HOLD HANDS take the high ground

The Covington News - - THE WIRE - PETE MECCA COLUM­NIST Pete Mecca is a Viet­nam vet­eran, colum­nist and free­lance writer. You can reach him at avet­er­ansstory@ gmail.com or avet­er­ansstory.us.

Tak­ing the ‘high ground’ has been a ba­sic mil­i­tary strat­egy since man started throw­ing rocks at each other. A force con­trol­ling the heights con­trols the bat­tle­field, in com­bat as well as sur­veil­lance. Amer­i­can his­tory was built on high ground, from grace­ful rises to gen­tle slopes, from ridges, cliffs and hills to lofty moun­tains.

Names of high ground speak of glory, honor, and free­dom: Bunker Hill, Lit­tle Round Top, San Juan Hill, Bat­tle of the Moun­tain of Reims, Mount Surib­achi, White Horse Moun­tain, Ham­burger Hill and the rocky ridges of Ku­nar Prov­ince in Afghanistan. Korean vet­er­ans un­der­stood the cost of high ground in places called Bloody Ridge, Hill 282, Heart­break Ridge, Bat­tle of Bat­tle Moun­tain and Pork Chop Hill, to men­tion a few.

Maps in­di­cate the to­pog­ra­phy of spe­cific land, like rivers or val­leys, or the heights of hills and moun­tains. The out­lines il­lus­trat­ing el­e­va­tions can take on fa­cades of well-known shapes, like Tri­an­gle Hill and T-Bone Hill in Korea. The rugged and deeply eroded ridges of the Yokkok­chon Val­ley are a prime ex­am­ple. One such el­e­va­tion map show­ing a forked low-ly­ing jagged ridge that re­sem­bles the open mouth of an al­li­ga­tor is called Al­li­ga­tor Jaws.

On April 28, 1953, a 21-man squad moved sin­gle file up the rocky slopes of Al­li­ga­tor Jaws. It was pitch­dark; cloud-cover blocked out the moon and stars. The rough ter­rain fea­tures re­quired a march of at least sixty min­utes, but 2nd Lt. Costa and his men com­pleted the hike in less than 30 min­utes. And they did it hold­ing hands.

Hold­ing hands pre­vented the col­umn from be­ing split or lost. No words were spo­ken; the men ad­vanced in dead si­lence. Once Lt. Costa chose the am­bush site, he de­ployed 10 men to a knob of earth ap­prox­i­mately 30 feet from the val­ley floor; the re­main­ing men took up po­si­tions in a drainage ditch. Con­sid­er­ing them­selves weak in ra­dio com­mu­ni­ca­tions, the squad car­ried a col­or­ful kalei­do­scope of flares for in­ter­ac­tions with their bat­tal­ion com­mand post.

Their vigil was long and bor­ing, a six-hour, 30-minute or­deal, yet the men stayed alert and ready for ac­tion. Cor­po­rals Degene and Walde­tekle, the ju­nior lead­ers, crawled to the men at 15-minute in­ter­vals, squeezed their hand then re­ceived two squeezes in re­ply to as­sure each man was vig­i­lant. No words were spo­ken.

As Walde­tekle crawled back to his own po­si­tion, he saw men on his left point­ing vig­or­ously with their ri­fles, the squad’s sig­nal for de­tec­tion of en­emy move­ment. Walde­tekle crawled to Lt. Costa, point­ing his ri­fle even more ex­cit­edly, his sig­nal to in­di­cate nu­mer­ous Chi­nese nearby. No words were spo­ken. Lt. Costa hand-sig­naled Pri­vate Ti­lahull­ninguse to un­pin a grenade, crawl down a gully and toss it into the mid­dle of the en­emy.

At about 10 yards from the Chi­nese, the pri­vate tossed his grenade. It ex­ploded in their midst, the light of the ex­plo­sion out­lin­ing the fig­ures of at least 20 en­emy. The bat­tle was on. At a dis­tance of less than 15 yards, both sides opened up with all they had.

An en­emy grenade ex­ploded as it hit be­low Cor­po­ral Walde­tekle’s right el­bow. His right arm was blown off just be­low the shoul­der socket. He didn’t groan nor cry. With­out a word, Walde­tekle used his left hand to pass the Brown­ing Au­to­matic Ri­fle (BAR) to a Pri­vate Yukonsi, or­der­ing him to ‘keep fir­ing low.’ Al­most im­me­di­ately Yukonsi was hit in his left arm by a blast from a Chi­nese burp-gun. With his left arm ragged from shoul­der to wrist, Yukonsi passed the BAR to Ti­lahull­ninguse with­out a word spo­ken.

Back at the com­mand post, the bat­tal­ion com­man­der knew of the fight and asked Lt. Costa via mes­sen­ger if he needed as­sis­tance. Costa sent a re­ply, “No, I can hold this field with my own men.” Costa re­quested via ra­dio for flares over the bat­tle­field from the 48th Field Ar­tillery Bat­tal­ion led by Lt. Col. Joe Kim­mett. Within min­utes flares lit up the bat­tle­field. Lt. Costa glanced at the hill to his rear. He spotted an en­tire pla­toon of Chi­nese ad­vanc­ing up the ridge to­ward his po­si­tions. The Chi­nese went flat to avoid the il­lu­mi­na­tion. Due to a lack of train­ing with co­or­di­nates Costa’s map of the area was high-lighted by color code. “VT (prox­im­ity fuse shells) fire on White,” he yelled into the un­fa­mil­iar ra­dio. “All you can give me!” The bar­rage landed right on tar­get. The sur­viv­ing en­emy soldiers scat­tered.

Cor­po­ral Degene re­ported more Chi­nese as­sem­bling on the other side of the ridge. Lt. Costa wasted no time. Into the ra­dio he yelled, “Keep the fire go­ing on White! But give me more VT and put it on Red!” For the next 65 min­utes Amer­i­can ar­tillery pounded ‘White’ and ‘Red.’ The bar­rage saved Lt. Costa and his men…good thing; the squad was out of am­mu­ni­tion.

At 0430 the bat­tal­ion com­man­der asked Costa how things were go­ing. Costa replied, “The only live Chi-

“Ev­ery de­tail of that ground had be­come part of a print in my mind. It was like mov­ing into my own house. I could see it in the dark.”

nese in this val­ley are in our hands.” The squad had cap­tured two in­jured en­emy soldiers. With their dead and wounded, Costa’s squad re­turned to base look­ing as en­er­getic as they had when the bat­tle started.

It’s in­ter­est­ing to note that Lt. Won­gele Costa and his 20 men had just tasted com­bat for the first time. It was also the first pa­trol sent from the newly ar­rived Ethiopian bat­tal­ion which just ar­rived in Korea. They fought the old way, in­stinct and tra­di­tion­ally tested pluck­i­ness. Be­fore their first pa­trol, the Ethiopian squad spent 4 days from the en­trenched heights to study the ter­rain of the Al­li­ga­tor Jaws.

Dur­ing his de­brief­ing, Lt. Costa said, “Ev­ery de­tail of that ground had be­come part of a print in my mind. It was like mov­ing into my own house. I could see it in the dark.”

As Amer­i­cans, Ethiopi­ans and sev­eral United Na­tions forces con­tin­ued to pay the supreme sac­ri­fice on rugged Korean hills and moun­tains, the world­wide news me­dia re­mained in Pan­munjom reporting on the peace talks. As ‘ne­go­tia­tors’ nit­picked over the size of the con­fer­ence ta­ble or the ac­cept­able size of na­tional flags, soldiers on both sides died hold­ing a line of worth­less real es­tate along the 38th Par­al­lel. The ‘peace talks’ con­cluded with a ‘cease fire’ agree­ment. Tech­ni­cally, we are still at war with North Korea.

Sub­mit­ted pho­tos /The Cov­ing­ton News

From top: A trio of Ethiopian soldiers op­er­ate a re­coil­less ri­fle on a hill­top dur­ing the Korean War; Two soldiers kneel at the ready with an M-1 Garand and an M-1 car­bine ri­fle; Ethiopian sol­ders, pic­tured here, along with Amer­i­can and United Na­tions forces fought on the rugged Korean Hills and moun­tains dur­ing the Korean War.

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