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Farmington Hills, Michigan-
"On my first day there I saw 120 dead soldiers in body bags. Our company was responsible for shipping them home. A very sobering introduction to war."
- Homer Hall
It has been 50 years since I joined the army on March 21, 1951. I was a member of the generation that saw our older brothers go off and win World War II and come back heroes. When the nation got involved in Korea in June 1950, we were sure that it would be over quickly, even though we weren’t quite sure where Korea was.
I had graduated from high school and obtained a clerical job in Detroit. I kept in touch with my draft board in Kentucky, and as my call-up was imminent, I decided it might be better to enlist. I believed that enlistees had better choices about their assignments. I hoped for a European assignment.
After a few weeks spent at Fort Custer, 1,600 enlistees from across the nation were sent to Camp Stoneman, California and from there to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii for basic training.
Traveling through Korea mostly at night, I eventually wound up at my first assignment: the 148th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company in Wonju. Not knowing exactly what graves registration meant, I quickly learned. On my first day there I saw 120 dead soldiers laid out in body bags in the company compound. Our company was responsible for shipping them and their personal effects to Japan. It was a very sobering introduction to war.
From there I was assigned to a company outpost in Chunchon, about 25 miles from the front lines. Located near us was a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) unit. Wounded soldiers who were determined to have a good chance of survival were flown to the MASH unit by small bubble type helicopters—transported in pods, one on each side, each large enough for just one man.
Most of the soldiers in our platoon went out in the field each day, accompanied by Korean civilians, to look for buried GI’s. Only the two clerks and the kitchen personnel stayed in the compound. I was only at this outpost a few days when the body of a young soldier was brought to us by the MASH personnel. Usually fatalities were sent to us already in body bags, but this was the first of many that arrived on a stretcher, nude, but covered with blankets. There was no one else to do it, so the other clerk and I lifted the dead soldier off the stretcher and placed him in a bag. There were others later, but he was the first dead soldier that I touched. I have never forgotten him.
Another day a truck pulled in with two dead soldiers still in their fatigues. The driver said that they were being trained in the division rear to get accustomed to overhead artillery fire, and the WWII artillery shells used had fallen short and exploded in the midst of soldiers. I don’t believe they called it "friendly fire" then.
Korea, like San Francisco, shares the 38th parallel. But that’s where the similarity ends. Their climates have little in common and Korea could get very cold. When the weather began to change, I salvaged two bloody blankets, had them washed by civilians, and used them for several months until I was issued with a down-filled sleeping bag. We slept in tents that were heated by pot bellied oil stoves, but it was very cold at night.
One evening all of us had to line up in the compound. A group of Koreans from a nearby village slowly walked up and down our ranks and pointed out certain of our personnel. We found out later that while one of the teams had been out searching for bodies, a soldier took one of the villagers, an old man, behind his hut and shot and killed him without provocation. The soldier who did it was later court-martialed and sentenced to an army prison.
I also had nine months duty in Seoul at the battalion quartermaster headquarters as my company’s personnel clerk, after which I transferred back to Wonju. Members of our company acted as honor guards as the bodies were loaded on planes for transport to Japan, where they were prepared for shipment home. The assignment was rotated among the enlisted men. When my turn came, we had a full planeload, including 27 Turkish soldiers who were taken off the plane at Pusan for burial in the United Nations cemetery there.
The pilot of the plane was stationed in Japan with his family, and his wife had prepared him lunch. He offered to share with me, so I had a chicken leg and coffee while sitting on the floor of the plane near the cockpit, surrounded by dead bodies.
My promotion to sergeant came about the same time my rotation to the U.S. I received orders to report to an artillery battalion in New York, not far from Coney Island. It was a short subway ride to Times Square. Who needed Europe anyway?
The army broadened my view and sent me to places I would never have gone. Because of the GI bill I was able to go to college and obtain a job with the City of Detroit, from which I retired after 37 years.
But I still remember the name of that first body I handled and the feel of the cold flesh. And my wife says
that, although they happen less often, my nightmares still wake her up at night.
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