by W.E.B. Griffin


[ ONE ]
Near Chong-Ju, South Korea
0815 28 September 1950

Major Malcolm S. Pickering, USMCR, whose appearance and physical condition reflected that he had not had a change of clothing—much less the opportunity to bathe with soap or shave—since he had been shot down fifty-eight days before, sat between two enormous boulders near the crest of a hill.

He thought—but was by no means sure—that he was about twenty miles north of Taejon and about thirty miles south of Suwon. Where he hoped he was, was in a remote area of South Korea where there were few North Korean soldiers, lessening the chance that he would be spotted until he could attract the attention of an American airplane, and have someone come and pick him up.

Those hopes were of course, after fifty-eight days, fading. Immediately after he had been shot down, there had been a flurry of search activity, but when they hadn’t found him the activity had slowed down, and—logic forced him to acknowledge—finally ceased.

He wasn’t at all sure that anyone had seen any of the signs he left after the first one, the day after he’d been shot down. What he had done was stamp into the mud of a drained rice paddy with his boots the letters PP and an arrow. No one called him “Malcolm.” He was called “Pick” and he knew that all the members of his squadron—and other Marine pilots—would make the connection.

The arrow’s direction was basically meaningless. If the arrow pointed northward, sometimes he went that way. More often than not, he went east, west, or south. He knew that he couldn’t move far enough so that he wouldn’t be able to see an airplane searching low and slow for him in the area of the sign left in the mud.

He had left other markers every other—or every third—day since he’d been on the run. The fact that there had been Corsairs flying low over some of the markers—logic forced him to acknowledge—was not proof that they had seen the markers. The Corsairs, when they were not in direct support of the Marines on the ground, went on combined reconnaissance and interdiction flights, which meant that they were flying close to the deck, not that they had seen his markers.

It was too risky to stay in one place, so he had kept moving. He’d gotten his food—and an A-Frame to carry in it—from South Korean peasant farmers, who were anxious to help him, but made it clear they didn’t want anyone—either the North Korean military or a local communist—to know that they had done so. In either case, they would have been shot.

He was, of course, discouraged. Logic forced him to acknowledge that sooner or later, he was going to be spotted by North Koreans, or by someone who would report him to the North Koreans. And if they found him, he would be forced to make a decision that was not at all pleasant to think about.

It wasn’t simply a question of becoming a prisoner, although that was an unpleasant prospect in itself. Three times, since he had been on the run, he had come across bodies—once, more than thirty—of U.S. Army soldiers who—having been captured and after having their hands tied behind them with commo wire—had been summarily executed and left to rot where they had fallen.

If the North Koreans spotted him, and he could not get away, he was going to die. Not with his hands tied behind his back, but very probably by his own hand, unless he was lucky enough to go down with .45 blazing, a la John Wayne. Logic forced him to acknowledge that was wishful thinking, that he couldn’t take the risk of going out in a blaze of glory, that he would have to do it himself.

Major Pickering’s father was Brigadier General Fleming Pickering, USMCR, who was the Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency for Asia. For obvious reasons, young Pickering could not allow himself to fall into North Korean hands.

It was sort of a moot question anyway. With only five rounds left for the .45, he couldn’t put up much of a fight with two North Koreans, much less a platoon of the bastards, or a company.

The hilltop was bathed in bright morning sunlight, the rays of which had finally warmed Major Pickering—it had been as cold as a witch’s teat during the night—but had not yet warmed the ground fog in the valley below enough to burn it off.

That meant both that Major Pickering could not see what he was looking for, even through the 8x35 U.S. Navy binoculars he had somewhat whimsically—if, as it turned out, very fortuitously—“borrowed” from the USS Badoeng Strait just before taking off.

The rice paddy in the valley where he had stamped out the last marker in the mud was covered with ground fog.

He set the binoculars down, and went into the bag tied to the A-Frame. There was what was left of a roasted chicken carcass and the roasted rib cage of a small pig. Surprising Major Pickering not at all both were rotten to the point where trying to eat any of it would be gross folly.

After thinking it over carefully, he decided he would bury the rotten meat before breakfast. He dug a small trench with a Kabar knife and did so, and then went back into the A-Frame bag and took from it three balls of cold rice. The smell they gave off was not appealing, but it was not nausea-inducing, and he popped them one at a time into his mouth and forced them down.

That was the end of rations, which meant that he would have to get some food today. That meant tonight. What he would do was come off the hill, very carefully, and look for some Korean farmer’s thatch-roofed stone hut. When he found one, he would keep it under surveillance all day, and go to it after dark, entering it with .45 drawn and hoping there would be food offered, and that the farmer would not send someone to report the presence of an American the moment he left.

So far, food had been offered, and North Korean troops had not come looking for him at first light. So far, he had been lucky. Logic forced him to acknowledge that sooner or later, everybody’s luck changed, most often for the worst.

When he drank from his canteen—he had two—he drained it, which meant that when he found a Korean farmer’s house, and more or less threw himself on their mercy, he would have to stick around long enough to boil water to take with him.

He picked up the binoculars and trained them again on the rice paddy below. The fog had burned off somewhat in the area; he could see the dirt path—it didn’t deserve to be called a road—leading to it, but not the rice paddy itself.

“Oh, shit,” he said, aloud.

Two vehicles were just visible on the path.

They had to be North Koreans. It was entirely possible that these were the first two motorized vehicles ever to move down the path used by ox-drawn carts.

“I’m losing my fucking mind,” he said, softly, but aloud.

The two vehicles were a jeep and a three-quarter-ton weapons carrier. A large American flag was affixed to the tall antenna rising from the rear of the jeep.

He took the binoculars from his eyes, and then squinted his eyes and rolled them around, and then raised them again, hooking the eyepieces under the bone at his eye sockets.

The jeep and the flag it had been flying. . .

Jesus Christ, did I really see an American flag?

. . . were no longer in sight in the ground fog, but the rear of the weapons carrier was visible.

There were men holding rifles standing at the back of it, in what looked like U.S. Army uniforms—but he couldn’t be sure—

Jesus, they’re Gooks! What that is, is a captured weapons carrier, with Gooks driving it.

And they’re right at the paddy where I stomped the signal in the mud!

Jesus Christ, they’re looking for me!

How the hell did they know I was here?

Well, if I have trouble seeing them with binoculars, they can’t see me, and that’s a hell of a distance away.

Which way did I point the arrow?

South, I pointed it south! I’m north. Maybe they won’t even look this way.

And maybe they will.

He took the binoculars from his eyes again, and did the eye exercises, and then put the eyepieces back to his eyes.

Another man was now standing at the back of the weapons carrier, a rifle slung from his shoulder. He was at least a foot taller than the others.

Jesus, that’s a big Gook!

Gook, shit, that’s a white man!

Look again. Don’t do anything stupid!

He exercised his eyes without removing the binoculars from his face.

When he focused them again there was one more man at the back of the weapons carrier, not quite as tall as the first one, but conspicuously larger than the Orientals.

And white. That’s a white man.

Those are U.S. Army soldiers.

Or maybe Russians? The Russians would love to grab a downed aviator. And if they are Russians, that would explain the jeep and the weapons carrier.

Shit, those are Americans! I can tell, somehow, by the way they stand.

So what do I do now?

Signal them, obviously. There’s no way I can get down this fucking hill in less than thirty minutes. It took me nearly an hour to climb up here.

I could fire the .45.

If they could hear it, which I don’t think very likely, they won’t be able to tell from which direction the sound came.

If I fire three shots—supposed to be the distress signal—that’ll leave me two rounds. And if they can’t hear the three shots, they won’t be able to recognize the distress signal, and I’m down to two shots.

The signaling mirror!

Where the hell is that?

Jesus, I didn’t toss it, lose it, did I?

A frantic search of the bag on the A-Frame turned up the signaling mirror. It was an oblong of polished metal, maybe three by four inches. There was an X-shaped cut in the center of it, presumably to be used as some sort of aiming device—he had never figured out how that worked—to reflect the rays of the sun, and the dots and dashes of the international Morse code were embossed on one side. He had never figured out how you were supposed to be able to send Morse code with the mirror, either.

But the basic idea of the mirror, reflecting the rays of the sun to attract someone’s attention, seemed simple enough, and he tried to do that. He was quickly able to focus the reflected light on boulders farther down the hill, and encouraged by that, tried to direct the light all the way down the hill into the valley, to the rear of the weapons carrier.

He couldn’t see the light flashing anywhere in the valley.

He put the binoculars to his eyes again with his left hand, and tried to aim the mirror with his right.

He couldn’t see a flash of light that way either.

But he saw the two tall guys, the two Americans, vanish from sight, and then the Gooks with them ...

Who the hell are they?

... crawled into the bed of the weapons carrier. And then the weapons carrier backed off the ox path into the edge of the rice paddy. The jeep reappeared ...

That is an American flag, goddamn it!

... and headed the other way down the ox path. The weapons carrier followed it. In a moment, they were out of sight.

Jesus H. Fucking Christ!

Major Pickering, close to tears, in a frustrated rage, threw the signaling mirror down the hill.

He laid on his back between the rocks for a full minute, and then heaved himself erect.

Then he went down the hill and started looking for the mirror.




[ TWO ]

The jeep—its bumper markings identified it as belonging to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 7th Infantry Division—had a pedestal-mounted .30 caliber Browning air-cooled machine gun and the back seat had been replaced with a rack of radios.

There were three men in it, two Americans and a South Korean. One of the Americans was Major Kenneth R. McCoy, USMCR, a lithely muscular, even featured, fair skinned thirty-year-old. He was driving. The other American was Master Gunner Ernest W. Zimmermann, USMC—a stocky, round faced, tightly muscled, short, barrel-chested thirty-five-year-old. Zimmerman rode with his right foot resting on the fender extension, the butt of a Thompson .45 ACP caliber submachine gun resting on his muscular upper leg.

The Korean was a South Korean National Police Sergeant named Kim. He had no place to sit, and had jury-rigged, from web pistol belts, a sort of a harness, and rode standing—or half sitting—in a position to train and fire the machine gun. The rig looked both uncomfortable and precarious but Sergeant Kim had neither complained nor lost his footing.

Following the jeep was the Dodge three-quarter-ton truck, called a “weapons carrier,” that also bore bumper markings identifying it as belonging to the 7th Infantry Division, specifically to the 7th Military Police Company.

It was being driven by another National Police Sergeant, also named Kim. Technical Sergeant Richard C. Jennings, USMC—a long and lanky twenty-six-year-old—rode beside him, with an M-1 Garand rifle in his lap. Three sergeants—one Marine and two National Police—rode on the wood slat seats in the truck bed. Sergeant Alvin C. Cole, USMC, was armed with a Browning automatic rifle (BAR), and there was a .30 caliber air-cooled Browning on a bipod mount on the floor of the truck. The Koreans were armed with M-2 (fully automatic) carbines. Everybody was wearing U.S. Army fatigues without insignia of any kind.

Major McCoy didn’t say a word for the next ten minutes, until the ox path came onto a dirt road. He stopped the jeep, and took a map from under the cushion.

“Well, at least we know the bastard’s still alive,” he said. “Your guess is he stamped that out twenty-four hours ago?”

“No more than that. Just before they took the picture,” Zimmerman said.

“Well, if he hung around, he would have seen us,” McCoy said. “I have no idea where to look for him.”

“What do you want to do, Killer?” Zimmerman asked.

Marine master gunners do not ordinarily address Marine majors by anything but their rank—or of course as “sir”—but Major McCoy did not seem to either notice or take offense.

“Well, we can’t hang around here, can we, Ernie?” McCoy said. And then he added, bitterly, “If at first you don’t succeed, fuck it.”

He put the jeep in gear and turned onto the dirt road, heading north.




Thirty-Eight Miles South of Suwon, South Korea
1205 28 September 1950

The map showed the unnamed road—which ran north from Pyongtaek toward Suwon along the rail line, paralleling Korean National Route 1—as paved, and surprising both Major McCoy and Gunner Zimmerman it had been. They had been on it for just over an hour.

There was always the potential threat of mines but neither the macadam nor the cobblestones with which the road was paved showed signs of having been disturbed. The shoulders, too, had appeared undisturbed, although of course it would have been far easier to conceal the traces of mine-burying in dirt and clay than in macadam or cobblestones.

The thing to do, obviously, was stay off the shoulders, and they had done so. And neither had they driven very fast. They wanted to have plenty of time to stop in case they saw dislodged cobblestones or suspicious looking disruptions in the macadam.

Major McCoy raised his left arm above his head to catch the attention of Sergeant Kim in the weapons carrier following, and then braked.

He pointed to a copse of gnarled pine trees a hundred yards or so down the road.

“I don’t think anyone’ll see us in there,” he said, adding, “I’m hungry.”

He slowed to a crawl as he approached the trees. Zimmerman first leaned out the side of the jeep, studying the shoulder, and then held his hand up in a signal to stop. Then he got out of the jeep and intently studied the shoulder before motioning to McCoy to come ahead.

Then he walked carefully across the shoulder and then down a slope into a wide ditch. McCoy carefully eased the jeep after him, and then Sergeant Kim followed with the weapons carrier.

McCoy took a Thompson from a rack below the windshield, then got out of the jeep, and walked carefully southward along the ditch, looking for signs of disturbance in the mud—and for trip wires, booby traps, anything.

Finally, when he was about one hundred yards from the vehicles, he stopped and turned his attention to the grassy slope up to the road. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, he scurried up the slope. From the road, he looked back to the copse of trees. He could not see anything but the top of the jeep’s antenna and maybe eight inches of the flag.

He went back into the ditch and returned to the vehicles. When he got there, Sergeant Cole and two of the Koreans were waiting for him.

“See that they’re fed,” McCoy ordered, “and then post one up there. You can see where I climbed the slope.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” Cole said.

“And then post another one a hundred yards north. Watch out for mines and wires.”

“Mr. Zimmerman’s already been down there, sir.”

“Then you really better be careful,” McCoy said, with a smile.

“Aye, aye, sir,” Cole said smiling back.

McCoy walked to the jeep. The hood was up, and Zimmerman was warming cans on the radiator. McCoy grabbed the antenna, bent it nearly horizontal, and tied it down.

Without really thinking about it, he made sure that no part of the flag was touching the ground.

“I couldn’t see anything from the north,” Zimmerman said.

“I could see maybe eight inches of the flag,” McCoy replied. “What are we eating?”

“Salisbury Steak and Beans and Franks,” Zimmerman said. “Your choice.”

McCoy laid the Thompson on the driver’s seat, and then reached for a ration can.

“I wonder who they think they’re fooling when they call hamburger ‘Salisbury Steak’?” he asked, not expecting an answer.

He leaned against the side of the jeep, took a fork from the baggy side pocket of the Army fatigues and began to saw at the Salisbury Steak in the ration can.

He had just about finished raising the final forkful to his mouth when there was a short, shrill whistle, and then a second. He laid the ration can between the rear of the jeep and the back of the radio, as he looked toward the sound of the whistle.

Sergeant Cole, who had posted himself with the Korean to the south, made several hand signals, not all of them official, indicating that something of interest was happening, and he thought Major McCoy should pay whatever it was his immediate attention.

“Heads up,” McCoy ordered, as he passed the jeep—picking up the Thompson and a pair of U.S. Navy binoculars as he did—and headed for Cole.

Zimmerman, similarly, made several hand signals to Technical Sergeant Jennings—these indicating that appropriate defense measures immediately be taken. Jennings indicated his understanding of his orders with a thumbs-up gesture. Zimmerman then trotted after McCoy, toward Sergeant Cole.

There was little doubt in either McCoy’s or Zimmerman’s mind that what had caught Sergeant Cole’s attention was elements of the army of the People’s Democratic Republic of North Korea.

The questions were: How large an element and what were they up to? Had McCoy’s two-vehicle convoy been spotted, and were the North Koreans in pursuit of them? Or was it a unit trying to get away from the Eighth Army, which had broken out of the Pusan Perimeter and was in hot pursuit of the North Koreans up the peninsula?

Shattered, demoralized, whatever, if it was a company strength unit—or a single tank, for that matter—McCoy & Company were going to be seriously outnumbered, or outgunned, or both.

“What have you got, Cole?” McCoy asked, handing him the Thompson.

“Looks like a couple of jeeps, sir,” Cole said. “Russian jeeps.”

McCoy crawled up the slope to the shoulder of the road and looked down it through the binoculars. He then handed them to Zimmerman, who had crawled beside him, and then slid down the slope. A moment later, Zimmerman slid down and returned the binoculars to McCoy.

“Two jeeps, and I make it five Slopes,” Zimmerman said. “Moving slow; probably looking for mines.”

“The passenger in the second jeep has leather boots—shiny leather boots,” McCoy said. “I’d really like to talk to him.”

“What do we do, Killer?” Zimmerman asked.

“I don’t think we could get across the road without being seen,” McCoy said. “So, Cole, run down there and tell Jennings what’s going on, and to make sure if they get past Mr. Zimmerman and me, they don’t get past him.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” Cole said. “You want me to come back here, sir?”

“No. Your BAR will be more useful there, if they get past us.”

Cole nodded and took off at a run.

“How do you want to do this?” Zimmerman asked.

“You shoot out the tires of the first vehicle, and watch what happens there. I’ll deal with the second jeep.” He paused. “I really want to talk to that officer, Ernie.”

“Okay,” Zimmerman said. “You going to call it?”

“I’m going to go another twenty-five yards that way, in case they turn around. When I hear your shots . . .”

Zimmerman nodded.

McCoy moved quickly, but carefully, farther down the ditch, and then stopped, examined the slope again, and then climbed up it.

Four minutes or so later, McCoy could hear the exhaust of the engines of the Russian jeeps, and the whining crunch of their tires on the road. It grew slowly louder.

When the first vehicle passed McCoy, he began to count. When he reached ten, there were two bursts of fire—one of three shots, followed by a second of two. Then there was the squeal of worn-out brakes, and then a loud thump.

McCoy scrambled onto the road, going over the top of slope on his knees and left hand—he had the Thompson in the right—feeling for a moment a chill of helplessness until he gained his feet and could put his hand on the forestock of the Thompson.

He was very much aware that two hands were necessary to fire a Thompson.

It took him a moment to see and understand what had happened.

The Russian jeep with the North Korean officer in it was stopped, stalled sidewards across the road, the driver grinding the starter. The front end of the other jeep was off the road, halfway into the ditch on the near side of the road. The frame had caught on the edge of the road, keeping it from going all the way down into the ditch.

McCoy had just time to wonder—in alarm—if by intention or accident the jeep had run over Zimmerman when he heard Zimmerman order, in Korean, “On your belly, you son of a whore.”

McCoy ran toward the stalled jeep.

The officer was trying to work the action of a strange looking submachine gun.

“I don’t want to kill you, Colonel,” McCoy called, in Korean. “Just drop that and hold your hands over your head.”



From RETREAT, HELL! — Book X in the best-selling THE CORPS series.
Published December 2004.