Cadet Joe Kingston entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, in July 1945, shortly before the end of World War II. Four years later he graduated with the class of 1949. In the interim, he had suffered through the rigors of plebe year and cheered for Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis as they starred on Army’s powerful college football teams of 1945 and ’46.
Military life had presented few problems for the young cadet, but studies had been a different matter, and the ’49er yearbook remarked that ‘Joe’s graduation climaxes a four-year struggle with the Academic Department.’ It went on to predict, however, that ‘wherever he goes, Joe is certain to make friends and to meet success.’
Upon graduation, Joe Kingston acquired a diploma and a commission as a Regular Army second lieutenant. By that time he had also acquired a value system imbued with the West Point motto of ‘Duty, Honor, Country.’ A year later, while attending the Infantry Officer Basic Course at Fort Benning, Ga., he volunteered for parachute training. In June 1950, he received orders assigning him to airborne school, then to Fort Lawton, near Seattle, for shipment to the Far East. Later that same month, the free world was stunned when Communist North Korea invaded its neighbor to the south. Within days, President Harry S. Truman, with the consent of the United Nations Security Council, had authorized the use of American troops to repel the attack. One of those soldiers was Kingston, who shared his experiences with fellow West Pointer and Korean War veteran Colonel Harry J. Maihafer.
Military History: What did you think about your orders to the Far East?
Kingston: At the time, ‘Far East’ meant Japan, and I was looking forward to serving there. However, by the time I got to Fort Lawton, the war in Korea had already started, so I was pretty sure that’s where I was headed. Jump school had delayed my shipment by three weeks, so by August 15, 1950, when I flew out of McCord Air Base, several of my West Point classmates were already in combat, leading platoons along the Naktong River.
MH: What happened when you got to Japan?
Kingston: The Eighth Army Replacement Center sent me to the 32nd Infantry Regiment of the 7th Division, located at Camp McNair on the slopes of Mount Fuji. At McNair, my West Point classmate Jack Madison and I reported to Lt. Col. Don Faith, the 32nd’s acting regimental commander.
MH: Isn’t that the man who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Chosin Reservoir?
Kingston: The same, and I’ll never forget our meeting. When we reported to him, he looked us in the eye and asked, ‘Are you prepared to die?’ We probably said something like ‘only if necessary, sir.’ Anyhow, Jack and I were assigned to I Company of the 32nd, which unfortunately existed only on paper. The 7th Division had been stripped to provide replacements for units already in Korea, so we were starting from scratch.
MH: What were the replacements like?
Kingston: Quite an assortment: a few men fresh from the States, several GIs who had just been released from the Eighth Army stockade, and about 100 KATUSA (Korean Augmentation to the U.S. Army) soldiers. The latter were men of military age who had been taken off the streets of Pusan and Taegu and told they were now part of the ROK (Republic of Korea) army, but that their service would be as KATUSAs.
MH: And you had to train them?
Kingston: Yes, we had 12 days to get them ready. Fortunately, we had a few veteran sergeants to help us. The Americans knew no Korean, of course, and only one of the Koreans, Kim Yu Jin, who had worked in an American PX laundry, had a smattering of English.
MH: With all the language problems, how did you keep control?
Kingston: Well, we paired off Americans and Koreans in a sort of buddy system, with the Koreans being told ‘wherever he goes, you go; whatever he does, you do, too.’ It was pretty chaotic. Periodically, trucks would pull up and dump off equipment in a helter-skelter fashion. As best they could, supply sergeants would sort through the jumble and try to determine what went where.
MH: And before long you loaded up for the Inchon landing?
Kingston: Yes, at Yokohama we boarded an old Liberty ship, Private Sadale Munomori, named for a nisei hero of World War II. There was a delay before shoving off, which perhaps gave us too much time to think about what lay ahead. I remember Jack Madison wrote a letter home saying: ‘I certainly do wish we had an opportunity for more training. I feel sure we will get more when we arrive. It would be nothing but foolish to commit us in this state of combat efficiency.’ How little we knew! Conditions aboard ship were bad to begin with. Then, to make matters worse, on the second day at sea we ran into Typhoon Kezia and nearly everyone became violently seasick. Combat landing or no, we just wanted to get ashore! On September 15, the Marines landed at Inchon and established a beachhead. Our unit landed the next day, with a mission of securing the Marines’ right flank and sealing off the road leading into Seoul from the south.
MH: When did you first come under fire?
Kingston: A couple of nights later. We were making an approach march to link up with a Marine unit at a certain village when our column came under white-phosphorous mortar fire. Our Korean ammunition bearers promptly threw their ammunition-carrying bags in the rice paddies and took off. This was pretty bad, since we’d been told ammo was critical, with no resupply between us and San Francisco. I think Jack Madison, who had the weapons platoon and was responsible for that ammunition, was more worried about retrieving his precious ammo from the rice paddy than he was about the mortar fire. Later that night, the point of our column was wiped out when the place where we were supposed to meet the Marines turned out to be a North Korean strongpoint. We pulled back and went into position on a little hill, where we spent the rest of the night being shelled by our own artillery. Next morning our KATUSAs returned; I guess they were looking for breakfast. After that, they became much more reliable, and, actually, most of them became damn good soldiers.
MH: What happened next?
Kingston: A couple of days later, my platoon, riding on tanks, was part of a force heading south on the road to Suwon. Inside the town, an enemy T-34 tank, hidden behind a building, opened fire on the leading American tank and knocked it out, killing the tank company commander. Eventually the situation was stabilized, and we went on to a new mission.
MH: What was that?
Kingston: Well, the Marines had been having a hard time cleaning out Seoul, so it was decided the 32nd Infantry would circle south of the city, cross the Han River and hit the North Koreans from a new direction. Our regiment’s 2nd Battalion crossed the river in those amphibious tractors they called ‘water buffaloes'; then our battalion followed behind and swung to the right. At one point, my platoon climbed a steep hill and came upon an enemy trench network. Suddenly, I came face to face with two armed North Koreans. I pulled the trigger of my carbine–and nothing happened!
MH: Wow–what did you do then?
Kingston: Almost by instinct, I started screaming at the top of my lungs: ‘Drop those guns! Drop ’em! Do it right now!’ I guess they were as surprised as I was. Anyhow, they dropped their weapons and surrendered. We then cleaned out the rest of the hill, capturing nine more North Koreans in the process.
MH: What happened after the Seoul area was secured?
Kingston: We were pulled back to the vicinity of Pusan. That exercise, our moving south while the Eighth Army was going north, proved to be quite a mess. The road system between Pusan and Seoul was extremely primitive, and fistfights actually broke out over who was going to get on the road in what direction. Finally, however, we did get down to Pusan, where we started hearing about our many West Point classmates who had been killed in the fighting along the Naktong (Pusan) Perimeter. Next, we boarded assault ships again and put to sea.
MH: Where did you come ashore?
Kingston: At Iwon, well up the east coast of North Korea. After a few days, I Company was crammed into boxcars and given a separate mission. Our train, operated by North Korean civilians, headed north along the coast, then west into the mountains. It was cold, snowy and the middle of the night.
MH: And this was enemy territory that hadn’t been cleared?
Kingston: Yes, we kept thinking about that. From time to time the train would slip, the engineers would get out and spread sand on the tracks, and we’d proceed, never knowing from one tunnel to the next which one might be blown up on us. Finally, we came to a hydroelectric plant that had been built by the Japanese back in the 1930s. Our company’s job was to secure it.
MH: How did civilians in the area react to I Company’s presence?
Kingston: At first many took to the hills. However, when they saw they wouldn’t be mistreated, they returned and were quite willing to keep the power plant operating. After that, we rejoined our regiment and were part of a task force that got all the way to the Yalu River, the border with Manchuria. Suddenly we were told to pull back–the Chinese had entered the war.
MH: Where were you at that time?
Kingston: A place called Samsu, and we were the last Americans to leave. The ROK regiment that replaced us was almost completely destroyed. We started back to the Hamhung area, at first on foot, later on trucks. On the 270-mile trip back to Hamhung, I saw tanks, artillery pieces, dozens of trucks, all of which had slipped over the sides of the icy roads and rolled into the bottom of valleys hundreds of feet below. They had to be destroyed. As we got close to Hamhung, Jack went on ahead to find out where they wanted us. When he asked about it at the operations section, there was a stunned silence, after which someone said: ‘I Company? Why, we’ve written I Company off!’ Jack was happy to report that the company was still intact.
MH: I guess you felt lucky.
Kingston: Yes, but unfortunately the 1st Battalion of our regiment, the one commanded by Colonel Faith, was not so lucky. It became part of the force trapped east of the Chosin Reservoir. Three of my classmates, Bill Kempen, Herb Marshburn and Joe Giddings, were killed in that operation.
MH: But you did manage to get out of North Korea. Did you move up to new responsibilities?
Kingston: Yes, by the spring of 1951, Jack was back at battalion as assistant S-3 (operations officer), and I was company commander of King Company.
MH: Did you have the company in April when the Communists launched their big spring offensive?
Kingston: Sure did. At midnight on April 22, my company was strung out along a 3,400-meter front on a ridgeline whose dominant feature was Hill 902. It was an impossible frontage, although by that time I had nearly 300 men with me: my own King Company, a weapons platoon from Mike Company, the regimental recon platoon, and a platoon of 4.2-inch mortars.
MH: What was your first sighting of the enemy?
Kingston: Men on our company outpost saw North Koreans creeping past them. The outpost began firing, alerting the rest of the company, whereupon the enemy tried to overrun the outpost but were beaten back. Finally, during a lull, the outpost force, along with their six wounded, rejoined the main body. I called my battalion CO (commanding officer), said it looked like a main attack was building, asked for permission to pull in my flanks and said we might be needing reinforcements. All he said, which made me pretty sore, was to do what I had to, that he was three hours away from me, so in effect I was on my own.
MH: What did you do?
Kingston: First, I called the company exec, Lieutenant Bill Rogers, and asked him to bring forward any available men and extra ammo. Then I left the command post, which had been turned into a sort of aid station, and headed up on line. I could see masses of men about to attack. Soon they came on in waves. Our heavy machine guns opened up, breaking the momentum of the initial charge. Meanwhile, our artillery and mortar fire was tearing into their formations. The first waves had weapons, either rifles or burp guns. They were followed by people carrying mortars, Maxim machine guns and sacks of grenades. Incredibly, the last ranks were unarmed. I guess they were supposed to arm themselves with the weapons of those who had fallen.
MH: How successful were the North Koreans’ wave attacks?
Kingston: Well, at one point they pushed us off the crest of Hill 902 and we were taking pretty heavy casualties. Lieutenant Boyle, leader of our 1st Platoon, was killed leading a counterattack. He had come to Korea as a sergeant and had won a battlefield commission. We began running low on ammunition, and some of the men were using captured enemy weapons and ammo.
MH: It must have been extremely noisy.
Kingston: Yes–not just from the firing, but from all the yelling. I moved along the line, trying to encourage people, and even told them, ‘Whenever those guys scream, you scream right back at them!’ Around 4 a.m., I knew we had to retake the lost ground, so I organized the men around me, including the mortarmen who had fired all their ammo, and told them to fix bayonets. Soon we got a lift when Rogers, my exec, arrived with more ammo, plus a few replacements, including various rear area cooks, drivers, or KATUSAs he had rounded up.
MH: Not a happy way for new men to be introduced to combat. Did any other help soon arrive?
Kingston: Fortunately, yes. Around 5 a.m., a soldier on all fours tugged at my pant leg. He said he was a runner from Able Company, and his company commander wanted me to come back and tell him where to fire his mortars. I said to go tell his CO where I was, and that if he needed to coordinate, he could just come up to where I was! About then, Lt. Col. Gillis, commander of the 1st Battalion, appeared out of the morning mist and asked what he could do to help. I said, ‘Sir, I need some men up here who can fight!‘ Soon, with his help, a platoon from A Company came hurrying up. We formed on line, fixed bayonets, and I told them we were going to retake 902. As we started, I turned to say something to the man next to me. Just then, a bullet hit him squarely in the ear and he went down, as did a few others. However, we retook 902, held on, and by daylight more reinforcements were on hand. King Company suffered 17 killed and 55 wounded. There were also five killed and 17 wounded in the attached units. I don’t know how many enemy casualties there were, but there were hundreds and hundreds of bodies piled in front of our position. I later learned we had been up against an entire regiment of the 45th North Korean Division.
MH: Was the last bayonet attack the turning point?
Kingston: I guess so. By morning we had the situation under control, although the battle lasted four more days. Both K and A companies received the Presidential Unit Citation for the action of April 2223. A letter from the corps commander said we had ‘withstood the brunt of the enemy’s determined attack and held intact the shoulder of the X Corps…[a] prompt and decisive action…felt throughout the X Corps front.’
MH: And you personally never got a scratch?
Kingston: Not that time. Two months later, however, I got hit pretty bad.
MH: How did that occur?
Kingston: On June 13, 1951, our regiment attacked Hill 1073, near the so-called Iron Triangle area of North Korea. Resistance was stiff, and some of the fighting was hand to hand. I think this was one of the last major maneuver efforts of the war.
MH: I am inclined to agree, because a few weeks later the truce talks started, even though the war lasted two more years. Was it on the 13th that you got hit?
Kingston: No, it was five days later, on the 18th. We were told to go out with a company-sized patrol. The night before, I had dreamed I was wounded. I did not believe in premonitions, but as we started out I said to Lieutenant Bob Kingston, my exec (no relation), ‘I think I’m going to get hit today.’ He probably thought I was silly.
MH: But that’s just what happened?
Kingston: Yes, we ran into pretty heavy opposition and had to pull back. As we did, a bullet hit me in the shoulder and plunged downward into my lungs and liver. Coincidentally, my classmate Jack Madison, back at battalion, was the one who got the report and who called for a medevac helicopter. Jack then came up the hill and helped the litter team get me back to the chopper pad. They put me in one of these external carrying pods, and Jack later told me he looked through that tiny viewing window, saw me turning pale, and wondered if I was going to make it.
MH: Do you remember what happened to Madison?
Kingston: After the chopper took off, the battalion commander turned to Jack and said, ‘Get on up the hill and take over Kingston’s company.’ He did so, and went on to lead it for several months, doing a super job, right up until he rotated home.
MH: Where did the chopper take you?
Kingston: To a MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) unit, and I’ve always thought the two surgeons who worked on me were the models for television’s Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John! One of them said I had a bullet in my liver, and if they didn’t operate, I’d probably die. Then he added cheerfully, ‘Of course you may die anyway!’ Some sense of humor. I cussed at them and then I passed out. They were great guys, and their initial patchwork, which included putting a drainage tube in my lung, pulled me through, even though they weren’t able to find the bullet.
MH: What had happened to the bullet?
Kingston: It had moved, more or less floated, and come to rest in a sort of air pocket just above the liver. A few days later, I was flown to the Navy hospital ship Repose, where they operated again. The X-rays showed the bullet still moving around. After more X-rays, they tried again, this time with a local anesthetic. The surgeon kept poking away, and at one point asked me if it hurt. I said it hurt like hell, and he said, ‘If you can stand it, I’m going to take one more look.’ A few moments later he placed the bullet in my hand.
MH: Did everything go okay after that?
Kingston: Not really. After Repose I was flown to Japan, and during the flight my lung collapsed, so things were pretty scary for a while. Then, at Tokyo General, the doctors made five or six chest taps to drain the fluid in my lungs. During one of those, my heart actually stopped for a few seconds. Anyhow, it all turned out okay, and a couple of months later I was released from the hospital. I eventually returned to Korea, completing my tour as a battalion staff officer, and then came home to the States for reassignment. I went on to a long career in the Army, including service in Vietnam as a brigade commander and as chief of staff for the 1st Cavalry Division.
This article was written by Colonel Harry J. Maihafer, U.S. Army (ret.) and originally published in the April 1996 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!
For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!