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Robert E. Park
Korean War Veteran of the United States Army and California National Guard
"The Army showed me who I was, and it was painful. During the two years I served, I shed the shell that my parents had made for me, and made my own acquaintance with the world."
- SFC Robert E. Park
|A Grandfather's Recollection of His Part in the Forgotten War
SFC Robert E. Park served in Korea in 1951-52 with Battery C, 981st Field Artillery Battalion, 40th Division, and California National Guard. He submitted the following memoirs to the Korean War Educator for posting on the website’s Veterans’ Memoirs page.
I can sum up my war years with this: It was the most exciting and important camping trip I even took, but tragically we were there to kill people. With one round, we killed as many people as the Oklahoma City bombing, but the people we killed were there to kill us so it was not a newsworthy thing. I suppose it would have been as un-newsworthy had it been the other way around. We were engaged in the business of war and its product is maiming and death. It was in this climate that I began to take my first real measurement of myself as a man, and in what rank I stood in society’s mass. The Army is as cruel as a bayonet. It abrades the thin coverings of youth back to the exposed muscle. When all is raw, exposed, the artificial estimation of one’s worth is sliced away. It applies its own thick skin to the exposed bodies and minds, and waits for the true person to emerge from the cocoon. We all emerged, but as a simple and sanitized, toughened soldier. We evolved and were tested constantly to find our limits. Predictably, we fell into the ranks defined by capability. No one could rise higher than his limits, and our limits were known and published unmercifully by those who trained us.
Some suffered because they did not reach the level they had assumed. Some suffered because their veneer of morality slipped off so easily. The men’s status was defined by fact, and those who had assumed superiority to their fellow man were sometimes severely discomforted and caused themselves much trouble when they tried to reassume their former condition. Those who had assumed inferior feelings sometimes found themselves superior to many of their companions, and many of them flouted their superiority and collected bruised faces. Some suffered because they became aware of physical inferiority to other men around them. Some were wise enough to accept what they were as another bump in the road. All suffered some loss, most gained more than they lost. Most of all, they found the square or round hole that their peg fit, and settled in comfortably. No one noticed that they had all lost one trait: ambition. Operation as a well connected machine was the common goal. There were no personal heights to scale.
Strangely, I found that the holes and pegs of the military were the holes and pegs of society. The Army was a microcosm of the world outside it. Those of us who saw this gained a great benefit from the Army experience. Most felt it was a great loss of their youth. They were right, too.
The Day My War Began
It was January 1951 when, in the dark, I stepped from the greasy interior of General Black onto a floating steel dock in the bay at Inchon. Everything was done at a run and we hurried into landing craft standing with their great dark mouths waiting to swallow us. Each of us carried everything we owned in a back pack and large duffel bag. After the Black, it was hard to keep your balance. But when the landing craft was jammed full, the ramp went up and we stood so close we could not have fallen if ordered to do so. We hurried up Inchon’s dark causeway and through the town still black with sleep. We saw no one. It could have been a deserted city as we double-timed through, and every turn seemed to have a hill in front of it. We were winded by the time we came to a railroad station, and a little cold. Someone handed us a cup of coffee and a doughnut as we filed into rail cars and began trying to fit our bags and equipment and our own backsides into narrow, low wooden slatted benches. We were not going first class. After a couple of hours in an unheated car, we weren’t sure this was not cattle class. If you were lucky enough to get a seat, you sat with your chin supported on your rifle barrel and slept. Some piled duffel bags in the aisle and slept, and some of us stood, hooking our hip bones on the seat backs and semi stood, growing sleepier all the time. Five hours of the train, a cup of coffee on a platform at who knows where, and we were prodded 12 at a time into two and one half ton open trucks rushing off into the dark to our date with combat. We were scared, and very cold.
My feet were frostbitten on the way. I remember my panic because I was in the back of an open truck with twelve other men, and could not move, even to reach my feet. I sat there mile after mile in the night, trying to move my toes or wiggle my feet. But gradually they disappeared from my senses and the training films of blackened toes being broken off frozen feet came to mind. I had feared injury from our human enemy, but I found the most dangerous one was the cold, always there, waiting for a careless move. When we arrived at Chunchon I jumped off the truck and was sure my feet would be injured. We were assigned a small tent with an oil heater, which I fired immediately. I stripped off my boots and socks and found my feet and ankles were transparent yellow and totally numb. Putting them close to the stove, I tried to remember my training to avoid overheating, and slowly they regained their color and produced pain. After an agonizing hour they were normal, and, Praise God had no after effects except coldness. From that time, I protected my feet in every way, but they were never warm--never.
We milled around, found a mess hall and the slit trench latrines, and went back to the little tent whose frozen floor was now becoming a warmed mud floor. I got out my shelter half and spread it to lay on, when I heard someone yelling my name. I ran him down and he said I was to go up to the 24th unit we were replacing. I was to be an advance man and be on site when the full battery arrived.
Everyone goes into a war with a preconceived notion of what combat will be and how he will react to it. I had my movie-inspired concept of the front and of facing a real enemy. I also had a great anxiety about moving in to take over from a division that had fought up and down the Korean peninsula, wearing them away to less than 5% combat efficiency. We had been trained to do things the proper way, and by the numbers, rules and edicts. But was that the way they did it? Could I appear to be ready to take over? And most of all, would they laugh at me? The enemy was the least of my worries, how would the 24th veterans accept me?
My entry into the combat zone was not auspicious. Since I headed the communications and fire control group, I was called to go up before my unit. My ride was a 22-ton truck filled to overflowing with what looked to me like junk, but was headed to the combat zone. It was going close enough to my unit to drop me off. I didn’t ride in the cab of the truck because it was already filled with crusty veterans. I rode on top of the junk for the 50 miles from the staging area at Chunchon to Artillery Valley. I became very anxious as we passed the 38th parallel, because the sign that informed of our location also advised that helmets were mandatory, and live ammo was allowed.
It was cold and gray, bone-chilling, serious cold. I found later that it was always cold, and the only variation was how cold it was. In my memories of Korea, I remember it as cold and gray. I suppose this is so since our biggest enemy was the cold and the fight to keep from getting cold. There was really no sure way of getting warm once it had you. We had no thermometers, but I estimate that the winters stayed below zero.
The 24th Division’s 155MM Howitzer Battery
There was just enough sunlight left to see when I was deposited at the entrance of a small compound consisting of squad tents sitting in holes about 4' deep and with the spoil piled around the sides as protection for the exposed 3 feet of the side wall. Two stove pipes protruded from each tent, and black smoke came from most of them. There was no military placement of tents. In fact, there seemed to be a total disregard of organization. Small huts sprouted at odd angles and in improbable places. There were many manmade deep holes throughout the compound (which I would learn to map carefully since I had a very jarring fall into one that I forgot was there one night).
There were also several very large craters, which I learned later were from 500-pound bombs. The craters and the buried tents convinced me that I was, indeed, in a war zone. But something began to erode my combat film concept. There were roads. And there were little homey touches, like washstands, around the tents. The soldiers I saw ambling around the compound had a grizzled, combat-worn look. But they looked like they were anything but anxious about an artillery round coming in, and no guards were apparent on the perimeter. The 155 howitzers stood with their barrels at various attitudes, and no loading trays or ramming staffs were at the ready, which I would have expected in an active gun pit. This place looked like a junkyard with equipment rusting away.
I cannot remember the officer I reported to, since it was not a memorable event. I, however, was interesting to them because I was really a soldier from the unit replacing them, and it meant they were really going to be relieved and sent home. All of the men I met in the next few days seemed to be anxious and depressed. They had endured so many reversals of Army directions; they doubted they would ever be relieved. Even worse, they were concerned that they would be held back in the unit relieving them. For some it was a valid worry, for several men were left to integrate with us. The choice of these men seemed random. Some of them were short-timers ( men with just a few more days to serve). They were men who had considerable experience with the 24th, but did not have enough time to be relieved. I was surprised, because I thought a unit was replaced intact. One of these men became our "doc" or medic, and proved to be resourceful in obtaining food and other coveted items. I was to later learn the art of scrounging from him, without that art, we would never have been able to restore this unit to full capability. .
I was taken from the small hut that was used for a headquarters to the detail tent. In spite of the fact that I had very little time in the Army, I was the acting Chief of Detail in my unit This was not because I was so great a soldier, but because the National Guard unit to which I belonged lost a large number of their higher noncoms when we went overseas. Because of their age, 17-year old master sergeants can’t go overseas. That fact made me very happy, for I could not take serious combat training from superiors who had seen combat only as a word in a training manual. Since I was 22, I was one of the older recruits and felt much older than the squeaky voiced sergeants. We even lost some of our officers. When the unit was activated, they tried to resign their commissions. Some of them made it.
A detail was the official name of a unit within an Artillery Battery that housed the wire- laying crew, the survey crew, several wiremen’s truck drivers, and the exec officer’s driver. When the battery was cut off from the battalion’s fire direction, we also could set up a fire direction center within our battery headquarters and direct the guns on targets. We had and maintained all of the radio equipment in the unit. To the rest of the unit, however, detail meant we were to do the unwanted, dirty little details they were assigned. It was a constant problem explaining we didn’t string barbed wire or dig latrines.
The detail unit of the 24th Division truly resembled the "Swamp" in TV’s M.A.S.H. series. There were double-decked bunks around the perimeter of the tent, hugging the wall of the hole. The beds were all homemade of poles, stretchers, or assorted flotsam. Each bunk had a military-colored rubber air mattress, and a down-filled sleeping bag. In the center of the tent next to each center pole was a squat round oil burning stove. It really resembled a beer keg, only shorter. Two of them supplied the heat for the tent, or rather the beds closest to the stove. Large areas of the tent had frost on the canvas. The stoves were luxuries, and some huts were heated by homemade stoves built from grease cans, coffee cans, lengths of hose and tent pegs. (Most of them worked very well, which is more than can be said about the stoves in the tents.) The tent stoves had an inner can and ring made of stamped metal. It had deteriorated over the years of use. It no longer preheated and vaporized the oil, but rather, just burned the raw fuel and made little heat and a lot of soot in the stove pipe. If allowed to accumulate, the pipe could actually close off. Of course, this always happened in the middle of a night when it was very cold. The remedy was to climb up on the tent roof and run a chunk of metal the right size down the pipe and work it till the soot was deposited in the stove. This job fell to the smallest man in the tent so he could climb up the canvas without coming through. This was not a happy job. Strict blackout was observed at all times , so the work had to be done by feel. If the stove had a little flame in it, the soot would be projected out the pipe, and it looked like fireworks outside. This was looked down upon to a high degree.
Sometimes when the pipes had a large buildup, some of the soot would break loose and drop into the stove. The resulting fireworks display put red hot particles on the canvas roof and burned multiple holes in the tent. The next day someone had to climb up on the tent and repair the holes by burning electrical rubber tape and dropping the molten rubber on the holes to seal them. When we took over, we adopted a novel method. When the guns fired, they sometimes removed small powder bags to suit the trajectory they needed. Usually these bags are burned in a hole outside the gun area, but burning the powder was a tip-off where the guns were so the practice was stopped and the little bags piled up. Our solution was to cut a bag and get a handful of cordite, which we threw into the stove and then quickly slammed the lid. The results were effective and spectacular, but kept the roof repairman busy. We needed the stoves. Sometimes it was so cold that the oil froze in the lines. Our perimeter guard went around shaking the hoses from the oil barrels to keep the oil moving.
There were two men in the detail tent when I entered. None of their clothes had rank insignia on them, but that did not mean they had none, their clothing was mostly dredged from any source they could find, and fit and rank did not come high on their priorities. They did not move when I came through the flap of the tent, for they were intent on a card game. I later learned that the game had run continuously for more than a year. Posted on the side of the tent, next to the overturned wire spool they used for a table, were the results of the game. One of them owed the other over a million dollars.
The potentially rich man pointed to an upper bunk, which consisted of a stretcher on a sapling framework. I immediately decided that someone had died on that stretched before it was stolen from an ambulance. The variety of stains on it testified to its repeated use. I was glad I was in the Army and reasonably sure that the stains did not represent a horrid disease. On this contrived bed was a tired-looking air mattress which was very flat. I blew on it for several minutes until it swelled up to full capacity, and then waited to see if it lost air. But it remained firm, and I threw my sleeping bag on it and shook it to get the feathers fluffed up to keep the heat in. The card players looked at me curiously and turned to each other with a wry smile. This warned me that something was amiss.
I looked for something obvious, like a loose binding on the bed frame, but nothing showed up. I tucked my suspicions away for inspection later. I took off my outer clothing, and in my long johns, socks, and my "Radar" knit hat (like the one worn by the "Radar" character in M.A.S.H.), I settled in for the night’s sleep I badly needed. I was apprehensive of what the dawn of my first day in real combat would bring.
I was sleeping soundly when, suddenly, I was projected into the air and almost on to the ground. I scrambled inside my bag, got a grip on the side bar of the stretcher, and levered back into the bed. I unzipped the bag, and sat up slightly dizzy. The card-players, now under a light from a jeep headlight that was connected to the truck next to the tent, turned to me with a big grin and said, "You’d better let some air out of that thing. When the guns fire, it jolts us because of the frozen ground; your mattress will bounce you out of bed." I filed wry smiles under "investigate further." Sly grins usually preceded embarrassment.
The guns were fired sporadically all night at Harassment and Interdiction (H&I) targets. It was blind fire at pre-sighted areas, and was done at night to ruin the enemy’s sleep. It didn’t help ours, either. The officers weren’t bothered to oversee this fire. It was done without supervision. One lesson learned already.
How I Became a Combat Veteran the First Day
After breakfast, I met their chief of detail. Where he had been all night, and where the rest of the detail was at that time was a mystery not explained. Later, I found there were no other members of the section except the wiremen card players, it seemed unimportant enough to skip explanation. The sergeant asked me if I could fix radios. I told him I could do simple repairs and tunings. He said that a gun in Dog Battery was set up, but a tank had cut the wires and they couldn’t get firing commands. Their command radio was not working either, and they needed to get communications soon. Dog battery guns were guns pulled from their emplacements, moved up to the front lines to fire--sometimes point blank--at a target. The target was usually a bunker dug obliquely into a stone hillside so that it presented a stone face to the enemy. Most of the ordinance available to the infantry could not penetrate this stone face, but a 155 howitzer with its 95-pound shell and armor piercing fuse could penetrate 15 feet of limestone. Bunkers could be collapsed by one round, and the gun then hurried back to a protective area. The hurry was necessary because the North Koreans and Chinese could put a mortar round in your hip pocket if you exposed it.
I asked if I could take another of the unit’s radios to them, and the sergeant answered by taking me out to a covered Jeep trailer and pulling back the cover. The radios were all there, frozen in a solid block of ice as large as the trailer bed. Repair was the only answer, and I was aware of the problem I was about to inherit. What I didn’t know was the equipment had been signed for by our advance officers as working!!! They obviously didn’t get out in the cold to inspect the equipment.
I gathered what tools I had, and was assigned one of the card-players as a driver. He reluctantly put on his greasy parka and scarred helmet, dragged a rifle from his bunk, and directed me to a sad-looking jeep that leaned against an embankment as if it had cold, sore feet. Starting it was an ordeal, with much wheezing, coughing and ejection of black smoke. When it was laboring, obviously short one cylinder, the wireman indicated that our journey was to begin. I resolutely hoped that our destination was close enough to walk home, for I had no confidence of arrival, and certainly of our return.
Our route involved going north from the Battery on a newly-bulldozed, winding road over the endless ridges that make up Korea. Every winding hill asked the jeep for its all, and I was sure its all was not enough. At some points, we reached less than walking pace, but the wireman seemed satisfied with the progress we made, and made no attempt to speed down the backside of the ridges to aid the climb on the ridge ahead.
As we ground to the peak of an especially tall ridge, the wireman suddenly pulled to the side of the road in the lee of a rock overhang. He dug in the depths of his parka and retrieved a battered pipe with an impossibly short stem. He dredged tobacco from another opening of his coat, and "Zippoed" the pipe into use. He sat without talking, and, indeed, I wondered if he would ever speak. But I had confidence that he was showing me the way things are done in a combat zone, so I sat quietly and learned. I lit a cigarette also to show nonchalance, and we sat and smoked, blowing long smoke and steam clouds over the hood of the still-chugging Jeep. With decisive tapping of the pipe and adjusting of the seat the wireman spoke. "When we go over the top of this ridge, we are in full view of the enemy, and will be for the next mile. We are going to go as fast as we can till we reach the lower area - hang-on!"
We accelerated nicely, and I was beginning to believe we would make it unmolested, when suddenly an unbelievable explosion erupted on the side of the ridge. I was sure it was close to us, and was relieved I still had body parts when a second and third rocked the Jeep. We left a trail of oil smoke down the hill. The driver leaned forward as if to hurry the Jeep with his momentum, and I did the same. But I was trying to protect my very exposed body from whatever it was that was trying to destroy us. As we reached the bottom of the hill, there were more explosions, but well to the rear and at a considerable distance to the left and right. I was relived that their gunners were erratic, and awed that I had something to write home about. I had been under fire!!! I was a combat veteran!!!
A short distance down the road, tucked up to one side of another ridge, were two of our 155 howitzers, tubes elevated to the maximum, prime movers sitting in a cleared space to the side. Everywhere people milled about in the snow, looking useless. I stepped out of the Jeep and reported to the first officer I saw, who turned out to be another sour sort who wanted to know who I was and how come I was there. I explained I had come to work on the radios and he pointed me to the single radio sitting on the end gate of a 3/4 ton truck. He said he doubted that I could do anything. So did I.
I began to dismantle the radio on the truck bed, and soon I had a fine pile of radio parts. Whenever asked if I was doing anything good, I mumbled and tried to look mysteriously knowledgeable (the same look you get from a Doctor when he is stumped). I was trying the "Park Method of Repair". When I didn’t have a clue, I disassembled it, and then reassembled it. Maybe something will be right. ( I still use this method ) The radio worked. Maybe it was a frosted connection or a bad tube socket, but it still worked.
The response was "underwhelming." With an, "It’s about time" look, the officer began to call for fire direction, and everyone suddenly looked like soldiers. The guns fired and began a program of firing. Everything was working the way we had trained for it to work, and I felt a little more familiar. I was, however, worthless to them while they fired, so I looked for a place to stay out of the way of gun crews carrying powder cans and projectiles from the trucks.
Next to the ridge was a bunker that had been sealed by a bulldozer. A pile of wooden boxes projected from the snow close to its wall looked like a good place to get out of the wind and snow and see the operation. I climbed the pile of very solid boxes, and with a board that looked like it came from one of the boxes, I scraped the snow from the top and sat down. It was a good show. Things worked smoothly, and you could tell the 24th crews had experience. The guns rose and fell from their high angle rapidly. I felt for the gunner who had to crank the massive tube and recoil mechanism down and up for each shot. I had tried out for a gun crew once, and couldn’t take the kind of pace they showed here.
Finally, they called for "cease fire", and they began to prepare the guns for transport back to the unit. The wireman appeared and indicated we could go, but he warned, "Be very careful climbing down from those mines." "MINES??", I yelled. He replied, "Yeah, those are Chinese Picric Acid mines: The wooden box is filled with the molten stuff, and a little board is used to press down on it to detonate it." "Like this board?" I asked him I held up my snow scraper. "Yeah, that’s one," he said.
Our trip home was as quiet as our trip out. The wireman kept his council and so did I. This time he did not
stop at the top of the ridge, but urged the moribund Jeep to new efforts, and so we reached our Unit. We walked
into the section tent and the other card player was ready at the table. Silently, they began to play, and I
started to remove a layer or two of clothing. "Did you see the engineers shooting those duds this morning?," one
said. "Yeah," replied my driver, "We drove down through there."
New Rules: The New Elite
Things change rapidly under combat conditions. I found this out on the first day that my wiremen arrived on the site and we began to take over the duties of the unit. The rules for detecting and repairing communication lines between battalion headquarters and battery were that the switch board operators (who were on duty 24 hours a day) rang through to battalion on lines every two hours. If a line was found broken, crews from both ends of the line were to start a search to find the break. We were trained that way and assumed it worked that way. When our first break was reported, we quickly sent a crew who worked half way to battalion, a distance of several miles. But then it returned, since it was obvious that the break was closer to battalion and their crew would get it. When they returned, the 24th Detail chief went into frenzy. "This is combat!! You don’t stop until you fix the break!!" Then he launched into choruses, "This isn’t playing training games. This is real!!" Of course, a goodly amount of well-tuned profanity went with it. We felt like real rookies, and the crew scrambled out and retraced their steps going all the way to battalion to their switchboard, where a wire had slipped off a terminal. I accosted the battalion Detail Chief and asked why they had not sent out a crew. I was informed that battalion does not look for wire breaks!!! They had become elite overnight, and immune to any mundane tasks. They chased no wire, and they certainly didn’t get out in the cold.
Sitting at the edge of the throne of power, it was not really clear what battalion detail people did. It was certainly not wire work. Later, I actually found a wire break under the bed of the unit chief after I had walked three miles in sub zero temperatures in the middle of the night. I seriously contemplated strangling him with the wire.
Within a few days, our entire unit had trickled in and taken their respective places. Most of the 24th people just disappeared. I have no recollection of any big movement of trucks for people to leave. They just faded away. A few were stuck with us, and these men were very bitter and proved to be a problem as we settled in. They had to be put in different jobs, and some resented their loss of status in the positions in the new unit. The truth is, we didn’t want them. We didn’t want to remove trained people to replace them with an unknown talent, so we gave them no good positions. Most of them were men in mid enlistment who had not been on the combat zone long enough to accumulate points enough to go home.
One exception was Sergeant Taylor. Taylor was a tall, powerfully built black man with the carriage and manner of a professional soldier. He was slightly aloof, but his handling of the men and his experience as a gunnery sergeant made him a valuable asset. We inherited a few poor specimens also, such as the little Irishman whose brogue made friends of everyone, but who was worthless at any task. He was frightened of the dark, and when forced into night guard duty, shot the mirror on a washstand outside his own tent when he saw reflected movement. There were some that thought he was just shrewd, since he was not assigned any more night guard. I didn’t think he was that smart. He soon moved on. Another man left over was a black private who, when assigned to clean a machine gun in a guard emplacement overlooking a flat area used for volleyball, cleaned the piece, loaded it, and accidentally fired it into a group of men playing there. No one was hit, but he became the only man in the unit without a personal firearm. He did gopher work till he was transferred a month later.
Our doc was an inherited gem. He was a real medic, as opposed to a "Band-Aid" medic. He treated burns, sewed cuts, and dispensed low level medicines. He set up in the detail tent, and was very respected. He was as young as any of us, but had been through the horrific experience of being in a unit which had been run to death over the washboard that was Korea. A medic in a running unit is the only doctor the unit has. He has to deal with everything minor or serious, and becomes a major asset of the unit. Many people in old line units would not go to the rear for doctoring. They trusted their own man. I don’t know what training the medics got, but ours excelled at everything, and we never found anything he could not treat.
Doc was a master scrounger. I first found this out in the middle of a very cold night when I had walked miles through the snow and up a frozen river to find a wire cut by tanks coming back from a strike. I was cold and very hungry when I returned. Doc was up warming himself by a stove. I tried to make a box of cereal, but reconstituting the dry milk resulted in clotted water and I was really angry. Doc said, "Don’t sack out until I get back." Twenty minutes later, he slipped in the back flap and triumphantly placed two beautiful cans of Dinty Moore stew on the stove top. He borrowed one of the TL knives and punched holes in their tops. Soon the aroma of stew filled the tent and men began to come out of their sleeping bags and rummage for mess kits. That was the best meal I had in Korea. Many years later when I was called upon to use my meager cooking skills, I made rice and put Dinty Moore stew on top. It was still delicious to me because the taste was half memory of that middle of the night meal in a cold tent. My son hated it.
Our area was depressing. It was several days before I could get my head up and look around, and it was appalling. When one thinks of the military, a picture comes to mind of well-ordered tents and gun emplacements side by side with the tubes elevated at the same level and covered with canvas to preserve the mirror finish of the recoil mechanisms. We were used to having the projectile tray on the ground at the base of the breech with the brass headed rammer staff next to it. Fuse wrenches were to be next to the fuse trench, and the area devoid of trash and flotsam.
In this place, nothing lined up, neither militarily nor even symmetrically. They sat in places that made you assume the prime mover for the piece died on that spot, so they set up. Few of the pieces were dug in, and most had no hardware around them, so you knew the piece was inoperative. Only two of the pieces could fire safely and were used continuously. Two others could be fired, but it was risky business for the cannoneers, since the tube recoiled violently with very little resistance from the recoil mechanism. Although the 24th used these pieces (real guns), we called them inoperative.
They lacked oil and nitrogen to soften the recoil of the tube (artillery for the barrel), and the return to battery position was so slow, many times the crews pushed on the tube to get it back where they could open it and prepare for the next shot. Two of the pieces could not be used. One was missing a breach block, and the other sat on its jack and trails, but the tires were shredded. One half of the heavy steel breach lay in head size chunks scattered around the gun pit. This made a very deep impression on everyone the first time they saw it, and the questions flew. We assumed it was from enemy action since the gun emplacement was just in front of a yawning crater. Later we learned it was from overconfidence on the part of a section chief. The gun hung fire. (The firing mechanism was pulled and the gun did not fire.)
This happens when the powder man gets pushed to hurry his powder-cutting routine. He is required to pull a 35-pound charge of cordite from a metal tube and prepare that charge for the shot in progress by removing sections of the charge. Each section is in a silk bag and the whole is tied together with silk tapes fastened to the bottom of the charge opposite the igniting end. The igniting end is covered with a red patch which has quick-burning powder that ignites the silk bag and sets off the cordite in the bag. It seems easy to identify the igniting end, but in the dark, and in a hurry, many powder charges were placed backwards. Ordinarily, a mistake like this results in a delayed firing--usually only a few seconds. The crews know to avoid standing in the recoil area until the exec officer has decided it is safe. The firing mechanism is removed cautiously because the air that enters the primer channel can cause the silk to burn rapidly, causing the gun to fire. A spectacular shaft of fire will come from the primer hole, but no one is usually hurt. The danger comes after the primer is removed and the decision is made to open the breech itself. This was the action that resulted in the destroyed gun we saw. The powder suddenly ignites, and contrary to what you would expect, the breech explodes . The shrapnel and blast usually kill all eight men associated with the piece. It was a very sobering monument to proper training, and we all saw it.
An artillery unit carries many trucks of various sizes on its organizational chart. The larger trucks were used to carry ammunition from the dumps in the rear of the unit to the gun pits. There, it was racked according to its type (high explosive, smoke, light), and the fuses were sorted by quick, delay, armor piercing, time and variable time. The latter were plastic fuses with a radio in them that set them off 80 meters from the ground. They were not activated until the shock of firing broke a vial of acid and made the radio battery work. We were very leery of these, since dropping them was inevitable. But the fuses were designed to take a tremendous jolt to break the vials, and we never dropped them hard enough. The 80 meter "Mask", as it was called, required that if you fired over friendly folks, you had to be sure the trajectory was more than 80 meters over their heads. The Long Toms never figured this out, as I will tell you later.
The large trucks were two and one half ton. The 3/4 ton trucks were for units such as Detail that carried wire and survey equipment. We had two jeeps for personal transportation for the officers. There was a brutish 10-ton wrecker used to move the prime movers. There were six tracked prime movers , each weighing ten tons. They had benches for the cannoneers, boxes for four rounds of each type, and a ring on top complete with a 50-caliber machine gun. The prime movers moved the guns over the road, and could go almost anywhere. The guns were transportable when the crews let them down off the jack directly under the tube, and the trails were removed from the trail spades and swung together. The trails locked together and had an iron ring which fit the hitch on the prime. The guns’ tires and wheels were large and rugged and carried 13 tons of field piece with ease. When the guns were in place, the prime movers were parked nearby in case incoming artillery should make it necessary for the unit to move. The 50's on top were good defensive "pill boxes" scattered around the area.
The vehicles we inherited were, without exception, beyond use. In the first days of our relief of the 24th, we could not find any transportation for the Commanding Officer to go the four miles back to Battalion. After numerous false starts, he reluctantly chose the Detail jeep with the three good cylinders. When the driver arrived at the headquarters tent the "Old Man" walked around the jeep and got his trousers coated with oil at the knees. Oil was thrown from the exhaust like bug spray, and we learned to avoid the exhaust area. One 3/4 ton, which was so in need of repair that it could hardly pull its own weight, had a heater. Heaters in trucks were rare. The trucks were open to the elements, but the heat on your feet and lower legs was a treat, and many trips to Battalion were done in this truck for that reason. Of, course the trip of a whopping four miles had a few mild hills, so the time for the trips usually ran over two hours each way. The rule was that all vehicles must have a shotgun rider, and there were many volunteers for they could get their feet warm.
The replacement of trucks was our first priority since the front was volatile and a method of getting out quick was very necessary. In fact, the bottom portion of our packs was filled with things one needed if we had to leave in a hurry. They were called "Bug Out bags", and everyone had one.
The trucks were replaced early in the game. The vehicles we received were World War II vintage, but completely rebuilt in shops in Japan. They looked and operated reliably. They were repainted, and furnished with new tools, tires and accessories, and we were very pleased with them when we got them. however, they were very slow getting to us, and we had to make do with the old ones for a long while. Jeeps were considered officers’ transportation, and strangely enough, not high priority. This angered our C.O. no little bit, especially when other batteries got one ahead of him. Our gun mechanic did some magic stuff, procuring parts and installing very heavy breech mechanisms on the inoperative guns in the field with very little help. He recharged recoil mechanisms, brought in a radar system to log the muzzle velocity of the projectiles from each gun, and soon all of the cannoneers had to get out in the cold and work, much to their disgust.
Our Artillery Valley perimeter was formed by the Kumwha River behind us and mountains in front of us. A 40-meter high ridge was immediately behind the river and separated us from a tank battalion dug in there. Beyond them were the 155 mm guns or "Long Toms". These guns were flat trajectory, as opposed to howitzers which fired at extreme angles and looped trajectories to reach targets behind hills and ridges. The Toms were seldom used, and when they were, it was to fire propaganda shells which were fused by proximity devices. They blew apart 80 meters in the air to scatter "surrender passes" to the Chinese soldiers. Most of their projectiles never made it to enemy territory. They never mastered the technique of calculating the height of the tall ridge in front of them and in back of us. Consequently, most of the surrender passes swirled down on us, and pieces of the projectile would rip through a tent, or even worse, perforate an air mattress. Once the base plate of one of their projectiles skipped down the road close to where I walked. I stepped aside and let it go till it hit a beam at the river’s edge. I dug it out and sent it back with a carefully worded note giving my opinion of their techniques, and casting aspersions about their parents and ancestors. They improved for a while, but a month later, they were papering us again.
Our area was not all on the same level, since we were situated in several rice paddies which cascaded from one to the other, eventually discharging into a deep ditch on the 2- meter bluff along the river’s edge. Once upon a time, the water had turned a water wheel, and the depression along the bank which once held the wheel was then turned into a bunker with two 30 caliber machine guns commanding about a mile of the river.
When we took over, there was 14 inches of ice on the river, and the tanks behind us used the river as a highway to the MLR. Tanks were not very effective on this terrain. They were easily disabled since they were channeled by the terrain. The Chinese were quick to mine approaches. In the evening after a strike, they came home with cracked hulls or behind a tank retriever, minus tracks or other pieces of the exterior. I was amazed that the ice would hold these machines, and even more amazed that anyone would go out in them. Most of the time, they never reached their targets. They made me sure my fear of being trapped in a tank was valid. Sure it is nice to have all that iron around you, but tanks have to go in among the enemy, and the enemy seemed not to be cordial to tanks.
We mounted a guard network at night with stationary posts, as well as some roving guards. The roving guards were the ones who shook the oil lines going into the tents. We really never feared an infiltration back as far as we were, but the last act before going to bed was to locate our weapon and hang it where we could reach it. Some months later, we left Artillery Valley and moved to the East into a mountain emplacement separated from the other batteries by several wilderness miles. We set up a much tighter perimeter, complete with barbed wire, remote dug-in posts, and a telephone network. However, our best warning system was the red-bellied frogs that infested the paddies around us. If anything moved at night, they stopped singing. The silence was a wonderful warning.
The Chinese launched a psychological attack on the whole division front when they discovered that we had replaced the 24th. All along the front, they infiltrated our static fortifications and cut the throats of sleeping soldiers. I recall seeing several 3/4 ton trucks moving back over the mountains with bodies stacked like cord wood, their feet protruding from the rear. This was not to improve the enemy’s position, but rather, to make us insecure and sleepless. It worked, for we had no more successful infiltration. The front line men devised a method of identifying our own people in the dark by not wearing helmets at night. All across the front, we had large Klieg lights with their beams almost horizontally interlaced to make an artificial horizon and to illuminate the enemy lines. It was very difficult for them to move without being seen, and if they tried to infiltrate, their helmets identified them as enemy. During a night visit to our forward observer, I stepped out of his bunker near the crest of a ridge to relieve myself. I was quickly bracketed by two infantrymen with bayonets. They told me to remove the helmet or die. I took off the helmet. It seemed a reasonable request.
Most of the units to the rear of us did not seem to need perimeter defenses. Ours was probably due to the experiences of our Exec officer, who had served with the 82nd Airborne in WWII. He was very nervous at night, and kept a tight check on the guards posted. We laughed at his nerves behind his back and called him "Buzz Bomb." But I think we all felt much more secure with him in charge.
Some men are afraid of the dark. They would not admit it to their peers, but the Army does expose us all at times. One man was very imaginative in his excuses why he should not take his turn at guard, especially at the remote and very dark posts in the woods. But we caught up with him, and he was assigned a hole in the darkest of wooded area on the top of a ridge to the left of our guns. He went up before darkness, and normally would have been relieved in four hours, but when his relief approached his post the man shot at him. (These things seemed to happen when I was taking my turn at Sergeant of the guard). I called him and told him we were relieving him and to not shoot. The relief man was sent back up, and again the man shot at him. I called him again and told him in no uncertain terms that he was not to shoot, I was coming up to get him. There was a slight gully leading to the back of his position so I crawled up the gully through the leaves trying to get to him. The leaves being crushed were even more terrifying to him and he began to shout, "Don’t come up!!! Don’t come up!!!" So I shouted back, trying to reassure him, but he shouted, "Go away. I can’t come down." So I backed away and notified the guards on the next watch to leave him alone. We left him all night. When the light came, he came down sheepishly amid the catcalls of his buddies. He was transferred soon after.
The only thing close to infiltration of our battery was during Operation Killer. The Chinese had a veteran division in front of us, and they were dug in extremely well. They worked at it night and day, and we never approached the Chinese in their ability to build fortifications. Some of the bunkers they built were marvels carved into solid rock. They were designed with several chambers and had blast protection mazes between larger rooms.. Some actually went completely through the ridge and were entered at the backside Exposed roofs were completely covered with rails that had been cut from the railroads and moved miles by hand labor. Their tools were very short-handled picks and a tremendous amount of manpower. They did not have many effective artillery pieces, and relied on a scattering of 76 mm guns which were small and could be manhandled up hills and into bunkers. Most of the time they did not use the traditional artillery battery front, but used them piecemeal to support weak areas, or tank corridors. Their weapon was the mortar, and they were masters of them. When we first arrived, my buddy and I began to dig a two-man foxhole. A Korean advisor told us the hole was too big. The Chinese could put a mortar round into the hole with us!!
The scheme of Operation Killer was to deceive the Chinese into believing we had withdrawn from the sector so they would relax and come out of their holes. Our observers could then map the locations for targeting later on. It was elaborate to the extent of sending many convoys of trucks to the front lines with their lights on to give the impression we were loading up and pulling out. We were ordered to strenuously enforce the blackout rules, and there were to be no shots fired for any reason, even when tempted by exposed enemy. This was to go on for about two weeks, and during this period we expected attempts to infiltrate for information. It was a stupid idea. It fooled no one when the trucks came to the front, and the night fireworks of the oil stoves told anyone looking that the support area was still occupied. Mostly it gave us all a reprieve and a chance to repair equipment and improve our living areas, and we took full advantage.
Our guard was vigilant, however. I was again the sergeant of the guard for the night when a call came that there were two infiltrators coming up the ice on the river. They weren’t sneaking. They were staggering and laughing. I sent two men out and they brought the two Korean work battalion men to the guard bunker. They were drunk as Lords and almost unaware of the danger they were in. They had no weapons, but had large pads of Korean money in their pockets and a couple of bottles of something they seemed fond of. I called the Exec and asked for instructions, expecting to have the men taken to the rear by MPs. But the word came back, "Kill them and sink them in the ice!!". I was shocked, and had no intention of killing in cold blood, although it was a policy to kill any civilian caught North of the 38th parallel. As cold-blooded as it sounded, it was a policy made necessary by the infiltration of refugees by the Chinese in the early days of the war. When we were told of this policy, I was shocked at the number of men who said they couldn’t wait to shoot a gook. I said in the preface to this that some were stripped of their veneer of morality very easily.
If you know me, you know I could not do as I was ordered. I called the CO and told him that he would have to kill these men if they were to be killed. His answer was offhand, "Do whatever you want, but get rid of them." One of the men in the machine gun bunker pleaded, "Let me shoot!" But I ignored him. I called out one of the Koreans we had with the unit and asked him to question them. They were two men from the area who had been conscripted to do road work. They had stolen all of their comrades’ cashed money, and then sneaked out to a hidden treasure of homemade booze they either knew about or had made themselves. Their intention was to get a little drunk, and then sneak to the rear never to be heard from again. But their problem was that they got more than a little drunk--they got roaring drunk.
After some thought, I herded them down to the Ice and motioned for them to kneel facing away from me. I cocked my submachine gun, and the sound sobered them greatly, but not completely. Only death could have done that. I shouted, "Run, Run!", and they did (as well as their legs would operate). As far as I know, they ran all the way to Inchon, for they were still at full speed as far as I could see. Sure, they could have been Chinese infiltrators, but what could they have learned from us? I think they were what they said they were, and they lived to raise another rice crop and get drunk once again on home brew.
Operation Killer was concluded by a real Fourth of July type noise fest. Everyone fired at targets collected by the observers, and a good time was had by all. Nothing seemed to change. They patrolled at night. We patrolled at night. We shot at truck movements, and groups of soldiers. They shot mortars at our bunkers. It was back to Ho Hum War.
One of the questions from persons who have not experienced war is often, "Did you ever shoot anyone?" Soldiers who have had personal experience in war usually do not want to talk about it since it is serious business. Even with extensive training, when the sights are on a live person whom you are about to make dead, killing is not always automatic, and not always without regret. I have had the experience of lining my sights on another person. I do not know whether I could have pulled the trigger. But I was spared the decision when that person turned out to be another road conscript sneaking back home. I "captured" a Chinese soldier one morning. As I stood in the breakfast line, a Korean civilian cook began to cry, "Gook!", and pointed behind me. There in line was the most pitiful Chinese soldier I could imagine. He stood with a 25-caliber machine gun over his shoulder, his clothes filthy, and his body nearly wasted away. I went to him and took his machine gun, then gave him my place in the chow line. He ate ravenously; then was sick. He sat down on the ground with his head between his knees and didn’t move until the MPs came to pick him up.
He had lived behind the lines since the war had passed that way some six months or more earlier. He was starving and could hold out no longer. I kept the machine gun for a while, but we ran out of ammunition playing with it. It was not an impressive weapon, and I couldn’t imagine why they had such small caliber weapons. Our infantrymen told us they couldn’t knock a man down with the carbines we shot in our battalion. If they were assigned carbines, they traded them off for the M1 rifles that could knock them down.
Artillery war is impersonal. A man, on a hill, miles away sees the enemy and calls his position to a battalion fire direction center. They calculate the necessary data to aim a remote battery of guns at that target. They call the data to a "recorder" (one of my jobs), and the officer in charge calls the data to the guns. Then they are fired by telephone command to the gunner, who relays it to the Number 2 man, who pulls the lanyard. We often sat and tried to determine who was really responsible for the killing the 95-pound high explosive shell did. It could never be resolved beyond "we".
We felt the impact of the guns going off, but seldom ever heard the explosion of the shell. Our range was usually about seven miles, but we could shoot 12 miles with accuracy. Sometimes we fired at such high angles and extreme ranges that we had to calculate the rotation of the earth beneath the projectile. We received little or no target information from Fire Direction, and only after we learned to tune our radios to the observer’s frequency did we hear a target description. Usually it was a terse, "15 troops in the open," or "Two trucks with troops." One time it was, "Line of bushes moving along a road." The observer was warned five seconds before the rounds were to hit so he could pop his head up see the impact. At the end, he reported, "Cease fire. End of mission," and added, "Target destroyed", or "10 dead, 5 wounded." It was not personal at all. When the mission was handled by telephone, which it was most of the time, we got no feedback at all. It was just a hard job we did well.
I did shoot at a man with the intention of harming him. While we were still at Artillery Valley and I was the Sergeant of the Guard once more, I had a telephone call from the bunker on the river saying that there were men moving around on the other side of the river. It was very dark, and I doubted the report since the river ice groaned and moaned all night and one could be spooked into hearing men very easily. The guard seemed very positive, so I got my gear on and went out. He pointed to a ditch running parallel to the river and said he was sure that men were crawling down to our right. As we talked, a flare banged up from the ditch area and clearly revealed two men who dived into the ditch.
I silently thanked the nameless man who placed the trip wire over there, and I called out to them, Come out!!" And again, "Come out." The sentry said, "Ask them for the password." I wasn’t about to have them shout out over 150 yards, so I yelled again, "Come out!!" No reply. No movement. " Let me shoot over there," the sentry said, anxious to fire the 30 caliber machine gun mounted there. I was tempted, but I reconsidered and said, "No, I’ll fire a round first and see if they reply." I took a carbine and aimed at the approximate spot where we had seen them last, and fired one round. Now a carbine bullet will drop three feet in 150 yards, and in the dark you cannot even see the front sight of the rifle, so the shot was "to whom it may concern." The result was chilling. There was a shout. "Chota Mate." That was Japanese for, "Just a minute." It was repeated several times. " Come out," I yelled again. There was hesitation, and then a figure climbed over the side of the ditch to the ice. Then another. This one was limping badly. By this time the bank of the river was lined with men lying on the ground, pointing weapons of every kind at the emerging figures. "Come this way," said an officer who got into the act. "Lie face down on the ice." They complied quickly, sprawling out facing the bank. Several men climbed over the bank and began to search for weapons, while the rest of us watched the bank for more intruders. The two men were pulled to their feet and they began to protest, "Hey, man, we’re a battery! Don’t shoot again!" They were escorted to the headquarters, where they told their tale of trying to find Chinese weapons or gear. Why they expected to find anything in the dark is a mystery. "Is that man hit?" we asked. "He’s limping." They replied, "He’s not hit. He crapped his pants when you shot at us."
A Battery held a grudge about this incident for a long time, and it got more serious than I liked. Late one very cold night, the Battalion line went down. I got my hooks and climbed a pole to check out the wire we had draped across the river. Suddenly, there was a sharp crack and the pole shook and splintered. Someone had shot at me and hit the pole instead. I kicked the hooks out of the pole and skinned it all the way to the bottom. My coat and gloves were full of splinters, but the shooter got no more opportunity at me. I’m sure it was an A battery shooter. We never found out. A Battery people said they didn’t have anyone who could shoot that well.
A Little Retribution for Past Sins
We got our chance when the enemy’s veteran Chinese division was pulled from the line and a fresh and very green unit replaced it. Evidently they did not exchange much information in the transition, for they committed some very bad mistakes that could have been avoided by just a little information. Several of their high-ranking officers in their shiny new helmets and bright new uniforms gathered in an exposed area to look over the front. We had registered the spot several months ago, so all that was necessary was to call the registered number of the target and shoot. The officers all were erased from this earth. Intelligence informed us that it was a major strike.
Later, a Chinese officer assembled over 100 men on the forward slope of a ridge, ignoring the artillery superiority we had enjoyed for months. Our observer could not believe the stupidity of the people exposing their men like that. One battery-fired volley killed all of them but one. This man crawled painfully toward the crest of the ridge, where one round eliminated him as well. The observer did not celebrate this carnage. He cursed the stupidity of the men who sacrificed so many. It was his job, and ours, to kill them. It was stupid. The war did not change for their deaths, and we did not celebrate any great victory. It was our work, and we did it well.
Our observers were dug in very well on the forward slope of the ridge overlooking the main line of resistance. For the most part, they were not in danger. They were immune from individual rifle or mortar fire, because the Chinese knew an observer had six big guns in his pocket. If they fired at him, he pounded them.
There were exceptions, however. The Chinese did not have all the bumbling officers. When we received a group of replacement officers who had R.O.T.C training and a brief stint at Ft. Sill, they arrived with shining helmets, red silk scarves with crossed cannons around their neck, and bright boots not yet stained by the Korean mud. I took them up to the Observation Post (O.P.) to introduce them to the observer, First Lieutenant Murphy. Murphy was a California Highway Patrol Sergeant in civilian life, and a stern, demanding officer. But he was my favorite, because he was fair and no nonsense. I tried to get the battery C.O., Captain Hill, to let me go up with Murphy as his communications sergeant, but Hill and Murphy were on the outs, and Hill would not let me go because Murphy would have liked it. The rift was the cause of Murphy volunteering for the O.P in the first place. I left the rookie officers on the trail on the back side of the ridge, and went on alone. When I called Murphy out of the bunker, we were shocked to find the officers standing on the top of the bunker using field glasses. Murphy exploded, and in some pretty unique language, suggested their IQ was less than their waist size. He had me drag them down the ridge and back to the battery.
That night, just as Murphy feared, the Chinese hit the bunker with everything they could bring to bear. They had decided that the rookie officers were generals, and wanted to return our favor. The bunker was completely destroyed. Murphy survived by lying in the bottom of the bunker while the timbers fell in on him. The logs were riddled with shrapnel. When it was light, Murphy dug himself out, collected a handful of the jagged metal embedded in the logs, and had us bring him back to the battery. The conversation between Murphy and Hill was held in private, but we could hear the volume and nature of their voices. I really thought Murphy would be in trouble, but he just went back up on the hill, and stayed there until he rotated out. Before he went back up, he called me out and gave me a handful of the shrapnel he had collected. "Anytime you get the idea to volunteer for the OP," he said, "look at these things." I still have some of them somewhere, buried in a container with old buttons, ribbons, and pins. I liked him enough to go see him years later, and I showed him my little boy. He had not changed.
The replacement officers proved to be very green and unprepared. One of the first duties given was to "lay the battery." Sometimes it was necessary to move a gun or two to improve the emplacement. When they were returned, they had to be re-laid by a survey process so they pointed exactly parallel with the other guns. When the rookie re-laid the guns, we began to doubt his knowledge of the process when a cannoneer emerged from the dug-in shelter and found the tube of the howitzer pointing right at him. Captain Hill assigned the officers to me, and I commenced a concentrated tutoring process, complete with homemade visual aids. In about a week, they had begun to come around. They were no longer dangerous, but not too useful. They still postured a bit, and that griped many of us who knew they were not competent
That incident made me decide I would not take any new officer too seriously until he was tried. The next replacement officer who came hung around the battery for a couple of weeks, then asked to be taken up to the Main Lines to see the Chinese first hand. I was ready for him. On previous trips, I had found a long, meandering slit trench running along the crest of the ridge overlooking the front lines. In one tight bend of the trench was a dead Chinese soldier lying with a thin layer of dirt over him. The rains had removed most of it, and he was ghastly. He smelled as only dead flesh can smell. He had been there a long time, but the dirt had preserved the odor well enough for my purposes. I prepared him by taking a road that had a body of a headless soldier, still in his trench coat and sitting in a hole in an embankment at the side of the road. When we got close to the ridge, we got out and started the climb up the steep path. I began to tell him that when we came to the crest of the ridge we were in full view of the enemy (which was the truth), and that to be safe, he should crawl down the slit trench and peek over the side occasionally.
I started crawling with him leading, but I slowed down and let him get well ahead of me. He crawled and peeked several times, and then moving ahead rapidly to get around the turn, he went face to face with the corpse. He got the full blast of the odor. I heard a sort of moan, then saw him crawling backward down the trench. He began to retch, and then suddenly stood up as though he did not care if he was in danger, trotted back to the path, and disappeared down the ridge toward the truck. When I climbed into the truck he said nothing, and stayed mute over the miles to the battery. I never knew whether he knew he was set up. We never mentioned it again.
The dead soldier beside the road had been there for a long time. The Koreans refused to bury enemy dead, but just pushed them out of the way and threw some dirt on them to stop the smell. The rain usually washed off the dirt, and after a couple of years there were mummified bodies in most of the woods. The Koreans believed there was no after-world for dismembered bodies, and we dug up sacks of severed heads when we were digging in the guns in a new emplacement. We didn’t know whether they were North or South Koreans, but we were pretty sure they had been executed. It surprised me that we could be blasť about a discovery like that, but it didn’t affect us at all. There were over twenty bodies scattered around an area to the rear of us where we took our trash and garbage. I had some pictures someone had taken of them, but I decided they shouldn’t be sent home.
The 40th Division was a National Guard unit activated in 1950 in anticipation of service in Korea. The entire unit was from California, and each unit came from a different town. The result was very much like units organized during the Civil War. Each unit was fiercely loyal to their town, and there was competition between the units. The 981st Field Artillery Battalion consisted of three batteries of 155 mm howitzers, each with six guns, a headquarters battery, and a service battery. Each one was from an adjoining town in Southern California. C battery was from Lompoc, Santa Maria. During our basic in Camp Cooke (now Vandenberg Air Force Base), the men in my battery could see their homes from the barracks. Most of them had their mothers or wives wash and iron their clothes, and when passes were issued, the Californians got them, angering many of the draftees no end. I didn’t care. I had no money, no transportation, and no friends in the countryside. One time for punishment, the Californians were confined to the camp and the draftees got the passes. We didn’t know what to do, so we rode the bus into town, wandered around, and then took the bus back to the camp. It wasn’t worth the effort. Lompoc was tiny.
Most of the guardsmen had joined to avoid being drafted, and then were appalled that they were activated. Some of them tried to sue, saying the National Guard could not be taken out of the States, but to no avail. They got the nickname, "The Crybaby Division."
As I mentioned earlier, the ranks were all held by boys too young to go overseas. They were discharged, and the rank became available. But then the Army clamped down on rank, and several draftees moved into ranked positions. Skipping the private rankings, we moved into the corporal and sergeants jobs. We did not get the "official" rank, but rather, carried an acting rank. There were so many that we ignored the official stage and sewed on the stripes. We didn’t get paid for the rank for some time.
When we were sent to the cold climate of Japan, some of the guardsmen reacted like children. They refused to wear adequate clothing in the cold, some of them opting for shirts only in temperatures approaching freezing. Pneumonia became common, and finally it was necessary for an order to be written requiring proper clothing in cold weather. Snow was an oddity to the California men, and the first snowfall brought the heaviest barrage of snowballs I had ever seen. Most of us from the Midwest just sat inside and waited for this fever to subside.
Our training in Japan was geared to Korean service, although the Californians expected momentary reprieves and a fast trip home. We spent most of the time in the open--day and night--in the mountains of Northern Japan, and most often in the snow. When it was no longer macho to go without a coat, the Californians shifted to the other end of the clothing scale. Many of them wore all of the clothing issued to them, and some of them looked like the Michelin man with their arms extending stiffly to the side and hardly able to walk. Some augmented cold weather footwear by wrapping sandbags around their feet. Again, an official order came down designating how many pieces of issue clothing could be worn at one time. In their defense, men from a perpetually warm area, and with a Latino lineage, were terribly frightened of getting cold in a place where you were not sure you could ever warm up again. Most of us had that same fear in Korea.
We had our characters. We had two Latino brothers named Cardenas. One was tall and skinny, and the other was shorter and very strong. Each morning we stood formation before breakfast and names would be called. The usual answer was "Yo", but when the Cardenas name was called the skinny one always said, "Weech wan?" As a result, he was named "Weech Wan Cardenas". Both of them were cannoneers, but in different gun crews. They were the most cheerful and energetic men I knew.
Joe Amato was a plodding Latino man in my crew. He drove a truck. He never complained, and he did his work flawlessly. He smiled a lot, but seldom talked except to his friends--and then he spoke Spanish. I could never find any fault in Joe. His enlistment in the National Guard was quite lengthy, and he had collected points for the time in service, so he came up for discharge while we were in Korea. Joe was very happy and got ready to leave, packing his clothes and giving away all his comfort items; he was taken off his truck and given little pick-up jobs around the unit so nothing would happen to him before he went home. His last job was to guard the beer ration that had just been unloaded into a tent set up for it. He was given an M1 from the supply room, a clip of ammunition, and a lamp. Joe did well until he got thirsty. That’s when he decided to get his ration early.
We knew something was wrong when we heard rifle fire from the tent. Joe was defending the beer from all comers, including the officers in charge. We tried to talk him out of the tent, but got only rifle shots in reply. Most of them were through the roof, however. Joe was a gentle soul and would not hurt anyone, even when he was guarding the beer. When the rifle was empty, Joe was brought out and put into detention in a tent. He suffered a terrible hangover, and sat with his head down for several days. His punishment was 60 more days in Korea, which he bore quietly, driving his truck, and talking to no one.
Another character was a small, wiry boy from Lompoc. He was almost illiterate, extremely pugnacious, and resisted authority almost universally. The Army is not a comfortable place for such a person, and most of the non-coms made it a quest to break him. He was so mischievous that he bedeviled some of them, intentionally breaking some rule so there would be a confrontation. He had punishments which would have broken most men, but he endured them and returned almost unscathed. He was in one Golden Gloves series, and did well in his weight division, but he was not disciplined enough to win. He was very tough. When we got to Japan, he was the first to find a Tattoo artist. He got a Panther tattoo that covered his back. It was a bloody mess for a while and he was really sore, but he would not admit it.
His turning point came one afternoon in Japan when a sergeant came into the barracks and gave him an order. He objected to it, and then challenged the sergeant. The sergeant floored him with one punch. He got up and came at him again with the same result. This went on for about eight more knock downs, and at last he didn’t get up. The sergeant picked him up, put his arm around him, and talked to him as if he were his best friend. "Some things just have to be done, understand?" said the sergeant. There was a long pause, and then the boy from Lompoc said, "Yeah, I guess so."
From that time on he was a good soldier. He became the best #3 man I ever saw. When the gun fired and recoiled, he could judge the extent of recoil and stood so that the breech just touched his chest. He could twist out the primer mechanism and have the breech open by the time it returned to battery. It was a beautiful and dangerous ballet, and he was flawless. Out side of the unit, he picked fights constantly. I had to get him out of the guard house several times--shirt bloody, but happy and reassuring me that he "whipped his ass. In Korea there were no bars to go to, and no girls to impress. He was a great cannoneer.
Rader was another story. He had been a gun chief and a very good man, but when they were chosen to go up front with his gun, the gun came loose from the tractor as they were going along a road cut into a cliff by the river. The gun slid and nearly went over the cliff. It took a lot of work to get it under control and back on the tractor hitch. These hitches have all kind of safeguards, so someone really messed up. But the Army always punishes the man in charge, so Rader got busted and was headed out of the outfit. I begged the C.O. for him and put him in a wire crew. I even got him a corporal’s stripes. It was a bad move. He was so bitter, he was very uncooperative. When we got new raw recruits, he formed a sort of resistance group, which I found hard to cope with. I finally decided I had to take him out in back and pound him, but he wouldn’t let himself be drawn in to that. Finally, one evening when I was on guard, one of my men came and warned me that Rader and a couple of the new ones were coming for me--to do what, I didn’t know. They had had a few beers to get courage, and came out in the dark to find me. I stood in a depression where the old mill wheel had been, and when they came down, I tripped the first man and stuck my pistol in his mouth. I suggested they go back to their tent, and they did. I got rid of Rader in a few days. I don’t know where he went. Everything leveled out quickly after that.
In Japan, a week or so before Christmas, I was ordered to Fuji McNair--a camp at the base of Mt. Fuji--for cold weather survival training. I was to learn all the techniques for individual survival in cold weather, and also learn about injuries caused by cold weather, freezing etc., so I could examine the men in our battery for injury not realized or reported. The plan was also to teach us to cross country ski. We were issued an armload of special, cold weather protective garments, such as nose and cheek covers, windproof pants, cold-proof headgear with ear flaps, mittens, and multi-layer gloves. We all put the stuff on; stood holding our skis with Mt. Fuji as a background, and let our buddies take pictures.
There was one element missing, however: snow. For the first time in history, there was no snow on Mt. Fuji except about the 10,000 feet mark. We scooted around on the lava in our skis, completely ruining the bottom of them. We learned how to position a tent into a blizzard (imaginary, of course), and we learned about "ten-hole coal." We lived in tents with wooden walls and floors, but canvas tops. We used a stove that burned coal. The coal bin was in the center of the camp. I grew up in a coal-burning town, and was used to large chunks of coal. But this coal was a fine powder mixed with clay, and extruded from a machine in a 12 inch hollow tube perforated with holes all around. Most of the pieces had ten holes, thus the name. The clay was to retard the burning of the coal, and it did a remarkable job of using the fines of the coal mines. The problem was that the bin was filled once a day, and if you were not there at the time it was filled, you did not get any of the large pieces of coal. Instead, you got only dust. Trying to keep a fire going with dust was like throwing gunpowder into the stove. It was impossible to keep a fire going; most of the time we threw our coats over the bed and crawled in.
One evening there was an announcement posted saying anyone wanting to go to a dinner at an R & R hotel should get their class A uniforms on and meet a truck that evening. Surprisingly very few wanted to go. But my buddy and I had no coal, so we decided to try the hotel. To our astonishment, the hotel was one of the Emperor’s former summer houses, and was very beautiful. It was set in a landscape I was sure I had seen pictured on a million Japanese vases. Inside, we were seated in a very formal dining room, four to a table. The table was covered with fine linen and wonderful porcelain. We became very aware of the coal smoke aroma that issued from our clothing. It caused us to squirm a little.
The dinner began with formally dressed Japanese women serving Turkish soup, and then into a seven course dinner served wonderfully. The food was all that Army food was not, delicately presenting tastes from commonplace vegetables and enticing aromas from meats that I had never experienced. I was awed by the experience, and doubly so when we were presented the bill for the meal It was for ten cents! No one would believe us when we returned to the camp. Mercifully, it was determined that the school was not accomplishing anything, and we were shipped back north to our camp. I spent Christmas day on a train without food and any means of getting it. Within a week we were headed for Korea.
The Army had a lot of cold weather gear. During our training we were issued a number of items for severe weather, like windproof trousers, hats with ear flaps, nose protectors and snow goggles. After a while they asked for the stuff back, and we never saw them again. Some were issued wool mittens with leather shells, and some conventional gloves with wool inner liners, according to the soldier’s occupation. Linemen got standard gloves, but the Army ignored the fact that wire cannot be repaired while wearing gloves. So wiremen could count on numb fingers. Touching metal tools without gloves could mean frostbite, which was a court martial offense! We learned to carry our tools inside our coats next to us so they would be warm.
We were given "shoe paks" for footwear. This was a rubber bottom with leather upper shoe, and had a heavy felt lining. We wore three pairs of heavy ski socks, and put an additional felt insole in the shoe. We carried two pairs of socks and one set of insoles pinned to the inside of our coats so we could change every three hours when our socks became damp. They were hard to walk in, and they didn’t really work. You could get frostbitten quickly if you let your socks get wet. While we were there, the infantry got "Mickey Mouse" boots that were great. They had a thermal lining that was like a vacuum bottle, and only one pair of socks were required. The infantry loved them so much they removed them when going over sharp rocky ground so they would not get punctured. We never even saw a pair.
Once I was crossing the Kumwha River on the ice. Near the edge, I broke through and went in almost to one knee. I panicked, and quickly pulled my leg out. The water froze on my shoe and trousers immediately. I beat the ice off, and was none the worse. But it scared me to death.
On the way into Korea, we had first class parkas. When we got to the staging area, we were told to take off our parkas and throw them in piles by size. Then we were marched to another set of piles and told to pick another parka. Most were dirty, greasy, and awful to look at. The only one I could find to fit me I was sure had been a shroud for someone. I know this: the former owner slept on the ground a lot. I tried to get rid of that parka or at least get it washed all the rest of that winter. No luck.
Getting Things (without paperwork)
The art of the scrounger is "knowing how to find the things you need," and then finding out how to obtain them. Finding is almost a mystical process with no defined rules. Part scam, part intuition, a goodly portion of luck, where you are, and who you talk to had a lot to do with finding what was needed. A good scrounger developed a network of resource people rivaling anything the CIA could put together. Most needed items could be located within a few hours. The hard-to-find ones took a day or two. After finding what you needed, the dance of negotiation took place. Most scrounging negotiations resembled the mating ritual of the Gooney bird. There was much waggling, threatening, tender moments, and hard currency exposure before the deal was made.
The hard currency of the land was not the script of the Army, but rather, whiskey and need. The whiskey had a market value of $75 a bottle. Compare this to a sergeant’s monthly wage of $320 and it was a significant trading commodity. The only source for whiskey was an officer, for they drew a ration of four fifths a month, which they paid for from their funds. The need had to be great to make them let their ration go, so nothing trivial was scrounged with their trade goods. Trivial things were brought in, but it was usually from the judicious trade of issued items not used by the unit. Case in point: the Army issued a number of very large, mysterious batteries to our unit, obviously for a communications radio, but not any that we could use. These batteries piled up and became trading fodder. We could not trade them as they were, but when we tore them apart, carefully counting the cells inside to be sure the voltage was right, we could trade them to people needing batteries for their personal all-American five-tube radios. These radios were universally used in Korea. Mostly this was good trading for field telephones. Another rule of scrounging was to never ask where they came from.
These makeshift batteries were also a good business-generating item. Over half of the people trading for the batteries hooked them up incorrectly, blowing the 1R5 peanut tube in the radio. The All American 5 took two types of batteries: a filament battery of 6 volts, and a plate battery of 90 volts. Inevitably, they hooked the 90 volt battery to the 6 volt lead. These people were then customers for the military tube that worked (but not as well) that I had in my stock. I had obtained them in bulk for one half bottle of whiskey. Later, I found a transmitter tube that the Army had abandoned years ago, but that was still n abundance in the depots. I broke these tubes and used the base as adapters to fit another military batter, avoiding the risk to the tubes. I was soon getting visits from officers of other units--sometimes in the night--offering to trade almost anything for these devices. I got 247 crystals (a complete compliment of necessary crystals) for our radios that way. Obtaining major items took finesse, and a ritual dance.
One Half of a Major Operation
After many months of rigging battery lights from idling trucks to illuminate the command post, and the Exec officer finding out that he could hear Cleveland Indians ball games in the middle of the night on his Hallicrafters communications radio (which only ran on 110 volts), I got a request to start the negotiations for a trailer-mounted, engine-driven generator. Of course, I did not have the vaguest idea where such an item might be, but the signal corps depot offered the best possibilities.
The negotiations went this way: The Exec officer attended our planning meeting under a tree by the side of the Exec post. He contributed the bottle that was to start the negotiations. My driver designed and rehearsed our script. I poured half of the bottle into another empty one, and stored it away for future negotiations. One half went into the small compartment in the Jeep where the cleaning materials were kept. We set out for the depot several miles and mountains to the rear. (By the way, no one went anywhere by themselves. There was always a "shotgun" rider.)
When we arrived, I looked for the man with whom I had negotiated before. Soon, he sauntered out. It was necessary for him to saunter, for he should never appear eager. If he came out, it meant he was interested in general, no matter what we wanted. He or his unit must have a need. The conversation began with my request for radio tubes that I knew he did not have. While we talked, the Jeep driver, true to the script, went to the cleaning materials compartment and withdrew a rag and commenced rubbing the windshield of the Jeep. I had moved so that when the signal corps negotiator faced me, he could see into the compartment and the half bottle. When he saw the bottle, he knew we had a need and were serious. The driver wrapped the bottle in his cleaning rag and waited for the next move, which we knew would be the place to put the bottle. He slowly moved to a pile of crated items that were covered with a tarp. The driver leaned over, and the bottle vanished under the tarp. We were moving well into it.
"You know where we can get a generator--one of those trailer mounted things?", I said. There was a hesitation. "There’s one back there against the fence, but it just came in. I think it is all shot up. Probably doesn’t work." He pointed to the rear of the depot. "It’s just to the right of that shot-up water trailer. When we took over the 24th stuff, it was the only water trailer they had. We have to go to the ordinance depot to get our water." "Water trailers are hard to get," I said. "So are generator trailers," he said. The deal was made. As the driver and I went home, we searched our memories of anyplace we had seen water trailers. The driver said, "The Mash unit has a dozen of them sitting around." I said, "Do you think they need that many?" "Nah," he said. "Me either," I said. We never talked the rest of the way. When we pulled into our area, the driver said, "I’ll talk to the motor pool guys and see what they think." "Okay," I said. The trailer problem was solved.
Two days later, I found a water trailer with our battery’s markings on the bumper sitting beside our old trailers. The commanding officer asked me, "Did you notice we have a new water trailer. sergeant?" I replied, "No. Where did that come from?" He said, "I have no idea. I didn’t requisition one." "I’ll look into it, sir," I replied. "Good," he said, with a little twinkle in his eye. That night, there was a trailer-mounted generator in our area. It was shot-up, just as the man said. You didn’t lie in these negotiations if you expected to continue scrounging. Everyone carried a gun in combat. I did not hear of a firearm being used on welching negotiators, but we were in a violent land.
Our next job was to see if our Lazarus could be brought back to life. My first impression was that it was too battered to resurrect. Morning light revealed the extent of the damage to the machine. It was weathered as you would expect, but the engine struggled to life with a little jumpering. The life it eased in to was certainly not permanent. It was apparent that constant attendance would be required to keep it running. Oil blew from the exhaust, and anyone standing by the exhaust was covered in oil. Smoke covered the area as the engine banged and popped its three tired cylinders. There were no wires from the generator to the control panel where the gauges were, and all of the exposed buss wires were gone, The control box was bent, but usable. The trailer tires were great. I was not sure whether I had bargained for something valuable, or if I was a rookie who was by now a laughing stock. As I gained experience, I found it was what you made of your negotiated item, not what it was when you got it. Negotiating for greasy old barrels sometimes looked as if we were giving away good assets for trash, but when the barrels were working stoves in tents, we felt good about the deal.
The generator became my private project. I assessed damaged to the generating unit. I made a guess about the life of the engine, and after a discussion with the motor pool sergeant, decided that we would change the engine as soon as we could find an available one. The tired old engine would have to run till then.
My biggest problem was learning where the wires should go, if we should find wire that was suitable. We had reels of wire in our trucks, but it was communication wire, plus a few strands of copper to carry the current and many strands of steel to make the wire tough enough to withstand tanks and stretching from the back of moving trucks. This kind of wire would not carry the current of a generator without getting very hot, wasting much of the power in heat. After a long search, we were still without anything suitable. I began to think that I would not be able to rebuild it.
One evening, I drifted into the motor pool and sat talking with the mostly Latino mechanics when a flickering candle caused a glint of gold on the end of the workbench. It was a roll of 1/8" copper tubing used to connect oil pressure gauges on the trucks. In response to my inquiry about the tube, Sergeant Cardenez said, "I ask for bearings and I get oil gauge tube. That’s the Army Way." He knew of my generator problems. "Can you use it on that wreck you hauled in?," he asked. Suddenly, I realized that my problem was solved. By promising Cardenez that the motor pool would have electric lights, I got a roll of the precious tubing. Flattened, it would be exactly what I needed and would probably carry more current than was engineered into the original. The wiring proved to be very easy to trace out, and the new flat wiring was done in a few hours. We were ready to light up the place. It was then I began to find the problems faced by a utility company. I needed to get the electricity to the tents, and once there, I needed light bulbs, as well as sockets to put them in. The generator began to appear as the tip of the electrical iceberg.
My wire men were underused, and I was constantly finding work for them to keep them out of their sacks--a habit the officers found unpleasant. The wire problem was the perfect answer for them. They were dispatched to the rear area’s old fortifications to harvest the heaviest gauge wire they could find. After warning them of the dangers of mines, they set out. After two days of searching, we had enough wire to do the job. It was not heavy wire, but adequate if we could take the power loss. What it really meant was that the unit would be wired from the inside out. That is, the exec areas would receive the lines closest to the generator, and the voltage would be very near to 120 volts. At the ends of the lines at the farthest guns, the voltage would be down to about 90 volts--marginal for the radios, but adequate for the two bulbs assigned to each tent.
The light bulbs proved to be a bigger problem. Men going to Japan for R&R were asked to buy bulbs for us, and gradually we had enough to put at least one in each tent. But we could never get enough sockets. Our answer to this problem was to solder them to the wires. It worked fine, except we did not have soldering irons. So we heated iron rods on a small gasoline stove to do it. The solder was easy. The signal corps had a lot, and we had things they wanted--like Chinese carbines picked up as we checked the wires laid on the ground. Soldering a bulb on while the line was hot was another thing we learned to do, but it was not the most popular thing we did.
The generator was set near the Mess Hall tent in the center of the complex and turned on at dusk each night. One man was assigned to pour oil into the chugging engine and nurse it to the proper speed. A telephone line ran to his station near the generator so he could warn us when the engine seemed near to death. This telephone was used many times. We luxuriated. The captain listened to ball games, the motor pool sergeant played cards with the crew, and the gun crews read Love Story comics until 9:00 PM each night. All would be well while the engine lasted.
The engine lasted about a month. It gave up its tired old ghost several times, but a little mechanical magic and bailing wire held it together while we poured oil in it. Sometimes when everything was on, it would slow and lights would dim or flicker. There was no assurance that one could finish reading a story or finish a ball game on the radio. It struggled on bravely, but we knew the end was near. Captain Hill approached me and asked, "Is there something we can do about that generator motor? It’s driving me crazy." "Well, not much," I answered. "The only cure is a new motor and that would be hard to get. Not impossible, but hard." He asked, "What would it take?" I replied, "I don’t really know because I don’t know where I can get one, but probably at least two bottles of whiskey." "Could it be bought for that?", he asked. I said, "No, it could be stolen for that." A frown came across his face, and he mused a minute. He said, "No, I don’t want to get involved in anything like that." He walked away, but I could tell he was convincing himself.
Several flickering and interrupted light weeks passed, and the old engine became harder to start and had developed a terminal knock. The captain became increasingly agitated and several times scolded the man attending the generator, as if he could do anything about the dying throes of the machine he tended. One evening, he called me into his tent alongside the command post and said, "Would two bottles of whiskey get us an engine?" I thought awhile. "I think so, but you never know. Do want me to try?" He said, "I’m not authorizing this, I want you to understand." "I know," I said. "The bottles will be next to the tent flap," he said. "Yes Sir." He then asked, "When will this be done?" "I don’t really know," I replied. "I have to find the engine first, and then I have to move it and install it. It takes time." "Well, hurry it up sergeant," he said. I walked from the tent not really knowing where to go first. Clearly, I had to find an engine, and engines come from the motor pool, so I went to Sergeant Mendoza at the motor pool tent. "Hey Mendoza, know where I can get a good Jeep engine for that generator?" His expression was the mysterious one people take on when they know something you don’t know. "I dunno, what’s in it?" he replied. I answered, "how about half a bottle?"
"Are you kidding," he asked. "I wouldn’t go out in the dark for that." I asked him, "Can you get one?" He said, "I’ve been thinking about this for the past month. I can’t see anything with that thing flickering and dimming the way it does." "How about a full bottle of Jim Beam," I asked. He was interested, and the little circle of men gathering around us was interested too. He said, "Gotta pay somebody a little; three bottles." "Nope," I told him. "I gotta get it in the trailer too. That’ll cost." We both sat silently for a few minutes, but the men didn’t lose interest. "I’ll make you a deal," Mendoza said at last. "Two bottles and we put it in." I replied, "Okay, you got a deal, but it has to be a good engine." "Only the best," he replied. "When," I said, anticipating a long recon session for the engine. "How about tonight?" he replied. Mendoza had been thinking about this for some time. " Tonight?" he shot back. I couldn’t believe it! "Might as well," he said. "There’s no moon tonight."
About 9:00 p.m., I heard the biggest wrecker we had pull out of the area. I glanced out of the tent and saw the 10-ton wrecker leaving with the old Jeep engine on the hook. There were enough men hanging on the sides of the wrecker to make a Tijuana Bus green with envy. Quiet settled in to the dark of our camp. No generator noises tore the air. About Midnight, I heard the roar of the big wrecker again, and I crawled out of the sack and looked out to see just what I saw three hours earlier. It roared into the motor pool area and quiet reigned again. The next morning, Sergeant Mendoza came to the Command Post to visit. With some small talk to the rest of the group he got me to the side. "Got the bottles?," he asked. "Yeah, when will you put it in?" "It’s in," he said. "Where in the world did you get it?, I said in wonder. "Don’t ask," he replied, and don’t ever mention it to anyone." "You got it," I replied. I pulled the bottles from under my bunk and wrapped them with a sandbag. "It better work good," I told him. "Don’t worry," he said. "It’s brand new." He strolled away, swaggering a little bit. I went to the captain and said, "You can hear the ball game tonight." "Wonderful," he said. The lights went on flicker-free, and the old generator ran without anyone in attendance from then on. The captain was happy, and so were Mendoza and his crew, although they were just a little red-eyed for a couple of days.
This is not the end of this story. About three days later, we heard a terrible noise coming up the mountain road below us. It sounded much like our old generator had. The battalion commander Sam O’Bill, arrived slowly in a newly refurbished Jeep fresh from Japan, but it was struggling to move and the oil was blowing from the exhaust. He was livid!! "I just got this Jeep from Japan, and they did everything but rebuild the engine!" I told our guys to take the generator back behind the next ridge. We never admitted we had one. Houdini never did a better trick than Mendoza did that night. I still don’t know how he did it.
Excitement in Artillery Valley
Life could be pretty hum drum when the routine was as repetitive as ours was in Korea. We really looked for anything that would give us something to write home about. Letters got to be a chore, for our life was mostly eat, sleep, and work--with more work than sleep. We never slept more than four hours at a clip, and we were not allowed to nap during daylight hours. The reason for our short sleep periods was that we all were either on guard or on duty some part of every night. After a while, we were desperate for sleep. We were given large quantities of strong coffee, I suppose for that very reason. After a while, one ran out of anything interesting to say in a letter, but it was vital that we kept writing. An absence of letters was construed by the folks back home as indication of calamity.
There were things to write about sometimes, and the subjects must have seemed trivial to the recipient, but it was all we had. One such incident happened to me. There was a lane with deep sides running down through the battery, and my crew was at the end of it near to the bank of the river. Midway between our tent and the upper end was an old bunker that had been sealed by a bull dozer. The practice of sealing bunkers turned out to be the best way to deal with enemy bunkers. When it was sealed, it presented no hiding place for an enemy, and it could be safely by-passed. This was such a bunker, but we did not know its history. We speculated that there might be bodies in there. We didn’t open it to find out. In fact, we were interested so little that we decided, tomb or no, it would make a great urinal. We put a powder can with the end out into the top of the bunker, and it became the urinal for about half the outfit. After a month or so, when the weather warmed a little, the odor began to be strong. We began to wonder if we should discontinue its use and seal it up. To deal with odor in our open pit latrines, we poured diesel oil on top and lit it. It burned off all the paper and quieted the odor a lot. (In cold weather, we waited until the latrine was burned off and then rushed over to do our daily jobs--the warmth helped our exposure a lot.) One of the motor pool men decided that this was the way to handle the urinal, but he only had gasoline. He poured a couple of gallons down the pipe, stuck a newspaper in the opening, and lit it. Fortunately, he had come down from the bunker top. Unfortunately, I was walking by in the lane.
The bunker blew up with a sort of "Whump." All of the earthen walls blew out, and the top dropped in. Since the soil was sandy, everything near was sandblasted, including me. I was blown down, my helmet flew off, and I could not imagine what had happened. While I was trying to get up and collect myself, I saw burning streaks going in all directions. Soon there were tents, dugouts, and grass in the field burning fiercely. The bunker was filled with hundreds of rats, and they ran for hundreds of yards, spreading the fire as they went, before dying. The next few hours were spent putting out the fires. We had to "do it yourself" because there were no fire departments in Korea. My face and one hand were tender for a couple of days
The rats in Korea were numerous, but different from the ones we were used to back in the States. Ours were Norway rats. Theirs had a brownish coat with black stripes, like a chipmunk, but they were definitely rats. When we moved to a new location, I had a running duel with a rat that tunneled out of a bank close to my head as I slept. He jumped over me and went hunting for food. I practiced and practiced, and one night he got careless. I threw my bayonet and got him. They had no fear of people, and the sentries sometimes found them in the same hole with several during the night guard assignments. It tended to keep you alert. The only thing as numerous as the rats in Korea were the snakes
Strafing was our other excitement. "Washing Machine Charlie" went over once and fired his submachine gun wildly at our installation. No one was hurt, but some of us didn’t know it was happening. I think he was North Korean. He flew an old private airplane that didn’t sound too healthy. He fired his personal weapon from an altitude of about 3,000 feet, and when we checked, the bullet marks on the ground were thirty feet apart. He did hit one man’s brand-new air mattress. This was a tragedy of major proportions.
A more serious strafing was on a Sunday Morning. A group of three Marine Corsairs settled slowly over the valley. We assumed that they were looking over the pickup trip behind us, used by the artillery spotter planes. Suddenly, however, they began to fire over us and into the tanks behind us. They proceeded down the road, dropped a bomb (that did not explode) on a truck, and fired rockets into a fuel dump. The rockets missed, slid into our battalion headquarters, and blew up the commander’s tent. The commander was not there, and we were a little sorry. He was a first class jerk, and a very poor officer. I hope the Marines had better luck against the enemy. From that point, we were ordered to fire on any aircraft below 400 feet altitude, friend or foe. The Marines denied being there, and the Navy Department said it didn’t happen.
The aircraft incident that frightened me was during a stop for relief in a snowy field one moonlit night. Two of us had been called out to go to headquarters for some message, and on the way back we stopped. Suddenly, about 1,000 feet in front of us, an F80 jet cleared a ridge and dropped a bomb. We continued the business at hand as we ran for the road embankment, and probably set some kind of new record for something the Olympics will never recognize. Evidently, he had not found his target and as was the practice, he dumped the bomb. He probably thought he was still in enemy territory, and would be lost, and the terrain looked unused.
I got another fright when an F86 went by very low while I was traveling up an old Chinese mule trail. We had not seen the new F86s, and it looked a lot like a Mig 15, so we went into the ditch for a while. We did not see too many airplanes during our stay in Korea. They came and went over the hot spots on the front, and only when the Chinese had picked us for the daily special did we see fixed wing planes. I saw one hit by ground fire and it exploded as I watched with a high-powered telescope. I was horrified. It impressed on me that everyone risks it all at the whim of war.
We did see many helicopters. The technique of getting battlefield injuries to the Mash units quickly via helicopter was saving lives that previously would have been lost. They rattled over us with their coffin-like baskets all day. I really wished they would change the contour of those things, but I guess it didn’t matter if they brought you in a cardboard box, as long as you got there quick.
About half of our artillery-spotting was done by observers in "grasshoppers." These were the type of planes one took flight lessons in, only they had more horsepower. They had no armor, and the pilots were, to the man, "cowboys" afraid of nothing but a bullet through their seat. Since that was where they were most vulnerable, most of them had scrounged cast iron lids from Korean stoves, and they sat on them while flying. I never heard of a spotter plane being shot down or a pilot being hurt. They were risk-takers, however. Once, when we were setting up in the field in Japan, one of the spotters flew through the valley, knocked down the ridge pole of our cook tent with his wheels, and threw a flour bomb at us. The spotter planes flew at 8,000 feet so that rifle bullets couldn’t hit them. We warned them just before we fired our projectiles so they could clear the area.
I have one last airplane story. It was necessary for the jets to have their targets pointed out for them. The Air Force brought back a number of the old radial engine T6's to use for this. They mounted smoke rockets on the wings, and they shot them into the spots they wanted jet fire or bombing. Occasionally, one of them got hit. A T6 went down quite a ways behind the lines once. The pilot and observer were okay, but they were in a terrible spot. In a matter of minutes, they would be surrounded and captured--or killed. The pilot radioed their position and co-ordinates, requesting smoke to obscure the area. We were chosen to do this job, so we began a firing series that lasted all afternoon and went through all of our stored ammunition. The other batteries had to send their trucks and ammunition to us so we could continue.
A group of infantry sergeants volunteered to get them. We commenced making an explosive corridor through the lines and to the downed pair. We fired smoke to allow them to move, and then high explosive and proximity fuses when the enemy infiltrated the smoke behind the rescue party. We kept a ring of death around the pilots as well. Cannoneers dropped from the work, and most of us stepped in to keep the fire going. We had to fire one half of the battery at a time in the later hours of the mission, since the tubes of the howitzers were overheated and began to protrude from the front in the area where the rifling was. As soon as they cooled, we switched off. A 155 mm howitzer round weighed 95 pounds and had an effective killing range of 300 yards. The rounds had to be placed carefully to avert killing our own. The observers in the planes and on the ground alternately called the fire, and they did a magnificent job. They kept the fire as close to the pilots as they could and never came close to injuring them.
The rescue party called for smoke, and when it was thick around them, they moved. But the smoke also covered the movements of the enemy, so the pilots got under cover, and then called for high explosives in the smoke area. Then the whole series started again. All afternoon they worked out to the pilots, and then returned back to friendly lines. The volunteers deserved the Congressional Medal in my opinion. Our guns did a flawless job, and we knew we were good from then on. Of course, no one ever commended us. Like life outside the Army, it was what we were trained to do, and they expected us to do exactly what we did. "Attaboys" don’t come easy in the Army--or in life.
The Fourth of July Every Day
Artillery units are made to move. It was not often that there was the luxury of long stays in one place. We were trained to move--and move, and move--each time setting up with great precision and efficiency and ready to fire in a very short time. Living conditions were poor for the average artillery men, for everything was focused on the ability to fire quickly and effectively without regard to the conditions. Our unit training was done in the winter in the mountains of northern Japan, in terrain very similar to that of Korea. I guess there was never any doubt about where we were going once the training was done. Of course, the Californians all thought they were going home as soon as training was done. I never quite figured out their apparent belief that they were immune from combat. We soon could pull into a designated area set up, survey our position, run lines to battalion, and fire the first round in less than 15 minutes. In fact, when we took our test for combat efficiency, we traveled one mile, set up, fired our first round, and got a target hit in less than 15 minutes. We got the highest score in the Army that year.
All things that had to be done were astounding. To start with, a stake was driven where division wanted the center of the battery. When the guns were pulled in, they were drawn in behind the prime mover tracked vehicles. The gun, still attached to the tractor, had its swing center (a point defined by a jack directly under the swivel of the carriage) set right over the stakes driven for it. The battery front could be as wide as 100 yards, with the guns spaced as evenly as possible on that terrain. The process of placing the guns looked much like a chorus line doing a complicated swooping maneuver.
The trails which travel folded together and attached to the tractor were removed, and the tractor speeded away to a place close enough to come back for moving in a hurry. The trails were lifted from the tractor by the eight-man crew. The gun weighed over three tons and was balanced on its wheels so men could lift the trails. At a command from the gun sergeant, the trails were spread in a "V" shape, and the trail spades were removed from brackets on the sides and hung on the end of the trails so they could stop the rearward movement of the gun when it was fired. They had to be dug into the earth, and the crew began to dig them in about 30 inches. Another crew member set the base plate for the jack and began to wind down the jack and continue until the piece was off the wheels and the jack was to the top. In this position, the gun was stable, and when laid parallel with the others, it was ready to fire.
While this was going on, the communications men ran a wire to the point designated for the commanding officer, and connected into a telephone there. Another telephone was ran to the same spot with a wire that had been ran back to the battalion fire direction--usually a distance over a mile. This telephone was used by the recorder who took the fire direction commands and wrote them down on a form. The commanding officer read the data, gave firing data, and then gave the command to fire.
One officer set up a survey-type instrument and aligned it with the azimuth given to him as the direction the battery guns should point initially. He then took a reading of the side of the sight on each gun, and called that reading to the gunner who sat looking through the optical sight at the instrument the officer used. When the two read the same, the gun was aligned parallel with the aiming point of the battery. This was repeated for each gun. When the battery was laid, the gunners and their crews set out aiming poles to the rear of each gun. When firing commands came down in the form of settings, he sat off the number given to him, aligned the reticule of his site on the aiming pole, and was aimed correctly. Data was also given for the elevation of the tube, a level device was laid on the breech block, and the tube was elevated until the bubble centered. This device was called a Quadrant.
Also included in the data given to the guns was the type of projectile, the fuse type, and the powder charge. When the elevation was given, the gunner commanded the crew to load. The projectile was rammed in, the powder was loaded, the breech was closed, and the primer mechanism was inserted. The lanyard was then attached and the #2 man stood to one side waiting for the command to fire. All of these things took place at each gun simultaneously, and resembled a human machine with many parts all working smoothly.
When the guns fired, the sound impact was almost unbearable to the uninitiated. There were several tricks that artillery men learned to be able to bear the noise. One was to open the mouth so that the impact was the same on both sides of the eardrum. The other was earplugs, which strangely were not a part of the equipment issued. Most cannoneers used spent 30 caliber casings as ear plugs. They looked strange with bullets protruding from their ears. The impact was extreme in back of the guns where the recorder and commanding officer stood. The recorder was fortunate to have earphones on so he could have hands free for writing on a clipboard. The commanding officer just had to take the pounding. Sometimes the concussion from a battery shot was enough to knock the blouse out of our trousers. (Our trousers were held around our boot tops by a rubber band.)
Every motion was planned and rehearsed until they were second nature. The only thing not planned well was where the men slept. Each man had a shelter half, and it was assumed that he would find a partner and make up a two-man tent for shelter. Like all assumptions, it had holes in it. Guns were moved at night or at odd times, and most of the time there was no time or daylight to allow tent-making. As a consequence, most gun crews laid a tarp usually used to protect the projectiles on the ground. Then they lay down in a row of eight in their sleeping bags on half of the tarp, with the other half over them. It worked pretty well, but was not a wise military move since one round could get all of them. The rest of us slept under trucks, in truck cabs if they happened to have a cover, or under and in trailers according to their contents. The main requirement was to get out of rain or snow. The infantry had fox holes to shelter them, but we seldom had the time to dig one. We got out of the habit so much that when we were in a position where we should have one, we were slow to dig it.
One of my self-appointed missions was to preach the digging of personal fox holes. This was hard to do when the ground was frozen and there was a tent to sleep in, but circumstances later showed us the necessity. One of the World War II vets in our outfit had a tent and a stretcher bed, but he dug a hole next to it so he could roll out of bed into the hole. We laughed at him (at first). Later, we did the same. One of our veterans was a dark-skinned Latino named Faustino Soto. He was the official head of Detail when I came into the outfit. He carried master sergeant stripes. He was a kind man, and knew his business. I was fond of him. He was the only man who invited me to his house in California, where I had a meal with him and his family. They were very courteous to me, and I liked them. Sergeant Soto had seen a lot more war than we knew, and he had no desire to see more. He went into Korea several weeks before we did to inventory equipment and sign for it. He got to the outfit, signed any paper they put in front of him, and dived into the switchboard underground hut, never to be seen again. This was the reason I wound up as the head of detail, and inherited a master sergeant’s job--without the stripes. Soto refused to come out. He was reduced in rank and sent back to Japan, which was okay with him because it turned out he had a Japanese girl he intended to stay with instead of going home. I never heard how it turned out.
I have to explain here that situations were never predictable in combat, and ours was not unusual. When we got to Korea, we moved only once. Our situation was so stable we had very good sleeping arrangements and a regular kitchen mess tent very much like the one shown in M.A.S.H., the television series. It was the move from one place to another that I will tell you about next.
We Move East to Face a Papasan, and I Become an Explosive Man
One of the benefits of being a "specialty" sergeant was that one got to duck a lot of the hard work involved in moving a unit. As I said before, moving the guns was a second nature job to us, but setting up a semi-permanent camp involved a lot more. Also different from our training, we needed to be able to move right into a new emplacement with a minimum of interruption in our coverage of the infantry in front of us.
The infantry had 105 mm howitzers immediately behind them, and they had their own mortars. But we had the big muscles, and could reach out behind the lines by 12 miles to get at troop movements. It made it hard for the Chinese to group and make mass attacks. We had a sector of the front we covered, and they chose to put us about three quarters of the way up a steep mountain so we could get a clear shot at our assigned area. A road, named the "Mule Trail" went through the middle of the assigned battery area with three guns on one side and three on the other. We were on a fairly steep slope. Starting from the left, each gun was about 5 to 7 feet lower than the next from the Exec Post, which was on the high side and on the top of a ridge that overlooked the left guns, and considerably above the right guns. The #6 gun was out of sight of the Exec Post, next to a small creek that ran from the rice paddies on all sides. The lower three guns were in view of the Chinese-held ridges about three miles away. This proved to be costly in the middle of the summer.
The mountain we sat on went up about four hundred feet in back of us, and the road went through a saddle. The helicopters headed to Mash medical units all went through there. It was the main road to the rear, and there was traffic most of the day. My men and I were sent up to the new site several days ahead, with instructions to prepare the site for occupancy. This meant gun emplacements as well as switchboard dugouts, tent placement, etc. We avoided the labor of taking down the tents and cleaning up the area, but without machinery, the job assigned was impossible to carry out.
One of my men was a wiry, dapper little man who had been a Fuller Brush salesman in civilian life. He had a great attitude, and smiled all the time. He reminded me of Charlie Chaplin. He certainly did not look like a heavy equipment man, but it turned out he was an expert on a bulldozer. Unfortunately, we didn’t have one. I sent him out with a driver to look for engineers, for they wandered about on the roads doing whatever was needed, provided you could bribe them with what they needed.
In less than an hour, they were back with a big Caterpillar bulldozer. My man was driving. He had asked to use the machine for a couple of hours, and they were glad to knock off their road work and work on the whiskey that we sent along. We kept the dozer three days before they ambled in and wanted it back. In that three days, we had cleared the gun sites, flattened the ground for tents, cut a road up the valley behind the exec post, and made a spot for the mess tent slightly up the side of another ridge. My man had been superb. The gun emplacements had the spoil pushed up for protection from the front, and the crew tent spots had spoil piles protecting the sides. The terrain made it unnecessary to dig in most of the tents. One side was against the steep rear slope of a ridge. The exposed sides were sandbagged. The ground was made up of layered shattered sandstone and yellow, spongy soil. It packed well for the floor of the gun emplacements, but in the crotch of the ridges was very wet. We found that we could create a well by digging a hole more than three feet down.
The area was wooded, so we set up our squad tents and the exec post on the back side of a central ridge through the area. We put camouflage nets over the tents and joined them on the trees. It was quite effective. It must have been, for the pheasants perched on the nets and squawked us awake at daybreak. There were many pheasants, rats, snakes and small "fox deer". The pheasants were our alarm clocks. The snakes set off our perimeter flares when they climbed the trees, and so did the fox deer who ran into our perimeter flare trip wires. The outposts got very excited when they did that.
We laid the wires to the guns, made the road crossings on poles, and got everything to the switchboard and exec post sites. We needed a hole to put the switchboard in, for it had to be protected more than the rest since it was the nerve center of the unit. Once the place for the hole was chosen, we decided that it could be dug better by using explosives. I had several cases of TNT in quarter-pound blocks, so we dug six holes about three feet deep and one foot in diameter. I made up packages of four blocks, each bound by Prim cord and dropped into the hole and tamped in with the Prim cord ran to the next hole. To set it off, I attached a dynamite cap with a 12-inch fuse. We got 12 seconds to get away from the hole.
The explosion worked well. It blew out quite a bit of the dirt in the hole and broke up the rest so it would be easy to shovel out. We were very pleased until water began to accumulate in the bottom of our hole. In a few minutes, it was almost two feet deep. It finally leveled off at three and one half feet. It was more of a small swimming pool than switchboard hole. We went back to the drawing board.
We got the aiming circle, which could be used as an optical level, and we climbed the ridge until we could find a spot above the water table. The spot that we wanted was pretty rocky and had an old tree stump in the middle of the area. The crew dug around the stump by hand and exposed most of the roots, but we had no axes to cut the roots. Explosives were called for again. We packed TNT blocks around the roots and put a few blocks in holes where the corners of the hole should be. I used one of my rare electric caps, and we strung a wire about 50 yards to a spot behind an embankment. We cleared the area, and yelled "Fire in the Hole!" We then cranked the telephone hooked to the wires. The explosion was spectacular. Rocks and dirt flew everywhere. The sound echoed off several ridges and bounced back at us. The stump arose magnificently. It seemed to be in slow motion as it went through the surrounding tree canopy and out of sight into the sky. It was almost like putting it in orbit, except it reappeared, picking up speed and heading for our mess tent that was just being built. It missed the tent, but impacted on a water trailer which was being used by a cook at that moment. It dented the top of the tank, rose again over the cook, and landed onto the road twenty feet away. It was wonderful. I began to like explosives. The cook had a different opinion.
I don’t know how I got to be the explosive man, or how I got to be the engineer for the battery. I just woke up one day and started doing what had to be done. I enjoyed blowing things up immensely, especially holes in the ground. I was awed by the power in those little packages, and Primacord was fascinating. We felled trees by wrapping about 12 turns of Primacord around a six inch trunk and shattering it in a blink of an eye. Our problem was that we could not get enough of it. We hoarded what we had to use for coordinated explosions. By wrapping explosives with Primacord, and then connecting two or more wrapped charges, one could get simultaneous explosions.
I had learned about the various kinds of explosives in training, and had been chosen to set up booby traps in the training area. The explosive training had not been hands on, so I was really learning on the job. I knew the dangers of blasting caps, the burn rate of fuse, and how to hook electric caps, but the characteristics of the explosions was something I had to learn. My first and only previous experience had been a too-ambitious attempt to blow a hole for a squad tent 18' x 24' x 4' deep. This was a major hole, but we needed space for another tent and the ground was frozen 30 inches deep. It was impossible to dig by hand, and the engineers were reluctant to try their bulldozers for fear of damaging them. I got one bulldozer operator to agree to move the dirt if I could loosen it up for him. I had two soldiers that had goofed up, so I put them to breaking holes in the frozen sand down to the four foot mark. I showed them where I wanted them, and they dug 12 of these holes over a couple of weeks time. It was really hard work since the ground was like concrete and they only had long. iron bars with which to dig.
I placed one pound of TNT blocks in each hole wrapped with connecting Primacord, covered them with sand, and added some water to freeze the blocks in the ground. The next morning, we warned everyone of the coming explosion and set it off electrically. It was a magnificent sight. Pieces of frozen sand the size of a man’s head went forty feet in the air, the ground heaved in the exploded area, and massive pieces rolled over. When I say massive, I mean as big as a truck. The ground was totally disturbed, and mostly with these truck-sized masses which rolled over, but stayed in the same area they started. No bulldozer could move these things. I tried to save the day by hooking the winch from a 3/4 ton truck onto one of these monsters and pull it from its place. The winch groaned, pulled the truck into the hole, and broke its gear box. I then decided spring weather would melt these boulders, but we moved before they did, even in spring weather.
When spring came, we dug a hole for a 50-caliber machine gun, in case the Marines came again. In digging the doughnut shaped hole, we found at least six anti-personnel mines frozen in the sand where we had walked most of the winter. The sand frozen around them kept them from activating. We didn’t know who had set them.
I blew embankments away to set tents. I blew ammo pits for the gun crews, as well as holes along the perimeter. I learned how to take a block of TNT and put it under the base of a telephone pole that we had blocked in a standing position. When the charge went off, the pole literally dropped four feet into the ground. A little tamping and the pole was set. I ran out of TNT at the end of the preparation for the battery move, so I borrowed, stole, and finally exhausted the available supply of TNT. It was then that we realized that there were explosives all around us in the form of abandoned mortar rounds, Chinese hand grenades, and even some American hand grenades we found in the dirt around old fortifications. Later, we used the discarded powder from charges that had been cut. There was no way to estimate the size of the reaction one could get from mixed items, so we tended to under-shoot until we had more experience.
When the unit arrived and unpacked, the CO and Exec seemed pleased with the work--with one exception. We had not provided a place for their two tents. Quickly, we flattened an area close to the Exec post for their one-man parasol tents. It was a long time before they realized that they were exposed with no sandbags around the tents to protect them from shrapnel.
One of the laws of electricity got me in hot water The Exec, a nervous type, had an electric light in his tent, courtesy of the generator. The wire to his tent was wrapped around the center metal pole several times to hold it in place. He also had a telephone wire which was anchored around the pole. He had a communications radio with a long antenna that he had wrapped around the same center pole. One evening he rushed into the exec post quite upset. He could hear our phone messages and firing commands on his radio! We had been warned that the Chinese sometimes tapped our lines, and he was sure that had happened. I was amazed at first, but doubtful. I went to his tent and saw the situation with the wires wrapped around the pole. What we had done was make a step-up transformer out of his metal tent pole. The wrapped telephone line and radio antenna were in the right proportions to amplify the telephone circuit enough to force a rough modulation of the radio reception. I unwrapped the antenna, and all was well, but the Exec made us walk several miles of wire to be sure.
We settled in and built sheds for our wire trucks and equipment, rigged some luxuries in our tent, and were about to relax and bask in the glow of a job well done when I was called into the C.O.’s tent. He praised our preparation, and asked me to trade side arms with him temporarily, since his was not clean and the Battalion Commander might check his at a meeting he was going to. And, by the way, clean his while he was gone. That was not the only "by the way" he had. He wanted me to pick a new site for the battery close by and get it prepared! It was to be a "Bug Out" site we could flee to if enemy artillery got our range. It was a really good idea, but not one I wanted to hear right then.
We were in the best site in the area, so any site I picked was going to be tougher to prepare. I wandered up and down the mule trail trying to find a decent site, and finally settled on one about 1/4 mile higher up the mountain. It was rough, so considerable effort would have to go into it just to get the guns into a reasonable battery front. We launched into the project like we were wading in molasses. We stole a bulldozer again, and began leveling the roadways necessary. We had a couple of the enfilades done for the guns when the C.O. drove up in his jeep, sat there and looked around, and then called me over. "Sergeant," he said. "I don’t like this site. It still exposes us to Chinese observation. (Three of our guns are in Chinese sight now.) Discontinue the work and I will choose a more suitable site." We quit willingly. The bulldozer was returned, and I stored my collection of explosives
He never found a site. We never heard of it again. It was a shame, however, for the outfit got hit by over 100 rounds a few days after I was rotated out. Most of the guns and prime movers were put out of action. If they had had a bug out site, they could have saved most of the equipment. One complete gun crew of ROK army soldiers was wiped out, and the ammo dump chief was hurt when he ran out to get a projectile lying in the open. A letter sent to me by a friend said most survived because they had the foxholes I preached to them to dig. To this day, I cannot remember if I had one. The bug out site might have saved them a lot of damage, but if it had not been for a bumbling battalion commander, they might not have had much damage or injuries.
Officers and Gentlemen
If wars were waged by completely competent officers, they would be terrible things indeed. But they are not, and whether it be an American artillery commander or a Chinese general, the "Peter principle" works in its purest form. This principle states that everyone tends to be promoted to their highest point of incompetence. Nowhere was this more evident as in a National Guard division. Promotion, when freed from the camouflage of paperwork, was by attendance. The man who liked to play soldier in peacetime rose to the top. It really was soldier play. A milkman could rise to colonel by coming and playing the game and being knowledgeable and taking the paperwork serious. Memorizing the letter number combinations of the multitude of forms was a sure fire promotion-getter. If you could demand a WDR 32-412 from a harried clerk, you were officer material.
Seriously, the attendance principle was king in the National Guard. Most of the non-coms were not the most qualified, but rather, the ones who regularly came to the meetings and participated earnestly. It was not hard to understand why there were so many 17-year-old non-coms. They came to the meetings because it was Soldier Play, and it interested them. More importantly, they could become "important", and rank over older people.
The highest ranking officers in our division were universally losers in civilian life. Failed business owners, low-level managers, or men with service job were included. Our CO had never held a job. A perennial college student who aspired to be a diplomat in a foreign office , he had reached middle age without making any move toward his goal. He had found the Guard a source of income, and he had found a way to slide into a captain’s rank. Yet, he seemed to know very little about his duties--or artillery. He had been to Ft. Sill, the Mecca of artillery, but it had rolled off him without sticking. Our Exec was there because he had experience in the service, and the CO needed someone who understood what was going on. The man who had been the Exec officer was a very good officer with artillery background, but he soon grew to hate the battery commander, and volunteered to go up to the front as Forward Observer, where he stayed until he was rotated out for discharge.
I do not know the experience level of our battalion commander. He, no doubt, spoke the artillery language; but he was paranoid do a high degree, extremely suspicious that someone would harm him, and, indeed, banned live ammunition in the weapons of the people around him in the command post. This came about when an officer shot a rat in the tent area in which he was holding a meeting. He was sure the officer was aiming at him. He never went closer to the front than the command post miles behind the lines. He wore two flak jackets--when most of us had never seen one, let alone owned one. His major affectation was a chromed helmet and a red cravat which gave him a sort of Patton look. Most of us figured that the Chinese would spot the chrome dome and dispose of him, but that never happened.
His most unforgivable decision was to make all of the batteries take their projectiles and ‘powder out of the holes’ prepared for their protection and stack them above ground in sandbag huts. The reasoning for this was lost, but the result was that the battery was hit by Chinese artillery, the huts collapsed, and there were secondary explosions which destroyed most of the prime movers, guns, and trucks around. Obviously, if the ammunition had stayed underground, this would not have happened.
Some clever men got together in Japan and wrote a poem about the battalion commander. I still remember some of it. Some of it I will not repeat, but you will get the drift:
I firmly believe that had Colonel O’Bill been in the tumultuous part of the war when artillery found itself isolated and retreating, he would have been found totally incompetent. We were in a stable situation and he was marginal. It will always be true that a soldier needs a leader he can have confidence in. Our commanding officer in Korea was not that leader. He scared us to death.
We had some good non-coms after the Army discharged the 17-year olds. One tall, gangling gun sergeant had great abilities and never-ending patience. He drilled raw recruits into fine artillerymen, and he did it in the rain and snow and mud without complaint. He had a mountain man’s sense of humor.
One time the Exec officer made the rounds and found a projectile lying on a loading tray without a tarp cover during a rainstorm. He called out the gun sergeant and read him the riot act. It seemed a little ridiculous, since the projectiles had been stored in the open for years and were rusty. (When the nose plugs were removed, water poured out.) None the less, the Exec officer wanted them dry, and the sergeant took the berating and apologized for the mistake. It continued to rain all night, making everything muddy and bad underfoot. But early the next morning, the sergeant appeared at the Exec post with a 105 round under his arm (a 105 round was half the size of a 155 round), and said, "Lieutenant, you were sure right about that round getting wet out there in the rain. That rascal plum shrunk up. No telling how tiny it would have been if I had left it go all night!" We were convulsed with laughter. The lieutenant shuffled his feet a bit, looked down at the floor, and then howled with laughter. He was human after all. The sergeant had walked four miles in rain, inky darkness, and muddy roads to get that round from the 105's.
One of the good guys was a Californian that looked 17, but who was in his mid-twenties. He served as machine gun sergeant, and was very good. He knew what had to be done, and he was very vigilant in spite of the fact that we were situated a couple of miles from the front lines and the chance of being attacked was slim. He set guard posts with the best field of fire and organized flying squads with automatic weapons to reinforce any hot spot that developed. He checked sentries often and critically. I felt secure with him on the job.
Our best sentries were not human. They were frogs. The frogs were thick in our area, and they sang all night. There were so many that cessation of their singing brought on a commanding silence and got your attention immediately. They stopped if anyone came near them. Sometimes it was just the sentries moving around, but they knew, and stopped suddenly. We waited for them to sing again, which was usually about five minutes. If they stayed silent, we went on alert. The sentries loved them. An outpost in the dark was a lonely place, and one tended to translate natural rustling in the woods around him as enemy movement. The frogs knew the difference and let us know. They were colorful little rascals with a bright red underside and a light green top. I have never seen any like them outside of Korea.
We got sniper rounds fired at us one night. Several others and I went through tents flaps at night, exposing a momentary light flash outside. Single rifle rounds were shot into the canvas around the opening. Nothing ever hit us or anything around us. We never heard the shots, which mean that they had been fired from a long distance. We called a reconnaissance outfit, and they arrived in full force, scouring the hills and valleys around us, and throwing hand grenades in all of the old fortifications. They captured a man and woman hidden in one of the old bunkers. I don’t know if they shot at us, but it never happened again.
The Quest for a Cool Beverage
I must explain that we could receive two cases a month of either Coke or beer. We had to order it ahead, and pay for it when it was delivered. There was no choice of brand or any solid schedule for delivery. One could not drink beer when on duty, which was most of the time. The Cokes came in a wooden case in glass bottles with standard caps, for which there were no openers. The wooden case was more valuable than the Coke, for wood was rare, and in great demand. I was never a fan of beer, and I’m sure that warm beer would appeal only to Germans and Englishmen. The men in the battery ordered the beer with the optimistic idea that in some ingenious way, yet to be discovered, they would cool it.
Our Co2 fire extinguishers were the first to go. One could cool a can of beer by shooting the fire extinguisher at it, but a large extinguisher didn’t have enough gas to really cool the beer to taste. Using a clue from Popular Mechanics, our mechanics sprayed gasoline on cans, hoping that they could get the 60-degree drop in temperature that happened in a carburetor. The beer did cool a little, but the gas odor couldn’t be removed from the can, so the beer tasted like gas. One magazine suggested that pouring a photographic developer powder around a can and then mixing in water would chill a can - another fable.
Schemes to cool the beer began to get more elaborate, and ingenuity began to come. The ground water was the coldest thing around. We had no thermometer, but it was probably 55 degrees Fahrenheit: too cold to bathe in and warm to drink, but better than nothing. Holes were dug in the ground and lined with sandbags to keep the water as clear as possible. Beer was placed in the jute sandbags and submersed in the hole. Most had elaborate lids at ground level and were marked with the owner’s name. The perfect answer had not presented itself, but they got used to warm beer. I drank Cokes hot. To this day, I can drink soft drinks warm and enjoy them. It’s a learned thing.
Probably the most elaborate cooler was one set by the men in the exec post. They were on the side of a ridge, so they rigged a steel cable from a tree next to the exec post to a tree on the next ridge over. It was about 40 feet from the valley below. They rigged a trolley on the cable and it ran to the middle of the suspending cable directly over the lowest point in the valley. The trolley was controlled by a rope, and on the end of the rope was a fuse can perforated with bullet holes holding up to a case of beverages. The can was lowered, and it dropped into a well of cold spring water. The drinks were retrieved by pulling on the trolley follower line. They came up out of the hole and up the cable to the top of the ridge. Everything still chilled only to the 55 degree mark.
One very clever man in Headquarters Battery sent home for parts and assembled a refrigerator operated by a candle. It chilled two cans of beer to frosty coldness in 24 hours. The box was made of wood lined with an army blanket and it had the candle burning at the rear. He was by any count the most popular man in the whole battalion, and he was said to have several officers in his hand. They would give him anything for a cold can.
The most ambitious project had a two-fold purpose of cooling beer and providing a place to bathe. On the right flank of the #6 gun was a small rocky gully that funneled the water from all of the nearby rice paddies into the main run to the next level of paddies. I was asked to design and supervise the building of a dam in the gully which, if my calculations were right, would give us seven feet of water at the spillway. I roughed out a plan, and we began to build the dam. It was very scientific, and engineered beautifully with a broad base tapering to a narrow top. It was all made of sand bags. Stones were added at the spillway, and the small lake filled rapidly. A few men went down and took a bath right away, but they did not linger or play in the water. I suppose they found it too cold. Many men arrived in short order, each with a sandbag full of beer cans, which they lowered to the bottom of the lake on ropes. Since I had not been able to wash more than one part of my body at a time, I stripped off and plunged in. It was cold, but bearable. It was the only time I found a cold place during the summer. I lathered up and washed off. Then I tried my hand at catching one of the red-bellied frogs. Suddenly, I felt something begin to nibble at a part of my body that I will not name. It persisted. I climbed from the water and pulled off not one, but three, aggressive crawfish. Luckily, there was no one there when this happened, and I did not advertise the fact there were carnivorous crawfish in the pond. Several days later, one of the gun sergeants close to the pond came to the exec post. "I’d like the men not to bathe in the pond unless they wear their shorts," he said. "Why?", I asked. "Well," he said. "There’s something in there that wants to eat your loose parts!" "What is it?," I asked. "I don’t know," he replied, "but it sure bites a chunk out of you." I told him that I would put the message out to all the sections. I sniggered a little as I turned away. We had a "Great White" crawdad!
Our problem was solved that night. My hydraulic engineering ignored the fact that there could be floods and water moving at great speed through the gully as the paddies drained. All of the water had to go over our dam, and the dam decided to go with the water. One morning we awoke to a dry gully. Sandbags were strewn along for several hundred yards--as were the bags of beer cans. For a week, men walked the drainage ditch looking for their sack of beer. I’m convinced that half of the sacks went all the way to the Kumwha, six miles away. The answer to chilling beverages never came.
Once I rode with our First Sergeant back to the Division headquarters about ten miles behind us. With the roads and 25 mph speed limits, it took a long time. I visited with the First Sergeant all the way, and found him to be a very nice guy. I had never had anything but official contact with him before, but his enlistment was up and he was headed home. When we got there, one of the pilots asked if we wanted a cold beer. The driver drank his right down, but I wrapped up the one he gave me and tried to keep it cold for the trip back. I wanted to give it to my friend, cold and frosty. By the time we got back, I handed him a beer not much colder than the ones in the water pits. As you must know by now, there was also no refrigeration for food. We dug a pit for ice that was to come with the food trucks. We never got the first pound.
Food in the Field
I will say right now that we had one of the best army cooks in Korea. He operated without refrigeration, and he never had anything fresh. The milk was reconstituted, and was identical to fresh milk. All the vegetables were canned, and the only meat we got was chicken. The chickens were shipped whole in large rectangular cans. I saw them being removed from the cans and it was revolting. All chickens are dead when we eat them, but these were the nearest to corpses as I have ever seen. I was no fan of chicken anyhow, and the only way these could be served was boiled. I could not eat them. I got so hungry I could eat tent pegs, but not that boiled chicken. I hoarded C rations when we were away from the battery on "Dog Battery" missions. Then, in the evening when I became ravenous, I opened the cans of corned beef hash that I had traded for and stashed.
Breakfast was the best meal. There was usually a hot cereal, hot cakes, bacon or sausage, and the best scrambled eggs ever made of dried eggs. Our Mess Sergeant always had little extras that he added to make things tasty. We had lots of coffee, and there was juice sometimes. We also had fruit. Most meals were accompanied by a fruit of some kind--oranges mostly. We never ate them at the meal, but carried them in our pocket for later. They taught us the "California Peel", which was done by cutting segment lines in the skin all around the orange, then peeling each segment in one piece. I still do it that way. Lunch was usually soup, sandwiches, and fruit.
The meals were cooked on stoves fired by gasoline. There were ovens, grills, and stoves and were very portable. During training, the cooks didn’t have a clue as to how to start the stoves. It required a tire pump and 150 strokes to get gas pressure. Usually KP men were assigned this job, which was done at 3:00 in the morning. The cooks then bled a little gasoline in a channel below the burners and lit it. Most of the time, this resulted in a large flame and extreme panic. Each of the stoves were approached with caution, and we dreaded the ignition.
The worst devices in the army were the immersion heaters used in 25 gallon garbage cans full of water. The idea was to heat the water to near boiling so mess kits could be immersed and sanitized. Starting one took more bravery than facing a hostile enemy. They also ran on gasoline, and had to be primed with raw gas before they were lit. Lighting was simple: just drop in a match and jump back. Usually they issued a large blast of flame, a beautiful smoke ring, and a roaring that convinced one that it was about to disintegrate, taking everyone with it. This job was given to KPs.
The kitchen was the most mobile of the units. They could pick up and move in a very short time. When we took guns up to the front lines, the cooks went with us in a kitchen rigged in a two and one half ton truck. Rain or shine, they cooked. Sometimes there was no shelter to eat the meal, and the rain tried to fill our mess kits while we ate. We learned to put on a poncho, pull our head inside, and eat dry food.
Ice cream was a disaster. I know that the Division made large efforts to get ice cream to the field, but it was soft and runny when it was given to us in little paper wrapped blocks. The worst part was that our mess kits were small, and with our main food in them, the only place for the ice cream was on top. Ice cream and mashed potatoes were not compatible.
A C ration was a neat package that contained canned food ready to eat (it tasted much better hot). It also had a can of general items such as cigarettes, a large chunk of gelatinous candy, toilet paper, matches, and eating utensils. The best thing was the tiny can opener which worked well, and could be put on your dog tag chain. In old pictures of soldiers with their dog tags showing, one will see the tiny metal rectangular can opener.
The Army sold beer and Coke, but they gave away cigarettes. We received a big box of cigarettes, candy, and comic books every month. I taught myself to smoke the least popular brand, so I had a good supply all the time. The comic books were in great demand. The most popular ones were the romantic stories. They were traded until they were ragged and torn. Until I went to Korea, I didn’t know they made romantic comic books. Captain Marvel took a back seat to "Mary finds Romance."
A cook was our only casualty for the first six months of the war. When we were in Dog Battery, they brought up a portable kitchen and fed us meals. They even made lemonade, with ICE! I think it was blind harassing fire, but we suddenly received six 76mm rounds at 50 yard intervals down the road behind us. We knew it was six because we could count the reports of the guns well before the shell landed The mess truck was in a little nook by the road, and the cooks dived under the truck. One of the larger ones banged his head on the differential and went out like a light. We thought he was dead, but we couldn’t find injuries. He just had a skinned forehead. I always wondered if he got a purple heart.
I was in a hole with Herman Froehm--a friend from my home town--looking at pictures his wife had sent of his new son. Suddenly, rounds began to come in. They walked up the road toward us at 50 yard intervals and the 5th one was about 50 yards from us. We began to get as close to the bottom of the hole as we could when the 6th round hit about 50 yards beyond us.
One cannoneer was a big man, towering over his crew members and twice as thick as any of them. He had been hard to convince he needed a fox hole--I think because he had to dig such a big hole. He was called "Big Bad Bady", and after the rounds he began to dig saying, "Big Bad Bady is going UNDERGROUND." Late that night, well after dark, I heard his shovel working. The next morning we had to help him out of the "grave" he had dug.
Another time a Russian 122 round came down the road, hit flat, skipped for a quarter of a mile, but did not explode. I went down to the shell and saw that it was bent and broken open. The casing was so inferior it had split down the side. The fuse was battered and should have gone off, but it didn’t. When it came in, I was walking back of the guns. The only hole available was the garbage pit, so I used it. The Exec put me in a Jeep and we went down to an infantry-ran shower (actually a tent with a fire hose at the top spraying warm water). I got a shower, and so did he. He wasn’t going to pass up a good deal. They gave us clean clothes when we came in, but they had no insignia or rank on them, so we had to sew everything on again. This was one of the bad parts about the system. We hated that sewing job, and many would not shower when given the chance for that same reason. We both smelled and felt much better as we crawled into our dirt holes.
Cleanliness is Next to Godliness, But Also Next to Impossible
We were dirty most of the time. We were as clean as the next soldier, but compared to today’s showers after exertion, clean clothes twice a day, lots of deodorant, blown-dry hair, etc., we were filthy, even when we were "clean." The Army had cleanliness way down on the bottom of the list of important things in combat. In Artillery Valley, there was no way to clean up. We took "Whore Baths"--which meant we exposed only one section of the body and washed it in a helmet full of water. Then we covered that part up and exposed another. Long underwear was on for the duration of the winter, and tee shirts and shorts worn underneath were to extend the life of the Long Johns. They got changed every week or two. Outside clothing never changed--or at least, it was changed only when it was stiff and filthy. Korean "houseboys" were hired by the Army to wash our clothes, but when the river ice got so thick they couldn’t chop through for water, washing stopped and the houseboys hovered around the stoves and got homesick. We had a Korean who was supposed to be a barber, but his haircuts were just buzz jobs, so we took over the haircutting after the first cutting.
I decided we could come up with something to get a bath, so I cut the top out of a 55-gallon barrel with a hatchet and a hammer, and set it in the tent. Once a week we heated two fuse cans of water ( about 20 gallon) on the tent stoves and allocated two helmets full to each man in the section. The plan was to get wet, lather up, and then rinse with the second helmet. The barrel was hard to get into, but the system worked pretty well. I worried that the last men would object to standing in other’s bath water. It was a needless worry, for they vied to see who would be last. Standing in the water got the feet warm. The last man paid for the privilege by emptying the barrel.
Not too long after we relieved the 24th, the Army took away the houseboys, promising to collect dirty clothes, wash, and return them. We tried the system. Clothes we sent away did not come back for over a month, and we got the wrong ones back. We began to wash our own clothes in a creek after that. We washed the Korean method--without soap. We boiled the clothes in a fuse can, twisted and beat them on a rock, and rinsed them in the creek. It worked!!
We had casualties also. There was very little fuel to heat the clothes. We couldn’t get wood from the hills because they were mined and very dangerous to venture in to. So, many reverted to using a can filled with sand and soaked in gasoline. It worked well, but had to be refueled often. Burns from splashed fuel began to be common. These were not minor burns, for the pants legs usually caught on fire and burned severely. Herman, my friend, went away in a medic ambulance with leg burns when he attempted to refuel a wash fire. Fortunately, he had only second degree burns. Some were not so lucky.
They established a shower at the bottom of the mountain, and several times I went down to clean up. One time, the infantry was in for a washing, and a black sergeant and I washed each other’s back. Warm water never felt so good as it did spraying down from that tent pole. No good deed goes unpunished. When we came out, they gave us new clothes. But when we had put them on, a man walked up with a yard sprayer and wet down our pants legs with some foul-smelling insecticide. They were afraid of an insect that carried Hemorragic fever. The clothes stunk.
One trip to the shower wound up in tragedy. The shower was on a frozen sand creek bank, and shortly after I completed my shower, a young man walked the same track away from the shower and had his leg blown off by a mine—buried, but previously frozen. One warmer day, a line of naked men waited to go into the shower and a convoy of women from the Betty Hutton USO show went by. The guys whistled, yelled, and almost to a man suddenly realized their nudity and turned their backs. The girls yelled back and whistled a lot. I washed and shaved every day, but I can imagine how the lot of us smelled. No wonder the Chinese said that they could find American outposts with their noses. As we moved to the mule trail location, I noticed the ideal solution. Someone had built a small windmill with a fan diameter about four feet. All of it was made from old 105mm ammunition boxes. It sat on a tower made of barbed wire posts that were about 10 feet high. The washing was done in an open-top, 55 gallon barrel with an old Army immersion heater submerged in it. The wind wheel caused a plunger to work up and down in the barrel. It worked very well: in fact, our grandmothers would have loved to have one half as good. I really don’t know why we didn’t try to duplicate it. Our washing methods burned people right and left.
My Hardest Duty
John Zvodny was a solid, impassive young man. He had a medium build, but he seemed to be almost solid, like a tree trunk. He suggested extreme strength, but never exhibited it. He was intelligent, but had a Slavic nature that made him aloof. Throughout our training, he showed a grumbling disrespect for authority. He never made an overt rebellious act, but he had a dark cloud that seemed to hover over him. His friends were Slavic, especially Paul Stephanic who had a nature opposite of Zvodny. He was loud and boisterous, and never seemed to be anything but cheerful. John was a wireman and drove one of the detail section’s three quarter ton trucks. He was a diligent worker, but I found it was better to put him in a team and give the team leader directions, for John turned dark and uncommunicative. He didn’t like to be told what to do by anyone of authority. It was okay for his fellow workers to explain the work, and he did not shirk. It seemed to me like he was a machine to use but not to communicate. There was some trouble with a dissident faction composed of the busted gun sergeant, a very easily-led young replacement, and a Chinese boy (who was the only person I ever met who had no abilities at all). I thought he would help us translate the Chinese messages we heard on the radio. But he spoke Mandarin, and they didn’t. John was a border follower of this group. He sat in their gripe sessions, but never participated in their overt rebellions. I got rid of the busted sergeant. I put the two worthless ones in gun crews, and kept Zvodny. He just wasn’t trouble.
We had our stay in Artillery Valley, and then moved onto the mule trail. Winter turned to Spring. We could tell Spring was upon us, for the Army, in all its wisdom, came on a cold day in April and took our down-filled sleeping bags, replacing them with blanket-lined summer bags. We had to sleep with coats thrown over us for about a month. We settled into a routine, and the officers were beginning to hold formations in the morning (in full view of the enemy). The Exec wanted to line the pathways with rocks and paint them white, which disgusted everyone. He never got his painted rocks. The formations stopped when a battalion office went by as we stood in formation. He drove in and gave his opinion of the brain power involved in forcing the formations, and they stopped.
There was a call for John to come to the exec post. His father had been hospitalized and was gravely ill. John became animated. He wanted an emergency leave to go to his father. We went through all the paperwork, and sent it to the Red Cross where it was evaluated and sent to the proper people to grant the leave. He paced like a caged animal for two days until the chaplain arrived with the job of telling him he could not go home. John literally exploded. His face flushed, veins stood out, and he bellowed a purely animal cry that would chill your blood. He rushed out and disappeared. I was debating what to do when he returned and got with his buddies where he poured out his anger. I thought it was over.
The Exec called me in three day later. "Sergeant John Zvodny’s father died two days ago," he said. "I want you to tell him." Ohhh Boy! This wasn’t going to be easy. "Will he get to go home for the funeral?" I asked. "No," he replied. "If he’s dead, he can’t help him. No funeral leaves are ever granted." I asked, "What can I do to ease his pain?" He said, "Nothing. Soldiers see friends die every day. They don’t get any special consideration." "Whew," I thought. This was his Dad, not a friend. They evidently were very close. "Doesn’t matter," said the Exec. "Go tell him sergeant." I replied, "Yes, Sir."
John was lying in his upper bunk, face down when I arrived. I thought he was asleep. A wireman working on a telephone said, "He’s awake." "John?" No movement, no answer. "John," I said. "I’ve got to talk to you, and I need to know you hear me." There was a muffled, unintelligible word. I took it to mean he was awake. In a way, I preferred it this way. I didn’t have to look into his eyes and see the horrible pain I was going to inflict. "John," I told him, "The Exec got a message just a few minutes ago. It’s about your dad." There was no sound, no movement. John was steeling himself for what he knew I was going to say. "I’m so sorry, John, but your dad passed away two days ago." John gripped the sides of the bunk, and face down in the bunk he must have screamed. But the sound was unearthly as it exited his bed clothes. Then there was a silence. "John?" He answered, "Yeah?" Another silence, "do you understand," I asked him. John raised himself with both arms braced and said, "Can I go home for the funeral?" "No," I told him. "They don’t give leaves for funerals." "This was my dad," he said, his voice rising. "I know," I said. "I’m sorry, John. I wish I could change things, but I can’t." He dropped on his face, and he remained in his upper bunk for two days, not speaking to anyone. I left him alone to let him get his grief in control.
The Exec called me in and told me to get Zvodny out of the sack and back to work. "It’s the only way he’s going to be able to bear this," the Exec said. "Keep him very busy." I didn’t want to tell John his time of grief was over. I really didn’t know how he would react. I suspected John could be dangerous if he let his emotions go. "John, the Exec says you’ve got to get out of the sack and go to work now. It will do you good and get your mind off things." "No, I won’t," he replied. "Sorry, John," I told him, "but you have to. "No, I don’t," he said. "The Army won’t do anything for me. I will not do anything for them." "John," I told him. "This is a direct order. Get up, and get on your truck." John sat up and looked at me with a face that made me know he had violence just behind his eyelids. I wasn’t ready to punish him for something that I, too, felt was unjust. I left him sitting on his bunk and went down the road kicking dust. I was troubled because I was the tool to cause such pain. It was as if I had killed his father, and then denied him the ability to cope with the loss. I was mad that the Army was so callous. I didn’t want to be reminded that I was a number--a small tooth in the gears of war--and of no consequence, either on the field or on the list of dead. It was humbling and maddening that my comrades and I were only ballast in this ship of fools.
I met the machine gun sergeant going the other way, and stopped him to talk. In spite of his youthful appearance, as I mentioned before, he was very mature. I respected his common sense, so I told him the problem. He heard it out, contemplated for a few moments, and he said, "Let’s both go see him tonight. Maybe we can keep him out of trouble." It was a good idea--one that I probably wanted when I stopped him. We agreed that we had to get him away from his rebellious cronies. Our plan was to catch him on the way to the latrine, so we set a watch. That evening, a sentry called and told us John was moving toward the latrine. We moved down to the path and intercepted him on the way back.
We argued and cajoled, but he finally listened when we explained that he could go to prison, since disobeying a direct order in a combat zone carried serious penalties--including the death sentence. John was a fatalist, and he knew it would go bad for him. "Okay," he said, "but I only do what I am ordered to, and If I find a way to get out of here I’ll go." He went back to the tent. The next day he was in his truck looking ferocious, but silent. I thought it was time to break up the rebellious cronies, so I began to make arrangements to move them out of Detail and onto other jobs. About a month later a spot became vacant for R&R in Japan. I put John’s name in, and in about three days he got the leave. I thought it would be a toss-up for John to show up again. But he came back almost normal, and we never heard of it again. I felt heartsick for John. I could feel the ethnic bond that bound him to the father, and I know it ripped him apart. Maybe it was good, maybe not. The Army, like the world outside it, was a cold place. No heart, no mercy. We all learned this fact sometime.
We had other unhappy people, including one that came to us as a replacement mechanic. He was trained on the newer-style trucks in use by the Army, and had never seen the type of equipment we used. In less than a month, he had an "accident" and shot himself in the foot. The last I heard he was in Pusan working on new equipment, which we never saw.
We all lived for the day when we could crawl into that truck headed South. But we were resigned to our status, and glad we didn’t have to be in the infantry. The infantry had it rough. All of the activity on the front came at night, and they had to stay alert. Sometimes it became so intense they lost touch with reality. One such case was a soldier we saw walking up the mule trail with his rifle but no other gear. He hesitated at our battery, and then turned to ask for a drink. We invited him into the exec post and someone went for water. Things were not right with him, and it was evident in his eyes that some horror had driven him away from the lines. Single soldiers never climbed up to us, so he had to be trying to get away. He sat sipping water and looking at the floor, occasionally glancing around as if he was making sure where he was. The gun sergeant sat down with him and slowly and patiently he extracted his story.
The soldier had been assigned a hole on the front face of a ridge just above the trip wires laid across the face of the ridge. Each wire was connected to a "Bouncing Betty" mine which fired a charge head high and exploded, scattering ball shrapnel over a wide area. Tripping one was sure death, as opposed to the type set for paths which maimed more often than killed. He got into the hole before it got dark, and settled in for a quiet night. Two hours later, he felt hands grasp his coat and begin to pull him from the hole. He thrashed about enough to know there were two men pulling him toward the trip wires. He pulled loose from their grasp and crawled desperately back to his hole, where he found his 12-gauge shot gun loaded with buckshot. He began to fire blindly all around his hole. It grew very quiet, and in a few minutes his fear overtook him. He reloaded and fired another volley, turning 360 degrees while firing.
He reloaded again and listened carefully. Not even a rustling leaf could be heard. Suddenly, a Betty went off 30 yards from him, and the pellets kicked dirt in his face. He was convinced there was a thrust being made in his area, and he fired blindly into the right and left of the mine explosion. He was nearing the end of his ammunition, so he reserved it for more direct contact. He dialed his phone to the rear, but it was dead. He sat all night in the pitch blackness, expecting to be jerked from the hole any minute.
When morning began to give illumination to the ridge, he strained to catch any movement, but there was none. When there was full light, he gasped at the carnage around him. A Chinese officer lay in two pieces very near the hole. In back and front of him, he saw dead soldiers mutilated by short range blasts of the deadly shot gun. A total of seven dead lay within five yards of the hole he occupied. He had fought a major battle with a foe he never saw, and he won. When he thought it was safe, he climbed the ridge back to his bunker. He sat a while, then picked up his rifle and headed away from the horror that had been his that night. We got him some coffee, and tried to make him comfortable, but he could not sit. He paced the tent, looking out as if he should escape. As he paced, the sergeant sat with him, talking low and carefully while we contacted the medics. Soon they came for him, and he turned and thanked everyone before he left. His war against the Chinese was over, but his war with the horror of that night probably went with him for years.
The comedian Bill Cosby has a routine where he says, "You girls out there think you got something that feels better to men than anything else. Well, I got news for you! There is something that will make a man almost faint with ecstasy, and you don’t have to take it to dinner and dancing. It’s jock itch!" He’s right on! The ecstasy of scratching jock itch is unbelievable. Once begun, you cannot quit until you have nearly rubbed your skin away. Jock itch is a fungus infection that is the penalty for common toilets and unwashed bodies. It passes through a group of men like wildfire, and it never goes away. lt likes the crotch area because of the warmth and moisture, and it irritates and itches. Untreated, it causes lesions like ulcers, and intensifies the itch.
Most of us had some patches of it before we left Japan. We had not sought treatment because of the Sergeant Barnes case. Sergeant Barnes was in Detail, and was a Californian. He got the itch first, and probably was the Japanese distributor for it. He went to the medics, and the remedy he got from them was to put salicylic acid on it twice a day. It worked, but it literally burned it off and left the skin raw underneath. Poor Barnes never went beyond the first application. He could not wear trousers for two days. None of us shared his cure or went to the medics.
After Japan, the itch took more skin area and itched beyond endurance. Going into sub zero weather stopped it
while you were there, but it returned full force as soon as you warmed up. Men unconsciously rubbed themselves on
truck fenders, posts, or any projection available. As it crept toward the buttocks, wiping oneself was an
unbelievable experience. I suffered with it for a couple of months until I gave up and went to a Mash unit. They
clucked their tongues and prescribed a sitz bath. It was below zero in a tent and they prescribe a sitz bath in
hot water. In what? My helmet?
One day I was rummaging in the trash left behind by the 24th, and a box yielded a large green tube of fungicide ointment. I quickly searched the ingredients. Carbolic acid was the most virulent ingredient listed. I quickly hid the tube in my field jacket, resolving to try it that night. I crawled into my sleeping bag, and out of sight of the rest of the guys in the tent, I applied the salve and waited for results. I got them in about ten minutes. I commenced to burn in all of the applied areas, which included my tail bone area. The heat increased until I actually wondered if I could catch on fire! I gritted my teeth, buried my head, and endured the fire for more than an hour. Then it let off, diminishing to nothing during the night. I was sure I had just taken the Barnes cure, and I would see raw meat in the morning. I slept a couple of hours before dawn, and awoke to dress for duty. There was no itch. No raw meat. Nothing!! I was elated beyond words. I waited to see if it was permanent, and it was. Luckily, I thought before I yielded to the urge to tell everyone. The tube was large, but I didn’t think it was large enough for the entire itch in camp. Also, maybe it would come back and I would have no more ointment. I decided I would dole it out to worthy persons whom I would evaluate.
The first was a friend who had been my soul mate in the itch. He had it bad and could hardly walk. I told him under the threat of death to use it, but tell no one. He agreed. I did not tell him all about it, just that it worked. His section tent was close to ours, and that night I was awakened by my friend’s moans and shrieks, accompanied by flowery profanity. The next morning, he calmly handed me the tube. He said, "Thank you, I’m cured." And then he turned and went out. He returned, stuck his head in the tent, and said, "Tonight I am going to kill you." After that, we acted as a committee and judiciously doled out the tube, requiring secret oaths from e everyone who used it. Eventually, all of the sufferers were cured by our miraculous ointment, but the Army medics had never heard of the ointment. To us, it was a miracle from God. Scratching jock itch is truly a ecstatic experience, but I doubt it will ever be a popular pastime (unless you can find a big green tube).
How I Built a Chinese Bunker or, A Little Suggestion is a Dangerous Thing
I will say again, I do not know how I got to be the battery engineer. I think it was that I suggested solutions to problems, and wound up doing them. It didn’t matter that I didn’t really know if they would work, I had the only suggestion, so that was the way it got done. So it was with the new bunker. We were sitting around saying we needed at least one direct hit-proof bunker big enough to hold a large group of men. Someone said they knew of an old Chinese bunker in an adjoining area, and described it as the "perfect" bunker. This fascinated me, for I had wanted to see one of their bunkers up close. I had heard infantrymen tell of them, and I had heard the chink of their picks during the night. They worked on their fortifications continuously, digging tank traps during the day light hours, improving bunkers, or digging new ones at night. The Chinese troops never got a day off either. Since I was the one who got the battery ready the last time, I was automatically chosen to look at the bunker.
I was delighted. Any break in the routine was welcomed. The captain’s jeep driver was assigned to take me. We drove a few miles to an area just off the main supply road, and found the bunker cut into the stone side of a ridge. The outside of the bunker looked like the side of the ridge. It was solid brown stone and covered with the hill’s native vegetation. Where the rock cut perpendicular to the ridge, there was a wooden door cleverly recessed so it did not show unless you came up the path toward it. Even more clever was a chink in the rock strata that, when examined closely, became a small port for a rifle (but too small for an American hand grenade).
We went into a narrow hall about 5'-6" tall and 7' long. It turned 90 degrees into another hall heading into the interior of the ridge. This had a room off to the right which had a similar blast corner, but which opened out into a 110' x 20' room with a slanting ceiling. The hall continued on for about 40 feet, and then went down at a slant for another 10 feet, where it turned into another room about 1/4 the size of the front room. The front room had some interesting features. There was a pit in the corner about the size of a bushel basket, but three times as deep. This puzzled us at first, but we remembered our own fox hole construction, with a pit to kick hand grenades.
The roof caught our attention. The room had been carved straight down into the ridge and not from the small hallway. The entire roof was open, and a network of heavy timbers laid side by side was supported by the walls. It formed a slanted roof nearly 10-foot high on the ridge side, and 7' tall on the outside. Timber roofs were not unusual for bunkers, but we uncovered one end of the roof timbers and found that the roof really consisted of side-by-side railroad rails. A layer of canvas, and then dirt were covered by rocks to conceal the roof. It was a fort. Men could live inside through the best barrage we could muster, unless we faced a gun at it at short range and used armor piercing rounds. If they had their access collapsed, they were capable of digging out, even through to the other side. Their ammunition was safe in the small lower room, and the twists and turns of the halls kept blasts from being a hazard. It was great! I was full of ideas when I returned home, and I sketched one out that involved digging down into a similar hillside in the rear of the gun closest to the exec post.
We did not have a stone hill to dig into, but the bunker would be aligned lengthwise toward the enemy, presenting the smallest face to possible fire. I began to go into the details, and soon had diagrams of footings for columns, as well as a drainage system to keep the spongy hillside from making the inside a mud room. The roof I resolved to make as strong as the Chinese one, and after some inquiry I found an area with a railroad that was not yet stripped. After explaining the plan to the gun sergeant who would supervise the work, I set out with the detail men to cut up the railroad. We had no tools or torches, so I took thermite grenades to burn through the rails. We had a surplus of them, for they were used to destroy the guns in case we had to abandon them.
Very quickly, we found that thermite grenades could degrade a gun tube, but that they did not cut through rails. The rail idea was a central part of the plan, but it was lost. Not to worry, a man had found a pallet of bags of concrete along the rail right-of-way, and while I had not seen them, I immediately made plans to substitute concrete in my plan. We loaded our tools and grenades, and drove down to the area of the concrete pallet. There, I found the discoverer sitting on a pallet of weathered, but honest-to-goodness cement bags. There was a problem. The discoverer of the cement bags had made another discovery--a little too late. The pallet sat about 30 feet from a wire fence, and on the fence it said, "DANGER, MINEFIELD." He had blithely crawled under the fence and walked out to the pallet. It was then that he read the sign, which repeated its message from the other side. He assumed the only safe perch. "Can you get me out of here?", he yelled as he stood up and waved his arms. Someone answered, "How did you managed to get out there?" He said, "I just crawled under the fence and walked out!" We had a conference of all present and asked for suggestions. There were a few: "Maybe the engineers could come and sweep the mines out." "Maybe we could get a tall tree and snake it out to him." (Yeah, where are you gonna find a tree 40 foot long and big enough to hold him? Or how you gonna support the end out to him? You’d set off the mines dragging it out to him.) One suggested, "Could he jump this far?" But the only way he could jump that far was if he did it flat-footed.
The Mexican driver said that he would drive his truck out there, but we told him that he and the man on the cement bags would both be dog meat, and then we would have to walk home. I yelled out to him, "Can you see your footprint in the tall grass?" He said that he thought so. "Can you come back putting your feet where you walked before?" He said, "Maybe." I told him that was the only way that he was going to get back out of the minefield. He considered it a few minutes, walking a circuit around the palletted bags, and then he said, "I’ll try coming back the way I came." He climbed down very carefully, being careful that he didn’t slip and land where he had not stood before. He studied the ground in front of him. The tall winter-killed weeds showed some trace of his passage, but I was glad I didn’t have to decide where each step should go. He took a tentative step, and all of the men along the fence unconsciously began to withdraw to a safe distance except his buddy. He stood there with his arm extended as if rescuing a person from the water, his concern and loyalty exposing him to as much danger as the man in the weeds. Several of the men yelled at the same time, "Get Back!", but he remained poised to help his friend.
The man in the weeds took two more steps, each more tentative than the last, and the terror grew on his face. He was panicking. Suddenly, his body flew through the air in a leap as agile as a ballet dancer. Once more he leaped in an amazing arc, which many of us swore later cleared the tops of the grass. He landed at the fence base, and came over headfirst. We stood open-mouthed as he picked himself up, and adjusted his clothes. Then he swore, "I left my rifle out there!!" A half dozen voices said at once, "Leave it." He was officially named Nijinski from that day on.
With no rails and no cement, we came home defeated. The perfect bunker was being compromised from the beginning. When we arrived at the Battery, I found the hole for the bunker well on its way. There was no turning back now. I was literally back to the drawing board, and by late evening I had devised a plan using timbers and sand bags that would be an adequate substitute. The magnificent edifice I had envisioned would resemble a more conventional bunker.
We needed timber. We could not go back into the forest around us since it had not been cleared of mines. With four very dull axes and in two trucks, we started for the rear areas that had been cleared. (The Army didn’t trust anyone with a sharp axe, or at least didn’t supply a way to sharpen tools.) We found a likely area with some nice tall trees, and decided that we would fell trees on the top of the ridge and let gravity carry them down to the trucks. The trees did not know the plan, and although felled down the ridge, they refused to slide down. Getting them to the trucks required back-breaking labor to pull cables up and winch them down. Our trucks were not filled up with poles, and we were about exhausted, when two Korean soldier/woodcutters came out of the woods and sat smoking and watching us. One of them approached, and with a great deal of gesturing and acting, he volunteered to cut enough poles to fill one and one-half trucks. The other half they would cut, and we would haul them to their camp. We were doubtful of their abilities, but we agreed.
They produced their short, curved saws, a length of rice rope, and a stout pole, and began to work. One of them cut through trees like he had a chainsaw. The other cut off the limbs, producing a naked pole in a very short time. They wrapped the rope around the butt of the tree and the other around the pole they brought. The pole went on their shoulders and they lifted the tree and began to chant, moving the tree down the slope to the truck. We loaded the truck, and in about an hour and a half they had both trucks loaded with trees sticking out of the back ten feet. The trucks were loaded to their limits, and we pulled away with the front ends light. We went to the camp, where willing hands unloaded their half truck load close to a fire under the biggest pot of rice I have ever seen. It must have been four foot across. We got home before dark, and unloaded our poles next to the hole that was now resembling something near to the bunker hole I drew.
It was now that I had to begin the real engineering. We were going to build a very heavy roof without the stone edge to support it, so we had to have some support inside of the bunker. I decided on the number of columns I needed, and then designed footing for them. I thought this design devilishly clever. I had the men dig square holes three feet deeper than the floor for each of the columns. In these holes I had a mat of layers of smaller logs which the column would rest on. The size of the mat was a guess. Also devilishly clever, I had the men knock the bottom from a number of powder canisters which looked like metal six foot sewer tile. I had a ditch about two foot deep dug down the center of the bunker, and a couple cross ways joining onto the center ditch. The metal "sewer tiles" were laid in these ditches, and covered with whatever loose stone we could find. Dirt was then tamped on top. Cross beams of the largest logs were placed on the columns, and the roof of tightly laid poles applied on top. I suggested a layer of sand bags on top, with two air and light vents. They liked it so well, they put two layers on; then added some rocks.
The bunker was designed to have bunk beds for twenty men with a minimum of seven foot head room. The banks in the front and back ends of the bunker were cut with a maze for blast protection, and allowed no straight line into the bunker. After the first rain, I felt wonderful when I saw water coming from the floor drain down the hill. The floor stayed dry, and the men seemed to like it, especially when I put electric lights in it. I considered this my crowning achievement in Korea. The bunker stayed in use all of the time I was there. It was considered the Exec Post refuge, as well as the gun crew’s home, and several other crews started on similar bunkers. I wish the story could end here, but I received a call a year after I left Korea, and Larry Life told me what happened to the Battery after I left. The significant event was the shelling of the position by Russian 122 mm guns. My old Battery received over 100 rounds in the basic area. Most of the equipment was destroyed. One ROK training crew was completely obliterated by a direct hit. Only one man of our original outfit was hurt--the ammo sergeant I mentioned earlier. Did my bunker take any hits? No, it didn’t, and men were saved by being in it, but the bunker was only four tall!
When I put in my clever foundation mats, I put them in three feet deep. My drains were two foot deep. Water collected in the mat areas and softened the ground. The tremendous weight of the roof slowly drove the columns into the ground and the headroom decreased daily. In my ignorance, I missed some of the most important rules of construction: Make the footings big enough. Know the soils you put the footings on. Drain the water AWAY from the footings!! I guess it saved some lives, but it didn’t have any class.
The First Step on a Long Road
The Army gives you no Christian values. Indeed it gives you nothing, or takes away nothing that is ingrained. What the Army does give you is an amoral climate in which you can strengthen, or lose your faith, according to how genuine it is. There are no recriminations for the use of profanity, for blasphemy, or for sexual immorality. They are not required, but the climate is full of all of them. If you let yourself be absorbed, no one thinks the less of you.
The untried veneer of Christianity I carried into the Army, to my shame, fell away in small chunks over a period of time. I tried beer-drinking and no credit to me, I didn’t like it. I did have my limits, however, and I never blasphemed the Lord or ventured into sexual immorality. But I was profane, as profane as any, minus the "Jesus Christ" that was very commonplace. My only twinge came when someone told a very blasphemous story, or used the Name of Jesus as a curse word. It hurt each time. I did not remonstrate. I kept silent. I was a "regular" guy in Korea, as profane as any. The vocabulary of the Army does not have too many words; the rest is profanity.
After one whole night of listening to Chinese artillery and small arms fire just over the ridge from where we were dug in on a Dog Battery mission, several of us, including my favorite officer, Lieutenant Murphy, were sitting on the ground behind a berm of earth, taking a break. Some of the men there I did not know. As I explained some of the things that had happened during the night, Murphy leaned over and whispered, "Watch it. That’s the Chaplain sitting over there." At first, I didn’t understand, then I realized my language had been so bad, Murphy supposed it would have offended the Chaplain. In a flash, I realized what I had become. If it would have offended the Chaplain, what would my parents think? What would the Chaplain think? In an explosive moment, I realized that the question should have been, "How ashamed Christ must be!"
My life rearranged itself after that. I consciously watched my every word, and felt real shame when I slipped. It was hard, for profanity was the language of the Army. The reformation of my language was an indication of the reformation starting in my life. I began to realize that I had a responsibility to the Lord. I did not become the perfect Christian overnight. I’m still a long way off now, but the process began there. I began to crystallize my own personal beliefs, not those dictated by others. Over the years, I found my purpose in God’s scheme of things. As one who has chosen to become one with the Saints through salvation, my job is to glorify Him. It took a Chaplain leaning against a dirt berm - who never even spoke to me--to get me on the way.
I learned through the Internet that my best friend during my time in the Army, George Brinsko, was deceased. Shorty Sprouls preceded him in death by several years. All the young, vital men I knew and remember from Korea are dying or are dead now. In my mind, they are still as I left them--vital, fun, and daring. I love being with them again, if only for a moment on this paper. George will never die for me. He was unique, interesting, and wise beyond his young years. Every moment I spent with him had an air of excitement. His conversation stimulated, and his interests were surprising. He loved people. He loved writing to people and getting answers. Judging from the list of people who replied, he had a way with his words.
How It Ended for Me
There was nothing dramatic about the end of my term of service in Korea. I got notification about two weeks ahead, but I already knew I was close because of the point system which I could calculate each month. Of course, there were all kinds of wild stories about men who were scheduled to go home and were held over at the last minute. Indeed, I did see one case of this. The thing we knew was the real indication was when the supply sergeant asked for our weapon, and gave us an M1. We did not use M1's in the artillery, so that meant that you were definitely on the list and plans were in the works for you. Those M1's came into the battery with the replacements and went back with the guys going home. They never made it to the front lines. We also found that returnees were used as "mules." When you got to the center where they reissued you a full set of uniforms prior to going home, you got more uniforms than anyone could wear. When you got stateside, they took them all away. They just let you transport them.
I heard a lot of stories about men who were "short" [due to go home very soon] and who coddled and protected their replacement so there would be no problem leaving his job. There were also stories about non-coms who hung on to their sidearm until they got on the truck, just in case the replacement put it on, took it out to look at it, and accidentally shot the leaving non-com. These were mostly fabrications. There was one funny, but serious, story that was true, however. When I came into Korea, I carried a Grease Gun. That was a cheap, stamped metal gun that had few moving parts and a short barrel resembling a true grease gun in a lot of ways. It had a heavy bolt that looked like a piece of two-inch shafting with springs. It was held by a stamped metal piece moved by the trigger.
The story was that a wireman climbed a pole with his weapon slung over his shoulder, but dropped it. The gun fell to the ground, the bolt came loose, and fired a burst into the wireman on the top of the pole. The Army immediately recalled the machine guns. One day, the supply sergeant handed me a 45 pistol and holster and took my grease gun. I was tickled to death, except I found I couldn’t hit anything with the 45, even up close. It was a lot better with a pistol if you were active. A sling weapon was always in the way.
Herman Froehm and I came into the Army together, and we went out together on the same truck. We went through various holding camps, and wound up in a box car traveling all night. The dawn that showed us the steeples of Inchon was a sight I will always remember. I won’t describe all of the processing we went through at the various stops. The water crossing was a boring trip with 2,000 men crowded on deck. I found a favorite hatch and slept every time I got a chance. I had not slept more than four hours in any day the whole time I was in Korea.
The Army had a thing about sunburn. You had to wear your jacket at all times, but mine came open as I snoozed on deck. I had burn that clearly defined my dog tags. I did not get seasick, but only because a hometown man, Shorty Sprouls, had the detail of handing out the final dynamite pills that were to kill off any malaria we might be carrying. He agreed to give me a Dramamine pill also as I passed down the line to the mess hall. The days passed very slowly with us sitting cross-legged in our bunks, playing Gin Rummy for hours and hours. Of course, there was the inevitable poker game and crap game that ran continuously the whole trip. The radio operator from Headquarters who owned a gambling hall in Nome, Alaska, made so much money he hired a man to be his bodyguard. It was rumored he cleared $40,000.
We were up at dawn, and at the rail to see the ship dock. We wanted to get off immediately since we had been ordered to have our gear ready for quick departure. But as usual, time went by and nothing happened. Activity began when a string of Army busses began to line up alongside the ship. There were so many, we could not estimate their number. Men began to leave the ship straining to carry the packs and duffel bags full of gear into the busses. Our compartment was closest to the gangway, so we expected to be first. But as it dragged on, we realized that we were to be last. It was then that we noticed the two open two-and-one-half ton trucks sitting close to the gangway. I was getting angry, for I could see that we, being last would wind up standing in a truck, not sitting comfortably in an air conditioned bus.
We wound up in the trucks. I was reconciled that we got the shaft again as they pulled out for the trip to the processing center. The trucks were in front as we came from the dock drive to the main street of Seattle, and what a shock we got! There were hundreds of people lining the streets and bands were playing. As we went along, they showered us with confetti from the tall buildings. Pretty girls waited at the intersections and handed up bouquets of flowers. Old men saluted us. People cheered all along the way. There were smiles on everyone’s faces. We were Veterans. Heroes!! Motorcycle policeman rushed ahead of our convoy with sirens screaming, and as we passed into the residential area, a pretty blond lady wearing a very brief bikini waved to us as she worked in her yard. (We found out later that it was the plan for the police sirens to alert her to come out and perform her morale-building stunt.) Now a bikini, even briefer than hers, is common place. But in that time, it was very unusual to wear a bikini of any kind. We went to Ft. Lewis, where we processed. We then got on trains for a trip across the country that took two and one half days. Our final processing at Battle Creek, Michigan let us head home to the wives we had waited so long to see. Our life in a normal world resumed.
I will always be grateful to the city of Seattle, whose citizens made such a fuss over us. It made you feel you had done something worthwhile with the two years you gave your country. The people genuinely appreciated it and poured love out on us. It was a fitting end--a closure that Vietnam vets didn’t get. What a shame they were denied closure to one of the dirtiest wars ever. Thank you, Seattle. I will always remember your love.
Our war is forgotten. We didn’t win, we didn’t lose. The politicians denied us victory, but we were not defeated. There will never be another war like Korea, with lines drawn with two enemies facing each other over a "No man’s land." The atomic bomb is now always in the background, assuring that a massed army could be annihilated. Little wars, terrorism, and forced political settlements are now the "safe" way to wage war. Truman was right to fire MacArthur, for he would have won the war--but with nuclear assistance. The door would have been open for nuclear wars, and mankind would be in immediate jeopardy.
I resented the time I had to give to the Army. I had a new bride and a life to get started when I was called up. But now with my life almost complete, I am very grateful. I went into the Army a very immature person, deluding myself that I was wise, upstanding, and superior, as my parents had coached me to think. The Army showed me who I was, and it was painful. During the two years I served, I shed the shell that my parents had made for me, and made my own acquaintance with the world. I found that it was a very real, very mean, tough world--a very unforgiving, very unsympathetic world. It still is. Through the Army, I learned hard truths. I found that it did not care if I died, as long as it accomplished its aim. No matter how high I rose in the ranks, I could be replaced immediately. The life I had to control and preserve was my responsibility. No one else cared. Just like the world outside the Army. I left the Army knowing the realities around me. I also knew a lot more about myself. I was a little frightened, as one should be who faces his life with all options open. But I had the tools I needed, and tried to use them. Since then, I have made decisions based on what I learned while I was in the Army. Not everything was easy, but I didn’t expect it to be.
I feel everyone would be mentally healthier, and the maturity of our country would move to the higher ground, if youth served in the Army. I find the world in which youth of today live is a very fanciful, self-serving, and totally unrealistic place. The Army would show them reality and give them the tools to deal with it. Without a common enemy, no one will respect the military, and youth will avoid it. The majority taking the reins of government will not know how to conduct themselves. Neither will they be able to correctly rule the country.