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Interviews and Reminiscence: Sgt. Ezra Phil Burke, NCOIC, Medical Platoon, Task Force Smith

Books and Documents

Sgt. Ezra Phil Burke

THE ARMY MEDICAL DEPARTMENT IN THE KOREAN WAR:  INTERVIEWS AND REMINISCENCES

Reminiscence: Sgt. Ezra Phil Burke, NCOIC, Medical Platoon, Task Force Smith

On 17 March 2003, Col. William E. Wyrick, U. S. Army (retired), wrote to the Office of Medical History, Office of The Surgeon General, U.S. Army, concerning the reminiscence of Sgt. Ezra Phil Burke, the Noncommissioned Officer in Charge (NCOIC), Medical Platoon, Task Force Smith. It is important here to present both Col. Wyrick's background on Sgt. Burke and Sgt. Burke reminiscence of his experiences with Task Force Smith.


Col. William E. Wyrick's Letter

Permit me to introduce myself:  I retired from the Army in 1973 after 30 years of active service as an Infantry Officer.  On 5 July 1950, I was a rifle platoon leader with Company C, 21st Infantry Regiment (Task Force Smith) during the Jukmi Pass battle north of Osan, Korea. 

Since the 1980's, I have served as the Historian for the Task Force Smith Group.  The material gathered during my research over the past several years is now being incorporated into a chapter for a book that Major (Ret) Lacy C. Barnett is planning to publish this year.  His book covers many aspects of the early days of the Korean War. 

While reading the many books and publications covering the activities of Task Force Smith, I had always wondered who was the medical sergeant that volunteered to remain behind with the casualties on 5 July 1950.  Without too much effort, I was able to find the sergeant - SGT Ezra P. Burke.  I have corresponded with SGT Burke for several years, conversed with him via telephone on numerous occasions, and attended several reunions with him.   SGT Burke is the Editor of the 21st RCT Association (Japan/Korea) Newsletter of which Task Force Smith is a part.  He serves as the Association reunion coordinator and attends each annual reunion.   


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SGT Burke is a quiet, unassuming person.  He does not tell "war stories" at our reunions and does not seek glory for himself.  I was president of our association for two years and worked very closely with him.  When I finally persuaded him to relate his total experience with TFS, he provided sufficient detail that now enables me to confidently rebut the false report that we left our wounded behind on 5 July 1950. 

At my request, SGT Burke submitted several specific bits of information to me that covered his perspective of Task Force Smith activities from 30 June through 9 July 1950.  Recently, I requested that SGT Burke combine his previous work into a single narrative of his experiences.  On 25 February 2003, I received a six (6) page narrative from him. 

Of course, I cannot attest to the validity of everything within his narrative.  However, I feel confident that SGT Burke is a dedicated and trustworthy individual.  His description of his experiences, commencing on 30 June 1950, fits very well into the sequence of events as I now visualize them.  I did not see SGT Burke on 5 July 1950.  However, after beginning my withdrawal and crossing the railroad tracks east of the battle position, I did encounter CPT Edwin Overholt, MC; LT Raymond (Bodie) Adams, MSC; and CPT (Chaplain) Carl Hudson.  I did not remain with them during their entire withdrawal to Ansong.

As you will note from SGT Burke's narrative, he did not return to friendly lines until 9 July 1950.  He was retained at the 21st Regimental Collecting Station (Chochiwon) as a patient because it was felt he could return to duty in a short time.  However, he started passing a kidney stone on (probably) 12 July.  He was moved on a railroad hand-car, pumped by one Korean, to Taejon.  He doesn't remember another patient on the car.  He departed the next day by air to the 118th Station Hospital in Japan.  He rejoined the 21st Medical Company in Korea on or about 25 July 1950. 

During the period 6-7 July, the majority of TFS survivors were assembled at Chonan, by the 34th Regiment.  They were trucked directly to Taejon and the units were reassembled in a former U.S. Army cantonment area.  A lot of new equipment, weapons and clothing were issued (I have no idea how it got there).  During the period 6-9 July, we received replacements and expended a great deal of effort preparing appropriate after-action reports.  On the evening of the 10th, we moved to a defensive position north of Chochiwon.   


On 6 July, the remainder of the 1st Battalion (A & D/21) reached Chonan, after an overnight train ride from Pusan.  They were deployed in a defensive position just south of the town.  On 8 July, they withdrew to Chonui (located on Hwy #1 between Chonan and Chochiwon) and established a defensive position SE of the town.

On 7 July, the remainder of the 21st Regiment reached Chochiwon.  The 3rd Battalion was deployed east of the city.  Then, on July 9, it established a defensive position on Hwy #1 located between Chonui and Chochiwon.

On 10 July, an early morning attack forced A&D/21 to withdraw before noon.  A counterattack, by the 3rd Battalion regained part of A&D/21's position, but after dark it was withdrawn to the position it had occupied that morning.  Early on 11 July, a well-planned attack, by a greatly superior force, overwhelmed the unit.  The survivors withdrew to Chochiwon, where they were reorganized as two companies.

Meanwhile on 11 July, the two parts of the 1st Battalion, which had fought at Osan and Chonui, were reassembled and put into position two miles north of Chochiwon.  On 12 July, the enemy attack came at 0930 hours.  Again it was a superior force executing a well-planned attack.  The order to withdraw came about noon.  The entire 21st Regiment was withdrawn behind the Kum River.  A hasty defense was established along the southern side.  Appleman reported that it consisted of approximately 325 men.1   At 0900 hours on 13 July we were relieved by the 19th Infantry Regiment.

My purpose, in outlining the activities of the remainder of the 21st Regiment, was to show why SGT Burke was not available during the debriefing of TFS members.  When the survivors of TFS returned to Regimental control on 11 July there was another battle to be fought and the events of 5 July were no longer discussed.  

As you can see CPT Overholt had very little contact with SGT Burke.  The medical personnel arrived at the aid station in two groups on 5 July.  CPT Overholt was in the first and SGT Burke in the second.  Their period of real contact was from just after daylight to about 1500 hours on 5 July.   That period of time would have been very traumatic for Doctor Overholt.

______

1 Wyrick is referring here to Roy E. Appleman, South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu (June-November 1950)(Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1961). This volume is part of the official United States Army in the Korean War .


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He obviously did not remember SGT Burke's name when he made his after-action report.  The fact that Burke was a patient from 9 to 12 July at the 21st Regiment Collecting Station, then was evacuated to Japan, and returned back to duty on 25 July, is a partial explanation as to why no one was able to recall and relate his name to historians.  It may also explain why he was not recommended for, at least, a Silver Star for carrying a wounded man from the battlefield and organizing and directing the initial phases of the litter patient evacuation. 

SGT Burke refers to LT Carl F. Bernard, who is now a retired Army Colonel and lives in Alexandria, VA.  The address, telephone number, and e-mail of both Colonel Bernard and SGT Burke can be provided to you, upon your request. 

A copy of SGT Burke's narrative is enclosed.  It is strongly recommended that you accept the narrative, perform your investigation of it, and then include it within the official history records of your office.  It would be my recommendation that you post it on your web site, along with the narratives of LTC Overholt and LTC Adams.

Enclosure                                                        Sincerely,

                                                                        [Signed]

                                                                        WILLIAM E. WYRICK

                                                                        Colonel, USA, Retired


Medical Sergeant - Task Force Smith

30 June to 9 July 1950

SGT Ezra Phil Burke, NCOIC, Medical Platoon, Task Force Smith, makes the following statement pertaining to actions and activities leading up to, during, and after the action at Juk mi Pass, north of Osan, on 5 July 1950:   

On 30 June 1950, which was payday, I was serving with Medical Company, 21st Infantry Regiment, at Camp Wood, Japan.  During the evening, I checked the hospital and dispensary, and then went back to the barracks and went to bed around 2200 hours. I was tired and sleepy because we had been up most of the last few nights due to the alerts.

About two hours later, I received a call and was told to select and prepare forty (40) enlisted medics, including myself, for movement to Korea. I asked Sgt David J. Sutherland to prepare the medical supplies and I would get the men ready with field-packs, gas masks, and personal items. 

Our preparations proceeded well and at approximately 0300 hours, 1 July, forty (40) medics and one MSC officer, LT Raymond Adams, departed Camp Wood by truck.  We were in a convoy of the 1st Battalion, 21st


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Infantry Regiment, and it arrived at Itazuke Air Base at approximately 0800 hours.     

At Itazuke Air Base on 1 July, Captain Edwin Overholt, MC, joined us as the newly assigned task force surgeon.  CPT Overholt, LT Adams, and about one-half of the medical platoon flew to Pusan on 1 July on C-54 aircraft.   The other medics and myself flew to Pusan on 2 July on C-47 aircraft.  The only litter jeep that we took from Camp Wood to Itazuke Air Base, driven by PFC Ronald Coburn, could not be loaded aboard military aircraft.  It was sent by ship to Pusan with other elements of the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry, and was not available for use on 5 July.     

Upon arrival in Pusan, arrangements were made to transport each group by rail to Taejon.  I did not have an opportunity to meet CPT Overholt until the morning of 5 July at the defensive position.

At Taejon, Task Force Smith was divided into two groups around midnight, 2-3 July.  CPT Overholt, SGT Sutherland, and about half of the medics, departed by train for Pyongtaek with Company B and others.  LT Adams, myself, and the other half of the medics, departed by train for Ansong with Company C and others.

At Ansong on 3 July, after holding sick call, I was instructed to take one medic


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with me and go north of Ansong and work in a Korean Army Aid Station. I took PFC Robert Rock with me and we worked all afternoon.  Then we were picked up and taken back to our unit in Ansong.  The next morning, 4 July, after sick call, PFC Rock and myself, were sent out again to the same Korean Army Aid Station.  We worked until late afternoon and then returned to Ansong. 

During the two days at the aid station I do not recall seeing any Korean doctors or medics. I never observed how they transported the wounded.  They would bring the wounded into the room and as soon as the wounds were taken care of, they would move them out. 

During the preceding week, we had very little sleep so I turned in early on 4 July.  However, I was soon awakened for movement north to the defensive position.

Task Force Smith arrived north of Osan about 0300 hours, 5 July 1950.  My group of medics from Ansong unloaded from the Korean trucks and started to set up and dig in near the road. Later we were ordered to move up on a hill.

SGT Sutherland took all of the litter bearers and aid men out to the two rifle companies.  I recall that LT Adams was with us when we arrived on the hill.  After we moved to the hill, I do not recall seeing LT


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Adams again in or around the Osan position on 5 July.  I was told later that LT Adams was assigned other duties with another unit during the day.  CPT Overholt, myself, and four other medics stayed with the aid station.

We were still in the process of preparing the area to receive casualties when shortly after 0800 hours our artillery fired the first two rounds. The Aid Station was located just behind and between Companies B and C in a saddle between two hills with a shallow ditch running south from the hill. In order that patients would have some protection, they were to be placed in the ditch once treatment had been rendered.

We dug a large hole, about 6 feet by 8 feet and approximately 5 feet deep. This hole was to protect the patients and the doctor while active treatment was being rendered. 

It was raining and at approximately 0900 hours, we started receiving casualties. After a short time, we received one seriously wounded man with a sucking chest wound and he was losing a lot of blood.  We tried to seal the chest wound and gave him plasma.  We only had a limited amount of plasma.

At this time, I realized that the other four medics who were working in the aid


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station did not know how to mix and give plasma.  The one person that I had planned to help me in the aid station, CPL Ernest Fortuna (surgical technician), had been sent out as a company aid man. I sent several messages out to find him and to have him report back to the aid station.  Fortuna received my message and just before we moved off the hill, he reported back to the aid station.

Without my knowledge, some of the medics were pulled out and assigned as ammunition bearers, functioning under enemy tank fire.  It is not known as to who diverted, or under whose orders, the duties of the medics were changed. 

By 1400 hours, we had received about fifteen wounded men and about eight of them were litter cases.  Earlier, just above the aid station, near the ridge line, SGT Patterson, Company C, had received a wound to the neck. I tried to get him to the aid station but he refused so I bandaged him up and he stayed on the line.

About 1430 hours, a lieutenant came by the aid station and gave me a hand grenade saying: "Good luck."  He stated that a withdrawal order had been issued by the task force commander.  By this time, a few of the medics had pulled back from the front line and joined us.


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It was at this time that I suggested to CPT Overholt that he take the walking wounded out and that I would handle the evacuation of the litter cases.  This decision was made by CPT Overholt and myself and to my knowledge, no one else was involved in it.  I do not recall any dead being in or around the aid station.  There was never a suggestion or thought on the part of the medics that the casualties would be left behind.  We were determined to make every effort to get them out. 

CPT Overholt, PFC James A. Howard, and I believe Captain (Chaplain) Carl Hudson, took approximately seven walking wounded out.  The remaining medics, including myself, plus several "commandeered" and "volunteer" infantrymen prepared to depart with the litter cases and the medicine chest, which was almost empty.  The units of assignment for the infantrymen are not known but they were probably members of the task force headquarters.

As we started down the hill, someone yelled, and told us to drop the medicine chest and get out.  So with ALL the litter cases, LEAVING NONE BEHIND, we pulled back near the rice paddy and regrouped.  During this period of time we were receiving fire from burp guns and machine guns.  Fortunately, one of our machine guns had pulled back near a levee at the foot of the hill and kept firing over our heads. This


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machine gun crew held the enemy at bay until we could safely depart from the hill.

The following men volunteered to assist in the evacuation of the litter cases:  PFC Max Myers, CPL Ernest Fortuna, PFC Harland Jenkins, PVT Kermit Koch, PFC William Fleming, and possibly PFC Charles Heddinger.1  There were other medical and infantry members in the litter bearer group but I do not know their names.  Later Myers, Fortuna, Fleming and Koch were reported as captured by the NK Army and held as POW's.  Jenkins was reported as killed in action.  Out of the forty (40) enlisted medics that went to Osan on 5 July, there were thirteen captured and one killed.

After we had regrouped, and checked on the condition of the wounded, we started to leave with the litter cases.  I was carrying one casualty on my back.  We were still receiving machine gun, burp gun, and increasing mortar fire.  Every one of the litter bearers made a valiant effort to get their patients out of "harm's way." 

Under intense machine gun, rifle and mortar fire, we started going southwest around the rice paddy when a mortar shell landed near two infantrymen.  I told the men carrying the litter patients to go ahead and get out of there and I would check the injured and catch up with them. I laid the patient down that I was carrying and went

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1 National Archives and Records Administration files on Korean War casualties and prisoners-of-war (POWs) indicate that PFCs Kermit K. Koch and Harland D. Jenkins were killed in action on 5 July 1950. PFCs Max E. Myers, Charles A. Heddinger, William C. Fleming were captured on 5 July 1950 along with CPL Ernest A. Fortuna, all of whom were released in late August 1953.


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back to check the two men that were hit.  I soon realized they were both dead.  

About that time, a mortar shell came in very close and blew me up in the air, giving me a concussion and imbedding a small piece of shell in my forehead, which I still carry around in 2003.  I went back and picked up the patient that I had been carrying.  I did not see the litter bearers or anyone else so I cut south across the rice paddy and came under small arms fire that was coming from the hill that we had occupied earlier.  Upon arriving on the other side, I was so exhausted that I put the patient down and tried to get him to walk. He was only wounded in the arm but he refused to walk.  I was unable to carry him any further so I took him by his arm and dragged him up and over the next little hill.  I sat down for a few minutes to rest and again I carried this patient for a short distance when I came across a couple of members of Task Force Smith, including LT Carl F. Bernard, Platoon Leader, Company B.

Near a house we found a two-wheeled cart and we put the patient in and pulled it for maybe two miles.  We came to a farm shed where we stopped to rest.  At this time I told the patient that I was exhausted and he was in much better shape than I was and that he would have to get up and walk or we would leave him there. I believe LT Bernard took off his watch and gave it to the patient so


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he would have something to barter with and we left him there in the farm shed.  To this day I cannot figure out why the man would not get up and walk. Someone told me later that a South Korean helped him get back to his unit. I can only recall that he was a PFC, machine gunner.

Up to this time I do not recall crossing the road or the railroad. After leaving the patient I think we went south and up on a ridge line.  Then we rested for a while and darkness was approaching.  After dark, I do recall crossing two rivers or possibly crossing one river two times.  The water was about waist deep. When we crossed the first time I did not remove my boots. But the second time, for unknown reasons, I took them off.  We traveled mostly at night.  One night we stopped at a house and a Korean lady cooked some potatoes for us. We tried to stay away from the road and up near the ridge line.

We walked for four days and nights. On the last day, I recall walking down a railroad track. I do not recall seeing any friendly forces at any time, but LT Bernard said that we did.

To the best of my recollection, we arrived at a 21st Infantry Regiment Aid Station in Chochiwon on the afternoon of 9 July.  I was exhausted and my feet were so swollen that my boots had to be cut off. 


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They tried to feed me but I was too exhausted to eat.  I was placed in a small room on a litter.  A little while later, CPT Donald Duerk, MC, came in and asked me if I wanted a shot of liquor.  That is when a man on a litter next to me said: "Is that you SGT Burke?" It just happened to be LT Bernard.  Doctor Duerk gave us a couple of drinks each.  Those were the best drinks I have ever had and were certainly the right ˙medicine˙ for that moment.

Date  8 February 2003

[signed]

Sergeant Ezra P. Burke, US Army Ret.

SOURCE: Letter, Col. William E. Wyrick, US Army (retired), to Dr. John T. Greenwood, Chief, Office of Medical History, Office of The Surgeon General, US Army, Falls Church, Virginia, 17 March 2003, in Office of Medical History, Research Collections, Korean War, Folder: Task Force Smith.