A 1959 movie ‘Pork Chop Hill’ starring Gregory Peck depicted the costly 1953 battle for a rocky hill during the last year of the Korean War. Pork Chop Hill had, in fact, snuffed out numerous lives before 1953. This is the story of one survivor, born and raised in Rockdale County.
James Henry Pruett, the son of a sharecropper, came into this world on June 24, 1929. Their farm was on McDaniel Mill Road, Route 2. Pruett recalled, “There wasn’t much in Rockdale County back then, but those were the good old days. We had an acre-and-a-half garden for vegetables and fruit, plus we picked cotton as our cash crop. The nearest house was a mile away, in both directions.”
Pruett recalls December 7, 1941. “We heard the news of Pearl Harbor on our radio and knew America was at war. My uncle was on the USS Atlanta so we were all concerned.” Pruett also remembers the day he told his father he was quitting school. “I was in the 10th grade. When my dad woke me up for school I told him I wasn’t going anymore. He replied, ‘Fine, get up and hitch up the mule.’ Me and that mule plowed ground until I received my draft notice in October of 1950.”
Ten boys from Rockdale County boarded a bus bound for the induction center in Augusta. Pruett said, “I’d never been very far from Rockdale County, so I thought my world had come to an end.” Basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina didn’t ease his anxiety. “It was rough on a country boy. I was 21 years old with a bunch of teenagers adapting to the U.S. Army. By then I was certain my world had come to an end!”
After basic, Pruett took a train to New Orleans. “I was assigned to the 3rd Army, Company G, 180th Infantry, 45th Division. We hooked up with the Oklahoma National Guard and shipped out. Traversing the locks of the Panama Canal was quite an experience.”
After loading supplies in San Francisco the ship sailed for Korea. Pruett said, “Negotiations between the Communists and Allies started in December of 1950, but the war dragged on for another two years. We landed on the southern tip of South Korea and waded ashore with our rifles held high. I was only armed with a .45 automatic, but since I was the gunner on a 60mm mortar team I had to carry the heavy base plate.”
They marched “a long way” according to Pruett before climbing aboard trucks. Trucked straight to the 38th Parallel, Pruett and his mortar crew went into immediate action behind Pork Chop Hill. “We stayed in the valley during the day then occupied the hill at night. And it was really cold, about 28 below zero. While walking guard duty the tip of my nose got frost-bitten. I wore a scarf over my face after that but to help cure the frostbite a medic gave me penicillin. Been allergic to it ever since.”
One vivid memory: “I was standing in the chow line for breakfast when two MPs drove up in a jeep. They jumped out, dashed over to the Korean soldier standing behind me and yanked the guy from the line. Then the MPs opened his jacket. He had a chest full of hand grenades. The guy was a North Korean infiltrator dressed in the same type fatigues that we wore. That’s a heck of a way to start your morning.”
The year of combat as articulated by Pruett: “Our mortars were always behind the rifle company. A constant worry was infiltrators behind the lines because we didn’t have that much protection in the mortar pits.”
“Our big guns would send over a barrage and the enemy gunners would fire back, that way our FOs (forward observers) could locate the enemy guns and direct counter-fire. We fired our mortar every night, most of the time all night long.”
“The enemy probed the hill every night to test our infantry positions. I made friends and lost friends. It was the same story every night. Their mortars would hit us, then we’d hit them. Shrapnel was a killer but so were the rocks flying through the air from the explosions. It didn’t take us long to learn the type of incoming just by the sound.”
“We also knew by the sound how close the incoming would hit. If you heard a ‘flup, flup, flup,’ it was time to eat earth. After a shelling we’d dig into the craters searching for the little brass nose tops of the shells, that way we could tell where the explosives were made. We found a lot from the USA.”
“The North Koreans and Chinese Communists were pretty good soldiers and sneaky as heck. They’d slip in at night. One night one of my crew members shot one outside our tent. And the snow, my gosh; it piled up over our heads.”
“Come spring and summer the weather changed for the better, but the mosquitos were horrible, biggest skeeters I’d ever seen. We had a boy from Tennessee that told the yarn about waking up at night to hear two mosquitos discussing his body. The first mosquito wanted to eat him in the tent but the second mosquito wanted to take him across the creek. Then the first mosquito replied, ‘We can’t do that, the big ones will take him from us.’ Boys from Tennessee tell a lot of yarns.”
“We had a group of Hispanic soldiers atop Pork Chop Hill that built big bonfires and would sing and dance. They were the bait. Enemy shells would start coming in and our FOs could spot their firing positions. The Hispanics didn’t seem to care. Sort of strange, if you ask me.”
“I remember the day they pulled me off the line. It was time to go home and we were ready. But we found out the next night that we lost about 200 men on Pork Chop Hill after we left. To the man, we all wanted to go back, but they wouldn’t let us.”
Pruett, on coming home: “Back in San Francisco they put six of us boys from Georgia on one plane and flew us home. I took a bus from Fort Jackson to Conyers then took a taxi out to the farm. I had to wake up my dad to pay the taxi fare because I was broke.”
“The family and I talked most the night, but I kept thinking how lucky we Georgia boys were to make it home. I came home with Broadnax, the Hammonds boy, Lee Piper, Max Norton from Milstead and a few more. Yeah, we were the lucky ones. I was a country boy that did his duty, and I’m proud of that.”
There’s a chunk of granite in front of the Rockdale County Court House with the names of Rockdale boys that didn’t make it home from a lot of conflicts. Only one from Rockdale made the supreme sacrifice in Korea: Russell H. Ford.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.