One of the Cold War’s most grueling and bone-chilling battles came to life during a Korean War veteran’s recent presentation at the Monticello Senior Center.
Harry Burke grew up in Clarkfield, Minnesota, and currently lives in Bloomington. He is prominently featured in the book, “The Last Stand of Fox Company,” the story of how his military unit was cut off at the Chosin Reservoir. Burke visited Monticello Oct. 26 and spent more than an hour telling his tale of service to local listeners.
For five days, Burke’s 250-man company held off several thousand Chinese troops and protected a critical road pass next to the Chosin Reservoir, a man-made lake located in the northeast of the Korean peninsula. The critical battle was fought over some of the roughest terrain and harshest winter weather conditions encountered by U.S. troops during the entire war. Burke served with U.S. 1st Marine Division, 7th Regiment, 2nd Battalion. He carried a 3.5-inch rocket launcher, commonly called the bazooka, an anti-tank weapon that was used to knock out Soviet T-34 tanks used by enemy forces.
After the outbreak of the Korean War, Burke’s regiment was reactivated, and on Sept. 21, 1950, the 7th Regiment landed at Inchon, as part of the 1st Marine Division. The regiment fought from Inchon to the
Yalu River, at the “Frozen Chosin” Reservoir and in during the long defense of South Korea until the end of the war.
In mid-November, a cold front from Siberia descended over the Chosin Reservoir, and the temperature plunged to as low as 35 degrees below zero. The cold weather was accompanied by frozen ground, creating considerable danger of frostbite casualties, icy roads, and weapon malfunctions affecting U.S. troops.
Burke was assigned to a headquarters company where he would be available with his bazooka if a likely enemy target showed up. The company moved out of the small city of Hagaru-ri and took up a position at the Toktong Pass, a critical bend in the road that must be held if two Marine regiments advancing further north along the west side of the reservoir would have a route of escape.
Burke’s unit dug in, and on Nov. 27 was assigned indoor shelter in a roadside hut.
“I got in my sleeping bag,” Burke recalled. “But at about 2:30 a.m., there were Chinese shooting all over the place. I woke with bullets zinging over my head.”
Burke headed up the hill with his bazooka. Before he left, he stuffed his sleeping bag and pack into a large cooking pot in the hut. As the Marines dug in a little deeper on the hill, Chinese soldiers yelled out insults at the U.S. Marines from the recently captured hut below. “It was kind of a scary situation,” Burke said. “Our captain came down the side of the hill, and he stood up and yelled at them, ‘Speak up! What the hell do you want?’ ”
After the long night’s siege was over, Burke and others made their way back to the hut. The other Marines’ gear was gone, but Burke’s was safe in the pot. “If you didn’t have a good sleeping bag, it could be a matter of life and death,” he said. The third day of the battle, Burke was called out of his foxhole and told to bring his bazooka forward and fire a rocket at a Chinese position 400 yards away. “We weren’t supposed to fire the bazooka in cold temperatures,” he said. Because of the extreme cold, the rocket was still burning as it came out of the tube. Burke and his rocket loader had their faces singed. They were quickly treated in the field and sent back to their positions.
When the battle reached its fifth day, transferring the large number of wounded and those killed in action was a problem. “I saw a 105-mm howitzer with a dead U.S. solider tied to the barrel,” Burke said. Parachute drops brought food and ammunition. “We never got enough food, but we got plenty of ammunition. Any food they did manage to successfully drop to us froze like a rock.” U.S. Marines had to boil water in their helmets to thaw out their food packages, Burke said. The first week of December, Burke was wounded when shrapnel from a concussion grenade hit him. He was airlifted out of Korea and spent time in a U.S. Army hospital. In May 1951, he was sent back to his unit, and was later wounded by shrapnel from an artillery round. Burke was awarded two Purple Hearts. After duty in Washington D.C., Burke was discharged in March 1952. He first worked at the Ford Plant in St. Paul and later at Honeywell.
Burke has hosted two Fox Company reunions in the Twin Cities. He returned to visit Korea in 1997 and 2000. He meets regularly with other Korean War veterans.
After his Oct. 26 presentation at the Monticello Senior Center, Burke signed a copy of “The Last Stand of Fox Company” that had been brought over from the Monticello branch of the Great River Regional Library. He also visited with local veterans who had listened to his presentation and watched a video about his Korean War service.