"Defending Freedom's Frontier"
...in a Jeep M715
By: Craig Houghtaling
In 1969, I was assigned to a small U.S. Army Air Defense detachment in the very north end of South Korea. My unit operated a remote Hawk Missile radar site, located in the mountains about 7 miles from the Korean DMZ. Our site occupied the very top of Hill 468, a mountaintop overlooking North Korea on one side, and Camp Red Cloud on the other. Camp Red Cloud (known as "CRC") was the base camp for I-corps Headquarters (Metioned frequently in the movie and series of MASH).
Because of the small size of our unit (only 18) we didn't have our own base camp, so we occupied a spare Quonset hut inside of a small M.A.S.H. compound named Camp Mosier, which was tucked into the foothills, a few miles north of CRC. (This was the real location where the story of MASH takes place). This was where we spent our off duty time, and it was a very laid back arrangement as life in the "medical community" was truly relaxed, which meant we could come and go as we pleased, and we didn't have to deal with all the security and protocol that went along with the "Brass" at I-corps HQ.
After my first jarring ride up "The Hill" in the back of a Duce-an-a-half (trying desperately to hang on to the fold down wooden troop seats, that were bouncing up and down, ...as the truck was bouncing down and up), I could see that the front seat was the place to be. Since I was the highest ranking NCO in my unit when I arrived, all I needed to do was assign myself as one of our two primary drivers (besides, I love to drive anyway), so the next day I was in the driver's seat. Little did I know at the time, this would provide me with many opportunities to explore this picturesque "story book" like country.
CRC was situated at the base of the foothills and was the nearest base camp with a motor pool, so we used their facility to store and service our four vehicles; an M151-A1, two "Duce-an-a-halfs" (2½ ton M35), and my personal favorite, a nearly new 1968 "5-Quarter" (M715), which I soon found out was by far the best of the bunch, so it became the "daily driver" for my shift. It held the whole relief crew, and with a layer of sandbags in the bed, didn't ride too badly and still had no problem pulling the steep grades to The Hill.
The Motor Sergeant at CRC never really knew just what our small detachment did, so we could go in anytime (even our days off), with any lame excuse, and check out one of our vehicles and go for a drive. Needless to say, I spent much of my time off, four wheeling around the Korean countryside. The terrain was mostly foothills and mountains (much like Malibu, where they filmed MASH), but mixed with more rocky peaks and outcrops. In the summer, it was very green and lush with abundant vegetation, and there were lots of streams and rivers, but few bridges on the roads in the backcountry, so stream and river fords were very common. It was always fun to pick some narrow little valley, and wind your way up, ford a few streams, and find tiny remote villages tucked away, seemingly untouched by time, connected by primitive roads that were mostly traveled by ox carts, bicycles, and feet. In fact few roads were paved then, only the main highways and the roads in the larger towns, so there was no end to the adventures one could have with a military vehicle, and an unlimited supply of fuel.
I always felt that these explorations were my contribution to "The war effort". You see, when I first arrived in Korea, they told us all at the orientation briefing, that our job here is to "Defend Freedom's Frontier". Well I for one took this task to heart. What better way to accomplish this mission, than to become as familiar as possible with the surrounding territory, and be keenly proficient at the operation of the vehicles the Army provided to do the job. This wasn't easy though, as there were vast areas to explore, and many vehicles to "train" myself in. I donated much of my time off, and it still took my entire 13-month tour, ...but it was well worth the effort.
Now it wasn't really wartime, but it wasn't really peacetime either, ...it was a tense time, it was like a temporary truce in an ongoing hostile dispute that was older than I was. Martial Law was in effect and North Korean infiltrations were not uncommon. There were even skirmishes along the border from time to time, so we were always armed, and every driver had to have at least one other G.I. riding in the vehicle at all times, but there was never a problem finding someone to ride "Shotgun" for a "Training mission".
A (not so) Routine Mail Run
One day (like so many others) I had several hours to kill waiting for the mail to show up at CRC, before I could make the "mail run" up the hill to our radar site, so my shotgun and I decided to take the 5-Quarter out to our favorite road for a little spin in the mud. We called it "Seven Rivers Road" (really only one river, but you had to ford it seven times as it weaved its way through the valley). This road was a blast to charge down and you could hit several of the fords without slowing down, making a huge splash, ...like parting the Red Sea (it was a "Jeep Thing"). However, it was just at the end of the worst monsoon season in years, and it had been raining very hard for several days, so the river was extremely high and moving very fast. Most of the usual approaches to the fords were washed away, so we had to just "drop in" where the road ended, and hopefully find a place to crawl out somewhere on the other side. The river was full of big loose boulders that day, that had been washed down from up stream and the water was so dirty you couldn't see them, so each crossing was challenging, and a whole new adventure. The water would get halfway up the doors at times, and would fill the cab about ankle deep by the time we would be driving out on the other bank... we could feel the smaller boulders shifting and rolling under the tires, and the bigger ones scraping against the undercarriage as we bounced along crawling over the unseen rocks, blindly navigating our way through the murky rushing water. One crossing felt like we were driving on large ball bearings, and the force of the current, made it nearly impossible to stay on course. Each crossing was getting harder to negotiate, and each time we were amazed that the Jeep made it.
We had our biggest struggle with the sixth crossing. Up until this storm, the road here had a sharp turn just before it got to the river and ran parallel to it for about 350 feet, before turning and crossing. But that part had been claimed by the river. The road now ended sharply at a new bank just where the turn use to be, 350 feet down stream from the ford. So to get across, we had to enter the river, turn and drive up the river to the original ford to get out. Well after all we just went through, we were feeling pretty adventurous and it felt like our 5-quarter was invincible. The river didn't look very deep here, so we drove on in, ...but looks were deceiving. It didn't look deep because the river bottom was full of really big rocks here, they had never been cleared for fording, and we had difficulty climbing over them. Most of them were just under the surface and you could see the really big ones, but there were too many of them to drive around them all, and the water was so dirty, there was no way to pick a line or path. The tires would slip an spin as we approached each one, trying to crawl over it, then the Jeep would lurch up and over, and on to the next, one wheel at a time, each corner of the Jeep bouncing up then down at a different time. At one point about mid river, and nearly half way to the ford, the Jeep dropped suddenly as if it fell into a hole and the vehicle came to an abrupt stop nearly stalling the engine, as all four wheels found themselves stuck in gaps between big rocks. I hit the clutch just in time to keep the engine running and the revs up, we didn't have the deep water fording kit so our exhaust was under water most of the time. I gave it some throttle and started to ease out the clutch, but it was as if the drivetrain was locked, and the engine (or the clutch) would die if I didn't let off. So there we sat, water up to the top of the tires, cab flooding slowly, engine revving, knees shaking, wedged in between huge boulders, and going nowhere.
Up to this point, I had always wondered what you would ever use 1st gear - low range for. In the months I had been driving this rig, it had always seemed way too low for any useful purpose, but now seemed like a good time to give it a try. I eased the clutch out while keeping the revs up, I could feel the tires start to slowly turn and spin, and the Jeep started to jump and bounce up and down in place, ...but no forward motion. I gave it a little more throttle, and the jumping became more rapid, ...but still, no forward motion. In frustration, I floored it. The 5-Quarter began to jump higher and lunge back and forth violently and erratically, then all of a sudden literally leaped out of the rock's "death grip", and we were rolling once again. Up and over, rock after rock, bouncing along blindly, through the muddy rushing water. As I approached the original ford, I realized the exit (which we could not see clearly from 350 feet down river) was nearly gone. All that remained was a foot wide path over on the far right side, the rest was a bank, which seemed about eye level to us from where we sat in the cab. There was no time to deliberate any alternative, if I wanted to keep any momentum at all, I had to charge it, whether it looked possible or not. So I aimed the right front tire at the narrow path on the right, grabbed the next gear, and with white knuckles on the wheel, the pedal became the metal! The actual events that immediately followed were not clear in either of our minds afterwards. We both remember the bank, ...then seeing the sky, ...seeing the horizon go nearly vertical, ...then after a hard crashing blow to the undercarriage, found ourselves high centered diagonally on the bank, front tires spinning then grabbing, rear tires grabbing then spinning, Jeep rocking and rolling, and finally clambering out of the river and up onto the road, like a tough ol' mule. We needed to stop at this point, open the doors and let the water out, and try to stand on our wobbling legs, ...and empty the rest of our bladders.
After that experience, we agreed that we should try to go on through the next ford, and on out the other end of the valley, where there was another road back to the base camp, and not attempt to go back through the rapidly deteriorating fords again. So we headed on up the road, but there was a problem with that plan and we didn't realize it 'till we got to the seventh ford, ...which was completely impassable. We sized it up from every possible approach angle, considered every viable option, but the water had sheered off the banks and big chunks were falling into the river as we stood there contemplating what to do. It was a 6' straight drop off into the river, it would have been suicide to attempt to enter, ...not to mention trying to get out on the other side, which looked even worse than the bank we were on. So I decided we should try to drive up the side of the canyon and over the top of the ridge, into the next valley over, ...where surely there would be a road to somewhere? Even though we would be one valley closer to the DMZ, anything would be better than trying to go back through the six fords we had just barely made it through.
My partner was in complete agreement, so off we drove up the canyon side, following a foot trail which eventually disappeared into a steep, shale covered hillside, where the tires spun so much we drove nearly sideways, crab style, just to get across that part of the slope. We found good footing again and were able to continue climbing up the canyon and finally crested the ridge, where we stopped and got out to survey the unknown valley on the other side. Sure enough, ...there was a road down there, ...who knows where it went, we didn't care, we had nearly a full tank of fuel, and we were just glad to be able to avoid drowning ourselves in our Jeep (which would be very hard to explain to the Motor Sergeant). So down the canyon we went, making our own trail, and feeling pretty good about our decision.
When we finally got down to the road, we were faced with yet another decision, ...which way to go now? My nose said right, my partner's said left. Left would lead in the direction of the DMZ, and surely there would be an MP roadblock down the road, and they would have many questions, ...questions that we were not prepared to answer. So to the right we went, down the narrow dirt road, feeling good that our problems were over and very glad to be on firm footing again. Well no more than 200 yards down the road, we heard a loud CLUNK, then a louder scraping sound that shook the truck, and there was a tremendous drag on the Jeep that slowed us to a stop. We jumped out to evaluate the situation, when we found our massive 40 gallon fuel tank sitting on the ground under the truck, having been pushed along by the rear axle for several yards. Apparently, the river boulders had damaged the straps that held the huge tank in place, and they finally gave out. And as if that wasn't bad enough, the impact of the nearly full tank hitting the ground, pushed the drain plug up into the tank. So there we stood, ...stupefied by the situation, helplessly watching our precious fuel running down the road and soaking into the ground, miles from our base camp, with no idea what road we were on, or where it lead, and no radio to call for help, ...even if we had known where we were.
Our spirit of adventure was suddenly quelled by the dread of disaster.
At this point my partner started murmuring something like "Oh man, ...we're going to be busted to privates", and "They're going to throw us in the stockade for the rest of our lives!" Well he might have been right, but there was NO WAY I wanted that to happen. I remembered learning about "field expedience" (using what you've got on hand to solve the problem at hand) in the Vehicle Recovery class the Army put me through as part of my drivers training, so I started to think hard (something you don't usually have to do in the Army) and came up with an idea.
We had a 5 gallon Jerry can of fuel on the side, so all we had to do was take the fuel line off and route it to the can, drag the tank out from under the Jeep and throw it in the back, and we would be on our way. So we set out to implement the plan. That was when we realized the problem was bigger than we thought, or should I say the fuel tank was, ...that tank was too tall to get out from under the vehicle. The axle jack we had didn't have enough lift to solve our problem. The tank was trapped underneath between the rear axle, the driveshaft and the frame. Not only that, I didn't have the tools to remove enough of the fuel line (without destroying it in the process) to reach the can.
Well, just as the disappointment and bewilderment were starting to overwhelm us, a civilian truck came down the road from the opposite direction. We were glad to see anybody about now, we thought this just might be our salvation. He came to a stop a few yards away, but before we could get close enought to talk to him, he started to blow his horn. I approached the driver, who appeared quite agitated, and then in my best "Pig-Korean-American", tried to explain our situation. This dialect may have worked fine back in the area around Uijongbu (We-jong-boo) and the base camps, but out here in the backcountry, it was useless. This guy spoke no English and had no concern for our situation, he had only one thing on his mind, and that was getting around us. But he couldn't because we were blocking the narrow road. Even though I couldn't understand much of what he was shouting, his response to my pleading was made obvious by his numerious, repeatitive hand and arm gestures. He was clearly a pro at communicating in this fashion, and it was also clear he was totally unwilling to assist us in any way. So not wanting to start an international incident, I restrained myself from doing anything I might regret later (we had enough problems already), and reluctantly climbed back in the truck and started it up. There was still enough fuel in the system to move it a little, so I eased it as far to the side of the road as I could, dragging the tank along with me until there was just enough room for him to squeeze by, ...which he did, shouting something that wasn't in my Korean/English dictionary as he drove away.
So it was back to the problem at hand. Since I couldn't get the fuel line to the fuel, I needed to get the fuel to the fuel line. And since we couldn't get the tank out, it seemed best to try to reattach the tank somehow, but we needed some rope. Our M715 had a canvas canopy over the bed with end flaps front & rear, so we removed the ropes that held the end flaps on, which was a time consuming hassle because they were all laced up like a big boot. Once we got the ropes off we fed them under the tank and through the gaps at the top of the frame rails. Then like using a big pulley, we hoisted the tank back up into place and tied it off to the frame. Next I made a plug out of a short stick and a piece of my shirttail and pounded it into the drain hole with a rock. Then I attached the filler hose back to the neck of the tank, poured the fuel from the can into the tank (only half of it, ...just in case the tank fell off again or the plug came out), and we were set to take off just like the "Fight of the Phoenix".
However our problems were not over yet, ...we still had no idea where we were, actually we had a pretty good idea, and that was the problem. We were too far north and this valley we were in didn't appear to be heading in the right direction any time soon. We were sure the DMZ was behind us, but there was no way to tell how far out of our way we would have to drive just to get back to a main road and familiar territory. We no longer had the luxury of a nearly full tank of fuel for exploring. With only 5 gallons, our choices were now limited to one. It seemed like we had no other option but to backtrack to the Seven Rivers Road. Even with the river to deal with, it was by far the shortest distance back to base camp.
So with fear and trepidation, we reluctantly headed back up over the ridge and made our way down to the dreaded sixth crossing. We stopped here and spent about 45 minutes doing roadwork to the approach. Once back in the river, it was actually a little easier to get over the rocks with the strong current in our favor. So on through the river and across the rolling boulders we went, ...six more times! Sweating the crossings even more now that we were limping our wounded Jeep home, and cringing as we listened to the fuel tank pounding against the big rocks, and hitting the frame rail as it swung from side to side, while we slowly bounced (and swam) our way back. The banks were worse than when we came through the first time, so getting in and out of the river became even more difficult. We took things much slower and did a lot more roadwork. We took many turns on the shovel, two shovels would have been nice, but we were very thankful our Uncle Sam had thought to put one on each Jeep (what a guy, too bad he was so stingy with the winches, our truck didn't have one).
About half way back to camp we started to run out of fuel, so we stopped to tighten the ropes, pound the plug a couple of times for luck, and dumped the rest of the gas into the tank. The rest of the trip back seemed like it was just one set back after another. At one point, a very unstable section of road had deteriorated and fallen into the river since we had crossed it earlier, and we had to construct our own trail up and around the wash out, and this set us back about another half hour. We made it through the "ball bearing crossing" and the "big rolling rock crossing" without incident, but we fell in the river just before the last crossing as the section of road we were on sloughed off under the weight of the truck as we approached the ford, carrying us gently -in slow motion- down into the river. For a few moments, we were suspended in the mud from the road as it slowly sank, and the water rose around us. The tires were spinning, but there was no traction in the dissolving mud, so we hardly moved until the current finally eroded enough mud away to expose the tires to the river bottom again. Meanwhile, the current had pushed us and our sinking island of mud closer to the ford, so all I had to do was turn slightly, and with the help of the current, drive diagonally across the river and right out like the whole thing was one smooth planned maneuver.
Well much to our surprise, the ropes held and even more amazing, the plug stayed in. We literally sputtered into the motor pool on the fumes of the 5 gallons of fuel from the can. The story we told the Motor Sergeant about our field repair was just as it happened, except, ...we "forgot" to mention the part about our adventure down "Seven Rivers Road" and into "The Unknown Valley". He assumed it happened on our way up the hill with the mail, so we didn't volunteer anything that might cause him to think otherwise. Then he chuckled and said "I was wondering how long one strap would hold that tank in, the other one broke a few months ago, and they're backordered". My partner and I couldn't think of a thing to add to that, we just looked at each other and cracked a smile, we were trying hard not to break out laughing from relief. So we left the wounded 5-Quarter at the motor pool and grabbed the duce-an-a-half (and the mail) and headed up the hill, ...where we had to tell our story again to the Duty Officer and the whole radar crew, who all wondered why we were so late with the mail. Only now our story was even better, after rehearsing it for the 45 minute drive up the mountain, and finding out that all this time we had only one strap seemed to help validate our story. So we ended up being the heroes of the day for managing to bring the wounded truck back to the motor pool in almost one piece, and like the Motor Sergeant, they were so interested in our "field repair", they didn't even notice our wet boots! So as everybody else laughed about our "ordeal", ....we sighed with great relief, and decided we would not try that again!
....For a couple of days anyway.
This Photo was taken in front of the barraks at Camp Mosier
as the truck is leaving for The Hill (in the background)
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Copyright © 1998 Craig Houghtaling
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