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My Secret War in North Korea
By Ben S. Malcom, Ron Martz
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS Copyright © 1996 Brassey's (US)
All rights reserved.
The Trip to Changsan-got
Waves slapped against the hull of the old Chinese fishing junk, spraying us with icy seawater as the captain turned the boat into the cold March wind and headed northwest across an open stretch of the Yellow Sea. The boat's four-horsepower diesel motor, wrapped in rags and leaking fuel, fouled the air with fumes as it sputtered and gasped under the strain.
Little more than two miles off the boat's starboard rail the mainland of North Korea rose in an imposing jumble of mountains and centuries-old forests of pines, maples and birch trees. This was the southern coast of South Hwanghae Province where it thrusts westward from fertile farmlands to form a rocky spear of land jutting into the Yellow Sea known as Changsan-got (Changsan Peninsula).
Rocky cliff faces climbed straight out of the sea along the coast, offering no foothold for miles. In those few areas where patches of white sand dotted the coastline, rocky escarpments and thick forests blocked exits from the beach. This was forbidden and foreboding territory, wild, mountainous, and jealously guarded by the 23rd Brigade of the North Korean People's Army (NKPA).
I buttoned my fatigue jacket to my neck and folded my arms across my chest to ward off the wind's chill. The terrain here was easily defensible. Once won it could be held indefinitely by a few well-positioned, properly armed troops.
I sensed someone looking over my shoulder and turned to find Pak Choll standing behind me staring at the coastline. He had seen this part of North Korea hundreds of times before. He had worked these waters in his fishing boat before the war. This was his home. But now, nearly two years into the war, he could do little but look at it from a distance and long for the day he could go home again.
Pak Choll was a wanted man in his homeland. He was the leader of a group of about six hundred anti-Communist partisan fighters who were members of an American-backed unit known as Donkey-4 and who called themselves the "White Tigers." In March 1952 there were ten U.S.-sanctioned Donkey units with about 3,500 partisans operating from islands strung along the west coast of Korea from the Yalu River south to the Ongjin Peninsula. Headquarters was a top secret installation called Leopard Base on Paengnyong-do (Paengnyong Island), 125 miles behind enemy lines.
Thick layers of secrecy shrouded the existence of these units and of American efforts to conduct partisan operations and unconventional warfare in Korea. Only a handful of American soldiers were assigned to the operations, and few of the tens of thousands of troops serving in Korea knew of their existence. Although I was a twenty-three-year-old first lieutenant with no experience in unconventional warfare I had somehow been chosen to serve as an adviser to Mr. Pak's Donkey-4 unit.
My relationship with Mr. Pak was still in the formative stages that March morning. We had known each other just a few weeks and were trying to figure each other out.
Mr. Pak had taken over Donkey-4 following the assassination of the previous leader in January 1952, about a month before my arrival at Leopard Base. Mr. Pak's loyalties and motives were still in question. The previous head of the unit had been a good combat commander and was well liked by the Americans. No one was sure what role Mr. Pak had played in the assassination and whether he was truly anti-Communist or had been planted among the partisans by the NKPA and their Chinese masters. It was my job to find out.
Although Mr. Pak spoke relatively good English he preferred to speak to me in Korean through an interpreter when he had something important to say. The interpreter listened as Mr. Pak talked, nodding his head as he prepared to translate into English.
I understood little Korean but I heard "Lieutenant Malcom" and "Changsan-got" and saw my interpreter's eyes widen. The interpreter looked at Mr. Pak, seeking clarification for what he had just heard.
Mr. Pak smiled and nodded to the interpreter, indicating that he had heard correctly and should translate.
"Mr. Pak say: 'Now I want to show Lieutenant Malcom my safe area at Changsan-got,'" the interpreter repeated hesitantly.
Safe area? On the North Korean mainland?
I looked at the interpreter to make sure what I was hearing. He glanced at Mr. Pak and lowered his eyes. Mr. Pak was still smiling, rocking slightly from side to side as the boat plowed through the waves. I had heard correctly. Mr. Pak wanted to take me to North Korea.
I was too surprised to say anything. There were rumors at Leopard Base of a partisan safe area on the mainland in the vicinity of Changsan-got. But no Americans had dared venture out there. There supposedly were orders from U.S. Eighth Army headquarters in Seoul that Americans working with the partisans should not go onto the mainland for any reason, although I had never seen any such orders. But intercepts of NKPA radio traffic indicated there was a substantial price on the head of any American caught working with the partisans. I knew if I was caught behind the lines with the partisans my life expectancy would be rather short.
My concern must have showed in my face. Mr. Pak began trying to reassure me about his excursion. He told me he wanted me to see the area he controlled so I would better understand him, his men, and their operations. He felt it was important for the Americans in Korea to know the land and the people with whom they were fighting. It made sense, but I could feel the icy fingers of uncertainty clutching at my throat. Was this a trap? Was I to be taken ashore and handed over to the NKPA or the Chinese?
I was in a real dilemma. If this was a trap, my career as a partisan adviser would be short and rather ignominious. But if I refused to go, both Mr. Pak and I would lose face: he because I refused to trust him and me because I had shown fear in the face of the enemy. Whatever else I would do with him and his partisans over the next year would be colored by the decision I was about to make.
Mr. Pak had timed his surprise just right. He knew if he had mentioned Changsan-got while we were back on Leopard Base I would have sought permission from my superiors. Most likely any formal request to visit the mainland would have been turned down. His pretext for getting me off Leopard Base and out of radio communications was a tour of his home base on Wollae-do. I had agreed to it but now was trapped on a boat headed for the mainland of North Korea.
I was seriously undergunned for an assault on the mainland. I carried only my Ml carbine with two fifteen-round clips of ammunition and my .45-caliber pistol. Our attack force consisted of me; Mr. Pak; his chief of staff, Song Won Jae; and three bodyguards.
I wanted to ask Mr. Pak: "Could we do this some other time?" But that would have demonstrated a lack of confidence in his leadership and I did not want to do that so early in our relationship.
Mr. Pak smiled patiently as I argued with myself. I knew he had bested me and he probably knew it too. There was nothing I could do about it. I was at his mercy. I was on a boat 130 miles behind enemy lines that was chugging and sputtering slowly but steadily toward Changsan-got. No one at Leopard Base knew where I was.
I decided that if I was to assist Mr. Pak and his Donkey-4 partisans I would have to set examples. I could not show fear whatever the circumstances. To do that would be to blunt whatever effectiveness I might have as an adviser. I had to be as fearless as they, or at least pretend to be.
"Fine," I said finally. "Let's go."
I tried not to let any of my reservations creep into my voice as my heart shifted into a higher gear and I checked my carbine to make sure it was locked and loaded. I was nervous, but Mr. Pak seemed as relaxed as a tourist guide as he casually pointed out the scenic wonders of the North Korean mainland. He showed me several well-camouflaged NKPA gun positions along the coast and told me about the number of enemy troops in the area and their disposition. He also talked about how important it was for his partisans to control a portion of the mainland.
If the NKPA controlled the entire peninsula they would be able to install heavy artillery on the western tip that could harass the fleets of fishing junks the partisans used for their raids. That would force them far out to sea and create havoc with the timing of operations that already were at the mercy of the unpredictable boats. With the partisans in control of a few square miles of Changsan-got the boats could round the cape close to shore and not worry about the NKPA guns.
The partisans also harvested timber from Changsan-got. Wollae-do, the tiny island that served as Mr. Pak's Donkey-4 headquarters, was a rocky, barren piece of moonscape two miles from the mainland where the northwesterly sea breezes scoured the earth clean of any soil fertile enough for trees and rice. The wood from Changsan-got provided heavy timbers for bunkers on Wollae-do, lumber for boats, and firewood to ward off the numbing cold of the Korean winters.
"If we did not have this wood we would not be able to survive on the island," Mr. Pak said.
As we drew closer to the North Korean coast the boat turned north and headed for a small patch of white sand spread between two steep cliffs. I could see several men on the beach with weapons. I could not tell if they were Mr. Pak's men or an NKPA patrol, and tightened the grip on my carbine. Mr. Pak sensed my concern and in broken English said: "Okay. Okay. You are the first American to visit my safe area."
I relaxed a little, but not much.
Ten feet from shore the boat hit the sand and the engine wheezed to a stop. We slipped over the side to wade to shore in water that was still bone-chillingly cold from the Korean winter. I followed Mr. Pak, keeping my weapon and ammunition above my head and scanning the shoreline for any signs of NKPA patrols as we slogged through the two-foot waves. I still was not sure what I had gotten myself into and wanted to be ready in case this was a trap.
Ten of Mr. Pak's partisans emerged from the trees to greet us on the beach. I heard Mr. Pak say "Lieutenant Malcom" and "American" several times as he introduced me. There were handshakes and deep bows all around. The partisans seemed impressed and appreciative that an American had come to the mainland to visit their sanctuary.
Mr. Pak smiled broadly as he watched the partisans shake my hand. It was as important for his men to understand that he had brought this American onto the mainland as it was important for me to see their area.
The beach was only about fifty feet wide, blocked east and west by cliffs so steep they would have required climbing equipment to scale. To the north the mountains rose sharply, the huge pine trees on their slopes so tall they blocked the sunlight on the beach.
Mr. Pak told his men to load the boat with some timbers that had been cut and stacked to one side of the beach. Then he motioned for me to follow him.
Mr. Pak took off on a small, well-used trail that went north into the trees and then east. No sooner had we left the beach than we were immersed in a beautiful forest of richly scented evergreens more than one hundred feet tall. Lush green ferns grew in thick profusion along the slopes of the mountains.
The trail rose steeply from the beach and it was only a few minutes before I realized that my army-issue boots were going to be more of a problem than they were worth. The Koreans all wore tennis shoes that were light, comfortable, and dried quickly. My socks and boots were still wet from the dousing in the Yellow Sea. It would be hours before they dried, causing my feet much misery.
I made a mental note to wear tennis shoes the next time I did this — if I survived this trip.
We walked about a mile inland through the evergreens, Mr. Pak at the head of the column. He walked quickly and seemed unconcerned about the possibility of an NKPA ambush. I scanned the foliage on both sides of the trail, expecting trouble behind every tree. The partisans seemed relaxed and that only made me more vigilant. Mr. Pak paused at the top of a small hill and motioned me forward.
"Over the next hill is our outpost. Beyond that, across the valley, is a North Korean position," he said.
He dropped to his stomach and indicated I should do the same. Then we crawled up the hill to the outpost overlooking the valley.
The outpost was in a well-constructed bunker that started on the reverse slope of the hill and continued around the sides to the front, where a small peephole and two firing slots enabled the guards to watch the valley to the east. There were only two men in the outpost. One manned a .50-caliber machine gun, the other a .30-caliber machine gun. They also had a box of grenades and their personal weapons. But these were the only two men guarding the access to Changsan-got.
The two partisans greeted me with the usual smiles and handshakes and bows. They were also delighted that an American had come to visit them. I wondered if I could have been as courteous if I had spent the last few hours sitting on the edge of no-man's-land staring down the NKPA. Mr. Pak led me to the front of the bunker and explained the situation.
Shortly after the Donkey-4 partisans had claimed this end of the peninsula nine months earlier the NKPA counterattacked, reclaiming the area in heavy fighting but taking numerous casualties. Before the NKPA could reinforce with additional troops and heavy weapons the partisans took it back.
While the NKPA regrouped, the partisans set up an elaborate minefield in the valley below and brought their machine guns to this position. The partisans could not be outflanked from here because of the vertical cliffs on either side. The NKPA had to funnel through the valley to take the hill. They made one more attempt to drive the partisans out but were caught in the minefield and chewed up by the machine guns. Since then the NKPA had accepted a stalemate, leaving Changsan-got to the partisans except for a lone observation post to watch for infiltration.
Although manpower was not a problem for the Communists, the 23rd Brigade was not getting replacements for its losses at that time, so it had to be careful about how adventurous it was in its operations. Like their American counterparts, the NKPA focused their attention on the static front lines. Someone had decided it was not worth it to try to recapture Changsan-got.
"They are not prepared to pay the price to come back into this area. They don't need it that bad," Mr. Pak said.
But if they did, Mr. Pak said his partisans would take a toll of the attacking force before escaping by sea. He was in radio contact with the troops on Changsan-got and could quickly dispatch reinforcements or rescue boats.
In addition to providing timber and protection from NKPA coastal guns, these several square miles of liberated territory also had the potential to be used as a jumping-off point for additional operations in the enemy's rear areas if ever there was a push north again by the United Nations forces.
But as much military importance as this part of Changsan-got had, it had even more importance psychologically. It gave the partisans a morale boost just to know they controlled a piece of the homeland from which they refused to be driven.
We stayed in the bunker observing the terrain and the NKPA position across the valley for about fifteen minutes before wishing the two guards well. We crawled back down the hill to the trail and set out at a good pace for the beach.
I was impressed. Mr. Pak had confirmed the rumors about the safe area on Changsan-got. I could see where he had been harvesting timber for some time, an operation that appeared to go on daily without interference from the NKPA.
We returned to the beach and Mr. Pak took over supervision of loading the last few large timbers onto the boat for the trip back to Wollae-do. We would go there and off-load the timbers before the boat took me back to Leopard Base.
The return trip to Wollae-do was uneventful. We ran with the wind and tide, and the old boat moved along smoothly despite its load.
We pulled into the north harbor at Wollae-do to unload the logs. Just as the captain shut off the engine I saw a geyser of mud and water shoot up from the mudflats several hundred yards in front of us. Then a boom from the exploding artillery shell rocked the boat. The NKPA had seen us coming and opened fire with a 76mm gun hidden in a cave across the channel.
The captain quickly retrieved the anchor and tried to crank the engine. It would not start. Those old diesel engines refused to restart once they had been shut off after running for a while. It was a problem I would come to know well over the next year.
Mr. Pak's men clustered around the engine like shade tree mechanics, yelling at one another in Korean and trying to restart an engine that absolutely refused to start.
There was another boom, another geyser of mud and water. That round was fifty feet closer. Still the engine would not start. The third round was well short of the boat, landing in the water. The fourth round was long, landing on the beach.
Mr. Pak smiled, as he usually did in tense situations.
"Aim no good," he said cheerfully.
But I knew even the NKPA could get lucky if they fired enough rounds.
The rounds came in at a rate of about one a minute as the North Korean gunners adjusted their sights after every miss, trying to bracket us. The boat was drifting in the wind and bouncing on the choppy waters of the harbor, making it more difficult to zero in on us. The rounds were either long or short, left or right. Over the next fifteen minutes the NKPA fired maybe a dozen rounds, not one of which was close enough to even get us wet.
As I watched the Koreans labor with the engine, waiting for the next round to explode, I decided something had to be done about that gun. Finally, after much pleading and shouting and waving of arms by Mr. Pak's men, the engine started and the boat slipped slowly out of gun range to the south side of the island to unload the timbers.
Excerpted from White Tigers by Ben S. Malcom, Ron Martz. Copyright © 1996 Brassey's (US). Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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