They cut us to ribbons

Marian Helper Magazine
(Nov 6, 2018) Feature

Francis Kennedy, then and now (Courtesy Marian Helper Magazine)

Francis Kennedy, then and now (Courtesy Marian Helper Magazine)

This story is true. 

I know it’s true because it happened to me. I ask no one to believe it; however, I must relate it so that those who have faith in the Good Lord will be strengthened in their faith.

I served in the Korean War from 1950 to 1952 as an artillery forward observer with the United States Army’s Third Infantry Division. My reconnaissance sergeant, Corporal Dennis Sugrue, my radio operator, James Scully, and I became very close friends. We used to share with each other many personal stories about ourselves and our families. 

One day after mail call, Dennis showed me a novena to the Blessed Virgin Mary sent to him by his sister Denise, a nun. The promises made to anyone who completed the novena were difficult to believe, to say the least. One promise was that if you made the novena, you would not have a violent death. Another was that no metal would pierce the skin. As in all infantrymen’s wars, being shot at on a daily basis can be the norm. So the novena was just what we needed.

I asked Dennis to please give the novena to me after he completed it, as I wanted to make it as soon as possible. Several weeks passed, and I had to nag Dennis about it. Each time he told me that he hadn’t remembered to start the novena. Finally, he gave it to me and said, “You say it,” and planned that he and Jim would pray it after I finished.

For the next nine days, I said the novena. Believe me, it was on the top of my priority list. When I finished, I believed that nothing could seriously harm me. Dennis and Jim never found the time to complete the novena. On June 3, 1951, Dennis, age 19, one of the finest men that God ever put on this earth, was killed from mortar and small arms fire.

Our good friend Jim, age 18, lost part of his leg from shell fragments and was returned to the States. Jim died several years ago, and I believe he probably never fully recovered from his war wounds.

I put 10 more months on the front lines after I lost my friends. The first replacement was killed after only three days with me. The second replacement was with me a week and ended up missing in action. Later, he was listed as a prisoner of war. Needless to say, I was more than a little concerned about my well-being.

Then came the fierce battle at the hilltop known as “Little Gibraltar.”

At about 11 a.m., the whole front opened with artillery fire. I was in Korea at this time for about 18 months. In all that time, I never saw an artillery barrage anything like the amount that poured on us that day. It was relentless. There were only seconds between incoming rounds. As a trained, experienced forward observer, I was able to count at least 100 field pieces (howitzers, mortars, rockets, and artillery pieces) firing at us. They cut us to ribbons. I was completely frustrated. My radio had gone out, and after the first few incoming rounds, the telephone land lines were destroyed. My primary responsibility was to direct our artillery on the enemy, but without communication, I was helpless.

Image of a fierce battle at the hilltop known as Little Gibraltar.

Fortunately, seven other GIs and I were in a well-built bunker of heavy logs, large stones, and sand bags. It was hit at least eight or nine times without killing any of us! As I looked out from the bunker, all I could see were bodies and body parts.

Perhaps only the faithful will accept the following narrative. Amidst the barrage of incoming artillery, I heard myself say, “Oh, God, please, let me get home to see my son Pat, and I’ll never ask you for another thing the rest of my life.” (Patrick, my third son, was born after I left for Korea). As I said this, I distinctly felt a hand on my left shoulder. I started to turn to see who it was when I heard a voice within me say, “Oh, you of little faith. Didn’t My mother promise that no harm would come to you?”

I was stunned, but the terror, frustration, and despair I was experiencing immediately vanished. I turned to my men and said, “Let’s go. We’re going to walk out of here.” They looked at me as if I were crazy, but they obeyed. If you can imagine walking the length of about 10 football fields in the rain and not even having one drop land on you, you can imagine what happened to us. For us, it was raining artillery. All eight of us walked off that hill, through the enemy’s artillery (and our own artillery, for by that time we had all been given up for dead, and our Air Force fighter planes were strafing the area), and still none of us were wounded.

After I arrived at battalion headquarters, I realized that the left side of my face was like raw hamburger, injured from the initial barrage. Captain Konimitsu Ito, one of the best combat soldiers I ever knew, got me to the aid tent where a doctor treated my face. I was given the needle along with the whiskey that “Konnie” Ito had given me earlier. It was the last thing I remembered for several days.

When I awoke, Captain Donald McConnell was in the tent with me. Mac and I were good friends going back at least five years. He mentioned that as far as he knew, of the 235 men to go up on the hill, I was one of 23 to survive. He reminded me that I had had a very difficult time at the aid station, as my frustration about the radio and phone lines being out made me feel guilty and helpless.

When I went to see the doctor, we had a fine talk.

“What puzzled me in my examination of your wounds,” the doctor told me, “was that, when I probed, I could find no metal at all. I even used a magnet, but found only wood, mud, and stone.” I remembered the promises of the novena.
I’ve related this event only to my family and some of my closest friends, but after more than 65 years, I feel that it should be told. I went to one of my parish priests and told him how emotionally difficult it still is to share this with anyone. He suggested that I write it so that many people might see and benefit from the power of prayer.

I’m not sure that if I were to hear this story, I would believe it without reservation. However, it happened to me. I lived it, and I’ve got some of the wood, mud, and stone in my face to prove it.

Reflecting on some of my time in and return from combat, I realize that the novena to Our Lady was not the only thing that saw me through Korea. It was the many prayers and complete devotion of my mother and father to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the abundance of prayers and love of my wife, Jackie.

I owe my life to God, the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, myloving family, and Sr. Denise Sugrue.

Korean War, Francis Kennedy, United States Army’s Third Infantry Division, Blessed Virgin Mary, Little Gibraltar, trending-english