Bill G. Hartline
Bill Hartline was born on the 5th of December of 1931 in Omaha, Nebraska. He joined the United States Marine Corps Reserve while still in High School. After graduating from high school, he was deemed combat ready by the Marine Corps, skipped basic training, and was sent to Korea in September of 1950. His experiences in the Korean War were anything but uneventful as he was involved in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, fighting near Yudamri, and the Heungnam Evacuation. He credits sheer luck with not being caught up in the fighting that raged all around him during his time in Korea.
Role in Korea
Bill Hartline describes being assigned to a mortar company. He talks candidly about his participation in some of the early action that his company.
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Doing My Duty
Bill Hartline speaks about defending a bridge as the Battle of Chosin Reservoir raged all around him.
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Lucky You Got Lost
Bill Hartline speaks about how being tasked to go look for a missing soldier saved his life.
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[Beginning of Recorded Material]
B: Bill Hartline, B I L L H A R T L I N E
I: Um hm. And what is your birthday?
B: December 5, 1931.
I: Where were you born?
B: Omaha, Nebraska.
I: And tell me about your family when you were growing up including your parents and your siblings.
B: Okay. I had two sisters as siblings,
and we grew up, my father was a carpenter, built houses, considered a blue collar worker so grew up in a very ordinary home,
I: Um hm.
B: and it, in the period of time that I grew up
I: Was Great Depression.
B: Well, yes. It was just ending or, I was, I was born right at the start of the Great Depression, and so grew up through all the aftermath, that and we, all people were fairly poor. We weren’t able to travel a lot or do a lot of things. I wanted to see some of the world
the only way I could see how to do that was to go into the Service and travel in the Service. So when I was 17 years old, I, and still in high school, I joined the Marine Corp. Reserves with the hope of getting a head start on when I graduate to high school, I would join the regular Marine Corp. and spend 20 years and
make a career out of, out of being in the Service and hopefully get to do some of the things that I want
I: When did you graduate your high school?
B: In June of 1950, and of course the Korean War broke out just about three weeks later
I: Um hm
B: and then after that, a month or so, our Reserve unit was activated, and I was
I had been the previous summer to summer, two -week summer camp in Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, the Marine Corp., and other than that just a few Monday night meetings, two hour meetings which were really not that productive in learning a lot. But I got paid a, a little, a very little bit for doing that, and it was kind of interesting, and but
that, when our unit was activated, the Marine Corp. needed people very badly, and so because I’d been to one two-week summer camp I was marked [inaudible] ready, didn’t go to boot camp or any, anything else, and went through a series of, of steps, went directly to Korea.
I: So when did you leave Korea from where?
B: Well, you mean when I arrived to
I: No, no. When did you leave for Korea from the United States?
B: Oh, okay. We
I: Was it San Diego?
B: Yeah, from San Diego and I don’t remember the exact dates,
B: September 1950
I: Um hm.
B: And we, we were aboard ship for,
in transit when the Inchon Landing was taking effect, so we couldn’t join the Marine Corp., and so they, they put us off in Japan. We spent, we went to Oshu, Japan and spent, I don’t know, three weeks or four weeks doing some additional conditioning and that kind of thing just to kind of hold us there and wait until the Marine
Corp. came around from Inchon to Wonsan, and we, we landed in Wonsan after the first Marines landed there and then caught up with them.
I: I see. I see. Did you know anything about Korea? Were you briefed about the Korean War?
B: No, no, no. Very little, very little. But it was a war that was necessary for us to defend and, and that’s, that’s
what we were supposed to do in the military as told what we were supposed to do. And so there wasn’t much question about, you know, whether we.
I: So finally your dream come, came through to see the foreign country, but it unfortunately was in the middle of war.
B: That’s right. That’s right.
I: Oh my goodness, huh?
B: Yeah. yeah. Unintended consequences, yes.
I: But you were in Wonsan, right?
B: Yes. We landed
I: Tell me about the Wonsan landing. Tell me.
B: Well, we, we were part of, our group was called the 1st Replacement Draft.
I: Did you, so what are you, what was your unit?
B: Well, we were, we were just a bunch of Reserves that were supposed to be Replacements, and so when we landed, they weren’t, none of us were experienced, none of us had much, that much training, and so we were split up, and
but one, two, three people per unit. We were spread all over the Marine Corp.
I: Um hm.
B: all broken up. So we didn’t, our, the name of our group when we landed was the 1st Replacement Draft
I: Um hm.
B: And then, and then we were split up and put into different units.
I: So finally, what unit did you belong to?
B: I was put into a 4.2 mortar company and the 5th Marine Regiment.
B: 4.2 mortars
I: Um hm
B: 5th Marines.
I: 5th Marine
I: You mean the Regiment?
I: And your specialty was, MOS?
B: Well, when I, when I attended that two-week summer camp, I did a number of things, but I fired a rocket launcher, a bazooka, twice
I think it was, and so somehow the Marine Corp. recorded that as my specialty, although I’d only fired it two times, and this mortar company had a, a 4., or had a bazooka that was used in the defense of the perimeter for the mortar company, and they didn’t have anybody assigned to that. So since I had that MOS,
that’s how I was assigned to the mortar company. Just kind of a fluke.
I: Were you good at it?
B: Well, I never, I never fired in combat, never fired the mortar.
B: Lucky because when I, when I did that as a seven, 17-year-old kid in summer camp, I couldn’t close my, I couldn’t sight,
I could only close one eye and leave the other one open, and I have to fire a rifle left-handed, and the bazooka can only be fired right-handed, and I, the rifles always did left-handed. So, and I didn’t in combat, of course, wouldn’t have anything, a patch to put over my eye that would be. And so the mortar rounds that were used in the bazooka
were boxed in similar boxes as the mortar rounds. And those were stored on a truck. And the couple of times where I was called on or where I could have used that bazooka to, to, I couldn’t get to the ammo because there, it had all this other stuff packed on top of it. And that was fortunate because without it, you know, one thing I learned about the bazooka, if you didn’t fire that regularly, the sights
became all disoriented, and you probably couldn’t hit the side of a barn with it without if you, and I had never fired this particular one, and it would have been disaster had I been called on. The other thing in the protection of the Company that I was, fell into, I was supposed to operate was a machine gun, and a,
and I had never fired that machine gun, and I was called on a couple of times where, that things broke down in front of us, and the Chinese were charging us, and we had to charge some hills, and I had to charge a hill with that machine gun, and both times that I was required to do that, all of a sudden the troops in front of us
regrouped, came together, and pushed the Chinese back up the hill. And so I didn’t ever have to fire that. And, so I was very fortunate with my inexperience and my young age that I, that I was
I: Hard to believe that you, you never used this either bazooka or machine gun
B: Right, yeah.
I: but you were in the middle of war.
B: I was in the middle, yeah.
I: Did you, did you fire the rifle?
I: No? Not at all?
B: Not at all because when we were coming out of the
Chosin Reservoir, that we were, being this mortar unit was carried in trucks, we were always on the road, and the Chinese were always, we could see them, but they were so far away that we couldn’t effectively shoot from the road. A few people did, and, and they had sights and binoculars, and they could, they could do some shooting. I didn’t have that equipment, and
I was a very good marksman with a, with a rifle, and, but I just wasn’t in a, a position to be able to, to do that, and the one time when I came the closest to being into some real tight space, when we were coming, after we come over Fuchilin, I can never say it right, Pass
I: Yeah, Funchilin, yes.
B: down, down at the, at the, we came over that Pass, and we were, we were pretty strung out. We were on the road, and right close to us was an artillery unit, and they had their artillery, their 105s, on the back of their, pulled on the back of their trucks. And,
so as we got down and it got dark, and we kept going which is probably a bad choice by our Commanders, but we were moving in the dark and, and down the road and, and kept going and the firing had quit, and we’re moving along, and we came down to the very bottom of the Pass where the, the road leveled out, very level, and there was a farmhouse and a barn on the,
just off the road, and there was a little stream kind of going through that area, and the Chinese had blown up a bridge that was over that stream. It wasn’t really significant, but we were coming in close to Hagaru-ri, and
I: Oh, you went up to Hagaru-ri?
I: You went up to Hagaru-ri?
B: Well, we were coming down from Yudamni, and Hagaru-ri is south of
I: Oh yeah. You were in Yudamni, too?
Yeah, well that’s, that, yes. I was there, I was up with the four, the four most troops when we got hit at Yudamni. In fact, our group was separated north of, of Yudamni. So we were, we were the furthest group to the north of any of the Marines when we got, when we,
when the Chinese hit us on the 27th.
I: You were in there.
I: Tell me about it. When you saw them attacking you for the first time. How was it? I mean
B: Well, I had, we were split up into, into certain night watches, you know. We had always had people, like 25% were awake and patrolling, you know, outside of our, our unit.
And I had the first watch which I believe was from 7 -10:00 at night, I’m pretty sure of that because these would have been four hour watches. And so I finished, I finished my, my watch. I woke up my replacement, I crawled into my sleeping bag, and so it was just a few minutes after 10:00, and then all Hell broke loose.
There was all the firing and, and the, a lot of, a lot of tracers filling the sky, that, you know, from the firing and, and there were some, there were some, I’ve forgotten what they’re, they, they illuminate the sky, I’ve forgotten the term.
I: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
B: Anyway, those were going off so that people could see what was going on and that was all happening, and so I, I got, quickly got out of my sleeping bag, and my Commander told me to grab two people to get that machine gun that I told you I was responsible for, and I was to take these two guys and to go on the road, and there was a little bridge on the road, and I was supposed to
use that machine gun to defend that bridge. And we sat there all night, and there was fighting going on all around us, some of it hand to hand. Nobody ever tried to cross that bridge. So we sat there and never fired that machine gun all night, although all around us there was just, you know, chaos and firing.
I: I cannot believe in the middle of that severe battle you didn’t even fire a shot.
B: Didn’t even fire a shot, no. I sat there, we sat there all night. And we got up to,
We got, it became day break, and we pulled in, our unit was going to try to regroup to move someplace else, so we, we secured the machine gun and, and, and quit. I was, somehow very fortunate because all these things kept going on around me, but bypassing me. I never got caught up in them. And
I: What were you thinking in that, in the middle of that, that battle? What were you thinking? You were regretting? Were you afraid or what?
Tell me the, the psychological mood that you had at the time.
B: Well, I, you know, yeah, I was afraid. I mean, there was, but, but, you know, I had a job to do, and my job was to man that machine gun, and I was gonna do it, and so I never questioned it. I didn’t, you know, maybe afterwards I thought, you know, about how scary that was. But while it was going on, it was
a job that I was, I was doing and expected to do and had to uphold my end of it. So, that
I: And then, so you went down to
B: Well, yeah, and we, on the, on the way when we, when we got down, I told you, at the bottom of the Funchilin Pass, at the bottom and leveled out at this farmhouse,
everybody, there was our company which were probably, I don’t know, 50 people in the Company or whatever it was and also the utility company maybe had equal number, and everybody wanted to get into that farmhouse and get warm, and, and they did. We were, they were packed in there and laying around and laying out, you know, nose to nose and every
square inch of that, of that place, and my company Commander sent me out to, he said take two men and go check the barn and make sure there isn’t any enemy in the barn. And we did that and came back, and I, I was hallucinating before that quite a bit because I hadn’t slept in four days, and so I was, if I’d have seen somebody in the barn, I don’t think
I’d have shot them because I would’ve been afraid I was wrong. But there wasn’t anybody there, and we came back, and in the meantime the company commander decided that that was a bad spot to be, all of us crammed into that farmhouse, and so he, he pulled the company out and said we’re gonna go on to Hagaru-ri, and so one,
just before we had everybody grouped there and they started counting noses and discovered that we’re missing one guy. So company Commander, again, I wasn’t part of the mortar company, so I was kind of, you know, a catchall to do all, anything that he required because he wouldn’t have asked somebody from one of the mortar units to do it, he asked me. And he told me to go back into the farmhouse and to find this guy
that was missing. And so I go back in, and everybody is crawled up in their sleeping bags, and they’re all trying to sleep, and I’m shaking them and asking are you so and so, are you so and so, and Rod Ellis was the guy’s name. And, are you Rod Ellis, no, and then cuss me and get out of here, you know, for waking them up. And after that I, I kind of got tired of doing all that and I thought well, I’m gonna try one more guy, and if that’s not it, I’m gonna go back and tell my
Commander I can’t find him. And the next guy I shook was, was the guy I’m looking for. And so I said come on, we gotta go. So he had his, take his boots off, and he had to get out of his sleeping bag, roll it up, put his boots on. That took some time, and we went outside, and my company has left. They’ve gone. And I think the company CO was really worried about the spot we were in,
and so we just kept walking on down the road until we’d catch up with them. I didn’t even, wasn’t really thinking too well. But that little stream that was there where the bridge had blown up, they had sent some engineers out from Hagaru-ri to repair it, and they’re working on that bridge trying to repair it. And we, we went right by them, and they’re just, you know, look like they’re getting,
getting it pretty well fixed. We, there wasn’t that much water running, and so we were able to get around all right, and we got across it and down the road, and we traveled down the road a ways, and the, he was kind of a little eerie because it was so cold that there was a lot of condensation off of the river coming up, so there was a lot of, you know,
kind of, almost like a cloud, you know, hanging real low. But on the ground, and, and we’re walking along and then I thought I heard a, I thought I heard a truck, so I yelled out 4.2, it’s the name of our company, and the sound stopped. And I thought that was strange, and then I got to thinking about the predicament we’re in, and I thought this is kind of scary. So I,
I looked at Rod and I said come on. We’re gonna go back, you know, to the farmhouse and spend the night until, wait till morning, you know, to try to find these guys because we’d have been an easy pick off where we were at. And so we started walking back, and we got back to the stream where these guys had, were fixing the bridge, and they had just completed, and they were just throwing their last equipment or tools into the truck
getting ready to, to drive into Hagaru-ri, and I asked, I says well, can we go with you? And they said sure. Jump in the back of the truck, and just as we crawled over the tailgate of the truck, all hell broke loose from firing, and there’s all this, all firing and tracers and everything again. And the Chinese were attacking the, the farmhouse.
And so the driver of this truck, he just put it in gear, and he shot out of there, and two or three seconds earlier and we’d probably be falling off of the back of the. But anyway we’re in the truck, and we’re barreling down the road, and he’s going as fast as he can to try to get away from the firing, and we did, and so we made it, we made it into Hagaru-ri, and found
out the next morning that a good number of those in the farmhouse were killed, and they captured the 105 artillery pieces, the Chinese did, and, and they had them. The Marines sent out people and recaptured them the next day. But if we’d have been in that farmhouse or stayed there, we’d have been part of the casualties of that farmhouse.
I: Right. So you’ve been lucky in all the time.
B: All the time, all, you know, and just hard to believe.
B: But yes, and so, but that, that was, and then, and then other than the firing, walking along the road, you know, we’re always being fired at, cross fire and so on. Trying to duck behind a truck or something for protection, but there wasn’t, there was, they’d be yelling corpsmen in front of us or corpsmen in back of us, somebody getting hit.
But somehow I never, you know, I could, I could hear the bullets sometimes whizzing by, they were that close. But never, never got hit. Never by any of that. So.
I: So you evacuated from Hungnam?
B: Yes. Down to
I: To Pusan.
B: To, to both, yes, Pusan and then up by train to Masan.
I: And then you participate in the Spring Offensive?
B: Yes. All of these regular Marines that, that were
part of the mortar unit, they were all, they were all rotated back to the States. And so I was, and then all this new group came in. So they made me a squad leader of the mortar unit, trained me in the mortars because I was, I was still and, you know, I, I was a Corporal, so they made me a Sergeant to make me a, a squad leader of the, in charge of one of the mortars,
and I spent my, the rest of my time in Korea then with that mortar
I: Where were you in Spring Offensive? Do you remember?
B: I don’t remember the name, so. It was with the 5th Marines and boy, I don’t, you know, they didn’t tell us, you know. Being a grunt, we didn’t know a lot of times even where we were. we just, where we were, they took us.
I: When did you leave Korea?
I think it was November 9 of ’51.
I: Um hm. And have you been back to Korea?
B: No. I haven’t, and, and I would, you know, I would, part of me would like to do that. I’d really like to see it, and I’ve been to China three times. But there’s another part of me that says you know, somehow I was very lucky, and I escaped
Korea without, without being killed. I don’t want, I don’t want to give it another chance, I mean, you know. And that’s, that’s
I: It’s a peace time.
B: Yeah I know, and that’s irrational. But you could be, you know, hit by a truck or, you know, anything, yeah. And I, it’s just one of those fears that doesn’t make any sense, you know. And I should go back because, you know, I, to me,
I’ve been so pleased to see what that the Korean people have done with the country since we left, and
I: Tell me about it. What do you know about the post-modern, I mean post-war Korean development? Do you know?
B: Well, just how successful it’s been, and with all of, of the, the great companies that have come out of that, and farm manufacturers and, you know, and computers and
just on and on and on, and it’s it’s kind of interesting because I, I have a granddaughter who just, two months ago, married a Korean, and it’s, was a guy that was adopted when he was a kid by a U. S. family
and he needed a lot of medical help at a very young age. And so this couple from Denver, they adopted him and a girl that also needed a lot of help, and they raised those two kids. They’re really a great couple. And so anyway, my granddaughter married, married this guy, and they’re very happy, and so I thought that’s interesting
B: You bet.
I: And you know, after World War II, U.S. has involved like a dozen war including Korean War, Vietnam
I: War with Afghanistan, Iraq and small limited war like Kosovo and Somalia. Can you name any war that came with very concrete outcome like South Korea?
B: No. No.
It’s, you’re right. It, and, and the Vietnam War was a disaster, and I wasn’t, no, there, that’s, the Korean War is a really, to me, a, a big exception to a lot of the
I: [inaudible] war, right?
I: And South Korea is 11th largest economy in the world. Do you know that?
B: No, I didn’t know that. But that doesn’t surprise me to hear that, yes.
I: And so one of the most strong democracy in East Asia.
I: We are still
very close to United States, we fight together at the war in Vietnam, war in Iraq,
I: Close ally, and it becomes more important because of the China
B: It does.
I: But we don’t teach about these things. What is going on?
B: No. That’s right. No, that’s right. That’s a, That’s, That’s too bad that we don’t and that more people don’t understand. And I think that some of that is true in, in Korea as well, you know.
Not recently, but a few years ago I heard about all of these demonstrations in South Korea wanting the U.S. forces to leave. And I never quite understood that, either.
I: That was the because something happened in 2002.
B: Um hm.
I: The American military vehicle happened to kill two school, middle school Korean girls.
It was an accident. They didn’t kill intentionally obviously.
I: But the American government, the way that they addressed this problem was really, really lousy and irresponsible.
I: Bill, thank you so much.
B: You bet.
[End of Recorded Material]