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Anthony J. DeBlasi
West Newfield, ME
"For every guy who risked his neck, endured unmeasurable hardship, agonized over why he was sent to this stinking place, had his guts in knots with fear or worry, screamed in horror or in pain, begged God to deliver him from these meat-grinding hills, was wounded, took permanent damage to body, mind, or spirit, suffered as a POW at the hands of a cruel enemy, saw comrades give up the ghost whole or in pieces, had his body returned to his family or entered eternity as a “missing” statistic, let there at the very least be remembrance and gratitude."
- Anthony J. DeBlasi
“Don’t worry—you’ll go to Korea!”
The induction center in New York City (early 1953) had graffiti on the latrine walls, by the urinals, that declared: “Don’t worry—you’ll go to Korea!” Some cheerful welcome into the Army.
Question: How does a young man who would rather study an ant than step on it become a soldier? The answer is, of course, like everybody else. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you did in civilian life. It makes no difference if you are a bully or a peace maker, easygoing or contentious, short or tall. The Army mill grinds everyone to the same specifications. Yet ask a dozen men who have been in the Army what it was like and you will get twelve different answers. The uniformity of dress, quarters, food, regulated behavior, disciplined response to orders—along with losing one’s individual identity and becoming a number in a group absolutely dependent upon higher authority—all camouflage the profoundly personal experience that each soldier goes through.
As with most drafted men, the change wasn’t easy for me. What helped me were a patience bred by hard times during childhood, a flexibility gained from constant moving from house to house and shifting from school to school, and a strong sense of order. Acting against me was an intense love of personal freedom and pastoral tranquility—a trait perhaps acquired from my Sicilian parents. Suddenly, habits built over a lifetime were irrelevant, even troublesome. It was all too evident that the points of one’s individuality would be sanded down, along with the mowing of the hair to less than an inch. In the process of becoming a soldier, would the personality melt down and recrystallize in a new form?
Face it. You were a GI—a Government Issue—the property of the Army now. Your time was not yours. Your life was not yours. You couldn’t even go to the bathroom when you wanted. Either you trained the bowels to conform to Army routine or TS—which is exactly what yesterday’s meals became with this first major attack of the mind over the body. With no partitions separating the toilet seats you had better also get used to communal crapping in full view of others! Your dignity, or what was left of it, was shoved over the edge. Groping for a rope to the givens and expectations of military life, mind and body were forced to find a home in “olive drab” uniforms [Footnote: olive drab (abbr. OD): the dull, greenish-to-brownish color typical of Army uniforms, equipment, etc.], field utensils, barracks, helmets, combat boots, M-1 rifles, close-order drills, garrison parades, forced marches, chow lines, orders, bivouacs—and the probability of going to a strange land and facing combat.
With close to zero time on my hands in the first days in uniform I felt lucky to squeeze in a phone call home. I was surprised to find Joe Haack at the telephone center. Joe, back from Korea, had seen enough “action” and lived through enough deprivation and danger to last a lifetime. [Footnote: Joe served in a mortar unit on Hill 867 and was awarded the Combat Infantry Badge. He was among the fortunate to return unharmed. (A sniper’s bullet missed him by two feet.)] It was so good to be talking to a friend.
After many tests and inoculations, the issue of clothing and dog tags, orientation, a taste of Army chow, and a dose of customary harassment, I was put on a plane with other recruits heading for Georgia . . . “I hear you’re going to Gordon.” “Is that good?” “I hear it’s a good deal.” . . . It would be a short Basic at Camp Gordon. I’d be in the Signal Corps. A good deal.
Oh, for a solid night’s sleep!
Crammed into eight weeks, Basic Training drained the body and juggled the mind. I sensed a swift succession of beautiful dawns and sunsets but when I looked back, at last, after it was over—Lord! what an eternity had lapsed since my induction! What a startling transformation in our bodies and habits! It was as though the men had been subjected to the experiments of a mad scientist, through whose special treatments and inoculations we had been turned into anthropoid monsters.
Crawling on one’s belly with rifle cradled in the arms, over a considerable stretch of land, is not as easy as it looks in the movies. It took a lot of wind to do it once. To do it twice was asking for blood. The third time—with bullets whizzing overhead and nearby positions suddenly blowing up—was the last straw. Intermittent pauses in the firing aided progress across the field—a chance to move quickly forward on the knees. Though short, I was five inches too tall to walk across the field and not get my head riddled with bullets. I did it the prescribed way—by crawling. When the trucks came to take us back to the company area after the Infiltration Course, the cheering sounded like a New Year’s celebration. How welcome and warm and comfortable those barracks were all of a sudden!
School assignment followed Basic. Mine was at the Signal School at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, to take up Fixed Station Radio Repair (MOS 1649). [Footnote: An MOS is a Military Occupational Specialty.] Monmouth was only fifty miles from my “home town”— Brooklyn. I thanked my lucky stars for this assignment. My feet were on air as I marched alone around a deserted shack, on guard duty one night. No—not alone. A cat chanced to be there whose fancy it was to follow me all around my post. My faithful companion made the duty lighter than my daydreaming of home had already made it. Before we left Camp Gordon, the CO was quick to remind us that we were soldiers first, then technicians.
Learning how to fix radio equipment
Though we were “soldiers first” and our fatigue caps would be blocked and our fatigues starched, there was little time for harassment, since the day was geared to attending classes. Student Company 6 was known as the “United Nations of Fort Monmouth,” attracting attention when sailors, Air Force men, Marines, and some foreign soldiers marched to school with the Army men. The latter did not buy that “united” stuff when they saw their tenants get out of parades, inspections, and duties they were responsible for.
Fixed Station Radio Repair was a twenty-week course in the knowledge and skills necessary to maintain operations in a central radio station—specifically, to adjust, trouble-shoot and repair large radio transmitters, receivers, and associated equipment. The consensus among students and instructors was that Fixed Station was one of the best deals in Signal. Such installations were never far from important cities, most of them in the States, the largest one in Washington. The job was a snap, and those learning it would be stationed in good places.
The only “radio repair” I had ever done was to pull tubes out of a radio or TV set, check them on a tester at the drugstore, and replace the bad ones. So I scratched my head in the first days of school. Carr, sitting next to me, tried to help. “Don’t you see it now, Tony?” he explained. It was a few weeks into Principles of Electricity (P&E), and he drew a diagram of a radio circuit that was hieroglyphics to me. “It’s like rolling off a log, Tony. Nothing to it. Here, Tony, here’s your antenna, see, and here’s your signal coming down and going through the grid of your mixer, see, and up past the screens and onto your plate. See how it works now? And this is your ground, and here’s your B-plus, and your signal comes off the plate of the mixer and goes through your IF stage, and....”
This was no picnic for a piano player with a mind to teach music. Oh well. If I could learn to take an M-1 rifle apart and put it back together in the dark, I suppose I could learn to fix a radio. When Rosen, a genuine Dodger Brooklynite, got in front of one of the large transmitters we trained on, he went wild with all the knobs and controls before him, twisting and turning them as though on a trip to Pluto with Buck Rogers. The plates of the transmission tubes would glow cherry red and it’s a wonder there weren’t holes in them when he reached his destination. It turned out to be lots of fun, this time spent at Fort Monmouth. But all good things must come to an end.
Racks of men above, below, behind, in front, on either side . . .
The feeling of equilibrium and wellbeing enjoyed on land is not fully appreciated until one has been forced to seek it and been denied it at every turn of the body for twenty-four hours a day, day after day. I was sick to the core. Each time the ship brought my disease to a head I went to a “head,” (toilet) where quite often bases were loaded and batters were hitting like mad.
At night there were men directly above me, below me, behind me, in front of me, to either side of me—nothing but racks upon racks of nothing but men upon men—packed together in what was fittingly called a “compartment.” The racks were sheets of canvas stretched across metal frames, hinged on one side to center-posts and suspended on the other by two chains (if one chain hadn’t been lost). Perhaps the Navy's Military Sea Transport Service (MSTS) had fine vessels in its fleet, but the Marine Serpent could not be one of them.
Lights went on at an ugly hour every morning and a fat compartment NCO belted out, “Okay, men. Everybody up! Get up! Wake your buddy up! Roll-call in five minutes! Wake your buddy up! Let’s roll out of them racks, men!” The routine occurred earlier and earlier each morning as we kept losing an hour moving west through the time zones.
Picture the contents of a 300-drawer cabinet spilled over a floor and you have a fair idea of what a compartment looked like in the morning when the men got out of their berths. Imagine the quality of the air in the compartment, located below sea level. A possible escape was up on deck, but there traffic was snarled and parking spaces limited to “off limits” areas.
An endless list of numbers assigned at Seattle was read at roll-call by the compartment non-commissioned officer (NCO)—a monotonous litany that stood the nerves on end. A man’s number was his name, bunk, and place on every line. But what good was roll-call in the middle of the ocean? How could anyone be absent unless he died or fell overboard?
Chow lines longer than the lines at Radio City Music Hall on a holiday spilled into halls and stairwells. When finally the good Navy chow was received, the men ate it standing up. Otherwise no one would be eating his own meal because the trays slid back and forth with each toss of the boat. It was a job keeping oneself in place, let alone the meal in front of him. When the ship hit a large wave, the bowls, cups, silverware, everything sailed from one end of the table down to the other end, some hitting the floor. The floors were invariably sticky with spilled soup, coffee, and heavings. The first two days, I didn’t even bother to go to chow. Instead, I lay in my rack and munched on crackers. I knew no one on the ship. The group immediately around me consisted either of quiet chaps who, like me, were not in a communicative mood or loud ones, sick only of confinement. My sole companions were my thoughts. . .
So I ended up in Korea. That is to say, I was being sent there. The original orders had been vague enough to entertain visions of being stationed near Tokyo, live off-post like a civilian on a foreign business assignment, and possibly return with a beautiful Japanese wife.
One late day at Monmouth some bulletin-board hounds announced that Anthony DeBlasi and William Hee were slated for the Far East. The reporters were in a jubilant mood, since they were slated for Hawaii or Europe--the lucky dogs! I couldn’t believe it. Surely my assignment would be in the States—or in Europe. I had trained for work in fixed radio stations. The only fixed station I knew of in the Far East was in Tokyo. I read the orders with my own eyes. “AFFE” appeared next to my name. It meant “American Forces, Far East.” The orders yielded no other clue to my destination. I would have a nine-day “delay-on-route” or leave time, then proceed to Fort Lewis, Washington, for shipment overseas.
I was happy that I would finally leave the training circles of Fort Monmouth and find my “slot” in the Army. I was thrilled at the thought of nine full days of freedom. I dreaded traveling 10,000 miles over land and sea and leaving my roots at an unfathomable distance behind. I wondered what awaited me on the other side of the ocean. As I gazed out on the inky waters of the Pacific, these thoughts spun and rubbed in my head until I was numb. Snapping out of the mood, alert if not refreshed, I was humbled by the vastness of water and sky that wrapped around me. Every now and then, one or two or a school of “flying fish” leaped out of the water and glided over the surface in a graceful sweep, yards at a stretch. The slender marine projectiles with wing-like pectoral fins were perhaps ten inches long and gray-white.
That leave—so sweet, so short—made me remember what it was like to be a civilian. When I turned away and headed for the plane at “Idlewild,” I got a dose of the qualms I felt on the morning of my induction. It was soon replaced by relief, akin no doubt to the release of anxiety of a convict hearing the verdict. Entrance aboard the plane was a step into a future of perfect uncertainty.
I was to have traveled with Bill Hee on this voyage to “AFFE,” but a last-minute change in Hee’s orders made Bill stay behind. So I alone, of the entire Fixed Station Class at Monmouth, was chosen for “Chosen.” ("Chosen": common variant of Chosun, "Morning Calm," a name given by Koreans to their country.) Lucky me! In Seattle a bus caravan drove us to Fort Lewis, a large post with miserable holding quarters and, on a clear day, a view of the majestic, snow-frosted Mount Rainier.
During a weekend pass I went to the northern section of Seattle and took a walk in Woodland Park. It was good
to see town people and children enjoying themselves. Through arching tree branches in the golden afternoon
sunlight, the carousel and playground glowed like a fairyland. I stored this happy scene in my memory as an
antidote for the foreboding “K” that had been boldly written over my papers at troop processing.
The one consolation was that a truce had been called. A letter from friend George Nelson, serving in Japan with the 40th Antiaircraft Artillery Brigade, pinpointed the event. He said, "As I am writing this, at 10:00 AM, the truce is being signed in Korea - and I hope and pray that it is a lasting one. As General Clark warned in his radio message - this is only a truce - an agreement between the two military commanders for a stop to the fighting, so that a political conference can be held - and is not a peace. I pray that this, as I know you do, will end and those men once more shall be able to return home, and a lasting peace brought about. Time shall tell. [Date: 27 July 1953] In a “souvenir edition” of the ship’s newspaper Serpent’s Tongue a contributor wrote, “The biggest question of all...will the war start again?” [Date: 23 November 1953]
The Private from Brooklyn with a BA in Music and an MOS of Fixed Station Radio Repair felt that he would never again see a radio or transmitter during the rest of his time in the Army—or even see the Signal Corps again. The great majority of men on the ship were in the Infantry. To hear their stories was to resign oneself to the worst. One blond Sfc across from my berth talked as though he had personal experience in Korea. [Footnote: Sfc (also SFC): Sergeant First Class (E-7) - 3 chevrons, 2 rockers.] He missed no opportunity to deliver some note of alarm, with no humor ever breaking from his mouth. His mission during the trip was to shine a pair of boots until they looked like glass. A heap of good they would do him in the Korean mud!
I was up on the third tier of racks. (There was a fourth above me.) My fear of getting down was not due to the height, but to the fact that the floor was seldom accessible, cluttered with men playing cards. The trip took 24 days. Skipping November 17, when crossing the International Date Line, made it 25 days by calendar reckoning. The “Certificate of the Golden Dragon” received when crossing from one day to the next did not cheer me. Why so long? We had to go to San Francisco to pick up other troops, but couldn’t those troops have been sent to Seattle? At Sasebo we had to pick up winter clothing and turn in our olive drab (OD) and khaki uniforms --Class A uniforms were not authorized in a combat zone. But couldn’t this have been done in Korea? [Footnote: Class A uniform: formal dress, on or off post. Wearing the work or field uniform (called “fatigues”) was restricted to military installations and operational areas, unlike today.]
When the Serpent docked at “Frisco,” we had to stay on board, so all we saw was the Golden Gate bridge, bright in a recent coat of orange paint. And we saw the island of Alcatraz with seagulls gliding about its steep, gloomy shores. Suddenly I felt a strange kinship with those souls on “the Rock.”
The clatter of footsteps as the troops hustled up on deck with life jackets made the metal stairwells roar like an IRT express with windows open. [Footnote: Interborough Rapid Transit (part of the New York City subway system) - deafening roar at an open window.] After all the compartments were evacuated we waited for word over the PA system that the ship was secure, then scuttled downstairs in a din of seismic rattling and grumbling over these “abandon ship” rehearsals.
There were days when it was possible to take a fresh water shower, provided one got there on time. I was not a gripe type, but.... Dear God, when would this trip be over?
From the 23 Nov '53 Serpent’s Tongue came:
On the other side of the world
Week after week between sky and sea made me feel that I would never see land again. My sense of relief and gratitude ran deep when land appeared on the horizon. The jagged island of Kyushu, southern tip of Japan, marked the entrance to the Sea of Japan. Soon we were in the harbor of Sasebo. I observed with an explorer’s curiosity the extreme irregularity of the land contours, the clutter of dwellings on the slopes, and the tropical-looking vegetation. Shortly after dawn as we docked, the sun rose over the Land of the Rising Sun.
After debarking, a move for which the troops had been prepared hours ahead of time, we were taken to Camp Sasebo in Japanese buses. There were no seats left when I boarded, so I sat on the edge of the driver’s platform facing the rear. The Japanese driver operated a curious four-foot-long gearshift lever that arched upward and forward from the rear of the platform, its knob toward the dashboard. It was too crowded to see through the windows, but glimpses gave me a hint that life here was concentrated. Despite the scarcity of land, most houses crammed a few flowering plants in some niche of the front vegetable plot.
Camp Sasebo was a pretty camp enclosing attractive land. A pagoda-like steeple on the chapel, flowers in the Service Club, and a Japanese garden near the PX area spoke of the aesthetic sensibilities of the locals. The barracks, by contrast, held out the cold efficiency of the Monmouth billets. Here we turned in our Class A uniforms, stuffed our duffel bags with mess gear, web equipment, olive green (OG) uniforms (winter work/field uniforms, made of wool), blankets, etc., and heard an orientation on Korea. We were promptly aboard the Marine Serpent again for the final leg of the journey to Korea. The weather blew and rained incessantly on the way to Inchon, leaving me in no mood to rise on deck and see the Yellow Sea.
The peculiarities of Inchon harbor made it necessary for the boat to stop about a mile offshore. We were carried on barges, packed like sardines, the rest of the way. On this ghastly ferry to land I never once regained my balance after slipping backward on take-off, so that I was leaning on the man behind me all the way. There was just not enough floor space to allow me to pull myself to an upright position. Then the barge began to leak, the water collecting in the rear and creeping toward the front. As it lowered, the barge door became a debarking plank. I straightened out at last and followed the herd of fresh GIs onto Korean soil.
"You'll Be Sorry"
A plank over the mud flats kept the troops from getting stuck in the mud. At a football kick from shore were a bewildering assortment of crowded dwellings—with no visible clue that Inchon had been a hot battleground when the Marines landed here.
As we stood-by for action, that is to say for transportation, we faced a gathering of guys on rotation, waiting to leave on the same boat that carried us. What happy faces in that crowd! What long ones on our side! Nearly every homebound GI carried a camera. Things can’t be too bad here, I figured. As the hardened vets passed us tenderfeet, they cheered and jeered with a medley of admonitions. A popular one was, “You’ll be sorry!” The joke could be on them if the leaky barge sank.
After the indispensable waiting, we loaded on a train that looked like it was assembled from junkyard scraps. The contraption advanced a few feet, then stopped. Then it moved forward, stopped, went backwards a little, then forward a little. The growing annoyance was eased somewhat by coffee and doughnuts served by Red Cross women, only to be resumed by the C-rations we got for chow. At last the mechanical mule stopped kicking and began to move. The territory we traversed was mostly crude farm land—bleak in this month of November. We got to the Replacement Depot at Yong-Dung-Po by nightfall, having traveled more than three hours to cover a distance of fifteen miles. (The sniper activity along the route had stopped, thanks to the cease fire.) I spent the night in a cold squad tent on the upper berth of a massive, hand-made wooden bunk. Next morning I had the best breakfast since leaving home, with fresh eggs. Here the men were sifted into groups and dispersed, as it were, to the winds. I fell in with a lot assigned to 22nd Signal Group in Seoul for further assignment.
The trip to 22nd Group was on “deuce-and-a-halfs” (two and a half ton trucks). The ride through Seoul showed tall brick and stone buildings (some bomb shelled), paved streets, sidewalks, buses, parks, and bustling activity. I was especially amused at the sight of trolley cars. So this is what became of the Wilson Avenue trolleys!
It was Sunday—we would not be processed. For lunch we were taken to the Sergeant’s Mess (was there no room at the EM Mess?) [Footnote: EM = Enlisted Men (including draftees; in other words, not officers)] and served steak to order at small tables by Korean waiters! Chow was never like this at Ft Monmouth, the center of the Signal Corps.
Sitting outside in the sun, wiling away the time, I noticed some Korean girls doing housework in and around the Quonset huts where the stationed men were quartered. What manner of place is this, I wondered? I knew that houseboys made beds and kept barracks clean for a monthly fee. But house-girls?
No amazement could match that of being in Korea. Observing the bewildering expanse of the Pacific Ocean on a globe or map and noting its vastness in relation to the land masses, it seemed almost impossible to cross it. Yet here I was, ten thousand miles from a point on Earth that I called home, sitting on a sunny slope of Korean soil under a blue sky--just another infinitesimal bit of the planet. Physically it was like Brooklyn after all, and like all the other bits of Mother Earth that I had known—but whose people, customs, sights, and history were as unfamiliar as the unknown side of the moon. (In 1953 Sputnik and space exploration were in the future and no one had ever seen the other side of the moon.) I felt like an invader from Mars.
The processing officer gave a brief speech welcoming the contingent back to the Signal Corps. It was like music to my ears, for I had harbored the thought of never again seeing the “orange and white” (Signal Corps colors). Interviews further subdivided the group, and I was soon back on a truck riding through another sector of Seoul, headed for Battalion Headquarters.
At 304th Signal Battalion, the group was still further split up. When I learned that I was slated for Radio Company, I felt that the Army had not abandoned me after all, and cast my lot with the Infantry. The monstrous process and constant procession from one headquarters to a lesser headquarters was winding down and we were aimed at our appropriate company at last. We Signal Corps transients spent another night in a tent and waited all day for transportation. Finally a 2 1/2-ton truck marked “Radio” came to pick us up. I got a seat up front with the driver and his assistant. The man at the wheel was a high-spirited sort with a great vocabulary. Herschell was his name, an architectural artist from Rochester, New York.
Although it was dark, I noticed that we had re-crossed the Han River Bridge and were back on the road that my group had just traveled coming from Yong-Dung-Po. “Where are we headed?” I asked. “Oh, back toward Inchon—about six miles this side of it. Radio Company is located near Ascom City, right in the middle of the rice paddies. You’ll love it.”
At the village of Bupyong, we made a sudden sharp turn into what looked like an alleyway through a row of houses. If my eyes hadn’t caught a little orange sign that said “304th Signal Battalion, Radio Opr Co” hanging at the access to this path, I would have thought the driver was drunk or reckless. A bumpy dirt road cut through rice paddy fields, crossed a railroad track, and led to a square-ish little compound in the midst of nowhere. Regardless of how hard I fought the idea, this was home.
I was lodged in Hut 4, the “headquarters hut,” after picking up bedding material from Sergeant Nagy, such as folding cot and blankets. They were out of air mattresses and sleeping bags, but I was promised some as soon as available. Sergeant Nagy gave me several more blankets than normal issue and told me to ask for more if I needed them.
“Hi, everyone,” I said casually as I walked into the hut and proceeded to look for a spot to settle down in. The place was fairly crowded, but I managed to squeeze my cot between Nagy and Lovi, right next to a stove. The heat of the stove would compensate for the lack of a sleeping bag. The good English greeting my ears and intelligent conversation were as welcome as the stove after my odyssey, and I expressed my pleasure in settling down at long last. “I wouldn’t unpack yet if I were you,” said Nagy. “They might send you up to the hills.” Ouch! What did that mean? “Oh no,” Herschell said, “he’s a radio repairman, a 1649. They’ll keep him in the company.” “That doesn’t mean anything,” chimed in Lovi. “We have men with a 1649 MOS up on the hills.” “Don’t worry, Tony,” said Herschell, “I’m sure they’ll keep you here.”
The wood and cement huts the men at this headquarters of Radio Company lived in were built by the Japanese during their occupation. One of them was used by Koreans of the Republic of Korea (ROK) army attached to the company. The KATUSAs (Korean Attached to the United States Army), as they were called, assisted in guard duty and did other jobs and duties, depending on skill. Hut 4 had two diesel oil burners, an R-100 radio, electric lights, field telephone, mailbox, cots with air-filled rubber mattresses, racks and shelves, a houseboy (a young man), and a pet dog.
It took seven days for a letter to come or get home by air mail, so I wrote letters like mad the first days to make sure that everyone I wanted to hear from would have my address. It was routine for new arrivals to be in a letter-writing marathon to reconnect the mail pipeline. Withdrawn and disinterested as I may have appeared, I was determined to do all I could to shed off the brine of my wandering and nail down some pegs.
In the Bupyong rice paddies after Bed-Check Charlie’s raids
Radio Company was on the site of a World War II Japanese radio station. Scattered around its perimeter were one- and two-man foxholes with sandbag embankments and zigzag bunkers along the barbed wire fence at the main gate and behind the huts. Spotted around the fence and on the roof of the main building were machine gun nests. The ammunition dump was near a bombed-out building next to the Administrative (Headquarters) Building. An area outside the compound was mined. During alerts, the men took defensive positions around the perimeter and throughout extended alert periods we worked, ate, and slept with our carbine rifles.
The logistics of its operation spread Radio Company over a geographically wide area with units scattered from Seoul to Inchon. Radio communications were tricky on this mountainous peninsula, so point-to-point very high frequency (VHF) stations were sited atop mountains, rigged for best possible transmit-receive performance. At Osan the company had an air-ground liaison unit with 5th Air Force. Radio Company provided radio-teletype communications for Eighth Army, in command of the ground troops in Korea. Other 304th Signal Battalion companies provided wire, cryptographic and photographic support. Radio Company’s strategic communications system relied on the AN/GRC-26 (“Angry 26”), a radio-teletype and voice transmission-reception rig mounted on a 2 1/2-ton truck for easy deployment. A radio repair shop kept the many components functioning. Rigs sometimes took off to Seoul to assist in emergency operations when the Han River flooded.
The main body (where I was stationed) lay between Inchon and Seoul in the midst of farmland of a village called Bupyong. About one hundred men operated this central unit, a compound small enough to cross on foot in several minutes. A ten-minute ride by jeep brought you to the busy town of Ascom City. The main line of resistance or MLR, now the southern line of the demilitarized zone, was about 30 miles north.
Koreans were hired to do the kitchen work and other chores begrudged by soldiers back in the States. Each hut had its houseboy to straighten out the room and sweep the floor frequently because of dirt constantly tracked in. He kept a can of fresh water inside the door, checked the oil burners, and kept them going. Hut 4 houseboy (an adult) worked in the town’s laundry. Later the laundry was done on the compound by Koreans, mainly women. The washing contraption was made by Motor Pool genius Sfc Gatzke out of a diesel oil drum rotated by a motor. Other amenities included a barber shop (haircut 40¢), tailor shop, shoeshine boys, and a service club for movies, relaxation, and Sunday religious services (discontinued at Radio Company in 1953).
When we came to the Far East, we said goodbye to American currency. On the way over we turned in all money except pennies in exchange for “script,” paper representations of American bills and coins called MPC (Military Payment Certificates). No more nickels, dimes, quarters, etc.—it was all paper now, like “Monopoly money.” Commerce with the natives required Korean tender known as “won,” an inflated currency that exchanged roughly two to one. So we had handfuls of queer bills to contend with.
In the first days I spent some time in the day room, located in the basement of the headquarters building. Sergeant Doyle, in charge of the room, pointed to the water mark on the walls left by the flood in April, a recurring spring event. The ping-pong table would easily have floated. There were writing desks, an hexagonal table, shelves of pamphlets and magazines, posters on the walls with tips, facts, and warnings: “Fight Waste! 1. Why? a. Waste helps the enemy, b. Waste cuts our strength, c. Defense costs are increasing; 2. How? . . .” A door beside the entrance led to a library and the Troop Information and Education (TI&E) office.
Seoul, about 12 miles east of us, was an intense hub of activity. Droves of GIs augmented the already large population of the city. With troops from other nations as well as American servicemen (it was the first-ever UN-sanctioned war, fought with the first “UN Army” in history), the town bustled with a colorful mass of souls. It made finding a few square feet to park the truck next to hopeless. People, people, people—selling and buying everything under the sun, flooding sidewalks, spilling onto the streets between crawling vehicles, mostly Army jeeps and trucks, loading and unloading from queer-looking buses and trolleys, women carrying large bundles balanced on their heads, a bundle in each hand, and a baby strapped to the back.
I thought of the word miniaturization to characterize the scenes along the way to and from Seoul, from dwellings to landscape, with many changes per minute of ride. I added concentration--every available patch of land was cultivated and every inch of space utilized to maximum benefit. Life here was exacted from the land with an efficiency approaching 100%. (Descriptions of Korea and its people reflect conditions observed in 1953-54.)
The first days in the company were spent marking time to Sfc Munkirs’ details, while listening to stories whose veracity could not be tested. I kept an open mind, aware that truth—as the saying goes—is so often stranger than fiction. Munkirs was the radio supply man and had nothing for us to do, really, but he was delegated to keep the new arrivals out of trouble while they awaited assignment to company jobs.
From word of mouth came an inkling of the nose-bashing horror of “honey-buckets” that we would experience when papa-san fertilized his rice paddies in the spring and summer. It was an ancient practice of oriental tillers of the soil to use human excrement in liquid consistency to fertilize their fields. Planted in a valley reeking with the stuff, we did not appreciate the custom. The “honey” was stored in pits throughout the fields and these “honey holes” accounted for some of the “casualties,” especially at night, when GIs accidentally fell into them. We also learned that in the summer it would get so humid that our boots would grow a crust of mold overnight, that there would be an epidemic of little black bugs crawling all over the floor, that in the rainy season we might be flooded out.
We heard, too, of the great fire in the Quartermaster (QM) warehouse at Inchon [Footnote: Quartermaster Corps, Army service responsible for subsistence, clothing, shelter, furniture, and office supplies.], after it was bombed, of the grenades tossed by “Bed-Check Charlie” from his single-prop plane at night (flying low to escape radar detection and too slow for aircraft interception). Things were quiet now, thanks to the cease-fire. How long things would remain quiet was anybody’s guess. What was certain was that we faced a very determined enemy—over a million North Koreans and Chinese—that wanted us out of here. They held a fanatic obsession to take over South Korea. Let them try.
Radio Company was a self-contained, self-sufficient organization except that water was hauled in about twice a day from an Engineer pickup point in Ascom City some two miles north (native water was unsafe) and rations were picked up at a QM issue point in Inchon. The men showed a talent for making themselves at home in the shabby Japanese huts, each man arranging his bunk area to suit himself with what personal items he possessed. Pictures of girlfriends and wives competed with pin-ups. At Ascom City, where a new and large Repel Depot (“slang” for replacement--replacement depots were troop distribution centers--the one at Ascom City was the 8057th Army Unit) was opened, we had access to the post office, PX, chapel, and movies—features that were scaled down at Radio Company.
Not the least of tragedies in Korea was the many war orphans wandering and shifting for themselves. Americans may be proud of the countless acts of kindness by GIs to these hapless little ones and to the many older Koreans who lost home and family. Radio Company, like most other US outfits, was host to an orphanage. Schools that were destroyed or nonexistent were built by Engineer groups.
The Radio Company compound was like a cage. At almost every hour of the day, especially at chow time, Korean children looked in on us through the barbed wire fence, some clamoring for attention. Most had picked up enough English from the GIs to make known what they wanted. I was taken aback when I first saw a small boy, no older than 7, carrying his baby brother strapped to his back like a papoose. One boy, Han, whose face looked years older than the rest of his body, bargained for my attention from the first day, calling out “Hi, honcho!” “Honcho” meant “chief.” He asked if “honcho” wanted his mess gear (compact set of metal--mostly aluminum--eating utensils) and boots polished. I accepted the offer. Later in the day, when I returned to the hut, I found my mess gear shining on my bunk and my boots gleaming under the bunk.
“How much do you want?” I asked Han, when I saw him again. “No, no, GI, presento, presento!” “Presento” [accent on the second syllable] meant free of charge. I gave the kid some candy, but suspected that the youngster was sweetening me up for greater favors. Han began to ask if I would buy him cigarettes and other critical items from the PX. Aware of a thriving black market in Korea, I put my foot down—no. The shrewd little dealer had not played all his tricks. For one carton of cigarettes the boy would bring me a footlocker, an item not issued in Korea. It was an offer I could not turn down. The large, hand-made wooden storage chest at the foot of my bunk ended the madness of living out of a duffel bag. It was a luxury that every man in the hut eventually enjoyed.
Hut 4, the “aloof hut,” was the residence of administrative wheels (Herschell among them), the supply men, the radio and teletype technicians, and the mail man. The latter gentleman managed to have Hut 4 mail ready before the rest of the company got theirs, usually delivered personally. Ordinarily someone went to the mailroom to pick up the mail for his hut, at noon and in the evening. There was mail on Sunday too—how nice. There was nothing like a letter from a friend or loved one to brighten the day and ease the homesickness. Since we were in a combat zone our letters went postage-free and we were exempt from paying income tax. Another perk was being served coffee and doughnuts by pretty Red Cross girls.
In due time I was personally delivered to the Radio Repair shop by Master Sergeant Phillips (a Master Sergeant was an E-8 with three chevrons and three rockers). The sad-looking sergeant in charge told me to hang around and observe what went on. It was awkward being more in the way, most of the time, than being helpful. Although it had amassed a sizeable store of tubes and other radio parts, this was very much a field radio shop. I had to forget all the fixed-station equipment I was trained in at school and learn to handle field equipment that was strange to me.
Hubert Bauer, just back from Rest and Recuperation (R&R) in Japan, had an easy-going, warm personality. He was a native of Germany and was working on becoming a US citizen. This was a good man for an apprentice to watch at the bench. Bauer had built a radio for Hut 4 which was christened the “Bauertron” and was working on a radio receiver to be installed in “Radio 4,” the Radio Repair jeep.
M/Sgt Phillips finally got the hindsight to place me on one of the rigs as a radio operator, so that I could get familiar with the equipment I was there to service. I was assigned to “Tokyo Dog,” one of several RTT (radio-teletype) mobile units. This van was located in the village outside the compound, with a foxhole just outside the door. Effectively a member of the RTT platoon I had to work shifts, sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon, and sometimes at night.
The rigs were on standby since the cease-fire and received teletype messages of no direct concern, making the tour of duty as monotonous as guard duty. For eight hours I sat alone watching meters and hearing the teletypes click. Since dual reception was not used to operate, one of the receivers was available to listen to “Vagabond,.” the radio station from Seoul. (Before “Vagabond” there was radio station “Dust,” emanating from the roof of our Administrative Building. George Herschell was one of its disk-jockeys.) But after a while radio became noise to me, regardless of the program. For reading matter I had a choice between old magazines and training manuals. Was I glad to get off the rigs.
Christmas in Bupyong
In a letter to brother Dick on Christmas Eve, I wrote the following:
Just as I began to write a letter home one night, after guard duty, in walked Sergeant Dykes (in charge of Radio Repair), his face lit with something urgent. “DeBlasi, Peckler, Romsdahl, and Kammerer,” he said, hurriedly, “roll up your sleeping bags, pick up your toilet articles, and report to the RTT office (Operations Office): you’re going somewhere—just where and why I don’t know!”
We wasted no seconds to pack, cameras and all. It was “SOP” to carry one’s camera, much as one carried his weapon. In the RTT office we were greeted, among others, by Capt Posner. “Gentlemen,” he explained, “I believe you’re in for a very interesting experience. I don’t actually know what your assignment will be or where, but my guess is that you will be working on a PA system to be installed for the purpose of the release of ex-Communist prisoners. From here you are to go to Battalion Headquarters, where you will get further orders.”
As we bumped along the MSR (this main supply route was MSR #2) on a truck, our minds wandered through a range of speculations about the nature of this mystery assignment and the fact that here was a chance to get some exclusive photos. Out about five miles we noticed a jeep speeding behind us, honking. Sure, we thought, it was an MP jeep after us for going faster than 20 mph. But the bumper read “Radio 1,” the vehicle normally used by the CO. We were stopped and the driver told to turn back and return to the company. What gives? When we got back we were informed that a group from another Signal company was assigned the job. As Bersch would have said, “Gosh darn!”
“Because of this repatriation of prisoners,” I wrote in the interrupted letter, “to take place on the 23rd of this month [January 1954], our company is back on a ‘war-time status.’ We are restricted to the company area and must carry our weapons at all times. Tonight we were assigned to various squads and given positions around the perimeter of the compound in a ‘dry run’ of our defensive tactics in case of any attack...It is feared that among the prisoners there might be unfriendly individuals who—together with Communist infiltrators in South Korea—might try to cause trouble...we must live up to our motto, the motto of the 304th: ‘Prêt, toujours prêt.’ (“Ready, always ready.”)”
During the sweep north, following the American invasion of Inchon and break-out at Pusan, a great many North Korean soldiers evaded capture and mixed in with the South Korean populace, disguised as civilians. Together with cells of resistance in the POW camps, organized by those captured, and young Koreans sympathetic to the unification of Korea under Kim Il Sung of North Korea, the Communist insurgents posed a continuous threat throughout the peninsula. The problem was aggravated in 1953 when President Syngman Rhee, in a move to stall the armistice, released 27,000 Communist POWs! It was never clear who was friend or foe, making the post-truce occupation a very uneasy one.
The lingo in Bupyong was a hash of American English, Korean, and Japanese. Conversation between a GI and a local boy might go like this: (“Translation” in parentheses)
Officers: the bad, the good . . .
Take one each pair of pop-eyes, wire up to one each flimsy chassis, check for continuity (fail to get a reading), and you have my first CO at Radio Company. During a CPX (command post exercise), Captain Brown approached a corporal on simulated guard duty carrying an empty carbine rifle. Suddenly an “enemy tank” appeared. Pointing to the advancing tank, he turned to the guard and snapped, “Corporal, stop that tank!” (With a carbine? Against a real tank it would be like a BB gun.)
A newly-assigned lieutenant smiled cautiously as he sat in the front row of the club, listening to the captain’s words of introduction: “Men, I have the uncommon pleasure of welcoming a new officer to our company. I’m sure he will be a credit to us and that you will offer him your undivided cooperation. I’d like to introduce to you Lt K―” and he turned and stretched his hand out toward the new officer. The lieutenant stood up, faced the men, and, thanking the CO, began to speak. “Sit down, lieutenant!” growled the captain. “I’m not finished!” In that moment the officer must have felt like the red-clay mud in the compound—minus the usual layer of sand to walk on.
On one occasion Captain Brown stepped into the Orderly Room and turned to one of the clerks as though about to deliver an order: “Corporal Shaw, it’s raining outside.” Calmly, the clerk replied: “Shall I stop it, sir?” Upon entering the Radio Repair shop for inspection, Captain Brown called attention and would forget to give “At ease.” Then he roamed about the bins of radio parts, picking dust off the tubes with his finger. Eyes that noticed a single speck of dust did not see a dozen men standing like statues. By sharp contrast, our Number 2 CO, Captain Posner, came into the shop with a radiant air, glanced around the room and declared, “It’s looking good, men—keep it up.” This he’d say if he didn’t remark, “Does anybody around here know what he’s doing?” or ask, leaning over a transmitter, “Where in blazes do you load the film into this contraption?” Then he sat and chatted.
On his first inspection Captain Posner wondered why the men were all silent and glum. The NCO in charge explained that they were not used to such an inspection. “Well, I wish you were,” the captain said. “I want you all to get used to it. I’ve been in the Army for many years but it doesn’t seem to impress anybody but myself. At any rate, I have observed that no two men will do things the same way. As you may have noticed, my methods are different from those of your former CO. Don’t get me wrong, my standards are high—extremely high, but my methods of attaining them are altogether different.” It was a blessed relief to have an officer, at last, who behaved like a normal human being. It was a new experience to be treated as intelligent individuals worthy of proper respect and not as members of a lower caste. George Herschell was jubilant when he got word that we were going to have Posner for CO, a professional photographer that he had met at 22nd Signal Group. “He’s my boy—a great guy!”
At the Radio Repair Shop, George thumbed through 15-inch disks of music he once played atop the Administrative Building as a disc jockey on “Radio Station Dust.” I sampled this number by Stan Kenton, that by Chris Conners, this by George Shearing, that by Errol Garner. The impressionistic harmonies and subtilized forms of expression in “progressive jazz,” unlike the older, bolder jazz, had a small conditioning effect on me. Herschell suggested that I arrange a song, but I was more interested in writing something original that would reflect the mood of this new style of jazz. The inspiration came while I monitored radio equipment on “Tokyo Dog” during my time as apprentice radio operator. On this “rig” I was to get familiar with the mobile field equipment used in Korea, with the idea of servicing it. Fort Monmouth had given me an expensive 20-week course in fixed station radio repair. (Some transmitters at school were so large that I could hide inside of them.) It made no sense, but in the Army you took what came in stride.
In these solo operator work tours I examined the layout and wiring of the equipment—I tuned, calibrated, lowered and raised voltages, and flipped switches until I was bored silly. Nothing of importance transpired since the cease-fire put strategic radio communications on standby. It was a good time to put my musical training to use and compose a set of piano pieces on blank teletype paper called, “Three Progressive Moods.”
Herschell and I once sat in the back seat of Captain Posner’s jeep as he drove to an anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) outfit in Inchon. Along the way he needled his front seat companion with questions like, “What’s the firing order of this engine?” After the visit to the AAA unit, he drove to a nearby temple on a hill, tearing up the narrow winding paths like a big game hunter fleeing from a crazed rhino. An abrupt stop at an impasse and a racing back-up to the junction with an alternate road made his passengers gape and wonder how the jeep was defying gravity.
One night Posner came to a party at the club with a box of Korean firecrackers and a slingshot. The impish little missiles were shaped like peas and detonated when striking a target. A Korean band was hired for this celebration of the recent mass promotion of privates to PFC. It was the Captain’s first attendance at an EM (EM: enlisted man--that is, not an officer) party and he wanted to make it a memorable one. “I’m going to blow one right down the trumpeter’s horn tonight,” he boasted on the way to the club, giggling his silly, lispy giggle. His funny bone was obviously on high alert. The captain put his ammo and aim to excellent account between sips of beer, harassing everyone in the club within range of his slingshot. One of the new PFCs, a clerk in the Operations Office, took the captain’s cap and put it on. (It was one or two sizes too large for him.) Then he went to the front of the club and ordered “Pvt Posner” to approach him. The conversation that bloomed between intoxicated “Captain Marvin” and sporting “Pvt Posner” was pure vaudeville. Posner got the last laugh when he pulled the hat with the captain bars off Martin’s head and said: “You see, men, this hat is too big for his head!”
Captain Posner’s habit of prowling about the grounds at night, ostensibly to check on the guards, undermined the role of the Duty Officer and proved to be a dangerous game. The fence around the compound was set up with trip flares at vulnerable spots, although the natives had ways of rendering any barricade insecure. Well, acting like a bratty child, the captain purposely tripped the flares. How he managed to escape being shot by a guard is a chapter written in the Book of Chance—Last Edition.
The flare-happy, firecracker-happy captain staged mock Red Alerts (warning that enemy air attack is imminent) at night. In these practice alerts we donned helmets and cartridge belts, took up weapons, and rushed to designated defense positions around the perimeter of the post. One night he misjudged the number of flares to set off. Three bright beacons glowed in succession over the compound, illuminating the sky with a fantastic yellow light. Three flares meant “HELP—FIRE!” The Engineer fire squad and the local Sosa fire department rushed to the scene in response to the signal. Yellow flares over the compound, a captain with a red face, a bunch of blue firefighters—what a colorful night! Ah, but Captain Posner was a wonderful guy—“one of the boys”—a man able to command respect as well as compliance. His company, that summer, was one of the Army’s accidental goodies, like that good tray of chow.
...and Lieutenant F
If it is true that officers who generate the most scuttlebutt are the least liked, then Lieutenant F was at the head of the list. It was not so much his foibles but a subtle perversity that made him a pest.
Lieutenant F (his name was a homophone of the word foul) came in the summer of 1954 and was assigned to the Air-Ground Liaison (AGL) Radio Company's unit at 5th Air Force Group in Osan. I was then motor clerk, one of several positions I migrated through in my 13 months in Korea, a move in which I (an E-4) replaced an E-6 (Sergeant First Class; Corporal was E-4)—a long story. It happened when an administrative sergeant came to the company and could only be placed in the Orderly Room, where I had recently been assigned to replace somebody who had left. There was a vacancy for an E-6 job in the motor pool office. Since I was being replaced by the new sergeant in the Orderly Room, and the First Sergeant was taken aback at the unexpected change, I got the job in the motor office—as a corporal.
Well, before Lieutenant F left for his post in Osan, he stopped at the motor pool to get a driver’s permit. I did not question his ability to drive—he had the look of a driver in his eyes—so I promptly made one out for him. “This is not the form you fill out for a driver’s permit,” the lieutenant said in a high-pitched, breathy voice that needed oiling and seemed to issue from any part of his body but his mouth. “I believe you have to use DA Form--or some such number,” he said in that spooky voice. The tenderfoot officer looked helpless, so I felt obliged to explain that this was indeed the official form for a driver’s permit, pointing to the heading of the card, “US Government Operator’s Permit.” No regulation had come through to make it obsolete. The lieutenant studied the card, then gazed at me with an indescribable expression fused between contempt and vacuity. The expected outcome of the stare was either a burst of laughter or a lecture. But he never said a word. Poor devil.
My relief that he was assigned to Osan turned to grief when I saw Lieutenant F hovering around the CO’s office several weeks later. By then, in yet another personnel shuffle, I was in the Orderly Room as a company clerk. Lieutenant F had been returned to the company area to assume the dubious position of Executive Officer, a position that the company was not authorized to have and which the small organization could well afford to do without. The one vacancy F filled was trouble. He was in everyone’s way and made the most of it, wandering about and asking everybody what they were doing—not to acquaint himself with the company and its operation, but to correct everyone’s numerous mistakes.
He held the Orderly Room slightly in awe, at first, so didn’t bother the clerks. But when he overcame this “shyness,” his first mission in the Orderly Room was to file SRs and ARs (SR: Special Regulations; AR: Army Regulations) according to his system, regardless of whether it conflicted with the method prescribed by 22nd Signal Group, which ruled over the battalion. I promptly followed Lieutenant F’s method. No doubt the rookie lieutenant’s knowledge and experience surpassed Colonel G’s. And besides, without introducing himself or saying hello, Lieutenant F said to me: “You will separate the SRs from the ARs, is that clear, corporal?” “Yes, sir!”
Strange how procedures in and out of the Orderly Room were suddenly wrong. Administrators at Battalion Headquarters suddenly lost their ability to direct things properly, the CO didn’t know how to command, no one knew how to guard the compound, no one knew how to dress, no one even knew how to eat—with the exception of Lieutenant F himself. What was this disease that had come over the company? Swift measures were taken to correct the many faults. The chow hours were changed, guard mount changed--almost everything changed except the men’s MOS's.
It was a Lieutenant F habit to walk into the Orderly Room, look around, stare at one or more of the clerks, then walk out. With no rhyme or reason to the action, it carried no objective meaning, though to an outsider it would seem to hold a world of significance. Was it an unspoken warning about breaking his rules? Was it the expression of a man struggling to patch some gap in his head while pretending to look like an executive officer? The visible outcome of anxiety?
He took an uncomfortable liking to the way I did things for him, calling me his “little helper.” The benign attitude was entirely assumed, for there was no affinity between us. If just once he would do something useful—if he’d only prove by his actions that the company could use an executive officer (though the Table of Organization and Equipment or TO/E indicated otherwise), then he would have earned the respect he lacked. Instead, he was constantly fighting a war that he alone instigated and declared.
Lieutenant F rarely answered questions. It made little difference whether one asked how far Osan was or what time it was. The answer was no answer. Was he afraid of enemy ears listening behind the walls? His wall of silence frustrated any exchange of thought. Perhaps he thought that was dangerous. While it is sometimes wise to parry a challenge by stepping away from it, what is there to gain by constantly dodging it and relying on shoulder bars for poise and “authority”? Was this “technique,” sometimes used in comedy, appropriate here? Perhaps, unfortunately for him, he did not expect to meet with much intelligence among subordinate men. If one could answer Lieutenant F’s questions in a firm, confident tone, he was spared possible embarrassment (or worse). To be timid or puzzled before F was to “have had it” (not peace, for sure).
Bob Wheeler once countered F’s attacks with: “Sir, you give me the impression that I am an undesirable in this
company. I am as old, if not older, than you, and if I were to become an officer I’d make the best officer.”
“You’d make a good officer, maybe,” admitted F, “but not the best.” “Oh yes!” said Bob, “The best!—the best!”
Captain Johnson frequently walked about with his hands in his trouser pockets—a habit, need it be said, as common as swearing. Lieutenant F bawled everyone out that he caught with hands in pockets. It must have galled him not to be able to order the CO to take his hands out of his pockets.
Some took aim at Lieutenant F’s soft intellect. Frank Carriere, a Bostonian with a sensational command of the spoken word who mixed joi de vivre with a juicy sense of humor, was especially fascinated by Lieutenant F’s unique mind. He did not hesitate to contrive ways of foiling F, both with intellectual battles and practical jokes. Although Lieutenant F hated Frank almost as much as Frank hated him, he treated this guy with a good deal of respect. For example: F (throwing darts at a target outside of the labor office, where Carriere worked): “You have nothing to do?” C (looking over a magazine he had been reading): “No, sir.” F: “We’ll find something for you to do.” C: “Yes, sir.”
On another occasion Frank was cutting an “X” out of wood to make a “Merry Xmas” sign for the club. Stopping by the Labor Office, F inquired: “What are you doing?” Frank was tempted to say, “I’m putting shingles on a rowboat.” Instead he replied: “Cutting out a letter, sir.” “What letter are you cutting out?” Frank picked up the letter and, placing it in front of F’s face, said: “This is an ‘X,’ sir.” “You’re very shrewd,” remarked F. “To be sure,” said Frank.
At Christmas (my second one away from home) the men felt that they owed Lieutenant F a token of appreciation for his efforts to improve the company. Frank proposed a suitable gift and concurrence was unanimous. Inspired by the story of the “Caine Mutiny,” Frank purchased a set of silver earrings from the PX man. They were shaped like balls and were about 3/4-inch in diameter. Frank cut off the stems and filed the two stud spots smooth. They were then placed in a jewel box, addressed to Lieutenant F, and given to him through the mailman on Christmas Eve. A card in the box read: “To Lt (Capt Queeg) Barry W F..., from the men of Radio Co.” Next day, during Christmas dinner, Lieutenant F walked into the EM mess staring at everybody and rolling the two silver balls in the palm of his hand. That foul stare broke into a smile for the first time. Even if he pretended to join the men’s emotions, the new look on him was proof that Lieutenant F could not have received a better gift for Christmas.
Going-home bash for the mail clerk
A carpet of newspapers was run from the front entrance of Hut 4 to a writing desk moved into the aisle. Strands of toilet paper were strung across the ceiling and hung from the tops of the doorways to the floor. Toilet paper was also used to build a canopy around the mosquito frame of Seamon’s bunk. A sign bidding the mail clerk farewell hung in front of the makeshift table in the aisle, decked with victuals and drink. The air was warm. The vertical strands of toilet paper swayed like curtains in the breeze and made the doorways appear like entrances to a sultry tropical nightclub (sorry, no ceiling fans).
The man with a baby face and a wrestler’s build had done his job well despite the grudge he seemed to hold against it. In addition to being an expression of esteem for him and his good work the party served to forget the extra duties connected with a coming IG inspection. Seamon knew nothing about it. Shortly after chow Wallace took him to the club for a drink while the hut was decorated and the table loaded with cheese, tuna-and-mayonnaise, crackers, olives, booze . . . a royal feast set in the rice paddies of Bupyong, Korea. When all was ready, Wallace was phoned at the club. As they entered, Herschell played Kenton’s “Mardi Gras” over Peckler’s “45” record player. The only thing Seamon could utter for the next half hour was: “It’s too much!” The alcohol did not take long to wave its wand and the crescendo of excitement attracted Capt Posner.
Peeking in to see what was going on, the CO was invited to enter and join the fun. “How about a drink, captain?” asked Juliano. “Oh, I guess I’ll have a little ginger and whiskey, thanks.” “Ginger and whiskey for the captain, coming up!” One of the bottles contained whiskey. The other, a ginger ale bottle, also contained whiskey. “Oh, this is too strong,” the captain said, after his first sip, “let me have some more ginger ale.” “Sure thing, captain, here you go!” and the rest of his glass was filled up with “ginger ale.” The revelers got so wild and noisy that I decided to leave. I went to the motor office and leisurely worked on a report for the Inspector General inspection, for the sake of ears and nerves more than for the IG.
There was no reveille the next morning. The rule of no Sunday reveille had been waived because the CO had declared every day a work day until the IG inspection was over. But the night before, he was easily talked into calling it off. He was in such a good mood. Anyway, the end of a party like this calls for a good, long sleep to recharge the batteries for the work ahead—no?
Popular “side-arm”: 35mm camera
During the truce standby, here in “rice paradise,” the camera became the “weapon of choice.” I came to Korea with a Kodak Argus C-4, a “present to himself” when I graduated from college. My camera had plenty of company. It was easier to count who didn’t have a camera. Most were 35mm and shooting in color was the rule. This is remarkable, considering that color was unavailable except in movies and commercial photography, just a decade before. Many camera owners still toted aim-and-shoot “box cameras” for family photo albums. Now, all of a sudden it seemed that there was a bewildering assortment of sophisticated cameras for anyone bitten by the photo bug and able to save enough money.
Recognizing the limitations of my Argus, I soon acquired a taste for something more “professional.” Back in the time at Monmouth, Dr. (and Captain) Giuffra had spoken of the Exakta as the ideal 35mm instrument for close-up photography, since its reflex optical system lets you see through the lens forming the image exactly what the film “sees.” There was no parallax, no cropping error, no focusing error. From wide-angle to telephoto, any lens you plugged into it would show you exactly what it “saw.” With shutter speeds from 1/1000 of a second to several seconds, this product of German craftsmanship and precision was a serious contender for the very best. I stored Larry Giuffra’s remarks in my mind with a symbolic sigh. It was a dream out of my reach. Substantial discounts to the military now put the Exakta within reach—but no PX carried it. I ordered one from Balcom's, a local Korean distributor. In the month-and-a-half that I waited to learn that Balcom’s could not import Exaktas (they were made in Dresden, in the Russian zone of German occupation) I had sold my Argus to Bill Claypool who had in turn sold it to someone else after he caught the Bug. The “Domino Effect” caused the Argus C-4 to change hands twice again. The only cure for shutter fever, it seemed, was buying an expensive camera. Bill and I finally found the “medicine” for the Exakta Bug: a firm in Tokyo had Exaktas in stock, so we both “put in a requisition” for one. The PX man from Brooklyn, Al Sugel, also had trouble getting his camera, a Leica, even though the Leica was carried by the central PXs. Could they not keep up with demand? Sugel went about chanting, “I like a Leica—I like a Leica,” until he couldn’t get what he liked and settled for a Contax, poor boy.
During “organized athletics” each Wednesday afternoon, Bill, a few others, and I took off to the fields to “shoot” the natives and their surroundings. Invariably our hike dragged a crowd of children wherever we went. Most were after amusement, but some were after “choon-gum,” money, or just plain harassment. Peckler was a pro when dealing with the more difficult kids. “What do you want? The Time? Oh, the time—yes. Well you see, it’s 1400 hours now but only an hour ago it was 1300 hours. You see—oh, you don’t want the time? Well, why didn’t you tell me you wanted to know how to get to Brooklyn? Well, first you take....”
Mama-sans carrying baby-sans on their backs while working in the rice paddies, boy-sans carrying baby-sans on their backs while girl-sans played teeter-totter, papa-sans sitting in the sun smoking thin bamboo pipes over two feet long, chickens, hogs, carts hauling rice, A-frames, mud-and-straw huts (some shingled with flattened beer cans), kimchi-jugs, honey-buckets—these were some of the subjects covered by the camera brigade. Fortunately Kodachrome was insensitive to the foul mix of odors from kimchi, poultry, mud, straw, and “honey fertilizer.” In such air hung rows of spaghetti on horizontal rods, to dry in the sun—the spaghetti brown from a layer of dust that settled on it from the unpaved, jeep-swept roads.
The gaudy colors worn by the girls (magenta and yellow--a popular combination), the laughing and smiling, could not disguise the weather-beaten faces on some kids, whose wrinkles trapped dust and mud. The older folk wore immaculately white garments in utter defiance of the squalid environment. It seemed a mark of nobility, a bold statement about the stoic patience and hard work they were born to. Sitting, standing, or moving, the old-timers presented a serious, almost pompous face to the world.
In our orientation in Sasebo we were told that almost every Korean had a stomach ailment and that intestinal disease was considered a normal condition of life. GIs were warned not to eat any of the produce of the land unless it was thoroughly washed, or skinned and boiled. That Koreans could survive, indeed seem healthy, attested to their immunity to filth, acquired no doubt from as far back as the cradle.
When Radio Co shutter-bugs ran out of ordinary subjects they shot frogs, stray pooches, wild flowers, praying mantises . . . At the call, “Ooh—look at that sunset!,” everyone scrambled to his footlocker (like Pavlov’s dog), grabbed his camera and barreled out of the hut. Sometimes we played jokes on one other by sounding a false “sunset alert.” One trick was to shoot somebody while he wasn’t looking. The game sometimes turned into a “Wild East” version of a shoot-out, the winner being the first to fire. I was cagey, but Bill finally got me. Just a few weeks left in the company and I would have had a perfect record of evading surprise shutter attacks.
In time, even not-so-ordinary subjects were exhausted and it became necessary for Claypool and I to hunt for new material. This led to shooting long time exposures (measured in minutes) at night around the compound with what little light came from the outside lamps—or taking pictures of transmitter tubes glowing in various colors, or using close-up rings to close-in on a bee in Sergeant Menteckey’s flower bed in front of the Administration Building.
Much later, when Bill and I returned from R&R, Bill brought back a bulk roll (about 100 feet) of 35mm black-and-white film. We collected all the empty film cartridges we could find and loaded them in the little darkroom between the CO’s office and the barber shop. The film was used freely to shoot everything conceivable under sun, moon, or light bulb. One project was to take a portrait of everybody in the hut, using a bed sheet for backdrop. For a while it looked like a nightly line-up for mug shots after being arrested.
The vocabulary thickened daily with photo jargon: “f/5.6 at 100,” “depth of field,” “hyperfocal distance,” “focal plane shutter,” “open flash” . . . which, together with the radio talk and Korean lingo, sounded like the language from another planet. A homemade projector bravely threw a feeble image on the screen. Criticizing each other’s shots was part of the fun at the slide shows. When someone pointed out another’s underexposed picture, I remarked, “Oh, that’s a perfect exposure—it was shot in the moonlight.”
Captain Posner conducted classes in photography when he was stationed in 22nd Group and had been Officer in Charge of the Photography Platoon in the Headquarters Company there. At the instigation of Herschell, Bill, and I, he gave informal lectures on photography in the TI&E room. Shutter-bugs were invited to come each Saturday afternoon and bring slides for professional criticism. Technical, in-depth information was given on any topic asked for, with demonstrations. Lectures stressed composition, emphasis, and interpretation of subject matter. On his photographic excursions the CO carried two Leicas and two Rolleiflexes. One Rollei was for color, the other for black-and-white, so he could have both ready at the same time. One Leica was for normal lens, the other for telephoto lens, so that he wouldn’t have to constantly change lenses. (There were no zoom cameras in 1954.) It was both treat and inspiration to watch the captain in action and see the stunning results.
A stop at the “Gimlets”
Early in the summer Bill won a battalion photo contest. Oddly, he was in both pictures that he submitted. The photographs had actually been taken by me, but they were Claypool’s ideas, his film, his camera. The prize was a five-day TDY (temporary duty somewhere outside the normal duty station) to anywhere in the Eighth Army area, with jeep and driver, and five rolls of Kodachrome. I got in on the deal. How? Well, I took the picture. The winning photograph was the result of a joint effort. I made going with Claypool (jokingly, but effectively) a condition for going back to work in the Orderly Room. I had been the motor clerk for a while and now that the sergeant who had taken my job in the Orderly Room was gone, the 1st Sergeant begged me to come back. It was a deal.
The itinerary took us northeast, past Seoul, past Chunchon, to the Yanggu Valley, location of the 24th Infantry Division, where Bill’s brother-in-law Pfc Charles McKim was located. It was late when we arrived, thanks to Sgt Struwe, who drove like an old lady, following every traffic regulation and speed limit with painful obedience. Picture a fresh young jeep moving at 25 mph, mile after mile, on a very long stretch of road. Imagine being a passenger in it. Well, it did keep the dust down.
The 21st Infantry Regiment was the infantry regiment of the first US troops in Korea when the war broke out in 1950. “The Gimlets,” as the 21st Infantry Regiment was called, had retired for the night and we had to get McKim out of bed. He got the cook up, who obligingly started up a field burner and fried eggs for the guests. Visitors were an oddity among these boys. They drew extra cots from Supply and placed us in the center of a squad tent to spend the night. Next morning, Saturday—here, before our eyes—there was a parade in “No Man’s Land” commemorating absolutely nothing. I was no military expert but wasn’t parading in a combat zone stretching truce standby a bit?
“Why don’t you get a vehicle and come down to see us some weekend?” Bill asked his brother-in-law. “Are you crazy?” answered McKim. “That’s like asking for a leave to go home!” Next was a tortuous, bumpy ride north to the southern limit of the Demilitarized Zone at Mundung-Ni. Here we got a good look at territory scorched with fierce combat, now quiet but on edge. Through a telescope at OP-7, an observation post along the carefully guarded bunker network that lines the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), we spotted the compound of a Communist outfit. These bunker networks made it possible to move from hill to hill without coming up above the ground. Slung coast-to-coast of the Korean peninsula in proximity to the 38th Parallel, the Demilitarized Zone is a 2.5-mile-wide buffer ribbon of land about 150 miles long separating our forces to the south and the Communist forces to the north. More than half a century after the shaky Armistice of 1953, US and ROK forces continue to face the same enemy across the DMZ that we did!
This OP was manned mostly by ROK troops who kept a 24-hour vigil along the camouflaged, barbed-wire border. Notorious battle hills, charred from the fighting, were visible across the rounded valley known as the Punchbowl. Many a ridge was lined with scorched tree stumps. A sign posted near a guard house read (in English and Korean): “South Limit, Demilitarized Zone; No Entry Without Proper Authority; Show Pass to Sentry.” When we tried to take a picture of it, a couple of Korean guards came running after us, shouting. As we drove off, I switched on my telephoto lens and got the picture from the rear seat of the retreating jeep.
On our way back from the DMZ we stopped for coffee and doughnuts at “Java Junction,” courtesy of the 519th Military Police Battalion. A sign above the entrance to the tent read: “Recommended by Duncan Hines.”
Land of the Morning Calm
In my mind the word morning in “Land of the Morning Calm” always turned to mourning. A twilight of turmoil and suffering in fact descended upon Korea during the UN “Police Action” to halt Communist expansion into the south of the peninsula at a great cost of American lives and countless lives of Koreans and other United Nations troops. To the many wounded (103,000 incidents of Americans wounded in action), to the POWs and others who served here, the tragedy, the place, and the people would leave an indelible mark.
Maybe it was far-fetched, but in time I would wonder if my journey to Korea was not the unfolding of a “plan” in my life. Something in the music, art, and culture of the Far East called and held my attention. There was nothing in my upbringing or background to account for it, except perhaps two Puccini operas I was fond of, Madama Butterfly, set in Japan and Turandot, set in China—flimsy links at best. Was there pure whim to the idea that my soul might at some time have known this part of the world?
Putting the odd feeling aside, it was with more than passing interest that I observed, made mental notes, tried to explain—at least to myself—this small piece of the world that represented a people unlike those I was born into. It would eventually come together as an essay in my original set of memoirs of Army life. I wrote Shades of O.D. (my Army memoirs) when I came home from Korea. The chapter on Korea, from which this segment is drawn, reflects conditions circa 1954.
A halo of past glory shone faintly over Korea’s wounds, her culture as old as China’s and in part a product of that country’s wonderful history. Korea’s mate across the Sea of Japan, however, the “Land of the Rising Sun,” would not be looked upon as a benign influence, but hated for its ruthless occupation during its campaign for empire.
Despite war and hardship the Koreans are fundamentally a well adapted and happy people. They presented a serious and dignified manner, particularly in dealing with strangers. There was a stateliness among the older folks that bespeaks a contemplative bent in life. This aloofness was absent from the youngsters who, though many were forced to grow up before their time by harsh conditions, managed to wear cheerful faces over their dingy attire. Most Koreans were under six feet tall, rugged, agile, and strong for their frames. The children of Korea, unlike Chinese and Japanese children, do not memorize thousands of pictograms in order to read and write. Koreans smartly adopted a phonetic alphabet. Twenty-four phonic symbols are grouped to form the words of their language.
School boys wore black coats with a high, tight collar and a single row of brass buttons down the front. The trousers were black, and a black policeman-type cap completed their uniform. Girls wore white blouses and black skirts. School was not compulsory and parents had to pay for their children’s tuition and books, even in elementary school. In rustic areas (this included most of them) children removed their shoes before entering the classrooms to keep mud, snow, and dirt outside. Rows of shoes lined outside the school were a common sight.
Young Koreans love to wear bright colors, often in gaudy combinations. Magenta skirts with yellow blouses was popular among the girls. Wedding apparel is traditionally vividly multicolored. Young men and women who could afford it dressed in the Western manner, especially in the cities. The older men and women traditionally wore white. The garments were kept immaculate in spite of the alternately dusty and muddy environment of the typical village. It was a wonder how the women got them so white by beating with sticks and rinsing in streams of water. Some of the clothing was GI or modified GI, having trickled out to the populace from US Army compounds in one way or another.
Korean earth is a red clay, muddy through the growing season, yielding fine crops of rice with the skill of the farmer and a centuries-old practice of fertilizing with human feces, in a liquid consistency. The “human manure” was stored in deep pits distributed through the fields--a treacherous obstacle to the unwary, especially in the dark. Rice needs a flood of water for its development, so it was planted in paddies that trapped water from precipitation and streams. An intricate system of water ducts regulated the depth of water among the paddies for an equitable distribution. The sub-rectangular and triangular troughs, defined and hemmed-in by narrow ridges rising about a foot above the paddies, served as foot paths from one paddy to another.
In early spring, the mucky ground was dug up by ox-driven plows. It was a sorry sight to see ox and farmer slosh about in the mud. During the winter months the paddies were bleak, brown ice-skating rinks for the children. But in spring they took on a soft green tufted appearance from the millions of tender little spears peeking at the sun through the water. By August or early September the paddies turned to a crisp amber yellow and the fields hummed with activity as the rice was cut down with scythes and stacked up to dry. The whole family was out in the fields, both at planting time and harvest time: mama-san, pap-san, and all the smaller “-sans.” They worked rapidly, with no job in the field too difficult or undignified for the women. When dry, the mounds of rice, which resembled stacks of hay, were carried to the dwelling areas on back with A-frame, on head in bundles (by women), or by ox-driven cart. Jollity seized the workers at harvest time and, particularly during the threshing, the men often sang.
The dwellings were hardly more than huts with thatched roofs of dried rice plants. Walking through a deserted group of such huts (the residents out in the fields) one felt that he had come upon the village of a primitive central African tribe. Clusters of such huts, each with a grove of columnar poplars, formed hut-and-tree “islands” that dotted the rice field landscape. The background to this landscape around Bupyong was a horizon trimmed with wavy crests of misty-green hills that in winter turned ruddy-brown, spotted with snow. (There was not much snow in this area in the winter of 1953-54.)
Cooking was over a fire in a cavity in the earth floor. In winter this was also the source of heat through a system of flues under the floor. Rice straw was commonly burned. Grains and other foodstuffs were stored in a miniature rice-straw hut with a circular wall and conical roof. The roof of the dwellings was also of rice straw, with cottage-style slope. Some huts stood alone. Others, in pairs, were arranged in “L’s” or “U’s” or various combinations of these. A prevalent pattern was two “L”-combination huts facing each other.
The predominant color of these village dwellings was brown, in all its earthy shades: the red-brown of the soil, the straw-brown of the roofs, the gray-brown of the hut walls which were occasionally shingled with beer cans salvaged from GI compounds, the light brown of the once-yellow spaghetti hung outside to dry, coated with dust from the unpaved roads as jeeps and trucks passed by, the gravy-brown of the hogs, the black chickens that were once brown and the brown chickens that were once white—all a depressing harmony of dullness, save for the rebellious hues of the garments worn by girls.
The most distinctive household objects were the “kimchi” jars. Of glazed earthenware, the largest stood nearly five feet high. The jugs, used to store prepared foods, usually stood in colonies outdoors in a protected spot. What was commonly stored in them was “kimchi.” The very word was enough to screw the face of a GI. One could possibly acquire a taste for the stuff, but one whiff—a fermented mix of cabbage, garlic, red-hot pepper, and sometimes fish—was a sufficient barrier to the sense of adventure to stop one cold. It was eaten daily by the natives and when Korean laborers returned to the compound after their lunch hour, to take up their afternoon work, it took guts to approach one of them. Think of garlic breath, then try to imagine kimchi breath. Add up the odors—hogs, chickens, kimchi, and the “honey” fertilizer in the paddies—then try to imagine walking through a village on a summer day.
Other crops besides rice were wheat, barley, corn, millet, soybeans, peas, peppers, squash, cabbage, lettuce, and cotton. Side by side with farming, in the area of my acquaintance, were a variety of employs on a far lesser scale, including marketing of wares, small milling shops, handicraft shops, civil workers such as firemen and policemen, and in large cities such trades as watch repairers, jewelers, carpenters, artists, salesmen, and the many vocations needed for a municipality to thrive. A significant percentage of employment was generated by Army compounds. These were supported by Korean laborers who did the KP, laundry, housekeeping, building and repairing of everything from stove pipes to “Merry Christmas” signs. Pay officers dealt with two separate payrolls each month—that of the GIs, paid in military payment certificate(s) or MPC's--official paper substitutes for US dollars and coins, and that of the “Indigenous Personnel,” paid in won.
It was hard to tell how old a native was by sight. Shoeshine boy Han was not over eight, yet he had the face of a middle-aged man. Such rapid aging was evidently due to the hard environment and general poverty. One houseboy seemed old enough to be called “papa-san.” Before he could be of much service, he was drafted into the Korean army. Hut 4 houseboy Chun was a bright lad with a good command of English. In his spare time and that of the GIs he delivered the latest gossip from outside the compound, sang songs, and demonstrated his phenomenal memory. He could recite the laundry number of every man in the hut. Chun—and this was true of most natives—was very proud of his country and its president, Syngman Rhee. “Ah, Syngman Rhee is no good,” Nagy would say to rile him. “He’s a Number 10 good-for-nothing bum!” “No—no!” cried Chun, “Rhee’s Number One! How you speak about president like dat? Why I not hear you speak about President Eisenhower like dat?” “Oh—Eisenhower—he’s no good either!” was the shattering reply. Chun took such spoofing with a smile, but doubtless wondered how men in uniform serving their country could joke about their Commander-in-Chief.
The name “Syngman Rhee” is typical of Korean names in that it has three syllables. Gate guards checking incoming and outgoing Korean employees constantly struggled with such trinities as Ik Myung Kim, Bong Yul Chin, Heung Kim Pak and, after a while, they all began to sound alike.
It was not difficult to perceive, behind their oriental politeness, that Koreans harbored a genuine uncertainty about the Americans that bordered on fear. This was apparent in contacts with people of adolescent or greater age, who possibly found it hard to reconcile the lofty aims of the official American military organs and the many laudable American actions with the sometimes ugly facts of war. Some young Koreans sided with Communist insurgents and wanted South Korea to be united with North Korea under Kim Il Sung. Not everyone was happy with the presence of foreign troops. For some South Koreans we were the enemy. This danger, along with continued fighting and threat of full-scale attacks after the cease-fire, kept Korea a war-zone for a year following the armistice.
Beyond the bounds of understandable caution, under the very troublesome circumstances they were in, Koreans were friendly, a quality that grew in proportion to the age of the individual and rather more abundantly in the women than in the men. It was a lot easier to deal with the older people in photographic scoutings through the neighboring villages.
The Korean attitude toward the Japanese appeared to be one of consistent hatred, evidently never forgiving them for their conquest and harsh occupation of Korea. The beautiful Japanese-built capitol building in Seoul was left unrepaired from the ravages of war and allowed to stand vacant and exposed to the elements. It stood as a ghost of Japanese dominance. The seat of government lay instead in a far less assuming building on a busy block. It was not uncommon to hear reports of police raids on shops selling Japanese merchandise. In a raid of music shops, all Japanese phonograph records were confiscated.
Korean children amused themselves with what little they possessed. A favorite winter sport was skating on frozen rice paddies. The boys especially delighted in gliding over the ice on small, handmade sleds barely large enough to accommodate a pair of feet. The skaters crouched and propelled themselves along the ice with short spikes, one in each hand. Popular in all seasons, especially with the girls, was teeter-totter. A stubby board was laid across a rock or ridge and the participants see-sawed on their feet, in a standing position. Skilled performers soared several feet into the air. Another popular game was shuttlecock. A bunch of children would kick the shuttlecock up into the air and keep it airborne by successive upward kicking. The shuttlecock would rarely be allowed to fall to earth. It was an amazing ballet of nimble little feet, accompanied with hearty laughter. The younger children sometimes played with a crude homemade toy, such as an empty tin can rigged to roll at the end of a string, or a circular wire rolled along, as one ran, by striking it with a stick or straight piece of wire. I once saw a little boy carrying a live-and-flying dragonfly tethered to a string.
The religious life of the people was a mixed one. Few adhered to a tight religious system, most following a variety of beliefs. There were many temples to Buddha, often on beautifully landscaped grounds. The ornate pyramidal structures were frequently set on hills. A characteristic sight was that of sculpted monkeys in rows lining the ribs of the tiled roofs. A large segment of Koreans believed in demons. According to this belief, each household, indeed every object, had its own peculiar demon or set of demons. Every favorable or unfavorable event was the work of one or more of the demons. Some believed they personally carried an evil “alter-ego” that could only be expelled by risking their life in a daredevil act. One of our men saw an old guy jump in front of his jeep as he drove to Seoul. The driver swerved right—the man ran to the right. The driver turned left—the man ran to the left! A small number are converts to Christianity. Not far from Inchon stood Beer Can Chapel, a little wooden church with steeple and cross, with outside walls shingled in flattened beer cans. Not a shred of religious piety can explain having your camera disappear from under your nose while you wait in a parked vehicle, then having the cop you report the theft to go straight to the boy who stole it, to get it back!
A peculiar, slow drumbeat and singing that sounded like wailing signaled an approaching funeral procession. As it passed, the casket of the deceased person—which included the individual’s earthly possessions—revealed striking decorations with brightly colored pieces of cloth. A similarly adorned canopy was stretched over the casket, which was carried along the road on a frame by some half dozen men. The adult male relatives marched ahead of it, some wearing brown paper hats, headed by a man carrying a wooden pole with a bright red banner. The musical accompaniment included a set of tinkling bells which followed the accents of the drumbeat and a shrill wind instrument that whined away in its own, independent melodic path over the rest of the noise. The flock walked a crooked line, caterwauling, their blood charged with alcohol. The lately departed, wobbling along with the bearers, was carried to a grassy field to be buried under a circular mound of earth.
A tapping noise at night was the sign of a Korean walking along a path, striking the ground ahead of him with a stick to signal his presence and avoid colliding with someone or something in the pitch dark.
Korea is generally hilly, especially north where the irregular contours of the mountain ridges cut bold pictures across the sky. The dramatic mountain vistas were matched in impressiveness by spacious valleys. Hydroelectric dams harnessed the power of the mountain streams.
It snowed little in Bupyong in the two winters of my tour of duty. At that time the hills were crusted with a thin layer of snow, freckled with loosely scattered small pine trees. The change in temperatures between winter and spring was gradual and steady, quite unlike the often sudden and extreme changes experienced in the eastern United States. In the area between Inchon and Seoul, the two winters between 1953 and 1955 did not get much colder than about 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and the summer of 1954 was very warm and humid with temperatures up to 90 degrees. In spring and early summer the hills were covered with a misty film of pale green—deepening, as the summer wore on, and turning to a pattern of dark green “pockmarks” over the rosy-brown slopes.
It rained almost every day of the rainy season, in varying degrees of intensity, with the sun shining through some pauses. The occasional fair day was extremely humid. To get a sense of what it was like, imagine having summer showers, without lightning and thunder, all day, day after day after day.... In July, when it rained most heavily, the Han River swelled to overflowing and bridges were cut off. Emergency teams, most of them recruited from American outfits, were sent to cope with the flooding. During the emergency operations, Radio Co sent out AN/GRC-26 teams to supply communications. The AN/GRC was commonly called the “Angry 26” in GI lingo. This was a mobile radio-teletype unit mounted on a 2-1/2 ton truck.
Except for battalions of frogs and insects in summer I did not see many animals in Korea. There were sparrows, smaller and livelier than the English sparrow. Pheasants and other birds were sometimes seen on hills wooded with conifers and deciduous trees around Seoul. Every household had its flock of chickens. There were hogs and ducks and one or more oxen for plowing the fields and carrying the harvest. The absence of grazing animals was natural in a land where every patch of earth must be used to raise food for human consumption. Radio Company played host to several canine vagabonds. Sometimes a dog never came back. Rumor had it that stray dogs were eaten by the natives. Only once, in all my wanderings, did I come across a cat in Korea, which promptly disappeared from my sight.
Aside from any natural beauty—which it is useful to observe is not the exclusive property of any region on earth—Korea is not lacking in “tourist appeal.” Though hardly more than a shell, the capitol building in Seoul is an impressive white building that lies at the end of a long, wide avenue. Behind its Western-style dome rises a single-peaked mountain, forming a “postcard picture.” The Railroad Terminal Office Building, at the western limit of the city, is a red-brown edifice with a roof that forms a pattern of hemispheres. The South Gate is a pagoda-like monument with an archway through its base, separating one area of the city from another. It was being repainted after two hundred years. The work in progress revealed intricate arabesques of bright, contrasting hues, in the same style of Buddhist temple decorations. A local news article noted that the South Gate was built by King Taecho, founder of the Yi Dynasty, 500 years ago. It suffered little damage during the war. Fragmentary remains of an ancient wall built in 1392 by a war lord could be spotted in several places around the city.
To walk through the grounds and building of Chang Duk Palace (one of the royal households of the late Korean imperial dynasty) is to find oneself surrounded by rich works of art—fantastic murals, screens with inlaid mother-of-pearl images of lotus blossoms, turtles, and other Buddhist symbols, splendid furniture with preciously colored and patterned upholstery, ornately decorated ceramic vases, meticulous landscaping, elaborate architecture with sculpted roof-top monkeys lining the roof ribs. Duk Soo Palace was more popular with the natives. I met the Radio Co baker there one Sunday. Elegant Marble Hall, with spouting-water fountains, housed 10,000 articles of sculpture, painting, and pottery that date back 2000 years.
The ROK Army officer in charge of Korean soldiers stationed on the post invited me and a couple of friends to see a show in Seoul one April evening. Lieutenant Kim could not procure a vehicle in time to reach the theater on time but the group decided to go to Seoul anyway. Since it was unsafe to park a vehicle, unattended, outside of an Army installation, it was parked at Battalion Headquarters. The lieutenant suggested a Korean department store and led us through unfamiliar parts of town. “Oh it’s near now—just a few blocks,” he kept saying, as we walked and walked and walked. The dim light from the windows of dingy little shops did nothing to help distinguish one dark street from another. After a dozen assurances that the store he was looking for was “just around the corner,” Lieutenant Kim finally realized that he had miscalculated the distance, so we took a trolley the rest of the way. It was no doubt a rarity for GIs to be riding on these streetcars. When finally we got to our destination (a six-story building!), the department store was closed.
Rambling back toward where we started, we came to the street where the theater was located. That the show was half over meant nothing to the crowd still trying to get in. The lieutenant walked up to the doorman and gained access for his group. The view from the balcony was blocked by the crowd. Downstairs we managed a view over the heads of standees at the back of the theater. On stage a woman wearing a grotesque mask and brightly colored costume enacted what appeared to be a satire. Every peculiar movement she made was accented by a drum. In this and the next legend of two lovers, many colored lights fused into each other and played on the colorful setting and gaudy costumes. The beginning and close of each act was signaled by a gong. The music was weird to the Western ear. The acts were announced over a loudspeaker in Korean and English. We saw no other Americans in the audience. Was the English for our benefit? The show over, a wild dash for the exits—like a mad subway rush in Manhattan—evicted us through the doors with force. A taxi delivered us to the Battalion parking area. On our ride back to Bupyong, mulling over the spectacle, my mind sensed a decadent land desperately clinging to vestiges of an ancient culture.
Most paintings I saw in Korea were murals, both indoor and outdoor, depicting warriors in splendid attire, dignified gentlemen playing parlor games, imperial ceremonies and other activities of a dynastic past. The color was consistently rich and contrasty. Composition ruled over perspective, making the art look “flat.” Less common in painting, more so in the arts of craft, were arrangements of lotus blossoms and turtles, two important Buddhist symbols, the lotus signifying purity—the turtle, longevity. In architecture the staple roof ornament was the monkey, symbol of wisdom, a row of them lining each descending roof rib.
Contemporary paintings reflected a strong influence from the West, with nothing uniquely oriental about them. The music that was neither folk music nor music of various ceremonies was mostly associated with the theater. Rare was the “pure music” of Western concert halls, such as even Japanese musicians occasionally provided. The instruments were predominantly percussive, the melodies played on high-pitched, sometimes shrill wind instruments. There was no harmony. The melodic lines, with or without singing, followed a course of their own, accompanied by a variety of percussive beats arranged in intricate rhythmic patterns. The description fits much traditional Far Eastern music, but what distinguished Korean music, say, from the Japanese, was that the instruments had a “coarser” sound and the music was less varied and more “monotonous.”
A people’s affinity to symbols is nowhere more admirably expressed than in the Korean flag where, in a few choice abstractions, one can observe something of the mystery of man and his relation to the world. In the center of the flag’s white background is a circle, divided into two equal areas by an S-shaped curve. Half the circle is red, half blue. The circle, symbol of infinity and perfection, is thus seen to be composed of a duality—male and female, opposites in nature, mind and body, the spiritual and the material—the red half signifying all that which is warm, vital, unique, life-giving—while the blue half points to all that is cold, serene, unifying, death-bringing. Each corner of the flag has a set of three parallel lines oriented toward the center. In one set the three lines are all continuous; in a second, the lines are all broken in half; in a third set the middle line is broken and the outer lines are entire; and in the fourth, the middle line is entire and the outer lines are broken. While it may seem capricious and arbitrary, this is in fact an excellent sampling of the principle of maximum variety from minimum means. The four different, symmetrical arrangements of two unequal lines symbolize a principle of economy that is applicable to art and to living. The need for getting the most from the least is urgent in a country where the means of living are scarce. In art, the “milking” of an idea for all it’s worth—through repetition, variation, transformation—is basic to the creative process.
Touchdown in Tokyo for R&R
At K-16 (Kimpo Airfield), a “Globe-Master” swallowed its cargo of men through hinged jaws below the cockpit. Claypool and I flew sideways on OD (olive drab) canvas seats running parallel to the sides of the ship. Peep-hole windows told the eyes only that the monster was in motion, as its four grinding motors hauled some two hundred Rest & Recuperation (R&R) candidates to Tokyo. From Tachikawa airfield the weary lambs were transported to Camp Drake by bus caravan. After “early chow”—it was one in the morning—we slept in Building 405. It was a gray Friday morning, 25 June (1954), with the threat of rain. Who knew that the “rainy season” was in progress?
Bill and I came in one door of the processing center in “combat fatigues” and went out another in a fresh suit of khaki’s, free to do what we pleased and go where we pleased, so long as we returned one week later at four P.M. To be free as birds in a modern city—WOW! We converted some military payment certificates (MPC's) to yen at the Chase National Bank, right on post, and got on a bus that took us to the Finance Building where the tide led us into a taxicab. “Take us to the Ga-Jo-En Hotel, please.” The fare would be ¥100. The Ga-Jo-En Kanko was a Special Services hotel that Herschell and others raved about. “OK,” said the driver, “but the Ga-Jo-En is full. You will not get any rooms there. If you want, I can take you to the Ga-Jo-En Annex.” We agreed.
At the so-called “annex” we stood at the entrance and looked inside. The place had an air of ill repute. “What’s the matter? Come in, come in, make yourself at home. Don’t you like this hotel? It’s Number One. Let me show you the rooms.” “Straight to the Ga-Jo-En, please!” The next hotel we were taken to was still not the Ga-Jo-En. This time Bill and I did not bother to get out of the cab but repeated the original order, with more snap in it. “But the Ga-Jo-En—there’s no room there.” “Yes, we know, but we still want to go there. If you can’t take us there we’ll get someone else to take us there—you are wasting our time.” “The Ga-Jo-En is way out—I’ll have to charge you 400 yen each-ie.” Bill gave him ¥l00, which he refused to take at first, since he had done a lot of driving, which we insisted was the price he asked for a service that he did not perform.
The next cab driver was about to do the same thing, ending up by asking a big sum to take Bill and me where we didn’t want to go. He drove around the block, while we argued, and let us off in front of the Finance Building, where we started from. The third cab was a small one with steering wheel on the right. Maybe this time, we thought, as we crawled in. Traffic moved on the left side of the street, an unsettling experience after being conditioned all your life to right-hand traffic. As pedestrians we were lucky we weren’t killed, for as we were about to cross a street we habitually looked to the left for oncoming cars, instead of to the right. By the time we trained to look right before crossing we were back in Korea, looking right before crossing the streets in Seoul instead of looking left!
The Ga-Jo-En was full but we were escorted by taxi to a nearby hotel, the Ikky-U-So, for temporary lodging. We had to remove our boots when we entered the vestibule. It was easy for natives to slip in and out of their casual footwear, but GI boots! The Ikky-U-So provided a television set in the reception office, radios in each room, and overly-polite hosts.
The first business was a visit to Shriro’s, New York, to have our Exakta cameras checked, each suffering from a minor defect. It was from Shriro that they were ordered. How we got to the Fukoku Building in an unfamiliar landscape of streets remains a mystery. The man in the Shriro showroom explained in excellent English the optical principle of the 28mm wide-angle lens for the Exakta. It was intriguing how a Japanese was showing Americans how a French lens worked on a German camera.
Friend Nelson had been stationed near Tokyo and, recalling his recommendation, we headed for the Prunier Room of the Imperial Hotel. The remote and serene atmosphere of the recessed dining room, the palm trees, the courteous waiters and waitresses wearing kimonos were complemented with food fit for royalty, served (literally) on a silver platter. I had forgotten how good food can taste. Bill followed the baked ham and fresh tomatoes he ordered with orange sherbet. How odd. Claypool liked oranges, but hated orange juice. How can that be? Well, when Bill was small his mother gave him his cod liver oil in orange juice—ugh! With little Tony (me), it was different. I got the disgusting "ogghiu di mirruzzu" (“oil of cod” in Sicilian) straight, on a spoon, so my urge to vomit was not linked with some other flavor.
An arcade at the Imperial Hotel featured cute little shops. In one of them I eyed the jade, ivory, and wood-block prints. There were scenes with Mount Fuji, Pagoda views in Ueno Park, street scenes, whimsical pictures of children at play . I bought some to send home as gifts. Later we strolled along a little byway lit up with tiny shops selling candy, stationery, hardware, pottery, every little thing under the moon. We stopped in some for paint brushes, hinges, music paper, abacuses. Though we didn’t always understand one another, it was wonderful dealing with these polite and friendly people. After chewing the fat over some beer with R&R guys at the Ga-Jo-En, we looked over what was to be our home for the rest of the week, starting the next day.
It was raincoats again the following morning. Surely it can’t be like this all the time. The day was spent moving to our new room at the Ga-Jo-En, picking up our cameras at Shriro’s, buying trinkets, and—because of the rain—taking pictures indoors with Type A Kodachrome. This, after we discovered a camera shop near Ginza Avenue that had just the tripod we wanted for less the price asked the night before at a shop we passed. Our Exaktas looked menacing on those Kenko elevator tripods. With the “click!...zzzzzzzzzzz...click!” sound of their shutters on delayed and timed exposure, they seemed like modern weapons. There was much at the Ga-Jo-En to record on Kodachrome: mother-of-pearl mosaics on elevator doors; a sign over the entrance to the “Bamboo Room” made with colorful paper lantern “balloons,” each bearing one of the ten letters; a spider dangling under a foot bridge of the garden grounds . . . How nice—the basement arcade of the hotel was a convenient center for souvenirs, wrapping and mailing gifts. Among the shopping discoveries was Wako Department Store, one of the most modern stores in the world. As architectural illustrator Herschell put it, “it shrieked class.” Wako is, first of all, a work of art—secondly a place to buy things.
Herschell had seen to it that Bill and I get around in Tokyo by sketching a “thumb map” of the downtown from memory, showing the main promenade into the heart of the city—“Z” Avenue—from Tokyo Central Station on the “el.” He indicated key intersections and places of interest like the Rocker Four Club and Wako Department Store, and showed just where we’d find a shop “under the el” that sold mink bow ties. He had missed the chance to return there while on R&R and asked us to get one for him if we should be in that vicinity. We found the tie shop. I picked a blond mink bow tie for George, who said he’d wear it with a cashmere jacket ordered from Hong Kong. Further down the street, past the Ernie Pyle Theater area, were the offices of the Nippon Times Ltd., where I stopped to get a collection of Japanese folk songs that I knew they published.
At Wako I picked neckties off a trellis of white cords radiating from two centers on the ceiling, criss-crossed by necktie-holding horizontal cords, filling a wall of the room. Bill got a tea set for his wife Peggy. The two girls at the china counter did not understand me when I asked for a paper bag bearing the store’s logo (for a friend’s collection). At Wako only wrapping paper was used. The girls studied “paper bag,” jotted on a piece of paper, conferred between themselves, then wrote something down. The charming duo wore gray cotton jackets, plain skirts, and white blouses with upturned collars that arched down and forward, ending in two sleek points. They had drawn a street map with the exact location of a shop that sold paper bags!
At the Yamano music store, I bought Chopin’s Mazurkas and a Débussy piano album that contained the glorious piece, “La Cathédrale Engloutie.” I played a mazurka on a piano upstairs. Japanese music was hard to find—the few available recordings too expensive. Everyone in the store was listening to or buying Western music. When I asked about Japanese musical instruments, I was directed to Matsuya Department Store on the same block. Matsuya was Tokyo’s Macy’s—a huge store with escalators rising around a square hollow shaft from bottom floor to top ceiling of the building. You could look over a ledge at each floor for an increasingly dramatic view as you went higher. From the top, the sight was dizzying.
I found samisens and kotos, traditional plucked-string instruments used mainly by Geishas in entertaining their guests. They did not have what I was really looking for: the hichiriki, a high-pitched piccolo-like instrument. Most people I asked did not know what a hichiriki was! The few who knew apologetically nodded no, with a smile that suggested I was asking for something like radium. The koto was impracticably large and too extravagant a purchase and the samisens were prohibitively priced. Something I had never seen in the states was a counter devoted to insect collecting: insect boxes, cages for pet crickets, butterfly envelopes, instructive literature.
The Japanese eye for beauty was quite evident. Flower arrangements could be seen in the humble corner of a fruit store or the massive lobby of a national museum; on every table of the Ga-Jo-En dining room; in subway stations; in a bud vase inside a taxicab, mounted between the doors.
Quite by accident Bill spotted a substitute for the instrument I sought: a miniature replica of the hichiriki, samisen, and a drum, grouped in a unit not over three inches high. There was a tiny koto made the same way. As I waited to have these wrapped, my attention shifted to some children tinkling at a small piano, reminding me of my nephews back home, playing pseudo-cadenzas on my baby grand. At Matsuzakaya, another large department store, I found a samisen within my means to buy. It was great fun (attempting) to play the samisen and a couple of reed instruments, charumara, purchased at Nippon Gakki. Bill managed to get a respectable sound out of the charumara, while I sat back and strummed the long twangy strings of the samisen. We must have driven our roommate nuts.
“Do you have Matsuzu-Kishi?,” I asked the girl at the record counter of Tokyo’s ultimate music store, Nippon Gakki. “Yes, we have.” I was amazed. She fetched it. Ah, well, it wasn’t the koto piece that I had analyzed for a college term paper, though it had the same title—but I enjoyed hearing it anyway. I bought a koto recording, some plastic plectra with unique designs, and a short, white plastic baton with a bulbous base hinting of peppermint candy.
The owner of a Canon, the 35mm camera which the Japanese are proud to have produced, would have no trouble getting accessories for his camera. But the German Exakta! One look at the mount on the Biotar lens made the storekeepers shake their heads. Luckily there was always another camera store to try. At last we found filters, extension tubes and bellows that fit. I could now do the close-up work I enjoyed. To increase the power of our cameras still further we ordered a 180mm telephoto lens and 28mm wide-angle lens at Shriro’s, to share on our identical cameras.
We had fun coming downtown by train, electrically run on elevated tracks. ¥10 purchased a ticket to be turned in at the end of the trip. In American money that would be about 30¢. At first we counted the stations we passed to reach the one designated on our map, but in time the surroundings grew familiar and we could tell where to get off by sight. A frustrating fact, however, was that we could never get back to the station we started from. On our way back we would tell the ticket agent that we wanted to go to the Meguro Station. We would be directed to a track with the “Meguro” sign in English. But invariably we ended up in a strange part of town and had to take a cab to the hotel.
Riding the trains was a ticket to observing a lot of people. Something about the Japanese set them apart from the Koreans—their features, yes, but also their mannerisms. To me the Japanese faces were more like those of the West than the Korean. Among the women were features as beautiful as anywhere in the world. The Japanese were smaller, more active, more upbeat, and apparently more educated. Almost everyone we met could read English, which was a required language in the schools. In percentage of population, Japan in 1954 was the most literate country in the world.
Bill and I got around Tokyo by walking down a street that “looked promising”—the way we got lost several times. With no help, even from police, we finally found the street where the National Museum of Modern Art was located. But where on the street? We stopped in a lingerie shop to ask. The two saleswomen looked at each other and giggled. We were on the right path. It was down the block. “About how far down is it?” asked Bill. More giggling. “Maybe about one minute” was the unusual reply. “One minute? About how many buildings away is it?” The girls went outside and pointed to the place. The museum was a couple of stores away. It was a far cry from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Tucked in the middle of a busy block, the unassuming building housed three-dimensional art pieces and functional art of progressive concept applied to furnishings and architecture.
I had fantasized seeing Madama Butterfly (Puccini) performed by the Japanese, but no opera was scheduled that week at Hibiya Public Hall. Instead we got tickets for a concert and a ballet. The Roppongi Inn looked like a rendezvous for international underground activity. But it featured Italian cuisine, the reason for trying it. Chianti wine, spaghetti and meat balls, Neapolitan pizza, spumoni ice cream—what more could I want except Sicilian pizza?
A large gathering was piling into Hibiya Hall when we arrived. We were shown to our seats in the next-to-the-last row of the balcony—small seats with no arm rests, exaggerating the feeling of crowdedness around us. Commercial ads were printed above the stage curtains. Two girls sitting near us giggled at all the questions Bill asked. A little boy with big shy eyes sat on daddy’s lap and fumbled with a large fan that his little fingers could not quite grasp. A child hopped down the steps in the aisle. A man carrying a gadget bag went about taking pictures with a Canon camera and telephoto lens, shooting with the air of a news photographer. There were hundreds of cultured-looking faces on women and men, old and young. Western clothing was the rule.
Lights dimmed and hands clapped as the conductor made his way to the podium. Music began and curtains rose. A silhouette of women behind a filmy veil across the stage posed in an attitude of ecstasy against a pale blue haze. It was, alas, the high point of a ballet that quickly turned to junk—which is how it compared to the brilliantly staged “Pinocchio” that followed.
Hibiya Hall was not as populated on the night of the concert by the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra. We sat in the lower level next to a big German who occupied more than one seat—a portion of his wife’s and part of mine. The concert featured two “sixth symphonies” and two conductors. Hiroshi Ishimaru conducted Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” and Koichiro Mayeda conducted Beethoven’s “Pastorale.” Of the two conductors, that of the Beethoven symphony had better control over the orchestra and achieved a more refined execution. In the moments when my critical ear stopped complaining about tempo and other details of interpretation, I was transported to many a concert I had enjoyed back home, including those I performed in as a double-bass player. It was the first good live music well performed that I had heard since I was a civilian. It made me a little homesick.
Even the cab drivers didn’t know where Ketel’s was. Finally we stumbled upon it by turning the corner of yet another block that “looked promising.” A ceremonious procession of bows and greetings followed us from door to table. Hot dogs in a German restaurant? Okay. Frankfurters untouched by Army cooks. It was Bill’s choice. For me it was rolled beef and sauerkraut—mmm—good. From the pastry shop just inside the entrance we took some eye-teasing goodies back to the hotel to enjoy later with coffee from room service. For Korea-dreary Bill and me, these were moments in heaven....
The constant drizzle of rain made Hibiya Park a place to hurry through in order to get somewhere else. The rain let up one day and, in that lull, cameras came out and snapped pictures in the area around the park, including the Imperial Hotel.
My souvenir hunt would not end till I got a good piece of ivory. In a curio shop on Ginza Avenue, an amiable woman showed me pieces that matched my suggestions. An adorable two-inch ivory squirrel, sitting up with a begging look, convinced me to take him home. Two lifelike birds of whalebone that were accurate replicas in miniature of two actual species with their natural colors also pleaded to be taken. I asked for their names. The woman wrote them down and apologized for not being able to name the birds in English.
The next-to-the-last day was the day of the miracle: it stopped raining and the sun came out. We took a train to Ueno Park. Alas, there was too much to see in one day. Our cameras were busy in an historical museum and an art museum that charged separate admission for each of its three wings. Searching for the botanical gardens proved daunting. The hunt for the noted Ueno pagoda ended by buying admission to a zoo in order to get a view of it close enough to photograph.
We passed through what appeared to be a hobo district, where several people made themselves at home on the sidewalks, sleeping as though they were at home in their own beds.
That evening, after another gastronomic feast at Ketel’s, we took off to the streets of Tokyo. We set up shop anywhere we saw a good picture, be it on a corner, in a by-street, or the middle of a main avenue—and let the traffic beware. Growing darkness added excitement to the work. Cameras on tripods were trained on street scenes, neon signs, display windows. Each shot was carefully planned in those days before scatter-shot photography. When you pushed the button of the extension cable, you had better have this one in the bag. One roll of 35mm film was expected to yield 36 first-rate pictures.
The Ginza, like a mini-replica of Times Square, sparkled like jewels in the night. Who could believe that only ten years earlier hell fire rained down on the city from B-29 bombers? The only ashes I saw were in the ash trays of the Ga-Jo-En Hotel.
We got back our fatigue uniforms as fast as we had taken them off. At Camp Drake we already felt bodily contact with Korea. It was Building 405 again to sleep in. At the airport next day at noon, the authorities took five hours to decide which plane to load us on. When our plane moved to the takeoff point its motors failed to check out, so we came back, got off, and waited another hour for another plane. We got on that one and the same thing happened again. It was midnight before a third plane was ready and one in the morning when we finally took off.
It was Sunday morning, the 4th of July, when we touched down at K-16. Some three hours later a truck took us back to our company. Suddenly, in the midst of the old gang stood two guys weary of waiting and traveling, ready for recuperation from so much 'rest.' “You missed it all,” we were told by some guys when Bill and I showed slides of flower beds, close-ups of woodblock prints, inlaid mother-of-pearl peacocks on elevator doors, children ogling animals at the zoo, a brilliant and ornate samurai war suit at the Ueno National Art Museum. We hadn’t hit the 'high spots.' We hadn’t seen the real Tokyo. Some guys just don’t know how to have fun. Ah, well. The fact is, neither Bill nor I saw Japanese women as potential bedmates for hire. I did enjoy the idea of bringing one home as a wife. Obviously there was no time in seven days for such a prospect. The few pretty women I knew in Korea were either definitely or probably whores. “I’m in my prime now,” one stud once told me. “If I don’t do it now . . . man!” This use-it-or-lose-it philosophy of the latrine claimed that you were through by your mid-twenties. But since I did not pay much attention to “experts,” this valuable information was wasted on me so I missed out--by the standards of the barracks. No sweat. I didn’t feel deprived.
I wasn’t trying to be different or snooty or good or pure. I just found “being straight” exciting. Perhaps that is strange. I liked speaking English free of rectal and pubic slang. I enjoyed having smoke-free lungs and nasal passages. To me, being “cool” was just as stupid as being “square.” What advantage was there in swapping one silly convention for another? Some guys looked up to me, though that was not what I was after, and some offered their contempt freely. OK, so I was different. To me, watching a Japanese conductor perform a Beethoven symphony was worth more than a one-night stand with all the trimmings. Observing these amazing people and their art was a greater thrill than any derived from booze and dancing. I had discovered on my own early on that enjoyment is what you occupy your ordinary time with. Like the Japanese, my eyes and mind were trained to witness drama in the stillness of a heron against a pond—to see and enjoy the full impact of the universe in a fern leaf.
Life at Radio Company . . . under a cloud of possible attack
With a screech or two or more of the whistle (depending on which sergeant was blowing it) and/or the silent (but no less violent) turning on of one or two or more of the lights (depending on the same variable), dreamland was every morning invaded at 0615 with the awful reality that we were still in Uncle Sam’s Army in a land thousands of miles away from home, on a mission to defend a people from their Communist enemy.
To overcome the most complete escape from Army life--slumber--was like trying to light a cigarette in a hurricane. It was a depressing moment. Shoving the blues aside, I popped out of my bunk and crossed another day off the calendar—then slid back into the sack. Good. I was the first again to cross today off. “Sak,” who did not play the calendar game, was up and around, sweeping and tidying his area long before the rest had twitched an eyelid. One guy’s tossing and yawning started a bunk-squeaking reaction through the hut that finally woke “Wess” up, who dutifully reached out and turned on the radio. Charlie belched: “I hate this f—’n place!” He was joined by a chorus of sympathizers moaning some version of “I wish I were out of this place.” Then “Zig” started singing, “Good mawnin,’ good MAW—nin’! Oh, what a beautiful day this mawnin’!” in slumberous Woostonian tones in need of gargling. Zigmont was from Woos-tah (Worcester, Massachusetts). “Tony—Tony!—Oh Tony! Time to get up, Tony! Hey Ols—O-ols! Olson! Get up! Hey OLS-SUNN! You-hoo! Time to rise and shine around here. Let’s get somethin’ done here.” With the noise at a peak, I got up, slipped into pants and boots a minute or two before the call to reveille, threw on my field jacket and hat, and, no doubt looking like a scarecrow, stumbled out of the hut behind the rest.
The men assembled in a sort of horseshoe formation around the volleyball court between two rows of huts. As usual, Hut 3—the Motor Pool Hut (“Guzzler’s Inn”)—would not be ready and would report to the formation in slow installments, each member getting dressed as he fell in. The sergeants were no example of Army discipline, either. With just two or three of the eight men from the sergeants’ hut standing at reveille, the head sergeant would report: “Hut 8 all present and accounted for!”
After all huts had reported, the First Sergeant snapped-to, made a sharp about-face, and often found himself saluting thin air because the OD (Officer of the Day) was absent from reveille! Why these antics out here in the middle of rice paddies when the rest of the battalion, twenty miles away, had dropped reveille? After dismissal there was a dash for the mess hall, but I rushed back to the hut and in record-breaking time was back in the sack. The philosophy behind this action was that since I had until 0700 to eat, and since work call wasn’t until 0800, why “hang around” between all those “00s”? It was a move that sometimes cost me a missed breakfast.
It was our good fortune to have fresh eggs most mornings. When asked, “How do you want them?” I, knowing the cooks would ruin them anyway, sometimes quipped, “With medium-done yellows, well-done whites, and raw edges.” Bacon I learned to hate, thanks to the habit of Army cooks of “seasoning” almost everything with it. Why must everything taste like bacon? (An honest answer would raise a worse question.) And sausages! What an unnerving sight to an Italian-American early in the morning! Hot cereals were okay since the only ingredient the cooks added was water. The pancakes were thick, sweet, heavy, and barely cooked—all opposites of the way I liked them. If there was nothing else to eat, I took one of these to break and dunk in my coffee like a doughnut. I had seen the cooks dump what looked like coffee grounds into the pot of boiling water, so what was offered as coffee must have been coffee. Canned fruit juice was welcome. The best treat was fresh oranges, perhaps shipped from Japan.
Meanwhile, back at the hut, the boys were busy waiting for work call. Since I was among the last to return from the mess hall, I usually didn’t have to share the broom. I swept around my bunk, then joined the boys in waiting for work call. At times a voice of indignation rang through the hut: “Who was the sneak that crossed today off before going to bed last night?” It was a contest to see who could cross the day off the calendar first, but some would cheat and cross out the next day before slipping into bed.
Finally it was on with field jackets and off to Work Call in front of the main building. Before the whistle, I took off for the Orderly Room through a side entrance and was the first of the three clerks to enter the office. Jim and Max slept in Hut 4, the Sleepy Hut, and were rarely seen at this time of day. If there were no sick-calls to handle immediately, I would take a look through the massive barricaded windows that stared out onto the front of the compound and onto the main gate and guard house.
The “main gate” was the only entrance. Maybe it was called that because large holes sometimes appeared in the barbed-wire fence around the compound, even though a sign on the fence declared: “Come in through the gate and visit your friends; come in through the fence and visit your ancestors!” The sign was printed in English and Korean, a contribution from Korean officer Lieutenant Kim.
With eyes focused on infinity, the view through the high, burlap-draped windows of the Orderly Room was that of undulating hills along the horizon, dramatizing our location in the valley. We were quite fenced in from civilization as remembered at home. The isolation of Radio Company was punctuated with antenna posts and wiring, visible from anywhere in the valley. A good target from the air!
To the north, back of farmland encircling Radio Company rose a few factory chimneys in an area known as Ascom City. One chimney a short walk away was that of a brick kiln. A muddy path north of the gate led to a tiny village, a spot nightly visited by randy GIs. To the south, the path crossed a railroad track and eventually met the Main Supply Route (MSR#2) running between Inchon and Seoul.
The flags of the United States and the United Nations flew together in front of the Administrative Building. Around the base of their common flagpole was an oval plot of flowers surrounded by a low, white picket fence on a concrete base painted orange. Orange and white: the Signal Corps colors. Along the northern side of the compound stretched the principal row of huts, 1 to 7. Opposite 6 and 7 were 8 and 9, the “sergeant huts,” released to lower ranks when the sergeants with two and three rockers retreated to the BOQ located at the southern extremity of the compound. Hut 5 was the wash room, fed with water by a pump next to the ammo dump (near the main building). It opened into a dress room ahead of two shower rooms. For all its space Hut 5 never had enough mirrors or wash pans or hot water or usable showers to make everyone happy. Almost always the temperamental pump quit and we had to lug hot water from the mess hall to wash up. In winter there was nothing quite like waiting in the unheated shower room for the water to start running—except, perhaps, getting all wet and soaped and having the pump suddenly stop! During the cold months we could heat water on the two diesel-oil heaters in the hut, but the trick was to get your pan of water on the stove first.
The latrine behind Huts 1-7 was originally a standard field version: a shack with a double row of connected wooden boxes running down the middle with back-to-back lids (when open) between the rows. This was closed early in the summer of 1954 and replaced with a more “practical” version. The new edition, built against the fence, had a single row of compartments with their backs against the wall adjoining the fence. Instead of a deep dug-out under each compartment as in standard field design, each box was served with a removable can with a long handle that projected through an opening in the fence behind the shack. The cans could be pulled out from outside the fence. When they got full, they were pulled out by the local farmers, emptied, and returned to their normal positions. Collectors of this “free fertilizer” set up a pickup schedule based on alimentary statistics. The urinals were nothing but pipes about four inches in diameter thrust several feet into the ground, with a wide funnel at the top. Three were set near the fence behind the huts, each fenced-off on three sides with pieces of corrugated metal and canvas. (The open side faced into the compound.)
Around the northeast corner was “Romanoffs: Where the Elite Meet to Eat"--the mess hall. The sign was a courtesy of Francis Carriere from Boston. The large Quonset contained a separate dining room for officers which was invaded by the sergeants after their retreat from the EM camp. That campaign was headed by a reserve officer who could not bear the indignity of having been reassigned as a sergeant-first-class. The evil, in his eyes, was a blessing for the guys.
A bit further were the radio repair Quonset with Signal Supply and a Quonset that housed the work shop and Labor Office. Korean carpenters, painters, and other workers originally supplied the labor for the work projects of the company. A cut in battalion allocations dismissed the Koreans and the work fell to GIs. Pulling details smelled of stateside chicken shit and rumors flew about a projected dismissal of the KPs. Horrors—some guys would rather have been sent to Indo-China than pull KP! [Footnote: Kidding aside . . . with France facing defeat in the French-Indo-China War (1946-1954), the US sent military advisors to Indo-China (a peninsula that includes Vietnam) in order to help contain Communist expansion in that area. Some GIs worried that they would end up in this new hot-spot, next.]
A small descent beyond the work shop led to a lower level of the compound, location of the POL (petroleum, oil, and lubricants) dump, “deuce-and-a-half” trucks, and Motor Pool. Behind the dispatch and parts Quonset and through a fenced alleyway was the BOQ (bachelor officers' quarters). These were cement structures of pseudo-Japanese style with sliding shoji and murals in rooms that were strung in a row. Beyond a fence was a similar building inhabited by natives.
The Power Pool, between Motor Pool and Administrative Building, was a standby and maintenance pool serving as backup for a commercial power supply. Unfortunately, the power men got blamed for failures in power they did not even generate. Another company punch bag was Signal Supply for not having what was wanted--now.
Between Power Pool and Labor Office sat two tents for storing Signal Corps equipment and supplies. In the winter of 1953-54, these tents were nightmares. It was hard to conceive of its honcho as ever having been sober. It was said that no matter how stewed he was, Sfc Munkirs could remember exactly where he had placed every item in the tents. Unfortunately, the index to everything left when Munkirs left, for it was all in his mind. It took the heroic efforts of Claypool and Co to come to grips with the tangle of supplies and equipment.
Areas of greatest traffic were covered with sand to keep boots and wheels from getting stuck in the red mucky clay when rain soaked the earth. A tiny brook flowed along a ditch beyond the Labor Office, draining probably into the rice paddies. A couple of locust trees and a few small evergreens grew behind the huts. One of the bushes growing on the compound was a Rose of Sharon, Korea’s national flower.
Bulletin boards in the vestibule of the Administrative Building displayed orders, duty rosters, official Orderly Room bulletins, special notices, etc. On the left wall were fire regulations, notices from TI&E, Special Services, battalion announcements of athletic and other activities of interest. Along the left of the building’s corridor were the CO’s office, a photo dark room (a favorite “hang-out” of shutter-bugs), an intersecting hallway to the barber and tailor shops and to the mail room. A stairway led down to the day room in the basement. Along the main hall were the telephone switchboard room (later moved to the roof), the Radio Operations Office, the VHF-Carrier Room for intra-battalion teletype and radio-telephones to the outlying sections of the company (such as “Hill 3” in Seoul and AGL in Osan), the PX (small, but well-stocked--except on pay day), the Supply warehouse, the Arms Room, the Supply Room, and the Orderly Room.
With an infantile face in a small body, First Sergeant Sprague was such a droll figure out there in the morning, trying to strike a pose of authority. The swagger stick he carried wherever he went was, on him, the adult upgrade to a security blanket. In spite of his small size, he managed to look nasty and make a lot of noise in front of company formations.
What problems! The 1st Sarge howled persistently about the “police of the area.” Captain Posner, the former CO, had once warned, “If it moves, salute it. If it doesn’t move, pick it up. If you can’t pick it up, paint it OD.” In the 1st Sergeant’s brain, the humor of the adage turned to standing orders, less the paint.
Behind his desk in the Orderly Room, Sergeant Sprague was an apologetic and genial soul, disguising a flair for getting things done with no “red tape.” It was amusing to watch him call up high echelons of authority on the phone and ask for favors as though dealing with relatives and friends. Since he was at heart a little boy, his surprising requests may have melted any frost in some hearts. Not so the former First Sergeant. 1st Sergeant E was leaving soon, and lived to count days and sign papers. He was so listless that the clerks had to bear the responsibility of making decisions that were his to make. A “gentlemen’s agreement” prevented the disclosure of his whereabouts on the mornings that he didn’t show up. A telephone line had been run to his “house in the village” so that, on the mornings that he couldn’t make it to the Orderly Room, he could call Max and ask him to cover up his absence.
The suppressed, internal clicking of the teletype machine signaled the official start of the day. I switched the machine on and checked for any message for the Orderly Room. Max would make his appearance now. A native of York, Pennsylvania, he resembled a ghost at this time of day. Max was the shortest man in the company, with the possible exception of Creed Trimble, but was one of the biggest wheels in the outfit. He got sucked into the intricacies of the Morning Report almost as soon as he got off the Marine Serpent. I found my way in after an odyssey of vacuous assignments, so Max was senior clerk and master of the Orderly Room after the 1st Sergeant. He saw to it that things were run right—that is, according to precedent. This rule also applied to keeping his desk where it was instead of in a better position because that was the way he found it! At first he fought his job, but when he won his third stripe, all his peeves turned to peaches, except the Army itself.
Next, Jim staggered in, looking like a ground hog in December. He was a recent gift from S-1 (Personnel Headquarters, Battalion level) in replacement of “Mousy” whose contribution to the history of the Orderly Room was the day he pounded so hard on the typewriter that stand and machine tipped over and crashed to the floor. For a dignified pipe smoker, this embarrassment was like having your fly open in public. Max was happy to have Jim in the office since I would soon be leaving on ETS (Expiration Term of Service, better known as Estimated Time of Separation). Without a replacement, Max would be left to do all the work himself. Lieutenant F’s opinion that one man could do the Morning Report, the recurring reports, file letters and circulars, file and post ARs and SRs, manage and post the duty roster, read the official mail, post notices on the bulletin board, make up the payroll, keep track of the men scattered and constantly shifting among more than six different locations from Bupyong to Osan to Seoul, make out passes and PX ration books, answer the telephone and the teletypewriter—to mention some routine jobs (no computers in 1954)—was a lonely opinion. That is why the Orderly Room was normally run by three men besides the 1st Sergeant.
Unlike Max, Jim was not the one to take things seriously. Goodness, the boy was seventeen! The kid from Detroit must have felt like a scapegoat in his first days with Max and I unloading more and more work on him—though Max had until March to grace his corner of the room, while I was getting out in January. My morning greeting to the Detroit teenager was: “When are you going to make that Michigan sign for your desk?” The lad answered with a giggle, “Oh yes—that. I’ll get on it today.” Max’s Pennsylvania and my New York signs waited in vain for Michigan to come through.
I was the one to spin the wheel of misfortune that named the “victims” of the guard. The wheel never turned smoothly. The duty roster was set up so that, all else being equal, the man with the highest number of days since his last guard duty would be the next in line for duty again. But the number of off days between tours of guard fluctuated wildly for a variety of reasons. Among the circumstances that clogged the wheel were men moving constantly from company area to outlying units, men on sick call, the need for a separate weekend roster, and a variety of contingencies beyond my control. It was a job that in some ways was stickier and stinkier than pots-and-pans KP at Camp Gordon. I got flack, for example, when an unexpected last-minute change in available men forced me to call a guy on a Saturday night, shaving before his night out, to tell him he was on weekend guard duty.
Each morning after typing up the duty roster—which, besides Guard and Head Count, now included Chow Servers, Clean-Up Man, and a pool of eligibles for detail. I had Sergeant Sprague sign it (or a proxy signed it in his absence), and posted a copy on the main bulletin board and one inside the entrance to the mess hall. At lunch time eyes were on the guard list instead of the menu. This brief walk in the open revitalized me for the rest of the morning’s work.
On the way back, I reminded myself to do something about the silly sign at the entrance that listed the current month’s number of DRs (Delinquency Reports), Traffic DRs, Courts-Martial, and other offenses for each company of the battalion. I kept it up to date with information about the rest of the battalion through teletype or phone. The sign had served its purpose during the summer months when we were visited every Saturday by an officer from Battalion Headquarters. Now that it was cold, the sign was useless as tits on a tomcat (to use one of Herschell’s expressions). So, Radio Company did a good job of keeping the rate of offenses down, so what? The rest of the battalion had discontinued posting their sins. Why did we need a billboard to remind us of ours? The 1st Sergeant agreed with me, but had to take it up with the CO, which effectively put the suggestion in File 13. One day when my patience petered out, I offered to pull the blame thing down myself. The sergeant nodded, I tore down the DR Board, and no one ever missed it.
Five bings of the bell on the teletypewriter was a call for the Orderly Room. Was it a Red Alert? Our quota from Battalion for R&R shipments? Sometimes a jumbled message made me run into the VHF Carrier Room to chew out the “incompetent wire men” (members of Wire Company in Seoul stationed on our compound). Of course it was in jest. A garbled message could be a communiqué from Sfc Takahashi of S-1, whose normal teletyping was 3x3 (readable, but with difficulty; 5x5 was the clearest transmission). The best teletypist had been Captain Posner, whose confident, rapid, even rhythm reminded me of a pianist playing a Bach fugue. Sometimes it was gossip.
In the following [unedited] teletype transmission, “DE” may be read, “This is.” The letter “K” stands for “Over.” One or more “E” means “Correction:” “AR”: “Over and Out.”
“Telephone honcho” Matlie came in now and then to perform first echelon maintenance on the phones (check the phones). He was one of the quietest men in the company except when he delivered his assuring voice to the switchboard. The canvas battery pack of the EE-8 field telephone was mounted below the desk and the receiver was set on a huge wooden base with a toggle switch in front that made Max giggle. (It reminded him of a female body part.)
A wooden fence had been constructed inside the entrance to keep the troops away from the desks. Where the fence turned left in front of the 1st Sergeant’s desk, a knot of wood at the corner had worked itself loose and could be removed and replaced at will. Some visitors played with it. In empty moments or tense ones, the clerks played with it too. Max laid claim to the knot as his personal property and swore that when he left the company he would take it and fling it through the window. Since I was to leave before Max, I had privately decided to take the knot myself while Max wasn’t looking and keep him guessing about its disappearance until I got home, when I would mail it to him in a package together with an appropriate remark. The joke was on both of us. The knot disappeared before I could filch it.
Guys wandered into the Orderly Room in search of hot news about promotions, inspections, R&R shipments, details, even coffee call. For a time, either because of a coffee shortage or a cranky mess sergeant, the twice-daily coffee call at the mess hall was curtailed, then halted. To improve communications, an attempt was once made to install “bitch boxes” (announcement speakers) in each hut. With covert support from the troops, Radio Repair, responsible for the installation, gave a convincing snow job that defeated the plan.
A pleasant duty was gathering daily reports from the various sections to include in the company’s historical log book. When they remembered, each reporter gave me a run on paper of the noteworthy events of the previous day. A bright young Korean who administered the Labor Office during the time when it was manned by locals typed the daily report for his section with religious regularity. I enjoyed reading his stuff:
A lulu came from Herschell:
On one of the rare occasions that he played pranks during duty hours, Captain Posner had the supply boys sweating bullets when, with straight face and earnest tone, he ordered 'AC batteries' and a 'directional whip antenna.' Could the brilliant Captain Posner not know that whip antennas are non-directional by design and batteries generate direct current (DC), not alternating current (AC)? He was joking, no? Who dared be first to laugh?
RTT clerk W. Olson was a perennial pest of the Orderly Room. This was not the Motor Pool Ardell Olson from Murdock, Minnesota, who worked in the Motor Pool—a friendly chap with an easygoing disposition who made fiendish hand-and-brain-teaser puzzles out of bits of wire and looked to the farm for his vocation. Minnesota was also home for Lorenz Wessels, another hardy, down-to-earth guy. The farm boys in Hut 2 were perhaps the reason why it was a quiet place to live in. No, not farmer Olson. It was RTT Olson who worked down the hall that buzzed into the Orderly Room like a mosquito when the 1st Sergeant was not around, carrying a cryptic expression on his baby-face. Would he be on guard tomorrow? Why didn’t we answer his teletype message? Who was going to be the pay officer? A tone of hubris and a talent for inventing arguments made it difficult to know whether this guy was for real or trying to be funny or what.
The RTT NCO was a frustrated reserve officer with Sfc stripes. From outward appearance he was an intelligent man, claiming expertise in electronics and photography. Sfc O was fond of stopping at the Orderly Room to call someone. When he stood speaking over a clerk’s phone, his body rocked from side to side in evident response to his singsong voice. The swaying was part of his personality. He had a way of swaying in and out of any situation. Even his walking was a sliding, dance-like strut. He never looked wholly awake, possibly owing to his constant singing and rocking himself to sleep.
O’s lazy motions belied an aptitude for swaying gullible officers with his ideas. Had they been examples of common sense and useful to the company, his haughty air might have been overlooked. Naturally he got blamed by the men for everything that went wrong. For a while it was hard to choose between Sfc O and Lieutenant F for the title of Company Villain. It was the lieutenant, however, who won the contest by a landslide.
It was a relief to get out of the Administrative Building at 4:30 and into the fresh air of the compound. The change of pace from “orderly” to hut living a few paces away was welcome reward for the day’s work. Would it be a movie tonight or just beer and gags? The choice sometimes was a quiet evening of writing letters, reading, playing cards, or sleeping. The latter was never my choice. It would have made me feel like an invalid. The end of the day was a pleasure also because it was the actual end of another day, making it a day closer to leaving. The official end came when we woke up in the morning.
The only difference between supper and lunch-or-breakfast was that it happened at 1645 hours. Otherwise it was simply another excuse to kill time. Joshing aside and in fairness to the cooks, they outdid themselves once with a “Southern Fried Chicken” that was really good. This masterpiece was served in sparing portions. No sweat. When Bill and I were through, we took our dirty trays to the KPs, walked out the back and around to the front, and came in for chow all over again. This was possible before the requirement for headcount was taken seriously enough to add to the duty roster.
What happened during the night is a story told many ways, for each hut had its own atmosphere and personality, and moods varied with the season. Going from one hut to another, which I did on guard duty, was like passing through different worlds, each with a clique of men casting the mood for that hut. Hut 4, for instance, was the jazzy “hip” hut. Hut 3 was the loud, sometimes violent hut—always on the go except in the morning at reveille. Hut 2, my hut, was the relaxed, peaceful variety, a strong reason why I moved into it from Hut 4. Another reason was that in Hut 4, rain water leaked onto my bunk.
From time to time the First Sergeant ordered the men to live in designated huts according to their jobs in the company. There was a Radio Repair Hut, a Motor Pool Hut, etc. Bill’s gripe summed it up. He said, “We have to work all day with them—do we have to live with them, too?” The arrangement never worked. After all the prescribed moves were made, we trickled back to our favored spots.
The atmosphere of each hut was, in part, a function of its décor. No other hut had #2’s selection of pinup girls on the walls, or Olson’s guitar with missing string, or Claypool’s modernistic, handmade mobile, or my zany watercolors, or a lamp made from an empty Chianti wine bottle on top of an orange writing table, or a custom-made calendar, or lamp shades on ceiling lights made from inverted cookie tins, or the assortment of handmade footlockers, some large enough to hold a body or two (just kidding).
We came home one night to find our footlockers painted OD. This Foul Season outrage (during the time that Lieutenant F was in the company) made us swear we’d paint them over again with bright colors, in stripes, checkers, or polka-dots. When the blood temperature came down, the insult was just added to the gripe list.
One night while fellow Brooklynite Irving Peckler and I developed some film in the dark room, Peckler (in a nostalgic mood) wished we could go out for pizza. "Well," I said, "I can make it if we had the ingredients." It was a deal. What started as a joke became a plan of action. Peckler sent a grocery list home and when the stuff came, we slipped into the mess hall kitchen at night and did it! The tricky, secret mission never got into the history log book. On the night that Sicilian pizza came to Bupyong, Peckler and DeBlasi became Hut 2 heroes.
With guys from California, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New York, Massachusetts, and Hawaii, there was no hurting for different views in our hut. Discussions and debates sometimes got hot, but the Hut 2 boys were a sober and polite bunch and word fights never came to blows. It’s the way I (myself an instigator) liked it.
I enjoyed watching the guys come back from a movie at the club on the nights that I wasn’t in the mood for a movie. The clatter of mixed reactions came to the hut like a brewing storm. Some of the boys, Bersch especially, would jump up, fist overhead, and shout, “Crazy!” Six inches off the floor meant, “The movie stunk.” A foot off the floor meant, “Fair.” A foot-and-a-half, “Good.” Two feet, “Excellent.”
Antidotes for homesickness were beer, joking, and sleep. The guys badly missed their girlfriends—some, their wives, back home. Me, I greatly admired Elsie P., a fellow scholar on the staff of the Bushwick High School Bulletin. We had had a grand time putting the school newspaper and yearbook together. I wrote to her from Korea and when I learned in one of her letters that she was soon to be married, I was more than slightly disappointed.
Most guys overcame the general boredom of life in the paddies by writing letters, reading, playing cards, talking, and sleeping. Some went to the village at night. Herschell and Claypool (both married), the farm boys (all single), a few others, and I did not consider that an option. Herschell thought highly of those who weren’t married, yet refrained from whoring.
While we were aware of the possibility of more attacks, most guys did not know the extent of the instability in Korea, that fighting went on after the cease-fire, that insurgents in South Korea plotted to help Kim Il Sung retake South Korea, or that President Sygman Rhee, dead set against the armistice, sabotaged the negotiations by releasing 27,000 Communist POWs and wanted to invade North Korea with his own ROK troops! Was it just me ignorant in these days of just how murderous an enemy we faced—of the massacre of many thousands of South Korean civilians—the POW death marches—the shooting and bayoneting of captured GIs, leaving them for dead—to mention some of the atrocities committed by the enemy on the other side of the DMZ?
With the alerted status during the release of POWs, we were ordered to “live with our weapons, helmets, and cartridge belts.” We were issued ammo and for a week we took our carbines to work, to chow, to the hut, to the latrine. It was a necessary precaution against hostile Communist prisoners and civilian insurgents who could start trouble during the procedure. Radio Company was near the Main Supply Route, so there was a good chance for involvement. Fortunately the operation came off without incident.
The boys began to complain that they had nothing to write home about. “It’s just like signing a form letter each time,” was the consensus. That gave me an idea. “Suppose we really type a form letter up with blank spaces for the date, salutation, and signature, and each of us send it home as a gag?” Good idea, but who would write the letter? Guess who?
Bill and I activated one of the rigs one night. I made a tape loop and we ran off copies of the letter through the teletype machine—our own private “printing plant.” We made sure that the transmitter was OFF or God knows who else in Korea or Japan might have received this “letter”:
Going to sleep at night lulled by music from an R-100 radio was a cinch for most guys. But no matter how restful the music, it kept me awake. To me, music was sound which, if you’re not listening to it, is noise. Bill had the same “allergy” to music in the background. So when it appeared that everyone had dozed off, either one got up and turned the radio off. Adrift in dreamland, in the middle of Bupyong’s rice paddies, I could perhaps travel the 10,000 miles home.
Christmas in Korea—again!
Few new men came to Radio Company late in 1954. With no problem of assimilating new blood, Hut 2 was a perfectly integrated unit with sufficient “Esprit de Hut” to do something big for Christmas. It was Bill’s and my second Christmas and New Year’s in the rice paddies and since it would be the last, our upbeat mood fed the growing holiday spirit. This year Hut 2 would be decorated. Claypool was honcho of Signal Supply, so name what you needed from this smooth operator from Pittsburgh. Farm boys, mechanics, electronic guys and artists pooled their talents and put their off-duty hours to productive use.
Field wire was strung taut and horizontally overhead at the level where the walls met the sloping ceiling. From the strands of wire were hung ornaments made from the aluminum foil that wrapped Charlie Monroe’s delicious fudge from home in North Carolina. Four strings of lights were made by one of the radio men by soldering pilot lights directly onto the wire. The lights were hung to form a pyramid with the peak at the top-and-center of the ceiling and the four spread-out legs tacked to the horizontal crossbeams to make the base of this big Christmas “tree.” “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year” signs, made from ribbons and gift wrappings salvaged from packages from home, were hung at the far end of the hut. Scrap-craft also served to make wreathes for the windows. Everyone was ordered to hang his Christmas cards on the wall over his bunk.
Things were getting to look good, but the walls were brown and drab. Not for long. Strands of teletype paper were stapled to the walls, forming a backing for “mural painting.” In one area I painted strings of green Christmas trees over blue snowflakes and red bells in a sweeping, modern pattern. My next production was a Mondrian-style abstraction featuring red and green squares. Bill helped lay out the design and, when the lines were blacked-in and the colors designated for each square, everyone who wanted to wield the brush was invited to color the squares and complete the second Yuletide opus. “Zig” was the artistic talent behind a third mural. Hesitant at first since he had never tackled something so large, the man from Massachusetts came up with a colorful vision of New Year’s Eve, complete with blood-shot eyes, balloons, and pink elephants. The CO could not take his eyes off the decorations when he came around to inspect. It was a splendid show.
All these embellishments were not permitted to go to waste. Claypool had found a Santa Claus costume and volunteered to play the part. The operation was a secret to all but three in the hut. (Santa needed two helpers to carry out his plot.) On Christmas Eve after the movie, Hut 2 was visited by “Santa Claypool,” who came in looking like a gaily dressed tramp (the outfit was too large for him), dragging a burlap sack and ho-ho-ing all the way. The Hut Two-ers stood dumbfounded as Santa Claypool dragged his sack to the middle of the hut and immediately handed out presents. A guy who had recently made sergeant got a set of SFC stripes. The shower man got a lump of coal. I got a “U.S. Army” patch to sew onto my OG jacket since I hadn’t done so yet. Everyone got a little token of his deeds, personality, or role in the company.
For New Year’s we decked out a table with tuna fish salad, crackers, potato chips, salami, cheese, beer, and wine (Chianti, my favorite). After the gala banquet, as a final party gag, each man received a “New Year’s Resolution” from “S-3” (Operations, Battalion level). (Bill and I had typed them all in the Orderly Room.) They were designed to rid everyone of some offensive habit. Mine was, “I will not take any more pictures of people while they are sleeping or are unaware of his intentions.” Spy-shooting with camera had become part of “training” in Hut 2, however, so sneak shutter-attacks were part of one’s reflexive actions.
A New Year’s resolution I kept scrupulously was not getting drunk. I got plastered at the club the year before and swore off any repeat performance. Maybe this is how one of my pet expressions was born: “Once is too much!” And though I felt pride of service, I would not hesitate to apply those words to my last two years. In a couple of weeks, God willing, I would be on my way home.
In a chapter called “Hut-Count” in Shades of O.D. (my original Army memoirs), I wrote:
A little sign at the bottom of the page read: "Wanted: 40 square feet with bunk and foot-locker, in a room with at least 20 other tenants; heat not essential but must have large bathroom, preferably on premises; within commuting distance of dining room (period required: six weeks)."
Aboard the USS General William Mitchell—on my second (generally rough) crossing of the Pacific Ocean, I had a dose of KP along with my seasickness. On this trip I was on “Chaplain’s Detail—Recreation.” I issued games to officers in the Passengers Lounge (mornings), superintended rehearsals for a troop show (afternoons), and bucked the chow line three times a day.
Countless memories swam in a little ocean of their own in my head. They flashed from time to time like flying fish breaking the dark waves . . .
It was out of this world! I was going home! ETS (estimated time of separation) was finally at hand! The estimated remaining days shrinking to zero—then to minus figures. Oh, to enjoy the freedom of a civilian life, in your home town, among loved ones and friends—spared from harm by the One to Whom we owe our life and our allegiance. With praise and thanks to God . . . . . . a safe ending to Tony’s active duty.
The truce of 27 July 1953 stopped the shooting, but the war wasn’t over.... Bruce C. Bottum, a radio-teletype operator in our company, was at Panmunjom in 1953 to relay the progress of the armistice negotiations to Tokyo and later to report on the initial major exchange of prisoners (Operation Big Switch). In his book, The War That Wasn’t: The Final Days - “But Not the End” (quoted here with his permission), he records:
I was one of millions of draftees during the Korean War. Including those who enlisted, about 1.8 million men were sent to Korea between 1950 and 1953. Yes, it was that big a war, “forgotten” only because it was sandwiched between World War II and the Vietnam War. I am proud to have served in Korea. Had matters been less fortunate for me, had the fighting erupted full-scale after the truce, I would have continued to do my best, leaving my life in the hands of God—as did all my friends.
I will perhaps forever live with a mild feeling of guilt that, had I not been a college student in good standing (which allowed the postponement of the draft call until graduation, under then Defense Department policy), I might have arrived in Korea sooner, during the “sunlight thunder” and night-time glow of fire at the front. I know. It is foolish to speculate on where I might have ended up, given the Army’s “roulette wheel” of assignments at the time. It could have been Germany, France, Hawaii, or one of many destinations. I could have remained in the States. During this period of national emergency set off by the Korean War, which many thought was the trigger to World War III, it did not even matter what your MOS was (Military Occupational Specialty). Mine was 1649, Fixed Station Radio Repairman—the same as a guy who ended up in an AA outfit, fighting for his life!
It wasn’t just the “uneducated” sent to Korea to lay their lives on the line, a theme we hear recurrently from GIs and politicians with an axe to grind. The record shows that men were taken from all walks of life and levels of education. To separate us into “lower class” and “privileged class” is to play a mean and degrading game.
After three years of intense warfare with its enormous toll in lives and suffering, Korea remained divided, almost exactly as it was before the war. Many have asked and many have wondered, what good did it do? Most of the words of praise for our role in the Korean War come from the Koreans themselves. Those living in the Republic of Korea, and this includes children and grandchildren of Koreans who witnessed the war, are for the most part enthusiastically grateful for our having saved their country from the Communists and from the bleak life that would have been their lot had Kim Il Sung, Mao Tse Tung and Joseph Stalin succeeded with their plans for Korea. There are letters posted on the Internet from grateful young Koreans and Korean-Americans, some in uniform, thanking Americans—especially those who served in Korea, calling us their “adopted American fathers”—for having secured their country from a dark fate.
Not long ago, my friend and buddy George Herschell stopped at a store to check out a watch that caught his eye in the window. When the Korean woman behind the counter noticed his “Korea Veteran” pin, she called her father. The old Korean thanked George for having helped save his country and wanted to give him the watch as a token of his appreciation. George, of course, would not hear of it. The gesture, the words, the expression in the man’s face held more reward than any token. On a vacation in Hawaii, Hut 2 buddy Ardell Olson met some exchange students at a Dairy Queen. When a Korean girl heard that Olson was in Korea, she came up to him to talk. The first thing out of her mouth was “Thank you,” and she asked if she could give him a hug. She was born just ten miles from where we were stationed. At the time we were there, her mother was not yet born. “Man, you are history!” she said, then added that if it weren’t for us she’d be living under a crazy dictator.
A photograph taken at night from space answers the question another way. South Korea sparkles with light. The half above the DMZ—North Korea—lies in utter darkness. The Republic of Korea—South Korea—is today a prosperous world-class nation, and for this we may be proud of our action during Korea’s darkest hours and for America’s defensive military presence there since the so-called “end of the war.”
When all is said that there is to say about it, war is ultimately incomprehensible. I leave it to the social and political theorists, the anthropologists, the theologians and philosophers to waste their time doping it out and coming up with recommendations that somehow always manage to screw things up all over again.
One thing is clear and must be said. For every guy who risked his neck, endured unmeasurable hardship, agonized over why he was sent to this stinking place, had his guts in knots with fear or worry, screamed in horror or in pain, begged God to deliver him from these meat-grinding hills, was wounded, took permanent damage to body, mind, or spirit, suffered as a POW at the hands of a cruel enemy, saw comrades give up the ghost whole or in pieces, had his body returned to his family or entered eternity as a “missing” statistic...let there at the very least be remembrance and gratitude.
Cpl Anthony J. DeBlasi (Ret)