Conversation with a Quiet Hero


David G. Mitchell


“Give me tomorrow.” Most of us take tomorrow for granted while we complain about the petty inconveniences that sometimes make up our daily lives. For a fighting soldier, tomorrow may never come and each tomorrow is a cherished gift, even while it may also be a horrific nightmare. Survive for enough tomorrows and maybe a soldier can go home, usually broken, but at least alive. So it was that a young marine fighting in the Korean Conflict, when asked what he would want if he could have any wish, replied: “Give me tomorrow.”

Give Me Tomorrow is also the fitting title of Patrick K. O’Donnell’s newest work. It is the story of the G Company from the Third Marine Battalion, First Regiment from the First Marine Division, or “Bloody George” as they have come to be known—a title earned from their own blood and the blood of their enemies. In late June, 1950, the North Korean People’s Army (KPA) crossed the 38th parallel to invade South Korea, an ally of the United States. President Truman ordered the United States military to intervene on behalf of its ally, even though the US had shed more than ninety percent of its servicemen in the five years since World War II had ended. In the rush to bring the First Marine Battalion up to strength, G Company was born.

During the war, Bloody George fought its way through Seoul, Inchon, the Chosin Reservoir and many other places that are remembered as battlegrounds only to a very few Americans. Bob Harbula was one of the men of Bloody George. Originally from Pittsburgh, he found himself enlisted in the Marines in the summer of 1950 but assigned to duty as an usher in a theater, escorting VIPs to screenings of the John Wayne film, Sands of Iwo Jima. Inspired by the film, and against the advice of his brother who was also a Marine, Harbula volunteered when he saw a posting looking for men to join a special raider battalion. That posting would lead him directly to Korea, and to combat.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Harbula about his experiences in Korea and his thoughts on Give Me Tomorrow. In this discussion, where Harbula refers to G-3-1, he is referring to George Company (G), Third Battalion (3), First Regiment (1).

David G. Mitchell: You were inspired to sign up for training with George Company by the movie Sands of Iwo Jima. Now a book has been written about your experiences. How does that make you feel?

Bob Harbula: Watching sanitized movies like Sands of Iwo Jima can be very misleading to a young person’s mind. You don’t see the hell that war really is. The noise—the smell, the gore, the fear, the blood, the sweat—is all missing in the movies of that time period.

I’ve waited for sixty years for someone to authenticate what George Company had accomplished in the Korean War. It seemed that their deeds were going to be lost through the sands of time. Even the Marine Corps historians had missed these achievements. But thanks to Pat O’Donnell this may now be corrected.

I fought in five campaigns during the Korean War that included such battles as Inchon, Seoul, ambush at Majon-ni, Chosin Reservoir, Operation Killer, Hill 902 and Operation Ripper. My machine gun squad had so many casualties that I can’t remember most of their names or faces. I hate war.

DGM: Reading about the ambush at Majon-ni, it is hard to believe that any members of Second Platoon survived. Your leadership and quick-thinking were among the main reasons that so many did escape. That said, the platoon suffered twenty-four casualties and I know it is still difficult to reconcile yourself with those losses. Did sharing your story with Pat [O’Donnell], and now seeing it in print, help to bring you to terms with what you experienced?

BH: Pat’s book filled in a lot of missing pieces that I had about the war. Especially hearing different accounts by George Company veterans of the battles we participated in.

We seldom discuss these things at reunions. In combat our war is what’s in front of us. We usually don’t know what is happening fifty to one hundred yards away.

DGM: I suspect that the memories of combat have been with you every day since you first experienced it. If I may ask, how did combat change you?

BH: Combat taught me to treasure life. Many times I was put in harm’s way and why I survived and others didn’t is still a mystery to me. Combat also gave me a bad stomach that I have had for sixty years. The anxieties, nervousness, tensions and fears that go on inside of you before the battle starts are incomprehensible. Once the shooting starts these feelings seem to go away but the esophageal reflux stays with you. The doctors said that I just had a nervous stomach and after eating regular meals this should go away. What a joke!

DGM: Despite the pain and sacrifice of so many American and UN Troops, the Korean Conflict has largely been overshadowed by World War II and Vietnam. Why do you think Korea has become our “forgotten” war?

BH: I think the Korean War was an embarrassment to MacArthur and the Army as a whole. They would like to shove this under the rug and move on. Their actions caused the largest military defeat in Army history, thousands of KIA’s, WIA’s, and 8,000 MIA’s. It’s sad that the Korean War is known as the forgotten war because it probably prevented World War III. The communists were very aggressive at that time.

DGM: In between the fighting, were there many moments of happiness, or at least calm?

BH: From the time we landed at Inchon on September 15, 1950 until December 15, 1950 we were usually on the attack. There was a ten day span that we were out of action aboard a ship because of a goof-up by MacArthur’s staff. They overlooked the harbor at Wonson, North Korea being heavily mined where we were to make a landing. We were forced to stay cooped up on the ship.

From December 15, 1950 to January 25, 1951 we were out of action. This was right after the Chosin Reservoir battle. We got refitted and had to reorganize our outfits because of the heavy casualties we had just sustained. From January 26, 1951 to June 6, 1951 we were in the attack mode against the Chinese until I left Korea. At one stretch we attacked for forty-five days straight and had to dig a new fox hole every night. I really earned my $82.50 a month.

DGM: Do you think Give Me Tomorrow describes your experiences well? Is there anything that you wish had been included or left out?

BH: I was disappointed that Pat didn’t include what happened with Corporal Dick Haller and my brother, John.

Our positions on East Hill on November 30, 1950 were overrun because my machine gun froze up. I found Dick in a shell depression and he was wounded in both legs and could not walk. I carried and dragged Dick to the reverse slope and slid to safety. I never told anyone about this because I didn’t want to sound like I was tooting my own horn.

My brother John, a sergeant in the Marines, was on his way back to Camp LeJeune when he saw a Marine on crutches hitching a ride on US 1 near Richmond. It turned out to be Dick Haller. Dick proceeded to tell my brother how I saved his life on East Hill.

Towards the end of Jan. 1951 I received a letter from John telling me what I had done on East Hill. What a small world.

DGM: Wow! It took less than two months for your brother to bump into the man whose life you probably saved half a world away. That is remarkable! Did you ever see Corporal Haller again?

BH: I never saw him again. A mutual friend told me he had passed on after a battle with cancer.

DGM: Do you stay in touch with many of the other veterans with whom you served?

BH: Since 1990 I have been attending G-3-1 reunions every year. We are always in touch with each other especially since I have been the Vice-President for the last five years. Our reunion this year was on November 10 at the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, Virginia. We had about one hundred attendees. We also dedicated a monument in honor of the 149 KIA’s from our company who died in Korea.

DGM: Tell me more about the monument and how you want the men of G-3-1—both those who have passed and those of you who remain—to be remembered.

BH: Ever since we have been having G-3-1 reunions we have had a Memorial Service for our fallen in combat. We have a ship’s bell and each KIA’s name is announced and the bell is tolled.

The new Marine Corps Museum has developed Semper Fidelis Park and allows monuments to be erected upon their approval. We decided and raised $26,000 for this project. Each of these KIA names is engraved and remembered for all time.

Most of the people in our country have no idea what we fought and died for. Where the Chosin Reservoir is and what took place there. This book may give them a clue.

DGM: What do you think is most important for readers to remember about the Korean Conflict?

BH: I believe we stopped the spread of Communism in Korea and also discouraged our enemies about starting World War III. The Communists backed off their aggressive stances in Europe, Taiwan and Cuba.

Books mentioned in this column:
Give Me Tomorrow: The Korean War’s Greatest Untold Story – The Epic Stand of the Marines of George Company by Patrick K. O’Donnell (Da Capo Press, 2010)


David G. Mitchell spent most of his youth arguing with his elementary school librarian about the merits of Enid Blyton’s works and why it was a crime that Blyton was not represented in the school library. He lost that argument, but that did not stop him from trying to read his way through the school library. Over the years, he has immersed himself in the classics, science fiction and fantasy, history, biography, philosophy, popular religion, cooking, folklore, sports, and just about every other genre that can be imagined. Between books, he received a degree in history from Boston College and a law degree from Boston College Law School. In addition to practicing law, he has worked as an interpreter of the history of historic houses in Salem, Massachusetts, and participated in the archaeological survey of Boston Common. David currently has his own law practice. He is also a contributor to Renaissance magazine. He lives in Florida with his wonderful wife, two sons and a labradoodle named Biscuit. Contact David.



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