Trees on a Slope
Part One Chapter 2
Several days later. July 13, 1953, precisely two weeks before the conclusion of the armistice agreement. Ten p.m. The enemy had launched a full-scale attack along a 30-mile segment of the middle eastern front, throwing a force of 150,000 strong into battle. They wanted every additional foot of territory they could occupy to the south and seemed intent on capturing the Kumalli power plant in Hwach'o※n as well.
Tong-ho's unit occupied a position east of a landmark dubbed Sniper's Ridge.
The enemy had penetrated the Capital Division, which served under the American Sixth Army Corps, pushing it back until it gave way to the American Third Division. Next the enemy turned its main force eastward toward the ROK Second Army Corps and began laying siege to the Sixth and Eighth divisions along the middle eastern front.
On July 14 Tong-ho's unit was forced to evacuate to the south of the Ku※mso※ng River.
That day had broken with fair-weather clouds riding a stiff southeasterly wind high across the sky. But the enemy bombardment, as intense as anyone could remember, sent up columns of smoke that mixed with the clouds to produce a gradually lowering sky. UN bombers ranged among the clouds and smoke, appearing suddenly to pour down bombs on the enemy prominences. The deafening explosions of shells and bombs seemed to shake the core of the earth. Blast after blast swept the battlefield with smoky plumes of gritty dust. Throughout it all the human waves of the enemy continued their inexorable charge.
Yun-gu approached Hyo※n-t'ae, his dusky face wearing a concerned look.
"I had a weird dream last night."
In the dream Yun-gu's stomach was grossly swollen and he had gone to see a doctor. The doctor had told him he was nine months' pregnant.
"I think that means a bad-luck day."
Hyo※n-t'ae agreed and went to the platoon leader, who exempted Yun-gu from combat that day. For whatever reason, on many an occasion a man had died in action after reporting a bad dream the previous night. Thus the exemption. At the same time, rarely if ever did a man lie about his dreams in order to shirk combat. Exemption from direct combat was no guarantee of personal safety. Rather the men were convinced that nothing good would come of lying about their dreams. Such was the extent to which men kept to their principles when going to battle.
That afternoon the clouds thickened until they blanketed the sky. Night brought to the heavens an inky blackness bereft of stars. There was a steady flight of flare bombs and signal flares, but these were obscured by smoke and dust from the explosions. At length bloody skirmishes at close quarters broke out.
Tong-ho's unit was one of those caught in the hand-to-hand encounters.
"Rifle and grenades are useless,"Hyo※n-t'ae muttered as he unsheathed his knife in the thick gloom.
As they were swept up in the fighting Hyo※n-t'ae and Tong-ho became separated.
At first Tong-ho felt lost. All he could think of was that he had to do something, anything. And then a hand reached for his head, grabbed his throat. Unconsciously Tong-ho produced his knife. Had he actually stabbed with it? All he remembered was grappling with his attacker on the ground and then, when the man clutched at him no more, realizing he was dead. Where had he found the strength for that? He had closed his eyes, he had used brute force, and his actions had seemed to emanate from a power that was inconsistent with his mental state. But from that point on, he first reached for the hair of anyone attacking him in the dark, and if that hair was closely cropped, he fought back instinctively and mercilessy, stabbing, kicking, tackling.
At dawn the enemy retreated for the time being.
The screams and moans of the downed soldiers, unnoticed during the fierce fighting, now became audible. One man cursed loudly and asked to be killed to avoid further misery. Another called for his mother, then recited what sounded like a prayer. Another sobbed wordlessly. This was the scene that followed an intense battle. Only this time, owing to the suddenness and large scale of the offensive, it had been impossible to evacuate the wounded.
Tong-ho reencountered Hyo※n-t'ae. The other man's elbows bore numerous wounds.
"You're bleeding pretty good."
"It's all right. What about you? Don't look like you got hurt too bad. Must have learned how to put up a decent fight. No one's born to fight, but anyone can do it if he's desperate enough."
"Give me a smoke," said Hyo※n-t'ae. "Mine are ruined-see?"
He produced from his shirt pocket a blood-soaked mass of cigarettes.
"Forget that-you need bandaging, now."
"Uh-uh. First I'm going to have a smoke."
Yun-gu fished out half a cigarette and gave it to Hyo※n-t'ae. He always broke his ration of Hwarang cigarettes in two before smoking them and so he was always the last one to run out.
Hyo※n-t'ae lit up, sucked deeply, and slowly exhaled.
"Not much of a cut," he joked. "Otherwise smoke would be coming out." He grinned, revealing his white teeth against the coppery tan on his face. "I tell you, they just don't let up. Soon as I took care of one guy, another showed up, and then another."
There came raindrops from the lowering sky, and then a heavy downpour. The southeasterly wind was even stronger that day. The rain fell in great, lashing sheets, closing off visibility in all directions.
The enemy took advantage of the downpour to launch another assault. UN B-29s, defying he harsh weather, bombed the enemy supply bases. Desperate fighting broke out amidst the bombing. Before long the soldiers were covered with blood and muck. The rain washed it off but it simply flowed away, as if the ground had soaked up all it could.
In spite of his wounded arms Hyo※n-t'ae took up his rifle. But then a dull, prickly ache made itself felt, the wounds perhaps festering in the soaking rain, and ultimately he had to fall back.
The rain would give signs of easing and then the showers resumed. The death-defying waves of humanity continued their assault, and by evening the enemy had overcome bitter resistance to breach the ROK defense perimeter in two places.
At nightfall the wind subsided and the rain became sporadic. And then a surprise: from the rear the sound of gongs and Chinese clarinets. The men in Tong-ho's unit panicked; they were surrounded by the enemy. Cut off from the chain of command, they scrambled in desperate confusion to escape.
Hyo※n-t'ae and Tong-ho found themselves separated from Yun-gu.
After weathering two hours of concentrated fire the pair managed to break through the enemy lines. They arrived at a stream. Their best guess in the darkness was that the stream was some fifteen feet across. They heard movements on the opposite bank-a second noose being tightened by the enemy?
They stepped into the water. It was their good luck that the stream was deep enough to allow them to squat down to neck level before moving further. The bottom was a jagged mixture of rocks and stones. It seemed that normally the bottom was mostly exposed, but that the stream swelled over it in a rainstorm.
The current was decidedly swift. Hyo※n-t'ae and Tong-ho waddled upstream. From the lay of the land they guessed that the stream flowed out of Ch'up'a Pass and toward the north.
Hyo※n-t'ae whispered in Tong-ho's ear: "I'll be damned-uniforms get washed, no more bloodstains, and we don't lift a finger!"
Still, with the enemy on the opposite bank, waddling upstream for any length of time with only their heads above water was grim work. And Hyo※n-t'ae's wounded arms had become useless. The bandages, rain-soaked to begin with and now sodden from stream water, hung from his arms, and the infected wounds ached dully, so that he couldn't move his arms at all. This made it all the more difficult to work one's way through the water in a crouch.
By the time they had covered a mere four hundred yards Hyo※n-t'ae's legs were cramping. He kept falling behind Tong-ho.
Tong-ho moved around behind Hyo※n-t'ae and pushed him forward. When that method proved inefficient Hyo※n-t'ae instructed Tong-ho to pull him forward by his belt.
They moved noticeably faster now.
Another shower began to pour down from the dark heavens.
The situation became ludicrous when, before either of them realized it, the area beneath the belt held by Tong-ho grew stiff and hard in response to the recurring touch of the one man's hand on the other's abdomen. That this one organ in Hyo※n-t'ae's otherwise exhausted, wounded body remained vital at a time of mortal danger, and in spite of the cold rain falling on his head and the stream water that at nighttime felt so chilly for mid-July, was nothing short of amazing. As soon as Tong-ho became aware, he released Hyo※n-t'ae's belt.
"Why not grab onto me there,"Hyo※n-t'ae whispered. "Makes a great handle."
After a mile and a half of this unnatural means of escape they were finally able to leave enemy territory behind.
They climbed the bank of the stream.
"As long as my pecker's up, no need to worry about dying!"
And with that Hyo※n-t'ae relieved himself in a great noisy gush.
(to be continued)