In 1969 I was stationed in the US Army at Yongsan South Korea. Yongsan was, and is, the headquarters of the 8th U.S. Army as well as assigned US Air Force detachments. I worked in the 8th Army communications facility that provided communications for the Headquarters to locations around Korea, to Japan, and to the United States. Upon arrival it had seemed an easy enough assignment considering it was not Vietnam and no one was trying to kill me on a daily basis. That does not mean there was no conflict at all, there was, more than most people in the U.S. ever knew about.
In February of 1968 the crew of the USS Pueblo, a naval spy ship, had been captured by the North Koreans and were held in captivity for the next 11 months, being released on December 23 1968. Although the Korean military commands had been on heightened status, is was not perceived as grave. Still, the South Korean government, in control of the world’s 5th largest standing army at the time, was nervous as Kim Jong Il had promised to invade the south and reunite the countries by force. All South Korean men between the ages of 18 and 60, at the time, were either on active duty with the military or in the reserves. Each considered war likely, and some even looked forward to seeking to avenge the hostilities that had ended only a decade and a half before.
At the time, the United States had two complete infantry divisions in Korea, the 2nd Infantry Division and the 7th Infantry Division. It was the job of the 2nd Division to patrol and keep safe the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Men, both observers and infantrymen, could easily see the North Korean soldiers on a daily basis. The North Koreans were known for being provocative and frequently probed at the U.S. lines. In one instance while I was there, a 2nd lieutenant of the US was out on an inspection tour of the DMZ when he was attacked by machete wielding North Koreans who killed him in broad daylight. This incident, and many more like it, never made it to either the newspapers or the nightly news broadcasts in the US as those facilities were tied up in the news coming out of Vietnam. And yet, soldiers in Korea who served north of the Han River were all considered to be in a combat zone and given commensurate combat pay.
Then, on April 15, 1969, a Tuesday, a U.S. Navy spy plane known as an EC-121 was shot down over North Korea and its crew of 33 all died.
The aircraft was on a mission about 100 miles east of the North Korean peninsula when it was shot down by a North Korean Mig-21 fighter.
I was working in the communications facility at the time this happened. My battalion commander, a Lieutenant Colonel who seldom ventured into the facility, was suddenly sitting in my work area visibly shaken. He informed us that the facility was on lock-down and no one would be allowed to enter or leave. To that end, at the entrance way to my section the normal military policeman had been replaced by a South Korean soldier who was wielding a shotgun with orders to shoot to kill. Additionally, those men who were in what was the cryptographic section, secure teletype communications, had their door, a bank vault door, secured with the combination lock spun.
Most men who served in areas like I did were aware of what was called survival time after the outbreak of hostilities and the launching of missiles. Our survival time, as I remember it, was about 3o seconds, for obvious reasons. What I was unaware of, since we there were no windows in this facility, was that a machine gun had been erected three-quarters of the way up our microwave tower. Additionally, a heavily army truck was stationed just outside our facility.
Communications parlance of the day had various levels of importance assigned to every bit of communications either received or sent: routine, immediate, and flash. Each level above routine required the sender to have certain increasing rank and responsibility. There was one type of communication that was seldom seen and this was known as the “red rocket.” This particular degree of urgency was reserved for the White House. Starting on April 15 1969 we saw a lot of such traffic. The situation was extremely grave as we soon found out that the rear infantry division, the 7th, had been moved to a forward position and many of its supporting artillery batteries were in the process of being moved.
At the time the U.S. had many naval and air forces stationed in Japan which were scrambled to Korean waters and air bases in South Korea. But more importantly, at the time the Air Force had a group stationed at McDill AFB known as STRIKE Command. This group had nuclear capability and had been scrambled as well. I only found this out a couple of years later when, while stationed in Italy, my neighbor was a man who had been assigned to STRIKE Command at the time. He said STRIKE Command aircraft were within a couple of hours of Korea when they were recalled.
For its part, the United States had absolutely no interest in having an armed conflict with the North Koreans. The U.S. already had over 500,000 military on assignment in Vietnam and could ill-afford a new commitment of men and material. The new Nixon White House, a mere 90 days into its tenure, used Henry Kissinger’s amazing diplomatic skills to avert a war. That task was certainly difficult as both North and South Korea desired a fight. Still, it took serveral days to resolve the issue, at least temporarily.
We who served in Korea at the time felt over-looked, almost forgotten. Thought not nearly in the numbers of Vietnam, men were still giving their lives in Korea in those days. To be sure, the formidable size of both the U.S. forces in Korea and the South Korean military itself was just enough of a deterrent, but only because cooler heads prevailed.