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Interview with William Didycz [08/18/2004]

Robert Didycz:

Today is August 18,2004. My name is Robert Didycz. I am here to introduce my father, William J. Didycz, a retired chemical engineer who served in the Army from October 1952 to July 1954, much of the time being spent in Korea. My father was born May 10, 1931, and is currently 73 years old. He currently resides at [address redacted]. It's important to note that the only people involved in the recording process are my father and me. So I'd like to introduce him now, my father, William J. Didycz.

William Didycz:

Thank you, Bob. I am William J. Didycz; I was once a corporal in the United States Army. I was married in August of 1952. Two months later I was drafted into military service. I spent sixteen weeks in Indiantown Gap through a bitter winter, and, uh, Indiantown Gap Pennsylvania is just as cold as Korea was, I think. And after the sixteen weeks of infantry training I was shipped out from Seattle to Yokohama, Japan, where we were then put into different categories. I was fortunate enough to spend another six weeks learning how to repair tanks at the Japanese Naval Academy in Eta Jima, Japan. I think I was there for six weeks and then went to a port city of Sasebo, where we were given M-l rifles and two bullets to learn how to zero them in, and so hopefully my rifle would be zeroed in, and then we were shipped to Korea. And I would like to read from the autobiography that I wrote about eight years ago, and this includes a chapter from my Korean War experience. I'd like to read from my autobiography now.

[William J. Didycz reads (verbatim from personal memoirs)] At night, we were loaded into ocean-going landing craft and spent the night crossing the Yellow Sea to Korea. We landed at Inchon, the city where over a few years before, McArthur had staged a surprise landing and took back most of South Korea from the North Koreans. Our landing was much less portentous, however; we were merely loaded onto railcars, and sent to a repl. depl. (replacement depot) in Chunchon. From Chunchon, Steve and I were transported by open truck to our outfit, the 176th Armored Field Artillery Battalion.

Here was the war. The truck took us along dusty roads that increasingly looked like a war was being fought. The hills were scarred with shellholes, and sandbag-protected artillery pieces lined the road. At one point, the road passed in front of a battery of 155 long toms (155 mm artillery pieces with a long barrel) that sent off a salvo as we passed beneath the barrels. The explosions were deafening; Steve and I didn't know whether to shit or go blind, as the saying went. We got our first smell of cordite; the perfume of the military. With that first salvo, I had seen enough of war already. On we went, further up to the front. I got my first look at Dagmar, the twin peaks that were named after the busty Swedish movie star.

We pulled into A Battery of the 176th under a sign proclaiming that it was the 176th, and that A Battery was the furthest toward the enemy. I couldn't believe my eyes. A bunch of guys were shooting baskets into a regular basketball hoop set up between the guns. Some of the guys were lying around sunning themselves. Didn't they know there was a war on! Steve was taken to the motor pool, and I was handed over to the Fire Direction Center. Since I had had some math, they assigned me to survey and fire direction, curiously called the Detail Section. In the sandbagged bunker, which I was to call home, I was introduced to Cpl. Carl Leverich. Carl was a tall, gangly guy who didn't stand on convention; in fact he looked more like a crane, as he happened to be taking a bath at the time of our introduction. He was buck naked, with one leg up, and was wiping his behind with a washcloth. Taking a bath at the front meant making the most of a helmet full of hot water. "Have a beer," he offered, reaching for a beer in his larder beneath a trapdoor in the floor. When I told him that I was surprised to see guys shooting baskets rather than shooting the enemy, he explained that the front was static and hadn't received any shelling for several months. The war was in a holding pattern, with neither side willing to take the initiative, since Armistice talks had been going on in earnest at Panmunjom. Carl explained that we were just south of the 38th parallel, near the Wahchon Reservoir; Dagmar was between us and the enemy.

Carl's job was a forward observer;" Would I like to be one," he asked. "It's loads of kicks and you don't have to put up with all the chicken-shit back here at the battery." He related all the fun he and his buddies had, like tossing a grenade (pin pulled) into a nearby foxhole while you had your pants down crapping. He and an officer were posted on Dagmar, looking at the enemy through a BC scope (a powerful binocular on a tripod). Their job was to call back to Headquarters Battalion the enemy's position whenever it was decided to fire a few rounds. Since he and the officer rotated with a substitute crew every week, it was their turn to be back in the battery. I said I'd wait and see before deciding to join in his grenade tossing fun. Since I was a mechanic, I was assigned a half-track to take care of, and I would be a radio-telephone operator in the Fire Direction bunker. A half-track was just what it sounded like, with two wheels in the front and tracks where the back wheels were supposed to be. It was lightly armored all over, and had a 50 cal. machine gun mounted on a ring just behind the driver's seat.

The 176th was a Pennsylvania National Guard outfit that had been reactivated for the Korean War. Officially, it was the 176th Armored Field Artillery Battalion. By the time I got to it, there weren't anymore Pennsylvanians in it; they had all been rotated home. The "armored" part, was because our guns, 105 mm howitzers, were mounted on tank chassis. Howitzers are unique in that they could fire at a high trajectory, like over hills that Korea was full of. Being mounted on tank (M4A3 E8) chassis meant that we were mobile over terrain that trucks pulling howitzers couldn't negotiate. It was a great idea for a tactical weapon, but a lousy one for the men in it. Tanks themselves were death boxes; this was a death box without a lid.

When I first got to Korea, I traded my M-l rifle to another guy for his 30 cal. carbine. He felt that he wanted a more accurate weapon in case he needed it, and I wanted a weapon that was lighter to carry. After awhile, I traded my carbine for a 45 cal. submachine gun. More macho. The submachine gun was called a "grease gun" because it looked similar to a lubricating tool for applying grease to automobiles. I never did get to fire it, and it was too heavy to carry, so I bought a 45 cal. automatic pistol from a ROK (Republic of Korea soldier) who had undoubtedly stolen it and filed the serial numbers off. He also gave me a regulation sidearm holster and a shoulder holster. That was really macho. I fired the pistol only once, in the woods, to see if it worked.

The lull in the war was short lived for me. Two days after we got to the 176th all hell broke loose. The North Koreans wanted to retake some of their lost ground before an armistice was signed. We came under intense artillery fire day and night. "Hey, this ain't bad," Leverich said. "We get forty-five bucks a month for combat pay whenever we get shelled for more than four days.

My job was to receive fire directions over the telephone from headquarters’ Battery. I would then relay this information to the guns over another telephone, at the same time keeping a log of the firing instructions. The instructions went something like this: "Fire mission,.....elevation 45, deflection 500, Willie Peter, charge five, fuse quick, six rounds, fire when ready." Willie Peter was the code words for white phosphorus, which must have been horrible if you got hit with it because it burned into flesh and wouldn't be extinguished until it was all gone. Fuse quick, meant that the shell would explode as soon as it hit something. There were a lot of different fuses; each to explode in a different manner. The gunners at each of the six guns would repeat the instructions back to me and, since they often called simultaneously, I couldn't confirm that they had heard the instructions correctly. This occasionally resulted in wild or short rounds falling on the friendlies. South Korean troops (ROKs), in front of us. War is hell, as the saying goes.

The officers must have thought that we had it too easy sitting in the fire direction bunker because after an eight hour shift I had to go and help the gunners unload shells. Each shell came in a separate wooden box. Each shell had six powder bags tied together on a string. The number of bags plus the angle of elevation of the gun determined the distance the shell would travel. If they were firing only five bags that day, we would pull one bag out of the shell casing and separate it from the remaining five by slamming the shell back into the casing, thereby severing the string. The shell detonator was in the center of the casing, and if you inadvertently hit the detonator on a pebble when you slammed the shell and casing together, it would be Good-bye Charlie, boom. The unused bags were piled up in the ammo bunker and periodically burned, bonfire style. It was surprising to see them sizzle and bum harmlessly, rather than explode.

The fuses came in separate metal containers. Like a grenade, the fuses had a firing pin that had to be pulled before it could be armed. The actual arming occurred due to the centrifugal force of the whirling shell after it left the gun. As with the powder bags, the fuse that was used depended on what was being called for on a particular day. One fuse, called Victor Tare, for VT, or variable time, exploded the shell when the shell got a short distance from a solid object. These fuses were designed to explode above the enemy's head, showering them with shrapnel. Ingenious, these arm manufacturers. Sometimes, when the guns were fired simultaneously, the VT fuse from one shell sensed an adjacent shell in flight and caused it to explode in flight showering a force of friendlies just in front of our battery.

The uncrating was done in the ammunition bunker, since we were usually under fire. At night, we worked by candlelight, with the candles resting on a pile of powder bags. We were tired enough to sleep day or night. Each gun and the motor pool and the Detail Section all had their own bunkers for sleeping quarters. The Detail Section bunker had only one layer of sandbags, and after one shell landed a few feet away and woke me up, I asked Steve if they had any empty bunks in the motor pool bunker, which looked more substantial with several layers of sandbags. He said that there was, but being afraid to be accused of being chicken, I stayed in the Detail Section bunker anyway. That decision saved my life, because the motor pool bunker was hit by an armor-piercing shell that went right through the bunk that I had rejected. Steve was struck by a wooden beam, and had to be evacuated. A week later, he was sent back; every man was needed, even the walking wounded. Steve didn't have an external wound, but sometimes he peed blood. He got the Purple Heart. We dug the shell out of the ground, and since it was armor-piercing, the fuse part was still intact. I recognized the Cyrillic script writing on it, and I told the boys that the Chinks were firing Russian ammo at us.

After about two weeks of intense counter-battery fire, and one night when our six guns fired off 1550 rounds in eight hours, the ROKs began to retreat back through our battery. We covered them as they retreated throughout the day. The firing instructions kept calling for less bags of powder, which meant that the front line was coming closer. When the bags were down to one, we also got the order to retreat, or as the army called it an "orderly withdrawal." That's the closest I ever got to the enemy, and they weren't in sight even then. I could only picture in my mind the enemy dead and wounded that the forward observer informed us of. For saving the ROKs' asses while they retreated, we were awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation and the Sygmon Rhee Distinguished Unit Citation. Sygmon Rhee was the South Korean president.

After this withdrawal, we didn't stay anywhere for more than a few days; we always got shelled out. We didn't have time to build bunkers; we slept in foxholes or anywhere on the ground. I'm always amazed that I didn't get ridden over by a tank in the dark. The tanks were almost always in motion because they had to start up their engines and maneuver into position again with each change of deflection requirement. We moved so frequently that Headquarters, wherever that was, lost track of where the battle line was. That had to be the reason that we almost got bombed by our own planes. It had to have been our plane, because we had complete air superiority. Almost, meant that a single bomb was dropped on a hill just to our rear. I had never heard a sound that loud. It must have been horrible to be in a city while it was being bombed.

On one occasion we set up a squad tent because it had been raining for days. A squad tent held about ten men sleeping on cots and air mattresses. During the night, I manned the radio, and I could hear the fighting getting closer. At dawn, we were told to bug out (retreat in a big hurry). We had camped by a creek, and the rain had turned it into a roaring river during the night. The road behind us wound up to a pass in the hills, and it was choked with vehicles of the ROKs who were retreating. We tried to cross the river by driving one tank on top of the other, but this didn't work; the water was too deep. The river was impassable by vehicle. We were told to open fire on the vehicles behind us, using the 50 cal. machine gun that was mounted on my half-track. The 50 cal. bullets pierced the engines of the trucks and other vehicles making them unusable to the enemy. It was the first time that I had heard a 50 cal. machine gun; it sounded frighteningly loud, powerful, explosive. The truck drivers scampered for their lives when they realized what we were doing. We crossed the river by climbing from the top of one submerged tank to another, taking only the things we could carry by hand. We were vulnerable, and I kept expecting to see Chinese soldiers pouring through the pass behind us.

We had lost everything: tanks, trucks, tents, everything but our skins, the clothes on our backs, and our rifles. On the way back to a resting and assembling point, we passed through groups of hundreds of ROK soldiers who would be going back into action. Their faces were like masks which seemed to say, "I wish I were going back with you GI." We walked with squishy shoes all the way to Chunchon; it seemed to take forever.

At Chunchon, we were given clean clothes and a real honest to God hot shower. Hell, retreating wasn't so bad after all. They didn't let us lollygag very long; we were soon on our way to re-equip in Seoul. I couldn't believe that they had more of those ancient M4A3's, but sure enough, they did. I was given a new deuce and a half (2-1/2 ton truck) loaded with supplies, and in short order we had formed a convoy of tanks, trucks, jeeps, and half-tracks and were on our way back north. All I ever saw of Seoul was driving through it. It wasn't much to look at.

The fighting continued in the same manner all the way up to when the final Cease Fire Agreement was signed on July 27, 1953. Up to then it had been a series of alternating fighting and short- lived cease fires until the Armistice was finally signed. We couldn't be happier. To be on the safe side, we kept under shelter for a few days. I had survived the end of the war. My friend Joe Chettle hadn't. Several weeks after the Cease Fire, his mom sent me a letter saying that he had been killed a month ago. Just like the kind of guy he was, and what I had warned him to be careful of, he had been wounded on Pork Chop Hill, and instead of keeping himself safely hid, he again tried to move forward with his buddies when a second shell caught him. I went behind a tent and wept.

Although the war was over, I still had over a year of my army hitch to look forward to. Guys were still being killed by stepping on abandoned land mines and booby traps or driving over mines on the secondary trails through the hills. Hemorrhagic fever had broken out here and there, also; it was carried by infected rats, and it killed its victims by causing internal bleeding. Within a few months of the end of the war, we had set up semi-permanent tents over wood foundations, and the rats decided to live in the foundations.

We did the things stateside soldiers do in peacetime, namely guard duty, shine up the equipment for inspections, physical exercises, classes about map reading, and Arsops. Arsops (Artillery standard operating procedures) meant going on field trips to fire a few rounds. For me, it meant proceeding ahead of the battery to survey where the guns were to be set up and to find ourselves on the map. I never had any training in surveying and apparently neither did the officers. Somehow we muddled through, but I hoped we would never have to meet the test of combat again. Often as not, we fired at a target area within sight. One time we had to fire over a group of huts to hit a target on the hill beyond. I saw first hand what a short round would do. It landed directly into a hut and killed a farm woman while she was preparing dinner. I had to drive over to verify this since I was in charge of survey. We told her family how sorry we were; I don't know if they understood English. The officers kept a better track of the powder bags after that.

One day an officer told me and a few of the guys to clean up our uniforms; we were going to march in a parade. I couldn't believe it; a parade here in Korea. They wouldn't tell us where the parade would be, only that it would be an important parade. Hooray, I thought; I would see Seoul and would feel the euphoria of being one of the saviors of Korea. We cleaned up, found shoe polish to shine our boots, washed our web ammo belts and practiced marching for a few hours. We stood tall in inspired anticipation of the adoring crowds that would shower us with flowers as I had seen in the newsreels of the liberation of Paris in WWII. The weeping Frenchman was to be replaced by a sober faced Gook I thought, but the adoring girls would be there.

It was not to be. The truck drove us to a location south of Chunchon where thousands of other soldiers had been assembled. The whole of the United Nations forces were represented by the assemblage. We were lined up with other American troops in a sixteen man front for the parade. None of us had ever marched in a sixteen man front; it was the most difficult parade routines possible, because the men on the outside of the turns would have to take giant steps while the men on the inside ranks would take wee, baby steps otherwise the radius of the wheel would not move as a straight spoke. The parade course was around an oval like an athletic track with four turns. To make matters worse, we were to march behind a band that was playing a different tune than the band behind us. The downbeat of the band music determined when your left foot was to hit the ground. Which band to obey? Thank God the war hadn't depended on our united marching skills.

The first turn was a warm-up and showed us what had to be done to keep the line straight. The yellow dust raised by the thousands of boots obliterated our efforts of looking sharp. By the time we reached the reviewing stand we were marching fairly reasonably, and then the frontward band changed tunes and it was pandemonium again. We shuffled to make the right step to the band's beat and cursed their traitorous change of tune. As we passed the reviewing stand the eyes right order was given to turn our heads to the right to face the reviewers. In the brief five or ten seconds I recognized Nixon, Ridgway, and Sygmon Rhee saluting as we stumbled by. And then we were ordered to have eyes front and march off the field. The big show was over; my place in history was brief indeed. The adoring minions of Seoul would not need us.

The major difference between us and stateside soldiers was that we couldn't go anywhere. Except for Arsops, and a five-day R and R (Rest and Recuperation) to Japan, I spent a year within the confines of the 176th battery and another battery in the Third Division. The 176th was retired in early 1954, and the Colors were returned to Pennsylvania. Our entire stock was given over to a ROK artillery unit. We were all split up - some going here, some there - which was a good thing for some guys. A good friend, Irwin Broudy, was in the communications section. He was an intellectual, and many nights we sat around philosophizing. Since one of the Commo boys had to be within arms reach of the telephone, day and night, they pulled their guard duty by sitting by the phone at night, near their bunks. One night, one of the ROKs got through our fenceline, snuck into the commo tent while Broudy was supposed to be awake by the phone, naturally he was sound asleep, and stole everything in sight like weapons and all. If the outfit hadn't been retired, Broudy would have been Court Marshaled, served a term in Leavenworth, and dishonorably discharged. Last I heard was that he was a psychiatrist in Connecticut.

By the time of our breakup, I was a Corporal. But in regular army units like the Third Division, the guys got the rank that their position carried. For some reason, rank was not given too readily to National Guard Outfits. My position had been Chief of Detail; the guy in the Third Division with this job was a master sergeant. So, in the new outfit I got the job of a corporal, which was as a helper to the Chief of Detail. The guys in the new outfit resented us new fellahs because they felt that we were coming in over them without having earned it. The case was just the opposite, but who could tell a private anything. One of the boys from the old outfit, Benkins, who made supply sergeant in the old outfit and actually got the rank to go with it (supply sergeants get just about anything they want) almost got assassinated in the new outfit. It was the Sergeant of the Guard's duty to look down the barrel of each rifle for cleanliness, and then pull the trigger before handing it back. One of the new fellahs had a round in the rifle when Benkins took it to look at. Would've looked like an accident if Benkins had shot himself. Back in my old outfit, a new guy, a tough black from another battery, challenged me as I made the rounds when I pulled Corporal of The Guard duty. I knew he was inside his tent when he should have been outside, and I asked him why. He responded with, "I could have shot you in the dark," and he could have gotten away with it. I never made rounds when I pulled Corporal of The Guard duty in the new outfit.

By 1954, it must have looked to the politicians that the armistice was going to stick, so they started to give early discharges. In late June, I got my orders to go home. We short timers were given new clothes, and put on a ship homeward bound. The army gave us orientations on how to act in civilian life, like we shouldn't just yank it out and piss anywhere whenever we had to. The two-week journey was a needed decompression time to get used to the thought of being a civilian again. Aboard ship I didn't get seasick, didn't pull KP, and I quit smoking. We used to get cigarettes free in the C-ration cans during the war, and they only cost ten cents a pack after that. I didn't want to pay the quarter a pack that I heard they cost back in the states. It was so easy to quit then; why did I ever start again two months later?

My eyes were a little misty as we sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco Harbor. An army band greeted us as usual, and I headed straight for a phone to call Kay. The next day, they flew us to Ft. Meade, Maryland, my original starting point. I was discharged on July 14. Some dates you never forget. Kay met me in Baltimore, and we took the bus to Pittsburgh together. She hadn't changed, except to become more beautiful than I remembered. I had changed, she told me later; I wasn't as full of fun and fancy-free. The army had taken the boy out of me. She had found an apartment for us on Juliet Street in south Oakland that was handy to The University of Pittsburgh, as I would be starting school again in September. Full time day school this time; my tuition would be paid for by the GI Bill, Public Law 550. Her brothers had moved our furniture in; great guys.

 
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