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Robert Echelbarger Poetry

On The Line: Poetic Reflections on a War

Robert Echelbarger of Mason City, Iowa was a private first class who worked his way up to a sergeant during the Korean War. Beginning in 1946 he served a two year hitch in the military, then joined the inactive reserves. He was recalled to active duty when the Korean War broke out, and served with F-2-5 Marines in Korea from February of 1951 to Christmas of 1951.

 


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I am

I am a man with a mind that cannot rest.
I wonder what causes these flashes of thought.
I hear they are ghosts of unsolved problems returning to haunt me.
I see the spirits of yesterday coming forth.
I want them exorcised so I can be at peace.
I am a man with a mind that cannot rest.

I pretend the thoughts have no meaning and cannot harm me.
I feel the presence of those I have wronged.
I touch upon their lives in my mind now and again.
I worry that I may be called upon for an accounting.
I cry because of the agony churning within my mind.
I am a man with a mind that cannot rest.


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Going To War

The New Testament lay open in my lap. As I gaze at the wake of the ship. The boiling water narrows and becomes a line as it reaches out to the rising sun.

I’m not especially religious. In fact I never thought much about God, but I am a practical young man. I am on my way to war. It is a Legal Police Action and the President is sending me to Korea. Each turn of the propeller is taking me farther and farther away, from those I love; my new wife, mother, father, and brothers too.

I am a machine gunner by training and am yet to be tested in battle. Gunners don’t fare too well, so the statistics show. The last I heard, the war is going badly and my profession is in great demand. If or when death’s dark door opens will I be prepared?

It seems prudent to read about God and his Son and the promises they made. I think it is quite likely I may be standing in judgment before them in the near future.

Questions are running rampant within my mind. Am I capable of killing another human being? Will I be able to kill, for my country? Will I be able to endure the pain and agony of my torn and rent flesh, should that be my fate?

What does this book have to say to me? Is Jesus the Son of God? It seems logical. There are many who do believe. If I kill someone before I die, will that cause problems up there? If a read the Testament, will it make me stronger?

Maybe I should read this Book. After all it may do me some good. Will it be better for me if I really do believe? Will it be better?

[Echelbarger’s note on the poem above: These thoughts were running through my mind as I watched a sunrise in February, 1951. I was on the troop ship U.S.S. Breckenridge headed west. The retreat from the Chosen Reservoir was over and the Marines were waiting for replacements before heading North again. Some observers quoted statistics about machine gunners lasting less than one minute in a fire fight, because they attracted too much attention. I was 22 years old.]


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Running on Empty

He slumped, rather than sat in the dirt. His eyes had the look of the undead, as they stared at the earth. His face was streaked with the accumulated dirt of weeks. His helmet sat heavy on his head as his cumbersome pack sent waves of pain rippling up and down his back.

He leaned against his weapon of death as his muscles screamed in protest. His body was beginning to dispute the signals sent from his brain to march again. His belly was growling and shrinking in retreat, because there had been no time or energy to eat.

A short time ago the concussion of mortar blasts had come too close and fast he had felt death’s hot breath, as fragments of steel flashed past his chest. He had heard the bullets snap as they flew close and past. The cries of pain still sounded in his ears when his buddies spilled their blood and tears. Sanity had almost slipped from his grasp. Deep within his mind he continued an endless debate. Would I live or die on this date?

All thoughts of home and family, wife and child were put aside for awhile. He was living life in its simplest form. Would I ever be able to rest and keep warm?

One more hill to climb before he could rest, unless of course the enemy would protest. Would he be able to rise again when the break came to an end? One more hill to climb. One more hill.


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Are They Coming Tonight?

The blood red sun sets beyond the hill. The darkness of night spills into my foxhole.
As I settle into the earth I surround myself with tools of death. Stars appear one by one as a voice from within asks, "Will they come tonight?"

The hours pass slowly, one by one. The night chill of early spring seeps into my weary bones. In the distant valley, a flare chases away the stars. Fire flies appear all in a row and disappear one by one. As the stars and quiet reappear, the voice from within repeats, "Will they come tonight?" As I lean against my waiting rifle, the voice speaks again. "Will you be a victim or an instrument of death this night?"

No night birds herald the spring in this war torn land. Death rules the darkness and specters wander here and there. The voice from within begins again, "Will they come………" Before the sentence ends, the notes from a bugle flow from across the valley and into my listening ears. The notes are replaced by the muted baying of hounds loosed from hell, and hot on the scent. Voices rise and fall from the valley floor. Overhead rustling sounds of night birds of death, complete their flight with shards of steel seeking human flesh. Flares replace the stars of night, and the fire flies line up in their lethal flight; the voice from within shrieks out, "they are coming tonight!"


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Little Porcelain Doll

The little porcelain doll stood by the side of the road that early spring day in 1951.
Her dark almond eyes registered the hopelessness within her soul; fear shown within her eyes like that of an innocent fawn cornered by wolves with no place to hide.

She watched with tear stained cheeks as we dealers of death slogged by. Her silent lips and staring eyes seemed to ask the question, "Why?" The little porcelain doll slumped with her shoulders pulled back, by a cumbersome pack. Her once white gown was streaked by dirt and grime. Her delicate bare feet were bruised and flecked with blood.

I asked myself, "Why do you cry, little porcelain doll? Is it because your childhood innocence has been destroyed? I know you are weary little porcelain doll, and carry you I would—if I could."

"Like you, I have no place to lay my head or a house to call my own. Both of us are victims of war, over which we have no control; your future lies in flight, and perhaps survive. My destiny is to fight, and possibly die."

"Yes, little porcelain doll, I will never see you again as you disappear from sight.
Your haunting face will return to my mind, during the quiet hours of night. You will always have a special place in my heart. Little porcelain doll. Oh, little porcelain doll."


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Paul

It began with a "Thunk! Thunk! Thunk!" from a distant hill.

One thousand and one, where can I find cover?
One thousand and two, how long do I have?
One thousand and three, do they have the range?
One thousand and four. no time to dig a hole.
One thousand and five, no time to run.
One thousand and six, they should be getting here soon.
One thousand and seven, why don’t they come?
One thousand and eight, is that a whispering sound I hear?
One thousand and nine, I hope I am in the right spot.
One thousand and ten, here they come!
One thousand and eleven, Steel birds of death are shrieking.
One thousand and twelve, Hammer blows pound my body, again and again.
As dirt rains down.

The hot breath of hell blows over me. Will it ever end? My head is groggy, but no pain is registering yet. I must be O.K. because I am up and running, But where is Paul?

There he is so quiet and unmoving. His body looks like a rag doll tossed aside by a bored child. He looks up at me with eyes that do not see. Black dirt on his face mingles with his black skin. If it weren’t for the bright red blood trickling from his ears, I would have expected him to speak. Is it a look of wonder or resignation that lingers on his face? Why didn’t you run good buddy? Why didn’t you run?

His skin is black. My skin is white. His blood is red and so is mine. Inside we are the same. His mother and father will mourn him. My mother and father would mourn me. We were lying side by side. His side was death. Maybe in his dying he extended my life. My mind questions, why you and not me? Why didn’t you run good buddy? Why didn’t you run?


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Preacher Collins

He had a bulbous nose with freckles that abound. He was the tallest red neck around. His hair stuck out here and there. His body took on the shape of a pear.

He had a vision my red neck friend. God had called him to save we Marines from sin.
He said, "You Marines must mend your wicked ways." He forgot about how the Devil likes to play.

Preacher came on the line with armor and sword to do battle with the evil horde.
The Devil began his insidious work accompanied by a mischievous smirk. Day by day and hill by hill he whittled away.

Preacher’s time of trial was at hand, He was about to face his worse nemesis on land. One night while resting, all wrapped in his sleeping bag’s embrace, he felt cozy and safe. As he reclined upon a shelf cut out of clay, the Devil came to play.

Preacher rolled over and off and down and away as he bounced and tumbled, he thundered down. Each time he encountered a rock, or snapped a tree, he would groan and blaspheme away. Some for the words, I never heard him or anyone say. The devil would laugh in glee each time Preacher took out a tree.

As he tumbled on and on, I remarked to my friend, "It looks like he wrestled the Devil, and the Devil did win. He sure doesn’t sound like a preacher to me. Maybe Preacher wants to make it two out of three.


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Lotus Flower

Like a Lotus flower, which germinates in the mud, so too, she surfaced from the filth and muck of war.

She had a delicate oriental face and dark almond shaped eyes. The look of fear was in those eyes. The lips that were meant to smile and melt a man’s heart were drawn tight against her cheeks. Black hair flowed down her slender back with stray wisps blowing here and there.

Her once white garment reached to her ankles and was rent by brush and wire. Delicate feet, which had covered miles and miles were dirty and bruised. Fear of an uncertain future was etched in her delicate face, as they brought her through our lines. Her captors were agents of death and for her death had been a familiar companion.

Silently I queried, where are your parents Lotus Flower? Do you have children, or perhaps a lover? What were you doing over there in that valley of death? Are you friend or foe? Are you scared because you fear us? Are you fearful we will violate your body?

Why do you look deep into my soul, with those beautiful eyes? I mean you no harm. Maybe you are bound for a better life Maybe you will be able to sleep safe tonight. Maybe tomorrow you will be on the way to anew life. Some of your captors face a worse fate. Death in battle may be their destiny.

Move on Lotus flower; move on to a better life. We are here to make your tomorrows better. Like your name sake, you too can rise from the mud, and blossom into the delicate flower I see in my mind’s eye. You are safe now Lotus flower, you are safe.


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No Pictures! No Pictures!

The words came rippling down the line. "No pictures! No pictures! Put all your cameras away, Do what all the lieutenants say." I hiked up the road all bent over under my load, I thought to myself, "Something is strange." Early this morning I knew something was wrong. We were marching up a road, instead of climbing hills like toads.

As I rounded the bend, I saw the trucks. They were all lined up, bumper to bumper like sitting ducks. I had heard the Chinese had broken the Army’s back, when they hit them a few days ago in a massive attack. They had bugged out and faded away like so many cats. We stopped the Chinese before they got too far. They were running away north, apparently in haste.

We were hot on their heels trying to plug the gap, but we were also looking for a trap. As we passed truck after truck I kept wondering, "Why no pictures?" We all know the army doesn’t have much luck. As we approached the end of the line, I saw burned out trucks. There was a stink that sure didn’t smell like wine.

It looked like the fly boys had dropped Napalm on the last of the line. Apparently it was to stop the Chinese from stealing the trucks.

There was a burned out ambulance that set in the track. From a distance I noticed a figure hanging out back. His face was turned upward, and he was reaching out to the sky. As I got closer I noticed he was charred black as the dye. I couldn’t figure out how he was hanging on to the back.

His life had ended in a burst of flame. His image is burned into my mind today. I wonder who took his life away. Was he signaling to our planes before he came to grief? Did he look at the falling tanks and wonder in disbelief? Did hope turn to despair when he finally realized he had lost the wounded placed in his care?

Now I know why no pictures were allowed. Who in his right mind would want to record such a scene? However, it will always be playing on my mind’s inner screen. "No pictures! No pictures."


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Vienna Sausages

Hot chow! Hot chow!
All we’ve had to eat is C-6’s up to now. They are all set up in the valley cooking up the chow. Hurry! Hurry! My stomach thinks my throat has been cut. I can’t stand my growling gut. I haven’t eaten for a day and a half. I can see the tents now. Everybody line up. No trays, no knives, forks, or spoons. Use your own mess gear. Mess gear, you’ve got me in tears. Too much weight to carry on the line We threw them away a long ago time.

"What am I going to put food in Mac?"
"Here I’ll use the helmet, that’s on my pack. Just dump it in, and get off my back." O’boy, Vienna Sausages, and mashed potato goo. Dump in the corn, it looks good too. Butter and white bread, it looks so good, it makes me dizzy in the head. Fill my canteen cup with milk I bet those cookies taste as smooth as silk. Cookies and milk such a delight. Just for that treat alone, I would start a fight.

Sit on a rice paddy wall, and enjoy the best meal of all. So it’s all mixed up— that doesn’t matter in the least. Shovel it in, boy those sausages taste neat. White bread and butter, by itself a feast it all tastes so good and I can eat and eat. The helmet is finally empty and my belly gurgles in glee. Time for a nap and then climb the hill for another two weeks of C’s.

I turn to walk towards friends in my squad, when something horrible happens to my bod. A demon or something grabs and twists my gut and knocks me right on my butt. I fall to the ground writhing in pain. Something pounds my belly again and again; if I don’t know better at first, I would swear I was about to give birth.

Added to the pain, is the fluttering of that special valve. It tells me my body is about to expel. I lurch to my feet and stagger to the trench, to seek out that infamous bench. "Get out of my way, don’t slow me down. If I don’t get there now, I certainly will drown." Relief finally comes as I hang over that trench. Hang on to me buddy, I’m turning inside out. I may fall of the bench and I feel like all of me is going into the trench." I gain relief, but I am awfully weak. Lying here on the ground is quite a treat. Stomach muscles relax and the belly pains cease. Sweat stains on my face look like grease.

Three hours later we are told it is time to eat, so let all of us be hold. The cook yells out, "It’s time for another treat – Vienna Sausages –all you can eat." My stomach turns over and starts to feel queasy. I thought to myself, "This ain’t gonna be easy." I look at those sausages, all swimming in grease, that before looked sublime. If I eat them again, I’ll go out of my mind. Even the fresh white bread and butter, causes my belly to shudder.

With a look of resignation on a face all covered with grime, I plead with the cook,
"Look buddy, if you don’t mind, I’ll take a can of C-6 Rations this time."


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Korea - On the Line

It comes wailing out of Siberia, like the cry of a banshee singing her song of death. It lingers in the corner of my bunker and penetrates to my inner most soul. Icy fingers violate my body, and send a shuddering chill up and down my spine. Its frigid breath strokes my dirt covered face.

The wind driven snow is a lance of ice that sets my lungs on fire.Death waits outside, not only by shell or blade; perhaps by the banshee’s frigid embrace, after having accepted her invitation to sleep.

Having whispered her invitation, her mournful voice flows down the valley, luring others to her freezing embrace.


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Daughter

As I entered the house that Christmas day, your grandfather was holding you, daughter of mine. Your wispy brown hair and elfin ears reminded me of a fairy tale pixie. Your dark brown eyes looked at me when I called your name. You seemed to wonder, what strange creature are you?

I looked at you and wondered, are you really flesh of my flesh? When you were born some four months ago, I couldn’t even remember your name. You see, I was in a far away land trying to stay alive. I couldn’t afford the luxury of thinking about you; while you were entering this world so many of my friends were leaving through no fault of their own. Death’s dark door remained ajar and several times I almost passed through.

I wish I could have been with you and your mother, when the light of day first entered your eyes. Instead, I witnessed the light leaving my buddy’s eyes for the final time.

Your first cries were signs of an awakening life. My friend’s cries marked the ending of his.

Was it pure chance, or God’s will that allows me to hold you in my arms? I climbed hills without number and endured the fires of hell to be here with you. Are you real, daughter of mine, or just a dream? A dream I used to chase away fear. Are you truly mine?


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Foxes

The foxes gather around the tables to talk of days gone past. They are the Marines of Fox Company who speaks of comrades brought back to life, if only in their minds. Battles in Korea are again fought reliving painful memories.

Their bodies show the effects of passing years. Time lines are etched on their faces; once firm and erect bodies have yielded to age and gravity. These men with rotund figures and vanishing hair speak of flat bellied young men in the prime of their life.

They gather each year to remember. Buddies who paid the price and friendships bonded in war. They speak of many things. Fire fights, both won and lost; the frigid Siberian wind that seared their lungs the wind driven snow; mind numbing rain that drains the body of warmth; the merciless heat and flies; those damn hills and the stench of the dead.

They remember the sounds of death passing close by, and the terrors of the night, both seen and unseen. Some recall the pain of flesh violated by shards of steel.

Most of all they remember their buddies. They can never forget they were all passengers on a trip through hell. They gather to rekindle friendships and bonds forged in the fires of war. They gather to pay homage to those who never had the opportunity to grow old. They gather to be thankful for having survived.

They meet each year to remember a long ago time when each of them had to face their inner most fears; when life was reduced to simple terms. Will I be alive or dead tomorrow? They gather each year to honor their buddies and each other. Yes, the foxes gather each year, to remember and be thankful.


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Those Damn Hills

Those damn Korean hills finally defeated him, this magnificent looking man.
I noticed him slumped by the trail as I struggled by on my blistered feet. His head was bowed in defeat, as tears ran down his dirt streaked cheeks. The cry "Fall out and take ten" rippled down the line. I dropped to the ground at his side and breathed a sigh of relief. I loosened my cartridge belt and thought, "I wish I had something to eat." I loosened the straps on my pack and stretched out on my aching back.

As I looked him over, I noticed the broad shoulders. His muscles bulged through torn and dirty clothes. I asked him, "What’s wrong buddy, did you run out of gas?" His reply was labored, "I just can’t climb these hills anymore, I just can’t climb."

Our platoon sergeant, who was walking the line, stopped by this poor specimen as he reclined. In a voice edged with a rasp he growled, "On your feet and off your ass. Where in the hell are your ammo cans at?" The Adonis looked up at this wisp of a man and a look of anguish registered on his pan. His voice seemed to come from a long distance away as he replied, "I left them at the bottom of the hill. They are just too much to carry, they are just too much."

The sergeant’s eyes seemed to penetrate his very soul. They had the look, of one who could kill. In a voice that was deadly and low, he growled, "Get your ass back down the hill and get those cans." The look in his eyes and the deadly growl gave the poor guy a surge of power. He lurched to his feet and stumbled back down the trail. The sergeant followed him step by step, chewing ass all the way.

I looked at that body all muscled and brown. I wondered, "How long can I last pounding my feet on the ground?

How long can I keep climbing these everlasting hills? After all he was much stronger than I, or so it seemed. More than one Marine has been beaten to his knees, by the multitude of hills and trees. How long can I last, how long?


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A Lonely Place

He lay in winter killed wild flowers and grass that had grown green and lush in the past. Like the grass and flowers, which had completed their cycle of life, he too had bloomed. Now his cycle was completed.

He lay face down with outstretched arms. Was he reaching out to God, or pleading for his life? His light brown hair rippled in the breeze. He had no helmet, no weapon, nor cartridge belt. He still had his shoes on his feet. Whoever took away his life must have moved on in haste. He bore no visible wounds, but they must have been there, to send his soul to its fate.

Why was he here in this lonely place? Where were his friends? He must have left them in haste. The Chinese broke through the line four days ago. Maybe he was one who chose flight, rather than stay and fight. He must have run and run, to escape the terror in the night.

He had lain there long enough for the Missing-in-Action report, to be sent to those he loved. The message would bring despair. The MIA words would be the seeds of hope, probably followed by prayer. The seeds would be sewn in rocky ground that would not burst into life.

Would his mother and father, or perhaps a wife pray for his life; if so, the answer would be no. Why does the memory of him lying there so long ago, haunt me now that I am old? After all he was only a soldier and not one of us. Maybe he would be alive today, had he chosen to stay and fight. Today, I see him in a different light. Maybe, I am grateful, that it was he rather than I.

He lies there in my memory year after year. He comes to visit whenever a cold North wind whispers through the dead grass and flowers of yesteryear.

 

 

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