Remembering Korea: John Woods

The infantryman recalls the carnage at Chail-Li



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To mark the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice on July 27, Maclean’s teams up with the Historica-Dominion Institute to tell the tales of seven veterans of that brutal war.

Woods recalls the carnage at Chail-Li:

Chail-li, South Korea

My battalion’s first big action was the mountain beside a village called Chail-li…And my particular platoon [11 Platoon], my objective was the very tip of this mountain, which of course was guarded by Chinese. So we had quite a fight that day. We bivouacked on the side of the road, and at five o’clock in the morning in the pouring rain we started our attack, which actually went in I think at six o’clock in the morning. And fairly early on we lost practically the whole of one platoon of the company.

And my platoon and one other managed to fight on and we reached the summit. And I reached my objective. But the problem, which was not seen before or understood, was there are actually two peaks to this hill. Now we took one peak, and on the other peak which was about 50 yards away, there was a Chinese machine gun heavily built in and almost impossible to silence. And I was waiting for the order to go down and seize this gun because we’d have to go down a little valley and back up. And I was waiting for that knowing that, if that order was given, none of us would survive, we’d all be killed. And thank God the order wasn’t given, and we stayed where we were on our little peak.

But about four o’clock in the afternoon, my company commander, Harry Boats from Nova Scotia, a very gallant officer, he had a Military Cross and he was a wonderful man, I was sitting beside him on the reverse slope of the hill. And the artillery observation officer was on the other side of him and we were looking at a map and a mortar dropped down in the valley and blew back up and he lost both his legs.

So that then, that left only two officers left in the company out of four and the other one was Jimmy Cowan who had number 10 Platoon. I had 11 Platoon. So the two of us were left pretty well to our own devices and we didn’t have that many effective bodies left. And the Chinese shelling started to get heavier and heavier. And we were taking casualties and I said, Jim, “We’ve got to get these casualties off the hill.”

And Jimmy took over because it’s, people may think it’s archaic, but when Harry was wounded, our company commander, Jimmy turned to me and he said, “What’s the date of your commission?” And I said, “February 18, ’48.” Well, he said, “I’m senior you by three months.” “Well,” I said, “Okay, you’re the company commander.” And that’s the way it went.

Anyway, we were finally told to retire. And because the Chinese were mounting a very vigorous attack against us and we were out-manned by at least probably eight to about ten to one and there was no hope holding that position at night unless we were heavily reinforced. So the decision was to take us off the hill that we’d spent the day and whatnot taking. And that was the battle of Chai-li, the battalion’s first act.

The company went down the hill with Jim and I covered them, my platoon. I took two corporals and myself and we each took a Bren gun and we got about 40 yards down the hill and then laid down. And we had all the ammunition magazines from the rest of the company so we had lots of ammunition. And we’re carrying Bren guns, which was a wonderful little light machine gun. And when the Chinese finally appeared on the summit, we waited till they came over on the other side and then we gave it to them. And then they all ducked and disappeared and we moved down another 40, 50 yards down the hill and did the same thing until we reached the bottom. And this was covering our company as they went down.

So that’s how we managed it and at the end of the day. We were upset that we had to fight all day and then hand it back over. But at the same time, we had to be realistic but there’s nothing we could have done. And at the same time on top of the hill, we had probably seven or eight wounded and shelling was creating more. So it was simply untenable.

Looking back, we all did our duty and it’s strange thing when you’re in battle and you talk about it later. It sounds like a terrible, terrible thing and how one could do it. But a young officer, any officer, infantry officer is so busy directing his platoon or his company, that he doesn’t have time to think about either fear or anything else. That’s just one of those things. At least and that’s certainly the way it was with me. You know, we were taking a quite a hammering from artillery and I really didn’t realize how bad it was at the time. But when I got down and looked back up at the hill I thought to myself, “My God, we’re lucky to have gotten away with it.”

The full version of this post first appeared as part of the Historica-Dominion Institute’s Memory Project.