Sal Lamonte – One of the “Chosin Few”

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Cpl. Salvador Lamonte

US Army – 92nd Armored Field Artillery Battalion – “Red Devils”

Korean War – Battle of the Chosin Reservoir

Presidential Unit Citation

Mr. Sal is a proud veteran and, he should be.  He served through the Chosin Reservoir Campaign in Korea and lived to tell the tale. The Battle of the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea in December of 1950 was fought during the coldest winter in Korea in 100 years. The sudden onslaught of well over 100,000 Chinese soldiers who had surrounded the 1st Marine Division and the Army’s 92nd Armored Field Artillery Battalion, caused the American soldiers to have to fight their way down a snowy, icy, 72-mile canyon to Hung Nam on the sea. Casualties were high. In addition to battle casualties, many soldiers froze to death in the -35 F degree weather.

SONY DSCAs Mr. Sal and I were setting up for his interview, he had many photos, artifacts, and binders of information to show me regarding his time in Korea.  I let the camera run while we were setting up, and during that time he shared some interesting facts. So I will let him tell you what he told me:

“That was right after the Chosin Reservoir where I was so sick and I lost so much weight.”SONY DSC I will admit, I don’t know as much about the Korean War as I should, but I was reading about the Chosin Campaign and it must have been terrible…

“It was a tough thing, Ma’am.”

When were you in Korea? 

“September 29, 1950 to August 1951.”

You were in the Army.  And what rank were you?

“Corporal.  We were attached to the 1st Marine Division up there.”

What was your job?

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Sal Lamonte

“I was a truck driver.  I hauled ammunition, gasoline. It was a 1938 GMC.”

“I want you to peak through here [He opens his binder.] This was a little picture, but I had it enlarged. That’s what I looked like then. Eighteen years old.”

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Sal in his 1938 GMC truck

“And there’s my colonel.  Lt. Col. Leon F. Lavoie. He was the best. He’s the one that called us the Red Devils.” Fullscreen capture 322015 81147 AM.bmp “And this is the ship we went overseas on.” Fullscreen capture 322015 81637 AM.bmp The Adder? 

“Yeah, not much bigger than a #3 washtub.” [ I chuckle]

How many of you were on there?

“There was about thirty-one hundred men altogether.  On a ship coming back there was about 4,371.”

Oh wow. Goodness!  Y’all must have been on top of each other! 

[He nods as he flips a page in his binder.] This is in Inchon. The ship couldn’t get close enough to the docks so we had to unload off of the net into little LST’s and we were in heavy artillery but that’s the only way we could get out.”

[Flips another page.] “These are some of the gun emplacements with all the snow.”Fullscreen capture 322015 82601 AM.bmp This was at Chozin [Reservoir]?

“Yeah, we were getting out of Chozin.” [Flips a page] 

“This is how some of the cities looked when we left.” Fullscreen capture 322015 82916 AM.bmp “The Brecknridge. They came away from Yokohama I believe when the Chinese ran us out into the ocean.  And the Breckenridge, the Navy, came and picked us up.  That’s the only way out!  The Navy.”Fullscreen capture 322015 82949 AM.bmp [Flips page] “The shells that we shot with the warhead on it weighed a hundred and five pounds. That’s why my shoulder’s bad today on account of that.  Some of the gun emplacements – you couldn’t get a truck close to it, so you had to piggy-back it on your shoulder.”

That’s like carrying a small person!

“‘Course I was an old man of eighteen –”

You could do anything at that point! 

[We look at a set of photos he has displayed] “This was at Chozin – 40 below zero.  This shot is where I helped load frozen bodies in the back of a truck.” Fullscreen capture 322015 84847 AM.bmp [Referring to another photo] “The men all walked through three foot of snow under 20,000 Chinese to get to the ocean so the Navy could pick us up. I just want America to see that.  Mam, that wasn’t only me.  It was a lot of them.

[He points to another photo] “There is one of our guns on about the ninth or tenth of December, 1950 when we helped get the Marines of the 1st Division out.  They were surrounded with about 120,000 Chinese. The elevation was 4,000 feet. They were shootin’ down at us.  What a ‘4th of July’ that was!”

[Flips a page of his binder] “When we had to shoot long range we’d prop the guns up – those shells would go approximately eighteen miles.Fullscreen capture 322015 85534 AM.bmp “See how rough the terrain was? Imagine driving mountain roads and there’s snow three foot deep.”Fullscreen capture 322015 91034 AM.bmp [Flips a page]  “April 1951 [the Chinese] made a bonsai [attack] – they came down.  Four of us were killed, eleven was wounded.  But we must have killed  between 175 to 200 Chinese.  The more came down, the more were killed.  But —- [he gets emotional] – they were kids!  Just like we were!”

“This was the citation that the president of South Korea gave us – Syngman Rhee.” SONY DSC “William Long got killed right after I left.  He was a good friend of mine from Philadelphia.” Fullscreen capture 322015 90307 AM.bmp “After I left, the ‘Red Devils’ still caught hell. I was there eleven months and two days.  They started rotating at 6 months, but due to the fact that I knew the terrain, I knew how to get around.  It took a little while for them to get me home.”

“This boy is still Missing in Action. His name is Frankie Bonfiglio.  SONY DSC“He joined six months before I did in 1949.  He served a year in reserves. Of course, I enlisted for three years, but when the Korean War broke out, they hurried up and picked him up again.  From the time that he left home, it took him twenty-three days to get to Korea.  The Chinese came down on us on the 27th day of November, 1950.  He’s been missing ever since.  His mother died a few years ago – over a hundred years old.  She used to pray all the time.  She wanted to see her son before she died.  Of course he never did come home. she made a statement, “Jesus, I can’t see him down here, but would you point him out to me [when I get there]?  And you know, he was a good looking kid.  I knew him, but I didn’t know him that well.  But he joined the Army January 10, 1949.  I joined July 28, 1949.  We were country boys that didn’t want to work in the field, so we joined the Army.” Fullscreen capture 3242015 24857 PM.bmp

“And this mess got started in Korea in 1948.  The United States had control of South Korea.  Also Japan.  North Korea was controlled by the Chinese and the Russians.  Well North Korea decided ‘we’re going to invade South Korea and make it all Communist. They killed about 200,000 men, women, and children and of course, being part of America, we got into that.  And it was tough thereafter.”

“At Chosin, like I said, the Chinese came down the 27th of November, 1950.  By December 13th, 1950, 3,000 men were killed.  Six thousand were wounded.  And many of them froze to death – being wounded, we couldn’t get them out.  And as that picture showed, loading up the frozen bodies – the worst thing was to see a young American boy, frozen with his eyes open — [he gets emotional]  — his face all twisted.  And those young boys wounded, were hollering for their momma.”

“Ma’am, that stuck with me…I can’t get rid of it!  This is the true things that was in Korea – the Forgotten War.”

“A lot of times over there, I would be running gas or ammunition and they used to have check points.  There was one place I was loaded with gas and this snotty little lieutenant wanted to see what’s in the back of my truck.”

“I said, ‘It’s gas.'”

“He said, ‘You’ve gotta open it up.'”

“I’m not gonna open it up for nobody.”

“He threatened to shoot me and everything.  So then his OD – the officer of the day – said, ‘What outfit you from?’”

“I said, ‘Leon Lavoie, 92nd Artillery, ‘Red Devils.’”

“He told that boy, ‘Man, when you see these trucks, you let ‘em go!'”

That says a lot about the role you played!

You know, I guess Korea tends to be the forgotten war, because it was right on the heels of World War II.

“In fact, the equipment they had in World War II, they brought them back to the States and redone ‘em.  Some was at Ft Hood.  My old truck, they redone ‘em and when the war broke out, that truck was assigned to me in 1949.  That truck came to Korea with me.  ‘Course when I left, I left the truck there.  That was a 1938 GMC from the Second World War. [Another photo]

“See that trail of men right there.  This is between the mountains — the men coming through. The Chinese were sitting on top of those mountains.”SONY DSC Y’all were like sitting ducks!

“And another thing, people don’t believe it, but it was so cold, that sometime our rifles couldn’t work.  It was too cold.  And those 105 pound shells were so cold, they split.”

Wow.  I was reading that it was like -35 degees and the oil in the guns got gooey.

“Right!  And the food we had was frozen solid.  Couldn’t do nothing with it.”

“And of course our faces were so chapped.  You’d cover up as much as you could.  A friend of mine who died three years ago, he said, ‘Monty? I’m gonna give you something that’ll help you.’  He gave me a little bottle of motor oil to put on my face and my lips.  That helped.  But it burned like fire!  But it kept my face from cracking.”

“You know, a lot of people pay me a lot of attention, especially when I’m in uniform because I didn’t just read about this stuff.  I was there.” Fullscreen capture 3242015 30140 PM.bmp

“This was funny in a way, but Andy Wan– he was a forty year-old interpreter — was with me.  And we went to get 22 drums of gas in the truck.  Well when we went down, part of the bridge was blown out.  The engineers was working on it.  They wouldn’t let me through because I was heavily loaded.  The sergeant come up to me and told me I’d have to go all the way around which would put me about six hours late.”

“I said, ‘No, no, no.  I can’t do that.”

“’Well I can’t let you pass.’”

“I asked him, ‘How deep is this water?’”

“He said, ‘Maybe two and a half feet.'”

“I said, ‘What’s been crossing?’”

“’Tanks’.”

“Okay.”

Fullscreen capture 3242015 30129 PM.bmp“So I backed way up out of line where he couldn’t see me and I told Andy Wan, ‘Andy Wan? GI go water.'”

“’No.  GI crazy! I no go!’”

“I’m going.”

“So I went down that embankment.  I got a straight shot for that water.  Go for broke. Put it in front wheel drive, low range – when that truck get to that water, that big bumper just pushed the water and I climbed up the other side.”

“And that sergeant and lieutenant chewed me out.  Threatened to court martial me.  Of course they got my name and the number off the truck.”

“Three days later, my chief of section called me.  ‘Boy, you in trouble!’”

“Good send me home!”

“He says, ‘No. You refused a di-rect order.’”

Fullscreen capture 3242015 24932 PM.bmp“Oh — I did.”

“He says, ‘The colonel wants to see you.’”

“So I went to the colonel’s tent.  He said, ‘Monty? You in trouble again?’”

“Yes,Sir.”

“‘What happened this time?  You refusing a direct order.’”

“I told him what it was all about.  So he talked to a radio man who was a good friend of mine – Lee Whitman, a guy from Chattanooga.  He got in touch with the engineering officer.”

“The colonel got on his radio and said, ‘Anytime a Red Devil comes, you help him.  You don’t try to detain him.'”

“He said, ‘That boy loves his kids!’

“I never heard anymore about it.  I was just an eighteen year old determined kid.  Didn’t have not better sense.  Like when I got back home.”

“People would say, ‘How did you make it so well back?  You weren’t hurt too much.’ The good Lord wasn’t ready for me and the devil was scared to take me his place.”

 

 

When we sit down to do his actual interview, he gives me a play-by-play account of the incidents of his tour of duty:

Fullscreen capture 3242015 24949 PM.bmp“From 1950-51, we went through Inchon on September 20, 1950.  On north to Suwan, first battle.  Went down to Pusan.  Loaded up the ships and went to Iwon Beachhead landing.  The tide was out, so we had to come off the side of the ship with the net from the LST onto the embankment.  We went on in from Wonsan.  We went back to Pusan on up like I said to the Iwon Beachhead landing and we started going northwest.”

“We ended up, up in the mountains in North Korea, called the “Frozen Chosin.”  We was all pepped up, ‘cause we were told, “You’re gonna be home for Christmas.”  Well, everybody was quite happy.  We was attached to the First Marine Division.

“The 27th of November 1950, a hundred and ten thousand Chinese crossed the Yalu River.  Fifty thousand was dug in below us.  ‘Course they came after us.”

“General Smith and General Walker made a statement, “We’re not going to retreat, we’re just going to turn around and fight backwards.”

SONY DSC“That we did.  That was the First Marine Division; the “Red Devils” was my outfit – The Seventh Division, First Cavalry Division; the Third Rock Division.”

“The Chinese came in like mosquitoes.  Then we was on the run.  They ran us.  Killed us.”

“On the 28th November 1950 to the 13th of December, we lost three thousand men.  Six thousand were wounded.  Some of the men who died were frozen.  Nothing worse than seeing a young soldier freeze up, with his face twisted and his eyes open.  Our young men being wounded and calling for their mom.”

“But there we was on the run.  It was a long walk – about 72 miles to the ocean.  Chinese up in the high elevation shooting down at us.”

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SONY DSC“And there is one little medal that I wear.  It’s like a star.  It represents the same thing the Three Wise Men saw to get to Jesus.  We believed that star was gonna lead us.  And it did.  It lead us to Hung Nam evacuation.”

“We was loaded up on ships.  Men pulled up out the water.  Millions of dollars worth of equipment was blown up because we didn’t have time to load it up.”

“On the 22nd of December 1950 when this happened, we finally got down to Pusan, got everything together.  Had a delayed Christmas dinner, then started back north again.  It was kind of slow ‘cause hundreds of thousands of Chinese were there.  But we fought our way up.  All those Divisions.  We gave ‘em hell.”

“April 24,, 1951 we were contemplating a move and the Chinese came out of nowhere. We had a fierce battle.  Four of the boys was killed.  Eleven was wounded.  When the battle was over with, about 175-200 Chinese were killed. [He pauses] They were kids! [with tears in his eyes] But we made it.”Fullscreen capture 3242015 25012 PM.bmp

“June they told me I was gonna come home.  It was August 22nd before I made it.  I got home on the 16th of September 1951.  [Still emotional] I was a whipped little puppy.”

“I was discharged in 1952.”

“But the Red Devils were still going on.”

“At a reunion [of Red Devils], I didn’t know most of ‘em.  They came after me.  I was two months into my 18th birthday and ‘course by the time they drafted men and trained ‘em and got over there, they were old men – 23 to 24 years old!”

“On the first of June 2014, we went up to Kentucky to have a reunion and I was presented a Presidential Citation.  That is General Julius L. Berthold and Colonel Tim Shephard – a brigadier general and a full bird colonel.  I felt pretty proud.  I had a good time.  Being bear hugged by a general.”  [We laugh]

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General Julius L. Berthold, Sal Lamonte receiving the Presidential Unit Citation, and Colonel Tim Shephard in June 2014.

“But that’s all. That was my part.”

Wow.  My goodness. 

Well you were talking about how you still carry to this day problems with your hands because they were frozen.  You still have trouble with them.

“My hands were froze up. My feet.  But I’ve been taking pain medicine for years.”

“Now I’m trying to get in touch with the VA, but they’re dragging their feet. I think any veteran, regardless what war, that spent time in brutal country, saw action, they should have a card to go anywhere and everywhere to be taken care of.”

I agree.

“‘Cause the rules and regulations in this country, if you’re an old man, and you’re a veteran – “You’re gonna be dead soon, so we’re not gonna help you.”

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Mr. Sal and Linda Irwin, the Senior Activities Coordinator from the Hammond Recreation Center in Hammond, LA

“But I’m still going to schools to teach these kids with Mrs. Linda Irwin from the community center.  We go to different schools to teach the kids how they got they’re freedom.  They ask us many questions.  We give them the answers that we could.

“They would have to write an essay.  That essay is one of the most important things in my lifetime, ‘cause the children were so willing to understand and write letters.  It makes you cry – some of the letters these kids wrote to thank us.”  SONY DSC

“And in November, when we have our big luncheon one of the hardest things is to pick out the best essay. And this child will be awarded.”

“But we have some exciting speakers.  This past November (2013) we had a retired lady general.”

Really!

“Yes, it was quite rewarding.  And I’ve made a few talks that put tears in people’s eyes about saving my America and my flag.”

That’s awesome.  Thank you, Sir.

Fullscreen capture 3242015 24936 PM.bmp“I’m signing off now. Children – anybody that sees this, I’m trying to get prayer back in school and above all the Pledge of Allegiance.  In school say a prayer in your own religion and shout out the Pledge of Allegiance. [He gets emotional]  That’s to protect our country!  That’s all.”

Thank you, Sir.

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Mr. Sal even made me an honorary “Red Devil” by giving me my own Red Devil patch! Red Devil Patch

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