ALLEGANY, NY--James “Jim” Rockey is among the The Chosin Few.
Rockey, who lives with his wife Elaine in Allegany, is one of the 131 survivors of what many consider to be one of the most savage battles of modern warfare, the Korean War Battle of the Chosin (Changjin) Reservoir, which took place from November to December of 1950.
Rockey grew up in a foster home in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. At 17, he was graduated from high school and wanted to move away from life on a farm. He went to the local recruiting station in Cumberland County and enlisted in the Army in1948. Rockey received his basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, before being stationed at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. “Getting the orders to go overseas” is his most memorable experience of his early time in the service. “None of us were scared.”
Rockey was in the 7th Division, 32nd Infantry Regiment, Company C, part of the X Corps that landed in Inchon, Korea. “I was a sixty-millimeter mortar man. I signed up with that because you’re not exactly on the front lines. I found out differently when I got there,” he said with a laugh.
Rockey has recorded his Korean War experiences in a three-page document that gives a chilling insight into the Battle of the Chosin. “Even at the beginning we were so out numbered there were battles in all directions. We were ordered to pull back where the 31 (Regimental Combat Team 31) had dug in. They had lost many the night before. Chinese were everywhere between the two regiments.”
The temperatures were 30 below zero, and that’s not including the wind chill factor, Elaine Rockey noted. Her husband’s unit was running out of ammo and help was not coming anytime soon. “We started a counter attack to drive the enemy back up the hill,” he wrote. “Six other men and myself were ordered to man a rear guard. During that attack the lieutenant and sergeant were wounded. I knelt down by the lieutenant. I raised up to resume fighting and there stood the largest Chinaman I had ever seen. He was aiming right at me and I raised my gun at him. We both fired and nothing happened. Both of our guns had frozen. He turned and ran over the hill.”
Rockey recalled going for help, then moving the wounded to trucks. “About this time, Corsair planes appeared overhead and we thought this would help us. But the napalm he dropped hit our lead truck that was carrying wounded,” he wrote.
Rockey added the he and his group of survivors “moved about three miles” in what seemed to be a very long period of time, then came to a damaged bridge they could not cross. To the side of the bridge was a shack. “I was told to check there for any of our soldiers. We approached the house and a machine gun started firing at the house. … The enemy gunner saw me and hit above me. He adjusted and hit me in both legs.
“When I fell two men scooped me up and got me back to the road. The trucks were stalled because of the bridge and the hill above the truck was full of Chinese. We were getting hit everywhere and before long the side of the road had blood running down. Darkness fell and I was walking toward the front of the column. A truck was running beside and a buddy asked me where I was hit. He helped me into the back of the truck and I must have immediately gone to sleep.”
While Rockey was asleep, a group of Chinese crawled into the truck and went through the pockets of the men. Rockey felt them reach into his pockets and take his Bible and wallet. Rockey never moved. “As they left they sprayed the truck with machine guns. This time I was hit in the upper leg. Now the cold was a blessing as it helped slow the flow of blood. I think I was the only person alive in the truck and I finally climbed out and tried to walk.” If it weren’t for the freezing temperatures, “he would’ve bled to death,” added Elaine Rockey.
There had been 1,132 men in the 7th Division when it arrived just north of the Chosin Reservoir. On Dec. 5 the division was left with 131 survivors.
When Rockey was discharged in 1952, he knew he did not want to return to the farm in Carlisle. Fate – and family – intervened. “My brother-in-law was down at Fort Dix with him, and he showed him my picture and he sent me a letter, and his penmanship stinks,” Elaine Rockey recalled. “I couldn’t read the address to mail a letter back to him, so I didn’t think I’d ever hear from him again, but then I did. Then he got out of the Army, and he moved up here instead of going back to Pennsylvania and then we got married.”
When were they married? “Nineteen fifty-three,” she said.
“Fifty-four,” he chimed in from across the room.
“No, fifty-three,” she repeated.
“OK,” Rockey said with a peaceful smile.
Rockey developed pulmonary embolisms, or blood clots, from his gunshot wounds; since the 1970s, he has been taking Coumadin, which his veteran’s health insurance provides. Elaine Rockey said jokingly to her husband, “You might have survived the Korean War, but fifty years later it almost killed you.”
How did his experiences overseas change him? “I wasn’t good in school,” he responded, “but I grew up there in the service. And your outlook on life is a lot different. You come out a man and you’re proud of yourself.”
He continued, “I was so used to seeing so much hate and killing, I just said I’ m not gonna be that way if I get out of here. So I don’t argue a lot, I just sorta take life as it is. And I love everybody.”
“Am I right or not?” he asked his wife.
“You don’t love me sometimes,” she responded with a grin.
Jim Rockey burst out laughing.
The Rockeys are parents of three children and have eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Jim Rockey is a member of the 32nd Infantry Regimental Association and The Chosin Few. Jim and Elaine Rockey attend annual reunions of the 32nd association, which gives him the opportunity to connect with fellow survivors and to honor those who never came home from Korea.