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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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– https://www.gunsamerica.com/digest/m1911-in-italy/.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.