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.