Korea - 50 years ago this week, March 27-April 2, 1953
Army Link News
Two earn Medal of Honor at outpost Vegas
by Jim Caldwell
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, March 26, 2003) - Marine Sgt. Daniel P. Matthews and Navy Corpsman William R. Charette earned the Medal of Honor during the fight to retake outpost Vegas in Korea, 50 years ago this week.
March 27-29, 1953 -- Around midday March 27, the 5th Marine Regiment attacks to retake outposts Vegas and Reno. The outposts were lost to a regiment-size enemy attack March 26. Artillery, mortar, tanks and aircraft support the Marine effort.
The Chinese also use artillery and mortars against the Marines. They also come under rifle and automatic weapons fire, along with grenades, when they start up the hills.
A battalion from the 7th Marine Regiment was loaned to the 5th MR for the assault on Vegas. Two members of the battalion's F Company will earn the Medal of Honor during the action.
Sgt. Daniel P. Matthews, San Fernando, Calif., sees a Chinese machine-gun crew firing at a medic to keep him from getting to a wounded Marine lying in the open.
Matthews sneaks up to a rock that is part of the enemy position without being seen. He jumps up on the rock, shooting at the Reds. Automatic weapons fire from another enemy position hits him almost immediately, but he manages to hold on and kill the three Chinese on the machine gun. Then he crumples and dies on the rock.
Below him, the medic runs out and drags the wounded Marine to cover.
It is dark by the time F Company makes it to the first trenches on Vegas. Corpsman William R. Charette, Ludington, Mich., has been busy tending to wounded Marines all afternoon. Charette is a friend of Francis C. Hammond from Navy medical training. He does not yet know that Hammond gave his life helping wounded Americans during the Chinese attack on March 26.
The lead company is in the next trench line farther up the hill. They're being hit with mortars, small arms and grenades. When Charette hears wounded men screaming for a corpsman, he knows the company's medics need help.
He runs up the hill with bullets whizzing by and explosions all around him.
He is directed to a badly wounded Marine lying in the trench. While he's working, the Chinese begin rolling grenades downhill to the trenches. One lands by Charette and the casualty.
He does not want to jump on the grenade. He tries to push it away with his medical bag and covers his patient with his body.
The grenade explodes, sending shrapnel into his face. His helmet is blown off and he is deafened and temporarily blinded. But his patient is not hit.
More wounded are brought to him and he works throughout the night trying to save them. His supplies run low and he even uses his own clothes to make bandages.
Near dawn March 28, the Marines are told to withdraw from Vegas. They have to use a smoke screen because the Chinese fire has not let up.
Charette gets help moving his patients down the hill - all but one. The man is partially covered by a collapsed trench wall. One of his legs has been nearly severed. The only way Charette can get him out is to kneel down and pick him up in his arms. Then he walks down the hill carrying the man, hearing bullets zipping by all the way.
Charette is nominated for the Navy Cross. When officials read about his actions, they upgrade the nomination to the Medal of Honor.
Charette is working in a field hospital in Korea in late 1953 when told he has earned the highest military honor. He is flown to Washington, where President Dwight D. Eisenhower presents the Medal to him Jan. 12, 1954.
Marine leadership decides to focus on just one hill for the moment and the hill is Vegas. Two battalions attack. They have to go through the same deadly fire from the Chinese, but by noon on March 28 they have retaken Vegas. Then they have to hold off counterattacks for the next two nights, receiving help from artillery and mortars, which hit the enemy when they are organizing for an attack, during the attack and when they retreat.
Taking Vegas March 28 cost the Marines 118 killed, 801 wounded and 98 missing. They are hard losses even compared to an estimated 1,300 Chinese casualties.
Marines, other Americans and allies on the line continue their engagements with the enemy, unaware of events that give hope that the end of the war may be in sight.
March 28-April 2 -- A message from North Korean Premier Kim Il Sung and Chinese commander Gen. Peng Teh-Huai is delivered to U.N. liaison officers at Panmunjom March 28. It contains the Red leaders' agreement to exchange sick and wounded prisoners of war. U.S. Army Gen. Mark Clark, U.N. Supreme Commander, had suggested the exchange to the two communist leaders Feb. 22, but the message makes no mention of that.
The communiqué appears to go further than just the prisoner exchange. It says an arrangement "should be made to lead to the smooth settlement of the entire question of prisoners of war, thereby achieving an armistice in Korea for which people throughout the world are longing."
Clark seeks permission from the U.S. military and political leadership to reply to the letter. He is instructed to frame the reply so the Reds understand that they must be willing to accept the U.N. stance on POWs and show they will bargain in good faith.
Before Clark can send his reply, Chinese Foreign Minister Chou En Lai releases a statement endorsing exchanging ailing prisoners March 30. But Chou also seems to accept the U.N. position on POWs since "this question now constitutes the only obstacle (to) an armistice in Korea." The Reds are "prepared to take steps to eliminate the differences on this issue."
He says both sides "should undertake to repatriate immediately after the cessation of hostilities all those prisoners of war ... who insist upon repatriation and to hand over the remaining prisoners of war to a neutral state so as to ensure a just solution to the question of their repatriation."
Then to make sure everyone knows he isn't caving in, he adds that the only reason some communist prisoners refused repatriation is because they were afraid of "the intimidation and with oppression of the opposite side." Those prisoners just have to be told they will be welcomed back home to change their minds, he says.
American leaders and U.N. delegates note that Chou's solution was contained in an Indian peace proposal, which the Soviet bloc vetoed in the U.N.
Kim endorses Chou's remarks on March 31, the same day Clark sends his carefully worded acceptance to the communist leaders. The general's message is clear, the communists must show they really accept the U.N. position and will bargain in good faith on how the truce will be implemented.
The Soviet Union endorses the Chinese-North Korean offer April 1 and urges the United States to accept it, calling it part of the "peace offensive" begun after Josef Stalin's death.
At Panmunjom April 2, the communists propose a full meeting April 6 to decide how the sick and wounded prisoners will be exchanged.
(Jim Caldwell writes for the TRADOC News Service. Sources are Facts on File, 1953; Truce Tent and Fighting Front by Walter G. Hermes, Office of the Chief of Military History; and Korean War Heroes by Edward F. Murphy, Presidio Press, 1992)
Remember the men and women who stand in the gap between the free world and those who wish to destroy it. Bless those who serve, those who have served, and most especially those who never return.
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