Sunday, April 20, 2003


A Fremont man remembers serving and surviving with friends in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Korean War

Joe Bales sits in the Disabled American Veterans building — more than five decades after he fought in Korea. He remembers buddies who died there. "You eat and sleep a foot or two apart all the time, and you love each other like brothers, but you accept that they're going to get killed — some of them." Bales would see fighting at places like the Chosin Reservoir, Pork Chop Hill and Horseshoe Ridge. - Tammy Real-McKeighan/Fremont Tribune
By Tammy Real-McKeighan/Tribune Staff

More than 50 years have passed since Joe Bales hit the beach at Inchon and trudged through war-torn Korea.

But the sounds of exploding shells and machine gun fire, the smell of burned flesh and the screams of a pregnant woman facing death remain with him still.

Bales, who lives in Fremont, was 19 when he and other Marines from the First Division landed at Inchon in 1950. The Korean War had begun. And although he thought the war would be over relatively soon, Bales would see fighting at places like the Chosin Reservoir, Pork Chop Hill and Horseshoe Ridge.

The Nebraskan had a cold introduction to Korea.

It was 4 a.m. Sept. 9, when Bales climbed out of a landing craft into the waters off Inchon. With machine gun fire whizzing past and mortars exploding nearby, he and other Marines crawled over a 6-foot concrete sea wall.

Bales' heart seemed to be pounding louder than the shells detonating around him as he made his way through the haze and smoke. Marines were yelling and crying as they were killed by enemy fire. Boats were blown up in the water. Everywhere was the smell of sulfur and charred flesh.

He was wet and cold and scared, but determined to reach the shore.

Loaded down with more than 100 pounds of gear, he crawled onto the beach and headed for cover. Once inside the port city, Bales and other Marines found little resistance. Civilians had evacuated and enemy soldiers — caught off guard — surrendered easily. Even so, going from building to building was terrifying.

"It's the scariest thing you could ever do," he said. "You don't know who's there or how many or what they're going to do."

Inchon fell in two days, and before long Marines were fighting house to house at Seoul. They made it to a train station at the heart of the city. There, they found 300 civilians — including women and children — dead on the floor.

He can still see their faces.

Stepping over bodies, some Marines established their positions and battled enemy fire from a hospital across the street. Marine squads stormed the hospital; fighting lasted throughout the night.

The horror wasn't over.

He and other Marines were moving through the city when they saw a South Korean police officer use a hoe to kill a pregnant woman. Bales, who was less than 20 feet away, still remembers the officer's black uniform and the woman's screams. She died within minutes and the baby was delivered — and not expected to live.

Bales was shocked and angry, but Marines had been ordered to avoid civilian matters or face court martial.

"It made me sick," he said. "They told me later that she was pregnant with a North Korean soldier's baby."

Eventually, the First Marine Division headed to the Chosin Reservoir. The Fifth and Seventh Marines went way into the reservoir, relieving the First Marines of which Bales was a member. Temperatures dipped to 30 below zero and 4 to 5 feet of snow fell. The men stayed there for weeks, living in tents, playing cards, showing each other pictures of wives and girlfriends, and talking about everything but the war.

From the reservoir, Marines could see Chinese forces massing in Manchuria. They figured the Chinese were preparing for a possible U.S. attack, but knew U.S. President Harry Truman didn't want war with the huge Asian nation. It was November, and they assumed they'd be eating Christmas dinner at home in the United States.

"We thought the war was over," Bales said. "Everybody told us it was over. ... We sat there and waited for orders to pull out and go home."

Then on Dec. 9, the Chinese crossed the Yallu River at night, cutting off the Fifth and Seventh Marines from the First Marines. There were some 80,000 Chinese.

"They fought up there for days ... then we had to go and open the road for the Fifth and Seventh" — and that dirt road was barely wide enough for a tank.

With enemy soldiers firing from both sides of the road, the First Marines headed to Chosin. Marines loaded the dead into one truck and wounded in another. Bales had to load many men.

"You're numb to it," he said.

Bone-chilling temperatures added to that numbness.

"Your first (priority) is staying warm," he said. "The only way you eat is if you hold your C ration next to your body because it freezes. And you're not too interested in eating. You're too scared and too cold."

From Chosin, the Marines traveled then 53 miles to the seaport city of Ham Hun, being fired on the entire way. When they reached Ham Hun, the Marines were loaded onto ships and taken south to Pusan. There, they ate cooked meals in a mess tent and had hot showers.

"We all got cleaned up and new clothes. We'd been in those other clothes for a month," he said.

Korean civilians begged to clean soldiers' tents or wash their clothes.

"They'd do anything for cigarettes or C-rations," he said. "It was too bad."

After about a month, Marines were sent north to Pork Chop Hill — a nickname Americans gave that area — to help the Army.

"There were too many Chinese. They (the Army) took the hill twice and got knocked off and we came up and took it," he said.

By that time the war was taking a toll on the young Marine.

"You get to point where you hope they do kill you so you can get out of it," he said. "I was getting to a point where I didn't give a damn, because I was beat and tired and didn't want anymore war. Everyone was."

One of Bales' good friends, Johnny Cochran, became a war casualty.

Cochran was a freckled-face Missouri boy, who planned to go home and marry his girlfriend.

"He was standing right behind me," Bales said. "We were in a small village with probably 20 buildings and we come around a corner. One shot was fired and he fell. He got hit in the head. I tried to hold his wound together before the corpsman got there, but he was already dead ... I cried."

The day before he died, Cochran got a "Dear John" letter from his girlfriend, breaking off their relationship. Cochran was very sad, but Bales doesn't blame the woman for his friend's death.

"He was just at the wrong place at the wrong time," Bales said.

Bales would lose more fellow Marines during a battle at Horseshoe Ridge.

Lt. Mills, a tall quiet man with dark wavy hair, was hit in the throat.

"I saw a corpsman stick his hand in (Mills') throat, but he couldn't save him," Bales said.

Mills had just married and wanted to get out of the Marines and go to college.

"He never got there," Bales said quietly.

Sgt. Chinner, a ruddy-haired man who Bales called a born leader, had a fatal chest wound.

"You could hear it for a block when he'd breathe, sucking air into his lung," he said. "...He never wanted to be anything but a Marine ... He saved a lot of lives of the people who were with him. He knew what to do and where to go, and we were awful lucky to have people like that."

Bales still remembers the stampede of enemy soldiers at Horseshoe Ridge.

"Not all of them had weapons. One would be picking up a weapon where another fell and no matter how many we shot they were still massing," he said.

He's convinced many of them where on drugs.

"They were yelling and screaming. They were crazy. You don't yell and run into fire," he said.

The First Marines met more heavy fighting at Hochi Hill.

"It was night and we had a firefight and the Chinese were coming up and they were throwing hand grenades and shooting," he said.

One of the grenades exploded 10 feet behind Bales. Fragments hit him in the right ankle and left hand and he was knocked unconscious.

The next thing Bales knew, Marines were taking him to a helicopter.

"I didn't feel anything," he said. "I was on morphine."

Bales was taken to the hospital ship "Haven." Hollywood actress Jennifer Jones came aboard.

"She was beautiful," he said. "She was just a little, tiny thing."

After about 10 days, Bales was sent back to his outfit and to the 38th parallel, the line that divides north and south Korea. He would spent 13 months and 24 days overseas.

He came home in November 1951. His mother threw her arms around him.

"She was my pal," he said.

Bales was discharged in June 1952. He would work at Hormel Foods Corp. for 38 years. He and his wife, Carolyn, have three daughters, a son and six grandchildren. Every two years, he and other members of Charlie Company have a reunion.

He is glad to have served in the Marines.

"I grew up and I was able to be a better person," he said. "I loved the Marine Corps and how it made me feel to wear their uniform."

Copyright © 2003 Fremont Tribune