Johnny Cash wrote a hit song about walking a metaphorical line. Army veteran Mel Allen could write a catalogue of music based on his “walk.”
Allen and his unit, the 196th Regimental Combat Team, walked 872 miles in 1951 as a part of “Operation Totem Pole.” The walk is considered one of the longest recorded modern military marches in history and consisted of troops, trucks and artillery units.
“I originally grew up in Lake City, Iowa, and I was just a farm boy,” Allen said. “My whole world was within 10 miles of home.”
Allen said shortly after high school, he got a draft notice for the Army.
“No one in my family had ever been in the service,” Allen said. “I didn’t have anybody to tell me anything or what to expect of anything within this nature. I went in with some friends I knew and, of course, we were like all the others guys, and we were going to try to stay together.”
Allen arrived at Fort Riley, Kan., and said he was one of 38 soldiers picked at random to join an RCT at Fort Carson, Colo. The RCT was the aforementioned 196th, with which he would go on to walk.
“They were preparing that combat team to go to Korea,” Allen said.
Allen explained what an RCT was.
“It’s a little miniature army made up of about 4,000 men,” Allen said. “In a big army, you have a division of tanks, artillery and different things. We had our own tanks, our own artillery, just really a miniature army.”
Allen said when he arrived in Colorado, he was certain that he was destined to go Korea and paid close attention to his training.
“This three striper (sergeant), who was a World War II veteran, told us ‘Your lives are going to change,’” Allen said. He said, ‘Probably, most of you are going to get killed in Korea.’ Then they said, ‘Forget about your girlfriends, forget about your wife, forget about your families. Learn as much as you can, because it might save your life and you might be one of the people coming back.’”
“(Then) he told us, ‘If you live through this training, it’s only because I let you,’” Allen continued. “I didn’t believe him. Then, two weeks later, I believed every word that he said. They got on us like you can’t believe.”
Allen said that a general came to watch his RCT perform a demonstration and decided that they should go to Alaska instead of Korea.
“The reason they did this was he said, ‘There were 40,000 Red (Soviet) troops massed across the Bering Strait,’” Allen said. “During WWII, the Japanese had taken some of the Aleutian Islands and they didn’t want Alaska taken. That was where most of the planes that flew to Japan and Korea landed for fuel.”
The 196th traveled to Seattle and then took a ship north. Allen said they had no idea what was going on, and they docked in the Port of Haines in Alaska.
“We unloaded all of our stuff that was slated to go to Korea and set it up,” Allen said. “Nobody knew we were coming.”
Allen said they had miles of convoy and it affected the route they were walking. In order to get to their final destination of Fort Richardson, they had to walk northwest to Tok from Haines, from Tok back southeast to Delta Junction and then proceed from Delta Junction southwest towards Fort Richardson.
“We went under full combat conditions,” he said.
Allen said they had a 30-mile convoy and, to keep pace, they had to walk at 120 steps per minute, which he described as closer to running. While keeping that pace, he carried a M1 rifle, a 40-lb. pack, an additional weapon and was wearing “Jump Boots.”
“The most difficult part is we never changed clothes, we never took a bath and we never relaxed,” Allen said. “We get in at night and you would have to set up your weapons and get in position. The sleeping bags were made of wool and the first time it rained we just threw them away.”
“You slept in a hole at night,” Allen said. “There wasn’t any motels are anything, you would dig your foxhole and stay there that night.”
In all, Allen said they spent 43 days walking. He said the experience wasn’t all bad and that they got overseas pay since Alaska wasn’t a state yet.
Allen acknowledged that he wasn’t the biggest fan of his duty, but realized he could’ve had it worse and has nothing but respect for troops that had to deal with combat situations.
“The thing I disliked the most, was the duty that we had,” Allen said. “What we had was lousy, cold, wet and miserable duty, but there were some guys who had it worse. We weren’t getting shot.”