America’s Forgotten War & the 1911 That Saved My Friend’s Life

Like most major wars, the Korean Conflict was a brutal and pitiless bloodbath. It is in the small stories that one can begin to grasp the drama.

The war in Korea spanned from June 1950 until July 1953 and ultimately claimed more than 44,000 American lives. The first major proxy war fought between communism and democracy, this bloody conflict played out in countless little dramas across the desolate Korean wastes. The Allies started the war with the weapons, vehicles, and aircraft left over from World War 2. The end result was brutal, bloody, and, ultimately, fairly futile. The Korean War ended on July 27, 1953, in a stalemate that exists to this very day.

Death Never Sleeps

The communist Chinese were skilled fighters and worthy adversaries during the bloody war in Korea. This American grunt is seen alongside a captured communist Degtyaryov machine gun.

A friend served a tour as an Infantry soldier during the Korean War. He has little use for the communist Chinese even today. The fanatical communists fought frequently at night. My buddy respected their skill at arms.

My buddy thought the world of the heavy Browning Automatic Rifle. The BAR’s automatic fire became the focal point around which the rifle squad orbited.

The real world isn’t much like Call of Duty, and soldiers start out with the tools Uncle Sam gives them. My buddy carried an M1 rifle, what we would call a Garand today, and held the Browning Automatic Rifle in enormous esteem. He told me that the individual riflemen all willingly carried spare magazines for the BAR. If the BAR went down the entire unit bogged down.

The full-power .30-caliber M1 rifle is a superb combat tool. However, my friend needed something handier as a personal defense weapon.

As a junior enlisted soldier, my friend was not authorized a handgun. There was the obligatory barter economy in weapons, but he found himself unable to scrounge a proper combat pistol. As he was immersed in life-threatening peril pretty much all the time he felt the need for some sort of handy defensive tool. A letter back home to his dad took care of the problem.

The Colt M1911 pistol has been a ubiquitous feature of American society for more than a century.

His next care package from the states included a civilian Colt 1911 handgun and a holster. The heavy pistol ran standard GI-issue .45ACP rounds, so feeding the beast was not a challenge. That civilian Colt became his constant companion. Whether awake, asleep, eating, shaving, or defecating, that powerful combat pistol never left his side. 

The Korean War saw some arctic-grade temperatures. Such a forbidding environment makes combat operations hugely more difficult.

The night was bone-chilling cold, and my friend lay curled up tightly within his sleeping bag at the bottom of a forsaken foxhole. His platoon had set out security, but it is incredibly difficult to maintain an effective defensive perimeter throughout a dark night in sub-zero temperatures. Somebody fell asleep or froze. The Chinese communists took advantage of the opportunity and infiltrated the American fighting positions.

Though generally small-statured, the Chicom soldiers who fought in Korea were of hearty stock.

The visibility was OK. The moon produced enough light for the communists to control their infiltration. My buddy awoke gently for reasons he still cannot elucidate and looked up from the bottom of his hole into the eyes of a communist soldier carrying a bolt-action rifle.  

A meager diet kept most communist Chinese soldiers smaller than their corn-fed American counterparts.

Most of the Chicom soldiers were small-statured. The diet upon which they were raised was not great, so they seldom grew very large. By contrast, however, this enormous Chinese communist was over six feet tall. For a pregnant moment, both men stared at each other in the dim light.

The Colt 1911 pistol my buddy’s dad mailed him quite literally saved his life on a cold dark night in Korea.

My pal slept with his 1911 locked and loaded inside his sleeping bag. The Chinese soldier raised his rifle, while my buddy struggled desperately with the zipper of his fart sack. He got one arm with the pistol through the head hole and triggered off two quick rounds. Both of the heavy .45-caliber bullets hit the big Chinese communist soldier in the chest and bowled him over backward, his rifle flying out of his hands.

There resulted in a vicious firefight waged pitilessly and at close range.

The noise of the two gunshots alerted the American grunts nearby and a vigorous firefight ensued. The Chinese were driven back in desperate close-quarters combat. My friend related the story to me in my medical clinic one day when I saw him as a patient for something otherwise unremarkable.

John Browning’s Hand Howitzer

Back in WW2 and Korea, the tactical handgun was not employed as we use it today.

The family lineage of John Browning’s esteemed 1911 pistol has been exhaustively cataloged. We have tread this hallowed ground in this very venue in fact. Here’s a link–

The Colt M1911 pistol was a favorite of Prohibition-era gangsters like John Dillinger.

Running in parallel with the military use of the 1911 warhorse, Colt also marketed the gun aggressively to civilian users both in the United States and abroad. The same sterling attributes that made the 1911 such an effective combat tool also earned the gun a dedicated following among Law Enforcement and civilian shooters as well. The gun was popular among Depression-era gangsters. By 1950 the entire country was covered in a thin patina of Colt 1911 handguns.

The M1911A1 was a slightly upgraded version of the original M1911 developed in 1924. Both versions were readily obtainable on the American civilian market in the 1950s.

Civilian sales were brisk throughout the gun’s long service life, and the government actually sold surplus versions indirectly to the public back in the days when we were indeed still a nation of rugged individualists. By 1950 Colt was offering versions with aluminum frames as well as stubby Commander variants better suited for concealed carry. My friend passed his trusted civilian Colt on to a friend still in country when he rotated home, and the fate of the gun that saved his life on that frozen Korean battlefield was lost forever.

Timing is Everything

Combat is a fairly gear-intensive business, and much of that stuff is quite heavy.

A combat soldier in the field is like a walking travel trailer. Everything you need to live, thrive, and fight rides about on your back or in pouches attached to your web gear. Under such circumstances mass is life. Extra weight means decreased mobility and increased fatigue. In the deadly random world of individual combat being slow can get you killed.

Soldiers learn their craft quickly or perish.

This buddy was also an acquaintance made through my medical clinic. He was a platoon leader and commissioned officer who had already been operating downrange for a couple of months. The learning curve is steep in the unforgiving world of Infantry combat, but my friend was getting good at it.

Korean War-era flak vests were fairly rudimentary compared to the high-tech versions used today. This one is shown on an Ethiopian soldier of the Kagnew Battalion fighting in Korea.

He got word through the chain of command that his platoon would be pulled out of the line for a quick resupply. The Army was issuing some new kind of armored vest, and his unit was due to get theirs from an improvised supply point very near the front. His men were none too thrilled about adding the weight of body armor to their already-overburdened loadout, but the momentary respite from combat would be welcome. That meant at least one hot meal and a single night in the rear someplace safe.

The selective fire M2 Carbine is indeed a light and handy rifle. However, the weapon is not as reliable as the full-sized M1 Garand while packing substantially less punch.

The vest was indeed bulky, but Uncle Sam supposedly knew what he was doing. My buddy rearranged his gear to ride on the outside of the new body armor and made ready to trek back into hell. Though he had originally been issued a selective fire M2 Carbine, the young Platoon Leader had binned that in favor of a heavy M1 rifle for its greater reach and reliability. He also carried an M1911A1 pistol in a shoulder holster now on the outside of his spanking new armored vest.

The heavy .303-caliber bullet that hit my friend would have undoubtedly killed him had it not been for his new body armor.

On his first day back in the line, a Chicom soldier shot him in the chest with a large-caliber sniper rifle. The heavy round struck his holstered 1911 a glancing blow before deflecting on a beeline for his heart. The partially-spent bullet stopped on his brand-new vest, itself still fresh out of its packaging.

The Lee-Enfield No.4 MK. I (T) is a combat-proven sniper system.

His troops isolated and killed the Chinese sniper. He was armed with a WW2-vintage British Lee-Enfield No.4 Mk. I (T) precision rifle. How this WW2-era sniper tool found its way into the hands of a communist Chinese sharpshooter in the 1950’s-era Korea is anybody’s guess. My buddy drew a fresh armored vest and wore it every day through the rest of his time in-country.

Precision Firepower

The SMLE served well in the hands of Commonwealth troops throughout WW1.

The British Lee-Enfield rifle was one of the most produced military weapons in human history. Starting with the rudimentary MLE versions devised by James Paris Lee and first launched in 1895, more than 17 million copies have seen service. The Lee-Enfield can still be found in some of your less well-funded war zones even today. The Lee-Enfield was considered a weapon of distinction among Afghan mujahedin back in the 1980s when they were fighting the Soviets.

This WW1-era SMLE is fairly typical of the genre.

Such stuff as this complicated adjustable 2,000-yard sight on an early WW1-vintage SMLE got binned on later Marks.
The No.4 MK. I (T) sniper version of the Lee-Enfield rifle received its baptism by fire in the hands of British snipers like this one during WW2.

The Lee-Enfield went through a bewildering array of Marks in its evolutionary march toward the No.4 Mk. I (T) that nearly killed my friend. The SMLE (Short Magazine Lee-Enfield rendered “Smelly” by the troops who used it) served throughout World War 1. Such niceties as the ill-conceived sliding magazine cutoff that transformed the bolt-action repeater into a single-shot rifle was rightfully discarded, but the gun remained essentially unchanged throughout the war.

The Lee-Enfield No. 4 Mk. It was the standard WW2 variant. It is distinguishable at a glance from previous Marks by the stubby length of barrel protruding from the snout.

The definitive WW2 version was the No. 4 Mk. I formally adopted it in 1941. While nominally stronger than the previous versions, it was in actuality just much cheaper to produce. The previous complicated adjustable sight was replaced with a simple L-shaped flip. The primary differentiating feature was that the later rifle retained a stubby bit of barrel protruding out the front, where the earlier SMLE had a hog-nosed appearance.

Combat is mankind’s ultimate expression of orchestrated violence. This battle-damaged Lee-Enfield No. 4 mutely attests to the ferocity of modern warfare.

The Korean War era was a confusing time. Almost two million Americans served, and nearly five million people were killed on both sides. While the war ended in a truce, the valor, and selflessness of those who served place them among the finest Americans who ever lived. We can never adequately thank those awesome old guys who went off to fight to help keep that little bit of the world safe for democracy and freedom.

The debt we owe to those old guys who served in WW2 and Korea can never be adequately repaid.

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About the author: Will Dabbs A native of the Mississippi Delta, Will is a mechanical engineer who flew UH1H, OH58A/C, CH47D, and AH1S aircraft as an Army Aviator. He has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning and summited Mount McKinley, Alaska, six times…always at the controls of an Army helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains. Major Dabbs eventually resigned his commission in favor of medical school where he delivered 60 babies and occasionally wrung human blood out of his socks. Will works in his own urgent care clinic, shares a business build-ing precision rifles and sound suppressors, and has written for the gun press since 1989. He is married to his high school sweetheart, has three awesome adult children, and teaches Sunday School. Turn-ons include vintage German machineguns, flying his sexy-cool RV6A airplane, Count Chocula cereal, and the movie “Aliens.”

{ 15 comments… add one }
  • Ej harbet September 7, 2020, 8:36 am

    my dad made a decent number of Chinese ladies widows with the m1 garand. He lost 2 friends to 6.5 arisakas 1 permanently and 1 million dollar wound.he said he never forgot his buddy tex cussing up a storm during his jeep ride to the aid station. A 6.5 in the arse apparently is painful. On a somber note his best friend was killed in his sleep when a infiltrator loosed a ppsh in his tent. That cause a 2 day commie hunting trip that he never went into detail on. Im proud of my dad! Rest in peace corporal er harbet.your war is over

  • Irish-7 September 4, 2020, 11:40 am

    I’ve been a .45 ACP advocate since carrying a Springfield 1911A1 during my first tour of the US Army 1980-1984! I own a Series 70 Colt Gold Cup and Remington R1 M1911s. I rotate a Ruger P345 and S&W Model 457 as EDC. I even bought a revolver that shoots .45 automatic, S&W Governor. My favorite round!

  • JCitizen September 2, 2020, 12:32 pm

    Thankfully my dad didn’t have to have his relatives send him a pistol, as a B-17 co-pilot he was issued a WW1 1911 that was in brand new condition. He said he was the only one he knew that actually carried his pistol with him on every mission, because he had heard the Germans were merciless to POWs that were discovered to be of German descent. The intelligence said they were sometimes shot as soon as their feet hit the ground from a bailout over enemy territory. Plus the Romanians just didn’t like anyone that landed on their soil, and would as soon as pitch fork you as hand you over to the Nazis. He took amazingly good care of it, and it still has nearly 100% finish on it despite being in a leather cross draw holster he was also issued. Both still look almost brand new.

    I’m not surprised the enemy used old WW2 allied weapons in Korea, as there was probably a surplus of them after we chased the Japanese off the Korean peninsula. However, I’d imagine it was only used because it already had a scope on it. Records show the Russian Mosin 1891/30 rifles were the most accurate of their day, and the Communist snipers of WW2 were greatly feared by the German Army. However I’m not sure if Russian equipment was more or less available compared the Communist Chinese military aid.

  • Charles Reeves September 1, 2020, 12:06 am

    My Dad was a Tank Mechanic in the Korean War and saw action retrieving tanks, thank you for the article. He never talked about it with one exception. As a young man when I hit draft age I told dad I was heading to sign up for the draft and he told me that with me being born in 1959 I did not have to sign up and he did not want his son to go through the hell he went through. God I miss Dad. In my book any man that has fought for this country is a hero.

  • Mikial August 31, 2020, 8:57 pm

    My maternal grandfather died in WWI, my father and 3 uncles served in WWII, my much older brother served in Korea, my cousin served in Viet Nam. I missed serving in a war while on active duty but went on to serve voluntarily for 2 1/2 years in Iraq as a private security contractor on DoD contracts along with several trips into Afghanistan, Pakistan, West Bank and was in Cairo doing security for American contractors during the revolution that overthrew Mubarak. Guns and service have been a way of life for my family and I cannot even begin to imagine how anyone in American can be so ungrateful as to hate the military or refuse to serve their country. God bless all vets everywhere.

  • Jerry S August 31, 2020, 1:00 pm

    Too bad these new snowflakes will never read stories like this. My uncle died from combat wounds in Germany just 3 weeks before the end. He was just 18.

  • NRApatriot August 31, 2020, 12:32 pm

    My deceased dad was a decorated combat veteran of the Korean War. He said the real heroes were the guys laying there dead. The Battle of the Chosin Reservoir messed his mind up pretty bad and made him into an raging alcoholic when he drank. Wounded, only he and two buddies survived out of his entire company! When I bought my M1 and showed it yo him he picked it up and shouldered it. I could tell memories were flooding back. He handed it back, looked at me and said, “Boy, a rifle like this one is the only reason you are here.”

  • Robert Luke August 31, 2020, 11:59 am

    Great stories! Thank you for your service.

    Hail State!

  • Bad Penguin August 31, 2020, 11:38 am

    My uncle was Marine E-3 PVT at Chosin. He loved the .45 ACP and the Thompson he said hated (because of the weight) but he said when the CHICOMs started to surround his position and he cut down on them it was the love of his life. He said those Chinese soldiers he didn’t kill didn’t dare stick their heads up to see where the firing was coming from. At Chosin he and a E1PVT were the only two people in his entire Company that survived a night of fighting and he said it was solely because of that sweet Thompson.

    BTW to keep from losing a Company they made him an 0-3 Captain because he was a college graduate and the E-1 a E-8 1stSGT and pulled enough marines from other units to bring it up to strength. Other than that one experience he never talked about the war again.

  • Ti August 31, 2020, 11:26 am

    Great article. My first handgun – Mark IV series 70.

    Then while with 25th ID Team Spirit in the 80’s

  • Mike in a Truck August 31, 2020, 9:30 am

    Dad used a 1911A1 to good effect during the Korean conflict. At 90 he still swears by it and has no use for the current crop of “Mattel” guns.

  • Mike August 31, 2020, 9:01 am

    Thank you for the article.

  • Nanook August 31, 2020, 8:56 am

    Had a Colt Gov model from the fifties, small sights but pointed well. My friend who has long passed, was surrounded at Chosin with the 1st Marines, he said they were able to do something with the mortar rounds they had on hand, where they could roll them down the hill on the Chinese. I can’t remember what exactly he said they did to the mortar rounds, they were running out of ammo and they had boxes of mortar rounds. He was 19 years old then!

  • Joe Ernst Jr August 31, 2020, 6:11 am

    Another great story Will! My EDC is the .45. Served me well in Vietnam.

  • Steve in Detroit August 31, 2020, 5:40 am

    Great story. I always look forward to your tales.

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