A Cold War began at the end of World War II (1945) between the Soviet Union and the United States and Europe. It flared into a hot war in 1950 when Soviet-backed North Korea invaded South Korea. In response to the aggression, 1.8 million American fighters were sent to Korea between 1950 and 1953. Since this was a U.N.-sanctioned action to halt the Communist takeover of the peninsula, troops from other nations participated in the fighting.
Early in 1953 I was drafted into the Army. Wondering if I’d ever come back after a going-away party at home, I reported for duty, was sworn-in, examined, tested, and assigned to the Signal Corps (orange and white braid in the garrison cap). I was flown to Georgia for basic training at Camp (now Fort) Gordon. School was at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, where I trained in fixed station radio repair-fixed, as in large permanent radio installations. I shipped overseas from Fort Lewis in Seattle, Washington, on the troop ship Marine Serpent, stopping at Sasebo, Japan, before sailing on to Korea. This was a disappointment because I expected to go where there would be a fixed radio station. In the Far East, that could mean Tokyo-but Korea, not Japan, was my ordered destination.
Crammed into a leaking barge, we came ashore at Inchon, greeted by GIs rotating back to the states shouting “You’ll be sorry!” We boarded a train apparently made from junkyard scraps, and after bouncing from headquarters to headquarters for “processing” I landed in the Bupyong rice paddies. It was the location of the 304th Signal Battalion’s Radio Company, relocated in this village after a fire in 1951 forced the company to move from Seoul. Bupyong was near the main road between Inchon and Seoul, a few miles south of Ascom City, and about 30 miles south of our line positions in the west.
The devastation of war was evident in wrecked buildings and on Korean faces. It was all too obvious that there would be no large, “fixed” radio installation here. The only things fixed were the mountains. Radio equipment had to be moved at a moment’s notice on foot or wheels. So I had to deal with field equipment that I was unfamiliar with. Electronic equipment in mid-century was designed around vacuum tubes. Communications were carried out via field telephones and mobile radio equipment. (Imagine life without computers, satellites, and smartphones!)
We came to Korea fairly ignorant about the country and knowing little about the actual nature of the war. We knew that the invading North Koreans, with the help of Russia and Red China, were trying to bring all of Korea under Communist rule. We were sent there to keep it from happening. One theory about “keeping us in the dark” regarding the war is that, since the enemy was known to mingle with civilians in street clothes, nothing of importance could then leak out through casual conversation. It made good sense in a place where a “friend” might be your enemy. [It was not until the 50th Anniversary of the Korean War that I learned much about what happened here in the war years.]
Our compound was originally a Japanese World War II radio station and we lived in the shabby, patched-up huts that the Japanese left behind when they were kicked out at the end of World War II. The huts had lights, oil heaters, cots, and air mattresses. These were luxurious quarters compared to the bunkers and tents that the boys at the line lived in.
Radio Co. was the radio-teletype arm of the 304th Signal Battalion, a strategic communications battalion of 8th Army, whose octagonal patch we wore: red with a white emblem shaped like a 4-bladed fan. Radio-teletype technology made possible the wireless transmission and reception of hard-copy messages by typing. What the sending man typed, the receiving man’s machine typed automatically on a roll of paper. The equipment was housed in walk-in “radio stations” mounted on 2½-ton trucks for quick deployment. GIs called the rig “Angry 26” which stood for Radio Set AN/GRC-26.
Because Korea is mountainous, Radio Co. also had VHF (Very High Frequency) sites atop hills in Seoul for point-to-point transmission/reception over the rugged terrain. The military called the mountains “hills.” Tell it to veterans who had to deal with these “hills”! We also had an Air-Ground Liaison radio unit attached to 5th Air Force headquarters at Osan. Our compound in Bupyong held the radio repair shop, mess hall, motor pool and other service facilities associated with the “headquarters” of a strategic Signal company. The men, most of them unmarried, came from every part of the U.S., walk of life, and level of education.
The radio repair shop (my workplace for a while) employed an architectural artist, a German national (aiming to become a U.S. citizen), a Brooklyn musician (me) and several other men coming together as a team. There were farm boys in the motor pool, city slickers in the Orderly Room, you-name-the-type and he was there. But we were all brothers, with a bond between us like no other, with an important job to do. There was a wide assortment of officers too. You quickly learned that OCS (Officers Training School) was no guarantee of competence. Our best commanding officer was Capt. George E. Posner, a professional photographer, inspiring leader, and great human being.
Before the truce, when Bed-Check Charlie flew over Radio Co. after dark, in his Soviet vintage biplane, the men scrambled out of the huts with their weapons and jumped into foxholes and bunkers around the compound, some manning machine guns. The harassing enemy aviator lobbed grenades in the pitch darkness, hoping to hit men and equipment, as searchlights from nearby outfits beamed up at him. Whether this blinded him or not, most of the grenades went off in the rice paddies.
Our weapons were machine guns, carbine rifles and .45’s. A mine field outside our barbed-wire fence kept us on the beaten path. Being part of a forward support battalion, we were in a defensive position, trigger-ready on alerts. The guns stopped firing after the truce of 27 July 1953 but sporadic fighting continued long afterwards, keeping the probability of renewed warfare high. Korea remained a war zone until July 1954. Because a peace treaty was never signed, the war never officially ended. Our troops have been at the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) ever since. As it turned out, no hostilities involving direct contact with the enemy occurred during my duty at Radio Co.
One of our men was sent to Panmunjom in July 1953 to relay the progress of the armistice negotiations to Tokyo by radio-teletype. In August he was in Munsani to report on Operation Big Switch, the major prisoner exchange operation. There would be POW exchanges into 1954. These were troublesome affairs that kept us on high alert.
In Korea you were either on a mountain, next to a mountain, or not far from a mountain. Or you were among rice paddies that stank until they froze in the winter. With luck, you could be bunking in or near a city, though even Seoul had its so-called “hills.” In spring it was sticky mud, in summer dust clouds from jeeps and trucks, temporarily doused by endless rain during the rainy season. And lots of raggedy kids, begging for a handout, many of them war orphans, some with a baby brother or sister strapped to the back, all of them growing up too fast. You might see the face of an old man on a young boy. Our company hosted an orphanage where these unfortunate girls and boys had shelter, clothing, food, and moral support.
Living conditions were primitive, especially in the farm villages. The crops were fertilized with human “manure” in liquid consistency, raising an appalling stench from the rice paddies. The “honey” was stored in pits throughout the fields and some “casualties” of the war were GIs falling into these “honey holes.”
The Koreans were rugged as their mountains, with a resilience to adversity hard to match. Strong and agile in body, resourceful and hard-working, they seemed to have accepted hardship as a way of life. The war added tragedy-too much of it. Many war orphans shifted for themselves and might have gone through life with deeper scars, had it not been for the kindnesses of GIs.
There were ROK (Republic of Korea) soldiers in our outfit, led by officer Lt. Kim. These were good men whose presence and assistance were appreciated. We had Korean civilians helping to keep the compound in good operating order. A humorous side to the presence of Koreans among us was their strong garlic breath, especially after lunch time. It came from eating Kimchi, a popular Korean food. Kimchi was basically a fermented mixture of cabbage, red-hot pepper and garlic. Just the mention of “kimchi” was enough to screw our face.
I spent two Christmases and two New Year’s Eves in Korea. Being in a war a war zone and 10,000 miles away from home was not conducive to celebrating, although the cooks did their best to make dinner a special occasion. Packages from home and a party for the war orphans in our mess hall helped bring cheer at Christmas time. A pleasant surprise came at mail call when each of us received a Christmas card addressed “To Dear U.N. Soldier.” They were sent by the 1st Year Class of Sook-Myoung Girl’s High School in Seoul. Mine was signed by Kim Hyoung Ja. Anyone reading this who knows her, please give her a big hug and thank you for me!
In 1954, buddy Bill Claypool, I and two other guys got a chance to take a jeep to the DMZ at Mundung-ni. On the way, we stopped at Yanggu to see Bill’s brother-in-law, Charles McKim, in the 21st Infantry Regiment (24th Division’s Gimlets, “First in Korea!”). Their patch was round with a green oak leaf on red. We squeezed into a squad tent for the night with the Infantry boys. Next day the Gimlets had their Saturday march while we prepared to move on. Before reaching Mundung-ni, we stopped at Java Junction, near Chunchon, where we were treated to coffee and donuts, courtesy of Co. C, 519th MP Battalion. The dusty road that snaked across the “hills,” sometimes in sharp turns, made driving treacherous. Going faster than the 25mph speed limit could make the vehicle flip over the side of the “hill.” Some GIs met their end this way.
The DMZ at Mundung-ni was manned by ROK-Army troops who kept a 24-hour vigil along the camouflaged, barbed-wire border. From Observation Post-7 we saw the Punchbowl and other sites of recently intense fighting. Through binoculars we spotted a Communist outfit across No Man’s Land. Charred from bombs and artillery, some mountain ridges were lined with scorched tree stumps-bleak reminders of the terrible fighting. One of our men in Radio Co. got assigned to assist a mortuary unit in looking for unrecovered remains of GIs along the DMZ.
December 1954 was my last full month in Korea, after which I left Bupyong to sail back to the states on the troop ship General William Mitchell. A coast-to-coast train ride took me to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, where I processed out of active duty. From there, bus and trains got me back to Brooklyn. On the short walk from the Broadway “el” to my home I was wearing a garrison cap and field coat over my uniform, with ribbons on my Ike jacket for Korean Service, United Nations Service, National Defense, and Good Conduct. I was a proud and very happy corporal. When I got home, mom, pop-all the family-were as happy as you see it in war movies.
I was “still in the Army” for months afterwards-that is, my head was packed with the places and things I experienced while in uniform. For years I kept dreaming that I was back in the Army, complaining to the authorities that I was too old for military service!
It was good to be back, relieved of war-zone anxiety and free of a special kind of loneliness that a soldier feels even among comrades. It would have been harder for me to adjust to civilian life-the case with most war veterans-if things had been worse for me in Korea, or if someone I knew had been killed. A sniper’s bullet nearly got my friend Joe Haack (Hill 867) but he too returned unharmed. Although I did not miss the Army, I did miss the camaraderie. An odd fact of post-military life is the impossibility of sharing that experience, assuming you want to, with family or acquaintances. Some of my buddies became life-long friends, a reward greater than any medal.
We came home-and that was it. As far as the public was concerned, we might just as well have been away on a foreign business trip. Being ignored was better, I suppose, than being despised, as were many Vietnam War veterans, an undeserved treatment and great insult to them and their service. Before “9/11” there was nothing special about being a war or peace-time veteran. I remember a November 11th (in the 1980s) when a TV news channel did not even mention the fact that it was Veterans Day! When I complained about this, I got a nasty reply!
Marrying a great girl from Scotland was the high-point of my life after Korea. Janet and I raised two girls and a boy and have lived happily ever since. When I had trouble explaining the Korean War to one of my daughters, I took to writing about it. I had recorded everything I could remember, when I got home, in a set of memoirs. I had letters, photos, input from fellow veterans, and the Internet to work with. My writing has appeared in the Graybeards magazine (of the Korean War Veterans Association) and the magazine called Military. A happy outcome has been that veterans familiar with locations/situations/events mentioned in my accounts have contacted me by phone, letter, and e-mail. The exchanges have been priceless.
I think about the Korean War every day and live with a mild case of guilt for having gotten off lightly while so many brothers-in-arms did not. The suffering and hell that fellow GIs went through, the sacrifices in blood and limb, the enemy’s death marches and miserable treatment of prisoners, some murdered, the many thousands who never came back, the tragedies suffered by the Korean people-many thousands of them massacred by the North Koreans-all this will forever be part of my memory of the Korean War. For my part in the war I will say that I am proud to have served and happy that our action there gave South Koreans the chance to build a first-class country and live a good life.
Some time ago, a young man who noticed the Korea Veteran license plates on my car asked: “Wasn’t that the forgotten war?” “I never forgot it” I told him.