Death on the Korean DMZ
As we reflect today on Pearl Harbor and the United States' entrance into World War II, it is also an anniversary of sorts for some soldiers of America’s ‘unknown war’ on Korea’s Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
Private Second Class (PV2) Douglas Blakeney, his heavy rucksack digging into his shoulders, was frustrated with the slow pace of the man in front of him. This patrol is taking too long, he thought as he passed the slower soldier. Stepping back into the file formation of the patrol, he triggered a blast mine, probably the ATM-74 ‘shoebox’ variety. The blast shattered Blakeney’s ankle and foot, tearing flesh and muscle from the backside of his legs and buttocks.
Blakeney recalls seeing Sergeant First Class (SFC) Thomas Anderson’s back and then: “BOOM -- next thing I know I am on the ground lying on my back looking into the air.”
Stunned by the blast and noise of the explosion, Private First Class (PFC) John V. Harrington, the radio operator, recoiled a step back, triggering a second mine that nearly severed his leg, leaving it hanging by a small shred of flesh.
Suddenly a routine patrol that was part of transferring the responsibility of Guard Post Ouellette to another infantry company had turned bloody. Guard Post Ouellette was sited in a bulge of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) that separates North and South Korea, three of its sides are bordered by North Korea.
The patrol, led by a sergeant from A Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry had become disoriented in a heavy fog and inadvertently crossed into North Korea and one of their minefields. There is no fence along the MDL, only small yellow signs placed every 100 meters or so along the entire width of the Korean peninsula. These signs have rusted and fallen into disrepair after the North Koreans fired at maintenance teams.
Sergeant Glenn Litzau moved to treat PV2 Blakeney’s wounds. He recalls having to pick up Blakeney’s calf muscle and shove it back up under the torn skin of Blakeney’s lower leg.
The blast knocked Specialist Fourth Class (SP4) David Hoffman back several feet. After regaining his wits following the explosion, he probed his way to render first aid to a screaming PFC Harrington. SP4 Hoffman recalls: “A large portion of PFC Harrington’s right leg was missing between the ankle and the knee. I immediately applied a tourniquet just above the wound using a bayonet to tighten it up. I continued to assess PFC Harrington’s injuries which included a wound to his right arm and other minor injuries to his face and hands.”
SFC Anderson and Staff Sergeant (SSG) George Durazo moved the rest of the patrol into nearby woods, establishing a security perimeter. SFC Anderson returned to assist SP4 Hoffman.
"Kneeling to lay out the poncho he struck a mine near his knees. The blast threw him a couple of meters to my right front, where he landed on his stomach looking directly at me with a look of bewilderment.
I told him to lie still and I would come and help him. He pushed and rolled onto his back, triggering another mine directly beneath his back. There is no doubt in my mind that the explosion killed him instantly.”
SP4 David Hoffman
Realizing it would only be a matter of time for the North Korean Army to react to the sound of the explosions, SP4 Hoffman told PFC Harrington to start praying, because he was going to carry him out. PFC Harrington pleaded “Don’t leave my leg behind.” Placing the nearly detached leg on Harrington’s chest, SP4 Hoffman picked him up and started walking toward SSG Durazo. SFC Anderson’s body remained in North Korea.
“I personally saw David Hoffman pick up PFC Harrington and not being able to see the ground walk back through the minefield in which four mines had exploded. Dave Hoffman should have received the MOH [Medal of Honor]. I will never witness anything as brave as what he did.”
Using the radio, SP4 Hoffman remembered the Camp Casey Range Control frequency and after several attempts established contact after climbing a tree to improve their chances of communications. The status and needs of the patrol were passed on to Range Control.
The Joint Security Area (JSA) in Panmunjom, Korea opened talks with the North Koreans to arrange for an aero-medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) in the DMZ. They also sent some soldiers and a Navy corpsman (medic) to link up with the star-crossed patrol on the paved road to the JSA to assist.
When the MEDEVAC chopper arrived and the wounded were being loaded, the North Koreans opened up with small-arms fire on the patrol and MEDEVAC. The firing stopped after the chopper departed.
After linking up with the JSA element, the patrol loaded up on trucks and sent to Camp Liberty Bell for debriefings. Once completed, the soldiers returned to their barracks on Camp Greaves.
North Korea returned SFC Anderson’s body on December 11 at the JSA in Panmunjom. The U.S. Army’s Casualty Information System lists him as “Non-Battle Dead” and “Non-Hostile Dead: Died of Wounds/Injury.”
In the aftermath, an Article 15-6 Investigation was conducted for accountability. It resulted in the relief of several individuals and established procedures had not been followed. The lessons learned from this incident resulted in a strict regimen for preparation of DMZ patrols by U.S. forces that continued until 2004 when the DMZ security mission was relinquished to the Republic of Korea’s Army.
For his bravery, SP4 David Hoffman received the Soldiers Medal, a heroism award for peacetime valor at risk of life.
The Eighth U.S. Army’s Chronology for this event has the entry for December 11. 1979:
NK [North Korea] returns the body of SFC Thomas L. Anderson, killed five days ago near Panmunjom when his three-man patrol strayed into NK sector of DMZ in dense fog and tripped a land mine. Other two soldiers were slightly injured; all were members of 2d Div’s 1/9th Inf.
The amount of misinformation contained in the above statement is troubling. The patrol was over 12 men and possibly as many as 20. Losing a leg is not “slightly injured.” Four mines detonated, not one.
The disinformation continued when the 2nd Infantry Division posted a video entitled “2ID 50th Anniversary: Last American Soldier killed by NK hostilities -- SFC Thomas Lee Anderson.” The narrator says: “Through selfless action, he was able to aid the wounded and lead the patrol out before succumbing to his injuries after being struck by two mines himself.”
A few weeks later the Pacific Edition of the Stars and Stripes newspaper ran a story on December 25, 1979, titled “Business as usual for GIs on the Korean DMZ.” A harkening back to All Quiet on the Western Front’s meaning of stagnation.
No one could ever know what went on in the DMZ, it was always a powder-keg that could explode at any time… it might just as well that we didn’t know all that was going on there -- it might prevent any of us from sleeping at all.
Former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Philip Habib
Kevin Mason is a retired Army officer who commanded an infantry company on the Korean DMZ from 1983-1984. He holds two Master's Degrees one in History from the University of Tennessee and the other in International Relations – Strategic Studies from Boston University. He has interviewed several members of this patrol.
Image: Kevin Mason