February 2005

Joseph Peters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1947-1953

Joseph Peters entered the Marine Corps right out of high school, and in 1950 was sent into Korea. His unit got nearly to the Yalu River on the border of China, in bitter December cold. Here he tells about the night the Chinese communist troops hurtled over the border and attacked his division at the Chosen Reservoir, North Korea. The following is from the Oral History collection compiled by members of the Historical Commission and other local historians. It is available at the Concord Free Public Library.

The first big fire-fight we got into was in Udong, which is down the road from Hagaru-Ri where we eventually ended up. And the first indication that the game had changed…they attacked us at night with bugles and drums, making a big racket: trying to intimidate us, I guess. But it just made a better target. They were Chinese; the Koreans were out of it, except as guerrillas. That’s where my friend, who I’m trying to find out where his body is, that’s where he was killed. Then we kept going and on Thanksgiving Day, that’s when it really began hitting the fan. We got up there and there was about 120,000 Chinese against us. The 1st Marine Division was made up of about 15,000 men, but for every man who’s a rifleman, there’s about 14 support troops. You got to figure that for a division of 15,000 you might have at tops 4,000 riflemen. They said there’s indication that there was about 120,000 Chinese.

Then the weather turned bad, and at night it dropped to 10-20 degrees below zero. And it was a real problem just trying to stay alive. We had air power, which probably saved the day. We had our own planes operating off in the Sea of Japan, and we had built an airstrip up there in Hagaru-Ri, and that’s how we eventually got most of our seriously wounded out. You didn’t have time to be scared, you’d just pick out a target and shoot. They didn’t have too much artillery, and we had an artillery regiment, which was very effective.

There weren’t waves of people— they wore white camouflage and before you knew it they’d be right up to the bunker. Our intelligence never got any wind of this, they were very good at concealment. Crossing the border, half a million people, they came across the Yalu River. We had patrols all over, and trip flares up. Once they started to fire, the bugles would start.

They were well trained. They were good soldiers, they were brave, they could exist on a subsistence diet— they were good soldiers. They had fought the nationalist Chinese, and the Japanese before that, and they were well equipped, relatively speaking.

Interviewer: When daylight came, did you find lots of dead bodies of Chinese?
Peters: Yes, we found lots of bodies, their and ours. I didn’t see them taking any of theirs out. We took our bodies out in trucks. The trouble was the plasma froze and it was a real problem.

Interviewer: Was it during the retreat that you wounded?
Peters: It wasn’t a retreat, it was an attack in the other direction. We were surrounded, so we turned our guns around and drove our way into the sea. We went down to Hagaru-Ri and then down to Hamhung. I was shot in the neck, and bayoneted in the arm, and shot in the hand. My feet eventually froze when they put me into a sleeping bag.

Interviewer: How long was it from the time you were wounded till you got out?
Peters: They build the airstrip and they flew me out, it was a few days. I had a cut in the arm— he stuck me in the arm like a slice of roast beef — 42 stitches. It was a bayonet. I finished him off with a trenching shovel.

Interviewer: You hit him over the head?
Peters: My buddy hit him over the head, I was down on the ground.

Joe Peters spent 9 months in the Chelsea Naval Hospital, went back to duty, but later needed further operations on his wounds. He sums up his war years:
When I went over I was a kid, and when I came back, I was a man. Politicians use euphemisms and call Korea a police station. 53,000 guys died in that thing, and that was in 3 years. I feel like I’ve had a 50-year bonus, it was a gift. I often think, why them and not me? What might have become of those guys?

For additional information contact Dick Krug, director of Veteran Services for the town of Concord, located at 105 Everett Street, along with Council of Aging. He can be reached at 978-318-3038 or by email.