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Emmett George "Pete" Dammon Jr.
Slidell, Louisiana -
"Pusan was the worst shock I would ever receive. It was a city crowded with refugees from both enemy occupied South Korea and North Korea, with thousands arriving daily with little or no possessions, waifs in the streets naked and eating filthy scraps (if they were lucky enough to find some), the stench of death and dying, and God only knows what else, as Korean food did not whet our appetites."
- Pete Dammon
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I began life as Emmett Jr., on July 14, 1931 in the Alexandria, Louisiana Baptist Hospital and that’s where the stories start. Dad was Emmett, so they all asked Mom while we were still in the hospital, "What will we call him?" Dad's sister Lela, who was Mom's friend long before Mom and Dad were married, said, "Let's call him Pete. Mom said no, but the name stuck and there I was and here I am, Pete.
The Dammons (Damons) arrived soon after the Mayflower (circa 1522, see the book Plymouth Colony), and intermarried with people that were on the Mayflower. They came from Kent, England and had been there at least one generation, but I haven’t established where they came there from originally--maybe Germany or Holland. One ancestor was the only person to fall off the Mayflower. They had trailing ropes for people that fell off sailing vessels in those days and he was able to catch one and was pulled back aboard. Miles Standish was a great---- grandfather. The early Damons/Dammons in America lived in Scituate, Massachusetts, and on into Maine.
My mother was Hazel Myrtle Dammon, born on August 4, 1912 at Ruby, Louisiana, one of 12 children born to very poor share-croppers. Like other farm families, she and the other children worked in the fields and my mother did her share of chopping and picking cotton. It wasn't something she particularly enjoyed. The Loftons go back to England and settled in South Carolina, then Mississippi, and on to Louisiana. I think the Loftons arrived in the 1700's. Mom was a beautiful girl, and as a young mother, she often sat in on our classes when I was in grammar school. The kids always wanted to know when she was coming back. This very Christian lady never said a curse word and never had a bad word for anyone. She passed away in 2006 at the age of 93.
Mom and Dad were married on December 27, 1930, in Mount Olive Episcopal church in Pineville, Louisiana. Pineville is separated from Alexandria by the Red River. My Grandmother Dammon lived at 326 Main street in Pineville, across the street from Mt. Olive church and five cemeteries where my cousin Laura and I spent a lot of time when I went there during summer vacations. Laura, who lives in Gretna now (another story), and I were Grandma's favorites. I was Laura's mom's favorite. She was a woman who was probably possessed and enjoyed tormenting others, except me. Laura and I always played together and especially enjoyed roaming the cemeteries that were directly across the street from Grandma's house. Some 50 years later, I used my knowledge of those cemeteries to find the grave of my wife's grandma. My wife Maxine and I were searching that part of the world for her Jewish Grandmother’s burial place. (My wife's dad was also Jewish.) She didn't have an inkling of where she was buried. After a lot of looking, we went to the Jewish cemetery across the street from where my Grandmother had lived and walked directly to her Grandmother's grave. The headstone had valuable information on where she was born in Germany, etc. I had played near her grave many times, some 60 years before that day.
Dad had a job at the icehouse in Pineville, delivering ice to neighboring communities and rural customers. Mom tells the story that when she was about 16, she was able to leave her parents' place in the country and stay the summer with her aunt in Pineville, where she helped in the rooming house her aunt ran. She went to the store for her aunt and, passing the icehouse, she spotted this handsome guy--you guessed it, Dad. Mom really didn't like being a “poor country girl” who by then had six brothers and sisters. (Dad was from a family of eight children himself.) Mom also said that when she was younger, they were riding In their buggy past an orphanage one day and she lamented, "How nice it would be to be an orphan and have those nice clothes, a nice building to live in, and always plenty to eat. They looked so happy."
It wasn't long before Mom and I accompanied him on his route. Later I went with him, especially on the runs out in the country where a lot of the people only had eggs or other food stuff they had grown to trade or barter for the ice. Dad supported his family on the pennies per day he earned there and at a part-time job in the local movie theater. This was during the Great Depression, which lasted until the end of the 1930's. Quite often a group of men would be standing in the road with shotguns and Dad would have to stop and let them make sure he wasn't the law before letting us through. They were protecting the only job they had--making bootleg whiskey. I guess Dad got a little of that, too. Quite often we got eggs, chickens and vegetables. My brother Gene wrote about the bootleggers in his weekly newspaper editorial. It is copied in the addendum of this memoir.
When I was born, Mom and Dad were living with Grandma Dammon. Mom has often told me how Grandma Dammon took her in and the closeness that developed between them. Of course, Mom had married Grandma's baby boy, the favorite of his older sisters. It was a big house on the main street in Pineville, Louisiana, and fortunately Grandma had relatives who left her money and that helped her keep the house and raise the family when Grandpa Dammon died circa 1916. Grandma was a real matriarch, and Uncle Bootsie, her second son, lived at home and helped pay the bills. He never married, and worked for the Louisiana Highway Department. My cousin Laura, her two siblings Johnny and Carolyn, along with their mother Aileen (Dad's sister), and John their dad, all lived at Grandma's. From time to time, others of Grandma's kids or grandkids lived there during the Great Depression and World War II.
Grandma's mother was Laura Houston Walker, the niece of General Sam Houston. Cousin Carrie, who lived in a big house overlooking the Red River. Having Grandma named after her (my Grandma's name was Carrie Walker Dammon), she left her money and furniture, giant beds and prickly couches, a grand piano, amours, an antique pistol that I now have, and boxes of Sam Houston land grants, personal papers, etc., most of which (the papers) was lost later because Dad trusted a man who advertised that he could authenticate the papers.
The automobile, radio, electric light, and telephone had been invented--or at least perfected to a point that it was useable, by the time I was born, but they were still in their infancy. Actually, my first sight of a television was in the window of Sears department store in Atlanta, just prior to Christmas 1948. My first car had no electric starter. Each telephone had to be connected to a large battery and several households were on each line. One of Mom's first jobs was as a telephone operator. Her dad would meet her on Saturday when she was paid and take her check. She hated him until her later years for the way he treated the children and Grandma Lofton, but now has mellowed to his memory. Grandma Lofton never had a bad thing to say about anyone.
My younger brother was James Warren Dammon, born in January of 1933. He was named after Grandpa Dammon. Dad, Mom, Jim, and I moved from Alexandria, Louisiana to Port Arthur, Texas circa 1935. The 1930's were deep depression years and jobs were scarce, but my Uncle Herbert worked for the Texaco refinery in Port Arthur and helped Dad get a job there. My parents always planned to move back to Alexandria, but that never happened. When relatives came to visit and they commented on the odor from the refineries, Mom and Dad would tell them, "That's the smell of money!" While Dad worked his shifts as an operator at the Texas Company, Mother kept the house, raised a garden, milked the cows and fed the chickens, and gave birth to my brother Gene in 1940. Mama didn't work outside the home, but she was a thrifty homemaker, like so many women of that era, and also found other ways to help family finances. Her delicious homemade dinner rolls were famous among friend and family alike, and when Texaco was out on strike in 1952 for many long months, she packaged and sold the frozen rolls to stores and other restaurants.
My Dad retired from Texaco at the age of 55 with emphysema and he died when he was 89. When he and my mother moved to their beloved home in the Big Thicket after retirement, Mother gathered sphagnum moss to sell to area florists. She also helped acquaint three generations of Dammons with the wonders of the piney woods. Mama knew the names of trees, where to dig for sassafras roots, and how to make a berry cobbler on top of the stove in the length of time it took to clear the plates off the table.
Mother's life was one of service and fidelity, to God, to her husband and children, and to her friends. Her deep and abiding faith was an inspiration to those around her, and she was not shy about sharing her faith. When she met someone, she seldom asked their occupation but always asked if they knew Jesus. She was active in several area churches, and with my father obtained a charter from the Southern Baptist Convention for a new church, which they founded in Hardin County.
I was raised in a suburb of Port Arthur called Pear Ridge, a community of families that arrived for the same reason we had, but mostly Cajun people from southwest Louisiana who spoke a mixture of English and Cajun French. I learned some Cajun French, mostly curse words. We had one of the best quadruple A football teams in the state. We lived in a blue-collar neighborhood on the outskirts of town and enjoyed the expanse of a cattle range that was visible from our house. Jim and I had our chores, but we had plenty of time to play and fish and hunt. We always had a milk cow, usually had one or more horses, chickens, rabbits, and, of course, the family dog. I squirted my brother with milk many times. Jim and I were very close. We did everything together and fought some, too. My brother Gene was born in 1941 in Port Arthur and was named Robert Gene Dammon after Momma's favorite movie star, Robert Taylor. I had no sisters so I learned to wash dishes, iron my shirts, sew, sweep, etc.
I was both a well-behaved and rowdy child. Mom's favorite saying was, “Just wait till your dad gets home.” But most of the time she forgot what we had done before he got home from work. Another was, "I hope you have kids as mean as you." One time when I was about eight, Mom made me help her catch a chicken that she was going to cook. The chicken was fast and I thought I had the answer. I picked up a stick and slammed it on the chicken's neck. The only problem was that Mom had reached her hand out to grab the chicken and you can guess what that stick did. Poor Mom cried and I’m sure I did too. I would call my childhood "rowdy behind Mama and Daddy's backs." Mama used to pretend to want to kiss me when I came in, as much to see if I had been smoking as being loving. But both Mom and Dad were loving and attentive blue collar parents. Though with no background to inspire my brothers and me to excel in academics, they inspired us to be hard workers and have a love of God and country. By the way, all three of us boys are college graduates. I am a Professional Engineer and own a respectable size engineering and architectural design firm. Jim is a retired Baptist minister, and Gene has a degree in accounting and is retired. My siblings and I were close growing up and still are, although living in separate states does have its disadvantages.
My grade school, Terrell Elementary, was a public school in Griffin Park, about three miles from home. That’s when the girls started bothering me. A boulevard led away from school towards home, and in the middle was a cane break with walking paths winding through the cane. Eleanor, a classmate in the first grade, also walked that way, and would entice me into the canes and want to kiss. Well, I liked that, but I hadn’t told Mom or anyone else about this new experience. I was bashful. But as it happened, Eleanor told her aunt, Annie Pearle Rozelle. Annie Pearle's daughter, Maxine Rozelle, was my neighbor and friend. I got some ribbing on that one because when something got to Annie Pearl it also got to Mama. I guess I enjoyed Eleanor, but not the teasing from those old ladies (our mamas) who were all of 24 or 25 years old. Another neighbor, Ramona, and I liked to sit out in the back yard of their house during the spring when the clover was in bloom, and just talk. One evening Ramona brought up the birds and bees. Maxine listened intently, then when we all went home, she asked her mother if that was true. I think we were about six at the time. There were lots and lots more girls. That’s why I worked part-time and bought my own clothes. When I was an usher at the village theater, and when my girl at the moment wasn't there, I would take the candy girls to the balcony. I had the nickname of "Smoochy." It would take a page or two to name all the girls--which I won't do. I will say that we did smooch in those days, but that’s as far as it went.
On Sunday afternoon, December 7, 1941, my brother Jim and I had double-pumped our bike about five miles to the theater in a neighboring town of Groves, Texas. I was 10 years old and Jim was 18 months younger than me at the time. By this time Mama had given up trying to convince us that God didn't want us to go to the movies on Sunday. We had no sooner spent our nine cents to get in and a few cents for candy, taken our seats and the Tarzan or Smiling Jack serial started when the movie stopped and the manager came out and told everyone that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor and that should go home. No one knew where Pearl Harbor was, but living in the city that had the motto, “We Oil the World," it was considered that we might be attacked that night. We flew home on our bikes. The city of Port Arthur was a major oil refining city, but it was not attacked before the day was over as was feared.
My dad's essential job kept him out of World War II. On his off time he loved to build houses. We built several during my school years. Mom had five brothers in World War II. All saw action, and all came home in one piece. One uncle had lost his trigger finger from an ice saw before the war. When he was drafted, they told him he was lucky. With no finger he would never see action. He was trained as a spotter, going in front of the lines and spotting enemy tanks and radioing back to the artillery. Mom's oldest brother worked at Texaco and was essential, and didn't go to war. W.B. (William Butler), was Army, Harvey was Army, Fred was Submariner, Aaron was Navy and Johnny--only three years older than me, was Coast Guard. Johnny had seen a movie while in high school that showed a Coast Guardsman riding the beautiful beaches on a horse, very quiet and serene. Johnny loved horses and that was for him. He joined the Coast Guard and made major landings in Europe and the Pacific as a helmsman on a landing craft.
World War II made me grow up fast. Like a lot of others, I wanted desperately to be in the service, always dreaming of flying a fighter plane. We always had guys on leave that visited our school. Of course, there were battalions of soldiers from the Army camps at Ft. Polk, Claiborne, and others who were very near our house on maneuvers. At the beginning of the war, I was only ten years old. There was a high school aged guy from our neighborhood named Melvin Trumble that came around a lot. He liked Dad a lot, but I think it was as much that Dad had such a pretty wife. Anyway, Melvin joined the Air Force. During the war he was killed over North Africa.
We were all into the war effort. In my grammar school days, we saved our pennies and bought war bond stamps for 10 cents that went into a book. When the book was complete($18.75 worth), we could trade it in for a $25 war bond. We saved everything from rubber for tires to tin foil--all sorts of stuff that was needed to recycle for the war effort. Everything was rationed. Candy was scarce, but delicious when we got it. Mama got extra sugar because she canned fruits and vegetables. She also did other things such as making bandages with the other ladies and all sorts of stuff to make us not dependent on items that were scarce. We always had a big garden, raised calves to butcher for meat, and much else. When the war ended, the only thing I remember about the celebration was going down the street where it was safe and shooting my shotgun several times.
I liked school more than I would admit, but my study habits were such that in high school I didn't do very well. As I said before, my mind was on two things. I wanted to be part of the war effort, and I loved the girls. I liked my teachers. I remember that our P.E. coach and one of the teachers had something going and they got married. (We were all aware of their situation and we followed their progress until they married). It wasn't long after they married that he died with cancer. The whole student body was in shock. I actually worked for my science teacher in his dairy. Why he had a dairy, I'll never figure out because he also did professional photographs for men's soap commercials for Ladies Home Journal and Saturday Evening Post (one of those guys that looked like a 1920's silent film star of a Hemingway film with his hair all slicked back). Many of our female teachers in those days were so dedicated to teaching that they remained old maids all their life.
I played football, but I preferred to be in the bleachers where there was more going on. I played tackle and guard. We went all over the state to football games, hitch-hiking to many of them. It was safe to hitchhike in those days. I participated in the junior volunteer fire department, but not much else. I was in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, but neither was a big influence on me. I did play the part of George Washington in a play while a Cub, but that was because I was the only kid with a pair of knickers. My parents weren't the type to push music lessons or similar activities.
I worked at several different after school and summer jobs. One was as a newspaper carrier. On week days it was an afternoon paper and on Sundays it was a morning paper. I would use my horse a lot on the route. We lived near the end of the route and on Sunday morning I couldn't make it past the house. Mom would deliver the rest (maybe ten papers) for me. Another job was when Clyde Drake and I went into the wholesale bait business. We used my horse and a sled with a 55-gallon drum and seined bait to sell to the bait dealers. We made good money and caught fish that we took home to eat. Clyde recently died and I told his wife that all my pleasant memories of childhood had Clyde in them.
I worked at a dairy after school, cleaning up, hooking up milking machines, etc. I probably worked mostly in the summer, probably three hours a day. My science teacher, Mr. Stancel, owned it and sold milk to a dairy chain. I had various other jobs as well. My first big job was with the Chevrolet Company in the body and paint department for a whopping 25 cents an hour. I was 12, but I lied about my age to get a social security number so I could work at Inman Chevrolet in downtown Port Arthur. At lunch we would look out the second story windows at the girls driving by with their skirts hiked up to catch some air in their non air-conditioned cars. I also went with the bosses on some weekends to their camp on a lake in Louisiana to help do maintenance. That was fun. Then there was the village theater in Port Arthur, enjoying the candy girls as much as the money. Other jobs were delivering milk to stores and in the auto mechanic shop of Mr. Borel, father of my girlfriend at the time, Jeannette. He played a part in my joining the army.
By now its probably easy to see that I really liked the girls, and I did. I bought and paid for my own clothes and saved money, and when the end of the summer came in 1943, I told my dad that I would like to buy a car. He asked how much money I had saved up and I said $60.00. Dad suggested we run an ad in the “autos wanted” section of the paper. It read, “I've got $60.00, what do you have?” I got a call the next week. The man said he had a 1929 Model hand-crank, four-cylinder “A” Ford. I think the wipers were manual as well. I practically bought it before seeing it. I drove it home and owned it and used it to go to school and to various and sundry other things when I wasn't working on it or fixing a flat tire. I remember going to visit Jeannette in the Model A that winter while it was freezing. I had drained the water because of the freeze, so I put kerosene in the radiator. It worked. I drove that car until the end of the war, then sold it to a veteran for $300. The Model A had been damaged when my friend Andrew Mayfield kicked out a back window while horsing around with some other guys while we were on the way home from school. Andrew was an ornery cuss.
I promptly bought a six cylinder 1937 Chevrolet coupe with the $300, and drove that until I joined the Army. The coupe had vacuum operated windshield wipers and mohair seat covers that stuck us when we sat on them. In those days cars could go about 10,000 miles without a ring job if we were lucky. By this time I was a pretty good mechanic, both Dad and I learning from a neighbor named Dutch Cunningham. He was a master mechanic. I remember asking him if he could build an engine from scratch and he said yes with no hesitation. That impressed me and it wasn't long before I could tear them down and rebuild them to actually run. My brother Gene says that I taught him mechanics. I was probably using him and it rubbed off. Later I attended the U.S. Army school for mechanics in Atlanta, Georgia.
Gernest Duplantis was a neighbor that had quit school and joined the merchant marine service during the war. When he came home, he and several other guys went back to school to get their diplomas. Gernest bought a flashy 1939 Chevrolet convertible with a rumble seat. We had high times with that car.
When World War II ended in 1945, I was a daydreaming schoolboy who had missed all the action. Three years later I joined the Army. My high school English teacher had said that she was going to fail me if I didn't go to summer school that summer of 1948. I was having girlfriend problems and had broken up with her. Dad was much stricter than I felt he should be. I was dreading to face my English teacher in my final year of high school. Then a few weeks before I joined the Army, several of us guys (and maybe girls, I don't remember) went to Galveston, Texas one Saturday afternoon, where there was an amusement park that rivaled the one we had in Port Arthur. When I got home at 2:30 a.m., I took off my shoes outside and sneaked in the house. All of a sudden the lights came on and there sat Mom and Dad. On a hot summer day soon thereafter, I asked my dad if I could sign up for the Army. As I recall, I think he practically pushed me out the door. (Incidentally, about ten years ago I contacted my high school English teacher and told her that she had been right and that I had been wrong. It made her day.)
I would have graduated from high school in January, 1950, if I had stayed the course, but I didn’t. In some ways I’m sorry, but I did learn a lot, saw a lot, was able to go to college on the GI Bill, and learned a lot about how to get along with people from all over the United States and the world when I joined the Army.
I always pictured myself during the war as being a pilot, but I had the sense to know I didn't have the education needed for that, so I started looking at and enjoying auto mechanics. I had uncles in every branch of the service. I was eager to get out into the world and be my own boss, and mistakenly thought the Army would give me this freedom.
I traveled alone to Houston to be inducted. I had one night in downtown Houston and went for a walk. To my surprise, I ran into a girl on the street that had been in school with me the year before. In school she was a beautiful girl, and she was beautiful that night, too. We talked a little while before I realized she was a streetwalker. She told me that I was too good of a person to be with her, that she had always admired me at school, and then we parted. I have always been bothered about how such a nice and very pretty girl could fall into a trap like that. Only tonight as I write this do I realize that she may have just been there for summer vacation and been planning to go back to school in the fall. Maybe she was forced into prostitution. I remember her name, but I will remain silent lest an old classmate happens on to this missive.
The next day, August 23, 1948, I held up my hand, swore allegiance to my country, and almost immediately said to myself, "Why did you do that, Stupid?" I said that a lot of times, but looking back after the war and especially in later life, those were some of the best times of my life. I was with the same men practically my entire four years of service. (We started out as boys and ended up men.) I had some very close friends, some whacky ones, and all kinds of adventures.
My Army adventure didn't start out in quest of adventure, but was adventurous from the start, taking the Sunset Limited from Houston, Texas, to Fort Ord, California. I left Houston in a tee shirt on my first trip west, and when we arrived in Los Angeles, I had to buy something more substantial to wear. It was cold. I had never experienced this cold weather in August. Our trip out from Houston had taken us through some of the most beautiful desert and mountain country I have ever seen. I got sick on the train and the guy in charge of our group of about twelve said I was homesick. After a couple of days, my fever went away and I was okay. I have always thought I ate something that did me in. We had stopped several times, once in El Paso where I later spent some time at Fort Bliss, and in Yuma, Arizona. I still have a postcard that I purchased there. It shows the railroad station and cactus plants. Hot and desolate.
The part I remember most about the trip was the train chugging up long grades in beautiful, semi-arid prairie land and through the mountain passes. Later I took trips on public trains in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Arkansas for military purposes, but this trip lingers in my memory as the prettiest of all. We had sleeping berths and we ate in the dining car, the Sunset Limited being the best of the best trains of the day. Air travel wasn't really an option in 1948, as airlines were in their infancy and not generally used for transporting soldiers.
I don’t recall conversations with the group of guys headed to Fort Ord with me, nor do I recall the civilians. There must have been some conversations, as I remember playing cards on the train. I remember the train rides in the following years in uniform, traveling along a route from Fort Bliss to Camp Chaffee, Arkansas, to pick up vehicles to drive back to Fort Bliss. In those days the trains were used like busses to make stops at every little town along the way, especially in Oklahoma, where each station meant more pretty girls who delighted to sit and talk with us soldier boys. This was the late 1940`s, when men in uniform were all heroes.
As I recall, it took three days to get to Los Angeles, and then the better part of the next day to get to Fort Ord. We spent the day in Los Angeles, seeing some of the sites near the station. We arrived at Fort Ord and it was even colder. The weather was always chilly to cold in the morning, hot in the afternoon, and cold at night.
I have no memories of my first day at Ft. Ord, but my photos show that I was at the headquarters for the 22nd Infantry Division. I was put into a barracks with several guys that I would be with my entire Army career. Later we went to Atlanta General depot (Atlanta, Georgia), for schooling in auto mechanics. In Atlanta we were joined by other guys from the northeast. We all made up a group that mostly stayed together from late 1948 until we were discharged in 1952.
Ft. Ord had two-story wooden barracks that were neatly lined in a row with wide wooden steps that the guys used to lounge on when we were not busy. There was one platoon on each floor. The fort sprawled for miles on the rocky coast of California, about 100 miles south of San Francisco. There were woods (a forest) in back of the fort that was used for training. The whole place was in a beautiful setting, and when I returned to the area circa 1990, the fort had been replaced with subdivisions and towns.
Basic training at Ft. Ord was nine weeks. The sergeant in charge of our platoon had recently been released from the hospital where he was recovering from wounds suffered on the Bataan death march. One of the friends that I had just met at Ft. Ord was from the state of Maine. He had driven his 1933 Plymouth to Ft. Ord. The sergeant didn't have an auto, so he used my friend's car during the week and we got to work the telephone detail in the mountains, ride in the weapons carrier for the twenty-mile hike, and have weekend passes that we used to see the sites in Salinas, Monterey, Carmel, and even San Francisco--where we went to the Dime-a- Dance club.
I have fond memories of the area. We traveled to San Francisco by hitch hiking a ride with a trucker. We also visited Salinas, and, of course, there were the beautiful towns of Monterey and Carmel by the sea. I recall seeing Dutch doors in Carmel that people left open during the day and flowers everywhere I looked. By this time of the year, the weather back home had dried all the foliage and the grass had turned brown, but here everything was lush and looked just like the movies that were shot there. I still remember the docks in Monterey. They could have been in a nineteenth century setting. I have or had a photo of me (close up) taken at one of those machines where you put your money in and it took your photo. I looked like I was some homesick. The photo was one that was probably destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, and that story will come much later. One couldn't go to a bar in California and pay for a drink. The patrons all wanted to pay for those who were in uniform. Ft Ord probably had the most beautiful soldiers' club in the states in those days, with a beautiful view of the Pacific from its perch on the rocky coastline.
This was my first experience at meeting other guys my age that hailed from all over the States and also from the American possessions. One day while in the day room, I witnessed a fight between two guys, one from Hawaii, the other from Puerto Rico. They were both rather small, but were going at it on the floor. I decided to help and break it up, but to my consternation they both jumped me for interfering. I learned a lesson. Those guys fought for fun. I enjoyed meeting all these guys who were from all different parts of the country and all with life stories that either somewhat paralleled my own, or were interesting just the same. I don't recall any black recruits in basic training. I'm sure there were some, but the army was totally segregated in 1948. In 1949 we got a black guy in our company. I think this was part of "testing the water." (More on this later.)
As I mentioned earlier, most of us stayed together for the three years of our enlistment and the Truman year that we received while in Korea. There was Richard Carr from Los Angeles, California, who had his girlfriend up from LA one weekend; John Baker from Olympia, Washington, who was later badly wounded when he sat down in a crashed F80 shooting star near Seoul, Korea, and mistakenly pulled the eject lever; others whose names I do remember; and others that I can still see their face but their name has been erased from my memory. We made weekend trips to places like Hollister, California to the Motorcycle Hill Climb races, San Francisco, and so on, enjoying it all. There were times of homesickness, as this was my first time away from home. I began to realize how great my parents were. Some of these guys didn't come from a loving family, and some had no family at all. Some came from real poverty, and I guess some came to escape punishment from the authorities. As well as I can remember, we melted together very nicely.
Having joined a peacetime army, I have always considered that basic training was not as stringent as it would have been if we were looking at being sent into combat after basic training. The thought of going into combat never crossed my mind. We had just won World War II. Why would there ever be a need for another war? America was junking all its war machines. Civilians could buy a P51 Mustang fighting plane for a few dollars. No, there would never be a need for my combat training. (Wrong.)
Our instructors were firm but decent, and as stated earlier, we spent a good bit of time fighting forest fires in the mountains near Sacramento and then San Jose. That was hot and sweaty and we probably spent as much time in the mountains fighting the fires as in camp doing the Army thing. The army used wool olive drab uniforms year round at Ord. They were nice to have on in the early morning and late afternoon, but hell to wear during the mid day heat.
Our day started with a wake up announcement from our platoon leader who explained what we should “drop” and what we should grab in no uncertain words. We had to dress, make our beds, and fall in outside in a definite time--which we learned fast to keep the harmony. As I recall, on Saturday morning the barracks had to be scrubbed with GI brushes and octagon soap. I also seem to remember that we visited the Soldiers club on the weekends. We drank the beer they sold that had a lesser percentage of alcohol than civilian beer, but it cost less and was good. We were fed as if we were cattle and being fattened up to butcher for home consumption. I remember breakfast with eggs and potatoes. We had bear meat a couple of times and on Sunday nights there were cold cuts.
We did night marches into the woods on occasion under full pack. Some of these were initiated after we had just gotten to sleep after lights out when the PA system played someone's version of taps. I honestly don't recall having witnessed corporal punishment, but I know that some recruits were put on details when they failed inspections, etc. I don't recall being personally in trouble or disciplined while I was in basic training and I did not see others disciplined for doing something wrong. In those days, one didn't "quit" the army. It wasn't allowed. If you wet your bed, it wouldn't get you a discharge. I don't remember anyone not making it.
We qualified as infantry riflemen and with machine guns, Browning automatic rifles, and grenades. During basic we were also given tests to determine what schools we were qualified for after basic. I qualified to go to Wheel Vehicle Auto Mechanic (WVAM) school in Atlanta, Georgia, for advanced training, and spent my army career and some time later as a veteran doing just that.
By the time I graduated from basic training, I was heavier, had gained some muscle, and I'm sure I thought I was grown up. I had also earned my GED during basic training. I used it much later to enroll in college. I was completely happy to go to school to learn more about vehicles, and since I hadn't bargained for additional training, I was quite pleased.
We went by troop train directly to Atlanta for WVAM school. A class was starting in two weeks and we spent most of the time on rail sidings, as civilian rail traffic was much more important in late 1948. I think it took nearly the whole two weeks to get there. We traveled a route that took us through Birmingham, Alabama during November. Realizing that trains don't go through the nice parts of big cities, I still have to say that this sight has stood out in my mind as the worst looking sight I had ever seen. Smoke was billowing from the (I think) steel mills as far as the eye could see, clinging low to the ground in the damp November 1948 atmosphere.
We arrived at Atlanta General Depot (AGD) about the 1st of November 1948. AGD was, among other distinctions, the home base of the Graves Registration Depot for that part of the country. In 1948, World War II casualties were still being brought home for burial, and they were busy at their task. Army ordnance had also set up schooling at AGD, with very elaborate classroom and shop training for Mechanics.
By the time I joined the Army in 1948, I was well into auto mechanics with no knowledge of why it worked. During the summer of 1943, I was 12 years old. Our family automobile was a 1937 Chevrolet that had the fenders mostly rusted away by the salt air. As all engines did in those days, our engine reached the limit of about 15,000 miles and required an overhaul. These were war years and nobody could get new or even good used cars, as there were no new autos built for the civilian population. Our neighbor, Dutch Cunningham (a nice older guy who had a mean-looking wife) helped Dad overhaul the engine. It impressed me to no end that Mr. Cunningham could take that engine apart, put it back together with new rings on the pistons, grind the valves, and make it run. I distinctly remember asking him if he could build an engine and make it run, and he said he could. I know now that he probably meant he could buy the parts and assemble them into a working engine. It wasn't too many years later that I was able to say the same thing.
That summer I worked for the Chevrolet dealership in Port Arthur (Inman Chevrolet) in its body shop. I remember that the first shift on the steering column had been introduced. The manager asked if I could drive and I said yes. But when they told me to take a pickup truck to deliver parts, I couldn't because I had never learned to shift with the shift on the steering column and, of course, that was what he wanted me to drive. The next year I bought my first car (the 1929 Model A Ford I spoke about earlier). After that, I worked for my girlfriend Jeanette’s father, Joc Borel, in his auto repair shop.
WVAM training lasted four months. We generally started out with class work and then moved on to both classes and shop work, and all training took place on the base. We had classroom instruction (with pop tests and final exams just as in high school) that included the principles of combustion--why and how an internal combustion engine works, principles of the carburetor, some of the basic electrical principles governing the design of starters, generators and relays, and instruction about batteries and tires. We were trained to perform any and all maintenance (do a complete overhaul) on all wheeled vehicles the Army had at that time. This ranged from the Jeep to the ¾ ton Dodge weapons carrier which was the proverbial 6x6 work horse of the Army, tank retrievers, tractor trailers, etc.
I enjoyed the training (we all did) and meeting guys from all over. This was my introduction to Anthony Juliano from Brooklyn who stood at the mirror and worried about his hair falling out; Christopher “Muz” Merlino, also from Brooklyn; Jim Manor from Florida, a lovable guy that was country and proud of it; Eddie Beym from Hackensack, New Jersey who started writing my cousin while we were in Korea and came home and married her before I could talk sense into her; Bill Jensen from Wooster, Massachusetts, who I kept up with through the years; and others that were my friends for the entire enlistment.
Generally Saturday afternoon through Sunday night was free. Atlanta had something like five women to every man in 1948--a soldier's paradise. We could catch a bus on campus and I seem to recall it was about a 30-minute ride to downtown. There were also USO dances on the base and I met a very nice young lady there by the name of Geneva Hamby. I will always remember Geneva and the good times I had dating her for the next three months. There was no sex involved (one didn't start out a relationship with sex in 1948)--just good companionship. We saw each other each weekend and went sight-seeing. She seemed to enjoy it. I recall that I also spent Thanksgiving with her family as our time off was insufficient to go home. I had told her a lie though. She was 21, so I added a couple of years to my age to make me 20. After I moved on to my next assignment in El Paso we kept in touch by mail, but it fizzled because I started to get serious with a girl back home who I had known since I had first worked for her dad in his grocery. I spent time with her when I went home at Christmas for a short leave. On the bus from Atlanta to my hometown of Port Arthur for the holiday, a young man sat next to me who wanted to pray the whole trip. That was new to me.
Duty at Fort Bliss
Our training ended in Atlanta and we left there for duty at our permanent base at Fort Bliss, Texas. We were the same group that had come from Ft. Ord, plus the East Coast guys that had joined us at AGD. We arrived in New Orleans early the next morning. The train station was still at the foot of Canal street in those days, and when we stepped out of the station, we were downtown. We had an eight-hour layover, and it was Mardi Gras Day 1949. Most of us quickly moved out into the crowds and took in the sights around the station--all except one young soldier (whose name I won’t divulge), who met this pretty young girl in the station and spent the day with her. When we re-boarded the train that afternoon, and for the next five days, he bragged about his conquest. It was then that he stopped bragging and went on sick call. Needless to say, he attracted a lot of comments.
On leaving New Orleans heading west through the Cajun country on the Sunset Limited, I sat next to a cute girl that was approximately my age. She was a student at Dominican College in New Orleans and was headed to New Iberia, Louisiana, for the holidays. She invited me to get off in New Iberia and visit with her and her family. ( I didn't.) Years later after I married my wife Maxine, one of her old friends, who is now the wife of Dr. Gene Dauterive, swears that she was the girl. Maxine, Babette Dautrieve, and about three other girls from New Iberia were all at Dominican at that time.
We arrived in Beaumont, Texas, early the next morning for a fifteen-minute stop, after which we were to go to Houston for a four-hour layover. Mom, Dad, and my two brothers met us in Beaumont. I rode with them to the Southern Pacific station in Houston, arriving there in plenty of time to re-board after having lunch and spending cherished time with my family.
We arrived at Fort Bliss in the early spring of 1949 and remained there until the Korean War broke out in the summer of 1950. Upon arrival in El Paso, we became part of the 512th Ordnance Heavy Automotive Maintenance Company (512th H.A.M.), which was being re-activated from the shut down after World War II in Europe. We arrived about the same time the cadre arrived. There were no problems to be faced in the reactivation process other than with a few people who had been transferred to the 512th to get rid of them from their former company because they were trouble. Captain Head was swift to pass them along.
We were assigned quarters that were a hold-over from the old cavalry days. They were horseshoe-shaped with the open end center having been used for a corral of sorts to tie their horses when on duty. The windows were the sliding type circa 1900, and, as we found out later, did nothing to keep out dust storms. The toilets and showers were in the rear that connected the two sides of the horseshoe. The buildings had not been used for some time, so our first project was to clean them. I recall being on the detail that cleaned the toilets. As all surfaces do in that part of the country from exposure to the water, the water closets (commodes) had a build-up of 50 years of calcium. We used single-edge razor blades to scrape off the calcium, and it took several hours to do one toilet. I found out very soon that I did not need to take a towel with me to take a shower. It was sufficient to wipe myself down with a wash cloth and I would be dry before I reached my bunk.
The bunks! They were not bad for young backs, but every afternoon when we returned from work we had to shake the sand out of the blanket that covered our bed in a tiny area that was our living room/bedroom, and where we lounged, slept, shot the bull, argued, and once in a while watched a fight. We had a day room that would in 2007 (the year I am writing this) be adorned with televisions and electronic features. But in 1948 we had a piano and a pool table, and reading material. I don't remember a radio.
Across the street and down a few hundred feet was located the 1st Ordnance Company that worked on tanks, etc. There was a parade ground directly across the street that we regularly policed for cigarette butts. I recall that I enjoyed parading on the parade ground, but some of the guys passed out from the heat. Our work at Bliss was more like civilians that regimented Army. We fell out for roll call in the morning, went by truck to the shops, and quit at 4:30 or 5 p.m. We ate at the mess hall and had the evening to do as we pleased. We had some Saturday morning chores and inspections that included our trucks, but Saturday afternoons and Sundays were open and we used them to the fullest.
Captain Head was in command. He and most all officers and non-coms were World War II veterans. The only exception was a young looking Master Sergeant (O`Brian) who was in charge of my platoon. He went out drinking with us later on and was the only one they asked for an ID. It was embarrassing to him, but we loved it. Sergeant O`Brian got a battlefield commission after we got to Korea. We had another Master Sergeant (Peckham) who was a very serious full-blooded American Indian. When we saw him with his wife, she was always three paces behind him. We assumed that to be a habit of his tribe. One of the enlisted men, Private Reed, had been in World War II and was the company drunk. His job was to look after the Captain's dog. I remember one weekend that the Captain's dog turned up missing. Reed had gone to a nearby liquor store and tried to hock the dog for a bottle. The owner called the Captain and it was worked out.
Remembrances of a year and a half at Fort Bliss and El Paso could take a year to write, but I will hit some of the high spots. El Paso was nine hundred and seventy miles from Port Arthur by automobile in those days before the interstate. I had bought a 1940 Chevrolet on my first trip home, and for the next year, about every two months some of us guys would load up on Friday afternoon, drive thirteen hours to Port Arthur while swapping off driving and napping, spend Saturday and Sunday with my family and friends, and drive back to Ft. Bliss for roll call on Monday morning. Juarez, Mexico was on the other side of the border. We went there for bull fights and entertainment of other persuasions. The prices were right and there were lots of pretty girls. In those days the military command made a lot of demands on the city of Juarez to keep the soldiers safe and well.
Once while at El Paso, I was part of a group of guys that took the train from there to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. We were under the command of M/Sgt John Ryan. The group included A. R. Hightower, F.L. Laduke from Tacoma, Washington, C. K. Mellor, Chris Merlino who went home with me to Port Arthur a couple of times, B. Miller, A.S. Evans, C. Cunningham, and me. We had a delightful trip going there, and on the way home we drove the jeeps, thoroughly enjoying the task. Later, when we went to Colorado to pick up vehicles, we ran into trouble on the way back. We were coming up to the top of Raton Pass and this time we had a captain in charge. He decided that it would be nice to stop at the only store there and let us rest and buy cold drinks. He approached the store alone to see if it was okay for us to stop there. The store owner said that he didn't want any soldiers in his store. The captain reportedly told him what he thought of him and we left. I don't recall how far it was to the next town, but I remember it to be some time before we got there.
I had friends back home with whom I had worked from time to time at local rodeos. While in El Paso, I saw an advertisement for a rodeo coming to town and told my friend Bill Jenson from Worcester, Massachusetts that the rodeo was coming and I would introduce him to one of the riders. Bill didn't believe me until we got there and I introduced him to Norman Martin, who had gone to college on a rodeo-riding scholarship at Texas Western College. Mom, Dad and my brothers came to El Paso the summer of 1949, too. We went to Juarez, Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico, and generally saw the sights in the area. I think that was the first time Mom and Dad had ever been on what could be described as a "vacation."
I am a junior (Emmett Dammon Jr.). Dad never felt the need to sign his name with the 'Sr.' label. I guess Mom wanted me closer to home, which would have been San Antonio, so Dad wrote Lyndon Johnson who was the Texas State Senator and head of the Armed Forces Committee at the time. He asked that Senator Johnson get me transferred to San Antonio, and signed the letter as usual with no 'Sr.' The letter was sent through channels down to the Battalion Commander, who called me on the carpet. I told him it was not me, but rather my father who must have written to the Senator, and that I had no ambition to be moved to San Antonio. It worked.
My cousin Lee "Son" Dammon was a Lieutenant in the Air Force, and he was stationed at Biggs Field, which was an Air Force base that abutted Ft. Bliss. Son was probably eight years my senior, and his wife Florece and their two infant children lived there. We went fishing up in New Mexico from time to time and I babysat for Florece when Son was on a mission flying to who knows where. One day I was driving Son's car with Florece and the children back into Biggs Field. When I drove through the gate, the AP waved me through and saluted. When I didn't salute back, he blew his whistle to stop me. I had no idea what the problem was, but he chewed me out because I didn't return the salute. It was a stupid thing for him to do, as when Son got home he went to the gate and chewed back. Son was a reservist who stayed on active duty for over twenty years, after which he flew for the CIA out of Thailand. He later flew for Industry in Alaska, but quit because he said they were all crazy pilots.
My friend Jim Manor got a car before me. It was a nice Chevrolet, as I recall, and had a set of tires that hummed as we traveled down the road. Jim, a farm boy from Florida, thought that sound was perfect. He had met a nice young girl in El Paso and was invited to Sunday lunch at her mother's house in Los Cruses, New Mexico, some 40 miles from the base. She had a friend there and Jim invited me to go with him. The mother was a professor at the University of New Mexico. Everything was going great until I picked up the peas to either pass them to someone or to take some. Either way, it didn’t work and we had peas all over the table. I could have died at that moment, I was so embarrassed. The lady was a gracious host and the day ended well. The young lady had invited her best friend, a pretty, full-blooded American Indian girl to visit the same day. I later visited her ancestral burial site and other Indian areas around Los Cruses.
Ever since childhood when my friend (an only child) Gerald Borel took piano lessons, I was envious of his accomplishment. We had always had music and music appreciation in grammar school and junior high, and I somewhat remembered how to read music. This was the time to rectify my not having learned to play. I found a piano teacher in town and signed up. The teacher was an elderly gentleman who looked like I could work well with. The week immediately following my first lesson, North Korea invaded South Korea. We were called in by the C.O. and he explained that he had always told us to keep our affairs in order and that we would be shipping out for Korea as soon as we could get loaded up. Oops! There went my musical career. My chance to be famous had passed. Ha ha.
War Breaks Out
The 512th Ordnance H.A.M. Company had been in operation about 18 months when North Korea invaded South Korea in July of 1950. After World War II, the United States occupied the country south of the 38th parallel and the communists occupied the north. Our government (U.S. and U.N.) feared the thriving South Koreans would invade North Korea, which was very poor, so the United States deprived the South of an Army that could fight. Needless to say, the North, being supplied by Russia, then invaded the South, mistakenly thinking the United States and United Nations would not interfere. I doubt that I knew anything about Korea at the time, except that after World War II I must have heard about the atrocities committed by Japan in Korea and China.
I joined a peacetime army with no thoughts of a war to come. When it did, I felt (as I should have) that my country said go, so I went, no questions asked. In those days, most people didn't have the attitudes that so many have today. We didn't think of opposing the war. Besides, I thought that it wasn't going to take long. We considered it a police action and we would be home for Thanksgiving. We didn't discuss among ourselves whether it was right or wrong to go. It was duty, and that was our job.
Both the El Paso news and the base paper kept us up on what was happening, but we were busy taking final leaves, getting our gear ready and sending it on before us, as the plan was to have our shops, etc. waiting for us in Yokohama. Of course, that didn't happen, so we got to see some of Japan--a country that I first considered to be such a culture shock. Later after seeing Korea, I felt that Japan was the next thing to being stateside.
After we got orders for Korea, we did some field exercises setting up our shop tents in the desert, breaking them down, and then setting up again in the desert sun. Little did I know that that next winter I would be longing for that heat. I sold my car (I don't remember why) to Eddie Beym and Eddie went with us to Korea. I did go home to tell the folks and my girlfriend Edna Gross goodbye, and gave her a ring, which her dad forbid her to wear because she was still in school.
We will have to go back at this point to when I was about 13 and wanted an after school job. Edna's dad, Mr. Roland (Dick) Gross and his wife Polly, both of Cajun decent and from southeast Louisiana, satisfied his dream and bought out a small family grocery in my neighborhood. They had two children at the time, the older of which was eleven year old Edna. I went to work at the store, as my brother later did and some of my friends from time to time. There was no air conditioning in those days and my biggest job was cleaning the bad leaves from the cabbage, lettuce, and other vegetables, culling the bad fruit, and checking the chicken coops that held the chickens that were delivered daily to sell people. They would take the chicken home, wring its neck, pluck the feathers, and prepare it for cooking--a culinary art that has been lost to prosperity.
As part of the package deal to purchase the store, the Grosses acquired the house that was connected to the store with a breezeway and therefore lived there, with Mrs. Gross working in the store as much as in the house. Edna then, was in the store a lot after school and watched as I peeled the decaying leaves from the cabbage. She had a nickname for me, this cute little girl 18 months my junior (18 months difference at 13 years is a big difference). The nickname was, of course, Cabbage. She also, unbeknownst to me, announced to her mother that she was going to marry me--not then, but when it came time to do so.
Of course, I joined the Army at 17, but Edna and I were in touch until after I got to Ft. Bliss and after a couple of times at home on leave and dating Georgie Fizer and my next door neighbor Maxine, Edna and I started writing. When I went home on leave, I would see her and finally her dad consented to her dating me. (Through all my army life, I never even thought of marrying someone that wasn't from my home town.) That's why I never allowed myself to get romantic with the girls I met, especially Geneva in Atlanta, but it would have been easy to do so.
Edna's family were staunch Roman Catholic. Although Mr. Gross liked me very much, he was dead set against Edna's heading toward a romantic involvement with me and even tried to get her to go out with a young man he knew that was of the right persuasion. It didn't work. We stayed in contact by mail during my Korean sojourn, and when I returned in May of 1952, we set the date for August 1 of that year. Mr. Gross was convinced by Mrs. Gross and Edna that it would work--and it did for 22 years and five loving and healthy children.
I was christened in the Episcopal church when I was a baby, but Mom was Baptist. When we moved to Prot Arthur, the Episcopal church was downtown and miles away. Mom therefore took us to the Baptist Church that was within walking distance if the car didn't happen to be available. I, therefore, was and am an Episcopalian raised with Baptist values mixed with a lot of Catholic notions picked up during my present marriage when attending church with Maxine, my wife of near 23 years. But that's all much later and a lot of water under the bridge. Now, back to the Korean War....
After we were alerted to go to Korea, another friend asked me to be his best man to get married. His girlfriend was a local that he had met at a bar. The rest of us felt that she was doing this to get his allotment, but he was adamant and so I agreed. We went to a Justice of the Peace just over the line in New Mexico. When we arrived, we were met by a man in a wheelchair who had no arms or legs and was being pushed by a woman who didn't look any happier than he did. As in most of the adobe houses that were common to the area, the room we walked into for the marriage ceremony was small. We had hardly gotten through the door before the man said, “ By the power invested in me by the State of New Mexico, I pronounce you Man and Wife.” Without taking another breath, he said, “Give me my ten dollars.” I have no idea what happened to that couple, but that bad taste memory is still vivid.
As I mentioned earlier, our officers, most of the non-commissioned officers, and some enlisted men were World War II vets. We had a Sergeant who was a Medal of Honor recipient. Like the other World War II veterans, he had a choice on whether he wanted to go to Korea or not. He later elected to go to Korea with the rest of our company. We also had a Sergeant that had been on the Bataan death march.
We left for Ft. Lewis, Washington, on a troop train. Once we arrived there, we got shots and did the things one did when going to a war zone--insurance, allotments, etc. I remember a guy in line to get the shots. He passed out as they were getting ready to stick him. When he was out they gave him the shots. When he came to he was okay until he found out what they had done. He passed out again.
Trip to Korea
From there we took a cruise on a converted D.P. (displaced persons) ship, now manned by the Army Transportation Service. It had been in service to carry displaced persons from Europe to their new homes after World War II. We were some 2,300 soldiers on a ship meant to carry 1,800. On the first day out, they fed us the customary greasy pork chops. There were some sick guys before we had cleared the Straits of Juan DeFuca. Halfway across the Pacific, we stopped dead in the water for two days. We were told that the ship had to make fresh water. I remember that we stopped twice, so it also may have broken down. The trip was an experience, and the start of a long, non-intentional diet that left me 40 pounds lighter by the time I arrived back home nearly two years later. I volunteered for mess hall (KP) duty on the ship to get a better chance at something to eat. We mostly slept on deck under the stars because of the crowded conditions below. We ran with no smoking on deck at night, but we had a couple of movies to watch.
We arrived in Japan in late August of 1950. We were to go to Atsugi Air Base in Japan, wait for our gear, trucks, etc. to get there, then head for Pusan on an LST, though it wasn't told to us at that time. My first awakening to the difference in culture was when we arrived at the dock in Yokohama. I was leaning on the rail as we docked. The street below was full of Japanese busy doing their duties of whatever they do, but this one guy was standing on the curb and urinating in the street. That was the first of many culture shocks I would receive in the next couple of years.
Atsugi Air Base was close enough to Tokyo to take a taxi or catch a train. We hired a taxi once and found that the driver had to stop several times to get some dry wood to put in the burner on the trunk that converted the fumes into methane gas that the engine used as fuel. It worked! I was to see that type of energy used several times in autos and on luger boats that put-putted across the bay in a splendor that only can be seen in the Far East.
The rate of exchange for currency in Japan was about the best any GI could ask for, and we all used that well. I went back to Tokyo and met up with the husband of my future wife's (Edna) cousin, who was a mess sergeant in Tokyo. He showed me the town and all the important things to a young GI. We went to a bar where there was a young woman that I was told was a white Russian. I had never thought of Russians as white or black, but this encounter naturally led me to assume then that most Russians were Black of Asian, and that a white Russian was not common. It was years before I found out better.
After a short stay at Atsugi Air Base to re-coup, we packed up again and went to Yokohama to board a couple of Landing Ship Tanks (LST's) that were already loaded with our gear. Then we headed to Pusan, Korea. We had been told that we would be home by Thanksgiving. At the time, I didn't think we knew ahead of time where we would land. Of course, Pusan was the only port that South Korea had under its control at that time, but a 19-year old kid didn't know all that. We arrived there shortly.
I don't recall the date that we landed, but it was about the time that our guys were ready to break out of the so-called Pusan Perimeter. (I have three battle stars and as I recall, one is for the Pusan Perimeter.) Pusan was a refugee nightmare. General MacArthur had sent a force to Inchon, made a landing there halfway up the peninsula, and cut off the North Koreans, letting our troops in the Pusan perimeter break loose. This was mid-September 1950.
Pusan was the worst shock I would ever receive. It was a city crowded with refugees from both enemy occupied South Korea and North Korea, with thousands arriving daily with little or no possessions, waifs in the streets naked and eating filthy scraps (if they were lucky enough to find some), the stench of death and dying, and God only knows what else, as Korean food did not whet our appetites. The kids begged for any scrap we could give them, while the older girls would do anything to allowed them to get food for them and their family. This, I found later in life, was common in any country that was under these same conditions. People will do anything to survive.
We unloaded our trucks from the LST and went directly to Hialeah Compound on the outskirts of Pusan and towards the east. I seem to remember the compound as one that had been there and used during the occupation by the Americans after World War II. We had at least one guy that had been in Korea then, and his stories about how fraternization with GI's meant being hung from a light pole was the only thing that most of us knew about Korea. According to information I have recently gathered, Hialeah Compound was originally built as a horserace track after World War II. Somehow during the American occupation of South Korea during the pre-Korean War period, it was converted to a US Army garrison. It was located very close to the harbor and was being used as a replacement depot when we arrived. Although I don’t remember much detail after 57 years, I do remember that we set up shop there and got to work right away.
At first we had to pull guard duty in addition to our other work, and most of us from time to time were sent on
special assignment to support other operations, such as a trip up north to evacuate First Ordnance from Ascom
City. Later on, a ROK battalion was assigned to us and they pulled the guard duty. We were gone for a few
days or a few weeks on these details, using our heavy equipment to recover tanks and etcetera from the field.
We hadn't been at Hialeah for long, perhaps no longer than six weeks, when the Red Cross opened a cantina right next to our company area at Hialeah, serving coffee and doughnuts for everyone that was passing through. With little or nothing to do with any spare time we had, we drank a lot of coffee and ate doughnuts served by American women (USO) at the canteen. Food was very hard to come by for the first few months in Korea. It just didn't get there--not on time, anyway. What food and supplies did get there was sent to the guys on the front lines as a first priority, and rightfully so. America had sold off its fleet, junked its weapons after World War II, and had a peacetime Army capable of marching in parades only. When the war broke out, the United States had to buy junk LST`s from Japanese cattle haulers to get men with weapons and ammo that didn't work to Pusan to try and stem the tide of the advance of the invading North Korean army. The United States was using ships like I crossed on, the D.P. ship that was still equipped with facilities to spray DDT to kill the lice on the displaced persons they had been hauling. Our Army partially paid the Korean help with sardines, which there seemed to be plenty of. Some of the guys ate them, but I didn't. I later bought eggs from the Koreans on Koje-do and cooked and ate an egg/rice mix that was palatable.
As food wasn't that available or appetizing when we first got to Hialeah, we feasted on the coffee and doughnuts in the canteen for a while. When I started to walk around in a stupor, I blamed it on the cream used in the coffee and quit using cream. (I still drink my coffee black.) But come to think of it, I wonder if they were putting salt peter in the cream. That might have been the story going around. Anyway, everyone swore off of the cream!
Bed-check Charley did actually exist. After moving to our new quarters outside of Seoul, one of the first things that was accomplished had to be digging air raid trenches with some cover for any bombing we might endure. The North Koreans had a single engine airplane that would come over the area practically every night about midnight--sometimes gliding, and power on again when very close and pretty low. At first, when the air raid siren went off we got out of bed and headed for the trenches. At first Bed-check Charlie dropped grenades or something, but after that we got complacent and we just stayed in bed for his performance.
After setting up camp at Hialeah Compound, we began repairing vehicles. We were not trained to repair tanks, but that was what was needed desperately. I found myself doing just that and taking the tanks out in the surrounding countryside to test drive them. That was fun. We had been promised that we would be home for Thanksgiving, we had the Red Cross canteen with its coffee and doughnuts next door, and life was relatively bearable. We slept in our sleeping bags on cots in the old buildings and it was okay. We could survive.
In those days, working on a tank's drive mechanism wasn't really that different than a truck once we get the armor plate out of the way. The tanks were not that sophisticated. Actually, we worked on anything that had problems--from Duckws to jeeps, trucks, etc. We had two tank retrievers, which were large wreckers with long beds and many wheels to spread the load. The main problem was the bitter cold and working on these cold monsters (also trucks and jeeps) in below zero weather where our bare hands stuck to the steel if we weren't careful.
We had heaters (usually a 55-gallon drum with wood coal) going in the shop, and every once in a while we just had to go and warm our hands. We were working under a Warrant Officer that had not been with our company before we arrived in Pusan. He didn't understand that we couldn't work continuously and he threatened us every time we tried to warm our hands. He said that the ROK company that had been assigned to us and was pulling guard duty had the same MOS as we did, and if we didn't do as he said, he would let them come in and do our work and we would have to pull the guard duty. We had seen them pulling guard duty, standing around a fire and telling jokes or whatever and figured this would be a good switch. Of course, they were not mechanics, but young kids they had grabbed off the streets and pressed into service. After talking it over with the guys, I put together a letter saying that we would like to make the switch. We all signed the letter and I took it to the Warrant Officer. He didn't know what to say at first, but then threatened to court martial me for inciting a riot. Needless to say, I shut up, but he let up on us some after that. It wasn't that we didn't want to do our job. It was that the cold wasn't something we could take lightly.
Duty in Korea
Several of us, under the command of a Major, went north with tractors to evacuate the 1st Ordnance Company that was about to be overrun by the Chinese in Ascom City, just outside of Inchon. We left Pusan in our International tractors--two men to a tractor with no trailer, as we were on our way to get the 1st Ordnance trailers and bring them back to Pusan. The cab of the tractor had a cloth top and no windows or side curtains. We inched along the road from Pusan to Taegu that first day, parting the evacuees on the high mountain roads as they tried to make their way south to Pusan in the snow-covered, icy mountain roads that were beautiful in summer and frightfully dangerous in winter with only one narrow lane in each direction. The natives were carrying all they owned on their back or head. If a little more wealthy, an oxen pulled a cart loaded with their life's possessions. There were probably twelve of us with six tractors and a Major who, as I recall, was our battalion commander. When we reached Taegu, we came upon a checkpoint where we were forced to stop. There were little kids all over the place wanting anything we could give them. There were also some that were trying to sell trinkets, etc. They stormed the trucks, to our enjoyment, as we wanted to be friendly.
After we were cleared through the checkpoint, we headed on to Taegon. It was “No Man's Land” from here on, but we didn't run into enemy patrols. We headed for an abandoned airstrip that we were to use as our stopping place that night. We were late on arriving, having been driving the crowded mountain roads and after dark using our blackout lights in driving snow. I guess we had munched on our C-rations on the way, so we immediately wanted to sleep. I had one tremendous problem, however. The truck had two spare tires on racks that were mounted on the back of the cab. Before we left our previous encampment, I had tied my sleeping bag inside the tire to make more room in the cab. It was gone. One of those “not so cute now” little kids at the checkpoint in Taegu was probably enjoying its warmth right now. My partner still had his sleeping bag and we had two blankets. I took off my shoes and socks, wrapped my feet and socks in one blanket, wrapped the other blanket around me, and sat in the cab to get as much engine heat as possible for as long as it would last. I was so tired that I think that I did go to sleep. Of course, at a time such as this, Nature called about three a.m. and I had to reverse my undressing mode and get a few feet from the truck to let Nature do its thing. It just happened there was some guy sleeping in the snow, almost completely covered. I moved away, did my duty, and reversed my efforts in the truck again. The temperature was about -10 degrees Fahrenheit, and I had my worst experience with the cold in Korea that night, although it was nothing compared with the front line troops that were actually freezing to death in addition to being shot. I prayed to God that if he would see me through this, I would never bitch about the heat again. He did get me through that night, and I have never griped about the heat since, even though as one grows older, the heat does become a problem. I have probably told that story a thousand times over the years.
We moved on to Ascom city and Inchon the next morning. Elements of the Chinese Army were reported to be in the area, and the town was more like a ghost town in the civilian areas. I was able to get myself another sleeping bag and never tied it inside the spare tire again. On the way back to Pusan, we stopped the first night and stayed in a Quonset hut that was, I think, on the same airstrip we had stopped at on the way north. I was at the very rear of the building, my feet aiming towards the door and a .50 caliber machine gun at my feet, so that all I had to do was sit up and squeeze the trigger. Luckily it was not needed and we had a successful trip back to Pusan, hauling several trailers with small arms and small arms equipment for repair, as that was the business of the 1st Ordnance Company.
Following that trip, where I had come about some Chinese weapons, I stayed in a Korean spa that had been commandeered. We were there for two weeks while unloading and driving tanks, dukws (vehicles that could be used on land or water), etc. from ships. It had a very hot pool in the basement from natural hot springs. The water was so hot that we had to inch our way into it, and when we got out, we had to crawl up the stairs. One night I did this and plopped across the bed naked. I woke up the next morning with a high fever and spent several days in the hospital with pneumonia.
Early in January 1951, about eight of us were sent on a detail to Koje-do, an island off the coast of Korea that was being set up as a prisoner of war camp. We joined some other ordnance people and were attached to a Pennsylvania National Guard trucking company sent there to build roads for the camp. They were a very nice group of guys and I made friends with a lot of them. Our group consisted of a Lieutenant (a reservist from Mississippi and a despicable person), Jim Manard, Eddie Beym, Finch, Ferris, a Master Sergeant, me, and a few others--making our contingent about twelve total. There was also a cadre of young American doctors who were getting their surgical training at the camp. Word was that if the prisoner had a cold and the doctor needed to practice on the stomach, that's what he got--a gall bladder or some other stomach operation. Probably just talk. We also had a house boy. He was a young North Korean refugee named Hon E. Suk. My friend Ferris had found him hungry and with no family in Pusan, I think. Hon E. Suk was about fourteen at the time, but about the size of a 10-year old American boy. Hon was loyal to all of us, did our bargaining with the locals, and was kind of like a younger brother to us. I hope he made it to the United States, as Ferris had planned to do everything in his power after he returned to make it so.
The Red Cross sent two females (nice looking) to give us a small party. I had cold cuts and bread and a couple of gin and tonic. I got sick and had the dry heaves for the first time in my life. I spent all night at the toilet trying to get my guts to stop trying to come out of my throat.
We lived in nine-man squad tents. Whoever woke up first had to light the diesel oil heaters. They would get so hot that the stack would glow in the dark. We didn’t get much food, as the supply lines still weren’t fully set up. I bought eggs and rice from the Koreans and cooked them on our heaters. Folks at home also sent food. One of my friend's favorites was smashed pecan pie. Mama would make two pecan pies, put the tin pans together face to face, wrap them up for some protection, and mail them to me. After about six weeks of traveling in the hold of some cargo ship, the pies still were delicious. The mail did get through. We also had all the army-issued sardines we could eat. I never ate one!!
There were rock-crushing machines that were used to make the smaller rocks used to build roads. These machines had a hopper at the top and, using a wooden ramp that was built on an incline, the prisoners carried rocks up to it. The biggest problem was that they could see the engine down below and would purposely miss the hopper and drop a big rock on the engine, breaking the carburetor or generator or some other vital part. This caused a shutdown, which in turn caused us to be routed out of bed at 3 a.m. to go repair the rock crusher. We were kept busy keeping these machines and the trucks going.
We also lived through a hell of a typhoon while we were on the island. All of our shop tents and equipment was torn up. I have pictures of the mess it caused with our equipment.
A couple of us regularly took a truck, boarded an LST to the mainland, and traveled to our company back in Pusan for parts, spend the night, and then go back to the island.
University in Seoul
In early spring 1951, our company again boarded an LST and landed at Inchon, then went on to Seoul, the capitol city located about 10 to 15 miles behind the enemy lines at that time. We set up our company in an abandoned and bombed out university. We stayed there until most of us were rotated in April 1952.
Some of our guys were unloading bombs from airplanes when a saber jet came in and overshot the runway, landing in a shallow creek. John Baker crawled up on the wing and was messing with the wrong button in the cockpit. The launch mechanism went off and he flew into the air for about 50 feet. They sent him home to recover, and I’ve tried my best to locate him. He was from Olympia, Washington.
Korean People & Their Country
They were an unusual lot, these Koreans who mostly wore nothing but white and the women walking around with baskets on their heads. All of them etched out an existence in a time of great turmoil and uncertainty. In one year many of them had walked the entire length of their country not once, but twice--leaving home each time the invaders came and returning for a short while in the late fall, only to be invaded again by the Chinese again in winter. I was told by a Korean friend that they mourned the death of an emperor for a hundred years. This meant they would always be in mourning--that is, until the last emperor had been dead for that long, as the country was now a democracy.
I don't remember if I ever found out the truth about a Korean funeral, but the funeral procession usually included two different boxes that appeared to have the head in one box and the rest of the body in the second carrier, trailing the first all in a walking procession and heading for a burial site that would be a pile of rocks on the mountain side. Flat ground in this country was so hard to come by that burial sites were always on a hillside. As I recall, the body was surrounded (covered) by stones, with the departed in a sitting position.
Many Koreans were well educated, most having been taught to read and write English in school. But as would be with an American taking a foreign language in school and trying to use it in the country of its origin, especially an Asian country, the language barrier was great, except that we were very fast to pick up enough of a mixture of Korean and Japanese to handle the essential communications (mostly social). Since the Japanese had occupied Korea for many years prior to the end of World War II, they knew Japanese and had been forced to learn it.
I had about fifteen Koreans and five American GI's working under me in the shop I ran in the Seoul area, including an old gentleman that was my interpreter. He had been a professor in electronics before the war. I can still conjure up in my mind an image of him. He was proud through it all. Not only was he my helper, he was also a staunch believer in the old customs and through it all didn't take to these foreign troops who came to his country to help, but also helped themselves to the young women that were more than anxious to be friendly with the Americans. After many months of living in the squalid conditions in Korea, many GI's had decided that they would never make it home to America, and decided to live as though their return was never going to happen.
We had a house boy while on Koje-do, my friend Ferris had found him hungry and with no family in Pusan, I think. His name was Hon E. Suk, about fourteen at the time, but about the size of a ten year old American boy. Hon was loyal to all of us, did our bargaining with the locals and was kind of like a younger brother to us. I hope he made it to the US, as Ferris had planned to do every thing in his power after he returned to make it so.
Every time we saw a stream we saw Korean women doing laundry by laying the article of clothing on a flat rock and pounding it with another rock. Having our laundry done by these artisans was cheap, and we always used their service. As I said earlier, all Koreans wore white. The women who had babies to feed wore a blouse that was cut short in front and hung loosely open with their breast nipples hanging so (I suspect) their baby could nurse more readily without the mother having to touch herself with her hands, especially if she was working in a rice paddy or other menial and dirty task.
After moving to Seoul, we no longer had a ROK unit to pull guard duty so we were assigned that task on a rotating basis, meaning probably once a month we had guard duty. I distinctly remember one very cold night during the winter of 1951. I was standing guard at a very lonely entrance to the compound. As I stood there at about 3 a.m., I was shivering and thinking of home. Here I was halfway around the world from my family and civilization. It all came down on me and I cried like a baby. I came to the realization (albeit wrong) that after being promised so many times by the military that we would be home soon, I would never make it back. I had been in Korea about 15 months, had had a Truman year tacked on to my enlistment, and it was looking like I would get another, as the UN wasn't making any progress.
We (about nine of us) lived in a big classroom, and as I recall we had three beds along each of three walls. The other wall had the door that led to the hall and a table. We had our generators to provide power and homemade toilets we had fashioned in one downstairs room. The toilet looked like an eight hole outhouse with 55-gallon drums below to catch the next day's fertilizer for some Korean's garden. We had a separate room where we had showers built that were nice to use when it wasn't cold.
By this time we had bargained with the Air force (when we wanted some favor from them they always needed another jeep) to fly someone to Tokyo to buy booze and had set up a club in one of the buildings on the hill just above our barracks and office building. The next night we headed for the club after supper, where my usual modus operandi was to stay sober and make sure that my buddies got back to our sleeping quarters safely. Well, this night was different. I exclaimed to all of them that I was going to get drunk and they better stay sober and take care of me. I told the Korean bartender to line up 30 whiskey sours. (It takes 28 shots of alcohol to make a fifth, and a standard mixed drink has one shot glass of alcohol.) I don't know if the bartender recognized that what I was asking for could be fatal and therefore cut the drinks to save my life, but I downed 30 glasses in a row, not even giving the others a chance to get drunk. The guys told me later that as soon as I opened the door to head back to the room and the cold air hit me, I went berserk. They said that when we got to the room I was jumping from bed to bed like a monkey.
One funny incident happened one night as I was taking a shower. One of the guys had been out to visit one of the local houses and the merchandise within, and upon leaving had accidentally fallen into a honey bucket when he walked out the wrong door. He burst into the shower room stinking to high heaven and I made a quick exit to avoid the stench.
A chaplain who was a Major came from Battalion on Sundays to hold services. I believe he was Lutheran. Usually there were about ten of us who attended. My upbringing dictated that I get involved, and I assisted him in bringing in the hymnals and helping in the other duties that needed my support.
While in Korea, I sent home most of my pay to buy a “lot” near Dad and Mom's home. When I got home from Korea, Dad and some neighbors had built a home on the lot for my future wife, Edna Gross and me. Edna and I had known each other since I worked for her dad in his grocery when I was about 12. We had dated a couple of times before I joined the army, but her dad wouldn’t allow dating until she was about 17. We dated by mail and when I went home on leave.
Regardless of what may have driven you to do this work, I thank you for driving me to finish what I started some years ago. I still work every day (I`m President and chief Engineer for my own Engineering firm of "Dammon Engineering"), and I have three of my Sons that work for me and will take over when I do choose to retire.
Jim Manor was one of the guys I was able to track down on the internet circa 2003. When I called him, his daughter answered and told me that Jim had had a stroke, was in a nursing home, and didn't seem to recognize even her. I e-mailed her several photos of Jim and me, which she showed him and talked about what I had told her. One photo was taken on Koje-do with the homemade bathtub we had made from a 55-gallon drum. She later told me that she felt strongly that Jim's eyes had brightened up. He passed away a couple of months after that.
We lost a lot of young guys in the battle to keep North Korea from driving our forces off the main land. When
the war first started, a friend of mine from back home was stationed in El Paso in the artillery. I was amazed
that he went to Korea and was back in El Paso in the hospital before I left for Korea.
Following the advent of the internet and being able to surf the net and look for people, I spent some time
searching for my old friends. I found some dead, others in a nursing home and not knowing who they were, much less
me. I talked to Jim Manors daughter-she told me that when she told him my name, jim seemed to perk up from his
bout with Alzheimer’s. He and I, (but that later-visiting his girl in NM. I talked to Cowley`s wife in Alabama-She
said he was sitting there in a chair in front of her, but he didn`t even know her. Truman Arendale`s wife said he
had died and she was remarried.
Hurricane Katrina Memorial
Hurricane Katrina dealt a devastating blow to the Louisiana and Mississippi gulf coast. The center of the storm passed approximately on the Mississippi-Louisiana border, putting our parish and city in the northwest quadrant of the approaching storm. The damage to the east and southeastern parts of St. Tammany Parish & the City of Slidell was catastrophic. Houses, cars, boats, personal property and myriads of things that made our lives happy were swept away, never to be found. Other homes were so badly damaged that little or no hope of recovery faced their owners.
People died--some during the storm, and many in the days and weeks to come when they couldn't cope with the damage to their lives and physical being. Others died by accident when tackling the seemingly insurmountable task of clean up and rebuilding. Will future generations of the area remember what happened to their grandparents and great-grandparents? Time not only heals wounds, but it tends to lose the accounts of important happenings.
I personally witnessed Katrina, but I was not prepared for what I was to see in the coming days and months as I traveled the area in the work of my profession. I soon realized that I needed to work towards our community having a memorial that recognized this catastrophe and the effect it had on the entire population, our parish and city governments, our schools and school children, churches, and so on, having no end to the misery it bestowed.
Then there was the bright spot. People, church groups, college students, and others from all walks of life came in busses and cars and trucks loaded with people who gave up their vacations, took off from their jobs, and came here to struggle in the grime, eat M.R.E. rations, and help us dig out. They cut trees, gutted houses--you name it, they did it--and all out of love for their fellow man in Slidell, a place many of them had never heard of. And they are still coming. They must also be remembered in the memorial.
When my company was awarded the contract to design the renovations to the storm and flood-damaged St. Tammany Parish, Slidell Administrative Complex (a/k/a The Towers building), I very quickly decided that this would be the ideal place for the monument. I spoke with an enthusiastic parish President, Kevin Davis, about the memorial, and it was agreed that this would be the perfect location.
My idea of what the memorial should portray is that it will incorporate:
I will be talking to local clubs and others about the memorial and will be forming a committee to oversee the project and raise funds to pay for the memorial. The St. Tammany Parish Commission on the Arts will also be involved in the design of the project.
It has been nearly two years since our people were dealt this terrible blow, and we are still working to come out of it. Sometimes it's hard to see why we should pause at this time to work on a memorial. The answer is that if we wait, the importance of the scene will be dulled or wiped out, not to be recaptured for this important reminder.
As soon as a committee is formed, we will furnish information to the public to request their testimonies. Interested persons should start putting their recollections on their selected media.
Pete Dammon, P.E.
Obituary - Emmett George "Pete" Dammon Jr.
Emmett George "Pete" Dammon Jr. 82, of Slidell, Louisiana, passed away
on Wednesday, October 2, 2013. He was born on July 14, 1931 in
Alexandria, Louisiana, the son of Emmett and Hazel Dammon.