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Hold hands & take the high ground

Taking the ‘high ground’ has been a basic military strategy since man started throwing rocks at each other. A force controlling the heights controls the battlefield, in combat as well as surveillance. American history was built on high ground, from graceful rises to gentle slopes, from ridges, cliffs and hills to lofty mountains.

Names of high ground speak of glory, honor, and freedom: Bunker Hill, Little Round Top, San Juan Hill, Battle of the Mountain of Reims, Mount Suribachi, White Horse Mountain, Hamburger Hill and the rocky ridges of Kunar Province in Afghanistan. Korean veterans understood the cost of high ground in places called Bloody Ridge, Hill 282, Heartbreak Ridge, Battle of Battle Mountain and Pork Chop Hill, to mention a few.

Maps indicate the topography of specific land, like rivers or valleys, or the heights of hills and mountains. The outlines illustrating elevations can take on facades of well-known shapes, like Triangle Hill and T-Bone Hill in Korea. The rugged and deeply eroded ridges of the Yokkokchon Valley are a prime example. One such elevation map showing a forked low-lying jagged ridge that resembles the open mouth of an alligator is called Alligator Jaws.

On April 28, 1953, a 21-man squad moved single file up the rocky slopes of Alligator Jaws. It was pitch-dark; cloud-cover blocked out the moon and stars. The rough terrain features required a march of at least sixty minutes, but 2nd Lt. Costa and his men completed the hike in less than 30 minutes. And they did it holding hands.

Holding hands prevented the column from being split or lost. No words were spoken; the men advanced in dead silence. Once Lt. Costa chose the ambush site, he deployed 10 men to a knob of earth approximately 30 feet from the valley floor; the remaining men took up positions in a drainage ditch. Considering themselves weak in radio communications, the squad carried a colorful kaleidoscope of flares for interactions with their battalion command post.

Their vigil was long and boring, a six-hour, 30-minute ordeal, yet the men stayed alert and ready for action. Corporals Degene and Waldetekle, the junior leaders, crawled to the men at 15-minute intervals, squeezed their hand then received two squeezes in reply to assure each man was vigilant. No words were spoken.

As Waldetekle crawled back to his own position, he saw men on his left pointing vigorously with their rifles, the squad’s signal for detection of enemy movement. Waldetekle crawled to Lt. Costa, pointing his rifle even more excitedly, his signal to indicate numerous Chinese nearby. No words were spoken. Lt. Costa hand-signaled Private Tilahullninguse to unpin a grenade, crawl down a gully and toss it into the middle of the enemy.

At about 10 yards from the Chinese, the private tossed his grenade. It exploded in their midst, the light of the explosion outlining the figures of at least 20 enemy. The battle was on. At a distance of less than 15 yards, both sides opened up with all they had.

An enemy grenade exploded as it hit below Corporal Waldetekle’s right elbow. His right arm was blown off just below the shoulder socket. He didn’t groan nor cry. Without a word, Waldetekle used his left hand to pass the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) to a Private Yukonsi, ordering him to ‘keep firing low.’ Almost immediately Yukonsi was hit in his left arm by a blast from a Chinese burp-gun. With his left arm ragged from shoulder to wrist, Yukonsi passed the BAR to Tilahullninguse without a word spoken.

Back at the command post, the battalion commander knew of the fight and asked Lt. Costa via messenger if he needed assistance. Costa sent a reply, “No, I can hold this field with my own men.” Costa requested via radio for flares over the battlefield from the 48th Field Artillery Battalion led by Lt. Col. Joe Kimmett. Within minutes flares lit up the battlefield.
Lt. Costa glanced at the hill to his rear. He spotted an entire platoon of Chinese advancing up the ridge toward his positions. The Chinese went flat to avoid the illumination. Due to a lack of training with coordinates Costa’s map of the area was high-lighted by color code. “VT (proximity fuse shells) fire on White,” he yelled into the unfamiliar radio. “All you can give me!” The barrage landed right on target. The surviving enemy soldiers scattered.

Corporal Degene reported more Chinese assembling on the other side of the ridge. Lt. Costa wasted no time. Into the radio he yelled, “Keep the fire going on White! But give me more VT and put it on Red!” For the next 65 minutes American artillery pounded ‘White’ and ‘Red.’ The barrage saved Lt. Costa and his men…good thing; the squad was out of ammunition.

At 0430 the battalion commander asked Costa how things were going. Costa replied, “The only live Chinese in this valley are in our hands.” The squad had captured two injured enemy soldiers. With their dead and wounded, Costa’s squad returned to base looking as energetic as they had when the battle started.

It’s interesting to note that Lt. Wongele Costa and his 20 men had just tasted combat for the first time. It was also the first patrol sent from the newly arrived Ethiopian battalion which just arrived in Korea. They fought the old way, instinct and traditionally tested pluckiness. Before their first patrol, the Ethiopian squad spent 4 days from the entrenched heights to study the terrain of the Alligator Jaws.

During his debriefing, Lt. Costa said, “Every detail of that ground had become part of a print in my mind. It was like moving into my own house. I could see it in the dark.”

As Americans, Ethiopians and several United Nations forces continued to pay the supreme sacrifice on rugged Korean hills and mountains, the worldwide news media remained in Panmunjom reporting on the peace talks. As ‘negotiators’ nitpicked over the size of the conference table or the acceptable size of national flags, soldiers on both sides died holding a line of worthless real estate along the 38th Parallel. The ‘peace talks’ concluded with a ‘cease fire’ agreement. Technically, we are still at war with North Korea.

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at or