If you haven’t read the first part of this story, you’ll want to do that now. [Ed.]
It was during one of the periods when Campbell’s squad was on the road that his most memorable event of the trip occurred. The column had stopped, held up by the leading elements running into a small force of Chinese. While those leading elements were reinforced from the body of the column and pushing the Communists out of their way, the rest of the column had a short period of respite when the men could perhaps relieve themselves or heat up a can of C rations over a bit of Sterno and grab a quick bite.
Campbell was seated on the running board of one of the convoy’s M54 five-ton trucks, trying to grab a few moments of sleep that his weary body was demanding. He had removed his helmet, leaving his head covered with a dark blue watch cap, a piece of clothing that had proven invaluable in helping retain body heat during the worst of the Chosin weather. The trucks, workhorses of a Marine division were scattered along the column and were loaded with everything they could carry, including dead and wounded Marines.
Anything that had to be left behind was either burned or blown up. Nothing was to be left to be scavenged by the Chinese. But Marines are known for never leaving a man behind and bodies, some frozen into grotesque postures, were loaded like cordwood into trucks to be taken where they could be sorted and identified.
A jeep had stopped aside the column not far from where Campbell was resting. An officer had gotten out of the jeep and was walking the line, stopping occasionally to chat with individual Marines. Campbell, whose drowsiness had left him half in and half out of a deep sleep, sensed the approach of the officer, Major Halvicek, CO of the battalion.
As the major got near, Campbell forced himself up from the running board and stood to greet him. There was no salute, as all American fighting troops had learned long ago that saluting their officers in the field simply made them targets for any enemy who may be within range.
Halvicek greeted Campbell cordially as he pulled a cigarette from beneath his parka and extended the pack toward Campbell.
“Thank you, sir. I don’t smoke,” was Campbell’s reaction, maintaining the proper non-com/officer decorum.
“Good for you, sergeant. It’s a bad habit. I’m going to have to stop someday. What’s your name, sergeant?”
“Campbell, sir. Willard W. First platoon, Charlie Company.”
“I couldn’t help noticing your watch cap, Campbell. I expect it’s been pretty useful these last few weeks.”
“Yes, sir. I bought it off a swabbie on the ship over. I did a little studying of Korea on the trip and realized that it gets pretty cold here in winter and I wasn’t sure we’d be home by Christmas as General MacArthur said.”
“MacArthur’s full of piss and vinegar, but he don’t know shit about what’s going on up here. If Smith had spread us out like MacArthur wanted, this division would be all dead or in Chinese prison camps by now.”
Halvicek picked a piece of cigarette tobacco from his lip as the exhaled smoke combined with the frosty air and hung a cloud between the two men. It was unusual for an officer to express disdain of another officer, especially to an enlisted man, but Campbell maintained his composure and said nothing.
“Anyway, Campbell, I think it would be a good idea to get rid of the watch cap. It’s not Marine issue and it sets a bad example to the men to see their leaders sporting non-issue gear — especially if they’re going cold without the same comforts. And if it’s pulled down over your ears, like now, it impedes your ability to hear things around you, some of which might save your life or the lives of your men.”
Campbell lowered his voice so that others resting or huddled nearby couldn’t hear and edged slightly closer to the Major.
“Major, sir. With all due respect, I’m not getting rid of this watch cap. It helped me all through the bitter nights up on the reservoir, nights when just this extra added head warmth was all that kept me alive and alert. I’ve even shared it with some of my squad when they really needed it and until they were able to improvise something else for themselves. Most of the time, this cap is concealed beneath my helmet and no one will tell you that a utility cap provides much added warmth under a helmet.
“Sir, my men know I have this cap. Not a single one has ever expressed concern about it or commented that I was over-privileged to have it. I can assure you that covering my ears with this cap does nothing to impair my hearing and it sure doesn’t take a keen ear to hear the crack of a nearby rifle round or the explosion of a mortar round.
“Sir, you can bust me back to private for speaking like this. Doing so won’t keep me from doing what’s required of me. It won’t keep me from fighting to keep my buddies safe or from helping them whenever I get the chance. It won’t make me any less accurate when I fire my rifle or cause me to care any less about the guys around me, but I’ll be a private with his own watch cap, because you’ll have to place me under arrest and take it by force. And if you put me under arrest, that’ll be just one less rifle available to help get this division back to Hungnam.”
Campbell took a half-step backward and waited for the expected tirade from the major.
“Sergeant Campbell,” began Halvicek as he ground out the cigarette beneath his shoepack into the discolored packed snow, “Carry on.”
The major turned from Campbell and headed on along the line of men and vehicles as he was joined by his aide, Lieutenant Merrick, who had been standing several paces away while the major and sergeant were talking.
“Pete,” said Halvicek as he reached into his parka to extract another cigarette and light it as a small grin formed on his lips, “I just got a reminder about what makes the Corps what it is.”
Campbell sat wearily back down on the truck’s running board and pulled the watch cap farther down over his ears.