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.



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.


Forgiving Jane Fonda

In July 1972, Jane Fonda visited Hanoi North Vietnam.  For this essay her reasons are irrelevant.  Her actions were clearly illegal and she was not punished for them, at least by U.S. legal authority.  But to understand what motivated such actions by anyone in those days means understanding our country at the time.  Our country was war weary, racially divided, and coming out of the closet.

I do not know what made my generation want to turn the world on its head, but it did.  We were born during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, had parents, even those who voted Democrat, who were rather conservative.  Sex was taboo and dugs consisted entirely of marijuana and LSD.  That was the view, anyway.  It was not entirely true, of course, but it was the prevailing sentiment.

In the 1960s our standards of dress changed radically when the Beatles grew their hair out, the skimpy bikini tested the beaches, miniskirts were a fashion statement, and women burned their bras.  In the background you could hear Bob Dylan singing “The times they are a changing.”  Political activism grew out of our college campuses as students said we should make love and not war, Dr. Timothy Leary (PhD Yale) told us to “turn on, tune in and drop out.”  Aside from getting high and dropping out of mainstream society, I am not entirely sure of the meaning  behind his message.  But he was one “authority” the generation listened to.  Abby Hoffman, founder of the political movement the “Yippies,” had warned us to “question authority.”  In addition to the Yippies (Youth International Party), there were the Weatherman, Students for a Democratic Society, and the Black Panthers.

The Black Panthers brought fear to white America.  That was not its intention at all.   Founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland California for the protection of the Black Community.  The strong and empowered black man scared the crap out of white America, but for all the wrong reasons.  Public opinion, in those days, was in no small part controlled by governmental groups like the FBI.  The FBI, Edgar Hoover in particular, launched a campaign of misinformation about people and groups Hoover thought dangerous.  One such person was Martin Luther King.  Unfortunately mainstream media had not yet taken Hoffman’s reprise of questioning authority and so it regularly published without question whatever government officials stated.

Young men, like me, were drafted by the thousands in the late 60s and early 70s to conduct the war in Vietnam.  We were fed the idea of the “domino principal.”  This principal, developed by the Eisenhower administration, said that Communism in the far east would take one country at a time, each falling to the Soviets and Chinese like a domino.  We were there fighting for freedom.  Curious, in 1968, a group called Country Joe and the Fish, sang a song called Vietnam in which they sang, “And it’s one two three what are we fighting for? Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn!  Next stop is Vietnam.”  This song was sung time and again by GIs serving in Vietnam as if it were their anthem.  A very accurate view of that sentiment is caught in the movie “Good Morning Vietnam.”

In 1967, all forms of birth control, save abstinence, was illegal as was all forms of abortion.

In 1968 you could still buy gasoline for 30 cents a gallon.  Cigarettes were 25 cents a pack.  And the minimum wage was $1.25.

On July 20, 1969 the first man stepped on the moon, Neil Armstrong.  And then from August 15 – 18 1969 the Woodstock Concert was held.  All the while men were dying in Vietnam.  Absolutely no one knew which way was up although many wanted you to believe they did.

In 1970 students were holding “sit ins” in their college to protest the war.  Some went so far as to close down the campuses and experienced the cancellation of graduation ceremonies.

By 1972, when Jane made her ill-advised and illegal trip to Hanoi, Richard Nixon’s associates were breaking into Democratic offices in Watergate.  If truth be told, and it must be, our country was rife with people in positions of power and influence misusing that power.

In 1976 Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon of his wrong doings.  There were people still who wanted him brought to trial and Ford, not wanting the office of the president so scarred, saw to it that such would not happen.  Then in 1977 President Jimmy Carter offered amnesty to all draft dodgers.  The country needed to heal and few complained about such actions.  But Jane Fonda was the exception.  While American servicemen were being held as POWs in North Vietnam, being brutally tortured, Fonda visited that country, and soldiers everywhere were rightfully angered to the extreme.

When Fonda made her trip, I was serving in Italy and was not even aware of it.  The only news we go was that served up by the military newspaper “The Stars and Stripes.”  You can be certain that news was heavily censored.  I had served in the far east from December 1968 to December 1969, and for my part, I just wanted to forget it.

In 1978 Jane Fonda made a movie with her father Henry, “On Golden Pond.”  She and her father had been estranged for years.  Fonda, not known for being an easy man to live with, was typical of his generation in his conservative leanings and owned a good part of the estrangement between him and his daughter.  Still, the movie brought to two together and they did make amends.  American families had been ripped apart by the war as well and needed healing.

I feel sorry for anyone who still holds any resentments towards Jane Fonda for they have missed one of the most important truths of life: forgiveness.  I think Jane Fonda’s actions were despicable but I forgive her.  I still do not like her as a person but I have moved beyond, far beyond, any lingering resentments.  Resentment is the poison I drink while desiring the other person to get sick from it.  It is pure foolishness and serves no good.