HANTAN RIVER CROSSING KOREA JUNE 1951
written by MAJ Johnnie L. Bohannon (Ret.)
Johnnie L. Bohannon was born on a Georgia farm on November 22,1931. His family moved to Columbus, Georgia where both parents worked in the cotton mills. As a young boy, Johnnie supplemented the family income by selling newspapers, candy, and other snacks to the soldiers at nearby Fort Benning. At a very young age he decided that the U.S. Army was the right place for him. He enlisted in the Army on September 5, 1946 having just completed 8th grade. There were school records and a family Bible that indicated his true age of 14 but he had no actual birth certificate. His mother agreed to sign that he was 17 years old, probably with a wink and a nod from the recruiter. On that day, John became three years older than his actual age and he would keep that secret for the remainder of his 20-year military career. By the time the young soldier arrived in Korea in November of 1950, he had made sergeant and was a seasoned combat engineer with over four years of service. He was, in fact, only 18 years old. Following his tour of duty in Korea, Johnnie L. Bohannon would continue his military career and later attend OCS and flight school becoming an Army Aviator before his retirement in 1966. This is the story of his experiences at the Hantan River crossing for which he was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action. The Silver Star is the United States military’s third highest decoration for valor in combat.
In June, 1951, the Korean War was about one-year-old with fighting in both North and South Korea. The 3rd Infantry Division was north of Seoul, Korea near Yonchon and advancing north to Chorwon. An overview of activity is provided by The History of the 3rd Infantry Division in Korea, Turner Publishing Company, page 230.
“On the west, the 65ths 2nd Bn under Lt. Col Laurence A. Johnson attacked across the Han-tan River and found waiting for them an estimated Chinese regiment. The Reds threw in a vicious counterattack supported by a heavy volume of mortar and artillery fire. The battalion was in a bad position. The men held off the enemy attack, but were not able to advance without reinforcements which were not available. Indeed, Division was hard pressed to supply the one battalion engaged. A footbridge couldn’t be constructed to facilitate the task. Enemy fire and the river’s swift current prohibited its construction. The decision was made, therefore, to withdraw the battalion across the river. Supported by three battalions of artillery and a company of tanks, this operation was completed shortly before midnight of June 4th. The battalion had undergone continuous attack since crossing the river and was in need of rehabilitation.”
Company C, 10th Engr Cmbt Bn was in direct support of the 65th Inf Regt and more directly the 2nd Battalion of the 65th which was the battalion engaged with the enemy. As usual during wartime, weather was a serious problem. Heavy rain and very low visibility was causing swollen streams and rivers. These weather conditions limited tank movement, limited ability to adjust heavy mortar and artillery fire, and in addition, there was no air coverage.
Sgt. Johnnie L. Bohannon was a squad leader assigned to Co C having transferred from Hq & Hq Co 10th Engr Cmbt BN to a line company. For his first five months in Korea, Sgt. Bohannon was a bulldozer operator. During the months of November and December, 1950 he was at Wonsan and Hungnam, North Korea. His primary duties included clearing to the ground over 200 houses to open a field of fire for naval vessels and supporting LST loading and unloading during the evacuation of Hungnam. It was during this period that Sgt. Bohannon experienced the most painful episode of his military career. He was tasked with covering over the Graves Registration trench that he had dug out of the frozen ground just three weeks earlier. He buried about 40 soldiers most of whom were from the 65th Inf Rgt. This was the first and last time he cried during his 20 years of military service. Sgt. Bohannon drove the last vehicle bulldozer on the last LST and departed Hungnam at 2:45 pm on December 24, 1950. He watched as the port was totally destroyed by demolition and naval gunfire. After landing at Pusan, Korea in Jan, 1951 the 3rd Inf Division took a few days to stabilize their units then started a movement to the north.
During Sgt. Bohannon’s first two months in Co “C”, his squad’s mission was to repair roads and install drainage pipes in the heavy rainy season. They were always cold and wet and their primary tools were shovels and 55 gallon drums for culverts. Keeping the roads passable was a full time job. That mission changed on June 4, 1951 when Sgt. Bohannon was ordered to the command post and briefed by the 1st Sgt. and a 1st Lt. to take his squad and install a rope bridge across the Hantan River. They were told that all materials were already on site and the squad should report to the officer in charge for specific instructions. The fact that there was no need to bring rope and other building materials was rather unusual. No one mentioned that there had already been an unsuccessful attempt by our company to make the crossing that morning. The squad was eager to do something other than road work so, armed with a map and river location, they left the CP at 10 am.
Sgt. Bohannon’s squad arrived at their dismount point around noon, left their 2 ½ ton truck and its driver and proceeded to their destination on foot. While walking a small pathway toward the river, Sgt. Bohannon observed five M-48 tanks in a mud field periodically firing their 90 mm main weapon at the enemy position on the far bank across the river. It appeared that the tanks had gone as far forward as possible in support of the infantry on the u-shaped Hantan River bank and were stuck in the mud.
The path turned into a rocky one-foot-deep streambed which the squad followed cautiously toward the river crossing location. Just as the squad passed in front of and beneath the forward M-48, the main gun was fired. Surprised by the sudden cannon fire, they immediately dropped into the stream but then quickly got back up realizing that it was their own tank. The squad then began receiving small caliber mortar fire so they quickly ran forward and out of the streambed. They later realized that they were not in fact being fired on; but every time the tanks fired their main weapon the Chinese military responded with mortars directed at the tanks.
Upon arriving at the site, Sgt. Bohannon reported to a major who was thought to be the S-3 of the 2nd Bn, 65th Inf Rgt. The major was very excited that the squad had arrived and quickly explained the situation. He emphasized that the rope must go across the river in order to allow the infantry companies on the opposite bank of the Hantan to get out of harms way during the cover of darkness. Sgt. Bohannon asked the major if anyone had tried to take a rope across the river. The major answered that there had been an earlier, unsuccessful attempt and that the man who made the earlier attempt was shot when he got half way across the river and was last seen floating downstream.
An excellent explanation of the first attempt to cross the Hantan River was written by the company clerk Ralph Oliver with Entry 76482 titled “Death of PFC Josue Cortes-Boisjoli, Co C, 10th Engr Cmbt Bn” on page 10.
“Very early on June 4,1951, an infantry unit requested through the CP radio that we send a platoon to string a rope bridge across the flooded Hantan River, near our company position, so the infantry could cross more easily. The river was only about 5 ft. deep, rapidly flowing east. Pfc Josue Cortes-Boisjoli volunteered to tie the rope around his waist and struggle against the current to the other side. He got about halfway across the river, about 30 feet, when the Chinese, hiding in heavy growth on the other side, opened up with machine gun and mortar fire. He died instantly. His body washed down the river and was recovered later that afternoon. About 18 soldiers of Co C were wounded, but no others were killed. Both company medics were there and both were seriously wounded. The infantry survived without injury as they were not on the sandbar where the enemy fire was directed. A small heliocopter, named Mechanized Angel, arrived with a pod on each side and began transporting the wounded to a MASH hospital.”
Sgt. Bohannon’s squad immediately began preparing for a second crossing attempt. He was satisfied with the available rope and materials at the site but, in addition, requested one half spool of communication wire. He knew that in swift water it was extremely difficult to swim with heavy rope but much more possible with commo wire. Once the commo wire was procured, they had what they needed to accomplish the crossing. Preparing for the crossing was simple as this was a squad of combat engineers who knew how to tie knots and fasten the necessary tools like axes and shovels to the rope.
As a young boy Sgt. Bohannon often swam the swift and rough waters of the Chattahoochee River in his Georgia hometown so he was probably the best qualified swimmer in the squad. He told the squad that he would go first and if he did not make it, then a volunteer or the next ranking man would make another attempt in an hour until the mission was completed. At that time, he thanked them for being his fellow soldiers. The major was alerted that the mission was ready to go and he came to watch. Sgt. Bohannon removed his field jacket, boots, and hat and placed all of his valuables inside the field jacket. With the commo wire secured around his waist he took a running start and dove into the river swimming as fast as possible.
He was half way across the river before the first shot was fired at him and then all hell broke loose. As he finally approached the opposite shore there were small trees and a mound of dirt that prevented direct fire from reaching him. Out of breath and exhausted from his effort, his thoughts immediately turned to his mission and the commo wire that was still secured around his waist. He slowly pulled the commo wire and the rope with the attached tools across the river and secured the wire and rope to a small tree. The right sized tree was already uprooted for making a proper dead man to secure the rope. While he was cutting the tree, two infantrymen were ordered to investigate the noise. After telling them what he was trying to do, they left to report but quickly returned as it was in their best interest to help install the rope line. The two infantrymen assisted Sgt. Bohannon in completing a proper tie to the sunken tree. Once that was completed they returned to their platoon. With the rope secured on both sides of the river there was nothing to do but wait for darkness.
Sgt. Bohannon waited two hours for darkness and then started pulling himself back across the river with the rope. He was almost to the opposite shore when the waiting major and pfc motioned for him to swim toward them. As he swam towards them, small arms fire began hitting the water around him and the major and pfc came out into the water to assist him. The major asked if he was hit as all three men then rushed to the cover of a nearby tree line. Sgt. Bohannon had not been hit but both the major and pfc suffered flesh wounds. The major refused to leave his post to have his wounds treated until after the last infantryman had made the river crossing.
Under cover of heavy darkness, over 400 infantrymen began crossing the river in an orderly fashion and in less than an hour, all were safely across. It was after 10 pm when the major expressed his appreciation to Sgt. Bohannon and his squad for getting his companies across the Hantan and dismissed them to return to their company. As the squad was leaving they noticed that all five tanks were still stuck in the mud field with no infantry left for security.
After reloading their truck, the squad returned to camp at a very slow pace due to blackout conditions. They arrived back in camp around midnight tired, wet, and hungry, and knowing full well that no one gave a damn. But there was a light in the mess hall so they headed that way to beg a sandwich from the cook. It wasn’t necessary to beg because the cook greeted the squad with a hearty “Thank God you’re here”. Captain O’Brien had ordered him to stay up and feed them regardless of the hour. Guess someone did give a damn after all. After a good night’s rest, the squad starting talking about the river crossing. They had watched every stroke as Sgt. Bohannon swam the river with bullets striking the water just behind him and noted that the firing stopped when he reached the opposite shore. The squad was happy about the mission’s accomplishment and perhaps the discovery of a leader on June 4, 1951.
Sgt. Johnnie L. Bohannon RA 14237941 of Co ‘C” 10th Eng Company Bn 3rd Inf Div APO468 by General Order 324 dated 28 July 1951 was awarded the Silver Star for Gallantry in Action. The citation reads:
For gallantry in action. On 4 June 1951, Sergeant BOHANNON was supervising and assisting in the construction of a footbridge across the Hant’an River, near Song’jong Korea. Although the bridge site was under intense enemy machine gun and mortar fire, he remained exposed to direct the construction and aid in the evacuation of wounded infantrymen from the far shore. Numerous times, Sergeant BOHANNON swam the river, swollen by heavy rain, in attempts to carry a rope across and anchor the bridge. The ingenuity, gallantry, and courage displayed by Sergeant BOHANNON in the successful completion of the bridge reflect the highest credit upon himself and the military service. Entered the military service from the State of Georgia.
Johnnie L. Bohannon retired after 20 years of military service on October 1, 1966 at the age of 34 as a Major, Senior Army Aviator. The retired major subsequently graduated from the University of Georgia BBA Finance, 1967 and MBA Investments, 1968. He then began his career as a professor at the Abbott Turner College of Business of Columbus State University; a position from which he retired in 1994. Professor Bohannon was awarded Professor Emeritus status after retirement. He has always believed that the U.S. Army and education set him free. He obtained his high school GED in 1949, completed his first university course in 1952, and went to night school almost constantly before he could enroll in college full time after his military retirement.
There were 33,652 battle deaths and 7,800 American soldiers unaccounted for in the Korean War, most of those lost during 1950-1951. Johnnie Bohannon has spent many nights sleepless or dreaming about those brave men who paid the ultimate price by giving their lives and futures for the American cause.
©Johnnie L. Bohannon. Not to be reproduced without permission.