MASTERS OF THE ART OF COMMAND
By: Martin Blumenson & James L. Stokesbury
He looked younger than his twenty-two years. Or perhaps
he seemed younger because I expected a man who had a bullet hole in his shirt, a rip in
the leg of his pants - torn by a shell fragment - and a bullet crease across the top of
his helmet to look tough, hard-bitten, and old. He was boyish. He was too young, I
thought, to be the commander I was looking for, too young to have accomplished one of the
impressive achievements of the Korean War. How could this lieutenant have commanded
I met him in Korea in the summer of 1951 when I was visiting the
32d Infantry. The regiment had recently come out of the line and was in
bivouac for a
week or so of rest. I was there for a few days doing some interviewing about an action of
interest to my historical section. At the regimental headquarters I came to know pretty
well the operations officer, Major Frederick Lash. When I finished my assignment and was
ready to go back to Seoul, I went over to the S-3 tent to thank him for his help.
Thats when I learned about Kingston.
The idea came to Lash as an afterthought. We were shaking hands
when he mentioned it. "By the way, Lieutenant, " he said, "have you ever
heard about Task Force Kingston?"
I never had.
"You might look into it sometime," he suggested.
"Its a little on the odd side."
I was curious, but only mildly. Lots of people had good stories.
Still, I respected Lash. I had enjoyed his hospitality. And his off-hand, underplayed
manner provoked my interest. "Whats it about?" I asked.
We went over to the mess tent for a cup of coffee, and he told
me. He had been the battalion operations officer during the action and had been part of
it. The story had its intriguing aspects. It wrote a glowing sentence in the official
record of the Korean War. Not many young second lieutenants had that to their credit.
"Where is this guy Kingston?" I asked.
"Hes with Company K," Lash said, waving a hand
vaguely. "Theyre bivouacked over the hill there."
I decided I might as well stay another day. "Can I get over
there all right?"
"Sure. Its not far."
It wasnt far by an infantrymans reckoning. Lash gave
me directions, said hed put my driver up another night, and telephoned the company I
My jeep could go only part of the way. Then I climbed a trail up
one of those steep Korean hills. If the company hadnt sent a soldier to meet me at
the top, Id have been lost. The soldier guided me down the slope and across a meadow
where a baseball game was in progress. We reached a stream, and my guide, being polite,
held the swinging footbridge steady as I crossed. On the opposite shore I found myself in
a grove of trees, and there Company K had pitched its tents. It was peaceful there that
summer morning. Walking through the meadow had been hot, but among the trees it was
suddenly cool. The sound of water in the stream didnt hurt the illusion any. Nor did
the distant cries of the baseball game.
The first sergeant of the company was sitting outside his tent
working bareheaded at a table. He looked young. (I found out later that he was nineteen.)
His table was full of mail, and he was printing words and dates across a lot of unopened
letters - words like "Deceased," "Missing," "51st Evac.
Hosp." I still remember a pile of pink envelopes - I could almost smell the faint
perfume. The letters were neatly bound with a piece of string, the top one addressed to a
private by his wife who, from the number of letters, had written faithfully every day.
Across the face of the envelope the sergeant had printed the word "Deceased" and
The sergeant directed me to the officers tent. There I
found Lieutenant Robert C. Kingston. He was reading a book under a tree, looking for all
the world like a kid home from college for summer vacation. He seemed shy when I
introduced myself. He wasnt too happy when I asked him to tell me about his task
force. But he said hed try.
We talked most of the day despite some interruptions. It was his
twenty-second birthday, and, aside from the other company officers who sat with us from
time to time, visitors came strolling in. Even the battalion commander came by to wish him
many happy returns. Lash showed up. Everyone had some excuse to explain his being there,
such as pretending to be on an inspection trip. It was obvious they had come to pay their
respects. The cooks had a cake for him at dinner. After it got dark the company officers
had their party for Kingston. They were nice enough to invite me to join them and spend
the night. We gathered in the tent where a brand-new bottle of whiskey had been saved for
the occasion. Somebody played the accordion - someone had taken the trouble to go
all the way to Seoul to borrow it so Kingston could have music on his birthday. It was a
The sound of voices outside the tent awakened me the next
morning. It was quite early, but no one else was in the tent. The officers were outside
"Ill go," Kingston was saying. "its my
turn to go."
"Why dont you be sensible?" someone asked.
"You dont have to go."
"Use your head," someone else said. "You
dont have to do everything."
"Im going" Kingston said.
"What for?" someone shouted. "What the hell are
you trying to prove?"
"Shut up," another voice said. "He doesnt
have to prove anything. All hes got to do is stay here."
"Listen, Bob," a calm voice said. "Its
foolish for you to go out on this patrol. You dont have to. Youve only
got a few more weeks to stay here. Take it easy. You're practically on your way
"Im going," Kingston said. "Jack is new and
he needs the experience. Im taking him along."
"Ill take Jack," someone said.
"I can take myself," Jack said, "Im
not a baby."
"Youre coming with me," Kingston said.
There was sudden silence. Kingston came into the tent. I was up
by then, putting on my boots. He went to his cot and from underneath pulled out his
helmet, the one with the crease across the top. He put it on his head, waved at me, and
He was gone by the time I got outside. Two of the officers who
had been arguing with him were still there. I asked what was going on.
"The goddamn fool," one of them said. "Someone
spotted some Chinks over the ridge, and battalion told us to send a platoon up the valley
to clean them out. Kingston says its his turn to go. So he went."
"No one could stop him?" I asked rather uselessly.
They didnt bother to answer.
"Imagine," the other officer said. "Imagine
getting it in a rear area like this."
I was suddenly miserable. I went down to the mess tent and had
some coffee. I had planned to leave right after breakfast, but I couldnt.
morning long I sat outside the tent brooding. I fussed with my notes, but all I could
think of was how Kingston was pushing his luck. A hole in his shirt, a shell fragment
through his pants, a crease across his helmet.
The hours dragged interminably. The shade under the trees was
somehow gloomy. No one was playing baseball in the meadow. The first sergeant was sitting
at his table outside his tent, and for some ungodly reason he was wearing his helmet. He
didnt look nineteen years old anymore.
I finally saw the troops coming down the slope of the hill just
before noon. They straggled across the meadow. They looked tired, beat. I searched
among them for Kingston. I couldnt find his figure. Or Jacks.
Putting my notes away, I hurried down to the company
headquarters. The men came across the swaying bridge and headed for their tents. A
solitary figure walked toward the headquarters to check in. It was Kingstons platoon
sergeant. I was sure the worst had happened until I noticed the first sergeant - he
wasnt wearing his helmet. Someone was singing in the mess tent. A couple
of soldiers were tossing a baseball back and forth as they headed toward the meadow. The
grapevine had been working. I should have known everything was all right even before I saw
the two men coming down the hill.
Kingston and Jack were late because they had first reported in at
battalion. The platoon had rounded up one Chinese. No one had been hurt. Lunch was a
cheerful meal. I departed soon afterward.
I still didnt have the whole story on Task Force Kingston,
but after seeing him and the effect he had on the people around him I was determined to
get it. It took me several weeks to look into the official records of the campaign and to
find the people who could supply a few missing pieces. By then I had a pretty good idea of
Task Force Kingston, what it had done, and why it was unique.
The time was late November 1950. The North Korean army had been
defeated and its remnants were streaming north in retreat. The United Nations troops were
in pursuit, advancing toward the Yalu River, the northern boundary of Korea. General
MacArthur, who liked impressive terms, named the movement a "compression
envelopment," which didnt really mean anything. The war, then called a police
action, seemed about to end. Reaching the Yalu was a formality, like rounding the bases
and touching home plate after hitting the ball out of the park. The troops talked of being
home by Christmas, or at least in Japan. They didnt know yet about the Chinese
The Buffalo regiment of the 7th Division - the 17th Infantry -
was driving north to the Yalu along a main road leading to the village of Hyesanjin, the
last community this side of Manchuria. Fifteen miles to the west the 3d Battalion of the
32d Infantry was moving along a parallel road leading to Singalpajin. Once at the Yalu,
the 17th was to march west from Hyesanjin to Singalpajin, the battalion of the 32d was to
punch westward to meet marines coming north from Chosin Reservoir.
This was the plan, but it was never used. Chinese troops were
massing, and they were about to disrupt more than these local arrangements. No one knew
this, however, when Second Lieutenant Kingston was called to the battalion command post on
the evening of November 21, 1950. The place was Wondokchang, thirty-two miles south of the
Yalu. From Wondokchang the road runs north for ten miles to Samsu, twelve more to
Yongsong-ni, and finally ten more to Singalpajin.
The 3d Battalion, besides being temporarily short one rifle
company that was guarding a power plant, was operating all by itself. Forty-four miles
north of the regimental headquarters, it was alone in enemy territory and somewhat in a
vacuum. No one had much information about friendly neighboring forces.
No one knew much about enemy forces that might be nearby.
Though beaten, though streaming north to sanctuary in Manchuria, the North Korean troops
had a way of turning to fight when cornered. They were still dangerous and, though a major
offensive was out of the question, their deadly weapons were ambush, the unexpected trap,
the sudden flank attack.
Reluctant to plunge ahead into the unknown, the battalion
commander gave Kingston the mission of spearheading the advance. Kingston was to
reconnoiter and, if possible, take Samsu. To help Kingston and the thirty-three men in his
platoon, the battalion commander gave Kingston seven tracked vehicles (from the 15th
Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion). Kingstons command thereby became a task force.
The vehicles were half-tracks. Four of them mounted twin-forties -- two rapid-fire 40 mm.
guns. Three had quad-fifties -- four caliber .50 machine guns tied together. Designed to
fire at planes, the guns were nevertheless effective against targets on the ground. They
put out a tremendous volume of fire. They were practical also because the men of
Kingstons infantry platoon could ride on the carriages that mounted the guns. The
vehicles and their crews were commanded by a first lieutenant named Allen. Though
Kingston was a second lieutenant and therefore junior to Allen, Kingston commanded the
task force. This seemed odd, but the rationale was not: Allens function was to
support Kingston; the guns were in support of the infantry.
Of the three enemies in Korea the weather, the terrain,
and the North Koreans the weather was probably the worst. If the sun was shining,
the temperature in winter might get up to 20 degrees below zero; 30 to 40 below were more
normal. The troops wore everything they could manage to get on woolen long johns,
two pairs of socks, cotton pants over woolen trousers, pile jacket over insert, scarves
around their heads under their helmets to protect their ears. Anyone who was sitting or
standing was usually stamping his feet to keep them from getting numb.
The cold affected equipment. Motors had to be started every hour
and run at least fifteen minutes. Men had to shoot their weapons periodically to be sure
they worked. They had to build fires in empty 55-gallon drums and put them against mortar
base plated to keep the metal from crystallizing and snapping. Artillery shells did not
always detonated completely when fired.
Living, simply keeping alive in the cold, was enough of a job
without having to worry about the terrain and the enemy. Yet these too were dangerous. The
ground was covered with snow, a dreary landscape almost bare of growth. Streams were
frozen so thick the ice could support tanks. The single road to Samsu was narrow. It wound
through mountains, across the face of cliffs, along the edge of a gorge. A skid could mean
Across the road the North Koreans had rolled boulders down from
the hills. Kingstons vehicles were able to get past four of these rock slides
by maneuvering around them or pushing the rocks aside. A fifth obstacle near a destroyed
bridge caused some trouble. The column had to back up several hundred yards to a place
where each vehicle could plunge off the side of the road. Each in turn teetered
uncertainly for a second or two before dropping off the embankment and skidding into a
frozen field. The column crossed the field, then a frozen creek, and finally found a place
where the vehicles could get back on the road. But first some timbers from the bridge had
to be used to make a ramp. All this took time.
Whenever the vehicles halted, men had to be sent out to the front
and flanks as outposts. Kingstons task force spent all day moving the ten miles to
Samsu. Still, no enemy troops had been seen. Not until the task force was
within sight of Samsu did the first hostile fire sound that day. Several shots rang out in
the town. Kingston immediately halted the vehicles, told the infantry men to dismount.
They waited, listening for more evidence of the enemys presence. Only silence. So
they slipped into the town, a village of about fifty houses, bombed-out, burned, bullet
riddled. The place was deserted, without a living thing, not even a dog. The shots? The
bodies of four civilians lay in the schoolyard, probably murdered on Kingstons
Waving in the vehicles and setting up an all-round defense of the
town, Kingston radioed battalion that he was there. Soon after dark, trucks carrying the
rest of Company K and battalion headquarters arrived in Samsu.
That night the operations officer, Captain Lash, called Kingston
into the command post. "Youll continue your advance tomorrow," Lash told
"All the way."
Kingstons face showed his surprise. "The Yalu?"
Lash nodded. "Think you can make it?"
Kingston grinned. "Are you kidding? Sure Ill make
It was no choice assignment, and it wasnt going to be easy.
For the next three days Kingstons task force started from Samsu toward Yongsong-ni
each morning and had to turn back each afternoon. The reasons were the same: terrain,
weather, and North Korean troops. The road was narrow, with cliff most of the way along
the right side, a drop-off to a river on the left, high ground on both sides giving the
enemy the opportunity to keep the task force under surveillance and fire. The weather
stayed cold, and the men were miserable. Rock slides, defended roadblocks, sudden
fusillades of fire obstructed the task force. Snow flurries kept planes from flying in
support. Ice on the road kept the vehicles to a crawl. Artillery shells from Samsu seemed
to have no effect on the enemy.
Darkness came early on the third day, and the drivers had to use
their blackout lights to get back to Samsu.
The men were suddenly tired, disgusted with an operation that
seemed to be getting nowhere. Kingston found himself swearing under his breath.
He reported in to battalion headquarters, where he saw the
battalion commander. "No casualties, but we lost a quad-fifty. It tipped over the
"You didnt leave anything in the quad-fifty, did
It was a routine question, but Kingston flared. "What the
hell do you think I am?" He recovered at once, "Im sorry, sir. We stripped
it ammo, spare parts, gas the works."
There was a silence between them before the colonel spoke.
"You all right?"
"Yes, sir." He nodded to add emphasis. "Just
"You want to try it again tomorrow?"
"You bet I do, Colonel."
"You need anything else?"
He had already gotten more troops added to his task force: a jeep
mounting a machine gun; a tank belonging to the 7th Reconnaissance Troop; a squad, then a
platoon, from the 13the Engineer Combat Battalion under a first lieutenant named Donovan;
a forward Battalion, whose job it was to direct the fire of howitzers emplaced at Samsu; a
tactical air control officer, Captain Jiminez, whose job was to bring in planes to bomb
But Kingston asked for and received another tank, more
jeep-mounted machine guns, some mortars. This brought his command to more than a hundred
men. With this strength he blasted through on the following day to Yongsong-ni, a
collection of thirty houses, most of them burned. But it took a firefight, and air strike,
and several casualties to get the troops through the town.
Kingston reported his arrival to battalion by radio.
"Im going on," he told Lash.
"Watch you step. We just got some intelligence information;
theres about a battalion opposing you."
"You want me to stop?"
"No, but be careful. Ive just sent you up some
"Can you send me more troops?" He meant infantry.
"Not right now. Maybe later."
About a mile beyond Yongsong-ni the road ascends. The incline
starts gradually, becomes increasingly steep. It rises finally to a mountain pass, a
defile overshadowed by high ground on both sides. At the bottom of the rise the task
force ran into North Korean fire. Rifle and machine-gun bullets swept the road, wounding
several men, among them Lieutenant Allen, the antiaircraft officer.
From the ditches where the infantry took cover, from the
carriages where the crew members huddled behind their guns, the men of the task force put
out a tremendous volume of fire. The tanks blasted the high ground at almost point-blank
range. Yet the North Koreans refused to give way. It was difficult to see the enemy
troops, the elusive figures behind boulders. Mortar shells began to drop in and around the
Americans; some artillery came in. But it was impossible to locate their positions.
"Trotter!" Kingston shouted. "Get some shells up
Trotter was already on his radio, calling for artillery support.
"Jiminez!" Kingston roared.
"OK, OK," Jiminez yelled back. "Im getting
the planes now." His radio operator had been wounded, and he had taken over the
The arrival of the heavy mortars was heralded by the appearance
of Captain Harry Hammer, who commanded a platoon. He had loaded his men and weapons into
trucks at Samsu, then drove on ahead in his jeep. At Yongsong-ni, hearing the sound of
gunfire, he walked on to find Kingston taking shelter behind one of the twin-forty
carriages. Hammer crouched beside him. "I have seventy men and four mortars on
the way up," he told Kingston.
"Set them up," Kingston said, "and get some shells
Hammer hurried back to Yongsong-ni to speed the movement.
The mortars didnt help. Neither did an air strike by four
Corsairs, which gave such close-in support that one bomb showered dirt over a few of
Kingstons men. A small stone cut his lip. Sending Sergeant Wayne O. Wood and a squad
of men to outflank enemy positions on high round turned out to be an impossible maneuver.
Enemy machine guns cut them down.
Kingston yelled to his own
machine gunners to keep working. He noticed Sergeant Templin firing his jeep machine gun
even though he lacked cover, Sergeant Emerick working his 60mm. mortars from the ditch.
Despised the fact that every man in the task force was shooting,
the opposition was too strong. "Im breaking off," he told Lash over the
radio. "Im taking too many casualties." He was bitterly disappointed; he
had not fulfilled his promise. But to keep at it didnt make sense at the price he
would have to pay.
Though it was ticklish work to disengage, Kingston at last moved
his men back to Yongsong-ni, where he organized defensive positions. Not long
afterwards, more reinforcements arrived. Lash had sent up a rifle company and an artillery
battery for attachment to the task force. The rifle company posed a problem. It was
Company I, and the commander not only outranked Kingston but was an infantryman too.
Though Hammer and Jiminez were also captains, their position under Kingston could be
rationalized by the fact that they were in support of Kingstons infantry, but the
infantry captain did not exactly fit that category.
"Kingston," the company commander informed him,
"Im taking command of the troops in Yongsong-ni."
This was usual practice.
"OK, Captain," Kingston said. "Youre the
senior commander in town. Youre the commander of
Cold, tired, angry, Kingston was spooning a supper of cold beans
out of a can. His cut lip hurt.
"How about the task force?" Kingston asked. "You
also in command of Task Force Kingston?"
"I suppose so. You have any objections?"
"What did battalion say?"
"They said to come up and reinforce you."
An incoming shell crashed into the wall of a building nearby, the
sole wall of the building still standing before the shell demolished it.
"Hammer," Kingston shouted, "get your men on
A few more rounds came in from a single gun; then the fire
ceased. No one was hurt. The only damage was to a tire on a truck, shredded by shell
Later that evening, as Kingston huddled around a bonfire with
several of his men, the rifle company commander came by. "Want to talk to you,"
he told Kingston.
They walked off a few yards from the men. "Listen," the
captain said. "As far as Im concerned, this is your task force. You have the
mission. Im here to reinforce you, and Ill support you. You need anything, you
let me know."
Surprise kept Kingston silent a moment. "You sure you want
it that way?"
The captain was sure.
"Thanks," Kingston said. Then his voice became
crisp. "Ill tell you what I think we ought to do. Much as I want to get there,
I think we ought to rest the men tomorrow. Let them write some letters home, clean their
weapons, get some sleep, three hot meals. Ill check it out with battalion. Is that
OK with you?"
The captain nodded. "Fine. Go ahead."
Since battalion had no objections, the men got their day of rest.
The only activity came from the artillery and the heavy mortars, which put out some
The following morning Kingston gathered his vehicles and his
platoon of riflemen together to lead the advance. Company I would follow on foot. Before
the column started, two more officers showed up. One was a major from the Buffaloes, the
17th Infantry no one in the task force ever found out his name; his job was to
"coordinate" the contact at Singalpajin. The other was Captain Ed Wild, battery
commander of the howitzers supporting Kingston; officially he was there to
"coordinate" the forward observers, but really all he wanted to do was spit in
Kingstons impatience to complete his mission and cover the
ten miles to the Yalu was obvious. And contagious. It spread to the men of the task force,
now numbering around three hundred men, including the
anonymous major, three captains, and several first lieutenants.
The day of rest had worked wonders. The men were in high
spirits. "Lets go!" Kingston shouted, waving his arm in a wide forward
motion and springing aboard a quad-fifty carriage. The vehicles rumbled forward, the crews
firing an occasional few rounds to keep their weapons in working order, the infantrymen
shooting from time to time to keep their rifles operating. No enemy fire came from the
mountain pass. Part way through the defile, two dead North Korean soldiers lay in the
road, one on a stretcher. Three engineer soldiers, after checking the bodies to be sure
they were not booby-trapped, rolled them out of the way.
At the top of the pass, across eight miles of bleak countryside,
lay the Yalu River gorge and the cliffs of Manchuria, clearly visible. Though he still
could not see the river itself, Kingston had a feeling of elation.
The task force reached a small destroyed bridge, and the vehicles
halted while the engineers set about to repair it. Some men set fire to haystacks in a
nearby field to keep warm. At one of the fires a hand grenade fell out of someones
pocket and rolled into the flames. The explosion killed one man, wounded eight. Among
those wounded was Trotter, Kingstons forward observer. Captain Wild radioed back to
his battery to tell Lieutenant Jim Hughes to get forward as fast as he could.
When the bridge was repaired, the task force continued without
incident until the road ended at a gap. The road there was notched into the face of a
cliff, and North Koreans had demolished part of the ledge. This was serious, for it meant
a long repair job for Donovan and his engineers. The vehicles were immobilized.
Impatient to keep going, Kingston consulted with the rifle
company commander. No enemy troops were in sight. There was a good chance that the way to
the Yalu was open. "Ill take my platoon down the cliff and strike
cross-country," he told the captain.
"Fine, Ill come with you."
Along with him came his forward observer, Lieutenant Robert
Stein; Hughes, Kingstons forward observer; Wild, the battery commander; and the
unknown major. Descending the cliff to a wide plain, they picked up the road again. It was
a small force now, for casualties over the past few days had drastically cut the size of
Kingstons platoon. He placed seven men under Sergeant Vanretti in the lead to act as
Then came Kingston and the group of officers. Following were
eight men under Sergeant King, a cool, level-headed type.
They walked a few miles toward the cliffs of Manchuria, toward
the Yalu gorge and the river they still could not see. Around a curve in the road they
came upon the village of Singalpajin. The road ran through a large flat field bounded on
three sides by a loop of the Yalu gorge. Along the left side of the road a row of
undamaged houses marked the outskirts of town. Vanretti held up his hand to signal halt.
He sent four men to the first house to make sure it was empty. Kingston waved King forward
and directed his men to the right of the road to cover Vanretti and his group. The first
two houses were unoccupied. Everyone was moving forward when a volley of rifle fire
suddenly descended on Kingstons group. A bullet wounded Stein in the arm. Stein,
Wild, Hughes, and the company commander dived into a drainage ditch alongside the road.
Kingston remembered having passed a small culvert; he sprinted back and jumped into it.
The major followed.
When the fire subsided, Kingston raised his head from the culvert
and yelled to King to deploy off the road into the field on the right. Even as he shouted,
the four officers burst from the ditch and sprinted to the first house. Stein was holding
his left arm. Bullets kicked up the snow around them, but they made it to the house and
disappeared inside. What the hell! Kingston said to himself. Then he figured they needed
the shelter to fix Steins wound. He noticed the majors face. The officer was
gritting his teeth in pain.
"Whats the matter?" Kingston asked.
"Sprained or broke my ankle."
A soldier from Vanrettis group crawled down the ditch to
the culvert to find out what Kingston wanted done. Kingston told him to help the major to
the rear. Both men crawled off. Kingston inched forward to get in touch with Vanretti and
He found Vanretti and his five men taking cover in the ditch.
Kings men meanwhile were coming forward on the other side of the road, moving one at
a time in short rushes. The enemy seemed holed up in the fourth house of the town, a
building larger that the rest. It was perhaps forty yards away.
"Whatll we do?" Vanretti asked.
"Ill get King to cover us," Kingston said.
"You take two men and work your way up on the left of the house. The rest of you men
cover them from here. When youre in position, Vanretti, Ill run straight at
them and try to get their attention. You move in on them. Thirty minutes ought to do it.
But be sure to wait for me."
Vanretti nodded. He pointed to two men and started crawling out
of the ditch, across the field. The two men followed. Kingston sent a man across the road
to tell King what to do, and rifle fire soon started to beat against the house. Kingston
crawled down the ditch to get out of the line of fire of his own men.
When thirty minutes had passed, Kingston leaped out of the ditch
and started running, heading straight for the house. He had a grenade in his right hand,
his rifle in the other. He whooped and yelled as loud as he could. Out of the corner of
his eye he could see Vanretti and the two men with him spring to their feet and run toward
the house. The crust of the snow was hard. Though it supported Kingston at first, the
crust cracked as he picked up speed, then broke. The faster Kingston tried to run the
deeper his feet sank through the crust. He felt he was moving at a walk, his feet
floundering in the snow. Vanretti too seemed to be walking, painfully slowly.
Kingstons breath came in large gasping sobs. His eyes stung from tears brought on by
the cold, and he closed them for a few seconds as he ran. He heard the whang of bullets
close to him. Having covered half the distance, he felt he could go no further. He was
breathing in great aching gasps. With what seemed to him his last ounce of strength, he
flung the grenade toward the house.
He was watching it arch through the air when something hit
him hard on top of the head, spun him around, knocking him down.
When Kingston opened his eyes, Vanretti was bending over him.
"Youre all right," Vanretti was saying in a gentle, imploring voice.
"Youre all right. Youre going to be all right. You got to be all
He noticed that Venretti was holding a helmet with a bullet
crease across the top.
"Youre all right, Lieutenant," Vanretti urged.
"Youre going to be fine."
Kingston sat up, blinking his eyes, still not altogether
"We got them," Vanretti said. "That grenade came
"Not a one; nobody."
"How many were there? In the house."
"Five. We got them. We thought they got you."
A body of troops came walking around the curve in the road. It
was Company I, which soon cleared the rest of Singalpajin. Not many North Koreans were
there. The bulk of the battalion that had opposed Kingston at the defile had apparently
crossed the frozen Yalu into Manchuria.
During the day everyone managed to get to the edge of the gorge
to look at the frozen sheet of ice that was the Yalu. Several men, among them Wild,
descended to the river band to spit into the river.
Once the road to the cliff was repaired, the vehicles descended
into town. The troops set up camp for the night. Hearing the sound of motor convoys across
the river in Manchuria, they discussed the rumor that Chinese troops were entering Korea
to oppose the United Nations forces. It was November 28, and they did not know that the
Chinese had already intervened in the war. The marines had already been hurt at Chosin
The next morning a radio message from battalion informed the
troops at Sangalpajin that plans had been changed. They were not to wait for the
Buffaloes. Instead, they were to return to Samsu. A general withdrawal from Korea was
During the grim days of retreat that followed, the fact that Task
Force Kingston had reached the Yalu seemed like an incredible dream of small import. No
one congratulated the men or their leader. Yet of all the American units that had tried to
get to the Yalu, only two made it The 17th Infantry and Task Force Kingston. The
Buffaloes arrived there first and got the publicity. All Task Force Kingston got was a
sentence in the official record. And the satisfaction of having completed the assigned
mission. Behind the
accomplishment was the personal triumph of a twenty-one-year-old second lieutenant.
I met Fred Lash again several years later, this time in the
Pentagon. He was a lieutenant colonel. After making known our mutual pleasure at the
encounter, we retired to a coffee bar for a few minutes. The talk
turned to Kingston.
"Did he make it home OK?" I asked
Lash assured me that Bob Kingston had gotten home to Brookline,
Massachusetts, all right.
The mention of a particular place startled me. For the first time
I realized that aside from what Kingston had done in Korea, I didnt know much, if
anything, about him. "It never occurred to me," I told the colonel, "to ask
him where he was from. Or anything about himself."
He shrugged. "Why should you? I dont know much about
"Tell me something," I said. "Maybe you can clear
up something that has always bothered me."
The colonel waited.
"Tell me about the command setup on Kingston," I said.
"Part of it never quite made sense."
He smiled. "It was odd. It was a peculiar command
"Hammer told me no one ever questioned the fact that
Kingston was the boss. But really, when you sent Company I up to Yongsong-ni, didnt
you mean for the company commander to take over?"
Lash laughed. "Thats a low blow. Officially,
according to the records, we put the company commander in command of the task force. But
since the task force had already been in existence about a week and was being mentioned in
the situation reports, the periodic reports, and the journals, we didnt change the
name of it."
"Well, who was in command the last day when the troops
reached the Yalu?"
"Officially? Or actually?"
"I guess youve answered it. All right, tell me why you
sent Company I up to Kingston? Why not Company K? K was available, wasnt it?"
Lash laughed again. "Youve hit one of my darkest
secrets. But Ill tell you. I figured that if Kingstons company came up to
reinforce him, he would revert to being simply a platoon leader in that company. But since
Kingstons platoon was not an organic part of Company I, Kingston had a good chance
to remain in control."
"You figured it would work like that?"
Lash was modest too. "Well, maybe not so clearly as
"But it worked."
"Yes, it worked out fine. Any command situation works out
fine when you have good men."
"You dont mean just Kingston."
"I mean the commander of Company I too. He was a good
officer, and he deserves a lot of credit."
"Hammer, Allen, Donovan, and the rest of them also, I
"Right," Lash said. He paused for a moment before
adding thoughtfully, "But mostly Kingston. The
others crystallized around him."
I didnt know whether "crystallized" was exactly
the right word, but I certainly understood what he meant.