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William Martin Greenhut
Ossinig, New York -
"Someday I hope the world will understand that a relatively small force of young men who had no agenda other than to perform their service, sometimes with great difficulty, served well in a tiny corner of the world that was well worth serving. "
- Bill Greenhut
My full name is William Martin Greenhut of Ossining, New York. I was born in Dr. Leff's Central Maternity Hospital on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, New York. I was named after my mother's brother Bill, who was a commercial artist who lived in Chicago and died before I was born. My father's name was Sam. My mother is Gladys Berkowitz Greenhut. They were both born in Manhattan, my father on July 5, 1915, my mother on March 11, 1916. I have a sister two years younger than me.
Until I was six we lived in a Bronx apartment building. My father owned and operated a gas station in Manhattan. He sold his business and bought a new gas station in Freeport, Long Island, so we moved to Glen Oaks in the borough of Queens. I still keep in touch with four of my friends from that neighborhood. In 1957, my older brother was killed in an automobile accident at the age of seventeen. Because my parents wanted to get out of that house, we moved to Westbury, Long Island during the summer after I finished junior high school.
My father worked long hours at the gas station. He had a partner and usually one or two mechanics. I never remember him not going to work because of bad weather. My mother had a variety of jobs as a sales clerk, school crossing guard, and bookkeeper. The last job she had for many years at a yarn importer and I worked after school and summers throughout high school and college at the same family-owned business. We were middle class and I was expected to go to college.
I think as a young child I was mischievous. I remember stories my grandmother used to tell about me. As I got older I became uncontrollable. I was a disciplinary problem at school. In both junior and senior high school I was ejected from some classes, got into a knockdown fight with my ninth grade algebra teacher, cut one of the kids with a knife, broke a school window, and was stabbed by a girl with a can opener.
I was a Cub Scout. I remember getting into a fight with one kid and beating up the den mother's son, for which I was ejected from the Cub Scouts. However, my first job after leaving the army was as a professional for the Suffolk County Council Boy Scouts.
I was close to my mother, but my father and I had difficulty occupying the same room. My brother was my true hero. We shared a room. He was very strong, lifted weights, and was very affectionate and protective toward me. He listened to Rock and Roll at night while he was doing his homework. When people ask me my religion, I tell them it's Rock and Roll. When he died, my whole world crashed around me. I think I was depressed throughout the rest of junior and senior high school, but in those days depression wasn't something talked much about or easily recognized.
Except for college, I attended public schools in the Bronx, Queens, and Long Island. I did not particularly like school, although I liked some (very few) of my teachers. I was put in special classes in seventh grade as the result of an IQ test that we all took in sixth grade. The program was to do junior high school in two years instead of three, but I was ejected from the program after six months. Even though my original class had graduated, I was placed back in at the beginning of ninth grade for the accelerated work. But after cutting that kid and breaking a window, I asked my parents to get me out of the program and they did. I was not a good student in high school. I had just moved into a new neighborhood and had no friends. It took awhile until I was accepted, which was in the spring when I made the junior varsity baseball team.
I worked after school and summers most of the time, first mopping and cleaning a candy store, later doing essentially the same things at a women's dress shop where my cousin worked. On and off through high school and college I worked at Waldbaums' Supermarket as a stock clerk and cashier. I also worked at the yarn importer where my mother worked, moving stock and driving a truck. My parents gave me very little money--ten dollars and one tank of gas per week from my father's gas station. Since I never studied, I did not worry about balancing school work. In college, I played basketball and baseball my freshman year and worked at the college library for a year. I was going to college on a full scholarship as the result of taking a statewide exam my senior year in high school, not because of my 79 grade point average.
The Korean War did not affect my family. I do remember watching a program called, "The Big Picture" that filmed the Korean War. I formed my impressions of Korea from it (that it was cold and flat with hills off in the distance). The Vietnam War affected my family to the extent that I was serving and I was very concerned about my mother's feelings. I planned to enlist, but allowed myself to be drafted so I could tell my mother it wasn't my fault. When I was wounded, I refused evacuation because I knew my family would be notified. My father had been in the Navy during World War II for a brief time, but he did not see combat. I had an uncle (my father's brother) in the Army, but I never talked to him about what he did.
When I was in college during the early days of the Vietnam War, there was no activity pro or con on my campus. My parents were not political nor were my friends. I was in the 'jock' fraternity with mostly physical education and business majors. I received a BA in history. In August of 1965, the draft calls went over 100,000 per month and I knew it was a matter of time. I was getting frequent questionnaires from the draft board and three days after I graduated in January 1966, I received notice to come in for my physical. In March I received my draft notice and entered the Army on May 11, 1966.
I don't know of anyone who was killed in the Vietnam War and have purposely avoided seeking that information. Like Kurt Vonnegut's character Billy Pilgrim in "Slaughterhouse Five" who was present at the fire bombing of Dresden, for that purpose I'm frozen in time.
I was not in the Reserves. As I said, when I started getting questionnaires as to my student status when I was a senior in college, and the draft went over 100,000 per month in August 1965, I felt it was inevitable that I would end up in the service. One of my uncles, who I had worked for during two summers, offered to pay for graduate school so I could continue my student deferment, but I really wanted to leave home. Except for a week's vacation during a couple of spring breaks to Miami and summer camp, I had never been away from home. My relationship with my father was not good, but I felt guilty because of the death of my brother for wanting to leave my mother.
Three of my fraternity brothers enlisted in the Marines for officer's training. When I told my mother I wanted to enlist with them, she cried. She said, "Why are you pushing it? Gerry Guterman (who lived around the corner) graduated last year and they didn't get him yet." That was the end of that idea, so I turned down my uncle's offer of graduate school and allowed myself to be drafted so I could tell my mother I did not control the situation. I don't think anyone else knew about my uncle's offer. In retrospect, I believe my father would have been furious if he had found out.
Once I got my draft notice, I enlisted so I could choose my MOS (signal school). But between graduation and my draft notice, I became engaged. I told my girlfriend that maybe I wouldn't come back from Vietnam so we should not get married, but she said that was all the more reason to get married before I went. I had met my girlfriend in the local college bar that my friends and I frequented and sometimes worked in. She was a year younger than me, but in the same class at Adelphi. I was introduced by one of my fraternity brothers who knew her best friend. As it turned out, she was the daughter of our fraternity advisor, who was a business professor at Adelphi.
I was someone who, once a decision was made, did not revisit. Once I decided I was going into the service, my actions were designed to fit what I considered done. My girlfriend did not object, as there seemed to be inevitability at play. Also, at the time Vietnam was not the known quantity it was to become. This was still the fall of 1965 and our campus was very quiet. In addition, her parents were divorced and constantly fighting and she was very unhappy at home. I believe I provided protection and a way out for her, something I did not consciously realize until the day of our wedding and a drunken incident between her mother and father that I will mention later.
On May 11, 1966, my father dropped me off at the draft board in Great Neck, Long Island. He and my mother were about to vacation in Puerto Rico and thought they would see me at Fort Dix, New Jersey, where soldiers from the northeast went for basic, when they returned. We were bused to Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn where we were sworn in, and then on to Penn Station where we got on a train and transported overnight to Fort Jackson. I did not know anyone, but made friends with a couple of guys on the train.
We were at Fort Jackson for a week. I got into a fight when I came down the barracks stairs from the second floor. A guy blocking the way would not move, so I kicked him in the head with my knee as I climbed over him. At the end of the week we were bused to Fort Gordon near the South Carolina border for basic training.
Like the majority of the South, the terrain was covered with pine trees and clay that covered us with a fine layer of red dust when we traveled the dirt roads in the dry season, and became sticky and slick during the downpours of late spring and early summer. It became so hot and humid that some of the training usually done outdoors had to be done in barracks.
Augusta, the nearby town, was enveloped by GI’s on weekends and hardly a young woman was seen on the streets. One lunchroom we went into had a glass jar on the counter with a sign that said, “Ten cent fine for each cuss word spoken here. One dollar fine for each foreign word.” We figured that was for the Puerto Rican soldiers who spoke no English. Bars and tattoo parlors lined the main street where the white soldiers roamed. Black soldiers went to the other side of town. Drunken soldiers renting motorcycles and resultant accidents were the norm. Late Sunday night, sleeping soldiers filled public buses heading back to post.
I had been at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, at the Reception Station. As soon as we got off the bus, drill sergeants began screaming at us. Reception was used for haircuts, issuing uniforms, written testing and orientation classes. Fort Jackson, much like Fort Gordon, had two-story wooden barracks. I was there in May, June, and July when no heat was required. Nevertheless, we were assigned to overnight ‘fire watch’ on a rotating basis.
My platoon (drill) sergeant was Sergeant Hord. He was, I believe, from Arizona, and we (my squad had a number of college graduates) did not think he was very bright. He appointed four squad leaders of very uneven demeanor. Fortunately, my squad leader Pete Gardner was a very nice guy.
We had an orthodox Jew in my squad who was released from training before sundown on Friday and did not return until Sunday morning. From remarks he made, Sergeant Hord seemed to resent the fact that Private Gross missed time, but he never did anything overt about it. There were at least five Jewish guys in my squad, including me, but we never felt that we faced discrimination. We had a few black soldiers and some of the drill instructors of other platoons were black, but we saw no overt discrimination.
Another soldier told anyone who would listen that he wanted out of the Army. He caused a lot of trouble, interrupting when Sergeant Hord was talking, telling people not to do what they were being told to do, and anything else he could think of to cause trouble. Sergeant Hord made a remark about ‘blanket parties’ for troublemakers and one night this soldier was beaten up by a group of other soldiers.
For the eight weeks of basic training I had no visitors and could not get home, but I had close friendships (as close as I could get with guys I might never see again) with most of the guys in my squad. From morning until after evening chow, every hour of our training was planned and regimented. In all my life, once the lights went out at night, I probably never slept so well. I recall being awakened only once when the whole company had to carry footlockers outside, line up, and bring them back in. Every morning, we were awakened by the platoon sergeant turning lights on and yelling for us to get out of the rack. We were supposed to hit the floor instantaneously.
We spent an entire week on the rifle range. Range safety was very important. I made a mistake once and walked down range by myself while the entire company watched. As I was walking toward the targets, I heard the range officer say in a southern accent dripping with sarcasm, “Are you lonely out there, boy?” I looked around and noticed I was out there by myself and he was talking to me. When I returned to the firing line, I was told to see the First Sergeant when we returned to barracks. Sergeant Damron said, “You’re going to OCS? I wouldn’t follow you over a sand bag.” My punishment was being runner that night for the duty officer.
Basic training was one step in the process of preparing for combat and it was relatively easy for me. I had been an athlete in college and I had a thin body, so I was always in shape. I had one of the highest scores in the company on the final PT test. I was never a big eater, so the meals in the mess hall were okay with me.
Toward the end of the eight weeks, I got very sick--probably with the flu. I was so weak I couldn't train. The assistant platoon sergeant, a young guy just returned from Vietnam, let me hide under the bunk in his room when the runner came through to make sure everyone was out. By hiding from the runner, I would be counted as having completed training. Soldiers who failed more than one PT test or did not complete training were ‘recycled’ or moved back to a training company that extended basic for them. That was the worst thing that could happen. One guy in my squad, David Glaser, was recycled. He was overweight and could not pass the PT test. I stayed in the assistant platoon sergeant's room for several days, otherwise I would have been put back several weeks.
Eight weeks of basic training seemed like a very long time, and I felt like a soldier. I had already passed the final proficiency test and had scored among the highest in the company on the final PT test. I was assigned to Fort Dix for Advanced Infantry Training. Since I had become engaged before entering the service, I had determined that I should go to OCS after AIT. In fact, I had passed the written exam for Coast Guard officer training before enlisting in the Army, but I was not selected. I felt that since I passed that exam, which was very much like the college boards, I could easily pass the Army OCS written exam.
After graduation we traveled by train back to New York because of an airline strike. It was July, the train was not air conditioned, and the trip took about 24 hours. Since I had just been sick, I had lost a lot of weight. My fiancé and my mother were shocked when they saw how much weight I had lost.
While I was home on leave, my fiancé and I discussed a wedding date and decided to wait until I knew my graduation date from OCS. I had been told that an officer had to have four to six months of command time in the states before commanding troops in a combat zone, so we thought that we would have at least that time together before I went to Vietnam. Two weeks later I was off to Fort Dix for Trainee Leadership School, which took place the two weeks prior to beginning AIT. It was designed to train squad leaders and assistant squad leaders for AIT companies. Much of it was physical training and leadership classes. The training cadre verbally harassed us much of the time. We were chosen because we had all been accepted to OCS.
AIT was eight weeks. It wasn’t a lot different than basic training, although weapons training was more diversified. In basic we only trained with the M14. In AIT we were trained on mortars, grenade launchers, machineguns, and all weapons commonly used by an infantry platoon.
All training was pointed toward serving in Vietnam, not a word about Korea. Our platoon sergeant was pretty easygoing and wasn't around very much. In fact, he had come back from Korea with a Korean wife. All he wanted to do was make sure he got out of there at five every day so he could go see his "Korean honey." As soon as we saw his car leave the parking lot, about a half dozen of us would go to the convenience store for beer and food and we would spend the evening drinking and talking at the picnic grounds until Taps. The weather was nice and we rarely ate dinner in the mess hall.
Fort Dix was perhaps a three-hour drive from my home on Long Island. On the weekends we did not have passes, my fiancé drove down with one of her girlfriends and, since it was summertime, we would sit in one of the picnic areas. When we had passes, we took the bus to Manhattan. Before we separated for the weekend, I sometimes took my friends for a drink at my uncle’s bar near Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. I had set up one of the guys with my fiancé’s friend, so he stayed at my house most weekends. Eventually they married.
During field training in early September, the most important Jewish holidays occurred. The first holiday began on a Wednesday night. The company had been in the field since Monday and would return to post on Saturday, but a vehicle was sent Wednesday at noon to return me to post so I could go on pass, which I did from Wednesday to Sunday night. For the second holiday, I went on pass from Friday afternoon to Sunday night. I was the only Jew in the company and there were a number of guys joking that if they could get this much time off, they would convert.
I had taken a written exam during basic training and had been interviewed by my company commander, Captain Gearhardt. He was a very impressive man, strong looking, barrel-chested, an airborne ranger, West Point graduate who told me he had high expectations for me and assumed I would do well on the mandatory PT exams. I took him seriously and had one of the highest scores in the company on the final PT test.
After AIT I stayed at Fort Dix awaiting orders to Infantry OCS. I was assigned as cadre to a training company for jeep drivers and company clerks. My rank was acting PFC and my responsibilities were to make sure that everyone was present or accounted for and they got to their classes on time. Most of the trainees had been flown directly from basic training to Fort Dix and were depressed about not being able to see their families for a long time. That assignment lasted only a few days because I received orders to report in October for OCS. I believe I went on two weeks leave.
I arrived at Infantry OCS at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia, in October 1966, and graduated on April 25, 1967. The training that I received in basic and advanced infantry training had taught me self discipline and perseverance, but OCS magnified those aspects many times over. I learned to maintain self control and do what I had been trained to do, no matter what happened.
My company at OCS, the 94th, was one of nine in the ninth battalion. There was another, I think the sixth, training battalion and a class was graduating approximately every half week. I was in the fourth platoon of six. There were about 220 trainees in my company. Lt. Steve Cullen was our tactical officer, Cpt. Billy Lee Smith was the company commander, and Colonel Bishop was the OCS Brigade Commander.
All the platoon tactical officers were doing their four to six months of command time in the States as a prerequisite for commanding troops in Vietnam. We had a lot of respect for Steve Cullen because we felt he was very fair with us. Most of the tactical officers did a lot of screaming and harassing. We were watched all the time, even when we could not see who was watching us from a barracks window when we were outside. It wasn't unusual to be transgressing while walking back from the mess hall (we were always supposed to run, never walk) and to be called out by a disembodied voice from a window. We had to sit on only the first four inches of our chair while eating and had to bring the food up to our mouths without bending toward it. Eating eggs this way was very difficult and we were expected to be in clean uniform for every formation after chow. Consequently, many of us had to put on clean fatigues after meals. We spit-shined our floors and could not leave boot prints on them. We had to climb out of our rooms stepping on furniture and bed railings without messing anything and then jump onto a thin runner that ran down the middle of the spit-shined hallway.
We had formal classroom training in most subjects at the Infantry School where we saw other OCS companies--many career officers taking classes and foreign officers attending classes. We also had field training in weapons, hand-to-hand combat, physical training, marching, guerilla warfare, counter insurgency, escape and evasion. We had ten days of ranger training off post in Stewart County, Georgia, where we were in the field the entire time. We had sports teams in touch football and basketball. During the week and for all training sessions we wore fatigues. When we went off post on weekend pass, we wore class A uniform.
One of the most memorable training sessions we had was a class in leadership decision making. We were shown actors in combat situations. At a critical point the film would be frozen and a voice-over would say, "What are you going to do now, Lieutenant?" A class discussion would then ensue, options were chosen, and a vote was taken. Then the film would restart and the conclusion would be enacted. The winning voters would cheer and the losers would boo. This particular film had a platoon that the lieutenant ordered to charge at the enemy. As the line began to move out, the platoon sergeant yelled he wasn't going to do it and began running to the rear. As he passed the officer, the image froze and the voice-over said, "What are you going to do now, Lieutenant?" During the discussion, the major options that emerged were shoot him--which drew the loudest, most vociferous adherents, fire a warning shot and shoot him if he doesn't stop, or let him go. We actually had a lot of fun arguing, yelling, cheering and jeering.
Another time we were in the last day in the field of counter insurgency training. The plan called for a sweeping force of four platoons to push the enemy through the woods toward the blocking force. My platoon was part of the blocking force and we were supposed to be lifted over the sweep area by helicopter and into position on the far side of the woods. Unfortunately, this was the only day that entire winter that it snowed in Georgia, so the helicopters were grounded and the blocking force had to walk around the sweep area. That put us into a swamp with a beaver dam in the middle that caused us to wade through water up to our chest in a heavy snow storm. At the end of the exercise, a huge bonfire was built and we were allowed to strip off our uniforms and dry off. By the time we got back to post, the sun had come out and we were each given two cans of beer.
During artillery spotter training, the company was in bleachers on a hill several miles from the target area. Old tanks and trucks were being used as targets. The instructor, a major, began the class by asking if any of us were from New York. There were only a few of us and I had gone to college in Garden City, Long Island, where my finance lived and where the major was from, so we had a brief exchange. The point of the class was that after instruction, we, in turn, would call in artillery fire. Whatever we called was relayed to the battery several miles away and they would follow our orders. We all had binoculars and could see the result of each call. The usual method was for a spotting round to be fired and then we would call adjustments in fifty meter increments before firing all our rounds. For example, if the spotting round was past the target, our first command would be to call for a round short of the target which might be, "Drop two hundred. Fire one." Then, "Add one hundred, fire one," followed by, "Drop five zero. Fire for effect," which meant fire everything the battery had. Until my turn came, nobody had effectively destroyed the target. After each failure the major would ask for the candidate's roster number, which was how our grades were entered. After the spotting round, my command was, "Drop five zero, fire for effect." The major was very skeptical. He said, "Are you sure you don't want to bracket, that you want to fire everything?" I said, "Yes Sir." He said something like, "Okay, it's your funeral." He gave the order and the battery fired everything it had and destroyed the target. The class cheered and when it quieted down, I stood and said, "Sir, my roster number is zero seven six," and the class cheered again and everyone, including the major, laughed.
We did not have any discipline problems that I can recall during OCS, although we sometimes bickered among ourselves. Candidates dropped out for a variety of reasons. The most common reason was that a candidate could not take the pressure which, except for the hours we were sleeping or in the field out of sight, was constant. One of my platoon mates was caught forging checks and a candidate in another company was arrested during Christmas leave while robbing a bank in New York City. We lived in three-story cinder block barracks across from the airborne jump towers and parade ground. There were two candidates per room in single bunks and about forty candidates in each platoon. During approximately the first twelve weeks, we went down to about 160 candidates. By the end of the 24 weeks we had about 200, the additional candidates having been dropped from companies ahead of us, usually for medical or family hardship reasons.
After the eighth week we were allowed passes, usually from Saturday afternoon to Sunday night. Most often I went with the same four guys, one of whom had a car. We would check into a motel, drink beer, and go to movies and restaurants. There was not much else to do with such a short period of time. We became senior candidates after the eighteenth week and most of the harassment ended. We were then allowed to harass junior candidates in other companies. The last month we were allowed to live off post, and many of us shared apartments in a garden apartment complex called Camelia Gardens near the main gate.
In April of 1967, I received unexpected orders for Korea. When our assignments were read to us by Billy Lee Smith one night after chow from the barracks steps, I called home to tell my fiancé and my mother. My mother started crying because that day in the news there had been a story about the North Koreans blowing up an American Army barracks. My mother’s reaction was complicated by the fact that we all thought I would have another four to six months in the states before going to Vietnam. Going to Korea meant a brief period of leave and once I told her my destination, I think the immediacy of the situation struck her. The last few nights before graduation, my fiancé stayed with me in the garden apartment complex and my mother later flew down for graduation.
My girlfriend and I were married on Long Island by a judge in his chambers and had a reception that evening. We were married April 28, 1967, three days after graduation. Her parents, who were divorced, both got drunk. Her mother, who was supposed to split expenses with her father, told my wife that she forgot her checkbook and asked my wife for one of her checks. Her father was furious and had to be physically forced into a car to keep him away from her. Because her mother wasn't paying the rent or any of the bills, I moved my wife in with my parents. I never saw or heard from her mother again. Three weeks later, I left for Korea.
My orders had an APO number for Vietnam, so my parents did not believe that I was going to Korea. Other than shipping my hold baggage from Fort Totten, which took about an hour and was just a half hour drive from home, I don’t recall anything special I had to do before I left. At Fort Totten, where I shipped my hold baggage, they would not change the APO number. My bags went to Vietnam and did not catch up to me for four months. My family drove me to the airport and I was off to Fort Lewis, Washington to await my flight to Korea. Knowing only what I had read about the country of Korea in an encyclopedia, I held out hope that once I saw what the situation was like, I could have my wife join me. That was not to be.
Fort Lewis was very boring. There were constant card games and not much else to do other than go bowling, see a movie, or have dinner at the Officers’ Club. I did manage to find one of my best friends in an AIT company and persuaded the company commander to release him for an evening so we could spend it together. The three or four days I was there seemed interminable. Finally my name appeared on the blackboard and I was off on a Boeing 707, Northwest Orient Airlines. We made one stop at Kadena Air Force Base in Japan. We were herded into a huge hangar surrounded by barbed wire that had been converted into a snack bar and waiting area. It was staffed by a large number of military police. There, many soldiers awaited the continuation of flights to Vietnam.
Land of the Morning Calm
I arrived in Korea the weekend before Memorial Day weekend in May 1967. When we landed at Kimpo airport and walked into the terminal, an announcement was made: “Welcome to Korea. Move behind the screens and drop your pants.” We were administered gamma globulin shots in the buttocks and herded onto buses for the bumpy, uncomfortable ride on sometimes dirt roads that forced us to sit sideways to avoid contact of our sore buttocks with the hard seats. The roads were slightly elevated above the rice paddies that were filled with men and women in white stooped over and knee deep in mud with their leggings rolled up. Above the brown of the mud was a haze of green from the newly budding rice stalks. The temperature was in the eighties and there were few clouds in the sky. Every place I looked there was something unusual to see. Overall, it was a beautiful day.
It was midday on a Friday and we were at the replacement depot in ASCOM City. Walking around the large compound, I noticed a sign at a barber shop advertising haircuts for twenty-five cents, shaves for the same price, and massage for thirty-five cents. I decided to get it all. There was nothing remarkable about the shave and haircut. When the barber finished, he dropped down the back of the chair, had me lean forward, and began to pound my back so hard that I couldn’t figure out if he was assaulting me or massaging me. The thought occurred later on that it was a great way to take revenge for any slights real or imagined that the barber may have felt from me or any American.
That afternoon the first sergeant told us our transport would not arrive until Monday, and we might as well go to Seoul for the weekend. We piled into several taxi cabs and were off. I don’t recall much of what I did that weekend, but I thought that if the whole tour was going to present opportunities like that, I had nothing to worry about.
On Monday morning the bus came to take us to the 2nd Infantry Division. The first thing I noticed was the helmet, flak jacket and rifle that the bus driver had with him. A couple of hours later, we arrived at Division Headquarters where we waited for transport to our final destinations, of which none of us were aware beforehand. It seemed quiet and peaceful, but I knew that the North Koreans were sometimes belligerent and lethal, as they had blown up an American barracks on the DMZ a couple of months before, killing some and wounding many.
A jeep driven by the Battalion Commander’s driver came to take me to the headquarters compound of the 2nd battalion of the 23rd Infantry Regiment, which was a mechanized infantry unit. The further north we traveled, the more weapons I saw. The paved road ended in Munsan and it was all dirt from then on. We passed through small villages where houses and shops were constructed of patchworks of mud, thatch, and scrap metal. The area looked very poor.
The compound was located approximately one mile south of the Imjin River along the road to Freedom Bridge, which was one of two bridges in the 2nd Division area that provided access to the DMZ. All three rifle companies were attached to battalions along the DMZ and were sitting in foxholes every night along the Barrier or the anti-infiltration line.
I was welcomed by the Battalion Commander Melvin Gaines, who told me I would be assigned to A Company. Since the holiday weekend was coming up, I was to report to the company after the holiday and stay in the Headquarters Company ‘hooch,’ which was a Quonset hut. All of the buildings on all the compounds were Quonset huts with the exception of the cinder block ammo bunkers. That weekend was marked by one continuous party at the officers’ club and events such as an ‘Indy 500’ bicycle race. At night, rifle company officers came into the club well after dark, fatigues and faces covered with road dust, wearing flak jackets and helmets, carrying weapons, and often angry. One of the headquarters company officers said to me, “That’s what you’ll be doing.”
After the weekend was over, I reported to Alpha Company. Miles Stevens was the CO. He took me out at night along the Barrier as the men went into position for the night. We went from foxhole to foxhole checking communications and talking to the men. As we were riding around in his jeep, one of the squad leaders had a detonator from a claymore mine go off in his hand and had to be evacuated.
The following day, I was given my first assignment. I was to take a platoon of tracks (armored personnel carriers) to a forward guard post in the DMZ that was being inspected by the new Corps Commander, Lieutenant General Harry Critz. En route, one of the vehicles stalled and would not restart. At a loss as to what to do, the platoon sergeant said to me, “Sir, I think you want to call for a VTR (tracked vehicle retriever).” I replied, “Good idea, Sergeant.” The VTR came and we continued on our way. At the guard post I reported to the Brigade Commander who told me, “Lieutenant, if the shit hits the fan, you get the General into your track, head for the river, and turn on your radio.” I replied, “Yes, sir.” After the General arrived by helicopter, we spent an uneventful few hours in our vehicles waiting to see if anything would happen.
A few days later, a new arrival who was supposed to be assigned to Bravo Company outranked the Bravo company commander, so he was assigned to Alpha Company and I was traded to Bravo. Bravo was in transition. The new Company Commander, Briggs W. Nichols, had recently taken command while the previous company commander was still in residence waiting to go home. It was obvious that they did not like each other and the two platoon leaders had taken sides. Paul Brendl, who was my new roommate, liked the old commander, while Joe was friendlier with the new commander, “Nick.” Fortunately, the old commander left soon after I arrived so I did not get caught up in it, but resentment between Paul and Nick lingered.
I did not know anyone in the company. I was given the third platoon but operationally, half the company went out on the barrier each night with one officer while another officer checked communications then returned before dark. The other two officers basically had the night off. We could go to the officers’ club, the movie theater, or play pinochle with the senior NCOs. The following night the other half of the company would go out and the officers would rotate.
Heat and humidity increased dramatically as a prelude to the monsoon season. The half of the company that had the night off spent the next day digging new foxholes on the Barrier and fortifying existing holes. As soldiers finished their thirteen-month tour and rotated home, not all of them were replaced. The company was overextended and the men were always tired. Spare parts were in short supply and we could not even get new boots. Troops in Vietnam were outfitted with M16’s while we were still using M14’s. Soldiers who fired their weapons at night on the Barrier were treated with skepticism by the Battalion Commander and the company commanders were berated for having “no fire discipline.” Although I had long since decided against making a career in the Army, I began to think I would have been better off had I gone to Vietnam.
Duty Along the Barrier
Duty along the Barrier was not easy. Most soldiers want a clearly defined mission that utilizes them for the job they’ve been trained to do. Even though the rules of engagement were clear, anything moving at night along the DMZ could be shot without warning, the commander of the battalion to which we were attached, Adrian Cloninger of the 3/23rd, angrily confronted officers whose men did not produce the desired result.
The positions along the Barrier, which were foxholes we called ‘ambush positions,’ did not support each other in that they were placed in regard to terrain features. A position along a ridge might be out of sight of the positions to left and right and so on down the line and therefore unable to be covered by supporting fire. In the heat and humidity of the day, Colonel Cloninger personally pointed out new position locations that the men had to dig, and changed his mind often enough to be very annoying. In addition, he had a bad temper and chewed out junior officers in public.
As the monsoon season began, nothing could be kept completely dry. The bottom of the foxholes filled with rain water and the sides became slick with mud. Landline and radio communication between the command post and each position became more and more tenuous. Darkness and fog made night impenetrable and the North Koreans blared funeral dirges across the DMZ. Back on the compound, we had flood prevention projects, digging and fortifying drainage ditches, and teaching classes on monsoon preparation. In the terrible humidity, food went bad more rapidly, clothing and bedding felt clammy and damp, and mud was everywhere. Dysentery was rampant and the stench from the one latrine shared by almost 200 men was daunting.
My platoon had about 40 men, most of them barely out of their teens. They seemed to complain about almost everything from lack of sleep to lack of supplies to poor leadership from squad leaders. In OCS it was constantly drummed into us that as platoon leaders we would have the wise counsel of a senior NCO as platoon sergeant to depend upon. My platoon sergeant was one year older than me. Even though he was an airborne ranger, when the danger became clear he used connections to get reassigned as equipment manager for the division football team. At times I felt overwhelmed. Being out on the Barrier with a clear mission was much easier than trying to handle what amounted to mostly personal complaints.
The DMZ was uninhabited and overgrown and had a wild beauty. The terrain in our area was gently rolling and covered with overgrown rice paddies that had been abandoned since the time of the war. The routine was the same every day. Chow was served in mid afternoon to the soldiers assigned to the Barrier that night. Accompanied by the officers going north with them, after chow we all proceeded to the firing range and weapons were test fired. Then we moved north in armored personnel carriers across Freedom Bridge to the Barrier. Before the monsoon, after everyone was settled into position, I often sat outside the command post (an armored personnel carrier parked on a hill above the Barrier road) well after the sun went down as if it was just another pleasant summer day. Back in the compound, until I got to know each member of the platoon and could differentiate the legitimate complaint from the frivolous, I did not feel comfortable.
Paul Brendl was my roommate. His thirteen months were almost up and I gravitated more toward Nick, who was self-deprecating to the point where he verbalized most of his tough decisions and often second-guessed himself to me. Joe was the other platoon leader. Both he and Nick were from Ohio. Paul was from Washington State. Paul eventually became a helicopter pilot and survived a crash a few years ago while piloting a news helicopter for a Seattle television station. Paul was replaced by John Carter from Michigan. Soon after John arrived, Dave Miller from Raceland, Kentucky, replaced Joe Franz. Dave and I became very close. He was nineteen years old when he arrived and I was twenty-three. The waitress in the Officers’ Club called him ‘Lieutenant Baby-san.’ Dave now lives in Parkersburg, West Virginia. I visited him in 1974 and I call him from time to time.
Unless someone fired a weapon, time in the command post passed uneventfully, smoking in the dark, talking low to the platoon sergeant and radio/telephone operator assigned for the night, and sometimes dozing. After a few weeks, more and more firing incidents occurred and Colonel Cloninger became angrier. “Bodies,” he shouted. “I want to see bodies.” On July 16, 1967 disaster struck.
July 16, 1967
On July 16, 1967, position #32 on the "Barrier" was attacked by the North Koreans early in the morning in dense fog. Leonard Ashforth, Tommy Boyd, and John Gibbs were killed and a fourth man, a KATUSA, was found wandering in the road. I was awakened before dawn and told the news. Nick and Paul were to head north to go after the North Koreans with Nick leading the company while Joe, who had been the Officer-In-Charge of the operation, was to come back to the compound. I was assigned to get the personal effects of the three deceased soldiers in order for shipment to their next of kin and turn in all their military equipment. I was also to take the company out on the Barrier that evening.
The atmosphere on the compound was funereal. It felt like family members had been lost. None of the men, barely out of their teens, were in my platoon and I only knew one of them, Leonard Ashforth. He was very friendly and was always smiling when he said hello to me whenever we passed on the compound. He always seemed happy, never down. I hadn’t felt this bad since the assassination of John Kennedy. Nick called and said that he had difficulty identifying the bodies. They were so covered in mud that at first he thought they were black, when in fact they were caucasian.
Joe was very upset. He didn’t seem to know what to do. He told me that he had ordered the sentries guarding the command post to hold their fire when they saw rounds being fired near position #32 which was directly in front of and below the command post less than 100 yards away. He seemed to blame himself for the deaths of the three young men, and when I had time to think about it, I thought he could have intervened. The North Korean basic weapon was a submachine gun that had a very distinctive unmistakable sound. They had time to fire a large number of rounds and hurl grenades, walk up to the hole, and stack the bodies one atop the other.
I broke into the dead mens' lockers to get to their personal effects and asked the company clerk to find the supply sergeant to help me inventory and pack. I went through letters they had received, eliminating anything I thought would upset their families, such as derogatory comments from one family member about another. The morgue wagon came onto the compound and the driver asked if I wanted to see the bodies, which I declined. He and the attendant then went to the E.M. club. By the time I finished the inventory, hours had gone by and the supply sergeant had been located at the club. He was too drunk to be of any help, so I found the supply clerk instead.
Word came back that the company had run down one of the North Koreans and the First Sergeant had shot him in the head as he was swimming across a rain-swollen creek. The company arrived a little later and Nick had them form up and made an emotional speech before dismissing them. I couldn’t help but think about Colonel Cloninger’s constant admonition, “Bodies, I want to see bodies.”
It appeared from all the ammunition that had been fired at the position and the 18 grenade holes in and around the foxhole that it had been deliberately targeted by a squad size unit. For weeks the men (not just in that position) had reported that pebbles were being thrown at them to try and pinpoint positions, but Colonel Cloninger was skeptical. The fact that the holes were placed without regard to supporting each other was worrisome. Since placement was along likely pathways and the philosophy was to stop infiltrators heading south, it seemed that nobody above company level took the possibility of attack seriously.
I took the company out that evening with three senior NCOs armed with shotguns assigned to position #32. We had heard a report that one of the UN observers had been seriously wounded by North Korean machinegun fire. As we took up our positions, we could hear their heavy machineguns still firing off in the distance.
Because replacements weren’t coming as fast as men were leaving, instead of every other night, each man could count on two of every three nights out on the Barrier. We were sleep deprived and worried about taking more casualties. It didn’t take long for the men to start firing at anything they perceived to be a threat. We fired thousands of rounds and set off claymore mines. Nobody cared about getting chewed out. Everyone was bitter that their concerns had not been taken seriously and as a result, three of their friends had been killed. Rule number one became, "Protect yourself." After a few days of the same thing, a subdued Colonel Cloninger canceled the morning debriefings. My platoon sergeant, the airborne ranger, used his contact at division headquarters to secure a transfer to the division football team where he became equipment manager. It was soon announced that the company would be relieved of Barrier duty at the end of the month and would go into training. At the end of July, after the last night on the Barrier, the company partied at the E.M. club. All the officers went. Our money was no good, as the men got us as drunk as they possibly could. It was an outpouring of massive relief that no one else had been killed and a nightmare had ended.
Paul went home and Joe was reassigned to second brigade headquarters. John Carter replaced Paul. Less than a week later, as the North Koreans stepped up hostilities, the training mission was aborted and the company moved north of the river with everything we had, as we had been designated the Division Quick Reaction Force.
Before we were pulled off the Barrier after Ashforth, Boyd, and Gibbs were killed, we felt for some period of time that the North Koreans were probing for our command post. One night when the track was buttoned up and I was inside with the NCOIC and the RTOs, we thought that someone had climbed atop the track. At the same time, one of my team leaders was having a panic attack in one of the foxholes and I was occupied with trying to calm him down over the landline. I pulled my .45 and pointed it at the hatch. I thought that it would open at any moment and a grenade would be dropped in on us. I kept talking until I calmed him down and the hatch never opened.
Later when back in the states, I never tried to get in touch with the survivors of the three guys who were killed. As I said, I only knew Leonard Ashforth to say hello. Tommy Boyd and John Gibbs I did not know at all.
North of the River
“North of the River” was where one validated himself in post-war Korea. The river was the Imjin and north of the river was the DMZ. No one could be considered a real fighter until he had put in his time “north of the river.” That was the place where one earned respect.
We had been preparing for training for less than a week since being removed from Barrier duty at the end of July, making plans to move to a rear training area for a few weeks. Instead, the order to move north came down and we crossed Freedom Bridge to the 3/23rd’s battalion area onto Charlie Company’s compound. The enlisted men erected squad tents on the grass in the flat central area. The officers moved into the BOQ, Charlie Company’s officers doubling up and the four of us, now joined by Dave Miller, in one room. My bed was over a cache of rusted, unexploded ordnance of Korean War vintage collected over time.
Although I had been in country for little more than two months, I was the senior platoon leader. My platoon was assigned the lead. The company was on alert 24 hours a day and my platoon was expected to respond to an emergency call within five minutes. The rest of the company had an additional ten minutes to follow. The plan was that we would mount our armored personnel carriers and head for battalion headquarters (a short distance down the road) for briefing, then lead the rest of the company when they were ready by joining the head of their column or forging ahead of them and calling them by radio to join us at a certain destination. I slept with my boots on.
Each of our four platoons had four squads. Each squad had an armored personnel carrier that normally carried ten men, but each squad was short one or two men. The company commander traveled in a smaller armored personnel carrier with a vehicle driver, radio/telephone operator and first sergeant (although he often stayed behind). Every other day we were assigned an area in the DMZ to sweep for undetected infiltrators. We ate an early breakfast and headed out at dawn, dismounting somewhere along the Barrier road. We then walked through a gate in the newly-erected fence that was being built across the peninsula starting from the confluence of the Imjin and Han Rivers. It was a short distance from where we had occupied our night ambush positions. Agent Orange was a term we did not hear in our time. On the in-between days the officers performed reconnaissance of the next day sweep area, usually from overlooking hills. While we were performing a sweep or reconnaissance, we were still on alert. The men liked this duty much better than Barrier duty since most of it occurred in the daytime and that gave them more leisure time.
It was August. The monsoon season had ended and the vegetation in the DMZ was lush and, in many places, almost impenetrable. The days were sunny and hot. Sunday, August 28, like most of our Sundays with the QRF, was an off day. We were relaxing in the afternoon. Nick had gone south to a meeting, he said, but was probably at one of the recreation centers getting a massage. An alert came over the radio. My platoon mounted up and headed for Battalion headquarters. I jumped down from the ‘track’ and went inside for a briefing. I was told that JSA (the Joint Security Area where the engineers who had responsibility for maintaining the roads to, and the buildings at, Panmunjom lived) had been attacked, and to head there. We raced down the road as fast as we could as ambulances sped by us coming away from JSA and helicopters flew overhead. We reached JSA gate just as Nick pulled up in his jeep, jumped into his ‘track’, and led us into the compound.
The road was lined on the left with high-ranking military personnel and civilians in distress. I looked off to my right and saw soldiers scurrying like an ant colony gone mad, looking for weapons and tending to bodies laying all around. The engineers had been in the chow line for an early Sunday dinner when the North Koreans opened up with machineguns from the hills overlooking their tent city. We sped on through and I thought to myself that we were the cavalry coming to save them in our 17 armored personnel carriers with machineguns mounted. We cleared JSA and turned right onto a narrow, winding dirt road that was running with water and was more like a shallow creek between wooded areas and overgrown rice paddies. We had to slow down to navigate the twists and dips, but in those heavy vehicles any speed felt like a lot. The vehicle rose up, came down hard, and slewed to the right, grinding to a halt almost on its left side, blocking the road. Black smoke poured from beneath my feet up through the command turret. My first thought was, “ambush.” I pictured grenades flying through the air into the cargo hatch where the squad was heaped and entangled with each other. I had to get them out. I disconnected from my radio cord, slid down to the ground, then grabbed whatever piece of each man that I could--a collar, a strap of web gear, a rifle, and pulled them out as fast as I could, yelling for them to get into the bushes beside the road. After I got them out, Nick walked toward me from the front vehicle while I stood dumbly in the road and watched my helmet sink into the water-filled crater that the blast had created. His face was bleeding from the spray of pebbles that had hit when he turned toward the sound of the exploding anti-tank mine. He was telling me something, but I had been deafened and could not hear. I finally understood that he was taking the company in pursuit on foot and I was to remain with the vehicles.
They began to move out. The medics carried my driver’s broken body past me on a stretcher, his face heavily bandaged. We made eye contact. I saw life there and knew he would eventually be okay. I felt a trickling down my forehead and wiped my hand across, coming away with blood. I had a huge bump atop my head, but felt no pain. I shouted at my platoon to reposition the machineguns more effectively. When I started to walk, I could not put weight on my left leg. My left thigh began to throb and I felt pain in my left knee and elbow. I limped to the side of the road and lay down in the grass. Hours went by. Darkness came and it rained. The company returned without having found the North Koreans, but they had discovered more anti-tank mines on the road ahead. We got into our vehicles. Mine was abandoned. I was too stiff and tired to walk to the front of the column, so I got into the nearest track. I just wanted to sleep. My name was being called. Everyone was looking for me because I had not gone to the front and Nick feared I would be left behind. I was too tired to answer, but the soldier next to me told me to go up front and I did.
I limped around for a few weeks and stayed behind when the company went out. The North Koreans were regularly mining roads and casualties mounted. Another company was added as QRF to cover the eastern half of the division front. Nick was reassigned as Company Commander of Headquarters Company and moved south to be replaced by Phil Maxwell, who had been working on the staff at Second Brigade Headquarters and had requested an infantry company. On October 4 during a routine sweep, we flushed and fired at several North Koreans and chased them until they escaped north. There we came under heavy machinegun fire and took one lightly wounded casualty.
Quick Reaction Force duty came to an end in mid November and we moved south of the river to prepare to get the training that had been aborted in August. Winter was coming on.
Training in Winter
We went into training around the middle of November 1967. John Carter was the training officer and he took his responsibilities seriously, spending long hours on paperwork. I felt that he was showing a preference for clerical work rather than the infantry command we had been trained for. Verbalizing my opinion caused a strain between us. I did not participate much in the classroom teaching. ‘Max,’ our CO, had appointed me company executive officer to oversee the supply room, the mess hall, and the motor pool--responsibilities that I did not like. Thankfully, the NCOs in charge of all three were accomplished professionals.
Field training consisted of full battalion exercises moving from point A to point B, usually occupying areas in defense, sometimes overnight. Once we moved in, we strung communication wire for field telephones. In one instance, our phones malfunctioned. A few hours later, a Korean Intelligence Agency jeep pulled up with an obviously contrite civilian and unloaded rolls of commo wire. In another instance, it snowed during the night and we were laid out on the ground in sleeping bags. When I awoke in the morning, the only way I knew where each platoon member was located was by the small holes their breathing had melted in the snow.
For Thanksgiving week and one week in December, I was the Officer-In-Charge of the security platoon staffed by my company at Freedom Bridge. When they were off duty, I allowed the men to go to nearby compounds to shower. I had the codes to arm the detonators to blow up the bridge in case of invasion, so I had to be there at all times. An engineer truck came by each day to run a hot water shower for me if I chose to use it. I would run back and forth through the snow to and from the shower tent in my boots with nothing on but a towel around me. Invariably the hot water did not last for the entire time I was under the shower.
In December, an influx of captains who had one tour in Vietnam were assigned to the Second Division. Three captains replaced three lieutenants who had been commanding rifle companies. Max was replaced by Captain Webber, who caused instant dislike by demanding a winter parka after he was told we did not have any and accepting the parka worn by the supply clerk. The ground had frozen. The wind whipped down the flat valleys. Because we were tactical, we drove around in jeeps with the tops down. Our noses ran and our breath froze in the fur lining of the hoods of our parkas. Diesel fuel to run our heaters was in short supply, as were combat boots, winter parkas, and replacement troops. We were told not to run our heaters during daylight hours, so (indoors) we wore fatigues covered by parkas, and gloves. Most resources were going to Vietnam. When we were told in the winter that we could no longer burn fuel to keep warm during daylight hours, we knew it was because of Vietnam, and we resented it.
Over Christmas I received the second weekend pass in the seven months I had been in Korea and went to Walker Hill Resort near Seoul. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was to be my last weekend pass. Holidays in the compound were marked by special meals, officers in dress uniform, a visit from the Battalion Commander, and not much else. I got drunk in the Officers’ Club on New Years Eve and ended the night by throwing a glass against the wall. Captain Webber slept late most mornings. Village women were often seen leaving his quarters. My dislike for him became so intense that I looked for any reason to be away from him.
In late January the USS Pueblo was captured by the North Koreans, a 32-man squad of commandos sent to assassinate the Korean president was intercepted in Seoul, and the Tet offensive began in Vietnam. The entire division was mobilized to intercept the commandos trying to escape north. My platoon was assigned positions behind a row of houses in a village behind one of the recreation centers and had a checkpoint on a short bridge on the main road. All vehicles were stopped and searched. I got on buses and walked the aisles.
My command post was a track behind the village. Women came by in the morning to break through the ice in a nearby creek and scrub their laundry on the rocks. We made a funnel of ponchos from the exhaust to the command hatch so we could get the temperature up to a tolerable level. We kept the back door cracked to vent the carbon monoxide. I allowed the men to wrap up in their sleeping bags while they were in position. At night I went to the Korean police station and offered cigarettes to the police circled around the heater where I took off my thermal boots and dried my sweat-soaked socks. The mission lasted almost a week that, for us, was extremely cold but uneventful. I rarely saw Captain Webber. A North Korean was killed in the next village.
A few days after getting back to the compound, we had an influx of new second lieutenants, including one who had more time in grade than me and replaced me as XO, so I was reassigned to Headquarters Company as the Antitank Platoon Leader. In late February the entire battalion moved north, exchanging places with 3rd/23rd and taking over Barrier duty.
My platoon was attached to Alpha Company for Barrier duty at night and slept most of the day. I had nothing to do but read, so I became very bored and felt useless. In March I was reassigned to 3rd Brigade Headquarters as the night officer in the Tactical Operations Center. My duties were to monitor and report activity in our brigade sector from midnight to 8 a.m.. I slept in the daytime. Dinnertime became breakfast for me. As the lowest ranking officer at Brigade Headquarters and the only second lieutenant, I had nothing in common with the other officers and kept to myself. The entire brigade staff seemed preoccupied with doing what was necessary to avoid the wrath of the Brigade Commander, who never acknowledged my presence.
The food we ate was typical mess hall food except for the fact that in our own compound, officers’ breakfasts were cooked to order. When I was the TOC officer, I ate all of my meals in the Officer’s Club and the food was only what our mess halls fed us. I never ate in a Korean facility. Occasionally when someone went to Seoul, we had good steak.
John Carter was my closest friend the first few months I was in Korea, but once we had a falling out over his becoming enamored with paperwork, our friendship was strained. I was also close with Nick, the company commander. But ultimately, I was closest with Dave Miller, who was 19 years old when he arrived. (He was the officer that the waitress in the Officer’s Club addressed as “Lieutenant Baby-san.”) Dave was very good-natured and sort of latched on to me as I was the senior platoon leader. He also seemed very innocent and unspoiled, being from the small town of Raceland, Kentucky. His goals in life were to marry his childhood sweetheart Lavada, and run his own restaurant. I visited Dave in 1974 in Kentucky, where he was managing a fried chicken franchise. He had one or two children with Lavada. Tragically, one of his children died when the hot water heater or boiler in his house exploded. I spoke to Dave last September. He had partnerships in a number of restaurants in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Orlando, Florida, and is currently living in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
Lighter moments in Korea were hard to come by, but were usually enjoyed while playing pinochle some Sunday afternoons with the company NCOs or in the Officer’s Club, sitting around drinking after we were done with our duties for the day. Among ourselves, we talked endlessly about the women we had left behind and what it would be like to be home. One of the funny incidents was Dave Miller’s first sweep with the company when we were the Quick Reaction Force. He had been kind of following me around, watching and copying what I did. He was worried that we would not get to the motor pool (where we all mounted our vehicles to head for the sweep area) on time. I assured him we would and insisted we had to eat a big breakfast because lunch would be out of the question. I forced him to take his time and finish everything while I did the same. When we got to the motor pool, the entire company was waiting for us with all vehicle engines running. Dave was very embarrassed, although it did not bother me. He told that story over and over again to every new officer whenever he introduced me.
The hardest thing about being in Korea for me was missing my wife, who wrote to me every day. My sister and mother wrote occasionally. My mother sent food--usually cookies and candy, but once she sent salami during the monsoon season. By the time it arrived, it was green with mold and smelled awful.
The only American women we saw were the ‘Donut Dollies,’ the American Red Cross volunteers who came once a week to the mess hall, served donuts, and played simulated television quiz show games with the enlisted men. They also came to the O club if we were having an official party, usually arriving and leaving in the brigade commander’s sedan.
Prostitution was rampant. The enlisted men went to the village every chance they got and many of them paid a monthly fee to the same woman for exclusive access. At the end of the month, many of them were lined up at the gate on pay day waiting for their money. The villages were off-limits for officers. If we had a party at the club, sometimes the battalion commander gave approval for the intelligence officer to call the village chief and request a number of women. He would then go to the village in an Army truck, pick them up, and see them through the security checkpoint at the compound gate. As I mentioned earlier, women were often seen leaving Captain Webber’s quarters in the morning.
The Officer’s Club had a pool table, ping pong table, and slot machines. My leisure time was spent in the O Club at night, playing ping pong, pool or poker, and drinking. When we were on the Barrier, Sundays there were usually poker games with the senior NCOs. Once in awhile I would get to a Recreation Center for a massage. Liquor was cheap and I don’t remember anyone who did not drink. Cigarettes were also cheap and most of us smoked. I began smoking when I was 13 years old and when I was a teenager, I sometimes got drunk. In college I drank beer most nights in the bar that my fraternity frequented and was often lightheaded. There was often a poker game going on which usually was very friendly. When Captain Webber played, things could get nasty. Eventually, after he was suspected of cheating, he was told he could no longer play.
Les Walker played guard with me on our freshman college basketball team. I was leading a column of armored personnel carriers down a dusty road through a cluster of compounds near the DMZ when I recognized Les walking toward me. We made eye contact. He stopped walking and saluted me with his left hand. I returned his salute. Some days later, I tracked him down. He was a clerk in Headquarters Company of the 3/23rd and the ticket seller at the battalion movie theater. Barry Golden was a friend from college. I had heard he was singing with the Division chorus. They were appearing at a compound near mine, so I caught the show. Barry was singing bass in a rock and roll group. After the show he was sitting in civilian clothes at the bar in the O club having a drink with the battalion commander when I walked up and tapped him on the shoulder. He almost fell off the bar stool.
While I was in Korea, I developed a liking for most of the Koreans I met. I only regretted that they all were in some sort of servile relationship or another with us and it embarrassed me when Americans were discourteous or treated them poorly. Che was the name of our houseboy. He served the officers’ hooch and was responsible for cleaning and laundry. Although he was always pleasant, it was strictly a servile relationship.
On one of the two weekend passes I had while in Korea, I was getting my shoes shined at a hotel in Seoul when a young man came over and asked me where I was going. I told him I was going to the USOM Club, which was a US Army facility. He must have misunderstood because he said, “You want woman, you come with me Miss Kim’s.” I repeated that I wanted to go to the USOM Club for dinner. He followed me out to the sidewalk. I hailed a taxi and slid into the back seat. Before I could close the door, he slid in next to me and spoke to the driver in Korean. He said, “I take you Miss Kim’s.” I figured that I was stuck as long as he was in the cab speaking Korean to the taxi driver, so I went along. When we got out, he led me down an alley along a line of shack-sized structures behind a row of apartment buildings. I was getting curious because I had never been in a Korean’s house. We stopped at one and he knocked. A young woman slid the door open. He motioned for me to take off my shoes in an anteroom. Another door slid open and the young woman sat down with two other young women who were holding hand mirrors and combing their hair. “Which one you want?” he asked. “Neither,” I answered. “I told you I just wanted to go to dinner.” Suddenly from behind another sliding door, a male voice got louder and louder and made guttural sounds. After it stopped, I asked the young man what was going on. He said, “Papa-san very angry I bring American GI to his house to do business with his daughters.” “This was not my idea,” I said. We left and went back out to the street to get a taxi. Before I could get into the cab, he demanded 1,000 won, which was about four dollars. I asked what it was for and he said, “Me tourist guide. You give me 1,000 won.” I said no. He became very agitated and jumped up and down in front of me. I grabbed him by the front of the shirt and, although he was taller than me, I lifted him off the ground and said, “If you don’t stop, I won’t pay your taxi fare.” I left him on the sidewalk and went to the USOM Club.
One night on the compound while standing outside the command post with Nick, a small group of black soldiers came by. When they saw him they made remarks of a nature that made it clear that they thought he was a racist. I asked Nick what that was all about and he said they were right, but he tried not to show it. When the opportunity presented itself, I asked that my platoon be assigned a Black platoon sergeant.
Reports of unidentified intruders were always taken seriously because it was assumed they were probably North Koreans. North of the Imjin River, non-military Korean personnel were only allowed with a military escort. One morning after an unidentified intruder was determined to be a Korean woodcutter who was in a place where he should not have been, I was in the TOC when the 3/23rd Intelligence Officer came in and told me they had performed “target practice” on the man.
One night the ROKs on our east flank had a firing incident and I did not report it, thinking they would report through their own headquarters. I was mistaken and discovered my predecessor at Brigade TOC had been relieved for the same reason. I did not remember being told about it and I was puzzled as to why the NCOs on my shift, who were present at the time, did not warn me. But I was not unhappy to be sent back to my battalion. Colonel Ready, the new Battalion Commander, assured me that the episode would not affect my impending promotion to first lieutenant. I was put on the roster with all the headquarters junior officers to walk the newly erected Barrier fence twice a day, a week at a time.
The old Barrier fence was not a fence at all, but a few rows of rusted barbed wire and a line of foxholes that were strategically, rather than tactically, placed and stretched across the peninsula. The new Barrier fence was a chain link fence topped with concertina wire. The fence contained locked gates for access to the DMZ. On the north side of the fence was a minefield and pressure sensors. On the south side were the foxholes, interspersed with observation and command towers every few hundred meters. In the hills behind the Barrier, xenon searchlights and the bunker containing the detection center for the sensing devices were located. After documentation was uncovered by the South Korean government in the late 1990’s, the U.S. Army admitted that the swath across Korea in which the Barrier was located had been defoliated with Agent Orange.
I still did not have a real job until one day in early April when Colonel Ready asked me what I had been doing. Before I could answer he said, “A lot of crap, huh?” I smiled and he said he wanted me to work in the Battalion TOC. Because of the Pueblo Incident, each of the infantry battalions on the DMZ had been assigned an Air Force forward air controller to coordinate close air support in the event it became necessary. The major assigned to our battalion did not have much to do so he had agreed, at the Colonel’s request, to become the Battalion Operations Officer. I was responsible to him. A week after I started, the major went home on compassionate leave because of a family medical crisis and did not return. In effect, as a second lieutenant I became the Battalion Operations Officer without the title. I planned, briefed, and inspected patrols going out every day. I coordinated and monitored all troop movement within the battalion area. I monitored all radio and telephone traffic through the switchboard in the TOC and reported all activity every twenty-four hours at the morning battalion briefing. In the event of any tactical incident, I maintained command and control until the Colonel was notified and assumed command.
I loved the job. I was 'in the middle, in the know, in control' of everything. I spoke to just about every officer in the Battalion in the course of a few days. The phone rang and the radio crackled almost without cease all day long. We had several firefights that I experienced over the radio. The tension was enormous. At dinnertime, I turned over the TOC to the officer on the rotating roster for that night and went to dinner. I checked in with him before going to sleep and had a hot line next to my bed. I was the ultimate insider. Some days my jaws got so tight I could hardly speak. Also, because of the Pueblo Incident and a resulting big influx of new troops--so many that we did not have enough lockers or rifles (we were still equipped with M-14s, all M-16s going to Vietnam), DMZ orientation classes were held in the battalion movie theater once a week for about three weeks. I taught Map and Compass Reading and Night Patrolling Techniques.
Late spring in Korea was beautiful, sunny, and warm. On April 25, the anniversary of my commission, I was promoted to 1st Lieutenant. Since we had moved south and my TOC responsibilities had ended, I did not have a real job. In May, in a ceremony in front of Battalion Headquarters, I was awarded the Purple Heart by Lt. General Harry Critz, the Corps Commander for whom my first mission was to pull security when he inspected a forward guard post shortly after we both arrived in Korea. I received the Purple Heart in a ceremony some nine or ten months after the action because, I was told, the paperwork had been lost. By that time I had pretty much forgotten about it, but the battalion made a big deal of the ceremony. The Army awarded medals reluctantly in Korea, so each command played it up when they were received.
I believe that a "hero" is someone who risks his or her life to save others. Sergeant Bowman, who received his Purple Heart in the same ceremony I received mine, was part of a patrol that came under fire from a North Korean squad deep in the DMZ. He stood up and returned fire with his shotgun, hitting one or two of the enemy and causing them to flee back across the Military Demarcation Line. In return, he was shot in the arm. He was a hero. I don’t think that someone in a passive role who is killed or wounded is a hero. I certainly don’t think anyone who knows how to dial 911 to summon emergency services is a hero.
In June we rotated south and 3rd/23rd went north. I stayed with 3rd/23rd to break in their TOC officers. After a few days they made it clear that they no longer needed me, so I traveled the division area in a jeep assigned to me, going to baseball games, the movies, the bowling alley, the recreation center--sleeping where I found a friendly room. No one in my battalion knew where I was, and I liked it that way.
My last month in Korea was tenuous. Since the Pueblo Crisis, when departures had been extended thirty days, every time a major incident occurred worry began that more people would be extended. In addition, I still did not have orders. I had kept up with my closest friend from Fort Dix and Fort Benning, who was a personnel officer at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis. Cliffe "Gus" Godsey called someone in the Pentagon and wrote to me that I was to be stationed in New York State, but he did not know exactly where. It made me happy to think I would spend the rest of my time in my home state.
Around June 18 or 19 the entire division was called out to block exfiltration routes north from south of the division area. Again, it was a cause for worry until the battalion commander told me I could stay back, which was a great relief. I did not care that few of my friends would be at the ‘Sitdown Dinner'--the traditional goodbye at the O Club for departing officers which turned out to be very low key. Because most of the battalion was in the field and I was not, I was detached from events and felt that leaving was most appropriate. I had turned in my company gear, all my paperwork was done, and many of the guys I had known had gone home before me.
On Friday, the day before I left, the battalion XO sent me out to the field in a jeep to say my goodbyes. I went from company to company to see my friends, passing foxholes and gun positions, waving from the jeep. Dave Miller was allowed to go back with me and accompanied me to Kimpo Airport in a jeep the next day. On June 22, 1968, summer solstice (more daylight hours than any other day of the year), I went home.
The non-stop flight on the Northwest Orient Airlines Boeing 707 took about twelve hours across the international dateline and another sunset. We landed in the United States at approximately the same time on the same date we left Korea. I don’t remember any entertainment and probably read a book and tried to sleep (I don’t sleep well on airplanes) during the trip. The flight was filled with GIs, and when we touched down at McCord Air Force Base, a great cheer went up.
Processing was swift and taxis were shared to Seattle-Tacoma Airport. We kept whipping our heads back and forth, trying to see as much as we could see of what had become a strange new land. At Sea-Tac, the lounge was filled with soldiers. I shared a table with four other guys returning from Vietnam and managed to get mildly drunk before my flight to New York. The sun went down as I arrived at Kennedy Airport. My wife, my parents, sister and cousins were waiting. When I came down the ramp, my dog recognized me and charged across the floor. My wife and I embraced and everyone talked at once.
Later, in the back seat of my parents' car with my wife seated next to me, I silently wept in the dark in recognition that I was still alive. In Korea I had been an infantry officer in command of men, most of them younger than me. There were times I lead my platoon through minefields, was under fire, faced North Korean guns that did not fire, and had moments when I thought death was imminent. With all that, I never lost my composure. Now, in that darkened back seat, I let go a little to that pent-up emotion.
We stopped at my parent’s house just long enough to drop my bag, and then left for a party at the house some of my friends were sharing. I had sobered up on the flight home, but the crowd, the noise, and the drinking at the party had me lightheaded again. Although I knew a lot of the people there, I felt out of place. Most of the talk centered on the work they were doing or the relationships they were in. I had a hard time grasping that their lives had been so normal and uninterrupted while I was gone. Many of them asked me what Vietnam had really been like. When they did, I paused for a moment because I did not want to lose my temper. Then I told them I had been in Korea and I could see them lose interest. It happened often. At my next duty station, the post commander introduced me to people and pointed out that I had a Purple Heart and I was asked the same question.
End of Enlistment
I reported a week early to my next duty station in Niagara Falls, New York to the U.S. Army Support Center, a small post with a nuclear warhead maintenance shop that supported the Nike missile sites around Buffalo. I felt very uncomfortable among civilians. I had difficulty getting used to the fact that my reality had been so different from theirs. In addition, I was still in the military and my life for the foreseeable future would bear no resemblance to their lives.
My wife was with me. We were in a motel for a few weeks until a three-bedroom house on the Air Force base became available. I was Assistant S-1. My duties included Public Information Officer. As such, I was a member of the Niagara Falls Chamber of Commerce and on the Board of Governors of the O club at the Air Force Base. When the S-2 left, I became Director of Intelligence and Training.
We made friends with several other couples from the post. I played golf once a week. I was the player/coach of both the post basketball and touch football teams. I went to the race track one evening a week and took my wife to hockey games and movies in Buffalo. I made ‘Next of Kin’ notifications and had ‘Survivors Assistance’ cases and dreaded when my name rose to the top of the rotating roster. I was acutely aware of the weekly casualty figures. Watching the Democratic National Convention from Chicago that summer, I suddenly realized that my sympathies were with the anti-war demonstrators. When and how had that happened?
I was discharged on April 25, 1969. Most of the friends I had made in Niagara Falls were gone, either discharged or sent to Vietnam. If I stayed in the military, I would have another few months in the states before being sent to Vietnam, most likely to command an infantry company, so I had not considered making the Army a career. The Adjutant, Major Alice Dann, walked to the exit with me and told me that it was not too late. If I re-upped I would “be a captain, tomorrow.” My thought was that I would be dead in six months and I would not risk my life again.
After my discharge from the Army, we moved into my parents' house until I found a job working for the Boy Scouts of America as a professional organizer and fundraiser. I was out of work for about ten weeks, during which I collected unemployment compensation. I was with the Boy Scouts until January 1972. I had decided to go to law school and was on the waiting list at a school and also in the midst of a divorce. Going to Korea set me on the path that ended my first marriage. While I was there, I dealt with such weighty issues that I did not want to hear about anyone's problems when I came home--and that included the problems of my wife. Making next of kin notifications caused me to retreat even further. I did not do it consciously, but all of my sports activities were a way of avoiding reality. My first wife told me near the end of our marriage that she was very afraid of what I had become while I was away. If anyone else noticed, they did not say anything to me.
In September of 1972, having decided against law school, I moved into Brooklyn and shared an apartment with three others. I was living on my savings and had written an article entitled, “Operation Next of Kin-Missing in Vietnam” about my experiences making next of kin notifications. The article was published on the front page of the Village Voice in October 1972.
Eventually, I had to get a job and began working at a fast-food place in Times Square. That job lasted about nine months, when one of my housemates got me a job at a hospital in the Bronx as a technician. Eventually I became a supervisor, married one of the other technicians, and we had a child, Michael, in 1978.
In 1981 I went to ultrasound school, sponsored by the union and the hospital, and became a sonographer. Currently, I am an ultrasound applications specialist. For many years, I taught Ultrasound Physics and Ultrasound of the Neonatal Brain, which I still teach, at the State University of New York at Downstate Medical Center, Brooklyn, New York University Medical Center and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. I am also a site visitor for the agency that accredits ultrasound schools. I plan to work until I am at least 70. I am divorced, close friends with my second wife, and my son lives with me.
Reflecting back on my military career and Korea, it seems to me that in 1950, in the context of the cold war and the policy of containment and the fact that we already had troops there meant that a military response to the North Korean invasion was a foregone conclusion. Once the war ended in a stalemate, the U.S. force left in place was meant to be a political deterrent to the North Koreans, not an effective military defense. It is a valid political statement to presently have U.S. troops in the country.
All these years later, the overwhelming majority of Americans know nothing about what happened in the DMZ. Americans tend to be abysmally ignorant, often willfully so, of history. Our political leaders abet that ignorance by distorting history so they can use it as a battering ram against their opponents. Just as we were faced with the frustrating question, “What was Vietnam really like?” and learned to simply answer, “I was in Korea” and walk away, everyone still assumes if you were in the military during that era, you were probably in Vietnam. I think that one rarely hears about the experiences of Korean DMZ vets because they think that talking about it is futile and/or people would be skeptical. Everyone knows there was a war in Vietnam, but Korea? Nothing was going on in Korea, right? My son knows about Korea from photos I have around the house. He jokingly says that I have requested every Korean movie ever made from NETFLIX.
Frankly, I’ve been very engrossed in my profession for the last 25 years, so that my primary identity is as a sonographer. I don’t wear military paraphernalia and I haven’t joined any veteran’s organizations. I’m proud of my service, but I’ve been a vocal critic of some of our military policies. I don’t want to be identified with organizations that accept without question what I consider to be decisions that get people killed for the wrong reasons.
I suffered no permanent disabilities from my service. However, the clock on Agent Orange is still ticking. I had my VA physical and am in the Agent Orange Registry, to which the Army reluctantly acceded when it came to DMZ vets.
The only two people I’ve been in touch with from my time in Korea have been Gary Gable who lives in Buffalo, New York, and Dave Miller, who lives in Parkersburg, West Virginia. I had dinner with Gary last fall in Buffalo and last spoke to Dave in September. I travel a lot on my job and hope to get to see Dave at some point. I found a story online about Nick and sent him a letter through the author of the story, but never received an answer. I Googled Max, who succeeded Nick as my CO, but have not found him.
World War II veterans are treated with more respect than Korean War veterans because we won that war. Think about how Vietnam vets were treated when they first came home and it becomes obvious. Hopefully, Iraq War veterans won’t go through the same thing. I certainly don’t regret going to Korea instead of Vietnam. I’m the type of person who does not believe in regretting those things in the past over which I had no control or that I can no longer change. In any event, we are all the sum total of our experiences, and my time in Korea contributed to who I am today.
I returned to Korea in 1998 on vacation and stayed in Seoul. I walked a lot and took the DMZ tour. The country was unrecognizable from the one I knew. The cinder block, tin roofed hooches had been replaced by brick single family homes and high rise apartment buildings. Well-dressed young people rushed to and from work every day, and cell phones were everywhere. The streets were filled with private cars, and freeways radiated from the capital. One ran all the way into the Joint Security Area, where the DMZ tour bus stopped. I wept when I saw the memorial to the young men who were killed on the day I was wounded. I wondered then, and wonder to this day, if there is a memorial somewhere for Leonard Ashforth, John Gibbs, and Tommy Boyd.
I feel a great affinity for the Korean people. Their country was devastated and they had a very hard life. I was sometimes embarrassed at the way they were treated by some of us when I was there in the late sixties. Today there are many Koreans in New York, and when I greet them in Korean they are delighted. "Oh, you know Korea." "Yes," I tell them. "I was born in Munsan." "Really?" they ask earnestly. "Just kidding," I answer, and we both laugh.
My time in the Army has gone a long way toward giving me the self confidence to perform in situations that seem trivial by comparison, but necessary to success in my profession. It has also contributed to my sense of personal responsibility for my words and actions. In a nutshell I would describe my time in Korea as the most difficult time of my life, but perhaps the most memorable. Someday I hope the world will understand that a relatively small force of young men who had no agenda other than to perform their service, sometimes with great difficulty, served well in a tiny corner of the world that was well worth serving.
I wrote this memoir for many reasons. I am an introspective person, and putting my thoughts in print can clarify a lot. I did it because I want people to know what happened in the DMZ and because I have the memory that can provide that information. While I was in Korea, there were times that I thought my death was imminent. On the way home from the airport on that day in 1968, I realized that in the back of my mind I had not been convinced that I would live to make it out. The winter had been extremely cold. The life I had lead was harsh, and the loss of people had greatly affected me.
Probably the strongest reason I wrote this memoir has to do with something that happened last year. I was in Toronto on business at a hospital, talking to a group of radiology residents. One of them had been born in Korea, and I discovered he was born while I was in the DMZ. In front of this small group he said to me, “Thank you for saving my country.” I was stunned. No one had ever thanked me, recognized my service, or put it in such stark terms. I mumbled something inane like, “I couldn’t have done it alone.” I felt very humble at that moment, and I could not have been prouder. At that moment, and to this day, I knew it was all worth it.
Addendum - Village Voice Article