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Neil A. Sigler
"The one thing that stayed with me that I saw on that front row seat in Korea was the small children. It wasn't their war or their fight. These kids were victims of the circumstances and couldn't help it. When you see children go in a 30-gallon garbage can head first for anything edible, it leaves a lasting impression on you. You don't forget those sights, and to this day I don't like to see people waste food."
- Neil Allen Sigler
My full name is Neil Allen Sigler. I was born on December 5, 1931, the son of Neil and Martha Peel Sigler. I had one sister who was 13 months older than me, but she was killed in 1958. Our father worked for Dover Corporation as a non-skilled worker. Our mother worked for a short time for Wonder Bakery.
I went to E.E. Jeter Grade School, and then finished two years of high school at Millington Central High School in Millington, Tennessee. Later in the mid-1950s, I passed my G.E.D. and finished three years of college at the University of Memphis in Memphis, TN. I did not work in high school and had no summer jobs other than for neighbors since I lived in the country and no jobs were available.
I was a Boy Scout, but about all I can remember about it was that it was a pleasurable experience. World War II was going on while I was growing up, and I had uncles and first cousins in the war that covered all branches of the service—Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Army Air Corps, and the Coast Guard. As a war effort, we collected scrap iron and things of that nature. Being out in the country, there wasn’t a lot that kids could do.
I joined the inactive reserves on May 3, 1949. There were three of us who wanted to join at the same time. Two passed the physical, but one didn’t. I think we joined because everything we knew at that time about the Marine Corps was that it was the "best, baddest, meanest, fightingest" outfit there was, and we wanted to be part of that. Frank Long, who now resides in Troy, Tennessee, joined at the same time as I did. As best as I can recall, my parents didn’t have too much to say about it. The inactive reserve had no training sessions, no meetings, no nothing. As far as I could tell, it was just putting my name on a list in case they needed me.
I then worked at odd jobs here and there until 5 June 1950, when I landed a job with International Harvester. My first job at IHC was counting molds in the foundry. It was a dirty job, but it paid good. It certainly wasn't a skilled job. It was a dirty, dirty job. That was five months prior to getting my call to active duty notice. When I received it, I obtained a leave of absence from IHC, and two years later I had a job to come home to. When the Korean War broke out, I had to dig out a map and find the place. My geography wasn’t that good. I had no knowledge of the country, its people, or its climate. I was totally dumb on the country. I was much too busy chasing skirts at that age to be concerned about a little country like Korea.
I was totally okay with being called to active duty. At that time, although I didn’t realize it, I needed a change in direction. I was going the wrong way with the wrong crowd. At that age, I liked to run the road, drink beer, play with the girls, and occasionally get into a little barroom brawl. That kind of activity leads to trouble and cross bar hotel. Uncle Sam and the Marine Corps took about 90 percent of that out of me, and gave me the opportunity to grow up. I, as well as many other Korean vets, saw more by the age of 2l than most kids today will see in a lifetime. We did a lot of growing up and maturing, whether we wanted to or not.
Before I left for boot camp, an old Master Sergeant who had pulled a hitch at Parris Island filled me in on some things that proved very helpful to me as I was getting ready to go to P.I. I met him in a beer joint and we didn't have to exchange names to drink beer together. I didn't know his name then, nor do I know it now, but iI will always remember him for passing on to me some valuable information about how to survive boot camp. He told me what to expect and just how I should react to it, if at all possible. He said, "Keep your mouth shut and volunteer for absolutely nothing. Keep quiet and that way your face and name will not be as quickly recognized. Mainly and above all else, do as you are told regardless of what it is."
I was sent to Parris Island near Beaufort, South Carolina, for boot camp training. My mode of transportation to get there was train with ticket and food stamps paid for by Uncle Sam. Frank and I made this trip together. When the train backed into that unloading station and one of the sharpest PFCs stepped aboard and gave us instructions on how and how fast we were to get off that train and onto one of the waiting busses, I knew that my mother’s youngest son had died and went straight to Hell.
We were in a Casual Company for a few days before being assigned to a platoon. I can’t remember the platoon number, but I do remember that the DI was PFC Wilper. He was mean as hell and mad at the world. I would bet that he turned out some good troops. At first, we just laid around writing home and doing nothing. Then one day a Buck Sergeant came into the squad bay and said, "The following people will fall outside." I was one of those people, and the process began. If I’m not badly mistaken, the first day was taken up with haircut, going through hygiene (getting checked by the doctor), throwing all underclothes away, and being issued Marine Corps clothes and gear. We also showered, cleaned up, and got ready for twelve weeks of hell.
Let me digress for a moment. I was in boot camp, and made it to the rifle range when, while having some Sunday afternoon recreation playing touch football. I broke a bone in my right hand and had to spend the next six weeks in the naval hospital across the bay at Beaufort. Frank Long and I parted company at this time, and I didn’t see him anymore until we ran into each other at a school reunion about six or seven years ago. When he got out of the Marine Corps, he moved to Troy, Tennessee, about 100 miles north of Memphis. That is where he was from originally. When I was reassigned to duty, I joined Platoon 24 and had to go through three or four weeks that I had already been through. This is where I met Dale Brown from Monson, Maine, and we became close friends.
Our Senior DI was Sgt. L.G. Allen. The Junior DIs were PFC E.J. Love and PFC G.R. Jennings. We were in Platoon 24, Second Recruiting Battalion. If any of the three DIs were World War II vets, it didn’t show with ribbons on their uniform.
As for regimentation, we were allowed to breath without asking; everything else was done by the book. If my memory serves me correctly, reveille was at 0500 hours and lights out was 2200 hours. At reveille everyone had to get out of the rack and be standing at the foot with all bed linen in their hands. Top bunks had to go to the head and take care of business while bottom bunks made up their bunks. After a given amount of minutes, this procedure reversed since there weren't enough washbasins, commodes, and urinals for each person to have one. It was a game of "line up and hold on." I shaved out of a commode a bunch of times. It beat the consequences.
Each day was taken up with classroom and drill time. Classroom was Marine Corps history with every "T" crossed and every "I" dotted. We were taught that, until we graduated from boot camp, there was nothing lower on the face of the earth than we were. Now one must remember that profane language at this time was not a problem. If it could be thought of, we were called it.
Along with history, we had to learn about each weapon we were introduced to, but mostly the M-1 rifle. We had to learn how to disassemble, clean, and reassemble that piece of equipment almost blindfolded, so it was done over and over again. Then about the time we thought we were going to get a break, we did—on the parade field still trying to learn our right foot from our left foot. Normally the one that hurt was the left. It hurt because it had been stepped on quite hard. Those that had been through R.O.T.C. in high school had a head start on those of us who were fresh from the country and didn’t even know what R.O.T.C. was. We had to learn the manual of arms, how to march, and the whole bit. It took hours on top of hours to get this accomplished to the point where a platoon of men moved and executed a command as one instead of as a bunch of individuals. When a command of right face was given, it was automatic—almost without thought.
Those of us who smoked were given the opportunity to quit because we weren’t allowed to smoke for two weeks, and then only when the DI "lit the smoking lamp." That wasn’t too often. We were marched to chow and after eating we had to fall into platoon formation at attention outside of the chow hall on the sidewalk and wait for the DI. He then marched us to our next destination. Walking was generally out of the question. Running was the method of the day. When the DI stood on the sidewalk outside of the barracks and yelled, "OUTSIDE!", that meant everyone outside at the same time. I am as sure that doors got knocked off the hinges as I am that my name is Neil Sigler. The effort was made to knock them off, but we could only get so many bodies in that opening at one time. The whole platoon tried to get through at once. Oh boy, what fun. If the doors got knocked off, there were people to put them back on.
On Field Day when we cleaned the barracks, everyone put swimming trunks on and got their buckets, scrub brushes, and soap. After sweeping, it was down on hands and knees scrubbing the floor after cleaning the cracks with our bayonet. That scrubbing was with soap water and scrub brush. All doors and window facings above and overhead were cleaned. Everything was cleaned. Nothing—absolutely nothing—was left to chance.
I don’t ever recall being awakened in the middle of the night for any reason. We did have a problem one time and I don’t recall what it was, but the whole platoon paid for it. Usually the punishment was physical and made us think that we were going to die, and sometimes we wished we could. We realized that the best thing we could do was to hold on and keep on going—that it couldn’t last forever. As best as I recall, all discipline was a platoon thing. That way, the men in the platoon took care of any troublemaker. In this way we came to learn that we were a member of a team and no longer an individual.
I remember that I got in a fight one time. I don’t remember why the fight started, but I remember that we were on mess duty and, I think, it was the last week of boot camp. Nerves were frayed by this time and it really didn’t take much to light someone’s fuse. The other guy wound up with a black eye. The DI wanted to know where he got the black eye and his response was that he fell and hit his eye on the corner of a table. That was the end of it. It was the last fight that I got into while in the Corps.
Food is always an interesting subject for me. I love it. In boot camp, I ate food that I did not have any idea what it was. It tasted good and that was all that mattered. We were told that if we needed to gain weight, we would, and if we needed to lose, we would. I gained about twenty pounds. I guess regular hours and the right diet did it, because my six foot frame could stand the twenty pounds. I had no argument with the food.
Only one person that I recall didn’t make it through boot. He flipped his lid. We were standing at attention outside the chow hall waiting on the DI and he swatted a sand flea in his ear. The DI came up behind him, poked him in the ribs, and told him that the sand fleas had to eat, too. This kid hit the DI Immediately he was taken down by other members of the platoon and taken away. We did not hear anything more about it. Scuttlebutt was that he was discharged. There was one other incident. One of the guys wanted out so badly that he went to the DI and claimed to be gay. It was believed that the DI sent him to sick bay, because we never saw him again. A couple of guys were ordered to put his gear (belongings) in his sea bag, and I suppose it was sent to him. I’m guessing he got his discharge and went home.
Church was offered and that was the one time during the week that no one was breathing down our neck. Although I was raised in church, I was at that rebellious age and didn’t go. But those who did didn’t suffer any consequences from the DI for it. The word was that, in the Marine Corps, nobody messed with the Chaplain. If we needed to talk, he was there.
The place called Parris Island M.C.R.D. is really a pretty island off the coast of South Carolina. There is a bridge connecting the island to the mainland. We were told that the only way off was to finish boot camp or go out in a box, because no one had been able to escape and live to tell about it. The truth of this I didn’t know, but I wasn’t going to try and get off any way except the right way, and that was to finish boot camp.
The place was full of sand fleas, and they got in our ears, eyes, nose, and worried hell out of us, but we were told that we must not try to kill them because they had to eat too. Now this did cause some degree of misery when we were standing at attention and all we could do was blink our eye to make them scoot over a little. But even in that there was a lesson to be learned. There could come a time that we could not move or make any noise of any kind because it could cost us our life.
I don’t recall any proficiency test. If there was, it probably would have been a physical thing. I do recall that we had to undergo a series of tests on the front end, including mental.
I don’t recall having any fun in boot camp, or I don’t know the definition of fun. It was nothing but wall to wall misery, and the end result was no secret—Korea. Things weren’t going well over there. Later, after spending some time in Korea, I came to appreciate my DIs and it slowly came to light why boot camp was designed as it was. It was said that if we could make it through boot camp, then we didn’t have to worry about going over the edge in combat. Mentally, we were ready for the next step. But it certainly wasn’t designed to be fun.
For me, the hardest thing to overcome was being away from my family. I had never been away from home for over a couple of weeks at a time, and even then it was with relatives. It was here at Parris Island that I came to understand "being in a crowd and yet being alone." I suppose that there is no one that can take the place of family—that is, if you have a good, loving family. I did.
There were a few black recruits, but very few, and we were color blind. There was no discrimination that I can recall. There was only one culture, and that was the Marine Corps Culture.
At the end of boot camp, we had a graduation ceremony. At that time if we completed boot, we made PFC. Prior to graduation, we took our shirts and coats to the tailors and had our stripes sewn on. We also had earned the right to wear the Marine emblem on our caps and jacket lapel. After our Pass and Review parade, we were Marines. God, what a moment.
I think that Marine Corps boot camp was aimed at one thing, and that was to break us mentally. It was a hell of a lot tougher mentally than physically, but we found that if we made it through that twelve weeks, then mentally we were combat ready. We were ready to take an order and carry it out without asking any questions. It is not ours to question. It is ours to do as we were ordered, and in that light, that is what makes a Marine what he is in combat.
We had a ten-day leave home and words cannot describe how I felt returning home as a full-fledged Marine. Reflecting back, I can honestly say that coming home a fresh new Marine Corps boot camp graduated Marine was the first thing worthwhile that I had ever completed in my short life. I had been well-indoctrinated, informed, taught Marine history, and knew just how a good Marine should conduct himself. At this point, I was going to try to live up to the name in any way. While on that 10-day leave, I did my best to be that perfect Marine in all ways. I felt head and shoulders above anyone I came in contact with civilian or military. After all, I was a U.S. Marine, and damn proud of it. I still am today.
People didn’t have to comment on me being a Marine. It showed. I was a Marine inside and out. I don’t recall how many of those ten days I had at home. It wasn’t enough, but it had to do, and Dad’s old ’41 Ford business coupe had a lot of catching up to do. I hated to see that return back to Parris Island day come, but it did—much too fast.
We weren’t back at P.I. too long before we were loaded up on a commercial airlines (TWA) on the big four-engine Constellation. It was my first airplane ride. We had engine trouble and had to land at Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Alabama. If my memory serves me correctly, we were there three days and two nights while they repaired the engines on the plane. We were given open gate liberty, and WE HAD A BALL! We were treated royally by the Air Force and I appreciated that. The rest of the trip was uneventful and we arrived safely in California. We bussed up to Camp Joseph H. Pendleton for advanced combat training.
I really don’t recall the first few days at Pendleton. We were assigned to a Company, Platoon, Squad, etc., and went to what was known as Tent Camp 2. If I recall correctly, it was called "Tent Camp" because during World War II, there were tents there that the troops lived in. But in 1951, we lived in style. We then had Quonset huts to stay in. It seems like they were about twenty feet wide and maybe thirty feet long. I don’t recall how many men to a hut, but they did have double deck bunks.
Now this place was right on the edge of God’s green earth and the only transportation anyone had was their feet. It was an ideal place for hitchhiking, and there was a lot of that going on all up and down the coast. Dale Brown and I strolled the streets of many of the then small towns up and down the coast. We were broke, but not wanting to go back to the base until we had to.
Advanced combat training was uneventful. Each day was filled with training such as obstacle courses and war games where we actually had an aggressor force to contend with. Most of the evenings were free after the day’s schedule was completed. We did have a few after dark "saddle up with full field transport pack and M-1 rifle" for a forced march. On some of these we had an aggressor force that attacked us using blank ammunition, which we used also. Sometimes these problems lasted until midnight or later. By then it was too late to go on liberty, and we knew that reveille would sound at the regular hour the next morning. I talked to myself all day trying to convince me to take a good hot shower that evening and just go to bed. This worked up to a point. After the shower, I felt so good that on liberty I would go. Oh happy day.
I don’t recall the names of any of the instructors at Pendleton, but we had several hours in hand to hand combat training and several hours of judo training. We had open field war training, rough terrain training, amphibious training, and night compass training. We also had familiarization training with tanks, the use of other weapons, demolitions, anti-tank mines, and anti-personnel mines. This was all accelerated because I think we were needed over where the action was in Korea. I don’t recall just how long this combat training lasted, but none of it was as bad as boot camp. We did not receive any cold weather training. I understand that later they added this to the schedule.
Pendleton was the first place that I was introduced to being "short-sheeted." Some prankster in the platoon double-backed and folded the bottom sheet on my bunk so as not to show. Then when I tried to get in bed, I could only get halfway down. It made a mess out of the bed, but at that time of night, who cared. This was also the first time I had ever been awakened in the middle of the night by a buddy that had been on liberty, had a little too much to drink, and told me to, "Get up and go piss. The world is on fire." Boot camp had no place for this foolishness, but it was part of being yourself again in Pendleton.
Camp Pendleton was a very large place and 98 percent of our training was on base. Part of it was across the highway on the ocean front, and we went there for amphibious training. There, we came down a rope ladder with full pack and M-1 rifle into a landing craft. Then the craft took us across the bay and we made an assault on the beach. We did this over and over again, but we always knew that at the end of the day, we probably would be able to go on liberty. (At $82.50 a month, however, how much fun could a guy have?) You might say that at this point in my life, I lived for liberty and the wild side of life all the way from Hollywood south to Tijuana, Mexico.
Trip to Korea
After this training, we were loaded up on busses and transported to San Diego to the naval base to board a ship for the long journey to Korea. That ship was the USNS Gen. William Weigel, a typical dull-gray troop ship that was worn out two decades before we arrived on the scene, but it still floated and ran pretty good. I am informed by good friend and cohort Dale H. Brown that we left the States on 18 June 1951. I know not who, but I recall that while we were still at dock, someone jumped overboard and proceeded to swim over to where some girls were doing their thing showing their knees, etc. Needless to say, when the poor soul finally got there, the M.P.s were waiting to pull him out and deliver him back to the ship. I never did hear who it was, but we thought it was funny.
There were other G.I.s onboard that the tub—the good old U.S. Army. But those of us dressed in the dungarees of the mean green Marine Corps pretty well kept to ourselves. After all, we had been taught that we were superior, and we believed it. There wasn’t any cargo aboard. I did not see any loaded or unloaded, so I assume that we boys were all there was on the Weigel, and there was a mess of us.
Never having been on a big sea-going boat such as that, nor having ridden any big waves such as those, I knew I was in for the sickness of my life. However, I had a good friend upstairs who felt sorry for me and watched over me. I did not get sick, even after witnessing those who did. They hung over the rail and vomited their insides out—again and again and again. All I had for them was sympathy. I knew it hurt. If we happened to be on the deck below and the wind was just right, we could get a face full. That should have been enough to make the average person sick, but who was average? Not I!
When that big ole boat got up around the Aleutian Islands, the water got rough. The bow went down far enough in front that the screw came out of the water and that ship vibrated to hell and back. I thought we all were going to be fish bait, until someone explained what was happening. It still wasn’t a pleasant experience and I didn’t like it at all, but it didn’t last too long and then we were back in fair weather and on our vacation cruise.
Our entertainment aboard that boat consisted of laughing at each other, playing cards, telling lies, and checking our gear. There really was not too much recreation. I don’t recall any duty while we were onboard the ship. If we did have any, it couldn’t have been too bad or the thought of it would have stuck with me. We did have daily exercise because we had to stay in shape. We crossed the International Date Line and everyone onboard ship got a certificate indicating that we had done that. I think I sent mine home, but I really don’t know what happened to it. Other than that, nothing eventful that I can recall happened onboard the ship.
I remember an incident that happened in Japan that was funny. We dropped some Army personnel off at Tokyo and we went on down to Yokosuka. We were given liberty and had a curfew of 2300 hours because we were to pull out the next morning and go back to Tokyo to pick up the Army troops. Well, there were three or four Marines who thought they would get a few more hours of liberty, catch a train to Tokyo, and get back onboard ship there, which they did. Now, what kind of court martial could be given to three or four men who had been gone a few hours AWOL (absent without leave) and were now on their way to a combat zone? My understanding is that they got one damn good ass chewing and that was it. That was enough. (After checking my map of Japan, I don’t know where we might have been. I don’t think Dale does either.) I knew several guys onboard the ship because the whole company that I trained with at Camp Pendleton was scattered out onboard it. Dale Brown was probably still my closest and best buddy, and he was on the ship, too.
I just happened to think about a little red address book that I have had over 50 years. In it, I noted that I finished boot camp on March 17, 1951. Another little note said, "Flying to Pendleton April 2, 1951." Another little note: "My address at Pendleton PFC Neil A. Sigler, C-Co, 4th Inf. Training Bn, Camp Joseph H. Pendleton, Oceanside, California."
Arrival in Korea
After the stop in Japan, we hit Pusan, Korea, about the 3rd or 4th of July. (Again, I’m relying on my friend Dale Brown for these dates.) Based on that, we are talking about a trip that lasted two weeks plus or minus a day. When we arrived, I was ready to spend some time on dry land. I had been raised three miles from the Mississippi River, and that’s the most water that I had ever seen until I went to Parris Island, then went to the West Coast and Pendleton, and it was certainly the most water I had ever floated in.
I don’t recall staying on the ship any longer than it took for us to disembark. My first impression of Korea was, "What a dirty, stinking place this is." And it was. I wasn’t impressed with anything. But after all, these people were in war and it had taken its toll on everything, so it wasn’t supposed to be a big pretty garden for those of us who made the trip to help defend her. Pusan was not in the war zone at that time. The front line was somewhere close to the 38th parallel, and, in fact, Pusan was saved the bitter ravages of war. We went directly to a tent city. There were bunches and bunches of rows of tents.
It seems like we were there some four to five days before being assigned a battalion and company. This is where Dale Brown and I parted. I was to go to the 1st Engineer Battalion. He went to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines. I wish I could say that my test scores or my IQ had something to do with me being in the engineers. If it did, I didn't ever know anything about it. I always considered it the luck of the draw.
I was loaded on a plane with C.W.O. Fowler as the plane commander (another note in my little red address book). I don’t recall just how many of us were going to the 1st Engineer Battalion. It was probably 15 or 20. We arrived at a small air strip in the middle of nowhere. I have no idea where we were, but one thing for certain was that war had passed over that territory. Some of the villages had a small wooden sign announcing the name of the village, but most didn’t. Nor were there any road markers. We were at the mercy of the vehicle drivers to get us where we were supposed to go, and they did one damn good job.
All along the way the natives were trying as best as they could to carry on some kind of life. They were planting their crops and selling their wares. The G.I. market was pretty good for such items as billfolds with the American, South Korean, and U.N. flag on it in color. They sold for about a dollar apiece. They also sold ladies’ scarves. In fact, I think I could find one of those scarves now. They were trying to do all they could to survive. From the time we landed in Pusan harbor, we saw natives. A lot of the young people were trying to hustle the G.I. out of anything that might be of value. These people were trying to pick up the pieces that were left of their lives and move on the best they could.
Before we were assigned to a company, we stayed at Battalion Headquarters for about a week and had school from sun up until sundown everyday, learning what we had to know to survive in dealing with explosives—anti-tank mines (ours and the enemy’s), anti-personnel mines (ours and the enemy’s), Bangalore torpedoes—any and all explosives that we had to deal with or come in touch with. Those things didn’t usually give someone a second chance. Once we finished that week, we were then assigned to a company. Mine was Charlie "C" Company. Upon arrival at the company I was assigned to the 1st Platoon. My Platoon Sergeant was Sgt. Vernon Paulson, and my Platoon Leader was 1st Lt. Bruggan. Both were first class, top notch Marines.
My outfit was in reserve when I joined them. We were far enough behind the lines that the people in the small villages were trying to put some kind of life back together. They washed the G.I.s' clothes for a pack of cigarettes, then tried to steal a pair of underwear. As I reflect back, I don’t blame them. War, a war they had nothing to do with, had taken everything they had. I say that in the sense that it was a rich man’s war but the poor man’s fight. It would be extremely difficult for an American to take nothing and survive. Standing on the street corner with a cup in your hand wouldn’t get it. In Korea, no one had anything. Old men and women tried to eek out a living on land that had been ravaged with artillery and mortars.
The one thing that stayed with me that I saw on that front row seat in Korea was the small children. It wasn't their war or their fight. These kids were victims of the circumstances and couldn't help it. When you see children go in a 30-gallon garbage can head first for anything edible, it leaves a lasting impression on you. You don't forget those sights, and to this day I don't like to see people waste food. If you are not going to eat it, then don't get it. Many times over the years I have called my wife’s attention to the fact that she was throwing away food that I had seen children fight for.
Actually, the first duty I had when I joined Charlie Company was to follow orders. Since we were in reserve, it was mostly checking gear and making sure that we had what we were supposed to have. It was during this time that I met James Stevens from Walkertown, North Carolina. Steve, as he was called, was a very likeable person and I guess we hit it off because he was also a "Redneck." I visited Steve twice after we got out. He passed away about twenty years ago. I really need to go through Winston Salem, North Carolina and put a rose on his grave. He was a helluva good guy. We will get back to him a little later.
Without the veteran Marines, we would never have made it. They were kind of like mother hens. Although we had had our school back at battalion prior to joining the company, that did not take the place of "On the Job Training." One Sergeant Paulson who now resides in Everette, Washington, was my mentor, and a damn good one. I appreciated him then and I appreciate and respect him to this day. One hell of a Marine. There was nothing we learned in boot camp that would fit us for our job in Korea except discipline. We touched on it in combat training at Camp Pendleton, but not to the point of being able to do what was required of us once we joined the company.
There were also a couple of other World War II salts in the outfit who had been in the reserves and got called back to active duty. They sounded like the worst kind of female bitching. They joined the Reserves to get some of that easy money, but it just didn't work that way. What was kind of funny was that those particular guys had been on their annual two-week training at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and didn't get to go back home. They were told to pack up because they were going to Camp Pendleton and on to Korea. Boy, what a kick in the ass.
The weather was hot, hot, hot, and humid. If it wasn't raining it was thinking about it. I didn't own anything that wasn't wet. All my clothes, stationery, every damn thing I owned was wet. I went to bed wet and got up wet. I lay down in the tent and looked up and saw stars through the shrapnel holes. Oh boy, what fun.
The terrain was rough and beat to hell and back even where there were woods, now looked like a tornado had been through and twisted off everything that got in its way. I recall one night having guard duty up the path from the company area. We were standing guard in an old bunker and had our pup tent about 50 feet away on higher ground. It was raining cats and dogs. I was sitting on an ammo box in the bunker. It was dark as hell and even wetter. I felt the water as it ran over my shoe top. My feet went from wet to drenched, then shortly after that I felt my booty getting wet. Time to stand up and finish the watch in the stand up position. When I was relieved I made it to the pup tent, crawled in, and thought, "What in the hell did mama's young son do to deserve this?" Sleep came and wiped out the misery that I was in.
There was plenty of evidence that a war had preceded us in the valley that we were set up in. I wish I knew where it was, but again, there were no road signs nor township or village signs to let us know where we were. But bunkers for holes were everywhere. There was no shortage of them at all.
My baptism of fire was in the Punch Bowl when the enemy was making probing attacks on the line to see if they could find a weak place. This was at night and it was kind of difficult to pinpoint a target at night. So when and if the time came about, all we could do was lay down some hot lead for them to think about. But we had very strict orders that if, under normal circumstances, we fired after dark, we had better be able to produce a body the next morning. To pull watch at night on the front line was mentally tough. It was very important to study the terrain and memorize everything that we saw--trees, rocks, whatever--and hope our mind didn't start questioning as to was that here or was it over there? Tough call and all we could do was wait for it to move.
My company moved four times while I was in Korea. We were on the east coast, then the next to the last time, we moved up in support of the Korean Marine Corps (KMC), which I understood was trained by the US Marine Corps. We were at that location about six months. The KMC were bad, bad to the core. I say that because I did not see nor hear of any other outfit building a fire on the front line to attract incoming from the enemy like they did. I'm talking about at night for all the world to see. Those South Koreans had been trained by the US Marine Corps, and trained well. After all, it was their country that we were fighting for, and they showed it by giving it their all.
The action of the engineers was somewhat different than a line company, but there was enough to go around. When engineers were on the front line, they were exposed to the same danger that the line troops were exposed to, but once back in the company area, we had it much softer. Since we were a support group, we were set up behind the front line, but within artillery range. We were close enough to do what we needed to do.
A part of the engineers' job was to take care of the terrain if at all possible so the rest of the troops could do their job. Roads and bridges were a part of our daily routine. In fact, Charlie Company built the largest Bailey Bridge over there at that time. We called it Tinker Toy Bridge. Is building a bridge in any way more complicated than laying a mine field and arming it? I would say not. We could never say 100% certain that the bridge area had been cleaned. A truck could run over an anti-tank mine, creating havoc.
There were roads to be built so that equipment could be moved, and that east side was rough. It was mountainous terrain and rocky, so we had to use explosives--Tetrotol, composition, C-2, and C-3. These last two were a plastic explosive that could be molded around a steel beam. That made it easier to blow bridges. We also used primer cord. Now I will try to paint you a mental picture: We could take primer cord and wrap it around a tree and cut the tree down with it, or I should say blow it down. We could drill a series of holes in rock, pack the holes with plastic, connect the holes with primer cord, and blow hell out of the side of a hill with the plastic explosive. Then the bulldozer cleared it away.
My company built a road up to the front line so that tanks could go up and fire point blank across the valley at the enemy. At that time in life, nothing we were asked to do was impossible for the Marine Corps. Only the time given to complete the task may have been the determining factor if "impossible" or not. When there was small arms fire bouncing off the bulldozer, and it was trying to do its job, that also made it kind of tough. This happened while the boys were building the tank road to the front line. Hell comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes.
In the way of equipment, Charlie Company had two and a half ton trucks, personnel carriers, and bulldozers. There were not many of each--perhaps four or five trucks, two or three personnel carriers, a couple of dozers, and a couple of jeeps. Now this sounds like, oh boy, giddy up and go. Not hardly. We couldn't march five details of men in five different directions five miles with equipment and explosives and get anything done, so we did have transportation.
Since we were on call so to speak, there were some days that we checked and cleaned gear during slack time. The minor repairs on the equipment were done in the company. Any major stuff had to go to battalion. Now if (and it did more than once) a piece of equipment happened to hit a land mine, it wasn't anything but junk, and that included the dozers as well. It warped the frame so that they were not useable and we didn't have time to operate a junkyard. I recall using mine sweepers to sweep for a road to be built one time. We came to a pretty wide creek, but since it was summer there wasn't much water in it. Those of us who were in a decision-making mood came to the conclusion, "Who in the hell would lay a mine in a creek?" So we didn't sweep the creek area. I think it was the second truck to cross that hit an anti-tank mine. Another piece of junk to leave behind.
Before using a new "used" truck, it had to be sandbagged, including the floor board, the fire wall and the fenders and running boards. That way, the driver and the passenger didn't get any shrapnel if they did hit a mine. It seemed like no matter how careful we might be, we always overlooked one, and the instant it went off, we knew what it was. Fortunately, I don't recall my company having a casualty while I was in it.
The immediate officer in charge was my platoon leader, 1st Lt. Charles Bruggan. He was later made Captain, and deserved it. He was a very good Marine officer. I recall when up on the Punch Bowl meeting a forward observer. He had been watching activity across the valley for a few days, and told a couple of us that he was about to call in an air strike and for us to hang around and watch the fun. We did, and when the napalm hit, the hole wasn't deep enough. He passed his binoculars around and we got a front row seat to people trying to hang onto life. Another time there were two of us going back to check on the whereabouts of some South Korean laborers who were supposed to be bringing up some barb wire. En route we came across a couple of South Koreans who were not the ones we were looking for, and they wanted to talk. They tried to bargain us out of cigarettes or anything we might have that they wanted. We passed the time of day for about ten minutes and decided that we had better be moving on. About 30 to 50 feet from where we left them, we heard a mortar round coming in, so we hit the deck. It hit behind us and when we turned to see, it had wiped out those Koreans we had just been talking to.
Since we weren't a line company or battalion, we weren't worried about confronting the enemy or engaging the enemy on a day to day basis. I'm sure that in the course of time it had to happen, because every Marine is a rifleman. It didn't matter what our specialty was. We were basically a rifleman all the way from the top to the bottom. Now that being said, I'm sure there were times when the enemy broke through the lines and every unit behind the front line had to take up their fighting position. We received word one night that a break through had occurred and we had to adequately post guard around the company area. If it happened and they got to us, we were ready.
We operated as a company and as we were ordered. As a company we weren't concerned what the other engineering companies were up to. We were interested in our company and carrying out our orders. I don't ever recall coming in contact with any Army engineers or Army anything.
The east side of Korea was very rough, mountainous terrain, and it was tough on the engineers in that they had to build roads, bridges, and air strips. Those little piper spotter planes didn't take a very long strip to take off and land on, but it had to be pretty smooth. These guys had a rough life flying around up over the line trying to draw fire so they could call in a strike on the position from which it came. Sounds like a cat and mouse game, but it was deadly serious. Helicopters also came into their own in Korea. They saved many, many lives. I commend those chopper pilots that flew over there. They could handle two stretchers and would set down on the reverse slope, pick up those wounded, and fly the valleys back far enough to be out of danger, then up and over to the medical unit, wherever that was. Those boys were on the ball.
All About Mines
Any time that you are playing with armed explosives, it's just as dangerous as if someone is shooting at you. It was our job to arm and disarm explosives. We were in grave danger the instant we armed a bouncing betty or a tank mine, as well as any time we disarmed one by replacing the pin that locked the firing mechanism. It was kind of like playing with a wasp--is it, or is it not? It was a hell of a ball game.
We had these little jobs that came along like clearing an area of any mines or mortar duds, and any live ammunition that might be lying around. This also included clearing anti-personnel mines. Now that made us work up a sweat. To clear an area of mines, we had to insert the pin back into the firing mechanism that blocked the firing pin. Then it was a case of stacking them up and blowing the hell out of them. The anti-personnel mines that we used were called "bouncing betties." I don't recall the actual, technical name and number. If I recall correctly, it was loaded with about six pounds of cast iron, and it had a small charge in the base that ignited first and sent it three to five feet into the air. Then the main charge went off and could very easily cause death. If a person got by without being killed, they carried some scrap iron around for a little while. If someone was good and recognized the first explosion, he might be able to drop to the ground and escape injury altogether. W had four to six seconds, but hell, we were young and agile and quick thinking. We had been trained to be.
Since these mines were connected to trip wires and these trip wires overlapped, it was difficult to get through the field without tripping one and getting hurt. We took a piece of wire if we could find one--something about like a coat hanger--straightened it out, and bent the end so it could slide on the ground easily through the grass and weeds. The instant it touched the trip wire, we knew it. Then we traced the wire to the mine, disarmed it, and continued on.
The enemy used a different type of detonating devise and no trip wires. If someone stepped on their simple little mine, it would take their foot off at about the ankle. They laid these in the middle of paths and put some rocks on them. That was their shrapnel. It worked. The mine was a small wooden box that I'm guessing was about two inches wide, maybe one and a half inches deep, and six inches long. I don't recall the explosive that was used. As for the anti-tank mines, we used mine sweepers which were no more than a metal detector. If at all possible, we used some plastic explosive to blow them when we found them. Those mines had enough explosive in them to hurt us bad.
I didn't lose any buddies in Korea. A couple of guys picked up a little scrap iron, but nothing serious. Some of the work we did was as nerve-racking and serious as it could be. There was no such thing as being too cautious. I recall once when we were called upon to clear an area for artillery to set up. They moved in before we were through and their commanding officer sent some men out to set up a guard outpost. There was a sharp hill across the road that gave a good vantage point on the reverse slope, but there also was a tremendously big anti-personnel minefield blocking the way. It would have taken a while longer to walk around the mine field and then go to the top of the hill. These three men decided to take a short cut through the minefield. If I remember correctly, it had a double apron barbed wire fence around it. The instant we heard the mine explode we knew what it was--no question. When we turned and looked, we saw what happened and ran over and had to convince those men to stay where they were until a path could be cleared to get them out. It didn't take too long, but keeping their buddies out and giving us room to work was difficult. In this case, "If you don't know what you are doing, leave it up to those who do." Now we had three wounded men, one pretty bad. I never did hear about him--whether he made it or not. Those bouncing betties were bad mines to mess with. It was very surprising to me that our own troops did not know any better than to cross that barbed wire fence. It was almost as bad as going into a pasture knowing that there is a bad bull out there. You would think that the barbed wire fence would keep the enemy out, and sometimes it did. But our guys--the good guys, not the guys with the black hats--should have known what was beyond that wire, what it was for, and not to mess with it.
The squad I was in had to make a trip to the front line on the Punch Bowl to lay some anti-personnel mine fields out in No Man's Land once. That's the area between the two front lines. Walking up and down those hills and mountains was pretty rough, and I know for the line companies it was a daily dose of hell. Now bear in mind also that the work of laying mines got tedious and very difficult to do with a rifle on our shoulder. We had KMC outpost sentries, and we had a couple of our squad stand guard while the rest of us stacked our rifles and went to work. The mines had to be put in the ground, trip wires had to be strung, then the mines had to be armed ("the safety pin pulled"). At this point it was a live baby waiting to kill. Then we had to put a barb wire fence around it and chart where the field was laid so that at a later date it could be removed. These trips were not unusual.
The winter of 1951-52 was the year the military came out with the thermal boots that were dubbed "Mickey Mouse Boots." They could have called them anything they wanted to, but it didn't take away from the warmth. They were good. After hearing about the frostbite the winter before because of shoes that weren't adequate, I wasn't looking forward to the winter ahead. Starting on the bottom, I wore G.I. two-piece long johns, then a pair of wool pants which were dress greens, a wool shirt, and a field jacket. That's about it. Someone sent me a couple of those hand warmers that operated on lighter fluid. At night I filled them up, put them in their little velvet drawstring bags, and put them in the foot of my sleeping bag. That helped a bunch. I have a warmer sleeping bag in my travel trailer than that military sleeping bag of 50 years ago. I was cold from the first snowfall until we moved to the west coast. In the summer it was back to the fancy utilities, the green pants and the jumper or if it was too hot, just a skivvy shirt, and back to regular socks and boondocker shoes. I still have my field shoes that I wore in Korea.
Bath, shave, clean--why weren't we headed for a date with a beautiful young lady? Sounds good, doesn't it? In the summer it wasn't a big problem to do these things. Any creek or river with water in it would do. We carried a small bag called a ditty bag that had all of our necessary items in it--toothbrush, soap, toothpaste, razor, razor blades--all that stuff that little boys carry when away from home. Now in the winter, it was a different story. I was one of the fortunate ones by being in an engineering company. Since we were a support unit, we were set up behind the lines and that put us in a position to have some of the better things in life. We had a shower unit with about a dozen heads on it, or maybe a few more. We had a heating unit and a pump. After breaking the ice on the creek, we could put a pipe down in the water, and using a gasoline engine, pump it out of the creek, through the water heater, and then out into the pipe with the shower heads. When this happened, the lines were long and the floor was ice cold, but everyone in the company got a shower. This was set up in a squad tent which was roughly about 18 feet by 24 feet. When this wasn't working too well, then we had to fall back on the "old whore's bath" method (sponge bath if you will), and that was done with a small amount of heated water in our helmet. In these instances we washed only that which was necessary. I sometimes think that I'm still trying to get rid of some of that Korean dirt.
When we moved up to support the KMC, we didn't have any civilians around and didn't see any other than those who were used as interpreters or laborers. But we did, for a time, have a Korean barber who stayed with the company for several months. Each company had a barber kit and he used ours. I don't recall how much we paid for a haircut (that was back in short hair days), but it was worth it. It made us feel decent.
Our supplies were picked up on a daily basis from battalion. We had a truck that made that trip every day. As far as I know, we didn't hurt for parts or groceries, but that six bottles of beer a week wasn't adequate. After I was assigned to my company, I only went back to battalion one time. Why I don't recall. On just a pure guess, I would say that the battalion was set up about 15 to 20 miles behind the lines. Little peons such as myself didn't just go hitchhiking up and down the road without permission, and before permission was granted, there had to be a reason. "Mommy, I want to" wasn't good enough. There was nowhere to go anyway. For practical purposes, we were isolated. We didn't just up and say, "Well, I think I'll go over to Baker Company and see Old Joe for awhile." It did happen occasionally, however. My old buddy Dale Brown came to see me. His company was in battalion reserve, set up at the other end of the valley. That was in February of 1952. This was an unusual occurrence. Normally, meeting people we knew from stateside was highly unlikely. I had no relatives in the military or Korea at the time. It was enough that I gave the home folks all the worry they needed.
I wish I could remember some of the lighter sides of Korea, but by that time I had done passed out. We used to make (when we could get the makings) a drink called raisin jack or apple jack. That stuff would take the hair off of a dog's back. Making it had to be kept top secret or we could get in a bunch of trouble. That kind of takes care of the lighter side of Korea. If there were any humorous things that happened, it was an accident. It certainly wasn't on purpose. Like Steve having to put Frog Musick to bed one night after having to knock him out. He was drunk and making too much noise. We were afraid he was going to wake up the whole company, and we didn't need any of the officers on our case. But that was serious business and nothing was light about it until years later. Ole Frog (Howard K. Musick from Houston, Texas) was the Company clown if we had one. He loved to sing and he loved country music, but sometimes he did some rearranging of the words like, "Darling this is my desire, to set yo little ass on fire and let old mother nature have her way." Frog was good at some of that kind of stuff. He later became our company barber. Oh boy!
Mail was very important to us. I can't stress just how important mail from home was to the men in service. I received mail on a regular basis, and I thank God for it. My mother, my sister, my girlfriend (who is now my wife), and my grandmother who lived with my parents at that time, sent it to me. I enjoyed my grandmother's short letters. She used the phonetic method of spelling, but I had no trouble reading them. From Evelyn Irene Duncan from McNairy County, Tennessee (now my wife of 47 years), I received mail every day. My address, as I recall it, was "Neil A. Sigler, 1043094, "C" Co. 1st Eng. Bn 1st Marine Div. F.M.F. San Francisco, Calif." I got to send my mail free. Wasn't that nice and considerate of our Uncle Sam! Let me also mention that, at this point in time, my mother and Dale Brown's mother were corresponding, trying to keep up with their two young, hardheaded, jarhead Marines.
I didn't receive very many packages while in Korea, but I do recall receiving a canister of homemade cookies from my sister. By the time they reached me, they were as hard as a brick and almost inedible, but we tried. The most memorable thing that I received was my guitar. After I went in the cook shack, I figured I might have a little time (and little it was). So I asked my mother to get it packaged up and ship it to me and she did. I don't know to this day what it cost to ship it, but I would expect at least one of her meager paychecks. She never would tell me, so I couldn't reimburse her for it. Only the love of God surpasses that of a mother. I was self-taught on the guitar. I didn't "play" it, I played "with" it. I have wished many times that I had brought it home with me, but some more of that spilled milk. Every once in a while I had a few minutes that I could pick it up, but not too often. It was kind of like having an old friend sitting there waiting to talkk to you.
One other package that stands out was a Christmas package from my employer, the International Harvester Company, Memphis, Tennessee plant. Whoever had charge of that project did a fine job, because everything in the package was usable items--nail clippers, stationery, toiletries, things that were needed and could be used. I don't recall ever receiving anything that was beat up in the mail. I think in that day, postal employees had some respect in handling G.I.s' mail and packages. If my guitar could make it to Korea in good shape, anything could.
I recall one bad news letter. I don't remember names, and for that I'm kind of glad. This boy's wife was suing him for divorce, custody of the children, the home, and the bank account. He was allowed to pack his bag and hitchhike via military aircraft all the way back to Texas. I don't recall how long he was gone, but it wasn't too long. When he returned, everyone wondered how it came out. His answer was, "She got her clothes."
I only saw one American woman in Korea, and she was a Red Cross worker in Pusan. The Red Cross had a canteen set up and we could go down and drink coffee and play cards while we were waiting on assignment. From then on it was all Korean. Some Koreans set up a squad tent on the road not too far from our company area and partitioned it with blankets into two rooms. They brought in two Korean nurses who were prostitutes and the lines formed out front. We actually had very little contact with the natives, other than those who served in our Company such as interpreter, and the two young kids that were our mascots. Where they came from, I don't know. I have often wondered what happened to them. We had an adult South Korean who was our interpreter and watched after those little fellows. They shined shoes, washed clothes, or whatever they could do. They looked like little rag muffins.
Here is just a little story to point out how the Marines felt about the natives. After we had moved to the west side of Korea, we set up on a little plateau about halfway up the side of a pretty high hill. We had a good view and everything was okay. One day a little Korean boy from the village on the road down below us and by the creek came to our Company area with some billfolds to sell. They were like the ones I mentioned early on in this memoir. They had the UN flag, the South Korean flag, and the US flag on them in color. They were pretty nice leather billfolds. The little boy was perhaps about 12 years old. One of our company guys snatched one, or was looking at it and took off running with it, darting around the tents until he got to his tent. Having lost the little boy, he thought he had it made. But the little boy howled and cried, making a lot of noise. He caught the attention of the Company officers, including the Company Commander. When the Company Commander learned what had happened, he immediately ordered a company formation and walked that little Korean boy down the ranks until he pointed out the culprit who had stolen the billfold. Office hours were held. The sentence was one week hard labor (and of course, paying for the billfold) for the guy who had stolen it. The hard labor was with a wheelbarrow and shovel to go down to the creek and start hauling gravel for the company driveway. (I have no idea where the wheelbarrow came from.) His day began after breakfast chow. He got a lunch break and a supper break, and then he worked until it got dark to drive that wheelbarrow. The bottom line is: Marines don't just do something shady because they want to and no one is looking. Got dat?
I got a good idea how the natives lived from day to day, not knowing what the tomorrow would bring. They lived in houses with mud walls, dirt floors, and thatched roofs. They did anything to make an American dollar. American greenbacks were illegal for them to have, but the black market was big. We were paid in script that didn't look like money, didn't feel like money, and was very seldom treated like money. There wasn't a Wal-mart anywhere close by, so poker money was about all it was good for.
I was color blind when I was in the service. I had nothing against the South Korean people, but I did not like the North Koreans or Chinese, and that's the way it was supposed to be. As for prejudice against people of color in the service, again I was color blind. There weren't that many Blacks or Asians in the Marine Corps, but we looked at them as just one more Marine.
During my time in Korea, I spent some holidays there. For the most part, a holiday was just another day, with the exception of Christmas and, of course, the Marine Corps Birthday. Christmas was kind of somber starting out. Then a few of us kind of got knee-walking drunk. The cooks gathered up enough grapefruit and orange juice to make about twenty gallons, the Company officers donated their Seagram's VO to the cause, and we had punch. It was a potent, wicked punch. It was next to impossible to get into the right spirit of the season under these conditions. On the Marine Corps Birthday, November 10, 1951, we baked a big cake--big enough for a company of men. We couldn't have a very big party, otherwise the North Koreans might not like it. Besides, it was kind of hard to celebrate with nothing to celebrate with. But at least we had the cake.
Religion wasn't particularly important to me at that time. There was a Chaplain at battalion, and church was conducted on Sunday. Those who wanted to attend could catch a ride back and go. I'm convinced that my mother's prayers saw her young son through a lot. The hardest thing for me about being in Korea was being away from her and my family. I was from a very close knit family, and I missed them a hell of a lot. But Korea gave me an opportunity to grow up, and I am thankful for that.
I drank, I smoked, and I did anything else that I was big enough to do while I was in Korea. We kept a penny ante payday poker game going. We drew enough on payday to pay our poker debts, paid them off, and kept on playing. I never did get into any heavy gambling--just the "pass the time of day" type, and it did help. At $82.50 a month (I had picked up a stripe while in Korea and got to be one of those high ranking, overpaid dudes--a corporal), a body couldn't do much gambling. (Of course, that $82.50 included room and board!!!) It's funny now with everyone from the President to the Pope against smoking, but we were issued a pack of cigarettes and a candy bar a day. We called it "comfort rations." Those that didn't smoke sold theirs to those who did or traded them to the natives for getting their laundry done. Cigarettes commanded a good price.
Our living quarters were a squad tent. I think that there were seven of us in that tent, and since we had running water with hot water heaters, everybody was scrubbed every night. We did the best we could with what we had to do it with. The only time I spent in a bunker was on guard duty, and it beat the hell out of being in the open. I spent a little time in a foxhole, too, and for me, it was never deep enough. If it had gone halfway to China, it still would have been too shallow. At night when I was in a foxhole, I felt that every shadow was creeping up in my direction. But when it came time to sleep, sleep came and morning arrived too early. Most of the enemy probes at our line were at night and didn't last too long, but those damn mortars came in any time day or night, and we sure did need a hole to get in when that happened.
There are several guys I was with in Korea who stand out in my mind. Of course, Dale Brown and I were in Korea at the same time, but we were not in the same outfit. But Dale and I had been through boot camp and combat training together, and we pulled a lot of liberties together up and down that west coast of the United States, so Dale and I go back a long way. Another that stands out in my mind is Sgt. Vernon Paulson, whom I have already discussed. Vern had the attitude that he had to take care of his men at all cost, and would not ask one of his men to do something unless they knew what they were doing. Messing with explosives was somewhat different than what the regular rifleman had to contend with. I just made contact with Vern about a year ago. It sure was good to talk with him again.
I have already mentioned my redneck buddy, James "Steve" Stevens from Walkertown, North Carolina. He asked me one night if I had ever eaten any fried apple pies. "Why hell yes," I answered. "I was raised on them." Steve was one of the company cooks, so he said, "Let's make some." I jumped right in the middle of it. We took some dehydrated apples that he had already soaked, made the dough, put those things together, fried them, and made friends. After I was over there four or five months, Steve came to me and said that one of the cooks was rotating back to the states and asked me to transfer to the cook shack. I told him, "Aw man, I can't do that." But over the next few days he persisted, so I transferred to the cook shack and became one of the company cooks.
The dates and time I went to work in the cook shack I honestly do not recall. We had a Mess Sergeant who handled the security of chow if it needed any security. He went to Battalion Headquarters every day to pick up rations and a menu. I'll tell you, the food was horrible, but it beat C-rations to hell and back. Actually, I am only joking. We did have good food, and when possible we delivered hot food to our company men who were on detail. They were not on the front line. Those poor souls up there on the line had to survive on good old C-rations. Many was the time we had frozen turkey that we baked (it also worked fine to stuf them with cans of beer to keep the beer cool enough to drink), ground beef that could be fixed a thousand ways, canned bacon that we fried for breakfast, and cold storage eggs. Naturally, every once in a while we cracked one of those babies and it was so rotten it could gag a maggot. But we soon got over and kept on going.
The food certainly wasn't like mama's home cooking, but it did beat those C-rations. Spam is Spam any damn way you try and fix it. Have you ever tried any chicken-fried spam? Well don't. It's still Spam. But forced to make a call about the best thing I ever ate in Korea, it would be the turkey we got for Thanksgiving and again at Christmas. If I was ever involved in making anything exotic, it had to be those good ole southern-fried apple pies. That was Steve's idea and they were good.
I don't recall the hours exactly that I was on duty in the cook shack, but a shift handled supper and breakfast. Then we were relieved and the next shift cooked dinner and supper. Every officer in that company was a "food inspector", but the officer of the day was directly in charge of that duty. I am sure that each shift had a head cook, and Steve was probably head cook on the shift I was on. We had mess men to handle the clean up. Each platoon contributed three men for that duty. They scrubbed the big pots, etc. I don't know how many men were in our company, but a good guess would be 125. That was a bunch of growling bellies. There were no complaints as I remember, because C-rations were always waiting if they didn't like what we cooked. "Just eat it and shut the hell up." I am going to guess as to what time chow call was. Breakfast was probably 0700, lunch at 01200, and supper at 1700 hours. The cooks had to stay on their toes to know when to start things rolling so that it would be ready.
The native food was a no no, and orders were given to that effect. We were told that our system wasn't used to their food, and for us to not even try it. Once we left Pusan, I don't recall any opportunity to even think about trying the native food. I don't do rice even today because every time I see it, I can smell those rice paddies. 'Nuff said. The stateside food I missed the most was anything my grandmother (Mrs. Ada) or my mother fixed. They knew how to cook and could fix a good meal from nothing. Growing up in the 30s, things were still tight. In fact, my daddy made corn whiskey to put groceries on the table. So I missed it all--black-eyed peas, cornbread, hot biscuits, fried country cured ham, fresh made pork sausage, fresh corn squash, lima beans, and on, and on.
Since we didn't have a daily TV report or newspaper to read, about all we heard was scuttlebutt about how the war was going and what was happening. It was a day by day situation with me. Of course I wanted to go home and I thought about it a lot, but there was nothing I could do other than what I was doing. At some point in time, however, someone else and I went back to battalion headquarters to check our service record book. In so doing, the clerk in the tent asked if we would like to know when we were scheduled to be rotated back to the states. Naturally, we wanted to know, and it turned out that I had about two months to go. It was the longest two months of my young life.
When that day arrived, it seemed unreal. It didn't take long to pack my belongings because I didn't have that much. In fact, I had very little. The goodbyes at the Company were bittersweet. After all, I had spent almost a year with these guys, and we swore that we would stay in touch. But there were no tears. Hell, we were going home.
A company truck took us to battalion headquarters where we transferred to another truck to be transported to a railhead for a stand-up ride in a boxcar for a couple or three hours. Let me digress for a moment and go back to something that had happened several months before. Sometime in the first part of March, we moved from the east side of Korea to the west side. We packed up all of our Company equipment and the troops loaded in open trucks. It was something like thirty below zero that morning. I had on everything I owned to keep warm, including my sleeping bag. I've never been so cold in my life. We arrived on location on the west side. I have no idea where, but it was about 60 degrees. What a change, a welcome change. That first night in reserve in this new location, along about 2100 hours when I was laying on my cot and there was no artillery "boom, boom" to listen to, for the first time in a long time it was quiet. In the far off distance, I heard a train whistle, and I will admit that tears rolled up in this old country boy's eyes as big as could be. I couldn't help but think of Hank Williams' song, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Little did I know at that time that the whistle was from the train that would take me to Inchon for my journey home.
When we arrived at the railhead, we turned in our rifle. We knew that it was over for us then because we didn't even go into the head without our weapon. It became a part of us. At Inchon, it seemed to take forever to be processed to board the landing craft as our name was called. We were then taken out to the ship in the bay that would bring us home. It was the USNS Gen. William Weigel, the same tub that I went over on. We were told to go below, find a rack, and call it a day. I don't recall the date I left Korea. The date wasn't important at the time. What was important was that I was leaving.
They told us that we were leaving straight the next morning. If I recall correctly, when we got up the next morning we were already underway to Kobe, Japan, our only stop-over, where we picked up our sea bags with the gear that we had left behind almost a year before. We had a couple of days in Japan with liberty so we could once again check out the culture of that place. A real education.
Some of the guys from the Company were on the ship with me, Buddy Stokes from Houston, Texas, and Dutch Stiles from Jersey, to name a couple. Everyone on the ship was upbeat. We had no reason to be otherwise. I don't recall any of us having any duty on the ship, but I do recall doing a lot of shoe shining to the point that my shoes looked like patent leather. The Marine Corps was hell on those spit-shined shoes, so I just sat on deck shining them. One of the guys had a battery-powered radio, and every night he brought it out on deck to see what he could pick up. About three days out from the states, he picked up Del Rio, Texas. That's when we knew we were getting close. The ride home was uneventful and the weather was nice. As usual, there were a few guys who had sea sickness trouble, and a few that had to make their daily trip to sick bay to get their shot for V.D. Naturally, such things had to be cleared up before they could be released to go home.
It seems to me that it took about 12 to 14 days to make that trip. We came into the naval base at San Diego, California. What a day. The Red Cross had tables set up on the dock with coffee, milk, and doughnuts. Milk -- FRESH MILK! - oh boy! As we came down the gang plank, there was a recruit from the M.C.R.D. taking our sea bag from us, and there was a drill sergeant on their ass saying they weren't moving fast enough. They were told in no uncertain terms that we were Korean vets and that we had better not take another step with that sea bag on our shoulder. I loved it.
We were processed off the ship alphabetically. As soon as we had time to partake of the Red Cross refreshments, we were loaded onto buses and transported to M.C.R.D., San Diego, where again we were broken down alphabetically to platoon size and assigned a Platoon Sergeant and quarters. Our quarters were Quonset huts and our Platoon Sergeant had a schedule of our mustering out duties. I don't recall this platoon sergeant's name, but he had been to Korea and he was one nice guy. We were treated as good as I would want to be treated anywhere.
Now, there was liberty. With our ribbons on that told people that we had been there, that alone seemed to demand some degree of respect, even in the bar rooms where on that first night, it was get it on and get drunk. Every night for almost two weeks, from Hollywood to Tijuana, Mexico, we had a lot of catching up to do.
Since I was an activated reservist and my three-year enlistment was up the 3rd of May 1952, I was a few days past due for my discharge when I got it. My discharge was effective when I got home around the 7th of May 1952. I thought I had some clothes at home that I could wear, but they were all too small. I had to go buy clothes before I could get out of uniform. I took a week off and then went back to work for the International Harvester Company, Memphis plant. I think I adjusted well to civilian life. It took some getting used to, but at that time it was part of the program and again, we were surrounded by World War II veterans who understood. I especially ran into this at work.
I started some heavy dating with Evelyn, who was a schoolteacher. The 8th of June 1952, we were married, so I didn't give myself much time to get very wild. Naturally, I had some slowing down to do, and it was difficult. There were threats of divorce and everything else that went with a young marriage, but we made it through. About two years later, I enlisted in the Reserves again and stayed until 1959. I joined because I didn't have it all out of my system. I then called it quits, but I sometimes think that you never get all the Marine Corps out of your system.
I enrolled in what is now Memphis State University, and made it to my senior year before dropping out. The other students didn't even know that I was a veteran of the Korean War, but then again, it was about 1959 when I decided to try and get an education. It was difficult to get the upper division courses that I needed, and by that time I had been with IHC so long that I wasn't going to leave anyway. Also, academics never did agree with me. It was always a battle and I had given almost every extra minute that I had to studies, neglecting everything else. I did that for seven years and concluded, enough is enough.
Carolyn Denise Sigler, our daughter, was born four years after Evelyn and I were married. She is our only child, but we have two grandsons. I remained at IHC until I retired in 1985. In my retirement, I have kept busy caring for family members, working in my tool shop, volunteering at caring for a church cemetery located down the road from me, doing a little fishing, spending time on the computer, etc. My constant companion (besides my wife of over 50 years) is my sidekick, Bo. I also attend 1st Marine Division Association meetings from time to time. I will say that my "Golden Years" have not necessarily been all that golden. Some of them have been rough.
Thinking back on Korea,I'm not going to delve into the ifs and wherefores too much. I am not a student of politics. But something that struck me as odd at the time--and still does today--is, if Korea was a UN effort (and it was), and, if the communist countries that were members of the UN had an input into this course of action, and if this course of action had to be approved by the UN, then what in the hell was in the way of keeping North Korea and China from knowing what action we were going to take before we made a move? This is something that has bugged me all these years.
When I was in Korea, I was of the opinion that any time we could bear arms against communism in the world, it would be worthwhile. Generally, I still do. I have often thought since then, thank God something like that didn't take place on American soil. I have always felt that if Harry Truman had let General MacArthur take care of that war as he wanted to, there wouldn't have been a Vietnam. He should have listened to the man he put in charge of getting it done. I think that Truman was wrong by firing MacArthur. We had the one weapon that could have ended it all at the Yalu River.
Yes, South Korea was worth saving, although I get pretty damn mad when I see those college students over there doing their rioting. At least South Korea is free. All they have to do is look at North Korea to see the difference. When I read about the riots, I ask myself, "Why did I spend a year of my life so that they can do this?" Don't they realize that if the United States didn't have troops over there, South Korea wouldn't last as long as a snowball in hell? China, along with Russia, would help North Korea overrun the South again.
Korea changed any serviceman who went over there during the war. You don't go through something like that and remain unchanged. When I returned, I thought everything was going to be the same. Nothing was the same. Nothing. Not old friends, not family. Nothing. And it was a pretty good while before I concluded that it wasn't them--it was me. Somehow, somewhere, I had lost two years, and they were never to be found. They were gone forever. It is a price that every service person pays. I have told many young men in the 20 to 22 age bracket not to look to me for sympathy for something they did wrong. When I was their age, I had been through a shooting war. "Hell," I tell them, "Grow up and get with the program. Pick up the pieces and move on with your life." To me, that's the bottom line.
I haven't revisited Korea. Every time I think about it, I recall an article I read in the Old Breed News, a publication of the 1st Marine Division Association. It was about this Marine who went back to Korea. What he wrote about the experience all boiled down to the fact that he never did find what he went looking for, and that was that 18-19 year old Marine that he had left over there almost 50 years ago. That statement hit me right between the eyes. I'm afraid that if I go over there, I would be as disappointed as he was, so I have just dismissed the possibility from my mind. My wife's stepfather, a World War II Marine with the 3rd Division, returned for the 50th anniversary of the Iwo Jima landing. He had participated in the landing that many years ago, and received a Purple Heart for his efforts. He took his 30+ year old daughter with him (my wife's half sister), and was able to point out to her where he was wounded on Iwo. To me, that was awesome. He was the only local Marine who made that trip, but the local news media did not pick up on it. That makes me mad as hell.
Reading about the recent Associated Press stories about some sort of massacre of civilians that was supposed to have taken place during the Korean War doesn't make me happy either. I have never been able to understand why we didn't hear about it when we were over there. I don't recall anything ever being said about such as that happening. Why did it come up 50 years later? If it was a question of shoot first and ask questions later, I definitely would be inclined to pull the trigger. During war, there are always some trigger-happy cowboys who can't wait to kill, and that's something that they will have to live with personally. But I can't imagine any unit commander ordering such a thing. We left a lot of American G.I.s over there who paid the price for anything we might have done wrong.
Although I wish there wasn't any such thing, there can only be so much done in searching for MIAs. I have an uncle buried in a common grave with the remains of two others at Arlington. At the point in time that he was killed in a plane crash, there weren't any DNA tests. The bones were close together, so they were put in a common grave. Frankly, I don't have a problem with not being able to account for an MIA after so many years.
Since my wife has a computer and decided to go online, I decided to see what I could do to find some old buddies, and I have found five. One of them didn't want to be found. I have called and talked to these guys, and I can't tell you the feeling that I had. It was wonderful. One of them, along with his wife, visited me last summer--Mr. and Mrs. Roland Hare from Lansdale, PA. And then there's my old buddy from Maine, Dale Brown, who found me. A story about that. I was in the reserves and in 1957 we were scheduled to go to Barstow, California, to a Marine supply depot for our two weeks annual training. We flew out there on chartered commercial air and landed at an air strip there on the base. Dale was living in the area and was assigned to the rifle range. He saw the name of our Memphis reserve outfit on the shooting schedule and looked me up. With the rigorous schedule we had, I didn't get to see him much. I had to spend the weekend with a first cousin in Lancaster, California, who was stationed at Edwards AF Base. But still, seeing my old boot camp buddy was a surprise. Dale has visited in my home and my wife and I made a trip to see him in Maine. I now see Dale a couple of times a year when we go fishing on the White River. In 2001, I was the best man at his wedding in Illinois. We also correspond by e-mail almost every day.
In all the years since Korea, I have never put any of my Korean experiences on paper, nor have I ever elaborated on them. I didn't feel that I could leave it behind and forge head if I continuously talked about it. Some things are better left forgotten. Nevertheless, I think our schools are missing a golden opportunity by not utilizing our American veterans to give students a firsthand knowledge of war and what it's like to leave home, family, and friends to go to a distant land and help defend it.
Doing drugs, puffing on cigarettes, and getting some young girl pregnant isn't tough. Being the best Marine that you can be in combat is being tough. In my youth, I accepted that challenge for myself. And I did it. It was one of the best experiences of my life and probably the best thing that could have happened to me at the time. Korea gained, and I did also.
I have always felt intimidated by the World War II vets, and to me, justifiably so. For they were the ones who gave, and gave until it hurt. Korean vets were out of place for only a year. Some of those World War II guys were gone for four years. That's a hell of a difference. I have always had a soft place for those South Pacific guys. It had to be rough trying to adjust to that tropical heat and humidity. The military sure doesn't try to match you with your climate. I now stand, and always will stand, in the shadow of the World War II veterans, and that I don't mind. In fact, I am proud to be in their shadow. Those of us who were in the Korean War grew up during World War II, which was a time of deeper patriotism. We had seen first hand what the World War II vets did, and we had one hell of a pattern to follow.
I am a member of the 1st Marine Division Association and its Tennessee chapter Shofner Unit. One of the men instrumental in getting our chapter started saw combat in the South Pacific. He spent three years in the Marine Corps in World War II and came out a private. He came home, joined the Army National Guard, and spent the next thirty years as a member. He took a reserve retirement as a full bird colonel. Yet, he never speaks of the Army--only the Corps. Why? Because once a Marine, always a Marine.
I personally have no bells to ring, no horns to blow, and no flags to wave. I joined, I was called, I went, I served. And I am damn proud of it.
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