South Korea, 1952. Two years of bombing and shelling by aircraft, warships and ground troops have rendered a country nearly unrecognizable. Massive loss of lives in the fighting forces and civilian deaths; poverty; hunger; homes and businesses destroyed. This is the scene that met the eyes of Corporal Raymond Bohn upon his arrival.
Trained as a cryptographer, cleared to Top Secret, Corporal Bohn had received orders to report to the 27th Regiment, Infantry Headquarters Company, 25th Division. Now, waiting in a dilapidated little camp about three miles behind front lines, Ray and his companions could hear the sounds of artillery. Ours or theirs, they couldn’t tell. The Sergeant in charge said, “Don’t worry fellas, it’s out of range.” Big comfort!
Earlier, GIs heading home had cautioned, “Try to stay out of the 25th Division’s 27th Wolfhound regiment. It’s bad luck – they’re always on the front lines in the thick of the fight. And, the Chinese hate them!”
“Well, what do you know,” Raymond recalls, “when the trucks arrived to pick us up, they all had a white wolfhound painted on each cab door, with a human skull as the vehicle’s hood ornament!”
The convoy of GIs made the trip to Headquarters Company without incident, other than the disquieting sounds of distant artillery fire. About to load for the return trip to a quieter zone were ten to fifteen GIs wearing the look of war fatigue. Ray and his group were replacing these men, and the unlucky ones who were either dead or wounded. Glancing at this somber group, the First Sergeant remarked, “Be careful, or someone will be replacing you, dead or alive.”
The First Sergeant went on to say that in 48 hours, everybody would be transported to the MLR — Main Line of Resistance. Every GI knew that MLR was “Army Speak” for the Front Lines.
Corporal Bohn raised his hand. “First Sergeant, this is a letter from the Adjutant General of the Signal Corps, Camp Gordan, saying that as a cryptographer, I’m not to be within 50 miles of the front line.” Corporal Bohn handed his letter to the First Sergeant.
After a moment or two, the First Sergeant broke into a fit of uproarious laughter. When he regained his composure, he faced the group. “Gentlemen, we are most honored to have with us a trained CRAPtographer. I don’t have any priority messages to flush right now, but we ARE, as always, short of toilet paper. This letter will be put to the best possible use!”
Ray grabbed his letter from the First Sergeant’s hand and tore it into pieces.
Raymond continues, “My earlier interaction with the First Sergeant, would turn out to be beneficial. A First Lieutenant from Headquarters Company had overheard the conversation. Later that day, he sent a runner with the message that I was to report immediately.
“After some conversation about my Signal Corps training, the officer asked if I was familiar with the M209 field code converter. I was, to some degree, but I replied that I’d ‘slept’ with them while in training. In my opinion, this device had good possibilities for use with the front line system that the lieutenant had in mind, but not without several application problems. I wasn’t, however, going to mention all of my concerns, especially if an assignment to Headquarters Company was a good possibility. I figured this type of job would keep me some distance from the front lines, but close enough to be effective as a cryptographer.
“Not just yet! The next morning, the 27th Regiment, including yours truly, was transported to the front lines, replacing the GIs that had previously held this position. On the plus side, we seemed to be well armed. There were several tanks in dugouts, with only turrets exposed. To our rear about a quarter of a mile were about fifty pieces of various types and sizes of artillery. Just above our quarters was a 240 millimeter cannon that fired an 8” diameter shell. Below us, ready to roll, was a full-track tank that had been named the ‘New Bitch.’
Corporal Bohn continues, “Since our unit wasn’t in active combat at the time, we did whatever was needed, including interrogating Chinese soldiers who were caught trying to sneak in with South Korean workers. Their objective was to splice into our communication lines. A few times, I was selected to go on wire patrols. When we found a splice, we’d disable it, while looking out for land mines or Chinese infantry.”
Even on the front lines, there were quiet periods; time for GIs to relax, play cards, and write letters. Raymond had a girlfriend back home, but many GIs did not. Others had lost touch with previous girlfriends and were looking for new female connections. One young man, an acquaintance of Ray’s, was very distressed. He’d just received a “Dear John” letter from his sweetheart and he wondered if Ray could help him write a letter to his now ex-girlfriend that would convince her to reconsider her earlier decision.
Raymond composed the letter for his friend and gave it back to the GI to rewrite in his own handwriting. Ray also told the man to insert a few personal remarks and phrases so as to make the final draft sound authentic. Well, it worked! The happy GI, now reunited with his girlfriend, couldn’t resist telling everyone about Corporal Bohn’s letter writing skills.
This lucky young man had two friends who were particularly interested in Ray’s talents. Their idea was for Raymond to write a form letter that would be sent to the editors of newspapers around the U.S. Ray did, signing each letter with the other two GIs.
At first, response from newspapers was negative… “If we printed a request from one GI”… and so on. Then, the 25th Division’s paper ran a story. Shortly thereafter, the Army Times published a bigger story. Newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune and the St. Louis Post Dispatch, picked it up, and then others. In a short time, Army mailrooms were deluged with mail for these three GIs. In addition to letters, there were gifts of clothing, pastries, candy and the like.
Raymond’s celebrity status was soon pre-empted by the ugly business of war. Reporting to G2 Intelligence for orders, Corporal Bohn was assigned duties as a regimental courier. His responsibilities would be to hand carry messages of importance to Wolfhound’s companies and any Combat Support Groups. There would be two regular trips per day. Higher priority messages would be delivered any time day or night, regardless of weather or other circumstances.
One of Ray’s first trips required him to leave his driver with the Jeep and to walk/crawl to his destination. When he was a short distance away from the vehicle, shots rang out. The Chinese had zeroed in the position of the Jeep and showered the area with gunfire. A few weeks later, Raymond lost another driver under similar circumstances.
Courier runs became more hazardous by the day. Corporal Bohn describes one such experience:
“The Chinese were attacking our front lines with full force and the fighting was bitter. I was called to reach our line companies with new information that couldn’t be sent by wire. One of our units, referred to as Sand Bag Castle, was located on a high hill about a half mile from the main road. The only way to get to the ‘castle’ was by way of a washed out creek bed that would be tough to navigate with my Jeep.
“To make matters worse, the Chinese were hitting this area with heavy mortar fire, knowing that this ‘road’ was the only means of access or egress. When I reached the turnoff to go to the units on the hill, I was met by MPs. Because I had a courier pass, they couldn’t stop me, but they said my chances of making it through without getting hit were slim.
“Since we had no option, my driver and I proceeded up the hill. In my left hand, I squeezed my Rosary and breathed a prayer. Driving was nearly impossible and painfully slow. As we pressed on, mortar shells continued to explode ahead of us. Then…nothing! All was quiet. We moved on up to headquarters without incident.
“A few minutes later, over a tin cup of what they called coffee, the guys said, ‘That was bad out there. How do you think you made it?’ As it turned out, GIs had seen a Jeep coming up the road and were betting on whether or not it would make it all the way.
“Maybe because of this.’ I pulled my left hand out of my jacket pocket to see a thin line of blood where the Crucifix on my Rosary had punctured the palm of my hand; I’d held it so tightly.”
To war-weary GIs on the front lines, the Chinese seemed to have a nearly inexhaustible supply of ordinance, much of it from Russia. As soon as our side secured one area, the enemy would come thundering through from another direction. And more was ahead.
“It was Mother’s Day, a Sunday,” Raymond remembers. “Our headquarters was situated on both sides of a narrow valley. The evening before, the enemy had fired several artillery rounds that we correctly assumed were to zero in our side (the far side) of the valley. The Chinese were too far back for their artillery shells to hit the hillside and the section of the valley nearest them. Their only option was to aim for the distant side. After the earlier test rounds hit, we’d cut slit trenches, just in case.
“At around ten in the morning, all hell broke loose. I jumped into the nearest slit trench. Shells are raining in like hail in a thunderstorm. Since the other side of the valley wasn’t getting hit, we waited for a lull in the shelling that’s bringing down rocks from higher above us. Just as I was about to make the two hundred foot run downhill, someone pulled me back and took off instead. It was Yong Duc Mon, a 17-year-old Korean worker that everyone called Jimmy.
“Within seconds, I followed him. Then, I heard more incoming and hit the ground. At that moment, I watched the kid get hit with enough impact to throw him into the air. When I stood, I saw him sprawled out in a pool of blood. Trying to pick Jimmy up would have been useless. Getting to the other side kept me safe for the remainder of the shelling, which lasted about an hour.
“Yong Duc Mon was buried on a nearby hill by his brother, whom we called Joe. A few days later, Joe took me to see his brother’s grave. Someone had put up a white cross on Jimmy’s grave with his name and his dates of birth and death. I put a medal on the cross and took a picture.
“All film was developed in Japan by GIs who were on R&R (Rest and Recuperation). Everyone had the opportunity to take R&R after so much time in combat.
“Soon after several of my group returned, one of the guys called me over. Before he could say anything, I asked, ‘Did you get the prints of Jimmy’s grave?’
“‘Yes, and wait until you see this!’
“I looked, and it was one those moments that can’t be described. Near the top of the vertical arm of the white cross, my combat helmet appeared, bearing the image of my corporal stripes. Below the helmet is my face, vague, but identifiable.”
Mr. Bohn says that when he returned from the service, he took the photo to his hometown newspaper, the St. Louis Post Dispatch. The photographic department performed every test possible at the time. Their conclusion (paraphrased): There is no (known) trick photography that could have been available to soldiers on the front lines in 1952, nor other scientific or logical explanation for what is seen in this photo.
Today, Raymond acknowledges that Yong Duc Mon’s quick rush past him was probably a frightened boy’s run to safety, rather than an attempt to save Ray’s life. But, how does one account for the mystical-like appearance of Corporal Bohn’s visage on Jimmy’s cross, as seen in the photograph?
There was rarely more than a brief lull in the fighting. Shortly after the incident on the hillside, Corporal Bohn was pulling night-call duty when the phone rang. Apparently two Chinese soldiers were wandering around without weapons. It was later found that these two were lost from a patrol and had ditched their weapons so as not to be shot.
Ray’s supervisor, a lieutenant, was sitting at a table cleaning his .45 sidearm. He ordered Corporal Bohn to accompany him to Post #1 to pick up the two Chinese. They were a quarter of a mile down the road when the officer discovered that he’d left his weapon on the table at Headquarters Company. The officer then told another GI to accompany the group so that on the return trip to headquarters, each prisoner would be guarded by someone with a weapon.
Raymond describes what happened next: “On our trip back, I was on one side of the road with my prisoner and the other GI and officer were on the other side of the road guarding the other prisoner. Suddenly, there were shouts in Chinese coming from both sides of the road. The prisoners started running toward what turned out to be the rest of their patrol.
“I opened fire and hit both prisoners. I suddenly realized that the patrol was firing at us. They hit my officer and the other GI. I jumped into a deep ditch on my side of the road. During a few seconds of quiet, I heard footsteps coming toward me. I raised my carbine, but not my body. I fired four or five rounds toward the sound of the running. The running stopped and I heard the sound of someone falling on the chat covered road.
“Firing in my direction stopped and I could tell that the Chinese patrol was leaving their wounded. Carefully, I got to my feet. My officer and the GI were dead, riddled with bullets. Then, I saw the Chinese soldier who had rushed me earlier. I’d shot him in the throat and I could see that he was in severe pain. I ended his suffering. The prisoner in front of me was dead. I checked the other Chinese soldier and found him to be still alive, but mortally wounded. I fired a round to put him at rest.
“A short time later, I was told that the Regimental Commander had recommended me for a Bronze Service Star for my action that night. I was glad to be so honored, but not especially proud of the circumstances that surrounded this recognition.”
The Army had established a point system to help select GIs for early reassignment. Points were based on time in active combat, performance and other factors. Corporal Bohn’s total points put him in line for movement. Ray was transferred to Japan, where he boarded a ship bound for the United States.
“HOMECOMING!! Finally, my feet hit the ground in Seattle. A train trip to Camp Carson, Colorado for out-processing and then home to St. Louis.
“I thought I deserved to decompress a little and to have time with family and friends before re-starting my previous job. One day, my brother, Bob, said that he was going to throw a party and he’d like for me to come over. He said there would be an attractive young lady there who’d like to meet me.
“’I’m not interested,’ I said. ‘You know I’ve got a good looking girl in Omaha. She’s willing to move and to finish her Master’s Degree at University of Missouri – St. Louis. I think she would be good for me. She’s training to be a professional in television.’
“’Hey, man, do it for me. It’s just a party.’
“’Well…okay,’ I said.”
“Come Saturday night, before I picked up my first drink, I spotted this beautiful woman talking with my brother.
“’Ray, come here.’ My brother was waving me over. ‘I want you to meet Betty,’ he said, smiling from ear to ear.
“I held out my hand. Betty had a playful smile on her face. ‘Ray, how are you? I’ve read about your letter writing in the paper, and yes, I’ve wanted to meet the joker who talked all of those girls into writing him.’
“Betty and I were married ten months later. We were partners for almost 60 years! We had three beautiful daughters: Gail, Sandra and Janice. Betty passed in April, 2014. I now have eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
“My working life was good to me. I eventually became President of Melcher-Schene Hardware and Construction Company. As a hardware consultant, I became an AHC Grader, a position that I held for 25 years. In the early 1970s, I received a National Award in this field.
“For over ten years, I have served as a member of the St. Louis County Auxiliary Police Association. I am also a member of Sky Warn, an organization that helps disseminate weather bureau information concerning inclement or threatening weather.
“In 2014, due primarily to medical issues, my doctors recommended the Missouri Veterans Home – St. Louis. I’ve been a resident here for over a year. I enjoy knowing my fellow veterans and I like to be a positive influence wherever I am.”
What a gripping story! Ray, we are glad that you decided to join our community of veterans and we look forward to knowing you better.
Thank you for everything, friend!