A Year in Korea – The Summer of Love


I must make an apology for the title as the actual “summer of love” happened in 1967 but I think 1969 also qualifies.

The Korean people are a very proud people and considering their history, they have every right to feel that way. In downtown Seoul there is a small monument dedicated to the first iron clad ship that sailed anywhere in the world. Korean culture in born of Chinese culture which makes it some of the most ancient anywhere on Earth. But in 1960, Korea what largely an impoverished nation. Pretty much everything they used came from either Japan or the U.S. Much of it was cast-off but the Koreans only saw it as opportunity. I think one thing which was made in Korea were their buses. There were claims that the buses were made of old 50 gallon drums. I couldn’t tell. I rode on one once just for the experience. It must have been unremarkable because I do not have any memory of the ride itself.

For its part, the U.S. Government tried to keep its troops in Korea entertained. They fell short but I put that more to situation than any true government malaise. There were two movie theaters available to me, one on the main compound and a second, very small, theater on Camp Coiner. We got our fair share of first run movies but intermixed were a lot of oldies. I remember going to see “Gone With the Wind” which was released in 1939. But since I had not previously seen it, it was just as good as first run to me.

Also on the main compound were the enlisted club, the top 5 NCO club and the officer’s club. I never set foot in any although I was welcomed at one time or another in the enlisted and top 5 club. There was also an organization called the Service Club. This was a civilian run, though military authorized, organization world-wide. They would bring in various sorts of entertainment. That did not happen very often so the women, American, who ran the club tried to entertain us with card games, checkers, and other such things. There was also a club called the United States Overseas Mission, or the USOM Club. That is a place I frequented. They had slot machines and a 24-hour bar. I spent a little money in the slots but most of my money on alcohol. The USOM club sat on the north portion of the main compound. The north portion and the main portion were divided by a wide public boulevard. On occasion, I stayed just a little too long at the USOM which meant I had to go out the gate there, cross the road, be given access to the main compound, rush down the main street to another gate which open up on another Korean street. This street separated the main compound from Camp Coiner by a couple of tenths of a mile. It happened to me once that I made it out of the main compound gate only to find myself locked out of Camp Coiner which meant finding refuge with one of the lingering “ladies of the night.” That was not a fun night and one I regretted greatly the next morning. It was actually illegal for us to go into certain portions of the surrounding community. One such off-limits location was actually right across the street from Camp Coiner and that is where I spent that fateful night.

I think the average G.I. had a constant battle with loneliness and homesickness.   I know I did. Most of us resorted to alcohol to pass the time and forget our loneliness. Some smoked some pot and a few got into some harder drugs.

The cold windy dry Korean winter faded into spring. I remember in the late spring, early June, my houseboy announcing that the monsoon was on its way. I was surprised to hear that such a thing happens in Korea. I thought it only happened in the tropics. I can remember him saying it was going to arrive in seven days. I asked him how he could be so sure but he refused to expand upon his pronouncement, just repeated that the monsoon would arrive in seven days. And sevens day later, sure enough, it arrived. Camp Coiner, and many other locales, had these things called banjo ditches. This ditches ran alongside the road, were at least a foot deep and more than wide enough that a man could easily lie down in one. During monsoon their design was apparent as the banjo ditches would be full.

The Quonset huts were lived in were made of corrugated steel and the joints had to be tarred prior to monsoon to protect against leaks. This we did. The picture below is of a Quonset Hut in Camp Coiner.  They are not much to look at but for a year they were home.  The mountain in the rear is Namsan and gives quite a good view of Seoul and surroundings.

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I think it safe to say that GIs living overseas back that lived pretty insular lives. I cannot say I remember hearing about the Woodstock festival that happened August 15 – 18, 1969. What we did hear about was the impending moon landing. There was quite a buzz in the Korean community too. So that its people could see the moon landing, televisions existed only in very wealthy homes, a large screen was erected and the images of the landing projected upon it. That was July 20, 1969.

What we did not hear about were the anti-war protests which were gaining traction on college campuses across the United States. We knew nothing of the anti-military sentiment. The only news we were aware of was that related to us via mail from our loved ones. It is pretty clear to me now that the only news we heard was that which the Pentagon approved of.

One day that summer I saw an airplane fly overhead dropping leaflets. They were all in Korean, of course, but my houseboy said they were North Korean propaganda. I don’t know how he made it past the DMZ without being intercepted or shot down, but he did. All I can say is, a lot of strange things happened in Korea.

One thing which happened with some regularity was what was called “MPC change.” Without warning the U.S. Government would issue new MPC declaring the old style void. As GIs we had only to go to a predesignated place and exchange the old for new. I remember coming out of work one evening and being told we were being returned to our compound in the back of an MP truck. For reasons I’ll never know, the truck took a very circuitous route through large portions of civilian areas. But we could see the word was out. There were large quantities of MPC being held by Koreans which in itself was illegal but was also impossible to stop. As we wound our way through the town anytime we slowed down we were pursued by Koreans on foot holding large number of MPC bills in their hands begging us to take it in exchange for the new. Of course the MPs would not have allowed this even if we could, but at that point we did not yet have the new currency so all we could do was watch with some sadness. The sadness was because we all knew that even though Koreans could not legally possess MPC, they were just trying to eke out a living and MPC was a currency they used.

Korea was an odd short tour for me. Because of my arrival date, I could not be guaranteed I would leave the country after 12 months. It was a matter of logistics, meaning the availability of military chartered aircraft to transport us. There was a 30 day period over which no troops either entered or left Korea. That date was December 20 to January 20. Another thing I do not know the reason for but at summer’s end I was advised that my return would happen in January. One of the things every GI does from the day he lands “in country,” is he counts backwards from 365 the number of days he had left before he can leave to return to the U.S. By September my count should have been under 100 days but being told I would not leave until January changed all that. Such was the life of a G.I. It was disappointing, greatly, of course but not surprising.