Incident at Sosa-Ri

A True Story by Kathy Oliver Brown
Based on Memoirs of Scotia D. Oliver, Sgt. Maj., USMC, Ret.

Copyright © 1999 Kathy Oliver Brown
All Rights Reserved

Published by moonShine review
Volume 4 Issue 2 (Fall/Winter 2008)

    Private First Class, USMC
    Born 25, December 1930

   "For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a Rocket Gunner attached to Company F, Second Battalion, First Marines, First Marine Division (Reinforced) in action against enemy aggressor forces near Sosa-Ri, Korea on 17 and 20, September 1950 . . . Private First Class Monegan's daring initiative, gallant fighting spirit and courageous devotion to duty were contributing factors in the success of his company in repelling the enemy, and his self-sacrificing efforts throughout sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service . . ."

    The years have passed away, and the words of the citation fall cold upon the ear; but once there was a warm autumn afternoon in a faraway place, and once there was a night ripped and shattered by the thunder of cannons. These words mark the deeds of a Marine Rifle Company and a young Marine now lying long dead in his grave. Most, I know, have forgotten, for that is the way of this world. But I have not forgotten. For a soldier, the memories of war are eternal. These events are seared into my memory, and I tell them now while they are as fresh as time and God will allow.

    It is late afternoon on the 19th day of September 1950 and the Marines of Fox Company are weary. We have fought and marched without letup since leaving our tractors at the harbor's edge in Inchon on the 15th. The afternoon has been unusually quiet. It has now been several hours since we received enemy fire, but the Skipper, taking advantage of the lull, has ordered us to double-time down the dirt road that marks our route to Seoul. Our Lieutenant tells us that we have broken through the Koreans' defenses, and we are pleased.

    Nearing a small hill, the Skipper halts the Company, confers with his officers briefly and assigns our positions. Across the road I can see Dog Company and further to our rear Easy Company, both units laboring up the hills assigned to them. Once on the hillside, we dig, hacking at the hard earth, preparing our beds for the night to come.

    Fading rapidly, the brief period of twilight casts a luminous glow over the dusty Marines spread out on the shoulder of the hill. Reluctant to end our conversations, we linger on the edges of our holes before sinking mole-like beneath the surface of the ground and hoped-for safety. Here we will remain throughout the long night. Gradually, low voices cease completely and the stillness of night steals over the hill now dug and scarred by the small shovels of the Marines. A stranger passing this way would never know that a battalion of Marines, a thousand strong, lies encamped on the dark hillsides. No light or sound disrupts the stillness. No shadows cross the crest. All is quiet now, broken only by the soft sounds of night: frogs singing in a nearby pond and the rustle of the evening breeze in the pines. The sounds are comforting, deceptively so.

    In my hole I sit alert, my eyes traveling slowly back and forth to pierce the darkness. A branch from a tree falls onto the dry grass beneath and I am instantly poised, ears straining, tense, my heart pounding. Huge rodents that forage and feed on the debris of war begin their nightly search for bodies of the dead. Their scurrying movements resemble the soft shuffling of the North Korean soldier, and I remain tense. Much needed sleep beckons, but like the others, each encased in their own holes, I fight to remain awake and alert.

    Through the long hours I sit with burning eyes, watching and listening until, startled, I fall forward and awaken, wondering how long I have dozed. My tired eyes, gritty as if they are filled with grains of sand, refuse to stay open, and I slap myself across the cheek. The sting jolts me awake for a few minutes more. Slowly, my head again falls forward and I awaken with a start, again . . . and again . . . I pray for dawn.

    Wrapped in the blanket of night, I am awakened once again, this time by the soft, muffled cough of a Marine and the mumbled low voices of two Marines trading the watch. In the far distance, I hear the faint creak of mechanized vehicles. Fear forces me wide awake now, all thoughts of sleep banished, and I strain to listen. I cup one hand over my ear, straining to bring in even the smallest of sounds. Oh God, I pray, I must be wrong. Please, please God, let me be wrong. But no, there it is again, faint but moving closer. There is no mistaking the sound of tanks, and if these are enemy tanks, they will easily enter the perimeter. Our own tanks are in the rear, and all that we possess for defense are small rocket launchers. There will be no stopping them. Shivers of fear run up and down my back, and I am sickened at the prospect of what is to come.

    Movement and voices on edge tell me that others have heard also, and we prepare ourselves for battle.

    Somewhere, just as we ourselves once did, young boys still play at war, running and hiding, flopping dramatically to the ground in feigned agony and death only to rise again when mothers call them in to dinners and warm beds. But we sons no longer play at war, and there will be no sweet voices calling us to safety tonight.

    The noise of the approaching armor is now coming loud and clear; gears grind and engines strain as they climb the small grade to our positions.

    Over the noise of the tanks, I now hear the Skipper shout out for the Corporal in charge of the Rocket Section. Watching from my hole, I see him run, silhouetted against the dark sky. Reaching the Skipper's hole, he kneels and melts into the blackness, and for a moment there is no movement. Appearing again, he runs across the hill toward the road, followed by the handful of Marines making up the Rocket Section.

    Near the road sits a wooden water tower, a relic of the days when the Japanese occupied Korea. In and around the supports of the water tower the Rocket Section hides, six Marines to defend the entire Company against the roaring armor now almost at the perimeter. The feeling of fear and dread is palpable.

    The crackle of gunfire erupts, initially over the ridge line, then to our left, then to the right. Building in volume, bullets thud into the hillside and whine off into the night sky.

    An illuminating shell pops high into the black sky, and for a moment I am blinded by its brilliance. In its eerie light I can see Private Monegan snuggled against a post, down on one knee, as he raises his rocket launcher and waits.

    The tanks fire their machine guns and the tracers zip out searching for targets beneath the tower on the dark hillside. The tower supports offer the Marines little cover against such an onslaught.

    Still, he waits.

    I can smell the tanks. Their oily odor floats like a sweetheart's perfume through the clear night air mixing with the smell of gun powder and the taste of fear. The whine and crack of machine guns joins the sound of engines clanking and creaking like machinery too long without service, and the deadly noise shatters the night.

    The lead tank is now almost upon us, and his elongated turret gun pokes inquisitively left and right, a monstrous finger searching for victims.

    Monegan continues to wait, holding his position and gazing calmly through the sight, centering the massive black tank in the cross hairs. He and his rocket launcher are all that stand between the rest of us and certain death. He is our David against this huge Goliath. The Corporal, having loaded the rocket, has faded back into the shadows, ready to spring forward and reload the launcher tube as soon as it is emptied.

    "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." I repeat the Psalm over and over as the danger overtakes us, and the familiar litany brings comfort.

    In a rush, our waiting is over. Monegan presses the firing mechanism, and the night sky is lit by the blowtorch flame shooting backward twenty-five feet from the rocket. Unerringly, the 3.5 inch rocket shell finds its target, the shape charge it contains melting instantly through the thick steel and showering the doomed crew and the interior of their tank with fiery fragments. Bouncing and ricocheting like angry hornets, in one gigantic blast they set off the tank's ready ammunition. Engulfed by a mass of flames, the tank and its crew burn, crackling and spitting as the sounds and smells of death are released.

    The second tank growls angrily up the road, its huge silhouette in stark relief against the bed of dancing flames. Monegan and the Corporal sprint towards the next pillar, and Monegan once again looks through his sight, lining up the new enemy. A third tank appears from behind, and both now aim their cannons and fire into the hillsides where the remainder of the company cower in our holes, our weapons useless.

    Over the edge of my hole I watch as a machine gun from Dog Company, emplaced across the road, chatters into action, and his tracers whine and bounce from the tank's thick skin adding to the unholy crescendo. The two tanks continue to fire at our hillside, and the noise is deafening. Bullets whip and zip across the sky hitting the tower and surrounding rocks. The terrible sound reverberates back and forth between the hills, giving voice to our terror.

    Monegan crouches by the pillar and fires again. Shuddering, the second tank grinds to a stop, and a muffled explosion emanates from its interior. Crimson flames escape its vents. His position given away, Monegan turns and runs toward the protection of the hill, now his only hope for survival. The remaining tank continues to blast away at the tower, hurling shells and bullets at the lone Marine.

    ". . . With his own and an adjacent company's position threatened by annihilation when an overwhelming enemy tank-infantry force bypassed the area and proceeded toward the Battalion Company Post during the early morning of September 20, he seized his rocket launcher, and in total darkness, charged down the hill to where the tanks had broken through . . . "

    "Come back . . . come back now," I call to him, perhaps only in my mind, for my words are swallowed by the terrible turmoil and have no hope of reaching him.

    Illuminating shells from battalion mortars light the road and hillsides, and I see that Monegan is struggling to fire yet again. He is outlined in light as bright as day when I see him fall, his body riddled and torn by bullets.

    Quickly he is dragged into the deep shadows of the hill, into a small ravine. There is nothing to be done. In this no-man's land of war where necessity dictates that one must kill or be killed, Private Monegan has done both on our behalf.

    On the road, the destroyed tanks continue to burn, red flames leaping all about, and small explosions occasionally rock the lifeless hulls, but the fury of the quick battle is behind us now. Monegan has given his own short life in trade for ours, and we stand in stunned silence trying to make sense of the gift we have received.

    "Quick to act when an illuminating shell lit the area, he scored a direct hit on one of the tanks as hostile rifle and machine gun fire raked the area at close range. Again exposing himself, he fired another round to destroy a second tank and as the rear tank turned to retreat stood upright to fire and was fatally struck down by hostile machine gun fire when another illuminating shell silhouetted him against the sky."

    Soon it will be dawn, yet another beautiful autumn day in this most forsaken of places, and we will rise again from our foxholes and continue our journey toward Seoul, toward battles yet to be fought. More among us will die; this I know for certain.

    But I will not forget the young Marine who chose to give us each one more chance . . .

    In the land of morning calm, in a place called Sosa-Ri.

    "Private First Class Monegan's daring initiative, gallant fighting spirit and courageous devotion to duty were contributing factors in the success of his company in repelling the enemy, and his self-sacrificing efforts throughout sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country."