The Central Intelligence Agency sponsored a variety of activities during the Korean War, among which were behind-the-lines maritime operations. Yong Do Island, connected by a rugged isthmus to Pusan, served as the base for those operations, which were carried out by well-trained Korean guerrillas. The four principal American advisers responsible for the training and operational planning of those special missions were ‘Dutch Kramer, Tom Curtis, George Atcheson and Joe Pagnella. All of them had been processed through the CIA’s front organization, Joint Advisory Commission, Korea (JACK), headquartered at Tongnae, a village near Pusan, on the peninsula’s southeast coast.
JACK’s first commander was Army Colonel Albert R. Haney, until he was succeeded by a decorated 82nd Airborne Division veteran, Colonel Benjamin Vandervoort. They oversaw planning and support for the agency’s sea, air and ground operations, to include insertion and extraction of agents, coastal and demolition raids, and support for the Far East Air Force’s Escape & Evasion Program.
One of JACK’s projects, code-named Blossom, had as its objective the planting of anti-Communist personnel in the North who would blossom as pro-democracy advocates after the South won the war. Most of those political infiltrators did not survive.
A big, tough Marine, Major Vincent R. Dutch Kramer had served in the Pacific and with U.S. Naval Group, China, during World War II. As the Group’s Camp 3 commander, he supervised the training of Nationalist Chinese guerrillas, then took the field with them for raids and ambushes against the Japanese.
Equally large and tough was Lieutenant Tom Curtis. A 15-year Marine veteran, he had served with the Amphibious Corps, Atlantic Fleet’s secret Scout-Observer Group, before joining the Office of Strategic Services. He earned Bronze and Silver Stars for sabotage and guerrilla missions in Greece and China.
An Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) 3 officer, Lieutenant George Atcheson was in Japan heading up a 10-man detachment when the Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950. He subsequently participated in seaborne raids and recons with Amphibious Group 1’s Special Operations Group. Atcheson had led the first attempted UDT raid of the war on August 5, when he and other Team 3 men paddled rubber boats into Yosu from the high-speed destroyer transport Diachenko (APD-123), but had to abort the mission under heavy enemy fire.
A veteran of two combat jumps in Korea, swarthy, powerful Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Pag Pagnella came to the island via the 187th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Airborne Regimental Combat Team. He later recalled his first meeting with Colonel Vandervoort who, upon seeing Sergeant Pagnella and other noncoms with him, exclaimed, Now I’ve got me some sergeants!
Kramer was in charge of Yong Do operations. His Korean counterpart was Major Han Chul-Min, who had recruited several hundred South Koreans and disaffected North Koreans to be trained for clandestine missions. Working together with Kramer, Atcheson and Pagnella, Han selected 40 men to become members of the Special Mission Group (SMG), which would be trained for prisoner snatches, ship-launched and -supported ambushes and the destruction of North Korean coastal railroad tracks and bridges. Assisted by Sergeant Pagnella, Lieutenant Atcheson was senior adviser and trainer for the SMG, whose Korean officer in charge was a Mr. O Pak, a former river pirate. Described by Pagnella as a stately, middle-aged man with a light build, stringy mustache and beard and hair curling from beneath his Marine-emblemed fatigue hat, O Pak was a master of kendo and an accomplished boxer who taught even Pagnella a thing or two during martial arts training.
Atcheson handled all rubber boat training and amphibious raiding instruction, including swimming and demolitions. Pagnella served as weapons instructor, on everything from M-1 rifles to .50-caliber machine guns and 57mm recoilless rifles. He also trained SMG personnel in the use of hand grenades, mines, booby traps and instinctive fire. He later built a 1,000-inch range, a 250-yard rifle range and a parachute landing fall platform on the rocky terrain of Yong Do with the help and support of Atcheson and the SMG personnel, 25 of whom became airborne qualified. An expert pistol shot, Lieutenant Curtis gave separate classes in the .45 automatic and added his knowledge and expertise to unarmed combat instruction and classes in guerrilla warfare. Majors Kramer and Han, plus his staff, consulted on the entire training program, which included foreign weapons (Chinese and Russian), first aid, map reading, patrolling, ambushes, small-unit operations and mortars.
The SMG’s principal mission platform was the destroyer transport, or APD. Fast and agile, with a shallow draft that enabled them to get close to hostile shores, high-speed destroyer transports, with their four 36-foot LCPRs (landing craft personnel, ramped) had proven themselves during World War II carrying Marine raiders and UDTs throughout the Pacific campaign. Four APDs served in Korea: Diachenko, Horace A. Bass (APD-124), Wantuck (APD-125) and Begor (APD-127). From 1951 through 1952, Horace A. Bass, Wantuck and Begor took turns supporting CIA-sponsored behind-the-lines operations.
Standard operating procedure for launching and recovering SMG teams was based on years of wartime experience and subsequent tactical refinement. An APD would halt on station several thousand yards off the target beach at night. In silence and darkness, LCPRs, or sometimes LCVPs (landing craft vehicle, personnel), were launched and tows engaged to guerrilla-laden rubber boats. About 500 yards from shore, the tow was released, after which the raiders started paddling their rubber boats toward the coast, stopping about 250 yards offshore. From there, swimmer scouts were dispatched to reconnoiter the target. If an All clear was signaled via infrared light, the guerrillas paddled on in for the mission.
Recovery was accomplished by rubber boats paddled out to the designated pickup point at the prearranged time, hooked up for tow, and returned to the ship by its LCPRs or VPs. Guidance to the target beach was by radar vectoring and radio communications. The command rubber boat had a small reflector attached, so the radar operator in the APD’s combat information center could track it, relaying directions by radio as the boats proceeded toward the shore. While those procedures were fairly cut and dried, the circumstances under which they were conducted were definitely not a matter of routine. APD sailors, and especially the boat crews, were operating in enemy waters at night off hostile shores, dealing with tension, stress and sometimes lack of sleep.
On March 19, 1952, Wantuck arrived off Yong Do to pick up a group of SMG guerrillas, their rubber boats, gear and equipment. Joining them and their leader, O Pak, were interpreter Chon Do-Hyun–better known among the Americans as John Chun–Kramer, Atcheson and Pagnella. Atcheson had selected the coastal target north of the 38th parallel from aerial photos and maps of the area in consultation with Kramer and Pagnella. The mission: Ambush a supply convoy, capture the drivers and determine their cargo.
Atcheson and O Pak divided the SMG into six five-man teams, each armed with a BAR (Browning automatic rifle), M-1 rifles, carbines and .45-caliber submachine guns. Three-man boat security teams were made up of swim scouts. O Pak, Chun and Pagnella would go in with the recoilless rifle team. The rest of the SMG was assigned to either the primary assault group or north and south roadblocking details. The rehearsal had gone well, the plan looked good and everyone was satisfied with the prospect of a successful mission.
A day out at sea, with Wantuck on a northerly heading, Pagnella requested permission to test-fire the recoilless rifle. The ship’s captain, Commander John B. Thro, agreed, provided that Pag only fired from the APD’s bow. As they had done in training, Pag, his SMG gun crew and the firepower of their shoulder-fired weapon impressed their audience.
At 2000 hours that night, general quarters was sounded. The seas were calm as the crewmen manned their battle stations while the boats were lowered away for a successful mission rehearsal that involved towing the manned rubber boats to within 500 yards of the coast.
On March 21, the mission began in earnest. Darkened conditions had been imposed aboard the ship when battle stations was sounded at 2045, and Wantuck, 4,000 yards offshore, was on station off the target beach. In 25 minutes all LCPRs had been lowered and the rubber boats deployed, loaded and hooked up for tow. Kramer, O Pak, Pagnella and Chun were in the command boat. Atcheson followed in PR-2, ready to assist any boats in trouble or deal with any intervening North Korean small craft. At night the only sign of approaching SMG boats towed by personnel carriers with muffled engines were phosphorescent wakes on the surface of the Sea of Japan. The tow was released 300 yards offshore, and all hands waited for the signal from Han, the swimmer scout.
Command boat personnel noticed faint flickers of light near the target area, then saw the signal light for All clear. As Dutch Kramer whispered, Good luck, Sarge, Pag, his recoilless rifle crew, O Pak and Chun boarded a rubber boat.
We moved slowly to the beach, recalled Pagnella, in diamond formation. Our speed picked up as the men paddled in unison. O Pak, Chun and I crouched low as our coxswain guided on the lead boat. We could see the beach now and heard gentle surf. The boats fanned out, and we eased onto the sand, unloading quickly, then turned all boats seaward. The beach security element guided us to a trail leading from the cliff behind us to a road beyond the beach. Once on top, Mr. Yu’s north roadblock team and four ambush teams moved swiftly to positions on high ground west of the road. The south roadblock team took up its position with the 57 recoilless rifle team’s primary sector. All elements had deployed in 30 minutes. Han, the scout, and assault leader Sergeant Yuan Bol Yo, returned to the south roadblock and reported to O Pak that they found no tracks of any kind on the road. I asked Chun to ask O Pak, `How far past the north and south blocking positions?’ `Just to the curve of the roads,’ came the reply. O Pak caught my trend and said we would check beyond the blocking positions. The four of us along with two men from the southern position moved out carefully, checking the road a good 100 yards south toward a small village about a mile away. No tracks. We returned to our southern blocking position. O Pak, Chun, Yuan Bol Yo and I continued to the northern blocking position, where we informed Mr. Yu that we were going beyond the curve to inspect the road. He joined us, bringing an automatic-rifle man along. Chun whispered, `Sergeant Pag, this is very dangerous,’ and I replied, `Yes, but we must check this road.’ We walked along very cautiously, eyeballing all the way–50, 100, 150 yards. No vehicle tracks, not even a cart. When we returned to Mr. Yu’s position, O Pak told him and Yuan Bol Yo to wait 30 minutes, then withdraw carefully along with each ambush team and returned to the beach through our southern blocking position. The withdrawal went smoothly, each team covering the other and the beach security team covering the last until all boats had been loaded and were underway.
It had been a perfect insertion, ambush plan and deployment, but the North Koreans did not cooperate–none of them showed up that night. The keen disappointment felt by the SMG members was shared by Wantuck‘s crew. Kramer turned to his frustrated sergeant and said, You can’t win ’em all, Pag.
Missions scheduled for the next two days were canceled due to rough seas and high surf. Then came March 24. This time the mission was rail demolition. In clear weather and moderate swells, Wantuck launched her boats at 2100 hours. Four hundred yards offshore, the boats waited for a signal from SMG swimmer scouts. Forty minutes later, lead scout Han returned to the command boat and reported heavy 6-foot waves–too high for insertion. As the crews prepared to leave, the team members were clearly disappointed. Then someone spotted lights ashore, flickering at a road bunker position 600 yards north of the beach. Pagnella asked Kramer if he could lay a couple of 57mm recoilless rifle rounds into the position, since their command boat was only 1,000 yards offshore. Go ahead, Pag, replied Kramer.
The sergeant moved to the bow with his favorite weapon. Chou, his first gunner, loaded a round and gave Pag an up tap on the head. The first round was a bit low, the second on target, and the third produced a secondary explosion. Pag squeezed off three more high-explosive rounds for effect and later said, We hit the bunker and were happy to leave a calling card. Back aboard Wantuck, one of her chief petty officers told Pagnella, Sergeant Pag, we may not have hit a home run, but we know damn well we’re in the ball game!
Horace A. Bass succeeded Wantuck as the SMG operational platform, and her introduction to the CIA-sponsored activity was pure cloak and dagger. On April 20, 1952, the APD arrived at Pusan’s outer harbor on hurry-up orders. Her commanding officer, Commander Lefteris Lefty Lavrakas, sent his boat officer, Lieutenant Hilary D. Mahin, ashore with orders to proceed to a certain phone booth, dial a certain number at a specific time and ask for Jack. Mahin’s reply was to be Discount Jig, Bass’ call sign. Jack gave Mahin a series of numbers that turned out to be coordinates for Yong Do. There, Lefty, Hi Mahin and other ship’s officers met with Kramer, Atcheson and Pagnella for a mission briefing. The mission was similar to earlier ones except that top priority was given to capturing North Korean transportation workers with knowledge about ID cards. The CIA had learned that the North Koreans regularly changed card stamps and paper colors, which meant that operatives forging IDs for South Korean agents needed information.
As before, the SMG area of operations was the northeast coast of Korea, above the 38th parallel. It ran from the Manchurian border south to Pohang–rugged, mountainous territory with a railroad hugging the coast. Access to rail bridges and tunnels was afforded by medium-size beaches, nearly all of them abutting small fishing villages. Lack of harbors or inlets made them dangerous targets, as did coastal countercurrents.
Following a dress rehearsal at Chumunjin, Atcheson, Pagnella, O Pak and the SMG guerrillas embarked in Bass, which steamed north toward Target No. 1 on the evening of April 21. Commander Lavrakas began his run, closing to within 6,200 yards of the beach. In calm seas with moderate swells, general quarters was sounded and boats were launched at 2230. The mission officer in charge, Lieutenant Atcheson, rode in the command boat, PR-3, along with John Chun and Lieutenant Mahin, with eight guerrilla-laden rubber boats in tow. Adding ballast to the command boat were the demolitions for the raid: 120-pound Mark-133 and 80-pound Mark-1350 charges for tunnels, bridges and tracks.
Once the tow was released, O Pak’s men paddled to within 200 yards of the beach, then paused to await the signal from the swimmer scouts. They were greeted by rifle and machine-gun fire and grenades, but managed to withdraw. Atcheson, hearing gunfire, didn’t hesitate. Ordering PR-4 to accompany him, he closed to within 150 yards of the beach while .30-caliber machine gunners in the other PRs provided cover fire. Leaving PR-4 on station, he took PR-3 and stalwart coxswain Ken Eckert, with some rubber boats in tow, and motored shoreward to recover his imperiled swimmers. Hostile fire hit the boat, and John Chun, standing next to Atcheson, was killed instantly by a round. Thirty yards offshore, Atcheson found two swimmers; one was dead and the other wounded. That left one missing.
Returning to PR-4, Atcheson transferred all hands save himself and Eckert to the other boat, then motored back to search for the remaining SMG swimmer. He finally had to give up and return to Bass. Onboard, a head count revealed that three guerrillas had been killed, two of them drowned when their rubber boat overturned, and the recovered swimmer was seriously wounded. He was transferred to the cruiser Manchester, whose crew found the missing SMG swimmer alive the next day. Interpreter John Chun was returned to his native soil for burial, with some sailors from Bass and his friend Pagnella attending the funeral.
Through the first week of May 1952, Bass continued to land SMG guerrillas for raids against North Korean targets. At times high surf prevented them from completing their missions. On April 30, the SMG landed in moderate seas near the site of Mission No. 1. After moving ashore without opposition at 0200 hours, they spotted a southbound train with front and rear engines. The recoilless rifle team opened fire. The team members could see that at least one round had hit the train, but when they moved in closer for the kill, the train crew managed to back out of harm’s way. The demolition team had better luck, setting a 120-pound charge on a bridge and an 80-pounder on the tracks. Both detonated as the guerrillas returned safely to Bass with three captured North Korean civilians.
On the next mission, O Pak sent half his men to the northeast and half to the southwest of the target bridge. Both teams heard a train approaching from the south, just before it entered a tunnel. Soon afterward, the northwest bridge squad encountered a five-man enemy patrol and ordered it to surrender. The North Koreans dived for cover instead, as SMG gunners opened up on them with BAR, machine-gun and 57mm recoilless rifle fire. Offshore, LCPR machine gunners added .30-caliber fire support while the demo teams placed their charges. All hands returned to the APD and were later informed by Atcheson that they had succeeded in completely destroying the bridge.
Following a much-deserved break and a conference at Pusan, the SMG was back at it in May. Apparently, Rear Adm. George C. Dyer, commander, Task Force 95, had not been fully informed about the CIA-sponsored activities, and he requested more information. Atcheson briefed him fully on the forthcoming planned missions and later met with intelligence officers from CTF 95 and from the Seventh Fleet. He then met with the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Far East, Vice Adm. C. Turner Joy, who, after Atcheson’s briefing, concurred with the proposed operations. They would be the last ones for the SMG.
By June 23, 1952, the SMG was preparing for Mission No. 3 of its final quartet. Number 2 had been canceled due to foul weather, and No. 1 had netted three prisoners. At 2200, Bass arrived off the target beach. Visibility was only 100 yards. After gunfire support ships pounded a nearby shore battery, the SMG guerrillas landed unopposed a little after midnight. O Pak deployed two roadblock teams, then accompanied the rest of his men for a search of the village that was their objective. By the time they returned to the beach two hours later, SMG guerrillas had taken 10 prisoners and captured numerous documents. As they departed, they disabled a large junk with BAR fire and grenades. When all boats were recovered, Bass contributed parting shots–31 rounds of 5-inch ordnance aimed at boat concentrations and radar-controlled shore batteries.
The following night, O Pak’s guerrillas carried out a highly successful final raid. Besides finding and seizing a huge cache of food, ammo, clothing, records and maps, they captured several North Korean security personnel who were aboard a sampan, making a total of 13 prisoners who were taken back to Bass for interrogation. As the team withdrew, the SMG found another sampan and destroyed it.
More than 50 years later, George Atcheson and Joe Pagnella have nothing but praise for the bravery of the men of the Special Mission Group. In a relatively brief period of time, they accomplished all that was asked of them, sometimes dying in the process. They also provided a model, along with the other CIA-sponsored Korean operations, for Military Assistance Command, Vietnam-Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG) activities conducted by the U.S. military later, in Southeast Asia. Kramer, Atcheson and Pagnella continued their work on Yong Do and elsewhere through 1952, assisted by temporary duty Department of the Army civilians, personnel hurriedly trained by the CIA and sent to Korea. Some of the other work involved Atcheson and Pagnella’s participating in behind-the-lines resupply airdrops conducted from K-9 Air Base, east of Pusan, by Special Air Missions Douglas C-47s and Curtiss C-46s. Kramer and Atcheson earned the Navy Cross and the Silver Star respectively for their CIA missions. Pagnella received the respect of his SMG mates and the knowledge of a professional NCO’s job well done.
This article was written by John B. Dwyer and originally published in the December 2002 issue of Military History Magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!