Don’t Say “Happy Memorial Day.” – Make Peace or Die Excerpt

My Dad turns 94 today. 70 years ago today, he spent his 24th birthday charging a North Korean machine gun nest. He was awarded the Silver Star for his actions. The following is an excerpt from his memoir Make Peace or Die, a Life of Service, Leadership, and Nightmares.

When we were working on this chapter, he wanted the reader to understand the brutal reality of combat that medals and parades and citations try to sanitize and glorify. His Silver Star citation praises his “courage” and “skilled leadership,”  but leaves out, in his words, “the parts of that day I would go on reliving, the guilt over what I did and what I didn’t do… and the screams that still wake me up at night 70 years later.”  

This is a story about why you don’t say “Happy Memorial Day.”

A MEDAL AND A CRIME

MAY 29–JUNE 2, 1951

“I have long ago given up telling people what I saw them (the Marines in Korea) do on so many occasions. Nobody believes me, nor would I believe anyone else telling the same story of other troops.”

—Major General w.s. Brown, USMC

 

Every year on my birthday, May 29, Pete McCloskey gives me a call to tell me, “You should have died today.” Sometimes he adds, “You miserable son of a bitch.” I dredge up some old comeback, and we reminisce about what happened on that day in 1951. My citation puts it like this:

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star to First Lieutenant Charles U. Daly (MCSN: 0-50418), United States Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity as Leader of a Rifle Platoon of Company C, First Battalion, Fifth Marines, FIRST Marine Division, in action against enemy aggressor forces in Korea on 29 May 1951. Assigned the mission of driving a strong enemy force from well-entrenched positions on a high knob north of Inje, First Lieutenant Daly boldly led his men up a narrow spine, completely devoid of cover and concealment, and carried out a successful assault against the hostile strong points in the face of fierce automatic-weapons and small-arms fire, killing many of the enemy and forcing the remainder to retreat in disorder. Quickly reorganizing his unit, he pursued the fleeing hostile troops and overran an enemy regimental command post, capturing many valuable documents and prisoners. By his marked courage, skilled leadership and unswerving devotion to duty, First Lieutenant Daly served to inspire all who observed him and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

Those words omit the parts of that day I would go on reliving, the guilt over what I did and what I didn’t do, and the feeling that the bravest thing I did, that any of us did, was just keep moving uphill into gunfire. My citation leaves out a war crime I committed, a crime for which I was only punished with haunting memories. There’s no mention of the men on both sides who died or sustained awful wounds for my red-white-and-blue ribbon with a star dangling from it. The citation praises me for “killing many enemy,” but it leaves out just how hard it is to get young men to fire accurately, or at all, so that they kill other young men. It’s unnatural to stand up “in the middle of flying metal,” as Navy Cross recipient, Karl Marlantes, relates in What It Is Like to Go to War, but it’s also unnatural to hurl metal at a boy who’s scared like you, or to stick him with a metal blade ’til he dies, or to lob grenades—designed to be roughly the size of a baseball for familiarity’s sake—and flay him with shards of metal. The “rules” of war are unnatural. They tell you not to kill a man who has surrendered, even when he’s gravely wounded and probably going to die anyway and his pitiful screams tell you that killing him would be an act of mercy. The Department of the Navy makes no mention of my after-action duties, which included going through the pockets of enemy dead looking for intelligence and in one case finding a picture of a man’s wife and his baby.

charles u daly on the day he was awarded the silver star
Charles U. Daly Silver Star Recipient, C-1-5 USMC, Photo Department of Defense

May 29 was a beautiful morning after a chilly and tense night. I turned twenty-four, possibly my last birthday. It was my platoon’s turn to lead the company into what we had been told was an area held by an enemy regiment. Our objective was to take an exceptionally rugged hill. There was a cliff just west of the top and a steep, exposed slope to the east. Our only way up was a narrow spine with all cover and concealment long since blasted away. General Thomas concluded that enemy resistance in the hills, such as this one, around what was called the Kansas Line would be “broken not by air power but by Marine riflemen.”

Roger that!

At first light, I can remember thinking that we were facing a great defensive position. I had company when I stepped off the trail to take a piss after we dropped packs and were getting ready to move out and up. The air was tense. Even the chattiest Marines were silent. The smokers puffed up a storm. I wondered if the North Koreans could smell Lucky Strikes on our men as we could sometimes smell garlic on theirs.

With two words you don’t hear very often in modern combat, I gave the order: “Fix bayonets.”

That didn’t help anyone’s peace of mind. But I liked bayonets for the scare factor. I knew that frightening the enemy was a good way to keep young men from getting killed on both sides.

Warner, the new company commander, who was even greener than me, offered to call in an airstrike if we got into trouble. I declined, pointing out that strikes had been recently put under Army command and were running late, with the habit of hastily dumping their loads on friends and foe alike. Any delay in air or artillery would leave us exposed under fire. The only course of action was to get in among the enemy so their support—mortars, guns, and heavy weapons—would have to be lifted.

My job was to keep the men moving up and firing. I talked with my platoon sergeant whose advice was essential, because if a major firefight took place, it would be my first. We agreed that if we came under fire, the lead squad would charge directly up the spine, second squad would fire everything they had at the ridge to the west of the hill, and third squad would continue the charge led by first squad. The machine gun section attached to the platoon would follow and set up on the hilltop as soon as it was secure to fend off any counterattack. We had received several reports that elsewhere, a North Korean had played dead and shot a couple of Marines in the back after they walked past. I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen to any of us, so I passed the word: “If they don’t stink, stick ’em.”

At 08:00 we began slowly climbing up the ridge, single file on the narrow trail. There were small pines and some saplings blown leafless by earlier shelling. To delay our advance, branches were piled on the path, forming poor man’s barbed wire. No birds sang. I was walking close behind the first squad when we came to a small knoll at the base of the much larger hill that loomed above. Billy Bell, an experienced rifleman from Arizona, got ready to toss a grenade over the crest of the knoll just in case there was an ambush waiting there. Not wanting to alert the enemy to our advance and afraid of seeming trigger-happy in a situation where there might be no enemy, I knocked my wedding ring against the stock of my carbine to get Bell’s attention and hand signaled “No grenade.” He put the grenade back in his pocket and resumed quietly leading our first fire team over the crest of the hill in a crouched walk.

In an instant, Bell went down under a shower of enemy grenades and bullets. The rest of the fire team rolled off the rise, and those of us who weren’t shocked into inaction began shooting.

“Fire. Fire. Shoot, Goddamnit! Fire!”
“Bell is down.”
“Grenade.”
“Shit. I’m hit.”

“Corpsman! Help.”

“Keep going. Fire. Fire. Fire. Kill those cocksuckers!”

“They’re bailing out.”

“I’m out of ammo!”

“Use your fucking bayonet. Keep going. Stick ’em. Fire, Goddamnit, fire!”

I figured the louder we were, the more we’d give the impression that we were a huge force determined to kill anyone standing between us and the Yalu River. The sound of two dozen or so riflemen firing all at once is impressive.

Dacy would later recall, “It sounded like World War Two up there.”

I let loose all the rounds in my carbine, aiming uphill at no particular target. I reversed my magazine and loaded a second that I had taped to it for faster reloading and resumed firing at nothing, adding to the din. An unlucky North Korean popped up in front of me from a hole. His throat and jaw blew apart with the squeeze of my trigger finger.

A shout from my radioman, “The captain wants you. He’s telling us to drop back and wait for artillery.”

“Tell him to go fuck himself.”

There were so many grenades being tossed down the hill at us that I thought we were under mortar fire. To stop would have been suicidal.

We reached the top. There were many enemy dead, wounded, and surrendering. I was wild with frustration because my caution on the knoll had been costly. With a few riflemen, I kept running over the far side of the hill in pursuit of some fleeing enemy. We were astounded to find our charge had put us among a bunch of enemy officers with maps still in their hands as though they had been in a routine review of their position. Unbelievable. Another unarmed enemy officer crawled out of a command bunker and started berating his comrades, apparently upset that they were surrendering to this handful of exhausted Marines.

All firing had stopped. Except for picking up the pieces, this little battle was over. The pieces included Billy Bell’s right arm. He sat leaning against a tree stump, calm and pale. A corpsman held a compress to his wound.

“I hope you’re left-handed,” I said, not knowing how else to express my concern without upsetting him.

“I am now, Lieutenant.”

There were screams coming from a badly wounded North Korean laying close by. His dying was getting louder and louder, and I could sense how much the sound was upsetting my men.

A young corporal brought up the decent thing to do. “Lieutenant, do you want me to do him a favor?”

“Do it.”

A shot. Then silence.

I knew then, and I know now, that shooting a prisoner, or ordering such a killing, is a war crime regardless of the victim’s condition. I know that I should not have ordered it. I know that if it had to be done, I should have done it with my own weapon and protected my fellow Marine from having one more life on his conscience. I can still hear that shot.

After the murder came the next grim task, searching the pockets of enemy corpses for papers to send back to intelligence officers.

One enemy had half of his head missing. Dacy had come up and asked how I was doing. I grunted and pointed to the corpse.

In one pocket I found a picture of what must have been the man’s wife and baby.

….

I pocketed the three-striped shoulder board of an officer I killed in the first moments of the battle. Dacy picked up an unexploded hand grenade that must have been thrown by a North Korean too frantic to pull the pin. Dacy disarmed it using a can opener, and when we met again back in the States, he gave it to me. I have used it as a paperweight ever since.

The chiggy bearers arrived with ammunition, water, rations, and our packs from the bottom of the hill. We sat and hydrated among the dead and wounded. Those who could eat, ate cold tinned rations for lunch. Everyone’s favorite was the canned fruit cocktail. Some men would eat the fruit cocktail first in case they got wounded or otherwise had their meal interrupted. They would have at least enjoyed the best course.

I wrote a page or two about the day to my dad.

We had been followed by a combat cameraman who had been taking snaps all day and doing his best not to get hit.

“That was some day,” he said. “If we get out of here, you might want to have the pack numbers for those photographs.” I kept the numbers and later was able to obtain the prints.

Elsewhere on the 29th, we lost lieutenants Munday and Buckmann, who on more than one occasion aboard the troopship had said, “I’m going to die in Korea.”

PFC Whitt L. Moreland, in McCloskey’s platoon, was also killed on the 29th. He smothered a hand grenade blast with his body, saving the lives of the men around him, including Pete’s. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

★★★

There was another hill, a couple of days later, that we took with no resistance. Ivens was cleaning his machine gun a couple of feet above where I was sitting. We laughed about how easy this hill had been compared to May 29th. Easy, except a faulty radio left me out of touch with the rest of Charlie Company. McCloskey had sensed my problem and dispatched his own radioman, Rocky Bruder, up the hill to reestablish coms. Rocky paused to catch his breath just short of my position, winded and sweaty from his radio-laden climb.

“Get up here,” I said.

Rocky grunted, moved the last few feet, and started to hand me the mic connected by a short wire to the radio on his back.

Somewhere from behind, a burst of machine gun fire smacked into us. First one blast, then the distant gunner adjusted his aim, over one click then up one, before firing the second burst. The first volley, to my right, hit Rocky in the back. The next, high and to my left, made Ivens’s head explode.

Rocky mumbled, “Corpsman,” in his last instant of life.

I could hear the call, “Gunner down, second gunner up,” keeping the whole game moving smoothly but with two less players.

I believed then and I believe now that the lethal fire had come from our own distant machine gun. I should have known that might happen. I had been so anxious to establish radio contact because of how quickly we had taken the objective. I didn’t want our gunners to mistake our movement near the crest of the hill for enemy defenders, not realizing there weren’t any defenders.

Brain matter and blood were splattered all over me. In the coming days, every time I encountered water, in streams and rain, I would try to wash the stains off, but traces would remain until I was wounded ten days later and my clothes were cut away.

When Pete came up the hill and saw me splattered with blood and brains, he tried to calm me down.

“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” he said.

War changes the meaning of normal in ways big and small. There’s a joke about a Marine who comes home to his parents and says, “Pass the fucking butter” at the dinner table.

One June day, having rotated off the line, we watched an American tank approach a shallow river. We could sense the driver trying to decide whether to take a muddy bypass or stay on the road; either could have been mined.

We speculated out loud and made mock bets. The tank took the detour. KABOOM.

A man flew out of the open hatch, now legless. One of our riflemen shouted, “I win!”


Make Peace or Die: A life of Service, Leadership, and Nightmares is available through Amazon and Indiebound, or you can ask your local bookstore to order it. 

An early draft was featured on Jocko Podcast episode 196