By GENE E. HERRICK
Herrick is a Rocky Mount resident and a retired Associated Press journalist.
I was born in Columbus, Ohio on July 26, 1926, moved to Cleveland a year later and to New York two years later. When my father died in 1934, my mother and I moved back to Columbus and lived with my father’s parents in a little restaurant, in an industrial section. I started carrying newspapers at age 8, and continued some form of work and going to school until age 16, at which time I applied to The Associated Press.
I have been stationed in 12 different AP bureaus. I spent 28 years as a photographer/writer with them, from 1943 to 1971. I have covered five U.S. presidents, been a War Correspondent at the beginning of the Korean War in 1950. I have covered all types of major league sports, been a friend of U.S. vice-president Hubert H. Humphrey, many national political conventions, the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. I am named one of the 10 Essential photographers of the Civil Rights Movement, and have been inducted into the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame.
I took early retirement in 1971, and went into the field of Developmental Disabilities. I have been an executive director for a few non-profit agencies; served on the boards of some other agencies, written three books, one about myself, “Did I Ever Tell You The Story About…..”
At my current age of 93, I continue to write – Thank God.
While on assignment in Korea, in 1950, as an AP War Correspondent, I faced a life-threatening event, one that I buried the memory of deep down in a secure spot in my being.
It was a quiet day on the battle-fronts, so I headed for a British unit just north of Taegu, and on the Naktong River. I hitched a ride to the front, walked across a big open sandy beach — not knowing the enemy was watching — across the river on a little floating military bridge with grooves only for the trucks, up a hill to a crude Command Post in the dirt. I stopped, introduced myself to a low-ranking British officer, shot the bull about their plans for the day. It was peaceful, at least for a war, and at least for the moment.
Suddenly, we received a radio call saying the British troops had just been hit by U.S. jet fighters, which strafed and bombed them. It was an accident. However, the British ground fighters had asked for an intervention. The troops did not move their ground battlefront banner, which indicated their position. In essence, the British asked for an air-strike on the enemy, but then moved into the enemy territory without moving the banner. The American pilots, moving so fast, didn’t know this, but did what the protocol called for. The strike killed and wounded many.
Upon hearing this, I joined the small headquarters group and went to the scene. We had to wade through chest deep waters to get to the site. On the nearby shore I saw wounded being carried out.
Seconds later, just after I climbed the embankment, a British soldier charged at me full force with his gun and bayonet pointed only inches from my chest. The British were angry with me because I was an American. The fighter planes were American. I was a symbol. I was a perfect target for their anger and retaliation. That was a scary moment.
Suddenly, from my left, a hand quickly moved in, grabbed the gun and bayonet, and saved my life. I’ll never forget the anger or the expression on the face of the man who wanted to — and tried to — kill me. Teeth clamped, face seemingly on fire, eyes pointed and glaring with deep intensity. And yet, I understood. A military battlefield is an emotional petri dish, where things develop and change in seconds.
The man who saved my life and I returned to the little base-ops. Moments later the man who tried to kill me, came up with tears in his eyes and apologized so sincerely. I, of course, accepted.
There were so many seriously wounded, and so few troops to help carry all of the medical stretchers, that I pressed myself into service. This seemed more prudent, at the moment, than taking pictures. However, I still have haunting thoughts as to whether I made the right decision. After all, I was a war correspondent and should have been dedicated to being a newsman.
Anyway, I carried one corner of the stretcher, and the wounded British soldier kept bleeding as we headed back across the Naktong River, the little metal floating bridge, and the long and weight-heavy stretcher. The four of us never communicated. We did try to console that severely wounded young lad on the stretcher. We were constantly under enemy fire with artillery shells exploding rapidly around us, throwing large amounts of water or sand on us. So far, we were still alive. Each time we heard the shells whistle, we would drop to the ground to try and make us less vulnerable.
Leaving the river behind, it was a long stretch to a wooded area and a road where they could get the soldier to a field hospital. I never learned of the wounded soldier’s fate.
During the last big stretch across the sand, more shells came in. I looked over and saw the body of a British soldier lying there, all alone, with the top of his head blown off. Somehow, and only God could tell us, his face was still recognizable. I emotionally froze. The dead British soldier was the one who saved my life by interceding in that bayonet attack on me just a few minutes prior. My emotions ran wild. How could this be? Why did this happen – to either of us?
I didn’t have time to cry, or feel the full weight of the emotional battle I had just been through. However, those series of events are as alive today as they were those 69 years ago. It is still a living question as to the outcome in the lives of those British soldiers who were also involved.
As soon as I got to an American military outpost, I used their field telephone (a phone in an army canvas bag) to call Bem Price at the AP post in Teague. I gave him the facts about the battle mistake, and he wrote the story and phoned it to Tokyo, and then by radio to San Francisco for transmission on the old A-wire across the U.S.
I only have one photo from the incident.