A Year in Korea – The Early Days

The Early Days

I spent a year in Korea from December 1968 to December 1969. It was, to be sure, one of the most life changing and wonderful experiences of my life. But how did I get to Korea?

December of 1967 saw me failing miserably at Boston University. I had done really well in my last two years of high school and graduated 19th in my class. I had gotten early admittance to Boston University, they had accepted me in early November 1966. I thought I had finally gotten my academic act together and was ready. But in truth, those last two years of high school were highly structured which had aided in my exceling where I had formerly failed. When I got to college, and the structure ceased to exist, I lapsed back into my old ways. In truth, I did not know how to study and did not know how to ask for help. I knew in December 1968 I could not continue.

I had heard of a program the U.S. Army was offering to select young men to go to Warrant Officer Flight School. It required testing extremely well in the Army’s basic testing program and then getting a high score in their “flight aptitude test.” I did both and fairly easily too. All I had to do was pass the army physical and I was in.

On February 19, 1968, I was sworn into the U.S. Army and the next day put on a flight to attend basic combat training at Fort Polk Louisiana. I had never been further south than Baltimore Maryland and so Louisiana proved a mild culture shock. I grew up in the lily-white community of North Andover Massachusetts. In high school, we did have one black student. He was an exchange student the Unitarian Church had brought from Africa to study in the U.S. When I transferred to school in New Jersey, Bordentown Military Institute, I came into contact with both black and Hispanic Americans for the first time. But my home town, God bless it, had welcomed our exchange student with open arms and he quickly became very popular. And so it never occurred to me that race made any difference in anything.

My basic training was actually rather uneventful. That was until April 4th when Martin Luther King was assassinated. Leesville, the closest town to Fort Polk, erupted into riots and all off-post passes were canceled. I did not know who King was really, but the black man in the bunk next to mine broke down and cried.

A few weeks later I graduated from Basic Training and was put on a bus with four other soldiers on our way to Fort Wolters Texas for basic flight training. I made it through the first four weeks of what was called “pre-flight” when I developed a horrendous case of allergies and had to take Actifed to keep them at bay. The flight surgeon, however, informed me that as long as I took the Actifed I could not fly and so my brief flirtation with the flight school ended. I was washed out.

The army had to figure out what to do with me next and they took their time. I got detailed to work at the Army Community Center for some reason. I do not remember the original reason but after a very short time the lieutenant in charge there asked if I would be interested in trying to teach a young Korean girl English. I said I would. No irony there huh! I actually did a pretty decent job and the girl knew enough English to enter the 5th grade, the grade she would have been in in Korea.

My orders came down and I was assigned to the signal school at Fort Gordon Georgia. I was there from August until my graduation in mid-November when I received my orders assigning me to Korea. It being Thanksgiving week I was given a 10 day leave before I had to report to Fort Lewis Washington for transport to Korea.

On January 23, 1968, the North Koreans captured the ship and crew of the U.S.S. Pueblo. I do not know the entire story behind the Pueblo but my best guess is it was a spy ship used by the CIA or other government agencies. I do remember, strangely, the ship’s commander, Captain Lloyd Bucher being demonized in the U.S. press for allowing his ship to be captured and not scuttling it as was the standing order. My take on it was that had he sunk it, he would have had to do so in North Korean waters and therefor validated the North Korean’s claims. What I did not know was that the “Pueblo Incident,” as it was called, would come into play again but this time while I was on duty in Korea.

As best I can remember, my flight to Korea, taken in the first few days of December, lasted some 16 hours and was routed via Tokyo. The flight itself was not in the lease memorable but once the front door opened up on the Korean landscape I was greeted we a scent in the air that was a mix of alien scents. Part of it was burning wood and part was, I learned later, human waste which was ever-present in the nearby rice patties, so I was told.

We were quickly ushered into a tent where we were met by an army nurse who commanded that we drop our drawers. A doctor came by and gave each of us something called a gamma-globulin shot which was a cocktail of vaccines meant to keep us from contracting yellow fever and malaria. There were probably some other diseases included but I never knew. The sergeants laughed at us as we boarded our bus for the replacement depot. The shot was supposed to make us so sore that sitting would be difficult. I felt a little soreness, but not enough to really bother me.

I did not last long at the replacement depot because my final destination had been determined long before I ever left the United States. I was assigned to US Army Stratcom Company C Long Line Battalion in Yongsan Korea. Yongsan is a northern suburb of Seoul. But while I was at the repo depot, as it was called, I got my first taste of army milk. It tasted, funny. There is no way to describe it but I was told that in was reconstituted milk. I found the chocolate milk to be much more tolerable than the white milk so whenever chocolate milk was available, which was almost always, I drank it.

Once in Yongsan I was housed at a small army camp known as Camp Coiner. It was us, the 304th signal battalion (a field/combat unit). In the late 1960s, Camp Coiner was a collection of Quonset Huts which held about 20 men each. In the winter, the hut was heated by a single kerosene stove in its middle and in the summer, it was air conditioned by keeping the doors at either end open. There was no plumbing in these huts. We had to cross the street to a cinder block building which held both toilets and showers. There was one rule: when you were about to flush the toilet, you had to warn those in the showers of what you were about to do else they would be scalded by the loss of cold water.

I was just 19-years-old when I arrived in Korea and the culture shock was huge. I had an ace in the hole, however. Prior to my leaving for Korea I had met a Korean family living in North Andover who put me in contact with their relatives living in Seoul.

I worked at the 8th U.S. Army Headquarters communications center at the main garrison in Yongsan. But to get there, we had to leave Camp Coiner and enter the Itaewon district briefly before going through a gate to the main garrison. These gates were heavily guarded, of course. In those days, there was a curfew when all soldiers had to be at their barracks, if not at work, between the hours of midnight and 5AM. For the foolish soldier to be caught outside of his compound come midnight, his only recourse was to shack up with one of the local prostitutes who were legion. Sad to say that happened to me one time and for the great sum of 75 cents, that was actually all the money I had, one of the prostitutes took me in. The shame I felt in the morning was huge and I must have showed for half an hour trying to get the imagined dirt off me. After all, I was a good Catholic boy from a good family and I had one this! Shame!

From the time I reached Korea until the day I left I generally worked 12-hour days which ran either from 11AM to 11PM or vice versa. It was a time of war, even in Korea, and we seldom were at full strength which meant one soldier had to do the job of 2 much of the time.

I was in Korea for just a few weeks, Christmas was upon us, and our company commander asked for volunteers to help take food and gifts to a Korean orphanage we supported. I was quick to volunteer, always liked a new adventure. And this would prove one of my more unforgettable adventures ever.

On the day of our trip we were told to check out our M-16 rifles and told that we would be accompanied by an MP jeep with a 50-caliber machine gun mounted on it at the front of the convoy and another at the rear. We were heading to a location very close to the DMZ, the demilitarized zone, which in those days was a very dangerous place. And this particular part of the DMZ was not watched over by our troops.

I did not think much of it all and just took it in stride. After all, we were on a good-will mission bring cheer to orphaned children. What I did not realize was that I would be learning a hard lesson in Korean culture on that day.

The orphanage was a single-story cinder block structure of only 3 or 4 rooms, to the best of my memory. And there were only a handful of children there, maybe 20, who were taken care of by Catholic nuns. I do not remember much of what happened that day because of one thing I saw which haunts me to this day. We had been informed that Korean orphans back then where at the lowest rung of the food chain in Korea. They were outcasts having all been born of illicit sexual congresses. Every child but one would easily pass a fully Korean when they became adults and would probably find their way. But my eyes fell upon one little girl who had blonde hair and blue eyes but spoke only Korean. At that moment, a piece of my heart was ripped from me and has never been return. I wanted to do something for her, to save her, but there was nothing I could do and it left an emptiness in me that still exists today. What chance does she have was the recurring question I had. Anytime I think I have it bad I am reminded of her and I know how good I have it.

I do not remember anything more about that trip and our visit. The little girl dominates my memory and does not allow for any other memories.

Korea is a Buddhist country, of course, and so there were no signs of Christmas anywhere. I do not even remember Christmas 1968 but I suspect I worked that day. It was not unusual for us to work 6 or 7 days in a row with but a single day off.


Basic Training During Vietnam

I was sworn into the US Army on February 19, 1968 at the Boston Army Base.  It was the beginning of a career that I could not have imagined.  At the time things were extremely hot in Vietnam.  The Tet offensive had occurred just a little earlier in the year.  We were bombing North Vietnam, and everyday the news reports coming back brought the war into our homes.  Honestly, I do not remember watching those news events although I know I must have because I have always had an interest in the news.

I joined the army in part because I had failed in my first semester at Boston University and not knowing what else to do with myself.  I had been working a job as a gas station attendant and I knew I could do better.  I just did not know how.  I also joined out of a sense of patriotism.  That came in large part because of my father who had served in the Army Air Corps in World War 2 in North Africa and Europe.

I truly loved the idea of the military regardless of what was happening in Vietnam.  I had tested extremely well on the Armed Forces Entrance Test and could pick and choose what I wanted to do in the military.  I chose officers school.  The choice got me assigned to Fort Polk Louisiana instead of Fort Dix New Jersey where most recruits from the Northeast went.

My arrival at Fort Polk had taken me through the south that was still struggling with desegregation.  On the bus trip from Lake Charles Louisiana to Fort Polk I remember passing by a bus stop where there were two water fountains within two feet of each other.  One had a sign over it “white only” and the other had a sign “colored.”  Jim Crow was alive and well at the time.

At the time, Fort Polk in large looked much as it had in World War 2.  All the barracks were still the “temporary” barracks that had been constructed at the start of the war when the size of the army increased greatly.  But that was where all resemblance to those days ended.  After a brief stay at the “reception station” where we got our uniforms, our military haircut, tested, given shots for various diseases, and had our personnel files started, we were marched, a euphemism for a merciless run, to our company training area.  I was assigned to B Company 5 regiment of the 1st training brigade.

We stood at attention in the company street while we were dressed down by our drill sergeants.  They told us exactly what we would do, when we would do it, and how we would do it.  We were then divided according to where we came from.  Two platoons consisted entirely of men from the south, a bunch of us were put in the “Yankee” platoon, while the remainder were put in the “odd ball” platoon for those from other areas.

Good basic training requires that the drill sergeant break us down as individuals so we can be rebuilt in a manner that meets the needs of the Army.  Any ego we had brought with us was determined to be detrimental.  Our ego was regained with successful training.  The start of breaking us down was their yelling at us constantly from the time we entered their company area.  They had also put us together as they did because they intended on pitting us against each other.  It worked.

After a while each drill sergeant took his platoon into their assigned barracks and told us what was expected of us in the barracks.  This included things like where we slept, cleaning the barracks, and fire guard at nights.  The barracks were entirely wooden and they were ostensibly guarding against a fire starting in one of them.  They also informed us how quickly they expected us to form up in the company area from our barracks once we were given the order to do so.  I can assure you, it was on the line of 30 seconds, maybe less.

He gave the order at that moment to form up in the company area and we failed, miserably, at least according to him.  At this point he said he did not want us dirtying his clean barracks with our dirty selves and ordered us to crawl under the barracks so we could attempt to complete his order successfully.  Each of these barracks had about a two foot crawl space beneath them that extended the full length of the building.  We went through this bit of “training” many times before we were finally allowed to go back into the barracks.  By that time we were exhausted and scared to death of the drill sergeant.  He had succeeded.

"temporary" barracks at Fort Polk

Army basic training at the time was about eight and one half weeks long.  We were told that we would not be allowed to leave our company area that first weekend.  We did not leave the second, or the third.  On the fourth weekend we would be allowed a day pass if we were the best platoon during our weekly inspection.  By this time we knew as the Yankee platoon we would not win and that was exactly what happened.  One of the southern platoons won, of course.  But that put a chip on our shoulders that we carrying the rest of our time there.  We had been brought tightly together just as they had wanted.

The other aspects of daily life at the time was first meals.  Today’s army has large modern mess halls where hundreds of soldiers are fed at once.  In 1968 each basic training company had its own mess hall.  It was a smallish building that could accommodate roughly 50 men at a time.  We were lined up at one door, pushed through the chow line, given about 6 minutes to eat and get out.  Lunch meals were always in the field which were generally “C” rations.  These rations do not exist any more.  What they were was a box that contained a can filled with meat and potatoes, a can of fruit, a chocolate bar, and a pack of four cigarettes.  I did not smoke so I could trade those for another guy’s chocolate bar.

From the first time we were marched out of our company area to one of the many training areas one of the drill sergeants sang out a marching song that we had to follow.  They had not problem taking us from a march into what in the military is called “double time.”  This simply means that we were jogging, full pack on our backs and rifle in our hands.  If we were not doing it right, which was usually according to them, they would yell at us that “Charlie is going to get you and you are going to die!”  Charlie was the euphemism used when referring to the Viet Cong army.  I do not think a day went by when we did not hear them yell that at us at least once.  It was not just a scare tactic.  It was the truth.

During basic training our contact with the outside world was extremely limited.  We could, of course, write and receive letters.  We could call home only when we were allowed to leave the company area because all the pay phones were on a different part of the post from where we were.  Of course there was no television so we were woefully unaware of what was going on in the world around us.

The first week in April we in the Yankee platoon we advised that we would be allowed our first pass off base.  But then, on April 4th, Martin Luther King was assassinated and a riot developed in Leesville, the town nearest to Fort Polk.  All passes were cancelled of course.  In the 200 men in my basic training company there were a fair number of black men.  I had arrived without any prejudices against black people but that would not have mattered anyway, none of had time, or the inclination, to show prejudices.  There was not a single such incident of that sort in our company to my knowledge.  But the death of King,  I believe, removed any lingering prejudices some may have had.  We had come to realize that we needed to rely upon each other and that in a combat position, our lives depended upon that.

We all graduated on a Wednesday in the last week of April.  Immediately following the graduation ceremony those men who had not previously known their next training assignment found out where they were going.  Over 80% of the men were assigned to advanced infantry training right there on Fort Polk.  They were also told that this was in anticipation of their going to Vietnam.  I was one of six going to officer training afterwards while the others had been able to secure assignments of their choice when they enlisted.

"Tigerland" Fort Polk, advanced infantry training

By the time we finished basic training we were still not ready to go to Vietnam but we had become aware of what a dangerous situation it was.  It meant that a lot of guys I had trained with would be in Vietnam by that July.  It was a sure thing many of them would die there as well.  But we were also trained that we could not think about such things.  It served no purpose.  I was very fortunate.  Towards the end of 1968 I was assigned to Korea which was considered an assignment similar enough to Vietnam that we were in no danger of being assigned to Vietnam afterward.

Basic training changed many parts of me.  It opened my eyes to a lot, and prepared me for the world that lay in front of me.