Articles

CORPORAL DUNPHY’S WAR

PIERRE BERTON June 1 1951
Articles

CORPORAL DUNPHY’S WAR

PIERRE BERTON June 1 1951

CORPORAL DUNPHY’S WAR

The lives of nine men depend a lot on Karry Dunphy, a corporal of the Princess Pats. So, ultimately, does the cause of the United Nations, for the war in Kore is a section leader’s war. Here, at th slit-trench level, is the story of the first Canadian ground troops to go into action

PIERRE BERTON

MACLEAN'S ARTICLE EDITOR

WESTERN FRONT,

ON THE WEIRD cone-shaped hills of Korea, scar shovel and blackened by fire, there is no room for in the mass. The war is being fought not by d or even battalions, but by tiny handfuls of weary men cl their way up to the high ground. It is not a colonel’s wa general’s war as much as it is a section leader’s war, and i the shoulders of hundreds of section leaders that success or inevitably rests.

A section, normally ten men, is the smallest infantr; the army and a section leader the most common casr corporal gets only four dollars a month more than a p his chances of going for the long sleep are infinitely grea Canadians had seven killed and wounded in the first three of action). He has some of the responsibility of a commi' officer but none of the privileges. In action, the lives of r depend to a great degree on what, he does.

Section leaders are chosen for a variety of qualities, to lead, efficiency, general savvy. Cpl. Karry Dunphy of No. 1 Section, No. 4 Platoon, Baker Company, 2nd Ba> Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, was given hir because he has a knack of keeping up morale. Althov not yet considered a truly first-rate NCO, men will list! and follow him because of his personality.

Dunphy is the kind of man who emcees all battaliot writes a column in the battalion paper, can sing all the songs to the fiftieth verse and make up new ones o. of the moment. After taking over his section he dub Leper Colony—a steal from the movie Twelve O’C1 and his slogan, “Once A Leper Always a Leper,” officers because it tends to make Dunphy’s section » within the platoon.

But it was these very qualities which stood stead when his section came under fire for the Chinese Communists who were slowly retiring to early this spring.

The section was advancing

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along one of the thousands of nameless ridges of this washboard land, crunching through spring snow in the shelter of the queer flat little pines that clothe the red hills above the winding tiers of rice paddies.

They were strung out behind him —the lead section of the battalion three men understrength, a cross section of the Army: all of them under thirty,

only one married, none except Dunphy with more than high-school education. They came from towns as widely scattered as Fruitvale, B.C., Brandon, Man., Arnprior, Ont., and Charlottetown, P.E.I.

Dunphy, who had lived with most of them for five months, knew them as well as he knew his own family.

There was Burger, the bookworm: comic books, pocket books, magazines

it didn’t matter: Chester Burger read them all in slit trenches, tents, latrines and lorries.

There was Bill Wilmot, known as “Wandering Willie” because he’d seen the world in the merchant navy. He was a strong B. C. booster and liked to sing off key. “I’m no canary,” he’d say each morning, “but I got the crows all beat.”

There was “Trigger Jim” Lacy, the Bren gunner, a blond, dour one-time master plumber, the only man in the section besides Dunphy who’d seen action in the last war. He was champion horseshoe pitcher of the battalion. He was also champion army-beater in the rest areas, but in the line he carried twenty - seven pounds of gun and also twenty-one pounds of ammunition —the heaviest load in the section— without complaint.

There was Charlie Doyle, No. 2 on the Bren, a blond, rasp-voiced, pinkcheeked Irishman with a gift for a colorful phrase (“as dark as a squaw’s pocket”) and an excitable temper which once brought him a severe drubbing at the hands of a PPCLI sergeant.

There was young Alex Fairfield, a reinforcement who was constantly telling the others they had nothing to worry about. “There’s nothing to be scared of,” Fairfield would say. “All you got to do is lie back and figure where the fire is coming from. Then you fire back.”

And there was L/Cpl. “Chicago Bill” Denne, second in command of the Leper Colony, a long-nosed former steel rigger and Dunphy’s closest friend. Whatever Dunphy did or said was okay with Denne, who was inclined to imitate his section leader-—«ven to the same relaxed wav of walking, as if, in the words of one officer, “they were both strung on coat hangers.”

Dunphy was pretty sure how each of his men would react under the test of their first fire. Doyle, the excitable Irishman, would be a bit jittery; Lacy, the veteran, would be impetuous; Denne would be scared as hell but alert, and the others would hit the dirt and wait for him to tell them what to do. He was right in all but one instance.

The shots came high and into the pines, shaking the needles and cracking over the heads of the section, a burst of light machine-gun fire from the hills that seemed so empty. These were the first rounds fired in anger at Canadian troops in Korea.

Dunphy looked around at his section. Denne, very pale, was down on his haunches, rifle to shoulder. Lacy was on one knee like a sprinter, Bren at the ready. Doyle, forgetting his job with the Bren for the moment, was flat on his stomach. Fairfield, white and nervous, wasshouting,“Where’s our support?” The others were off the trail

and down on the ground rolling out of position, as they had been taught, and waiting for Dunphy.

It was Dunphy’s job to spot the fire, estimate the range, relay this to his officer and keep his section moving forward and under control. He saw that the bullets were high and therefore not dangerous so he exposed himself to view for a few seconds, drew another burst, estimated the range at fourteen hundred yards and began to coax bus section forward.

Trigger Jim Lacy had already rushed up shouting, “Lemme get a whang at them!” but Dunphy restrained him. He moved cautiously through the section, kidding them along to get them moving. He had promised Denne a steak at Letros’ restaurant, Toronto, if they got out in one piece, and he now remarked to Denne, with a grin, that he hoped they’d both be around to eat it. That helped break the ice. He had also promised five dollars to the first man to kill a Chinese and he now shouted, “Stay down, you bastards — don’t crowd for that five bucks!”

Burger, the bookworm, was the first to answer: “Make it an even ten and I’ll go over the ridge.” Then the tension eased and the banter began. The section began inching forward, taking cover as it could.

When the section began bunching up, Dunphy kidded them some more. As each bullet struck the ground he’d shout, “There’s a spot they got pinpointed. We know where that is!” Gradually the section began looking at these places and forgot to be afraid.

The first man to kill a Chinese was Fairfield, who moved up the trail, got down on one knee, carefully brought his rifle to shoulder, practiced breath control as he’d been taught, got three shots away and knocked a sniper over at a hundred yards.

Then a weird thing occurred. Fairfield stood up. His whole face changed. With his rifle over his head he began to run back through the trees, screaming and shouting, his pack and weapon catching in the branches. “I gotta see the major,” Fairfield shouted. “I’m in no shape for this! I gotta see somebody.”

That was the last the section saw of Fairfield. He was boarded out of the Army with an S-5 category. S stands for Stability; five is as low as ypu can go. (Editor’s note: The

name Fairfield is fictitious for obvious reasons.)

In the platoon attack and the company attack that followed, Cpl. Dunphy and his men found little glamour and not much excitement. Most of it was hard weary slugging uphill, providing fire for attacking sections that moved past them. That night, the objective still not attained, they dug in one hundred yards from the enemy. They had thrown away their entrenching tools, which turned out to be useless, and used shovels. They wore wool balaclavas instead of the steel helmets you see in war bond ads. As for “wild bayonet charges,” as far as Dunphy’s boys were concerned these existed only in the newspapers. As L/Cpl Denne said: “Why use a bayonet when you got a bullet up the spout?”

The Lepers have killed Chinese at long range, but some of them have yet to see one. “I’d like to get my hands on one of them Chinks just so I could choke him and know he exists,” said Wilmot, explaining the frustration of everyone at an enemy who camouflaged himself into the very soil, then slipped off at night, burying his dead so the advancing forces hadn’t even the satisfaction of seeing the results of their fire.

In the days and weeks that followed —weeks of slow remorseless plodding

from ridge to ridge, of clearing mud huts, of firing round after round into apparently empty hills, of long patrols by day and longer watches by night —Cpl. Dunphy learned a great deal about being a section leader.

He learned that the country itself was as great an enemy as the yellow men in the hills. The slopes are so steep that the padre has had to omit the fine old hymn, Unto the Hills Around Do I Lift Up My Longing Eyes, from church service. Tactics dictate that whoever holds the peaks holds the country, so the infantry is always climbing. On the first climb in training, half the company fell bad exhausted. Now Dunphy has learne« to rest his men, letting them lea: against trees on the broad base of thei small packs.

In the line the section lives in slit trenches, two to a slit. It is Dunphy’s job to locate these slits, under the guidance of his platoon commander, a dark young lieutenant from Kelowna, B.C., named Murray Edwards. (There are three sections to a platoon.) The Lepers live, sleep, eat and on occasion fight from these holes in the ground.

The first night in a slit was the worst Dunphy has ever spent in his life: “That night,” he recalls, “I reached my lowest ebb.” The trenches, waist high, two and a half feet wide and five feet long, were dug in deep snow and frozen soil. The section was hardly dug in before the rain, mixed with sleet, began to fall.

The next ten hours were a nightmare. Even Wilmot forgot to sing. The men’s parkas, battledress and underwear became soaked and then froze. They crouched in a foot of ice water, Dunphy and Denne tried to stand up and found their trousers frozen to the earth, which came away in a chunk. Blankets turned to sopping rags. There was only one ground sheet in the section. Dunphy kept everybody awake; he’d come around every half hour, haul men from the slits, walk them around and kid them about how silly they looked. One man in a neighboring section shot himself in the shoulder—nobody knew whether it was accidental or whether he did it on purpose through depression. But as Doyle, only half jokingly, says; “If the guns woulda worked I guess I mighta put a bullet in me.” Three days later the troops’ battledress was still wet.

In the days that followed the Leper Colony learned a good deal about trench life -—■ some of it from the Chinese. They learned to build a sleeping ledge above the mud base of the slit, to line the trench with straw and fir boughs, to cover it with logs and boughs on an angle for drainage. They learned to build fireplaces in the walls, using bazooka tubes as chimneys, to put hot charcoal in washbasins as braziers, to bury hot stones under their beds for warmth, to wrap their feet, boots and all, in straw.

Dunphy makes sure his men change their socks each night and that they are always clean. When the enemy is close his men sleep in sitting positions, each with his foot in his partner’s crotch so he can wake him wordlessly. Dunphy sees that they keep their heaviest clothing off' by day so they will appreciate it more at night.

In the line the Canadian soldier carries only his towel, toilet kit, ground sheet, one blanket and three pairs of socks. The Americans and some of the British take sleeping bags into the slits but the Canadians don’t because they believe a man in a sleeping bag is too vulnerable to surprise attack. They have not forgotten the chastening and grisly sight that met them as they went into the line: some sixty bodies of

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American Negro troops, slaughtered in their sleeping bags in a surprise attack at night. Dunphy’s men sleep with their boots on.

Dunphy has discovered many things not found in training manuals: how

to build a smokeless fire from small roots, fine grass, dry pine needles and dry boughs from the undersides of trees; how to shave and wash in two ounces of water in a tiny jam tin; how to wash socks so they’ll dry quickly —by rinsing just the feet in a mess tin.

Dunphy treats his men with scrupulous fairness. He sees that each gets an easy watch, from 7 to 9 p.m., and each an equal number of hard ones in the early hours. He takes a watch himself and tries to see that each man occasionally gets a night free from watches. He has never put a man on charge. “I have nine favorites in my section,” he likes to say.

He believes that pay stoppage or detention is tougher on a man’s family than on himself. But on two occasions he has used his fists to discipline men who wouldn’t follow orders. One man had slept on sentry duty during training. Dunphy told him he’d shoot him if he lost a man in action through this negligence. Then, in his own words, “I clobbered him.” At the beginning Dunphy told his men that if they followed orders he’d see they got through. At this writing he has had no casualties.

Dunphy’s strength—-his ability to get on with his men—is also his greatest weakness from the Army’s point of view. “You can’t win a popularity contest as an NCO,” his company commander, Major Vince Lilley, has repeatedly said, but sometimes Dunphy seems to be trying hard. His men seldom call him “Corporal” but use the more familiar “Dunphy.” His officers feel that he associates himself too openly with the gripes of the troops. “He doesn’t always take hold of his men,” one of them says. “It’s as if he was afraid of hurting their feelings.”

Dunphy is a six-footer with lean, dark good looks and a good deal of dash. In Pusan, out after hours, he took a swing at an American MP and got badly beaten. “I woke up with a couple of carrying handles on my head,” he recalls.

On the boat coming over Dunphy was the first man to shave his hair off, thus starting the Cueball Club that swept through the battalion. He wrote Little Benny Writes Home for the ship’s paper and is the author of innumerable songs, most of them biwdy. One of them satirizes the first battalion of the Pats who, during training at Wainwright, Alta., never tired of referring to their part in Exercise Sweetbriar up north. The phrase “Sweetbriar was never like this” has become a byword in the Leper Colony and one of Dunphy’s verses goes:

Up in Sweetbriar we played lots of games,

We built big fat snowmen and jumped out of planes.

And when we were frozen almost half to death

We packed up our gear and we bloody well left.

Look away! Look away!

Sweetbriar was never like this.

Dunphy, who is 27, served a threeyear stretch on the North Atlantic during the last war as a radar operator in the Navy. After the war he tried to get into pre-medical school at McGill, but settled for Dalhousie in Halifax. He quickly became a big man on the campus, went in for rugby, Canadian football, basketball and track and field.

i a single obscenity which serves him as verb, adjective, participle and noun. Like everyone else, he calls the enemy j “Chinks” and lumps all Koreans as ¡ gooks. He dislikes the Americans j for a series of reasons too complicated j to go into here.

On the other hand, he has no pari ticular hatred for the Chinese, whom he has seldom seen and whom he ! considers “sporting soldiers.” Even when the Chinese were withdrawing' beyond the 38th parallel, he was under no illusion that the UN had beaten them, and he was irritated by the newspapers back home which carried such headlines as “Pats Hurl Back ! Reds.” He knew the Reds had not1 been hurled back, and he was convinced that if they wanted to they could have held the hills of Korea almost indefinitely.

In many movies about war there is usually a point toward the last, reel when the ordinary soldier stands up and makes a little speech about what his particular war is all about. There are no such speeches in the I-ieper Colony. Although they volunteered to

I participate in it, all the members of j Dunphy’s section are confused and I cynical about the Korean “police ac-1 j tion”—a phrase they sometimes use as

I a RaR-

Dunphy himself once thought he j knew what he was fighting for. “I thought, it was a good thing that the UN was sticking its neck out,” he says. Now he professes to be as baffled as Bob Perley, a Maliseet Indian from New Brunswick who recently joined the section and who, incredibly, was under the impression that he was fighting Chiang Kai-shek’s troops until somebody corrected him.

The attitude of the Lepers is undoubtedly' conditioned by the stupefying, unending vista of waste and destruction in which they move. Almost every bridge in the land is destroyed, locomotives and freight cars are wrecked and tossed over the sidings, rails are ripped up, buildings gutted, roads reduced to impossible ruts, rice paddies flattened by tenting armies, villages turned to black and steaming sores.

All this destruction, with no hint of reconstruction, bothers Dunphy. He can see no evidence that the war has benefited the people on whose land t is being fought. “No schools, no churches, no progressive farming— nothing,” he says. “Why, they’re still filling the farms with little sticks.” In in environment like this it is not hard ror a soldier to lose sight of the high orinciples for which he is fighting. And the fact that the mass of the Korean peasantry neither knows nor seems to care what is happening maddens Dunphy still further.

“They don’t, know or give a damn who runs the the country,” he says, and his buddy Denne adds: “To them we’re not here as liberators, we’re just the white race fighting on their ground to save our own face.”

The Koreans—even the “friendly” ones— have tried to steal almost everything from the troops. Once, putting up a tent, the section lost four of seven shovels to thieves. Dunphy saw one wiry little woman make off with a tent which four Canadians had been carrying. In Pusan ragged Korean children sold bottles of what they said was wine to the Canadians. It turned out to be urine.

“I love kids,” says Dunphy, “hut it doesn’t bother me a bit to see an MP boot one in the backside if he gets within forty yards of a jeep.”

The Lepers are used to seeing Koreans in their loose white clothing working on their mud - and - straw hovels, or tilling bean fields in the midst

of an attack. One of the men in the company was on watch once and spotted movement in a shattered hut in front of the lines. He fired, wounding a Korean woman and child who were living and working there, completely unconscious of the war around them.

“We take a village and they smile at us and put up the Korean Republic flag and the American flag,” says Dunphy, “but we know damn well that two days before those same smiles were for the Communists.”

Outside of a printed statement from General Matthew Ridgway, nothing has been done recently about reminding men like Dunphy what he and his Lepers are fighting for. Perhaps the effort would be fruitless.

“I know there’s a lot of talk at high level about the liberty-loving Korean people,” Dunphy says. “Maybe the guys on top really believe that. I guess that Triggie Lie comes over and says ‘How’re things going here?’ and old Biggie Rhee says ‘Well, we desire freedom’ and all that business. But what in hell have they got to gain from freedom as long as they’ve got their rice? It seems you always got to take somebody’s word for it that the Korean people are ‘liberty-loving.’ I haven’t met a gook yet who was.”

In army parlance Dunphy’s section is cheesed off with the country. The Pats have been virtually confined to barracks since they left Canada in November. In Korea there has been none of the sweet that usually accompanies the bitter of warfare. There is no leave because there is no place worth going to. There is no loot because there is nothing worth looting. Those who have cleverly managed to seduce Korean women have come down with venereal disease. The villages are riddled with smallpox and typhus and the commanding officer himself has come down with smallpox.

One wag in the unit has suggested that the country be divided vertically instead of horizontally so that the fighting can go that way for a change. This about expresses the attitude of the fighting man in Korea. Few of them want to continue the “police action” warfare that seems so meaningless to them.

r But, with the adaptability of soldiers of every age, Dunphy and his men have managed to keep their spirits up and their morale astonishingly high. They treat the war as if it were some colossal practical joke played on them by fate. When they tell how they crawled through wet soil fertilized by human manure they cannot suppress a smile. Dunphy chuckles when he explains how the MPs clobbered him. On the terrible night when he and Denny found themselves frozen to a slit trench they both burst out laughing. If the war is phony it is also funny: The country is a joke, the gooks are a joke, the Yanks are a joke, and the ROK army is the biggest joke of all.

If they have learned anything lasting from the killing climbs, the chilling nights, the long marches through the wretched ruined villages, and the straggling columns of expressionless refugees, it is that the country they came from is a far better place than they realized.

Dunphy, who is better at expressing himself than the others—after all, that is why he is section leader—is continually harping on this point.

“1 thank Christ I live as well as I do in Canada,” he says. “We all of us know how well off we are now after seeing this country. They can talk about democracy all they want but until you’ve seen this place you don’t know what it means. No one can tell us anything more about it now we ve been here. We know.”