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Me in front of our office at 8th Army HQ

Bill Balaban

Roanoke, VA-
Korean War Veteran of the United States Army

"Though the time I spent in Korea "stinks", I am proud to have done my part with the millions of others. We made a stand against Communist expansion for what it was worth. It was the first time there was a United Nations Army and showed that the U.N. could work if given the right leadership"

- Bill Balaban


[KWE Note: The following is the result of an online interview between Bill Balaban and Lynnita Brown in 2004.  It is with deepest regret that we inform KWE readers that Bill died in November of 2008.]

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My name is Bill Balaban, and I was born October 14, 1927 in New York, New York, the son of John and Bertha Bruder Balaban. My father was a motion picture theater operator, working for a theater chain that had about 150 theaters. There were about 50 in Chicago. The rest were in Illinois and Indiana. I have an older sister, Ida. The two of us and our parents moved from New York to Chicago when my dad was transferred there. I was five years old at the time.

I held no summer jobs, and was a Boy Scout for a year. I attended the University of Chicago Laboratory School in Chicago and the Admiral Farragut Academy, in Pine Beach, New Jersey, in 1945. It was a naval prep school, and we were preparing to go into the military. I had aspirations to go to Annapolis because when I was about 12, I liked boats. But I learned that I would never make it. Math and science weren't my thing. Photography was. At a young age, I received a camera as a gift, and I took pictures of anything and everything with it. A friend also taught me to develop film and enlarge pictures.

After graduating from the Farragut, I decided that there was no sense in joining the military, because World War II was almost over.  I felt that I was too young for college, so I went to work in the Weiss and Geller advertising agency in Chicago. I was assistant to the art director from September of 1945 to September 1946. I ordered supplies, kept artists on schedule, was the agency representative at some photo shoots, selected models for the art director to choose from (great job for an 18-year-old) and did some display work. I didn't have any real career goal at this time, but I knew that I could get into Roosevelt College. I attended two years at Roosevelt College in Chicago, majoring in marketing and advertising, but I quit to go to work in WBKB (now WBBM) television station in Chicago.

I started in the publicity department, and while covering rehearsals for a new show and making suggestions, the producer asked me if I wanted to direct, then asked my boss. I became a director, doing all sorts of shows from morning talk and variety, but mainly sports and special events away from the studio. The fellow I eventually replaced taught me the mechanics, and the rest was my imagination. I stayed with that job for a little over two years. When the Korean War broke out, I knew nothing about it. I was too busy working 12 hours a day to learn more about it, and didn't even consider the possibility that I might be drafted.

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I ignored the fact that there was a conflict going on in Korea until I received a letter from the draft board saying that I was drafted. My boss and the University of Illinois Dental School requested a deferment for me, and I thought that it would be granted. I did the first dental closed circuit for the school and had special training that the university wanted for the next series. The training was on-the-job training with a dentist. We had to invent ways of doing what was required, and in the process, I had to learn some of the technical terms of dentistry. We had to figure out how to do things like get a full mouth shot and still keep the camera away from the mouth so the dentist could work. He had to learn to look at a monitor while working, so he learned how to keep his instruments and hands out of the way while the camera was rolling. We also had to learn how to show microscopic slides and X-rays. The equipment was crude compared to today's electronics.

My boss at the television station received a letter from the government saying that the deferment had been denied, and I got a copy of the letter as a means of notification. Only the draft board knows why I wasn't given the deferment. I guess they needed warm bodies in Korea. Four days later, I was in the Army and on my way to Fort Leonard Wood for a few days. Ft. Leonard Wood was a reception point for draftees and recalled reserves.

From there I was shipped to Louisiana for basic training. I went by train to Camp Polk, Louisiana, as a filler for the 45th Division, the Oklahoma National Guard Division that had been federalized. We were in the swamps of Louisiana, along with the mosquitoes. The post was just being reopened at the time, so there was a shortage of everything--uniforms, food, and cadre. Our instructors were from 45th National Guard Division, and some of them were World War II veterans. I came to appreciate and respect M/Sergeant Raymond Smeisseur. He was a helluva guy. It has been so long ago, I can't remember too much about my training, but I recall that on the first day, we did close order drill. I also know that we had physical training by platoon. I was one of the instructors because they were short of instructors. There were times when I taught in the morning and trained in the afternoon.

I also remember that we were fed well in basic. We had a company mess hall, manned by guys who could cook. We had a choice of eggs on Sunday. I was in better physical shape and could field strip an M-1 as the result of what basic training I had. I applied for OCS and after being accepted the Army sent me on leadership school. It was a qualification to get into OCS. They were short of officers and gave OCS high priority.

Leadership School was at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, which was the school for the 5th Army area. I lived in regular barracks there for two months. Emphasis was on physical training and teaching us to be instructors. For the most part, I was giving the classes instead of receiving them. The school's instructors were non-commissioned officers.

From there I went to Ft. Riley, Kansas, for Officer's Candidate School (OCS). We were fingerprinted on departure and arrival at every post. At Ft. Riley, we were trained by officers over a six month time period. We had to take the regulation physical training test, but no formal exercise program. Emphasis was on going to class as we trained to be officers and all that entailed. We lived in better barracks at Riley, with cubicles for two with bunk, table, chair, locker, and foot locker. When I graduated my rank was 2nd Lieutenant and I was assigned to the Signal Corps. With my military service long behind me now, I have discovered that OCS training has been invaluable to me in civilian life.

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Signal School

After OCS, I was sent to take the company grade officer class at the Signal School in Ft. Monmouth, New Jersey. I was there from January until April of 1952. There, we were exposed to almost all signal equipment, which included radio, telephone, and teletype. We were taught to use it by classroom and in the field instruction. We studied theory, fixed and portable radio transmitters, telephone wire installation, switchboards, teletype installation and operation, none of which I used during the rest of my Army service.

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Army Photo

My goal after OCS was to get into the Army's Photo Division and do something I liked. I was sent overseas to Tokyo, where I was assigned to the 71st Signal Service Battalion from April to October 1952. My reaction to the Asian lifestyle there was -- WOW! I liked the Japanese people very much and I liked their philosophy and customs. I appreciated their politeness, family orientation, and in general the Japanese way of doing things that an American would never think of doing (like community bathing). They were reserved until they determined if you were acceptable to them. I liked their openness once they got to know you. Japan was a fun place. It had good food, nice people, and was different from anything I had experienced up until then, and certainly not what I expected from Army life.

I held an 8 to 5 job, but did have a fair amount of leisure time considering that I was in the Army. Unless I had Officer of the Day duties and was in charge of the guard at night, I was off on weekends. In my leisure time, I spent a lot of at the Officers' Club in the Yuraku, which was the hotel where I lived. The Yuraku was a seven-story building that had been converted from an office building to a hotel to accommodate military personnel. Drinks, cigarettes, and everything were available at the PX. Yes, I did it all before Korea.

At first I was assigned as a motion picture officer in the Motion Picture Division of the 71st, supervising shoots. The job was very routine so I always took an Eyemo (35mm hand-held camera) and shot film on the assignment. We shot film segments of generals arriving and departing at Haneda Airport, reviews of the Honor Guard at Far East Headquarters, and of USO shows arriving. I filmed the arrivals of Johnny Grant, Kathryn Crosby, and Patricia Neal in Japan. I also took a camera with me for my own personal use. Because it was left over from World War II, all of our film (mostly DuPont black and white 35mm) was out of date, but it still worked.

I then became executive officer of the Far East Photo Lab of the 71st. I enjoyed this job very much because it allowed me to create new ideas and do some productive work. As part of my job, I ran the operations of the unit. I was the most junior officer, but I was second in command. (That’s the way that Major Huff wanted it.) We processed (developed) all motion picture film for the Far East (Okinawa, Japan, and Korea). All still photos came through our lab, too. We maintained over 102,000 pictures and added about 2,000-3,000 per month. They were pictures of everything imaginable, and they were used for all sorts of purposes. That included public relations, historical record, awards and decorations--anything you would photograph in civilian life. Anyone with need could order pictures by looking in the albums that we maintained. My first job in the morning was to check the photos for captions quality and security.

My Commanding Officer was Major Clarence William Huff. He was the best C.O. I encountered in the Army, and I tried to locate him for years. He was a good leader and ran the outfit without favoritism and with as much efficiency as possible. He was very supportive of my ideas and the decisions I made. For instance, I remember that all troops had to do infantry maneuvers once a year. I got an okay to send our guys out as cameramen instead of toting a rifle. I also reduced the number of pictures people could order as a means to stop waste. I cleared everything with Major Huff (we shared an office), and most of the time he said, "If you think that's what we should do, okay."

One of my jobs under Major Huff's command was to write the monthly report for the Far East Photo Officer. This monthly report detailed all of the photo activity in the Far East for a one month period, which included all divisions, Okinawa, and our unit. The Far East Signal Officer, and I suppose the Pentagon, received the report. Army Photo was sort of a closed corporation.  Because there were very few openings, it was tough to get into Army Photo. Those of us who managed to get in had sort of an elitist attitude. Everyone wanted their picture taken, and generals demanded it. (I don't know how many times I shot General Clark, using an empty camera.) We took care of those in power, and, in turn, we could get almost anything we wanted. Photos were great trading material for other supplies.

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304th Signal Operations Battalion

From Tokyo, I was ordered to Korea in October of 1952, where I was assigned to the 304 Signal Operations Battalion. It took five or six days to get to Korea on the ship. We had to go down the coast of Japan from Yokohama, across the Yellow Sea, and up the Korean peninsula. I was assistant mess officer on the trip, so I had to work. The ship docked in the Inchon Harbor one morning in October of 1952. My first impression of the country was -- YUCH! A bunch of guys walking around with guns was the clue that I was now in a war zone, but I did not feel unsafe. At the time, Seoul was about 20 miles behind the lines. I had been issued a carbine at the start of the trip, but I turned it in at the supply room of the 304th for a .45, which was my authorized weapon.

A jeep was waiting at the dock for me, and it took me on to Seoul, where the headquarters of my chosen unit was located. Its physical headquarters was Seoul City High School. The Photo Platoon had a building in the 8th Army compound, which was the site of Seoul University. When I arrived, Seoul looked bleak and gray to me.

I got to pick the assignment because I was coming from higher headquarters and knew where a few "bodies were buried." I chose the 304th Signal Operations Battalion because it had the only motion picture unit in Korea, although there were other Signal Battalions. It was located at Army Headquarters and not Division or Corps, and my philosophy has always been that it pays to stay as safe as possible. You would have to ask the Pentagon why we only had one motion picture unit in Korea at the time. I know that the Marines had more motion picture cameramen for their division than we had for the whole 8th Army, but they came to us to repair their cameras.

The photo platoon consisted of both movie and still photographers, supply section, lab technicians, camera repairmen, caption writers, and clerks. The officers were housed in private homes that had been taken over for officer quarters. The house I was in was two-story with about five rooms, two men to a room. Our houseboy lit a fire under the house every morning, and the floor was so hot you couldn't walk barefoot. There was also an oil space heater in a couple of places. We had a laundress who washed all of our clothes, woolens included, for $2 a load plus we provided the soap.

 Filming at the 7th Division, the visit of Bishop Raines of Indiana

The 304th provided communications for 8th Army, including motor messenger, wire, radio, crypto center, air section, and photo. The battalion was spread over the whole country from east to west and from the front lines to Seoul. (The 304th is still on duty in Korea today.) The Photo Platoon consisted of six officers and about 60 enlisted men. My job, until I took command of the platoon, was as a Motion Picture Project Officer, which was the same as that of a producer of films, although I always shot film as well on assignments. I had permanent TDY orders and traveled two weeks each month (we rotated so that we could all get an extra $50 per month in combat pay) to wherever the assignments given by Washington or requested by Division took us.

My work was relatively safe, although I remember that once I ran out of gas north of Seoul. I had been on an inspection trip to see how the unit was functioning, and was returning home when the jeep ran out of gas. I hoped that someone would stop and give me some gas. I had to wait quite a while until a truck stopped and filled my tank. Not many were willing to risk an ambush. Another time I went to the 1st ROK Division on assignment, I was told to put the top down on the jeep when I drove to where I had to go because the road was under enemy observation. Every time a jeep went on that road with the top up the Chinese thought that a general or some big shot was riding in it, and they would fire on it. The warning was correct. Because the top was up, they fired artillery at us when we hit the top of the hill. It was the first time that I had come under fire. I dove out of the jeep and started laughing, "They thought they were shooting at a general and it's only me." The two G.I.s with me thought I had cracked up. My one and only "injury" in Korea was skinning my knee when I dove out of the jeep. About 45 minutes later, a truck stopped and gave me gas. Several other vehicles had already passed me, but didn't slow down. I didn't blame them. You never knew who was friend or foe in Korea.

Generally, two enlisted men and I traveled by jeep, train, and plane (both Air Force and light aviation) across the entire country on assignment, staying wherever we could find a tent at night--usually at division headquarters. Most of fighting action took place at night and we could only film in the daylight from between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. We always returned to headquarters at Division at night. I went as far south as Pusan and up to and across the line. We had some interesting assignments following USO shows, doing classified training films and human interest stories. If the assignment wasn't interesting, we just had to live with it. The other two weeks we stayed in Seoul and did local assignments (like generals giving out medals), played poker, and in general goofed off. I met generals all the time, and once the Assistant Secretary of Defense in the course of filming and at briefings.

I recall that one of the human interest stories was making a film at the 45th showing how they made fresh doughnuts twice a day and delivered them to the men on the line. They did it regularly so that every line unit was served. I thought it was a good story, and it was on a television show the Army produced called, "The Big Picture." The show ran in most cities.

As one of the four Project Officers, I was in charge of filming projects that were assigned. My duties expanded when I took command of the platoon. Then I was responsible for all phases of the platoon. That included the same responsibilities that any unit commander had, i.e., from work to discipline to welfare.

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Daily Life in Korea

I washed out of a bowl and shaved daily with an electric razor (electricity was easier to get than hot water). I showered when it was available (which was not often enough). The shower at Battalion was only open two hours a day, and if you didn't get there the first half hour, the hot water was gone. On the road, there was no opportunity for a shower. The food available while we were on the road was limited to whatever we could scrounge and C-rations. I never ate the native food. The best food I ever ate in Korea came from food shipments from home. We all shared those packages in our quarters and had many a drunken evening. Except when I was on the road, I received mail regularly from my family and a few girl friends back home. My parents sent food and I had asked for the sheets so I could have a touch of civilization in Korea. They sent me lots of food from home.

My best friends were made when I was drafted and waiting in line for my physical. We were all sent to the 45th. We kept in contact after we came home. One oddity was that one of my friends, George Bouillet, became a cameraman and was in the outfit before me. He had gone home by the time I got there. Also, his brother was an officer who lived in the hotel in Tokyo with me and his sister was with the Red Cross in an office in the same building as the 71st in Tokyo.

We always made fun out of whatever we could. I remember that I tried to pick up a nurse during a surgery at a MASH unit once. I was there because one of our crew had left lights in the operating room, and we were dismantling them. Earlier, a crew had been in the operating room to do some medical photography, probably surgical techniques for training. I was mostly the "clown" in the company.

There were lighter moments during holidays, too. I spent Thanksgiving and Christmas of 1953 in Korea. On Thanksgiving, I was on the line filming GIs getting a Thanksgiving meal. When we finished shooting, there was no more turkey for the photographers. We had to eat the C-rations that we always carried because they had nothing left to feed us. I didn't complain to anybody, but it was just part of the job. We also filmed a Christmas party for an orphanage that the 304th sponsored, and we filmed a supply mission for the British Commonwealth Division at Inchon once. We were only there for the day, and then were home by night. We filmed USO shows and celebrities in Korea, too. To me, one of the most outstanding performances was given by a comic named Roscoe Ates. He was hilarious, and the guys loved him. GIs were disappointed by Debbie Reynolds. The guys thought of her as the girl back home, but when she came out on the stage in red long johns she shattered a lot of illusions.

Although we had Korean maids at our quarters and a Korean houseboy at the office, the most contact I came into with the natives was on my last assignment when I was doing a film on reconstruction for UNCACK. We filmed a spinning mill, wire factory, and bottle factory to show the UN’s work in rehabilitating the country. My only contact with South Korean military personnel was with a PIO officer from the Korean pentagon. I saw a lot of kids, too--some good, some thieves. A Korean "chogie" stole my C-rations while I was working one day. My strongest memories of Korea were the smell of kimchee and the cold.

When I was in Korea, I missed serving with Major Huff. Some of the retreads there were lousy officers because they were pissed at being recalled. Memories of my colonels in Japan and Korea stand out in my mind, but they are not fond memories. We had a few arguments. It's a long story, but a couple of my men missed getting a general's picture stepping off the plane in Korea. There were two planes that came in at the same time, and the pilot hadn't radioed that he had VIP's onboard. The colonel wanted my men busted, but I said no. They didn't get busted, and I put the PFC in for a promotion, which he got. I had been recommended for an award, but the CO tore it up in front of me.

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Going Home

We all felt that we might be extended and sent to Indo-China to aid the French, but that didn't turn out to be the case. I’ve often wondered what would have happened if the UN had gone to aid the French at that time. Would Viet Nam have ever happened? It was required that we leave the Far East Command no less than 30 days prior to discharge, so they had to send me home. There was a party at the Officers' Club since officers going home were expected to throw a free hour. Three of us threw a three hour free, and we said goodbye to our friends. I was happy to be going home and getting out of the Army.

One of my guys drove me to Kimpo when I left Korea on April 12, 1953. From Korea I was flown to Tokyo, and then on to stopovers on Wake Island and Honolulu. The final leg of the journey was to Travis Air Force Base. Total travel time in the air was 32 hours and 5 minutes. At Travis, orders were waiting for us. I called home and then went to Los Angeles where I partied with friends. From there I went to Camp Carson, Colorado, for discharge. I gave the idea of re-enlisting not one thought, and was released from active duty on 30 May 1953. At that time, I went into inactive reserves for six years.

After I was discharged, I went to work as the senior director/assistant program manager of WABC TV in New York. My main job was TV producing and directing, which I did until I retired in 1983. Since then I have attended a few military reunions, including one for the 45th, one for the 304th, and four OCS class reunions.

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Final Reflections

While I think that the United States should have gone to Korea, I think that they should have gone to the Yalu and stayed there. It was supposed to be about Korea. I don't see a whole helluva lot of good coming out of the Korean War. North Korea is still a danger to South Korea even today.

I know that Korea carries the nickname, "The Forgotten War," but I say, "Forgotten? It was never really known enough to be forgotten." My own family didn't seem to have much interest in the Korean War, but if some student someday finds a copy of this interview for use in a term paper or something, I would want them to understand that, though the time I spent in Korea "stinks", I am proud to have done my part with the millions of others. We made a stand against Communist expansion for what it was worth. It was the first time there was a United Nations Army and showed that the U.N. could work if given the right leadership.


Men of the 45th Tank Co. being entertained by the Mello-Tones.

Looking toward the enemy
from the 45th Tank Co. position

Aerial view of the Seoul area

National bank building in downtown Seoul

Bombed out church
near downtown Seoul

Me at the 38th parallel - probably the most photographed sign in Korea.

Me filming the arrival of Kathy Grant (future Mrs. Bing Crosby) at Kimpo

My ID and patches that I wore during my time in the Army.
(Click picture for a larger view)

M/Sgts Bill MacSwain
and Bill Shirey
at a 45th Division church service

(Click picture for a larger view)

My Official Army Photographer ID

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