Local News

Saturday, May 24 2014 05:00 PM

A Memorial Day story: Bakersfield man remembers the Hadong Ambush

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Korean War Veteran Neal Vance looks at some photos and other memorabilia on the wall in his Bakersfield home.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Korean War Veteran Neal Vance was only 17 years old when he went to fight in the Korean War.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Many medals and other memorabilila hang on Korean War veteran Neal Vance's wall in his home in Bakersfield. The photo if of Vance when he served his country at age 17.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    A photo of Neal Vance, left, a Korean War veteran inserted into the frame of a larger photo of those he served with in 1950.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Neal Vance, Korean War veteran at age 17.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Neal Vance's Korean War veteran hat.

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BY STEVE LEVIN Californian staff writer slevin@bakersfield.com

At age 17 Neal Vance had never seen a body, fired anything bigger than a .22, shot a man or been scared for his life.

He hadn't seen a North Korean, either.

Related Info

MEMORIAL DAY EVENTS

CAF Air Power History Tour , see the world's only flying B-29 Superfortress, P-51 Mustang and other WWII military aircraft, cockpit tours, airplane rides, 2 to 6 p.m. Sunday, Meadows Field Airport, 1160 Skyway Drive. $10; $5 ages 11 to 17, free for children 10 and under. Airplane rides are $75-$1,795. 432-413-4100.

Memorial Day program to honor all military members; with keynote speaker Mike Grover, commander of United States Navy Reserve, 9 a.m. Sunday, Bakersfield National Cemetery, 30338 E. Bear Mountain Blvd., Arvin. Free. 867-2250.

Memorial Day Weekend events , display opens featuring 1,000 flags, a tribute to those who've sacrificed for our country, 11:30 a.m., to be followed by our national anthem on Saturday, prayer service 9 a.m. Sunday, patriotic fair from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., with a ceremony and presentation noon to 2 p.m. Monday, the Park at Riverwalk, 11200 Stockdale Highway. Free. thousandflags.org

Memorial Weekend Program , "Remembering Our Fallen Kern County Heroes at the Wall of Valor," guest speaker, wreath laying, taps and more, 1 p.m. Sunday, Kern Veterans Memorial, 515 Truxtun Ave. Free

In the space of two hours on July 27, 1950, all of that changed.

The Bakersfield resident had dropped out of Bakersfield High School in November 1949 while a sophomore to join the U.S. Army -- and to escape an abusive stepfather.

At Fort Ord on Monterey Bay for basic training, he met Eddie L. Payne, 17, who'd also left BHS to join the army.

The two eventually were shipped to Okinawa in June, where they were placed in the 3rd Battalion, 29th Infantry Regiment. Payne and Vance were in L Company, and a friendship between the two that had begun in basic training strengthened.

They were supposed to undergo six weeks of intense training. But North Korean troops invaded South Korea in late June 1950 and quickly moved through the ill-prepared and under-equipped combined forces of the Republic of Korea and the U.S. Eighth Army, capturing Seoul and Inchon.

Plans still called for the 29th to get a week of training in Japan, but by July 15 it was clear that without immediate U.S. reinforcements the North Koreans would overrun the entire peninsula.

The 3rd Battalion sailed from Okinawa on July 21 and landed at Pusan, South Korea on July 24, then boarded a train to Chinju, Vance's first train ride. The 60-mile ride was in an open boxcar; Vance remembers the shimmering green of the terraced rice paddies, the bulky heaviness of his equipment and the steamy heat.

From Chinju they moved out at midnight to the northeast, toward Hadong, a strategically critical town at one end of a mountain pass. They stopped on the night of the 26th at Hoengchon, just a few miles away from the pass.

Early the next morning the 925 troops headed west along a winding road to Hadong to secure the pass. Vance and elements of L Company had to cross a 20-foot-wide stream on the way to positions on the ridge line left of the road. K Company deployed up the backside of the mountain dominating the road's north, or right side. I Company positioned itself in a series of rice paddies south of the road and M Company stayed on the road.

And then all hell broke loose.

"I figured I was going to get it right there," said Vance, now 81. "We were ambushed. I didn't know what happened."

BEFORE AND AFTER

Vance was glad to join the army. He said his stepfather often beat him and his older brother, who left home at 15 to join the Merchant Marines.

When Vance joined the army there was no talk of war. When he finished basic training four to five months later, there was still no talk of war.

Vance said the first he heard about a Korean war was on the troop ship taking him to Korea. It was called "a police action."

But what was happening on the Korean peninsula was much more. In less than a month, the Soviet-supplied North Koreans had gained control of all but the southeastern tip of the country, the so-called "Pusan Perimeter," a 140-mile defensive line around Pusan.

The 29th Regiment's 3rd Battalion was made up of raw recruits. Many had not fired their weapons before. None had learned hand-to-hand combat. Most were teenagers.

On the morning of July 27, L Company set up on both sides of the ridge line and on the other side of the road, so Vance and Payne were separated. It was close to 10 a.m., and Vance had not dug his foxhole.

Then the firing started.

The North Koreans had the 3rd Battalion in a withering crossfire. He saw several North Koreans manning positions across the road.

"I really didn't know what was going on," Vance said. "I realized we'd run into something. We weren't prepared for that."

He hugged the ground, firing his M1. A sniper's bullet hit the dirt 18 inches in front of his face. Instinctively jerking his head backward, Vance's helmet fell off and tumbled down the hill. Inside it was a picture of Mary Lou, a girl from Bakersfield he was sweet on.

"Mary Lou," Vance thought, "I'm not coming after you."

Looking around he realized he was alone. To his right, down in the rice paddies, he could see scattered soldiers in I Company. Wounded or dead, he didn't know. An officer came by and told Vance to move forward before disappearing along the ridge. He never saw him again.

A second bullet hit 6 inches closer to Vance's face, driving enough dirt into his eyes he thought for a moment he'd gone blind.

Some kind of heavy North Korean artillery hit below the ridge. He fired his rifle in the direction of an unseen burp gun.

"I was scared. I was scared. Most of all the guys were," Vance said. "All I knew is I had to get the hell out of there."

Crouched low, he moved downhill toward the creek in a fast walk, firing at shrubs and bushes as he went. At the creek bank were two or three GIs, one shot in the leg.

Bullets sprayed around them as they slipped into the muddy creek. In parts it was deep enough to swim, and Vance got rid of his rifle, boots and the rest of his 65 pounds of equipment. He doesn't know what happened to the other GIs.

He stayed underwater as long as he could. The creek curved back behind the ridge where Vance had been deployed before emptying into the Seomjin River.

When he struggled out of the water and onto the river bank, Vance was wearing just his pants. Keeping close to the shore he hiked barefoot about two miles back to a bridge he and the 3rd Battalion had passed earlier that morning.

Bedraggled, bruised and scared, he waved down a truck in the early afternoon, helped load wounded soldiers into it and headed to the battalion rear.

THE AFTERMATH

That day's battle became known as the "Hadong Ambush." The 3rd Battalion was decimated by well-entrenched North Korean mortars and machine guns, losing its commanders and communications.

Of the 925 U.S. troops, a third were killed, 100 captured or missing, and nearly 100 more wounded. Dozens of vehicles were lost, along with several howitzers.

The defeat was so complete and the 3rd Battalion, 29th Infantry Regiment so dispersed, it was disbanded and merged with other units.

When U.S. troops retook the area about six weeks later, they found the bodies of more than 300 GIs lying in the paddies and the creek.

In the year Vance remained in Korea, he earned a promotion to corporal, fought many night battles, shot and killed North Koreans, and attacked and disabled an enemy tank. He was shot through the right wrist and hospitalized but returned to action and fought deep into North Korea.

He saw GIs who'd been shot in the head, their hands tied behind them with barbed wire. He eventually fought Chinese troops when they entered the war in late 1950, including bayoneting some in hand-to-hand fighting.

But, Vance says, "Hadong was the worst. It was the worst."

He discovered the fate of Eddie Payne in a letter his mother had sent in late September 1950 that included a short story from The Californian. Payne, two weeks short of his 18th birthday, was listed as missing on July 27.

Eventually, he was reported as killed in action that day.

The inexperience, youth and lack of training for the 3rd Battalion is still decried more than 60 years later, particularly by the soldiers in the Hadong Ambush.

"They sacrificed us that day," said Vance, who lives with Joan, his wife of 52 years, north of downtown. "I don't know what you could say. (Payne) didn't have time to do his job. So many of them went that day. I always think, 'How did I get out of there and they didn't?'

"I think about that all the time. I'll never get over it."

Despite the heavy losses at Hadong, it was just enough of a delay to allow the beginning of what would become an overwhelming advantage of men and materiel to land at Pusan.

Ultimately, 21 nations, including the U.S., fought against soldiers from North Korea and China in the Korean War. The conflict ended July 27, 1953, three years to the day after the Hadong Ambush.

The war continued for Vance long after he returned home to Bakersfield and stepped off the train at the old Baker Street station. A failed marriage. A falling out with a son. Heavy drinking.

He married Joan and built a successful career in the pool service business. But he kept drinking. And he was mean when he drank.

Finally, Joan convinced him to attend a post-traumatic stress disorder class at the Bakersfield VA Clinic. And for the first time, the nightmares from Korea that had haunted Vance began to quiet.

It doesn't mean he's forgotten. Eddie Payne is buried south of town. Vance visits the cemetery once a year.

"By losing all those young people we delayed them a day or two," he said of the Hadong Ambush. "It held them up enough so they could get more troops at Pusan. We just never talked about it for years.

"When I heard about Eddie it bothered me. I think anybody you knew it's harder. I think about it a lot. Nothing changes."

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