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.

korea

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.

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.”