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 He also informed us that the usual guard at the entry gate had been replaced by a Korean soldier with orders to shoot to kill.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

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The Presidency is not for Amateurs


Until the most recent presidential election, this country has never had a president who had absolutely no experience working within the government. Lincoln is the closest be he did hold a seat in the Illinois House of Representatives and was a captain in the state’s militia. Trump, however has had no such experience what-so-ever and it is beginning to show in spades.

Our country has had several presidents who held no previous elective offices but all were army generals. Two, Polk and Grant, were no good as president and served just a single term. But even they had some understanding of the nuances of governing. Historically, flag officers, generals and admirals, have had to deal with politicians if only to promote a part of the military needing funding or other political favor. As an aside, of the 44 individuals who have served as president, only 13 had no military service. But of those 13, FDR had served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and William Howard Taft served as Secretary of War.

In the 19th Century and into the beginning of the 20th Century, our country was isolationist. We were far more worried about what was happening on the home front than on being a force, either economically of militarily, on the world scene. World War 1 brought us part way out of that malaise, and World War 2 ended any lingering effects of isolationism. The United States had become a world leader first militarily and then economically. And since 1945, our responsibilities in both areas have steadily increased to where the rest of the world, even those countries who do not like us, look closely at what we do. This is particularly true of our economic and military partners.

President Trump just showed on the world’s stage how ill-suited he is for the job of president. He took a victory lap for landing a billion-dollar military deal claiming it will mean jobs for Americans. It may mean a few jobs, but the truth is, the contracts will be for equipment American companies are already producing and those companies are not likely to find the need to add many, if any, new employment positions. But Trump missed the more important deal to be had. Saudi Arabia flatly refused to put sanctions on ISIS groups existing within its own borders. Trump’s move was to leave the country with no military deal. For all his bluster about getting tough on ISIS, when the first chance for him to back up his rhetoric, he cowered. He seemed to forget that Saudi Arabia needs us more than we need it.

We live in an extremely dangerous world. There is no shortage of governments who want to take shots at the United States. Iran, North Korea, Russia, China and a number of other countries are not our allies and each has been known to give aid to terrorists. And while we have been able to clamp down on Iran and have decent trade pacts with China, neither of these countries would come to our aid.

The middle east is likely to remain unstable for years, if not decades, to come. Extremist groups in middle eastern and central Asia are not likely to be neutralized any time soon as can been seen in Afghanistan. But a more present danger lies in North Korea. The North Korean leader seems hell-bent on creating a war in his region. The peace that has been experienced on the Korean peninsula has been a tenuous one at best since 1953. One of our staunchest allies is South Korea but even with the tensions that exist there now, President Trump has not seen fit to schedule a visit. Why?

Not far from Korea is a long-time friend we are fast losing, the Philippines. I had the chance to talk to a well-educated Filipino recently and he informed me that even though his country has begged the United States for assistance militarily, none has been given. There is an insurgency in that country that if successful would put the Philippines at odds with U.S interests. My fear is that since the Philippines do not present the military or economic power to gain front page news, something negative will happen there if we do not treat them respectfully, recognize their difficulties and work with them for a resolution.

The Presidency is not place for amateurs and yet that is exactly what we have there now. He has surrounded himself with his billionaire friends who also have no government experience. The American people should consider this to be a most troubling of the Trump regime. Is difficult to navigate a mine field when you know what you are doing and impossible when you do not.

North Korean Threat Real


Anyone who does not take the North Korean dictator’s threat, Kim Jong Un, seriously is foolish.  Some months ago I wrote about my own personal experiences in Korea.  The recent sabra rattling tells me that not much has changed.

The Korean people as a whole find their heritage in China.  Not withstanding that, North Korea’s best ally used to be the Soviet Union, not China.  That is an important distinction because since the fall of the Soviet Union, North Korea has found itself even more isolated than it was before.  Thought they share a common ideology with China, Communism, China has always held its neighbor at arm’s length.  China has not openly warred on any nation in over 100 years, and it is unlikely it has any such interest today.  They are not about to be drawn into anything by North Korea.  And while North Korea undoubtedly still gets technology and arms from Russia, it no longer can count on that country as an ally, as in the old Soviet days.

When I arrived in South Korea in 1968, what I saw was an armed and tense camp.  The armistice with the north was but 13 years old, and memories of that war were still fresh.  Think of it this way:  the US Civil War ends in an armistice where both sides retain sovereignty but refuses access to its soils by the other side.  The good people of Maryland want to visit their relatives in Virginia but are not allowed to.  That is exactly what happened, and is still going on, in the Koreas.  In the late 60s and early 70s, the cold war took on a whole different flavor in the far east.  What you had were two countries who wanted to war with each other but were prevented from doing so by their allies, America and the Soviet Union.  It was seen then that an escalation of hostilities into a nuclear war were not far fetched.  Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Il-sung, vowed that he would reunited the Koreas by force.  The South Koreans fully expected such a war and were prepared for it.  Kim Il-sung shot down an American spy plane, an EC-121, and fired upon the USS Pueblo in an attempt to capture it.  The ship’s captain allowed the ship to be taken.  North Korea held the ship for a year before releasing it.  What this says is, North Korea was not then afraid to carry out its threats, and we have no reason to believe that it will not follow through on threats it makes today.  In North Korea’s mind, at least, a lot is at steak.

The US intelligence community believes that North Korea as most has medium range missiles, with an outside range of about 3000 miles.  That renders the entire U.S. and Guam and Hawaii outside its range.  But well within its range are US allies, South Korea and Japan.  The Japanese have already expressed deep concerns about North Korea’s threats, as well they should.  It is not unreasonable to think the North Koreans still harbor resentments arising from Japan’s World War 2, and before, occupation of the Korean peninsula.

The west’s best hope against North Korea’s carrying through on any of its threats may lie with senior North Korean military leaders.  These men would necessarily know the consequences of declaring a war on any country.  Regardless of who North Korea attacked, it would be viewed as an attack on US interests.  Japan is still allowed only a defense force and would necessarily rely upon the U.S. for its defense, something I am certain we would do.  South Korea, on the other hand, has a very large, well-trained and well-equipped military which could hold its own against an incursion from the north.

It is impossible to predict what the North Korean dictator has in mind, what his plans are, and what he is willing to do.  North Korea’s unpredictability rendered it a pariah in the communist sphere because of this.  And it is exactly this reason that any and all threats made by North Korea must be taken very seriously, and be considered in a “worst possible scenario.”

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.

Why Does the United States Still Have 5113 Nuclear Warheads?


Here is a little exercise for you.  Find a map of the world and count out 5113 cities and other targets that would be worth dropping a nuclear bomb on.  That mean every country in the world because if you start eliminating “friendly” countries like most of Europe, all of South America and most of Africa, along with a number of Asian and sub-Asian countries your choices decline quickly.  If you consider that dropping a single warhead upon one city is enough to totally destroy it and the same is so for all military targets, what is left?

There was a time the U.S. had in excess of 31,000 nuclear warheads!  Those were the days of “mutually assured destruction.”  The acronym for that would be “MAD” which seems about right. The idea was, if the USSR struck first we could not only return in kind but with enough force to assure their destruction.  Well, Russia has about 1200 warheads these days, China about 300, and a few scattered around the rest of the world.  Why do we have any at all?

The horrors of the atom bomb were well displayed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The after effects were felt for decades.  No further proof was necessary.  The USSR wanted what we had and did such.  Then we wanted our bombs to be larger which we did.  At one point 100-megaton bombs were being exploded.  There was a sick sort of glory associated with each such accomplishment.  But after a while the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks stopped above ground testing and then all testing.  Finally it limited the amount of weapons any country could own.

It has been 67 years since man first unleashed the power of the atom in weaponry.  You would think that by this time we would know quite enough that ownership of over 5000 such weapons should be something of a national embarrassment.  Not only is it excessive, it is also extremely expensive to maintain such force.

There was a time when every warhead was designated for a particular target, even those carried aboard aircraft.  I would hope that such days have passed but with an arsenal of over 5000 I cannot help but wonder if many are still specifically targeted.  To me that says that some planners still believe there is an ocassion where use of nuclear weapons still exists.  I want to know what circumstance that is.  Russia is no longer a threat of any sort.  China is happy within her borders and does no sabre rattling at all, unlike the U.S.  There is North Korea, of course, but its ability to deliver any of its nukes is still quite questionable.  Who does that leave?  Of whom are we afraid?  Or are we still supporting some secret agenda?

I firmly believe that in the future the ownership of more than a dozen or so nuclear arms will be deemed as sheer foolishness, and in some senses provocative.  The ownership of such weapons will be purely deterrent.  Our statement will be that we have a few that we can guarantee delivery to the target of our choice should the occasion arise.  I expect such nukes would be the property of the U.S. Navy upon its submarines, and that all other nuclear weapons would be declared obsolete.

The United States defense industry has produced “smart bombs” and cruise missiles that have a degree of accuracy which should instill fear upon any warring entity.  Addition of nuclear capability adds nothing.  Furthermore, our stealth bombers and fighters, our advanced avionics and battlefield weapons keeps us as the most formidable force upon the Earth.  Our strength lies in our ability to further such technology and not in how many people or building we can annihilate with a single blow.

Wars are inevitable and the continued strength of our military forces is of paramount concern.  But that strength cannot come with a threat to the continuation of all humanity.  No nation, no people, no group, can ever justify its actions when it puts in balance the survival of the human race.

A wise man once told me that I do not have to take on every fight I am invited to.  Oft times the more intelligent thing to do is nothing.  America stands for freedom and liberty but we do better by simply carrying the message to the world than trying to bludgeon it into our belief system.  But when challenged in terms that allow us no other avenue, we are still stronger than any other nation on earth even before any consideration is given to our nuclear arms.  Therefore, how much do we really need them, and how many?