeant with two rockers – no I’m sorry, a sergeant with one rocker. That’d be a staff sergeant. And then I was promoted again and made sergeant first class. That was towards the end of the fighting. That would have been in October of 1951. But during that time we participated in the battles for – let’s see, they called it Operation Killer [a United Nations counter offensive, 20 February – 6 March, 1951]. Then we had [the Battle of] Bloody Ridge [18 August – 5 September, 1951]. We had [the Battle of] Heartbreak Ridge [13 September – 15 October, 1951] and then I came home right after Heartbreak Ridge and so did Louis, but on different ships. So we were on the front line from February 17th until October 28th. I left the company finally. And Louis had left. Louis was from Boston, Massachusetts and my home was Roxana, Illinois. So after the war we continued to visit with each other a couple of times until years went by and we didn’t see each other. And Louis of course since then has died.

I think the weather had so much to do with the way we lived. While we were on the front lines, a lot of times we were stationary, just holding on the line, living in foxholes or dugouts or under small pup tents. But we constantly – if we weren’t on the move forward or backwards, we would go out on patrols. And I remember those patrols very well because it was one of the patrols that I got lost on and ended up in front of the lines by myself and spent several hours out in front just completely lost not knowing which way to go.

What had happened is early one morning, I was chosen along with Louis to go out on a 12 or 15-man patrol and it was raining and cold and cloudy. You couldn’t see the sun. It was just a miserable day and when we took off early in the morning, we just followed each other’s footsteps and had no idea where we were going. But finally about an hour and a half or two hours into that patrol, they called for a rest and I leaned up a tree and went sound asleep and when I woke up the patrol was gone. And I ran up and down the ridges hollering, “Hey you guys! Hey you guys!” Nobody answered. I had no idea from which direction we had started from or which direction they had gone. And I just wondered around the hills for a long time, but I remembered that the day before when we moved in position, we had crossed a river. Well there was a stream running down off of the ridge and I decided to follow it down and there was a real small – oh about five houses, located at the base of the ridge. And I thought maybe that’s where the squad was supposed to go and reconnoitre. But it wasn’t. But I went back through that little town. There wasn’t anybody in it. I followed the little stream and it emptied into that river and finally I recognized where we had crossed the day before. So I waded across the river.

Now the day before when we waded across we were met by some South Koreans who led us through a minefield, their minefield, and then we went up the hill and relieved South Koreans. That was the day before. But now I didn’t have any South Koreans and I knew there was a minefield in front of me. So I just took off running through the minefield and obviously made it and I reported to my company commander and told him what had happened. And he just laughed and about a couple of hours later the patrol came back in and I jumped my buddy Louis. I said, “Louis didn’t you even miss me?” And they didn’t. Nobody had missed me. I was completely lost by myself and nobody knew it except me. So that was one patrol I really remembered.

I had a patrol on my birthday and we came under intense fire. We were always afraid that we were going to be ambushed. Usually the patrols were going out just to find out where the enemy was at and at the same time they sent patrols out to find out where we were at, and every once in a while we’d run across each other. But other than the patrolling and that kind of life on the front lines, we each had to take our turns on the patrols. But if we weren’t on patrols then we were probably just sitting in a foxhole taking turns telling stories, talking about the kind of cars we were going to buy when we got home. In fact one of the guys had written to his parents and asked them to send him pictures of the 1950 Ford Victoria, because he was going to buy that car when he got home. But unfortunately he was later killed on Bloody Ridge. So he never got his car but I got mine.

A lot of times we would spend on what they called reserve. We would get sent back to the line, they’d give us hot food, showers, and we’d get new men. Sometimes they’d even make us march in formation. Sometimes we’d have to go through night training and a lot of times they’d say that we’d be back of the line for maybe two weeks, but then call us out the next day and send us right back up front again. You could never figure. We were on and off the line, in and out of reserve, during the whole time I was there. The winter months were brutal. The summer months was a little bit more enduring but could also be miserable. I don’t remember being troubled by mosquitoes or flies or wild animals or snakes, but surely that occurred, but that was a minor problem.

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