Remembering the forgotten war part II - Massacre Valley

When Don Pederson was asked about his experiences during the Korean War, he took out a list that ordered units by the number of casualties they had suffered in combat.


When Don Pederson was asked about his experiences during the Korean War, he took out a list that ordered units by the number of casualties they had suffered in combat.

He pointed to the very top of the list. There was Pederson's unit, the 38th Regiment of the 2nd Infantry Division. During the war, they had 2,034 men killed and 5,090 wounded. That represents a cumulative casualty total of more than half the current population of Brainerd; slightly less than the entire population of Baxter.

During the battle of Hoengsong - fourth from top in terms of battles with most KIAs - Pederson thought he was certain to be another name on the list of dead.

In February of 1951, Pederson had been promoted to sergeant, assuming command of a squad. One night, Pederson's men were assigned to guard artillery, well behind the main line of battle. But a Chinese attack broke through a South Korean unit further ahead of Pederson, and his squad's position suddenly became the front line. The Americans were on one side of a road and retreating South Koreans interspaced with advancing Chinese on the other side, Pederson remembers.

"It was a mess," he wrote.


At one pointed, the U.S. troops unhooked an cannon from its truck, swung it around and fired incendiary white phosphorus rounds point-blank at the advancing enemy. The prospect of being burned alive took the starch out of the Chinese attack.

"In about five minutes, there wasn't a shot being fired in our area," he wrote.

For Pederson, the worst was yet to come.

The last of his squad

During the ensuing retreat the next day, the column came under mortar and machine gun fire from a nearby hill. Pederson's commanding officer told him to take his squad and clear the hill. The trouble was, Pederson's men had either went down during the fight or went missing during the chaos, so the only man left besides Pederson himself was Cpl. William "Cliff" Brown, one of his best friends in the army.

When Pederson replied that his "squad" now consisted of just two people, the CO gave him three strangers and told him to take the hill anyway.

The tiny capture party was covered by an American 40 millimeter anti-aircraft gun firing on the hill in support, but other than that, they were completely alone. Soon, the three replacements disappeared, so it was Brown and Pederson against an unknown number of Chinese on the hill. Pederson did not expect to make it out alive.

"I don't remember having any fear," he recalled. "I just figured, 'This is it'. I didn't figure there was a chance in a thousand of making it to the top. I never figured I would live to be 25 years old."


Curiously, the two didn't come under fire as they climbed up the slope. When they made it to the top, Brown and Pederson discovered they had surprised an entire platoon of dozens of Chinese soldiers, most of their weapons stacked in a pile. The pair of GIs began firing wildly and yelling,

The stunned Chinese fled, but made the mistake of bunching up as they went for a narrow trail leading off the crest of the hill. This gave Brown and Pederson easy targets; hitting more than one man with the same shot.

"You shoot into a flock of ducks, kind of the same thing," he said.

Pederson and Brown fired about two clips of ammunition each from their rifles, 32 rounds. After about 20 seconds, the enemy soldiers were either dead, wounded, or fled.

Pederson saw a cache of American-made weapons the Chinese had captured, including a machine gun and a mortar. He started taking M1 rifles and swinging them against rocks to break them apart, until one went off in his hands. He then decided to put the captured weapons in a pile and burn them all up with a white phosphorus grenade.

During the momentary pause in the fight, Pederson and Brown made sure to put another bullet in each of the downed Chinese, to be certain they were dead.

"Some might call that murder, but to me, it's part of combat," he wrote.

What did haunt him, Pederson said, was the man he killed as they were moving to leave the hill.


Shooting a man

They went the same way the Chinese soldiers had fled earlier. Pederson and Brown suddenly came upon a single man, unarmed, about 30 feet to the left of the trail. Acting on reflex, Pederson brought his rifle to his shoulder and shot the man, followed quickly by Brown. The enemy soldier looked directly at Pederson as he slowly collapsed to the ground.

Pederson remembers the details of the man's appearance to this day. If you put the man among a lineup of 100 Chinese soldiers, Pederson said, he could pick him out.

He was tall, close to 6 feet, in his mid-30s. Pederson figures he was an officer since his clothing was clean and of better quality than the men around him: a gray quilted uniform with a rabbit-fur cap. Pederson imagines what the officer was thinking when he knew he was going to die - did he regret his mistake, at not posting a guard, letting Pederson and Brown sneak up on his men?

"One man could have stopped 30," Pederson said. "There was no cover on that hillside."

Pederson had nightmares about the man's face for about a year and-a-half after being discharged.

Being shot

Brown and Pederson continued on their way off the hill, when they came upon a group of three Chinese soldiers on one side of a gully. Pederson crouched down to exchange fire with them, and hit one while the rest vanished. When he stood up, he was immediately hit himself, near the hip. Pederson compared the experience to being snapped with a wet dish towel. Getting shot at sounds like a small-caliber rifle going off nearby, as the bullet breaks the sound barrier, he said. There's a possibility that if he hadn't stood up when he did, he would have been hit in the chest instead of the hip.


After laying among the rocks for awhile, Pederson hobbled back down the hill. Lying on his back in the evacuation column, he saw the vehicle behind him get hit by artillery and explode. That was one of his last memories of the battle in the area near "Massacre Valley," named for the fighting that took place there.

Pederson woke up in a military hospital in Japan. He had no idea what had happened to Brown, and no idea that he had been promoted to Sergeant First Class just two days before he was wounded. Discovering both would lead him on an odyssey of reconciliation with the war.

Part one of this series appeared online and in the weekend Dispatch. Look for part three in Tuesday's edition of the Dispatch.


Brainerd veteran works to remember the forgotten war - Part 1

Remembering the forgotten war - Part 3:


ZACH KAYSER may be reached at 855-5860 or . Follow him on Twitter at .

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