Henry Lee Gaddis was 11 years old on Dec. 7, 1941. “I remember when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the president declared war on Japan,” he said. “We moved from Cherokee County into Atlanta so my dad could work for a dairy. Everything was rationed, sugar, flour, gas … but we did okay.”
When asked his recollection of final victory, Gaddis said, “What I remember most is the photo of that sailor kissing a nurse in the middle of Times Square.”
Peace, as always, was elusive. “I was working after leaving high school when the Korean War started,” Gaddis recalled. “My cousin had joined the Army and visited us on the Sunday before he reported for duty that coming Wednesday. I decided to go with him. He went with me to the induction center on Ponce de Leon on Monday. I passed the tests and signed up with the understanding that I’d leave on Wednesday with my cousin. At 5:30 p.m. that same afternoon I was on a Greyhound bus en route to Fort Jackson, South Carolina. I didn’t even have a toothbrush, nothing but the clothes on my back. My cousin had to tell my folks I had joined the Army and was … well, gone.”
From Fort Jackson Gaddis traveled to Fort Mead, Maryland for basic training then preparation as an MP. “Being with the Military Police was okay,” he said. “Later, I was in an advanced party for a training exercise down in South Carolina. I was assigned to direct traffic.” A smile creased his face as Gaddis admitted, “You can really mess with folks when directing traffic.”
Transferred to pull guard duty in a stockade at Indian Gap, Pennsylvania, Gaddis’s exposure to, in his words, “plenty of cold and snow” would help groom him for the next assignment: the Far East Command, specifically, Korea, with an erroneous MOS - infantryman. “I reported to Pier 91 in Seattle, Washington and boarded what I referred to as a ‘cattle ship,’ the USNS General R.L. Howze. KP duty on a ship loaded with 5,000 soldiers didn’t exactly help my mindset, but neither did 17 days at sea in rough weather. The ship would ride a big wave straight up then come down in a nose dive. We could hear the propellers spinning out of the water. And seasick, good gosh, I don’t even want to describe the mess.”
Upon arrival in Japan the men disembarked to be issued field gear, M-1 rifles, helmets and other combat necessities. Gaddis said, “When we got off that ship I told a buddy that I never wanted to set foot on that cattle boat again. We stayed in Japan about 18 hours.” The next day the same soldiers boarded the same ship and sailed for Inchon.
Once ashore, Gaddis witnessed war’s devastation first hand. “Inchon and Seoul were rubble, and if a building was standing it was full of shell holes.” Boarding an old train with plank seats, Gaddis, now assigned to the 15th Infantry Regiment, 1st Battalion, C Company, headed north into combat. “We had no idea where we were heading and still didn’t know when we arrived,” he recalled. “The landscape of rice paddies, valleys and barren mountains stripped of vegetation was our home.”
MP turned infantryman, Gaddis was assigned as a team member on a 61mm mortar. “I told the lieutenant I’d never even seen a 61mm mortar,” Gaddis said. “He didn’t care, so I learned until I could set up a 61mm mortar in 17 seconds.”
Gaddis received one command: Anything in front of you is the enemy, so shoot it. Forward observers spotted targets for Gaddis and a gunner. “I don’t know if I ever killed anybody or not,” he said. “We just lobbed mortar shells and kept on lobbing.”
Controlling a mountain meant controlling the valley. Gaddis assisted in one of the bloodiest battles of the Korean War: White Horse Mountain. “The South Koreans and Chinese went at each other for 10 straight days and the mountain changed hands 24 times. We were positioned behind White Horse and ordered to hold the line if the Chinese broke through. Finally we were called up to help dig trenches on the mountain. It was horrible. If your shovel hit earth it hit a body. They told us to mark the bodies and just keep on digging.”
Gaddis participated in one of the most controversial battles during the Korean War: the Battle for Outpost Kelly in the Kumsong Sector of the Chorwon Valley. “The 65th Infantry Regiment, an all- Puerto Rican unit, failed to hold Jackson Heights (a small mountain). They came off the mountain under less than honorable circumstances and let the Chinese take the mountain.”
Note: The soldiers of the 65th Puerto Rican unit served honorably and bravely before the Battle for Outpost Kelly, but their leaders and NCOs had been decimated and replaced by inexperienced officers. The result reared its ugly head at Outpost Kelly. Several were court-martialed but the Secretary of the Army granted clemency or pardons to all involved.
Gaddis continued, “Jackson Heights was really bad. Personnel carriers took men in then brought back loads of bodies. We were advised that if the Chinese broke through, well, our artillery had been sighted on us and we’d be hit by friendly fire.”
During the melee, Gaddis reluctantly served as a forward observer. “I wasn’t thrilled to say the least,” he said. “But experience was needed and I was the man, so there I was for 12 straight days directing fire. It was all rocks, no place to dig in, so you had to build a rock barrier and hope for the best.”
Gaddis spotted an enemy forward observer on the opposite mountain. “I called in tank fire and the shells started marching up to his position,” Gaddis said. “He popped his head up for a look, saw what was coming, jumped out of his hole and ran like the dickens. I never saw him again.”
When Chinese prisoners rioted at a rear-area camp, Gaddis was pulled off the frontlines to help quell the uprising. “A tank was brought up to the fence, a .50 caliber machine gun cut loose, then the fence was cut and we rushed into the compound. One of our officers kept shouting ‘stay calm, men, stay calm,’ but was so nervous he threw a concussion grenade right in the middle of us. I got shrapnel in the leg. Luckily, we stopped the riot with only one death.”
Back on the frontlines in 40 below zero weather, anti-freeze was used in water jackets on .30 caliber machine guns to keep the weapons from freezing. “Gosh, it was cold,” he said. “And in that subzero weather we repeatedly received orders to ‘fix bayonets’….thank the Lord we never did get into hand-to-hand combat, but we came too close for comfort, if you ask me.”
During the Christian holiday season the Chinese put up a Christmas tree on the opposite mountain to taunt the Americans. “Their loudspeakers blared 24 hours a day with treasonous propaganda, trying to get us to desert or demoralize us,” Gaddis said. “I think a lot of boys wanted to target that Christmas tree.”
On a three-day R&R trip to Japan, he recalled, “I enjoyed it, but coming back we got the news that the plane that took off before we did went down. That’s 119 boys that never made it home. My family thought I was on that plane because they knew I was in Japan. They didn’t know I was alive until I wrote them a letter asking why they stopped writing me.”
G.I.s in combat more than seven days per month earned four points per month towards the goal of 36 points for a ticket home. Henry Gaddis earned a trip home in nine months. “I was glad to be home. I lost a lot of friends in Korea, saw a lot of horrible things, but I went in a boy and came out as a man with an appreciation for life.”
Gaddis made a living as a lithographer until retirement in 1995. He and his wife have been Conyers residents for 48 years. Korean War veteran Henry Gaddis was on the May 29 Honor Flight. “That was a wonderful experience,” he said. “Now my military service has come full circle.”
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.