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 He also informed us that the usual guard at the entry gate had been replaced by a Korean soldier with orders to shoot to kill.

gary_pr-22

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.

Advertisements

The 2nd Korean War That Almost Happened


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.

US Navy EC-121

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.

The Koreans


In December of 1968 I was sent by the Army to Korea.  I was one of the fortunate ones who through luck alone was spared the horrors of Vietnam.  But Korea was not a country without conflict.  To the contrary, Korea had a simmering peace that occasionally erupted into armed exchange.  The world took little note of these exchanges because of Vietnam.  But the exchanges were often deadly.  Two of the more infamous events at that time was the taking of the ship USS Pueblo and its entire crew, and the downing of an American spy plane, an EC-121.  I was there for the release of the Pueblo and the entire EC-121 incident.  The latter came close to bringing about an all out fighting war.

But this is not the story of a divided country on the brink of war.  This is the story of a people I came to know, respect, and love.  It was also my introduction to a third world country, and all its challenges.

When I alighted from the Boeing 707 that took me to Korea I noticed a distinct scent in the air.  I found out in time it was a mixture of burning wood, burning charcoal, and human excrement.   The wood and charcoal were the fuels of choice for most of the Korean population and human excrement was used in the rice fields as fertilizer.

Many of the soldiers in Korea, myself included, lived in Quonset Huts.  Each of the huts was kept clean and in good order by a house boy, a Korean man we paid.  It was my house boy who introduced me to Korean society, such as it was.  But prior to arriving in Korea, I had met a Korean family in my home town who expressed to me their desire I visit with their relatives in Seoul.  I did that too.

At the time, Korea had a very small rich class, a slightly larger though still tiny middle-class, and a huge number of poor.  Korea was still recovering from the second world war.  My house boy, of course, was a member of the poor, and the family I was entreated to visit was a member of the middle-class.  You could tell middle-class members by their black and refurbished former US Army jeeps.  The rich owned small Toyotas and Datsuns.

My house boy invited to his house for supper one day.  I, of course, was obliged to accept.   His house was little more than two rooms that included his wife and children plus his parents.  In Korea it was expected and accepted that children cared for their parents.  The door to the outside was a wooden frame with paper filling what would otherwise have been small window frames.  The house was heated by a small charcoal stove situated beneath the floor.  These devices proved to be deadly too often, giving off much carbon monoxide.  It always amazed me that these structures never seemed to catch fire.  Such a fire would have ravaged its neighborhood with its extremely tightly intertwined wooden edifices.

A veritable feast was laid out in front of me.  We sat on the floor and ate there.  It was not as much because of custom but from a lack of any sort of furniture.  Such furniture was a luxury the poor could not afford.  The feast in front of my was, I am certain, far more expensive and expansive than the family could afford.  Rice, fish, kimchi and seaweed were a large part of this feast.  At the time, most poor Koreans allowed themselves fish once a week, opting for rice and kimchi as their staples.  Somewhere in the course of the evening my house boy offered how good they had it compared to others.  He explained that the truly poor were forced to eat rat at times.  Dogs were rare, for obvious reasons, but were considered a delicacy, he told me.   When the meal was finished we men had a drink of cheonju, a Korean rice wine.  When he took a drink my house boy turned his head away.  He later explained he that out of respect to his father, that he did not drink in front of him.

When the EC-121 was shot down my house boy disappeared for a week.  The entire Korean and American army had mobilized for what everyone was certain was the coming war.  My house boy was a member of the national guard which included every man between the ages of 18 and 60 without exception.  My house boy expressed a passionate desire to fight the north and re-unite the two Koreas.  He had relatives in the north he had never met.  When he returned he expressed his disappointment that a war had not started.  It did come to an exchange of artillery fire at the DMZ, and a lot of posturing.

I was also treated to dinner with the middle-class family I had been introduced to.  I do not remember how we found each other, but I do know their American relatives informed them I was there and where to find me, so I expect they reached out at some point.  They picked me up in their black jeep and took me to their home, considerably larger than that of my house boy.  The meal they put out, equal of course to that of my house boy, included pulgogi, beef that is fried upon a small stove.

I visited something that was rather unique in the orient while I was there, a “girl’s university.”  Women were still second class citizens in the far east.  But in Seoul there was a rather large, and or some prestige, college for women to attend, Yonsei University.

Koreans were hell-bent on being both autonomous and powerful.  Their army was large, extremely well-trained, and proud.  They were so highly thought of by the US Department of Defense that they were considered out best ally and fighting partner in Vietnam.  Many Koreans gave their lives in war in Vietnam.  Unlike other allies America has had, the Koreans never backed down from a fight and were intensely loyal.  The ROK soldiers, as they were known, were highly valued by the American troops.  This resolve was fermented in the 40 plus years of Japanese occupation Korea endured.

I knew, at the tender age of 20, that this industrious society would one day come into its own and be respected by the world.  That day, of course, has arrived.  I responded to what I found in Korea by vowing to verbally defend anyone who would detract Korea and its people.  These are wonderful people.  They have a marvelous country, rich with history, and a force in the world both economically and politically.  They are the epitome of Teddy Roosevelt’s axiom, “Walk quietly and carry a big stick.”