MILITARY: On Hill 749

Marines — including a Lockport man — held the line in 1951 that divides Korea today
By Bill Wolcott
E-mail Bill
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

The Korean Peninsula has been an international hot spot for more than 60 years, and a Lockport teenager was on top of it when the Korean War boiled over 58 years ago.

As June 14, Flag Day, approached, the veteran recalled his harrowing time in the military in a part of the world that has known turmoil ever since.

Marine Cpl. Stephen Lacki was 18 when assigned with the Fox Company to defend Hill 749 on the Ka Mu Bong Ridge about 40 miles north of the 38th parallel. It was in the demilitarized zone, and is now in staring distance from North Korea.

The Marines took the high ground in a critical battle that took place Sept. 12 to 16, 1951. The South Koreans defend it today. There were 90 Marines killed and 714 wounded. One company of Marines fought off a Korean regiment and withstood a fanatical banzai attack.

Hill 749 was named for its height in meters, but it is not the tallest peak in the rocky range. It was first thought to be one of the North Korean outposts, but it turned out to be the key to the Communist aggression.

“It’s a formidable defensive line that still exists 50 years later,” Lacki said. “Our capture was not a futile gesture.”

The Korean Peninsula was split in two at the 38th parallel after World War II. Communist regimes in Russia and China wanted it all, and major hostilities began June 25, 1950 — a month after the 17-year-old Lacki enlisted in the Marine Reserves.

After basic training in Parris Island, Lacki studied Russian. When he turned 18, Lacki was off to war, manning a 60-millimeter mortar with the Fox Company in the 7th Marines.

A cease fire allowed the communist countries to re-arm their forces, and the war was reignited when the Communists broke off the peace talks.

A critical battle took place in four days. It was obscure, but not to the men who were in the middle of it.

A week after the battle was won, Lacki wrote a letter to classmate Marie Layden, now Dr. Marie Kunz. Years later, he wrote “An Obscure Battle from the Forgotten War” for Dr. Kunz, who now lives on Cold Springs Road.

“I learned a lot more after,” said Lacki, who was in the Fox Co. Second Battalion, First Marine Division and was made an honorary member of Howe Co. Third battalion, 7th Marines. “In battle, you know what’s going on in the immediate vicinity, and that’s about it. At that time, I only knew what was going on right around me.”

The First Marine Division was ordered to take the high ground on Hill 812, Lacki wrote. The 7th Marines were committed to Hill 749, and the North Korean fortifications were formidable.

“Intelligence thought 749 was an outpost, but it was part of the main line of resistance and heavily defended,” Lacki said. “We ran into a firestorm.”

Hill 749 was as important to North Koreans as it was to the United Nations forces. The hill was in North Korean hands and the enemy was manned by seasoned troops, some veterans of the Chinese Civil War.

The 7th Marines captured most of the objective, but the enemy still held the crest. The Marines knew a counterattack was imminent.

“We depleted our supplies and ammunition,” Lacki said. “I had two or three 8-round clips left for rifle.”

The Marines were delivered 18,000 pounds of supplies by air and 76 wounded were evacuated. “Without that, we could not hold during counterattack, Lacki said. “I really didn’t expect to survive the night.”

On the night of Sept. 15 to 16, the enemy threw the entire 91st Regiment of the 45th North Korean Division against the depleted 2nd Battalion, with Fox Company manning the point.

During a lull, the Marines got out of the foxhole and retrieved a Russian Burp gun and two Russian carbines and ammunition. Most of the North Korean weapons were supplied by Russia.

“They came five times, some as probing and the others as full-scale attacks,” Lacki recalled. “We held by the grace of God and a few good Marines. After four days of battle, we counted over 600 enemy bodies.”

There were only 12 of about 50 members of the Fox Co. left that morning. Platoon member Cpl. Joe Vittori from Beverly, Mass., earned the Medal of Honor posthumously.

Most members of the company suffered wounds. Lacki had a superficial wound from an enemy grenade and earned a Purple Heart.

“The carnage unbelievable,” Lacki recalled. “There were North Korean dead piled three and four deep. There were body parts all over.”

At one time the enemy shot the handle off Lacki’s entrenching tool that was fastened to his pack. He had time to get to a safer place and dove into an old foxhole. “It was safer but I landed on a dead North Korean,” he said. “I lived with stench on my clothes until relieved.”

Today, Hill 749 is the official boundary, with a 4-mile DMZ between the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and South Korea, officially the Republic of Korea. It’s about 40 miles north of the old 38th Parallel.

The “DMZ” and the 38th parallel became familiar buzz words to Americans during the Korean War.

Marie Layden — now Dr. Marie Kunz — learned of Hill 749 in a letter Lacki wrote a week after the battle. Lacki and Layden attended North Park and Lockport High School together and were in the same Latin class for three years.

“He was just a warm, friendly person everyone liked to have as a friend. Steve is such a quiet man — what a harrowing experience he went through as a teenager when all of us were having class day and the prom,” Kunz recalled. “The contrast in our lives so amazing to me.”

Lacki did not want Marie to tell his parents, but the pen pal kept all the letters. Kunz, who is a retired internal medicine physician, found the letters during a move and returned them to Lacki. She continues to volunteer at the Veterans Adminstration Hospital in Buffalo.

Lacki was able to graduate early, but is considered part of the Class of 1951, which included WKBW weatherman Tom Jolls and Brock Yates, the inspiration for the movie “Cannonball Run.”

Lacki learned to speak Polish, Russian and Korean. After his tour of duty, he declined a chance to go to officers training school and went to college with the help of the GI Bill. He got a degree in chemistry from the University of Buffalo and had a career in quality control and research and development.

Lacki was a laboratory manager for 22 years at Simon Steel and worked for 21 years at Carborundum.

He was made an honorary member of Howe Co. third battalion, 7th Marines and participated in memorial being erected at Marine Base Quantico, Va., Oct. 5, 2007.

In Sept. 2006, Lacki was invited be the guest speaker when a new Marine Reserve Training Facility was being dedicated at Devens, Mass., in honor of Joe Vittori. “I was both honored and humbled and couldn’t contain my tears at the dedication,” he said.

Contact reporter Bill Wolcott at 439-9222, ext. 6246.

Ellie