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Smith Ely Goldsmith
New York, New York -
"...much to my astonishment, I was handed orders promoting me to sergeant. This meant no more guard duty, as well as a monthly pay increase from one hundred and twenty two, to one hundred and sixty five dollars. More importantly, I was now responsible for the proper and timely preparation of the entire 24th Division payroll with twelve people working under me. My self-esteem shot through the roof, as this was first time in my life that a completely unbiased authority had entrusted me with such a major responsibility."
- Ely Goldsmit
Serving My Country
In the late spring of 1953 I concluded that my job was approaching a dead end and that my ambitions most assuredly extended beyond the role of a junior accountant for a small, barely expanding business. Having passed up the Merrill Lynch opportunity now appeared to have been a mistake, but I was also facing a more serious problem. Even though I was still active in the National Guard, my student umbrella protection had vanished, leaving me vulnerable to be drafted at a moment's notice. It therefore seemed logical to get my military service behind me so that I could eventually move onwards, and hopefully upward, without fear of having to suddenly abandon a promising career. Corny as it might sound today, I also felt it was payback time for the opportunities the United States of America had offered our family.
In those days a draftee was obligated to serve for two years, but anyone who enlisted in the army committed himself to a three-year tour of duty. Three years was too long for my taste, but I discovered that one could serve a two-year stint by first resigning from the National Guard and then volunteering to be drafted. Although I was not legally required to do so, I nevertheless consulted with my parents and was somewhat surprised that they didn’t offer any objections to my plan, even though the Korean War was still going full steam ahead. I guess they figured out I was now old enough to make my own mistakes. Shortly thereafter I received a notice to report to my draft board which was headquartered in Ossining, New York. From there I was escorted to the Yonkers train station and presented with a ticket to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. My main memory of this short rail trip was passing in between the support pillars that were in the process of being constructed for the Tappan Zee Bridge.
Camp Kilmer functioned as a way station from where recruits were sent to various basic training camps throughout the country. I arrived at dusk and was immediately hustled into a room full of potatoes that I, along with two other luckless souls, was expected to peel. There was a grinding machine for removing most of the skin, but extracting the eyes and remaining pieces of skin could only be accomplished manually, and our task took most of the night. The next day found us in a sleep-deprived state on a bus bound for nearby Fort Dix, also located in New Jersey, where we would spend the next eight weeks in basic training.
Upon arrival we were separated into groups of fifty, each of which was assigned to a “temporary” World War I barrack. While old and Spartan, these structures had nevertheless survived the ravages of time and continued to serve their original purpose with only minor problems. At this time we were also assigned our “D.I” or drill instructor, a sergeant who resided in the barrack’s one private room. All of Fort Dix’s instructors were professionals, most of whom considered the army to be their only family. They were charged with the mission of converting sullen mobs into soldiers, and they were not nice guys. The luck of the draw favored us in that our DI turned out to be a colorful, full-blooded, Hawaiian named Sergeant Kai, whose first name we never discovered.
Our group was now referred to as a platoon, four of which formed a company. This unit was given the official army designation of “Battery B” of the 84th field artillery, even though we were never destined to have any connection with field pieces. The lion’s share of Battery B consisted of New York City draftees, most of whom had not graduated from high school. About seventy percent of my fellow trainees were Caucasian, twenty percent were Black, while the remaining ten percent came from Hispanic families. None of them wanted to be soldiers, and to overcome both their reluctance and gain unequivocal control, Sergeant Kai immediately began subjecting his new charges to heavy doses of physiological warfare.
The first order of business consisted of a trip to the barbershop for a dehumanizing shearing experience, after which the appropriate G.I. clothing was issued and draped over our skinny, warm frames. All civilian clothing and many personal possessions were now confiscated, tossed into an enormous heap, and stared at by our DI and some of his buddies as if they harbored bubonic plague germs. Next came “The Speech,” which assured us that we were the most miserable, grungy, inept bunch of sad sacks that had ever been foisted on the United States Army, and that it would probably turn out to be impossible to convert such a hopeless collection of misfits into soldiers proficient enough to earn the privilege of wearing a uniform representing the United States of America. The climax of Sergeant Kai’s tirade ended with the admonition that “for the next eight weeks your soul may be yours, but your ass belongs to me.”
I thought all of this was most amusing, but had enough sense to keep my mouth shut because I realized we were no longer living in a democratic society. I also quickly discovered that it was unwise to let anyone, especially the instructors, find out that I had been the recipient of a decent education. Although it was quite an effort, I eventually was able to copy my fellow recruits’ bad grammar, and also learned to insert the continuously used “F” word in all the appropriate places.
Most of my cohorts were ready to toe the line, but some of our more streetwise kids were used to beating the system and weren’t going to be convinced that easily. Sergeant Kai was well aware of this problem and, in order to identify potential troublemakers, he now moved us about in close order drill for the next several days. This rather mindless activity allowed him to sort out the uncooperative types, who received one further warning that in affect said, “I have you by the balls and your hearts and minds will follow.” After these machinations were concluded, the small number of remaining holdouts ended up behind the barracks, where the DIs beat the heck out of them. Within three days everyone was on the same wavelength, and our basic training could now begin in earnest.
Throughout the following eight weeks, and despite Sergeant Kai’s original tongue-in-cheek misgivings, most of us became proficient in everything the army demanded. Many aspects of our training turned out to a lot of fun, some were decidedly unpleasant, and a terrible accident that occurred in an adjoining company made a numbing impression on all of us. Hiking and camping opened up new vistas for the city folk, while endless days on the rifle range with the marvelous M-1 rifle placed me on cloud nine. Three of us attained the expert category and were rewarded with a side trip to another range, where we learned to fire bazookas at abandoned vehicles. There was also a tank equipped with a thirty caliber Browning machinegun. As the army possessed endless amounts of surplus World War II ammunition, I was allowed to practice my skills with this weapon to my heart’s content.
For physical fitness purposes we ran through the camp’s obstacle course every few days. This was hard but rewarding work, and also served to winnow out several recruits who should never have been inducted. One of these unfortunates was named Sid and he was grossly overweight. I suppose the authorities figured that our rigorous training would slim him down, but this was not to be. One of our obstacles consisted of a high wall that we surmounted by running up it, grasping the top, and swinging ourselves up. Sid’s weight made this impossible and so, in keeping with our newly created “buddy system,” a number of us hauled him to the top. The established procedure for getting back down consisted of hanging from the top by one’s hands and then dropping the last few feet into a sandy area. Poor Sid was so traumatized by his experience that he just jumped, breaking both ankles in the process. The medics were summoned to take him away and we never saw Sid again.
Halfway through our eight-week stint everyone received a weekend pass and I rushed to New York, borrowed my father’s car, and raced up the Taconic Parkway towards our summer home on Lake George. In my haste I accelerated to ninety-six miles per hour and was pulled over by a state trooper, but my soldier suit and sad tale of imminent banishment to Korea allowed me to escape unscathed. There hadn’t been time to inform my parents of my arrival and I received the shock of my life when, upon cresting the final hill near our property, I saw that my grandfather’s old home, fondly known as the “Den,” had been reduced to a pile of ashes. In addition, I soon discovered that my father had been injured while fighting the fire and was in the Glens Falls hospital with broken ribs. This episode placed a considerable damper on my weekend and, after a short visit first with my mother and then with my father, it was back to Fort Dix for me.
Sergeant Kai was a World War II combat veteran and was big on bayonet practice, something all of us disliked intensely. Warriors we were not, and there was something decidedly yucky about sticking anything, even dummies, with our long knives and screaming like banshees as we performed this onerous task. Sergeant Kai’s English was far from perfect and whenever he was displeased with our noise level he would shout, “Sound off like you got two pair balls.” This impossible request always convulsed us with laughter, causing our leader to play his trump card which consisted of ripping off his shirt. During the war Sergeant Kai had been riddled with machine guns bullets, bayoneted numerous times and left on the battlefield for dead. This was one tough dude. He had somehow survived, but his entire upper torso was laced with an incredible array of scars, and he took great pleasure in reminding us that proficiency with the bayonet might someday save us from a similar fate.
All of us were equipped with gas masks and, because this is an item that soldiers tend to discard, the army made sure we learned to appreciate its value. After donning our masks we were led into a large tent filled with a misty, white cloud. We were unimpressed as our breathing wasn’t being impeded, but suddenly our masks were ripped off and we weren’t allowed to move for three minutes. The white cloud turned out to be tear gas and its effects were devastating. Eventually we were allowed to escape and fell down gagging and crying. Another lesson had been learned the hard way.
Our grenade training consisted of heaving these powerful explosives from a sandbagged bunker and observing the result by peering through a viewfinder. In my haste I didn’t throw my grenade far enough, allowing two fragments to reach our position. One of them shattered the viewfinder’s lens while the other, which fortunately was spent, hit my arm without doing any damage. The instructor was not pleased and I wasn’t given a chance to redeem myself.
Another portion of our training involved the finding and diffusion of land mines. We accomplished this task by slowly crawling through Fort Dix’s sandy soil, probing the earth with bayonets. Discovered mines were disarmed following previously given instructions, but we were often victimized upon finding out too late that one mine had been attached to another one. Failure was rewarded with the explosion of a firecracker-sized charge, and everyone who was declared “dead” was required to wear a large, white, wooden cross on his back for the remainder of the day. By the time the exercise was concluded, most of our company had been issued this extra encumbrance.
The most dangerous weapon we encountered was the rifle grenade, which was attached to one’s weapon via a launcher and could be fired long distances through the use of a special blank cartridge. Each of us was placed in a wooden sided foxhole facing downhill with one of these deadly items attached to our rifle. Upon command we were supposed to fire our missiles, but we were also admonished to shout “loose grenade” and duck into our holes should a grenade become prematurely detached from someone’s weapon. All went well with us, but in an adjoining company a grenade did come loose, the proper warning was given, and everyone ducked into their enclosure as instructed. Unfortunately, one of the men hunkered down too hurriedly and accidentally triggered his M-1. This propelled his grenade into the foxhole’s wooden side, after which it bounced off, rolled under him and exploded. The poor guy survived but lost both legs and an arm, and all of us grew up a little faster.
At one point during our Fort Dix experience, everyone was subjected to a battery of tests in order to assist the Army in placing us to its best advantage upon completion of our basic training. I decided I would be most useful in the Army’s Finance Department. To emphasize my point I nailed the easy math test, after which I proceeded to score as poorly as I possibly could on every other subject. The only problem was that in order to achieve low scores in these other categories, one had to be knowledgeable about them as well. About this same time someone perusing my records discovered I was a college graduate and, as this was somewhat unusual in the draftee world, I was offered a chance to attend officer’s training school in order obtain a commission. I respectfully declined upon discovering that I would be committing myself to three rather than two years of service. An even more compelling reason for refusing this honor was that most second lieutenants ended up commanding riflemen in Korea, and as this conflict had yet to show any sign of abatement, this possibility held no appeal whatsoever.
All of a sudden we realized that the initial phase of our Army experience was coming to a close, with only the dreaded night live-fire exercise separating us from the rank of Private, as opposed to our present designation of Recruit. At this same point in time two extremely fortuitous events took place. The first of these was the cessation of hostilities in Korea. All of Fort Dix erupted in a wild celebration and our instructors, who were also becoming weary of training young men for insertion into an endless meat grinder, allowed us to behave irrationally for almost half a day. It was only many months later that those of us who ended up in the Land of the Morning Calm came to realize that our much-heralded truce was destined to be somewhat less solid than advertised.
Shortly thereafter I was summoned to an administrative building and told to see the captain in charge. But before I could enter his office, the attending NCO admonished me to salute upon reporting. His instructions mystified me because the first thing every recruit learns is that reporting to an officer requires this courtesy, without exception. The reason for the NCOs concern soon became apparent because the captain was black and, as the army had only recently been desegregated, there had obviously been previous occasions whereby white soldiers had refused to follow the proper protocol. I harbored no such feelings towards anyone and came to attention, saluted, and received some very welcome news. I had been selected to attend the Army Finance School at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, on the condition that I complete my basic training to the satisfaction of my instructors.
The most difficult portion of our curriculum had been saved for last and consisted of crawling, fully equipped, under barbed wire for a distance of several hundred yards, while a steady stream of machinegun bullets whipped only eighteen inches over our heads. To compound our misery, explosive charges had been planted throughout the area and these were detonated as we crawled along. The sideways blast of these explosives was powerful enough to lift us off the ground and slam us back down with enormous force. Throughout all of this bedlam tracer bullets lit the night sky, adding a most realistic effect, and if the Army’s intention was to scare the hell out of us, they did a superb job. The field we traversed was muddy as well and our weapons suffered accordingly. Once we were safely past the machine gun positions, two minutes were allotted for the purpose of restoring our equipment to working order. Failure to do so meant repeating the course. Never in my life have I seen so many people working so hard for such a short period of time.
After a short graduation ceremony my Fort Dix experience now came to an end but, before moving on, I would like to note my fascination with the social experiment I had both witnessed and been a part of during the previous two months. When we were originally thrown together and labeled Battery B, not one member of the group had the slightest interest in any one else, and if we had met in civilian life we probably would have hated each other on sight. However, once the shock of our original degradation dissipated, a very subtle change slowly began manifesting itself. The establishment became the enemy, a feeling now shared by the entire group regardless of education, socio-economic standing, religion or race. The enemy also possessed unlimited power, and it soon became obvious that only our undivided cooperation could raise everyone’s performance to a level that would eventually insure our release from what most of the trainees considered to be the equivalent of purgatory.
My familiarity with weapons, which I had learned from my brother Dolf, enabled me to help some others master this elusive skill. I, on the other hand, experienced great difficulties when it came to the rope climbing which was a required part of the obstacle course. On more than one occasion I found that my task had suddenly become easier because those I had counseled on the rifle range were now repaying the favor by stretching the rope for me. Almost everyone was slightly better at something than anyone else, and within a remarkably short period of time these fifty completely disparate individuals were cheerfully helping each other towards a common goal. This scenario had, of course, been carefully orchestrated by our Fort Dix personnel, who understood completely that military success requires the unstinted cooperation of all concerned.
Fort Benjamin Harrison
Upon entering the service I had loaned my 1950 Chevy to my good friend Robin Zee Robin who, along with his wife Jane, was living near the Johns Hopkins University campus. It was obvious that private automobiles wouldn’t be allowed at Fort Dix, but I had no idea if the same rule would apply to my next posting. After two week’s leave, I boarded a train for Indianapolis, although with the benefit of hindsight I could have driven and, if necessary, entrusted my vehicle to my cousin, Jack Jelliffe, who resided in that very city. Fort Benjamin Harrison was located nearby and looked like a college campus with three-story office buildings. I was destined to spend almost three months in this rather pleasant environment, although army discipline remained in force to the same degree as it did everywhere else. After discovering that automobiles were allowed, I contacted my brother and he very kindly retrieved my Chevy from Robin, driving it all the way to Indianapolis. After a short visit he returned home by train, and I was very grateful for the mobility that now allowed me to visit Jack and Jean Jelliffe who, on more than one occasion, were very generous to me.
My class was comprised of some one hundred and twenty individuals, and the first order of business consisted of an orientation session that explained our rather limited options: Fail to graduate and you will be reassigned to a decidedly less desirable job. Just graduate and you will serve your tour of duty in the “Far East Command,” an obvious euphemism for the big “K.” Graduate near the top of your class, and you will be first in line for one of the few “European Command,” or West German, positions that periodically become available.
I immediately conjured up images of learning German, saving my pay in order to acquire a used Mercedes-Benz, touring Europe, and hanging out in Holland with my relatives. As there were no dummies in my class, and everyone else was in a similar frame of mind, the fiercest competition one could possibly imagine erupted almost instantaneously. For the next three months we mentally vied with each other in memorizing and practicing everything the army’s financial system had to offer, taking numerous tests as our course of instruction progressed.
After surmounting our final exams we waited anxiously for the side by side posting of both class rankings and available assignments. I managed to achieve the number ten spot, a stellar accomplishment for a non-student like myself. Unfortunately, in spite of an intense effort, I had fallen just a little short. There were only eight coveted European Command positions available to our class, with everyone else going to the other place. Not surprisingly, two Japanese-American students had garnered the top two positions, and I spent a considerable amount of time trying to convince them that turning down Europe would afford them an opportunity to visit their ancestral homeland. They weren’t at all interested and, upon the conclusion of our graduation ceremonies, I drove back east to enjoy three weeks of freedom that encompassed both the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. At least I was now a Private First Class, drawing down a magnificent ninety dollar per month paycheck, as opposed to the somewhat smaller amounts I had been receiving as a Recruit and a Private.
My leave time passed swiftly and, with orders to report to Chicago’s Midway Airport, I boarded an overnight train to the windy city. At the appointed rendezvous I was reunited with numerous classmates and settled in to await the arrival of an aircraft scheduled to ferry us to Seattle, Washington. After several hours elapsed, our transport leader discovered that our plane had erroneously landed at O’Hare, Chicago’s other airport. This didn’t appear to present a serious problem because the flight time from O’Hare and Midway could be measured in minutes. None of us, however, had been in the service long enough to understand that there was a right way, a wrong way, and the army way for coping with every situation. The army way required one of our escorts to find his way to mid-town Chicago, hire two busses, collect us from Midway and deposit us at O’Hare. This patently absurd operation set back our schedule some four hours and also turned us into philosophers. From that moment on we realized we owed our government just a fixed number of days of additional service, and there was no point in getting excited every time they were inefficiently utilized.
A bumpy, eight-hour plane ride, including one stop for fuel in Nevada, eventually saw us safely ensconced in a vast tent city located in Fort Lewis, near Seattle. For the next four days we watched it rain, but then the skies cleared and a magnificent vista of Mount Rainier came into view. Shortly thereafter we found ourselves heading towards the Seattle docks, where I reacted with disbelief and astonishment as two thousand of us were crammed into what looked like a World War II Liberty Ship, whose name I can still remember. The Marine Lynx appeared to be incapable of navigating Puget Sound much less the Pacific Ocean, but I assured my companions that everything was copasetic. My cohorts were well educated but not well traveled, and none of them had ever been near an ocean before. Having previously acknowledged some experience regarding large bodies of water, I was appointed the group’s nautical guru and confidently announced that our tender would shortly rendezvous with a proper ocean liner. Needless to say, my credibility sank like a rock after several hours passed and all land had disappeared from view.
Our new home contained four holds, each capable of holding five hundred men on tiers of bunks over ten feet tall. Most of them also became violently ill once our ship started wallowing through the Pacific’s long swells, causing many of us to settle for sleeping on a cold deck in the open air. Soon we were all feeling sorry for ourselves, and not at all charitable towards the officers who rated both private quarters and their very own promenade area. We were also bored and, because there was an endless stream of individuals who were ready to park their cookies, we took great delight in positioning them so that the wind would blow their offerings onto the officers' private deck. With the passage of time most of our troops recovered, forcing us to become more creative in order to wile away the long days that were still ahead of us.
Nobody knew how to play bridge but everyone was either familiar with, or could easily learn, the game of hearts. This activity soon morphed into a marathon of such complexity that it could have rivaled all but the most sophisticated bridge tournaments. More importantly, it also served to keep us occupied for hours on end. The only other shipboard pastime of any merit whatsoever consisted of standing in lines that snaked endlessly throughout the bowels of our vessel. Exercise enough patience and one would eventually reach a destination capable of supplying a meal, a candy bar, a haircut, or a chance to buy something from the PX’s very limited stock.
Throughout my army stint almost everyone I encountered consumed cigarettes at an alarming rate. Except for the bathrooms or “heads,” smoking was not allowed below decks in our fully-packed ship that, incidentally, appeared to have only enough lifeboats for its crew. There were a few rafts and we all had lifejackets, but any kind of major emergency would have left us vying for headlines with the Titanic. As our voyage progressed, these “heads” became saturated with smoke so foul and disgusting that non-smokers such as I could only survive by holding our breath while performing our ablutions. This was relatively easy when it came to shaving, brushing teeth, washing up or doing number one. Number two turned out to be much more problematical. Eventually the few non-smokers banded together and worked out a technique whereby one’s lower muscles pumped everything into position to the point where relief could be accomplished on just one breath.
Our journey lasted an interminable three weeks and finally ended, at least on a temporary basis, at our naval base in Sasebo, Japan. Except for helmets, rifles, bayonets and ammunition, we were now re-supplied with everything we might require in the days ahead. We also viewed two short films. The first dealt with frostbite and depicted doctors ripping off frozen, blackened toes and throwing them into buckets. The second displayed portions of the human body that had become infected with V.D. Both movies were totally gross, got our undivided attention, and did a magnificent job of keeping us on a straight and narrow path. Drug use and excessive alcohol consumption must not have been big problems at the time, as they were not mentioned anywhere along our educational chain. Since shipboard conditions hadn’t been conducive to proper personal hygiene, we were also presented with opportunities to remedy this deficiency.
By this time we had all been in the army for at least six months and had come to realize there was no point in making close friends from whom one would eventually be separated. In Sasebo this truth was reasserted when one of our more popular companions turned out to have such large feet that the quartermaster was unable to supply him with the type of combat boot that Korea’s rugged terrain required. After we re-boarded our ship we never saw him again.
From Repple Depple to DMZ
After leaving Sasebo, which is located on Japan’s southern shore in a subtropical climate, we sailed around the country’s southern end and into the Yellow Sea separating Korea from China. Our destination was Inchon on Korea’s west coast. During the Korean War’s early stages, General Douglas MacArthur undoubtedly made the boldest gamble of his entire career by landing an amphibious force at Inchon for the purpose of severing North Korea’s supply line. Upon approaching our anchorage we immediately recognized how easily MacArthur’s attempt could have turned into an unparalleled military disaster. The area’s tides were among the highest in the world, which severely narrowed his window of opportunity. A high stone seawall reaching down to the water’s edge was difficult for our troops to climb and also prevented heavy armor from accompanying them. To make matters even worse, the entire landing area was under the guns of a nearby island that first had to be secured in order to achieve success. MacArthur correctly reasoned that the North Koreans might consider such an invasion to be impossible and would, therefore, choose to allocate precious resources elsewhere. His gamble paid off, forcing the North Koreans to retreat to the Chinese boarder with United Nations troops in hot pursuit. Shortly thereafter China’s unexpected entry into the fray turned the tables once more, laying the groundwork for an eventual truce. The resulting stalemate now accurately reflected the Korean conflict’s current state of affairs as we stared across miles of mud flats waiting for both a high tide and barges to ferry us ashore.
Transferring several thousand troops from ship to shore turned out to be very time consuming, but eventually we found ourselves rolling down Korea’s only paved road to the capital city of Seoul. The landscape was barren and unwelcoming in all respects, but it wasn’t until we passed through Seoul on our way to a “repple depple” (army slang for a replacement center) that the scope of the Korean tragedy began seeping into our consciousness. Vast portions of the city lay in ruins, and of its former two million inhabitants less than ten percent remained. My traveling companions were totally unable to comprehend the scene that lay before them, but I was less affected because I had already seen so many similar sights during my several journeys through post-war Europe.
Our “repple depple” consisted of another huge tent city housing thousands of troops, from where they were parceled out as needed throughout Korea. All of those who had accompanied me so far now disappeared from my life forever, and within days I found myself on a truck heading north to the Second Infantry Division which was located on the demilitarized zone, better known as the DMZ. As we crossed the 38th parallel and headed deeper into northern South Korea, I realized that the luck of the draw had not been kind to me. I soon learned that the Second Division was charged with protecting thirty thousand yards (about seventeen miles) of mountainous terrain located right smack in the middle of a very nasty neighborhood called the "Iron Triangle.” Two legs of this triangle, the towns of Chorwon and Kumhwa, were located slightly to the south of us, while the triangle’s apex, a small city called Yonggang, was situated to the north of our position on the other side of the DMZ. I had anticipated that my number-crunching duties would be conducted in a warm and cozy office located far away from the real world. I now found out, much to my dismay, that in order to achieve maximum efficiency the army had decided to locate all support units as close to the combat troops as possible.
I arrived in the evening, was assigned a bunk, given a meal, issued a helmet, M-1 rifle, bayonet and ammunition, and told to report for guard duty. As my future friend Hank Engelke loved to say, I didn’t know “shit from shinola” about this type of duty, but I nevertheless found myself walking a beat with a loaded rifle in my hands. I suppose my initial reaction should have been one of fear, but instead it was, “What’s a nice boy like me doing in a place like this?”
Guard duty consisted of shifts lasting between two and four hours with rest periods in between. I had been at my newly-appointed task for less than an hour when I heard noises emanating from the camp’s barbed wire perimeter fence. As I moved forward to investigate, a hand suddenly shot out of the darkness, grabbed me by my collar and started dragging me back. After barely managing to suppress the urge to wet my pants, I started swinging my rifle around and stopped only when a voice whispered in my ear, “Take it easy. I’m the Sergeant of the Guard.” This is a position generally held by experienced regular army sergeants or low ranking officers who are charged with the task of making sure the sentries are alert and in their proper positions. I had neither heard nor seen him coming, which didn’t speak very well for my soldiering ability.
In my particular case, I had been diverted by a second lieutenant who now took the time to give me the following course in Korean Survival 101. Always patrol well away from the perimeter fence. The noises you hear are infiltrators who have figured out ways through our protective mine fields, but still have to deal with our barbed wire fencing. Their aim is get in and out without any fuss with as many weapons and other supplies as they can steal, but they are also ruthless and will put you six feet under if you accost them. Your best protection is to fire one shot in their general direction and they will depart post haste. Do not, however, fire more than one shot because sustained gunfire will not only wake up the entire camp, but will also make everyone extremely nervous.
We soon discovered that this protocol was flawed in two respects. The first was that one shot did not always deter these aggressive intruders, and the other was that our M-1 rifles held eight bullets which could be fired off in less than half as many seconds. Each of us pulled guard duty about three times a month, and the fear and urge for self preservation we felt on these occasions made it very difficult to refrain from presenting a potential enemy with the “whole nine yards.” Subsequent daylight inspections often revealed what we were quite sure were traces of blood, but we never once found a body. At the time, none of us thought anything about the potential consequences resulting from this regularly assigned task. But in my later life, I have often wondered whether or not I actually ever shot someone.
Needless to say, our superiors were most unhappy with this state of affairs and decided to pair each guard with a Korean soldier. Their hope was that perhaps an ability to communicate with those on the other side of the wire might serve to diffuse potential confrontations. This was a fine theory, except that it didn’t occur to them that the language barrier would still prevent the Korean guards from transmitting whatever information they garnered to their American counterparts. Even more worrisome was the fact that the Korean army secured their recruits the old fashioned way. They used press gangs to drag unsuspecting young farmers from their fields on both sides of the 38th parallel. This made it impossible for us to know whether or not we were even on the same side. Our new companions were also not fun to work with, as they possessed virtually no concepts of personal hygiene, their M-1 rifles were almost as tall as they were, and our oversized helmets made them look like cartoon characters. Like so many other hastily contrived army experiments, this one petered out in a fairly short time.
One thing we did discover was that these Korean soldiers, regardless of where their loyalties lay, loved chocolate candy bars which were an unobtainable luxury for them but readily available to us. We therefore started carrying large numbers of them while on guard duty, to be doled out to our Korean sidekicks on a carefully regulated basis. They were most grateful and from then on we didn’t have to worry about any potential ideological differences that our “police action” might be causing.
Winters were bitterly cold and we couldn’t wear normal gloves because our trigger fingers had to be readily available. To counter this problem we used hand warmers consisting of small metal cases capable of burning lighter fluid. They kept our hands in good shape and the Koreans thought they had died and gone heaven whenever we shared with them. They may have been tough young peasants, but didn’t appear to like the cold any more than we did.
When my wife Ann and I were living in San Antonio, I met Rollie McGinnis who married Ann’s childhood friend, Julie Hein. Rollie, who had been a Marine stationed in Korea at the same time and in a similar location as I was, related how he awakened one night with a knife at his throat as he was relieved of his weapons. I found his story to be most ironic. We finance types were undoubtedly the most unmilitary goofballs ever assembled under one roof. We were never once successfully infiltrated while, at the same time, the gung-ho marines were unable to protect their own turf.
Second Division Finances
Guard duty did not relieve us from daytime responsibilities, and the next morning I was introduced to both my co-workers and workload. Fifteen of us were now in charge of the Second Division’s finances for some twenty thousand men, meaning that each of us was required to deal with over thirteen hundred pay records. These consisted of stiff yellow forms measuring some ten by fourteen inches, which were superbly well organized for the purpose of tracking every soldier’s financial status. Monthly stipends depended not just on rank, but also on a variety of other details such as time in grade, hazardous duty, deductions for pay sent home to dependents, promotions or demotions, and charges for damaged equipment. Throughout the first three weeks of every month these changes were entered as received from the division’s other administrative offices, while the last portion of each month was reserved for reviewing the amount due each of our soldiers. The final calculation for each recipient was then entered next to his name as indicated on his unit’s roster. Upon completion of this task, the appropriate amount of cash for each unit was removed from the “cage,” a small enclosure consisting of wooden beams and chicken wire, and the now completed payroll was set aside awaiting the arrival of each unit’s commanding officer.
These folks were held responsible for both paying their men and making sure every recipient signed his name in the proper space exactly as it was spelled, after which they returned the rosters to our office for further processing. There was only one problem with this arrangement. Tensions along the DMZ frequently escalated to a point where commanders were unable to leave their posts. Whenever this occurred we would be pressed into service to deliver payrolls to front line units. This was a duty all of us tried to avoid, as it definitely possessed the potential for one to end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Korea’s climate can accurately be described as one with very harsh winters, rainy springs, hot summers, and a pleasant fall. In addition to our finance office, the camp was home to numerous other Second Division support units, and our quarters consisted of wooden floored, eight-man tents that were heated with oil burning stoves. This convenience allowed us to heat water in our steel helmets, an ideal arrangement for washing, shaving and brushing of teeth. We slept on cots with air mattresses and sleeping bags and, given the circumstances, our accommodations were really not all that bad. Generators supplied us with electricity, showers were available on a rationed basis, we were allowed to drink an occasional beer but no hard liquor, and before long I found myself at peace in my new surroundings. All of our equipment was of World War II vintage, just as portrayed in M*A*S*H, but the food was much better than depicted in that famous TV series.
It also turned out that our truce was less than perfect, as evidenced by the substantial number of casualties our division continued to suffer. These figures were never officially released to the American public, but our record-keeping system automatically kept us in the loop. Uncle Sam never gave anything away, and whenever one of our soldiers died we were required to close out his financial records as of the day of death and prorate his pay accordingly. My big surprise, however, came from discovering that a number of fatalities were the result of self-inflicted gunshot wounds. This made no sense at all. Here were young people in excellent health with their entire lives before them, whose chances of being injured or killed were minimal, and who were not being asked to serve for some indefinite period of time. The only explanation I could conjure up was their inability to cope with the all-pervading, never-ending stress associated with the possibility that unannounced hostilities could resume at any moment.
As a result of this stress factor, we soon developed a love-hate relationship with our M-1 rifles. We loved them for their power, accuracy, reliability and rapid rate of fire. We hated them because we were required to eat, work, play and sleep with rifles and ammo at one’s fingertips. Not even nighttime visits to the latrine were exempt from this requirement, leading us to speculate that our superiors must have been extremely worried about the course of future events.
Every night two of us took turns sleeping in the finance office, which consisted of a Quonset hut, to both guard cash on hand and to deal with any “Granite Mountain” orders, the nickname assigned to compassionate leave orders that were routinely issued to soldiers whose families had experienced major tragedies. Since servicemen traveled with their records, they had to be available at all times. Middle of the night requests for pay records were almost always announced by someone banging on our office door. Unfortunately, even in our well-protected army compounds, there existed a semi-state of lawlessness, and this meant we could not afford to open our doors without first instituting some draconian precautions. Accordingly, one of us was required to stand behind our flimsy plywood entrance holding a loaded .45 automatic pistol while the other guard assessed the situation in order to determine the visitor’s legitimacy. Firing one’s rifle into the darkness at some unseen enemy was both easy and somewhat satisfying, but blowing someone away at short range with one of the nastiest weapons in our arsenal, well, that was a horse of another color. I was extremely grateful I was never called upon to perform that particular task.
One of the more interesting aspects of my time in Korea concerns the various opportunities I had to interact with soldiers from other countries serving under the United Nations flag. British servicemen were invariably correct and polite, but suffered from the delusion that they still possessed an empire. The Turks, who were stationed near us, were all maniacs. Stories circulated, which we had no reason to discount, that they got their jollies by crawling through the DMZ at night, returning with enemy ears as trophies. Should a Turkish soldier draw his bayonet, tradition required it be bloodied before being returned. These people were much scarier than the North Koreans, and once we realized it made no difference to them whose blood was on the bayonet, we kept our distance from them. A Greek contingent was present in Korea as well, but it was stationed far away from the Turks in order to keep them from killing each other.
The Dutch, whose battalion served under the command of the 38th Regiment of the Second Division, were definitely the most fun. One day I was assigned to stockade guard duty and discovered that this enclosure, which like everything else in Korea was composed of two-by-fours and chicken wire, was completely filled with Dutchmen. I immediately started practicing my rusty Dutch and they, of course, were flabbergasted that an American soldier could speak their language. Fraternization was not part of my job description, and when an officer found me both neglecting my rifle and chatting with these fellows, I had to do some fast talking to keep myself from being incarcerated with them. It turned out these men’s only crime had been one of excessive partying and they were soon released.
Two noteworthy events took place after I had been in Korea for about three months. One was the appearance of Marilyn Monroe. As it was too risky to allow her near the DMZ, she performed well south of us and I was unable to attend. The other cons, but did not excuse me from guard duty.
Because most soldiers requested that a substantial portion of their pay be sent home, the Second Division’s monthly payroll amounted to about one million dollars, which averaged out to fifty bucks per person. Army commands throughout the world dispensed script rather than greenbacks because our government didn’t want the latter to fall in communist hands. Korean civilians working for the army were paid in their own almost worthless Won and were prohibited from owning any other type of currency. Nobody paid much attention to this rule as we compensated our numerous tent sweepers and other minions, all of whom appeared to be named either Pak or Kim, with both script and cigarettes that were obtainable for only one dollar per carton. For security reasons, our division’s monthly cash requirements were delivered by tank or armored personnel carrier, but one day our finance officer was informed that due to problems on the DMZ no commander could spare either type of vehicle.
As a newly-minted corporal, I was ordered to pick two privates, secure a jeep from the motor pool, drive to Eighth Army headquarters in Seoul, pick up our payroll, and return as quickly as possible. This departure from my normal routine was received with great enthusiasm, and it didn’t take me long to find the appropriate office which efficiently shoveled a million dollars, for which I had to sign, into the back of my jeep. Looking at this vast pile of cash suddenly made my stomach turn over. How in God’s name could I possibly drive this mother lode through endless miles of mountain passes, traversing areas where the natives would cheerfully cut your throat for a mere ten bucks. While I was still trying to figure out how to effectively disguise our cargo, two jeeps with four MPs in each one pulled up and announced they were our escort. They sported shiny white helmets, were impeccably attired, and carried Thompson submachine guns that had obviously never been fired. My heart sank even further as I realized that, although very pretty, they would almost certainly be useless in any kind of serious crisis. Turning down their services was not an option, and as we started out with one jeep in front of me and the other one trailing behind, I thought I might as well paint a bulls eye on my chest and order my companions to wave red flags. Some hours later we arrived at the Second Division’s finance office exhausted but intact. This journey, with the possible exception of another as yet to be mentioned adventure, was destined to become the most nerve-wracking episode of my entire military career.
R&R in Japan
Shortly thereafter, my efforts were rewarded with a week’s R & R in Japan. I hitched a ride to the Kimpo airbase located halfway between Seoul and Inchon, where I boarded a huge military transport capable of accommodating hundreds of passengers. Several hours later I was deposited not far from Kyoto, Japan’s cultural heart. This city had been Japan’s capital from 794 to 1868 and was populated with numerous exquisite wooden temples, many of which were over a thousand years old. Once Japan entered the industrial age, Tokyo, with its substantial harbor, took over this role. One should note the coincidence whereby these two communities use exactly the same letters in their names. Kyoto was also one of Japan’s few cities that managed to escape World War II’s massive destruction, although it once came within a frog’s hair of being completely obliterated.
After President Harry Truman decided to use the atomic bomb, his military strategists started searching for a suitable target--one that did not have a huge population, but was nevertheless large enough to make the Japanese pay attention. Not realizing its cultural value, they picked Kyoto and sent their recommendation to the President. Fortune smiled that day because one of Truman’s advisors had studied our enemy’s history, and convinced the President to pick an alternative target. Hiroshima became the new victim.
After passing some pleasant days in Kyoto, I thought hard and long about including both Hiroshima and Nagasaki in my itinerary. I eventually decided I might not be welcome, and when my leave time drew to a close I wended my way back to my temporary home. Throughout my life I have regretted very few decisions and not making this historic visit was definitely one of them.
About once a month we were subjected to a “bug out” which involved packing up our records, equipment and personal effects, and evacuating the premises. In order to increase our efficiency during these “rearward deployments,” we were never apprised of the exercise’s true nature. Five months into my tour of duty, our unit participated in one of these maneuvers and never returned. Instead, we were trundled off to a nearby, much smaller camp that had been abandoned by its occupants, and where we were now ordered to set up shop.
Our new abode was very poorly located in terms of defense. A steep hill looked down on us from its northern edge. The southern and eastern flanks consisted of rolling terrain suitable for enemy concealment. Worst of all, on our western border we faced the Hantan, a tributary of the Imjin River. This map (Link below) shows the relative position of my first two camps, as well as a third one near Uijongbu (also the home of M*A*S*H), where I eventually finished my Korean tour of duty.
Click HERE to view MAP (PDF File)
Only days after completing our move, the area was subjected to the tail end of a typhoon that blew all our tents away. No sooner had they been retrieved when an uncharacteristic monsoon-like rain enveloped us. The river rose almost into our compound, all our defensive trenches were ruined, and our tent water drainage systems no longer functioned. We considered ourselves to be much too fine for the required restorative labor and our normal complement of civilian workers had mysteriously vanished. While we were glumly surveying the carnage, up rolled a jeep and out stepped General Dolph. I have always remembered his name because it was pronounced just like my brother’s. Normally generals chew out their subordinates, who then pass the buck down the line towards its final destination, the lowly enlisted man. We, however, experienced an exception to this rule as the general chewed our butts up, down, sideways and backwards for a solid five minutes. Fortunately he didn’t enjoy standing around in the rain either and soon departed, allowing us to revert to our slovenly ways.
Our start in this new camp had not been auspicious, but eventually the rain stopped, our labor force resurfaced, and life went on. The Korean conflict cost an estimated three million lives, the lion’s share of which were civilians. Evidence of this enormous death toll surfaced whenever someone stuck a spade in the earth, giving us another reason for avoiding this type of labor. Repairs on our infrastructure revealed numerous such examples, and we freaked out every time the Koreans presented us with additional evidence, causing them to roar with laughter.
In addition to infiltration attempts, we were now subject to an additional problem--one of snipers. Our steep northern hill provided them with excellent cover, but fortunately they were also terrible shots. Only one soldier was ever hit, and he was shot in the butt. He also happened to be sitting in the privy at the time, indicating that his injury was caused by a random rather than a properly aimed shot. Occasionally we retaliated, although our cautious nature also prevented us from investigating the hillside for fear that someone might still be hanging around.
By now I had been working with the same people for over six months. They were all well-educated, high caliber individuals, and it became impossible not to form some solid friendships. I can’t remember most of their names, but there was one individual I could never forget. His name was Jim Zuccini. He possessed a very special talent that the rest of us were never able to duplicate. Jim could unerringly swat flies with a pencil. If you don’t think this is difficult, just try. One other soldier, who did not belong to our unit, also sticks in my mind due to his most unusual moniker of E. Pluribus Jones.
The army had committed a major security error by stationing us in such an indefensible spot, because our office possessed an enormous amount of military information. A constant flow of pay records moved in and out of our premises, making us privy to the exact strength, location, and leadership capabilities of every single unit in the entire Second Division. If the balloon had gone up, capturing these records, not to mention the possibility of a juicy payroll as well, would have provided the other side with an enormous intelligence coup.
As before, our weapons accompanied us everywhere, although we were allowed to set them aside when swimming in the Hantan on our air mattresses or whenever we tossed horseshoes and footballs around. Our river forays turned out to be short-lived after heavy rains unearthed bodies which floated past us and caused our superiors to worry about the possibility of infectious disease. Korea, however--with one exception, was not subjugated to most of the illnesses that plagued our servicemen during World War II. The only real problem in our neck of the woods turned out to be hemorrhagic fever, a form of plague that was probably transmitted by rodents. Treatment was possible, but recovery was not guaranteed and a number of fatalities occurred. The only time I ever visited a M.A.S.H. unit was for the purpose of paying several troops who were recovering from this nasty ailment.
Every era is both associated with and remembered by at least one popular song, and in 1953 ours happened to be called, “A Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” There were always a few radios in our camps that played softly throughout the entire night, and I covered many a mile during my guard duty tours with this tune ringing in my ears. Music is the closest thing we will ever have to time travel, as it has the uncanny ability to instantly transport one back to a particular time and place. As the years passed, “A Bridge Over Troubled Waters” faded from my consciousness, but when Willie Nelson sang it at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, all my fifty-year old memories came flooding back with a vengeance.
We were allowed to hike around the countryside as long as our weapons were in attendance, and on one such adventure I ran across a Korean gun crew practicing with three 105 millimeter howitzers. I believed my new Nikon was capable of photographing the shells as they exited their barrels, and positioned myself at a right angle to these lethal weapons. My optimism turned out to be misplaced, and all I have to show for my effort is some fuzzy sky because the muzzle blasts were so powerful that they bowled me over. After the conclusion of their exercise, the Koreans moved out with their guns and I hurried back towards my camp. As I approached my goal, I noticed that it was getting dark and decided on an innocuous-looking shortcut. After walking some hundred yards in this new direction I climbed over a barbed wire fence, whereupon my knees went weak. Posted on the fence right in front of me was a warning proclaiming, “Danger. Un-cleared mine field.” I told my friends about the area they should avoid, but was too embarrassed to confess my own stupidity.
The time had come for another R & R, and this time I was ushered aboard a train bound from Seoul to Pusan, Korea’s most southern large city and only seaport worthy of the name. A small contingent of soldiers from other units accompanied me. We had just managed to fall asleep on some very hard seats when we were awakened by the sound of shattering glass. It seems that during our passage through a large town, the civilians were getting their jollies by throwing rocks through our windows. Because our car was sparsely populated, there was space for everyone in the netted luggage racks, which is where we sacked out for the remainder of our journey. We were also one mightily pissed bunch of G.I.s. We hadn’t even finished saving these people’s butts and already they hated us. Pusan supplied us with an empty navy LST that bobbed like a cork while crossing the Sea of Japan, and I came very close to parking my cookies.
This time my destination was Tokyo and the army was extremely helpful in regards to the entertainment they laid on for us. In addition to sightseeing, we sampled Japanese opera, theatre and food. My only complaint was that the seats were built to fit Japanese rear ends. I purchased and sent home presents to my parents, but wasn’t smart enough in either Korea or Japan to invest in the many real works of art that were available for a song. Unlike my previous visit to Tokyo in 1952, my finances were not up to the grandeur of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel. My leave was spent in a more modest but also reasonably priced accommodation, where I learned everything one needs to know about oriental toilets.
Transfer to I Corps
I was now in the third month of my second Korean camp, a place all of us were beginning to hate with a passion, when a miracle occurred. Pay records started flowing out at a higher than normal rate and no new ones were taking their place. It appeared as if our division was being disbanded, and it wasn’t long before we received official notification that the Second Division was, indeed, going home. Lots of speculation ensued as to why, with the most popular theory being that the army was embarrassed by a continuing high casualty rate during a time of supposed peace, and decided the problem would disappear if the division did as well. Our place in the line was eventually taken over by three newly-formed R.O.K. (Republic of Korea) divisions.
Those with less than a few months left on their tour of duty were allowed to go home, and that included everyone with whom I had been serving. I was delighted for these nice guys, many of whom were not only married, but had also served in the infantry prior to being transferred to finance duties. Having been in Korea for only eight months, I did not qualify. Instead, I received orders for I Corps, which was located near Uijongbu. There were some sad farewells, although our commanding officer did not ride off into the sunset on his horse as depicted in M*A*S*H.’s last episode.
A Uijongbu posting meant a return to civilization. Camp Casey now became my third home and its facilities included a movie theatre, a barbershop, a legitimate massage parlor, a substantial PX, unlimited showers complete with hot water, a library and a hobby shop. Seoul, which was slowly beginning to recover, became available for day trips, although there still wasn’t very much to do or see in Korea’s battered capital.
Throughout my sojourn in the Land of the Morning Calm I had received a steady stream of letters and magazines from my parents, as well as an ample supply of cookies made by Fannie, their wonderful cook of many years. My new assignment also came with a perk in the form of one phone call to the USA. Although M*A*S*H. fans have been led to believe that one could call Chicago at will and order ribs, that wasn’t the way things worked. Calling home required a three-day-in-advance reservation in Seoul and, upon the appointed day, hour and minute, a three-minute call would then be placed on one’s behalf. When my turn came I woke up my parents, but they didn’t mind at all.
Camp Casey contained support systems for the 24th and 25th Infantry Divisions, as well as the 1st Cavalry Division. Although horses had been replaced with various types of heavy armor many years ago, the division’s original name had been retained for nostalgic reasons. I was assigned jurisdiction over pay records covering various units in the 24th Infantry Division. Our collective load now amounted to sixty thousand records, and our office, which was designated the 4th Finance Disbursement Section, required the services of a captain, a lieutenant, a warrant officer, three sergeants, six corporals, and some thirty lower ranks. We were still required to perform some guard duty, although the most excitement we could count on was limited to an occasional drunken brawl at the officer’s club.
Spare time was spent constructing radio-controlled airplanes, but our handling skills were so poor that few survived for very long. Another bitter winter was now in progress and our boots, which had never been one hundred percent effective, were replaced with “Mickey Mouse” footwear. They were rubberized and constructed with a wide space between one’s foot and the boot’s outer wall. This new technology provided excellent insulation, while their extra width earned them the “Mickey Mouse” nickname. We still slept in tents and were initially very excited upon being offered some newly constructed Quonset huts in exchange. After a few days we bagged the Quonset huts and returned to our much-more-comfortable, newspaper-insulated tents.
Shortly after my arrival, I became friendly with a co-worker of Dutch origin with the name of Sjoerd Kiers, and we were allowed to move into a small annex attached to our office. The price we paid for this convenience amounted to some extra “Granite Mountain” duty, but it was worth it. Indoor plumbing had not yet supplemented privies, of which our camp possessed a full complement. Every few days local farmers arrived on wooden, ox-driven “honey carts,” which they used to cart off our poop. Their conveyances leaked like sieves, leaving trails of waste as they wandered about. We could barely stand the stench, but the locals calmly ate their fermented cabbage or Kimchi, which smelled almost as badly, as they slowly prodded their oxen toward the next objective. After each outhouse was emptied, civilian workers doused the leftovers with gasoline and set them on fire.
One day we were ordered to augment a number of other troops who had already been assembled for the purpose of attending a decoration ceremony. Nearby stood our largest outhouse--to which the Koreans had just added their gasoline cleansing agent. Our program started before they could light it off, so they decided to bug out. A lot of medals were being handed out and eventually our impatient workers, who probably just wanted to go home, returned and without further ado heaved a match into the outhouse. They obviously hadn’t anticipated the major build-up of gasoline fumes that occurred during their absence, and the resulting explosion was awesome. The entire structure flew straight up into the air and blew apart in a smoking cloud of flames, raining poop and pieces of wood all over the assembled brass. They were not amused, but we thought it was excruciatingly funny.
The only, albeit minor, drawback to my greatly improved standard of living was a requirement to participate in all of the military gung-ho protocol that had been so avoidable throughout my previous postings. Uniforms had to be neatly pressed, saluting went on non-stop, and inspections became commonplace, all of which leads me to an amusing story that should have been translated into a M*A*S*H episode.
Koreans are fond of dog meat, especially after it has been tenderized, a process that requires placing the poor animals in sacks and beating them to death. Concurrently, there existed thousands of G.I.s scattered throughout the country who were desperate for companionship. This circumstance was a marriage made in heaven. Every army camp became flooded with pooches escaping both the stew pot and finding love and food from an unending stream of lonely soldiers. Upon leaving Korea, some G.I.s actually drew up documents willing their dogs to selected replacements, and whenever a four-legged friend was run over by a jeep or truck, entire camps went into mourning. The top brass eventually decided that if a soldier needed a dog, the army would have issued him one, and ordered that all army installations be purged of these unwelcome visitors. Hapless second lieutenants were now pressed into service for this purpose, but our efficient grapevine was able to warn us whenever dog inspections became eminent.
As each D-Day dawned, we sprang into action and started hiding our furry friends. They found their way into laundry bags, footlockers, under cots, on top of tents, and secreted in our office’s numerous nooks and crannies. Amazingly enough, not one of them ever made a sound, despite the fact that their temporary surroundings were anything but friendly. We also had lots of help from our own officers. They were savvy enough to realize that ferreting out our pets would only immerse them in endless paperwork, a workload they avoided by marching through our tent areas at a rapid pace with eyes straight ahead. After only several weeks of non-prolific dog-catching, the army’s top guns caved in and our normal routine resumed.
Promotion to Sergeant
Because we often handled large amounts of cash, we were subjected to a regulation prohibiting us from owning cards, on the theory that we might use them to gamble with the government’s money. This was another rule we were aching to ignore, and one day we were handed the perfect opportunity to do so. There came a moment in time when the absence of all our officers and the delivery of a million dollar payroll coincided. Because ten dollars was our highest script denomination, storing a million dollars required a surface equal to that of a bridge table, on which the stacks of currency reached a height of three feet. About five of us divided the million dollars and played poker only very briefly before returning the money to its proper place, since getting caught would not have been helpful towards the advancement of our military careers.
The next day I was summoned to my captain’s office, to which I reported with some trepidation, fearing that perhaps our previous day’s indiscretion had been discovered. It turned out to be a wasted worry because, much to my astonishment, I was handed orders promoting me to sergeant. This meant no more guard duty, as well as a monthly pay increase from one hundred and twenty two, to one hundred and sixty five dollars. More importantly, I was now responsible for the proper and timely preparation of the entire 24th Division payroll with twelve people working under me. My self-esteem shot through the roof, as this was first time in my life that a completely unbiased authority had entrusted me with such a major responsibility. Two additional perks accompanied my new status. I was now entitled to use one of our few electric adding machines, a big improvement from having to pump out thousands of monthly figures using a mechanically-operated model. I also received a week’s R & R, which I decided to share with my friend Sjoerd Kiers.
Soon thereafter we arranged for air transport to Japan, although I should have done more research and opted for an alternative form of transportation. Just before takeoff we were informed that, although C-119 “Boxcars” were unable to fly on one engine, there was a solution for this deficiency. Each of us was provided with a parachute that we strapped on with great misgivings. Our confidence sank even further upon being handed not only a reserve chute, but also an un-inflated rubber boat. Should one engine fail, we were supposed to jump out, pull the ripcord and, if necessary, that of the reserve chute. Upon hitting the water we were instructed to release our parachute harness, inflate the rubber boat, climb in, and await rescue. How any of this was to be accomplished without killing ourselves was not explained. Our trip passed in utter silence as every soul aboard listened intently for engine noise variations. Sjoerd and I spent our week exploring a selection of Japan’s smaller cities, but my memory totally fails me in recalling the details of our visit.
By now it was March 1955, and my middle-of-May departure day was beginning to loom above the horizon. Only two more adventures worth mentioning remained to be savored--one scary and one fascinating. At the risk of being chronologically incorrect, I will relate the bad one first and leave the best for last.
From a practical point of view, service to some of the 24th Division’s more remotely located units could only be accomplished by air, and on several occasions some of us were detailed to board an artillery-spotting plane whose pilot would then deposit us at selected sites for troop-paying purposes. There also came a day when I was ordered to make this trip by myself in order to untangle some kind of paperwork snafu. My transportation arrived on time, along with a pilot of dubious mental qualifications. Our proposed route was perfectly safe, but our “driver” was either crazy or had a death wish, because he changed the flight plan and started flying over portions of the DMZ. Violating the other side’s air space was sure to guarantee a reaction, and from the flashes I could see on the ground below us, I certainly got the impression we were being accommodated. Thankfully, we landed in an undamaged state and I went about my business.
Whenever finance personnel transported money, they were required to wear .45 automatics. Although I wasn’t carrying any cash on this occasion, I did happen to have my .45 with me from force of habit. Other troops envied us for what they considered to be a status symbol, but we didn’t really like carrying these weapons around. They were heavy, difficult to shoot accurately, and kicked like mules. On this trip, however, I finally discovered a practical use for my previously unappreciated appendage. As we prepared for departure, I confronted our pilot and announced we were not returning along the same route, fingering my .45 automatic for emphasis. He was furious, especially since sergeants weren’t supposed to talk to lieutenants like that. I realized that such gross insubordination, plus the implication that I had threatened an officer with a weapon, amounted to court martial offenses, but I didn’t care. With only a few weeks to go on my tour of duty, I wasn’t about to become a statistic because of somebody else’s stupidity. I was also quite sure the lieutenant would back down because, if push came to shove, he could have ended up in some very serious trouble. After staring at each other for a while, an unspoken accord was reached. The lieutenant would forget about my trigger finger and the sergeant never saw anything unusual going on at the DMZ. Our ride back was completed in sullen silence and I didn’t thank him for the ride. Only a few weeks later another aircraft on a similar mission was shot down, but was able to crash land on our side of the DMZ, with everyone walking away unhurt. I never discovered the circumstances surrounding that incident, as it involved another military unit which was unrelated to ours.
Although Korean civilians weren’t allowed to own military script, it nevertheless circulated freely throughout local economies due to the inevitable interaction between our troops and the general populace. In order to strip the civilians of their illegal booty, the army decided to retire our current script in favor of a new series, something easier said than done. The burden of this transition was handed over to finance offices throughout Korea under the tightest possible security while, at the same instant, every single army installation throughout the land was sealed tight as a drum. All servicemen were now allotted twenty-four hours to exchange their holdings. Despite these precautions, a number of soldiers still managed to beat the system. Enormous profits could be made, by those willing to risk imprisonment, for a chance to turn Korean currency into soon to be worthless script. Many such transactions took place for as little as ten cents on the dollar and, because we couldn’t dispute tales of success at the poker table, we were required to pay out thousands of dollars to individuals who had obviously risked a court martial for the chance of earning some serious money.
The old script’s color was gray throughout, whereas its replacement closely resembled monopoly money and was considerably more attractive. I saved one brand-new five dollar note as well as a pristine ten dollar specimen, both of which I eventually attempted to donate to the Army’s Finance Museum at Fort Benjamin Harrison. The museum’s curator wasn’t interested, and I subsequently sold the bills at auction for twenty-five hundred dollars. I guess I should have saved all my pay.
The most fascinating aspect of this exercise, and one I have never forgotten, was how easily any government can, by fiat, declare an entire economic system to be null and void. By the time the exchange period ended, our office was full of footlockers overflowing with what had once been considered to be a valuable medium of exchange, but was now nothing more than a pile of gray paper.
During my time at Uijongbu I had been issued an M-1 rifle, an M-1 carbine and a .45 automatic. As the big day approached I started packing my duds, and since nobody seemed eager to collect these items, I thought I might as well take them home. Suddenly I was saying farewell, whereupon I was presented with a wooden-framed memento commemorating my days with the 4th F.D.S. It currently hangs in my office, and if I was ever forced to evacuate the premises, this is the first possession I would attempt to save.
As anxious as I was to go home, the prospect of another Marine Lynx voyage weighed heavily on my mind. When the port of Inchon came into view, an enormous weight lifted from my shoulders. Far out in the bay lay a magnificent ship which I later found out belonged to the American President Line. While not comparable to a Holland-America Line vessel, it must still have been at least three times larger than anything I had any reason to expect.
Instead of proceeding directly to the dock area, we were ushered into a barracks, whereupon everyone was assigned a bunk. While disappointed, I figured one more night in Korea was endurable. The bunks, however, turned out to be not for sleeping, but were to be used as platforms on which we were ordered to display all of our possessions. Everyone traveled with duffle bags, which now disgorged a most incredible assortment of military hardware. Out tumbled M-1's, bazooka shells, machinegun barrels, carbines, hand grenades .45 automatics, bayonets, helmets, belts of thirty-caliber ammunition, water canteens, and even some items I didn’t recognize. Realizing we’d been had, the room filled with laughter as gurney-wielding attendants moved from cot to cot confiscating immense hoards of contraband. Even excess clothing wasn’t spared, and by the time it was over, we had all been slimmed down considerably.
Several hours later we had completed our transition from truck to pier and barge to the steamship President McKinley. That same evening we sailed from Inchon’s sorry excuse of a harbor, and nobody looked back as the Land of the Morning Calm slowly faded away behind us. There were probably between three and four thousand troops aboard, but our vessel’s size absorbed all of them quite handily. More importantly, only two weeks later the city of Seattle appeared on the horizon which, from a time point of view, constituted an enormous improvement over our original voyage. Then, as now, there may have been many things wrong with our country, but the battered old pier that our ship now approached was the most beautiful sight any of us had ever seen. No brass bands greeted us, but then again, none had been expected. Once ashore we immediately boarded a troop train for a three-day transcontinental ride, one that started out through some awesome Washington State scenery.
Such a long trip gave everyone ample pause for reflection and, I for one, felt pretty good about myself. I had served my country to the best of my ability, achieved the highest possible rank for a draftee, met interesting people from all walks of life, traveled extensively throughout Japan, participated in many exciting adventures and, last but not least, managed to complete my tour of duty without any physical damage except for a slightly mashed thumb caused by a mishap with my M-1 rifle. While my Korean tour of duty wasn’t an experience I would ever care to repeat, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world either.
Our final destination turned out to be Camp Kilmer, the same place from whence my long journey had started two years earlier. Here I exchanged script for greenbacks, went through the paperwork required for separation from the service, and caught a bus bound for New York City. Five hundred dollars of back pay lined my pockets and my modest stock portfolio had appreciated handsomely during my absence. I was twenty-four years old and ready to rumble.