Saturday, May 6, 1972

Hold Your Position - Or Die In It

QUI NHON, Vietnam --Pfc. Hong Moon Hee seemed reluctant to tell his story, and was troubled by the frequent interruptions.

There were shouted orders from superiors, a yapping puppy who ran around the top of a demolished bunker, the piercing shriek of F4 Phantoms that sent bombs tumbling into a lower height near Hill 638.

Perhaps things had happened too fast for Hong. Thirteen months ago, he was working for a small transportation company owned by his older brother in On Yang, a town in sleepy Chung Chun Province in the Republic of Korea. He was drafted, trained, sworn to fight. He volunteered for the Tiger Div. in South Vietnam, because he felt a soldier's life was far more purposeful there.

What had he done, he wondered, that was so extraordinary?

Why was this stranger with a notebook talking to him? First the medal, the prestigious Order of Im Hyon, and now this. Waiting for a roll of daylight thunder to recede, he stood on a sandbag parapet at the edge of an intricate spoke of trenches and shyly told of what he had done.

Last March 11, Hong related, he stood in darkness, the rifleman's friend, in this same position. First he heard a clanking noise -something had rustled the tin cans that hung on the shrubbery of iron thorns around his position. Hong's constant and steady expression -a peevish frown -might have changed slightly as the first two figures emerged from behind a boulder on 10 or so feet away. Three. Then five.

They wore farm clothes and carried satchel charges and packets of explosive at the end of long poles -an enemy sapper team.

"If I fail to kill them," Hong thought to himself, "I should be killed." For he would have failed those around him and that was unthinkable. First, Hong grasped for a flare and spilled a canopy of light over the intruders. Then he tripped the switch on a claymore and was momentarily sickened by an exploded view of a human being. He next hurled a grenade; then he cauterized a squirming mess with a long burst from his M16.

He had found the enemy -now they found him. Rocket-propelled grenades tore into the sandbags and they toppled in a heave of dirt. To infantrymen of many countries, it would have been time to move out briskly -find something larger and more solid. Not to Hong; he had been taught at the Non San Training Camp in Seoul that a soldier held his position or died in it. Professional reflex told him to hit the prone and keep firing. He did.

But now it had ceased being the private war of Hong Moon Hee. There were shapes and flashes all over the hill. Hong's outfit, a company out of the division's Cavalry Regt., was hit by the phalanx of a reinforced North Vietnamese regiment. They wanted Hill 638 because it was the lock on An Khe Pass, where high ground stood on both sides of Highway 19 like gate posts. The North Vietnamese were going for the jugular -the long route that fed the central Vietnam highlands. The pass could be a gateway or a garrote, depending on who held it. The French lost it in their Indochina War -and the rusted wrecks of the 100th Mobile Group were cleared only a few years ago.

Not this time. The ROKs rewrote history. The pass held in a piecemeal, meat-grinder battle that lasted for 16 days and according to ROK figures, resulted in 705 North Vietnamese killed and 41 of their own.

Nothing was cheap or easy. Gen. Chang Duk Man, the division commander, told newsmen that 13 ROK companies were committed in the battle. They had occupied only one knob on the hill and had to make a tortuous advance over a long saddle to take another rise seized by the North Vietnamese who must have been elite -many sported green berets.

A visit to the battleground Sunday showed many things. There was a collapsed bunker; ROK soldiers were throwing aside broken timbers and torn sandbags to make way for another. There were two large, scared depressions that looked like sump holes.

"We were holding our mortar positions here," a ROK officer said matter-of-factly. "They were destroyed by enemy fire. Four ROK soldiers were killed."

A group of visitors was taken across the saddle to the side that had been held by the enemy. They were urged to walk briskly and cautiously, for the broken remains of a North Vietnamese regiment were still in the lowlands.

As the visitors approached the next rise, they were shown huge boulders with cave-like niches beneath them -the ones the ROKs used as trench and foxhole as they inched their way up. The seldom-seen and little-used M16 bayonet was used -many times.

What they fought through on that rise was horrendous. One NVA trench was shaped like a tuning fork and had a neatly-cut shelf for a machine gun. When artillery and mortars sought them out, the enemy crew dropped to the dirt floor and wriggled into an underground trench big enough for two men. When it lifted, they were up and shooting. The trench was littered with broken sticks and dead greenery -skillful camouflage had made it look like a tree. Many ROK soldiers were fatally deceived.

Another enemy fortification was now a grave mound. Flies swarmed on it and some of the visitors held handkerchiefs to their noses. There hadn't been time to clear the enemy dead, an escorting ROK sergeant apologized. They were simply thrown into their demolished fortification and covered over. They were all over the hill and the smell was thick.

One bunker was shown off like a trophy. It was cool and roomy and had been built for the enemy commander. It had become his crypt. And now the ROKs used it for a command post.

One friendly host was Lt. Lee Mu Pyo, a slight, wiry youth who looks like every soldier-cartoonist's idea of the boyish officer. Only the bulky flak jacket gave him any proportion at all. But on March 24, the day the hill was secured, it was Lee Mu Pyo who led a 24-man attack force through a line of broken trees, and a ROK spokesman said he will be awarded the Order of Taekuk, his country's highest military decoration.

They did it all with a valorous mystique that is hard to grasp and almost impossible to explain. It consists of both spirit and stoicism. Back at the base camp at Qui Nhon -which has lawns trimmed like a regulation haircut and looks like a miniaturized Fort Riley -a captain stirs in his hospital bed and shows no signs of being bitter or nervous as he tells of how he limped gingerly on multiple wounds and continued to command.

In another ward, sandbagged to protect patients against rocket attacks, a soldier sat in a cross-legged monk's slouch on his bed, never flinching or frowning as a doctor removed a bandage and dabbed at an ugly head wound that made a bystander turn away.

Politics? A ROK soldier will look at you, puzzled -this subject is never mentioned or discussed. The right or wrong of being here? Let students thousands of miles sway storm and argue about that --the Tiger Div. soldiers have 3,600 meters of mountain and brushland, along with the jaws of An Khe Pass, to patrol, protect and secure. To them, the enemy in North Vietnam is little different from the enemy in North Korea.

An, to the ROKs, war is a professional, pitiless business. Asked if many enemy prisoners had been taken, a briefer smiled thinly and replied "no, sir. Didn't have a chance. We were fighting hand-to-hand."

"Hold Your Position – Or Die in It", by Hal Drake, published in the Pacific Stars and Stripes on Saturday, May 6, 1972 and reprinted from European and Pacific Stars and Stripes, a Department of Defense publication copyright, 2002 European and Pacific Stars and Stripes.
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