Korean War Oral History Interview
Date: September 20, 2001
Veteran: First Lieutenant John Koenig
United States Marine Corps
E Battery, 2nd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Walt Borkowski
John Koenig was born in April 1929 in New York City. His father served as a U.S. Army doctor during World War I at Verdun and in the Argonne Forest. During World War II, Koenig’s father served as an army chief surgeon and was stationed at Governors Island in New York harbor, where John lived with his family for six years.
Koenig graduated from Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City, New Jersey in June, 1951. Later on that year he surprised his father by joining the United States Marine Corps. He recalled that he explained his choice by saying that when he had to run up a hill, he wanted to be sure that someone was with him on his right and left, and felt the fighting spirit of the Marines would ensure that.
Koenig spent most of 1952 in training, including his Marine infantry “boot camp” course and then Officer Candidate School (OCS) at Quantico, Virginia. He graduated from Marine OCS as a second lieutenant, and recalled his feelings as his class passed in review on graduation day while a band played the Marine Corps Hymn: “I would have gone up any hill with a toothpick. There is something they do in those eleven weeks that is fabulous. They turn people around.” Following graduation Koenig was assigned to the Marine Corps artillery and sent to the U. S. Army Artillery Officer Basic Course at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
Since Koenig grew up a New York City boy in the 1930s and 1940s, he had neither need nor reason to learn to drive a car. When he told a Fort Sill instructor he couldn’t drive, the instructor pointed to a truck and told him to “start now.” Under this pressure, he soon learned the rudiments of driving. Koenig recalled that there was a nuclear artillery piece at Fort Sill that was so powerful it could shoot from one end of the large military reservation to the other. Following his training at Sill, he was transferred to the Marine base at Camp Pendleton, California.
After some winter training at Pendleton, Koenig shipped out for Korea on the troopship USS Walker. While on board the ship he was assigned the task of exchanging the enlisted men’s American money into the military “scrip” cash used in Korea. After landing at Inchon, Koenig traveled through Seoul on the way to his assignment with E Battery, Second Battalion, Eleventh Marine Regiment [All Marine artillery batteries are components of the Eleventh Marine Regiment.], which was part of the First Marine Division. His battery was stationed on what was called the Main Line of Resistance (MLR) just north of Panmunjon, a village where peace negotiations were taking place as fighting continued. The MLR was the front line of the Korean War and stretched across the peninsula from east to west.
Koenig remembered that his battery’s position made him think of “World War I trench warfare. There were no trees,” he said. “Some men dug bunny holes, and everyone had to get used to sleeping with howitzer rounds fired over their heads.” There was constant firing. He recalled that a nearby Turkish Battery lost all of its howitzers in one big explosion.
Koenig’s first job was that of a forward observer attached to an infantry company. Part of his assignment was to call in morning registration fires “…so they can figure out the adjustments they would have to do for wind, humidity, and so forth,” to correlate calls for fire with the actual impact point of shells fired. He also quickly learned how to lay down a pattern of defensive fire called a “box” --six rounds in front, six behind, and three on each side.
During his interview Koenig referred to a map, tracing a bulge into the Chinese line known as “the hook” that was occupied by the United Kingdom’s Commonwealth Division. He also showed the interviewer an aerial photo of a mountainous area code-named the “Nevada Triangle,” pointing out the locations of some forward observation outposts within the triangle. Following through on the nomenclature, the outposts were named after various cities of the State of Nevada. Koenig spent time in outposts Vegas, Carson and Reno.
Lieutenant Koenig recalled his actions during a battle that raged back and forth on the hills and valleys of the Nevada Triangle in the spring of 1953. During that fight, the infantry company he was assigned to as a forward observer lost seventy-two Marines killed or wounded from a total strength of 147 men. In one day he went from being the junior forward observation officer of the three assigned to an infantry battalion to the senior, when one officer was killed and the other badly wounded.
Koenig remembered how he and his sergeant, “a natural leader” who later received the Silver Star, called in high explosive fire and smoke shells from their battery to cover the infantry company’s move to a stronger position. He described a hospital corpsman as being “the bravest man I ever saw,” and recalled how one of the two corpsman assigned to the company went out into an open field under fire several times to care for wounded Marines and drag them to safety. He could not positively identify which corpsman it was, but was later advised that the man was awarded the Navy Cross for bravery.
He remembered that after the battle, while on his way back to the battery command post to write his report, his captain stopped him and said “don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it.” He later discovered that the captain was awarded a Navy Cross and the executive officer a Silver Star, although they were not directly in the fight. “I think it would have been a different story if I had gone back there, but I didn’t,” he recalled. “I was green and it was my first big one.”
Shortly after the battle Koenig was assigned as Battery E’s executive officer and then to battalion headquarters fire direction center as watch officer, and then later to division headquarters as an artillery liaison officer. Shortly afterward the Korean War ended in an armistice in which the United States relinquished the Nevada Triangle to the North Koreans. Koenig recalled that act as “the most frustrating thing. I would have been a bitter old man if I had lost my legs or been blinded taking those hills. I don’t know why we ran up that hill that no one really wanted. That’s what we did.”
Lieutenant John Koenig returned to the United States and was discharged in October 1953. He later became an attorney. At the time of his interview he was retired and living in New Jersey.