A Year in Korea – The Day It Hit the Fan


On April 15, 1969, a U.S. Air Force EC-121 aircraft (shown below) was shot down after a flyover of North Korea. The plane went down 100 miles off the North Korean coast. All crewmembers were killed. The EC-121’s mission was to gather intelligence on North Korean military installations and positions. Things at the 8th U.S. Army Headquarters communications center, better known as “where I worked,” became very scary very fast. This first thing that happened was the office in charge of the site went around to each section and announced that no one would be leaving until further notice. He also informed us that the usual guard at the entry gate had been replaced by a Korean soldier with orders to shoot to kill.

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In communications, there are four general categories of communications: routine, priority, immediate, and flash. The first three could be used by almost anyone. The four was limited to high ranking officials in the Pentagon and White House. There were actually two more lesser known categories, flash override and red rocket. I do not know if the latter was a real status but it was what we called communications coming from the President. Communications equipment was, and probably still is, programmed to sort through the various levels of demand and proper prioritize messages. Anyway, on that fateful day we were suddenly deluged with flash override and red rockets. Even though I was not in the classified portion of the com center, guys would wander over to our section and tell us what was happening.

A little background. In government communications, there are two general areas which are called the red side and the black side. The black side refers to encoded communications, messages that are scrambled, while the red side refers to messages in plain print, just like on this page. I was always on the black side but the guys on the red side could read these very highly classified messages if the felt like it. I can tell you from experience, as I later in my career found myself on the red side, soldiers purposely do not read what is passing before them. It just keeps things a lot simpler. That was true on April 15th as far as I know.

Very shortly after things got hot, my battalion commander showed up in my section, the only section he had access to, and sat in a chair. I remember seeing total fear in the man’s face. Maybe it was because I was only 20 and maybe it was because I had never considered my own mortality, but I never felt a twinge of fear.

Sometime during all this we found out that our MPs had mounted a 50-caliber machine gun half way up one of our transmission towers. There was a pre-existing crow’s nest up there already for just such an eventuality. To the front and rear of our com center, the two entrances, were a squad of well-armed MPs. We were allowed out of the com center and so I did observe these things for myself. It was just that we could make it out of the door but could not fully leave the com center grounds.

What was happening that I, and everyone in the com center, did not know was that the rear infantry division had been very quickly moved from the southern portion of South Korea to positions just past the Han River, a river just north of Seoul. Also, many artillery batteries were also quickly moved northward. I learned some years later that a major portion of the Air Force’s Strike Command had left its base in Florida and was 2 hours distant from Korea when they were recalled. The guy who told me this inferred they had nuclear capability but I have no idea if that was true. According to a National Public Radio article written July 6, 2010, President Nixon was in fact considering a nuclear option.

Back in the United States, the nightly news reported that 71 servicemen had lost their lives in Vietnam. There was barely a mention of the EC-121 incident. Maybe it was because by that time the U.S. was truly a war weary nation and such news seemed almost routine. After all, as Sen. John McCain can attest to, aircraft were being shot down almost daily in Vietnam.

The entire incident, from beginning to end, lasted less than a day, but we were almost sucked into another war. President Nixon’s decision to take no action was absolutely correct. That is, unless you asked the South Koreans. My houseboy disappeared for a week. When he returned, he related that everyone one had been called to duty and they were itching for a fight. Just a month earlier, North Korean commandos had infiltrated to the south and ended up killing a South Korean police officer. At the same time, seven U.S. Army infantrymen were killed by North Korean soldiers. One of the lesser known facts about that era is that a portion of South Korea was still labeled as a war zone and soldiers received combat pay 16 years after the “cease fire” was agreed upon by the United States, North and South Korea. It was an uneasy truce to be sure.

Before 1969 ended, four more army infantrymen were killed and a North Korean hijacked a South Korean airliner. I think it unlikely any of these incidents got much press as my general impression from home was they thought everything was peaceful in Korea.

People today cannot imagine the difficulty with communications in the late 1960s. Where today we can dial a number on our cell phone and get someone on the line seconds later in Korea. In 1969 it seemed like it took an act of God to get a phone call back to the U.S.   Even though I was in communications, I had no way to access phone lines connecting to the civilian populace. You had to know someone who did have such access and then make a deal with them. I think I managed half a dozen such calls, maybe fewer, but definitely not more. For the majority of GIs, of all rank, direct communications to the U.S. just did not happen during their tour of duty.

The only newspapers we had access to over there was an English version of the Korean News and the Defense Department published Stars & Stripes newspaper. If you really want to know the sort of news they allowed in that publication, watch the movie “Good Morning Vietnam.” There is a very accurate depiction of what was and was not allowed.

This is probably a good place to mention a phenomenon I have felt and found other GIs feel the same who served in the late 60s and early 70s: survivor guilt. Many of us, myself included, feel that we should have been sent to Vietnam and that we somehow played it safe, or other foolishness, by serving in Korea. We are Vietnam era veterans but not Vietnam veterans. I have never been able to put my finger on exactly what its genesis is, but I have found some relief in knowing it is a shared emotion.

A Year in Korea — Settling In


occurred to me that I need to inform you of several facts I forgot to include in part 1. When I decided to go into the army, my father was in the hospital recovering from his second heart attack. I told him I had joined the army with my mother present. My mother said I was thoughtless doing such a thing but my dad said, “It’s all right. It’ll be good for him.” He could not have been more right. My dad was as World War 2 veteran having served as part of a B-26 team in North Africa, Italy and France. Try as I might, I could never get him to talk about his time in the army. Years later I figured out why. Anyway, I asked him if he had any advice for me which he did. He said, “do what your officers tell you to do, and stay away from the women.” The first part I understood perfectly but the second part was a mystery at that time.

Korea in the 1960s was still classified as a war zone by the Defense Department. As I learned firsthand, men died during DMZ skirmishes with the North Koreans. Even though a truce had been declared 16 years prior, a very uneasy peace hung over the two countries. The Pueblo incident flamed the hostile feelings, and the desire of the South Koreans to reunite with the north surfaced.

A tour in Korea was called a “short tour.” That is military speak for serving in a war zone. Soldiers, and sailors too, who served a single short tour would not be required to ever serve another. It was one of the promises the military always made good on. Still, there were many GIs who volunteered for 2nd, 3rd, and even 4th tours in such areas. The rest of us simply marked off each passing day as bringing us one day closer to returning to “the world.” That’s how we referred to the United States, “the world.” Asian culture was always austere and too difficult for many to even comprehend, even though it was all around you. For my part, I embraced it as much as I could.

In those days, the military printed a thing called MPC, Military Payment Currency. It was a substitute for U.S. Dollars which we were prohibited from using while over there. Our loved ones, however, knowing how poorly paid we were, would send us money, usually $20. Every GI quickly learned that $20 on the Korean black market would get him $25 in return. Rumor was the Korean black market would put in a demand for gold but I don’t know if that was true. To give you an idea of army pay back then a private made under $100 per month and a buck sergeant made a little over $200 a month. But no one complained. After all, we all got “3 hots and cot” for free; that is three hot meals and a place to sleep.

When I arrived in Korea and reported for my first day of work at the communications center, the sergeant in charge, a sergeant major, stood 5 of us in a line. We had all graduated from the same signal course at Fort Gordon. To each of us he asked if we had any electronics background. For those who said yes, he assigned them to communications maintenance. And to those of us who said “no,” as I did, he assigned us as communications systems trouble shooters, tech controllers was the actual title. He said we would learn through on the job training. And that is exactly what happened. And as it turned out, it worked out very well for all five of us. We were each promoted a first time after three months there and a second time after 6 months. The reason for this I alluded to before, we were usually near 50% strength. But there was also a constant turnover of old personnel leaving and we, the new personnel, having to take over their jobs.

The year 1969 was an especially eventful one for America. On December 23, 1968, the USS Pueblo crew was marched to the DMZ where they were reunited with the American military. Even though that happened in 1968, it was almost a harbinger of things to come in 1969, as if to kick things off.

In Korea, every GI barrack had a houseboy, a Korean man who would clean up after us, take our clothes to be washed, shine our boots and keep things tidy in our “hooch.” Hooch is a slang term used by G.I.s in Korea and Vietnam denoting the place where they slept. It could also refer to where the locals slept.

From my earliest days in Korea I always felt welcomed by the Korean people. Maybe it was because they were resigned to our being there, which was probably true for some, but also because they were generally happy for our presence. After all, we had freed them from the Japanese tyranny they suffered through from 1910 until 1945. And then again, in 1950 when the North Koreans unexpectedly invaded the south, it was the Americans who won them back their freedom. I have no memory of ever been looked upon with disdain by any Korean. Maybe I just missed it but I don’t think so.

In Korea in 1969 there were 2 army divisions, the 2nd and the 7th, along with numerous support organizations, such as the one I was assigned to, and a large contingent of US Air Force personnel who were station at Osan AFB in the north and Pusan AFB in the south. There was also a detachment at Inchon which was the international airport serving Seoul. In all, there were over 50,000 military personnel in Korea at any one time, almost entirely men.

Korea, like Vietnam, was what the military refers to as an “unaccompanied tour.” That means dependents were not allowed to accompany the serviceman to their duty station. We had a very racist term for American women. We called them “round-eyes” and every GI talked endlessly about what he would do with the first “round-eye” he met when he got back to “the world.”

With exception of the release of the Pueblo crewmen, life in Korea was very uneventful for my first four months there. Working the mid shift, 11PM to 11AM, was always the most boring. Television did not exist in Korea and so we were limited to listening to Armed Forces Radio which was canned, having been recorded in the Los Angeles area. GIs both in Korea and Vietnam got their daily dose of a beauty named Chris Noel. He soft voice and beautiful features seemed the promise of the future. I think most guys either had a picture of Chris or knew someone who did. See for yourself.

Chris Noel Girl Happy

But AFRS was not a 24-hour station. From midnight until 5 the station did not broadcast. Being in communications gave us access to certain things other GIs unfortunately did not have. An enterprising GI at Osan AFB managed to pipe music from his hooch to the microwave link and passed it on to any and all who cared to listen. And trust me when I say, everyone listened. In Yongsan, I was at one end of the microwave link and Pusan was the other end. From there it was jumped to Japan and then jumped again to Hawaii. Another enterprising GI came up with a poster for our nascent radio station. We had to have called letters, as does any legitimate radio station, so he came up with WFTA. The FTA part meant “fuck the army.” The poster showed a guy with a pair of bandoleros wrapped crosswise over his chest as if he were a South American rebel. The letters WFTA were printed across the top. I proudly displayed that poster. One day, for reasons I never understood, my battalion commander decided he needed to see what his troops were doing. In fact, he had no business there but who is going to challenge a colonel? When he came into my section and saw the poster. He was naïve to the meaning of FTA and asked what it meant. I do not remember my answer, but whatever it was, he bought it. He asked who had come up with it and I told him who. The guy who made up that poster ended up getting a commendation medal for aiding in good morale.

One night I got a call from the guy at Osan who asked if I wanted to join in on what was called a “B.S.er” I didn’t know what that meant and he told me the idea was to link communications sites together around the world via teletype. If done correctly, you would type on one teletype and a few seconds later see what you had typed come in on a different teletype. As I remember the links went like this, Yongsan Korea to Taipei Taiwan to Phu Lam Vietnam to Tehran Iran to Italy to Ft. Ritchie Maryland to Hawaii to Japan and back to Korea. A single communications line linked around the world was unheard-of in those days but we did it. It was done mostly out of totally boredom but we did it.

The war in Vietnam struck home for me one day unexpectedly. As a communications trouble-shooter, we had to report all communications outages. Those were rather frequent occurrences to the field units in Korea we had direct lines to and less frequent going almost everywhere in the other directions. Being a part of the 8th US Army Headquarters, we of courses had direct lines to many places around the far east. One line, for reasons I never understood, went to a field unit in Vietnam. It was one of two lines we had there. The other was to Phu Lam. One day the 2nd line went down while I was on duty. Being really good at my job, I called Phu Lam for a status on that line, if they even had one. They did. The line was out permanently as the position had been overrun by the North Vietnamese Army.

In the early months of 1969 I got more and more comfortable with my surroundings in Korea. I was able to contact the Korean family I had been told of. My houseboy had been instrumental in making that happen as I was clueless on how to bring it about otherwise. Korea in those days was a study in contrasts. There was a huge peasant class, very poor people. There was a smaller upper class, and a tiny middle class. The upper class all drove Toyota or Datsun (Nissan) sedans while the middle class drove refurbished army jeeps. They were always painted black but the interior was made quite comfortable. The family I met were middle class.  Below is a picture of me with a boy about my age from this family.

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I cannot tell you where they lived but it was a nice section of Seoul. Nice is a relative term. Nice in those days meant they had indoor plumbing and were not reliant upon charcoal heaters placed beneath the floor for heat. I was introduced to Korean food. Kimchi is a staple of the Korean diet and my family said they would understand if I did not care for it, which one bite in told me I did not. They got a good laugh for my efforts. Unfortunately, that and their cooking bulgogi, grilled beef, are my only memories of the evening.

We paid our houseboys the large sum of $5 a month for his services, the bill being due payday which was the first day of each month. Most of us gave him a tip in addition, probably a couple of dollar more, but I really do not remember exactly. I became very friendly with my houseboy and was invited to his house for supper.

As opposed to the family I had visited, my houseboy lived close by in little more than a hovel. Living with him were his wife, his child and both his parents. The doors to his house were a wood frame with paper where glass would otherwise have been. They all lived in two small rooms. But they were happy, at least that is my memory. The laid out a feast I know they could not afford. They too got a laugh out of my inability to swallow some of what was offered. But I tried. They were very gracious. After the meal, the men were served rice wine, makkoli. Each time my houseboy took a sip of the wine he turned his head. I asked him why and he said he did it out of respect to his father.

Every army company, 200 – 250 men, had a KATUSA assigned to it. A KATUSA is an acronym for Korean Augment to the US Army. In our company, he was the company commander’s driver when he was with us. One day I came across his being beaten severely by his sergeant for an infraction he had committed. I don’t know what it was but I was advised by a senior sergeant that I was not to interfere or even say anything. It was how the Korean army conducted its business.

One thing that became very clear very quickly was just how good the Korean army was. They were extremely well-trained fighters, extremely loyal and extremely reliable. I found out later that our troops in Vietnam cherished having their Korean counterparts attached to their unit. They were renowned for their bravery and skill as fighters. I was informed that every Korean male between the ages of 16 and 60 were either on active duty in the military or a part of the country’s military reserve. Their freedom seemed always in the balance and in any fight, they were determined to come out on top.

This takes me through March of 1969 where I will pick up in the next installment.