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Dr. Morton I. Silver, DDS
Fresh Meadows, NY -
"The truck drivers, the staff officers, the support troops, the fly boys on the ground, the armed wounded, all trained Marines, even the doctors, stood fast and fought off the assault. We fought together; we fought for our lives; we would not yield; we survived."
- Morton I. Silver
After the passage of more than forty years, I have this disturbing feeling as to why I am writing this brief autobiography of my military career. Much has been written about the Second World War and the Korean conflict. My military contribution seems so trivial, so banal, that I shrink from the telling of those personal experiences. However, I am now approaching my seventieth birthday and time is fleeting. Memory fades and the vigor of youth appears evanescent. I can, in a small way, recapture the memories and relive the days of my metamorphosis from a quiet, studious, and deferential young man to a mature, self confident Marine. From an uneasy and fretful student to a somewhat brash, but accomplished professional man.
There is a prerogative associated with "age", and I will take advantage of it throughout the telling of my military career. This is not a definitive narrative by any manner of interpretation, but I can assure the reader that I will maintain a high level of veracity since I had experienced all the recounted incidents. In order to refresh my memory with regard to the sequence of events, I have read at least eight published accounts of the Korean War. To my amazement and satisfaction, I have found that I had, in a small way, witnessed and participated in almost all the major happenings that occurred during the Chosin action. Obviously the scope of the entire Korean conflict escaped me, but the particulars were most illuminating. My impressions of the Army troops, the Marines, General MacArthur, et al, were very much to the point, and were similar to the views expressed, in great detail and unequivocally, by those professional authors and reporters. I also feel free at this age to express my personal opinion vis-a-vis the political and military conduct of those persons in high places who, with a stroke of their pen or authoritative word, put the lives of thousands of troops in jeopardy. At times my diatribe will seem to be too malevolent, but I remember too well how I felt; how we all felt in that frigid hell at the Chosin.
Last year I retired from the practice of dentistry, and have now become computer literate. To justify the expense of this technological marvel, I have embarked on this journey into the past. I was young and immortal. I had some of the most wonderful, unique, humorous, and frightening experiences that could happen to anyone. As I look back now, I realize that I would never have chosen such a trip, but neither would I have wanted to miss one moment.
I have long felt that the "police action" in Korea has been relegated by the media, as well as the historians, to the back pages of history. To ignore what we had endured and achieved is tantamount to insult. To those Marines who fought so valiantly, to those who protected me from the voracious enemy, to those who were my friends, I salute them. To those young men who made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country, I weep for them.
War is a monstrous evil, an abomination.
- Morton I. Silver, DDS
Ranked shoulder to shoulder in dress blues, naval corpsmen, led by a Captain and his retinue of Commanders and Lieutenants, stood at attention on the parade ground of the Brooklyn Navy Yard to honor and award a "boy" from Brooklyn the Silver Star medal. The year was 1951. More to the point of incongruity, this medal for "gallantry in action" was recommended by Colonel Murray of the Fifth Regiment, 1st Marine Division, the most highly decorated regiment in Marine Corps history--to be awarded to the regimental Dental Officer. From Tripoli to the Philippines, from Belleau Woods to Iwo Jima, from Inchon to the Chosin Reservoir, this magnificent fighting group included me in their pantheon of "heroes." (Under the usual circumstances such medals are given to Marines posthumously, but I declined the honor and stayed around to accept it in person.)
Born on October 3, 1925 to two very loving parents, I was the second of three children. As a child I was scrawny and miserable; one only a parent could love. I was susceptible to every childhood illness and misery, and I managed to acquire each one in turn. I considered food to be an infliction, a necessary evil. I ate a minimal amount as a protest--which for anyone with a knowledge of the principal obligation of a Jewish mother, was a challenge not to be depreciated. However, I was an obedient son in all other aspects. Jewish children were expected to do well in school and to get A's as often as possible, and so it was.
Schooling was a chore but I applied myself and was successful throughout my many years of education. I was the archetypical drudge, spending hours of study in order to give back to the teachers just what was required. My brain was cluttered with minutia for fear of missing anything. I cruised through grade school and junior high in record time and entered high school two years younger than my peers. In my second year at Boys High I managed to attain a 98.4 average in all subjects, the third highest in a school which had been known for a goodly number of talented students--but I was never accepted into that elite class of scholars. They had the intelligence and the grades, whereas I had only the grades. I was rewarded in a fashion that may have caused more harm than good to this peculiar child--I entered college, CCNY, at the tender age of 15 1/2 with the appearance and the social skills of a twelve-year old.
Never fazed, I returned to the books with a vengeance and in a few years I was an A student in my major, biology. This subject was my true love and I was really happy. Pursuing my talent of satisfying the teachers, I ground out hours of study and got top grades in most subjects, including advanced mathematics (a requirement for a Bachelor of Science degree), without knowing in the least how to apply this knowledge. And then I was eighteen, 1A in the draft.
Army Service - World War II - 1944
Four months after my 18th birthday I entered the Army, accompanied by the dregs of society. The Draft Board was reduced to scraping the bottom of the barrel. Aside from the few who had just reached draft age, there were those whom the Army had rejected previously--members of the notorious German-American Bund (my neighborhood's dubious claim to fame), and fathers of innumerable dependent children. The need for cannon fodder was apparent. These were my companions in arms.
Like spreading manure on a planted field, I sprouted like a weed. Certainly not physically, for I still found food a trying bore. I weighed about 120 pounds, and in uniform could be mistaken for a Boy Scout. But this Army life was something different. I was exposed to hot coffee, bacon and eggs, chili and beans, pork chops--all the things that I never could or should eat for fear of violating the laws of Kashruth--or in the case of coffee, stunting my growth. I devoured luncheon meat and found "shit on a shingle" a culinary delight. To this day I still find white toast and butter delicious. At home we would never waste precious money on gluey processed white bread, not while rye, pumpernickel, and bagels were available. I still salivate with the memory of the Army chow.
Something in the atmosphere at Camp Upton changed me forever. Perhaps it was the years catching up or the rising of the male hormones, but I was now different. I remained at the reception center for about three weeks, avoiding as much duty as was possible. For the first time in my life I challenged a system of authority, recklessly absenting myself from all formations that would produce servile volunteers for the required menial tasks such as garbage collection, KP, or latrine duty. It was not that I felt above such duty--I was just fascinated with the idea that I could successfully avoid it with a minimum of effort. My three years of college education had finally paid off.
I wandered the camp with the freedom worthy of a ranking officer. I was an A#1 goof-off, the envy of the other recruits. I did, however, learn to dive bomb--that is, picking bits of litter and cigarettes butts off the ground by hand, and to mop mess hall floors. Finally caught by the NCOs, I was assigned to KP. After reducing a mound of potatoes to a state of peeled exposure, I was told to swab down the entire mess hall after the fastidious troops had grazed there. Wielding a heavy mop, I moved down the rows of tables, ending each row with a flourish of my mop and managing to flick dirty water onto each and every mess table I passed. My technique was impeccable but unappreciated, and when I had completed my Herculean chore I was invited to redo all by a sympathetic NCO. One lives and learns the essentials of life--the hard way.
Another lesson learnt was my introduction to the bigotry and ignorance of the so-called American civilian soldier. When I was confronted with the statement that the U.S. should join up with the Nazis to wipe out all the Commies and Jews, I blew my top. (I was a real threat at 5'2".) I was rescued from certain mayhem by a passing NCO (Jewish) who hauled me outside the barracks and read me the riot act. He enlightened me with regard to the low level of intellect and the brutality associated with my Army buddies.
All this "training" was the only military attributes I acquired at Camp Upton before I was transferred to Mason General Hospital, a massive and intimidating structure--a mental hospital on Long Island. War has the ugly habit of breaking some men's minds, as well as their bodies, and we were there to help and perhaps cure these unfortunates--a pitiful joke that society refused to acknowledge for decades after the conflict ended and faded from memory.
[I must confess to a small omission. One day at Upton, failing to escape the searching eyes of the Noncoms, I was ordered to join the other raw recruits and march in formation. My God, this was War--so I began to march. About ten steps into my military career the heel of my boot came off, and my training was aborted forthwith, never to be resumed--in the Army, the Navy, or the Marine Corps. But this fact will have to await for further elucidation as I continue on in my military career.]
My experiences at this mental asylum are best not dwelled upon, for "psychiatry" was still mired in the dark ages. For this innocent soul, the trauma and frustration of the Army's handling of its walking wounded was close to criminal. Most of the doctors were impressed into the psychiatric service, given a perfunctory course in Neuro-Psychiatry, and thrust into an atmosphere of psychotics and psychopaths. The physicians were antagonistic, unconcerned, and inept. I and most other young corpsmen were college educated and idealistic, not yet tarnished by contact with the realities of the situation. We stood as a bulwark between the doctors and the patients.
Patients were brought to this hospital from the war theaters as well as the stateside Army camps. They were overwhelmed by the terror and degradation of warfare, the constancy of fatigue, and the ever-present specter of death. They succumbed to this all consuming horror--and cracked. They withdrew into the deep recesses of their psyche and were reduced to quivering, silent children. And for the most part, the doctors were useless.
Two other categories of patients were at Mason General. There were those who appeared fit when examined by the doctors at the Induction Centers--they walked and breathed and were immediately put into uniform. Within three or four weeks, they were sent to the hospital completely disoriented and unable to cope with Army life. One example of this irrational and inadequate selection process was that of a young farmer from the prairies of the Midwest. To be thrust in among a mob of cursing men, to wash and bathe in a milling crowd, to use the toilet facilities with forty or fifty indifferent nude bodies, was too much for this gentle "man-child." He withdrew completely from this terrifying situation into a self-induced protective shell to avoid all that which he could not understand, or that which he had never experienced previously. This meek and passive soldier had never left his farm nor had he ever been exposed to, or confronted with, more than a few people at one time. I sat throughout the night on the corridor floor talking with him one on one, giving him the time that the psychiatrists found unnecessary to provide. This example of the deficiency of the preliminary psychiatric examination resulted in a lifelong 100% disability pension for men who spent but a few weeks in the U.S. Army. The money, however, could never compensate those whose psyche suffered an irreparable, yet preventable, assault.
The last group of patients could be considered the foretoken of the present ills of our society. These were the psychopaths--violent individuals completely alienated from the morals and ethics of a free democratic system. They marched to their own beat--and Heaven help those who stood in their way, but they were the best behaved patients of all. Their mental aberrations did not preclude a cunning mind. Each with a dozen or more Courts Martials to their credit, they could end up in prison. But as cooperative mental patients, they would earn a quick Section 8 discharge for mental incompetence. They chose the latter and were released to resume their drug habits and antisocial predatory behavior interrupted by the war. The stigma associated with the Section 8 discharge never entered their minds. These patients caused me many moments of fear. They were human jackals.
There were times when duty at the hospital was a lark for this inexperienced youth. Occasionally I was assigned to ambulance duty to pick up our patients arriving on Army transports at the New York harbor docks. I had never driven a car, so I rode shotgun through the heavy city traffic with siren wailing and generally creating massive tie-ups. We roared onto the dock and lined up in front of the hundred or so ambulances awaiting their wounded. We had priority over everyone else. I guess "they" wanted to rid themselves as soon as possible of the embarrassing sight of apparently healthy, mentally-wounded men. Never before or since did I ride through Manhattan's crowded streets with such speed and panache. What heroic and fearless figures we must have been.
On another occasion, my youth and inexperience became obvious to all. I attended a beer party for the GIs, and inadvertently became the hit of the evening. Never having had more than a sip of beer from my father's glass, the bitter brew was alien to my digestive system--until that night. Free pitchers of beer proved to be my downfall, and I promptly proceeded to fall down. My lower bunkmate, a classic corpulent corporal old enough to be my father, hoisted me onto his shoulders (so I heard later), and put me to bed in the barracks. Later that night I awoke with a splitting headache and a thirst for a drink of water, perhaps to dilute the lingering effects of the beer. I took a swig of clear liquid from the bottle the corporal kept at the head of our bunk.... Gin is not a good substitute for water. Like a bolt of lightning, chalk one more experience for Private Silver.
My youthful exuberance was tested at times at the hospital. I did a tour of duty, twelve-hour shifts, on the "locked ward," a fearful enclosure behind massive doors and barred windows, completely isolated from normalcy. A modern bedlam, imprisoning both patients and ward personnel. The furniture was massive and immovable. The attendants, recruits from asylums in civilian life, appeared to me of like structure with a minimum of empathy for their severely disturbed patients. This truly was a hellish place, so why was I here? My inconspicuous and un-provocative physical presence proved to be my salvation. I posed no obvious threat to the poor abused psychotics. I was tolerated, and so survived my tour of duty. In one memorable instance I intervened, separating two huge male animals, one of whom managed to raise an immovable chair above his head in preparation to commit bloody mayhem on his partner. Acting on impulse and losing all sense of self-preservation, I stood between these two mentally distributed Goliaths, demanding that they end the fight. It must have been the most ludicrous sight; every one present began to laugh hysterically. I believe I cried. One decisive movement on their part would have changed the character of this "history" from the autobiographical endeavor to one sans auto.
I must make mention at this time that finally my hormones kicked in with a vengeance. I was now 5'3" in height and in my mind's eye, all females were fair prey. If able, I would have raped and pillaged my way through the entire ranks of the Army Nurse Corps. Unable to scale such heights of amorous adventure, I settled for a pliant woman in town and lost my virginity in a most prosaic way. I would have to wait later for love.
In September 1944, I left Mason General Hospital at the "Convenience of the Government" to attend dental school at NYU. My military career in the Army was interrupted at this time, to be reactivated in the future hopefully at a higher rank, since my existent position was after "women and children." I had entered the Army as a draftee, a buck private earning $50 per month, and left less than a year later having been exposed to the eye-opening experiences of living and working with the likes of people who make up the majority of the American population. Brooklyn was never like this. The fabric of my innocence had begun to fray.
Not yet nineteen, I was now a dental student. One moment in class and I reverted to my old, but successful, educational maneuvers. I was the consummate "beaver," studying everything as if pursued by a personal demon. And I was good. Years of schooling enabled me to anticipate the professors' wishes and personal whims. On one particular occasion I anticipated, or perhaps guessed, two out of three questions on a major anatomy examination. I filled out three blue test booklets in record time, receiving an A for my knowledge and prescience. By now I managed a modicum of sophistication and was accepted by the professors and my peers as quite intelligent. About that time I also was elected to Phi Beta Kappa from CCNY, which reinforced their opinion of my mental capacity. But as usual, I fell short of being the complete dental student. After two years of study, theoretical knowledge had to take a back seat to the practical. The practice of dentistry required hand and eye coordination, a skill that I acquired only minimally, but sufficiently to graduate a dentist at the age of twenty-two. This disablement, the lack of correlation between what I see and do, stems from the fact that I have monocular vision and minimal depth perception. My ability to function adequately, however, derives from the repetitive nature of most experiences in daily life. (This optical flaw did not seem to have a negative influence on my having been drafted into the Army. If sent into action, I could have been the secret weapon the Germans were seeking.)
In my senior year of dental school, I returned to CCNY to complete the last year of my requirements for the Bachelor of Science degree. Having now fulfilled seven years of college education, I considered myself a veteran in schooling. It was a wonderful feeling--no pressure to succeed, just a striving for personal reward; a desire to earn the degree embarked upon so many years previously by that innocent youth. (If this attitude, this pleasure, this desire for learning could only be transmitted or perhaps taught in the primary schools of this nation, most of our problems, now and in the future, could be properly addressed.
Lacking the finances, business acumen, and self-confidence necessary for one to embark on a career in dentistry, I was at a crucial point in my life. The family "fortune" had been exhausted (if it ever did exist) after maintaining two sons in college for eight years. It was clear to me that I would need a high-paying job in my chosen profession. I sent resumes to all corners of the earth. I assumed that pay levels would be stratospheric if I were to work in the jungles of Sumatra or the deserts of the Middle East.
Unilever International had no need for a dentist on the rubber plantations of the Far East. Apparently the workers in the jungle were not getting any fringe benefits that year. Arabian American Oil Company politely turned me down after explaining that they could not employ a Jew, as they were operating an oil franchise on the Arabian peninsula. There was an assumption that this unassuming young dentist would, upon arriving in the Middle East, emerge from behind his dental drills as an expert saboteur, wrecking and laying waste to the oil fields in the desert. (They must have got wind of my previous Army experience in the mess halls.) My last hope was as an assistant dentist on Aruba, in the Caribbean. Ah, I could see myself, there under the swaying palms, making dentures for the toothless natives--but no answer to my inquiries was forthcoming. I was desperate to begin working and earning a decent salary, so I took the last fateful step--and entered a new chapter in my life.
When the government released me from the Army to go to dental school, there was an implied debt to be paid. All such as I were eligible to be recalled back to the service at some future date to fulfill this obligation at the whim of the government. And so I joined the U.S. Navy. Why the Navy? To wear a tailored blue uniform with gold braid seemed to me far superior to the drab Army khaki. A white shirt and tie was the ultimate badge of a gentleman, and certainly not the appropriate garb for a muddy encounter. I also wanted to impress the women. Some men take a course from Charles Atlas to develop their muscles and to kick sand, but I opted for a naval uniform. My muscles would have to wait.
Joining the Navy did present a problem. I was twenty-two years of age and underweight by about ten pounds. For two weeks I gorged myself on food, particularly bananas. On the day of my physical, still underweight, I did the next best thing. Filling my pockets with heavy lead fishing sinkers, the total weight of which could tire a 500-pound tuna, I staggered into the examination room to confront and confound the Navy. A sympathetic doctor, and the Navy's need for dentists at that time, negated all my fruitless efforts. My trousers fell with a thud--and I was in the U.S. Navy Dental Corps.
My father was overjoyed with the prospect of a naval officer as a son. He was an immigrant from Poland and an American citizen to the very core of his being. He wore his patriotism as a badge of honor and he lived vicariously through his sons. This was peacetime and the likelihood of war and combat was completely out of mind. Together we went to Brooks Bros., a prestigious clothier in Manhattan, and I was outfitted with a blue naval uniform, the most expensive suit I had ever owned. The rest of my uniforms I bought second-hand from a naval veteran of World War II. They fit perfectly and the tarnished gold braid identified me immediately as a veteran. However, I could have done without the distinctive sheen on the seat of my pants.
I was sworn into the Navy as a Lieutenant j.g. on a Monday morning at about 11. Returning home, I opened a letter just delivered from Aruba, offering me the job among the palm trees. Too late--I've joined the Navy to see the world as an officer and gentleman. God help the United States!
The United States Navy
Wearing a naval officer's uniform causes a most unusual transformation for a young man from Brooklyn. One's backbone straightens immediately without the intervention of chiropractic manipulation, and the head rises to the occasion. For the first time in my life I would be far from home, as my new duty station was the Naval Training Center, San Diego, California. I was happy, exhilarated, and a bit frightened.
Traveling by train across country, I had enough time to think and review just what I had done. For so many years I was a student at school, following rules and parameters established by others. Now suddenly I had grown up, alone and unfettered. Sunny California beckoned and I was ready to begin my new life. The Navy and I, together, and both of us would never be the same again.
Bourbon and Soda, Thank You
The year was 1948. The sun shone brightly, especially on the sheen of my trousers. I arrived by taxi at the BOQ (Bachelor Officer Quarters), and was assigned my own room. Already things were looking up. The BOQ was unbelievable, a typical California creation. It was a "bordello." The large reception or living room was furnished with soft upholstered chairs and sofas in shades of pink and chartreuse, reflected repeatedly in the mirrored walls and mid-room columns. At the far end of this seraglio one entered the bar, a necessary adjunct to any military accommodation. Seated at the far end of the bar was a veteran Warrant Officer, the lowest officer rank, usually one who finally, after many years of service as a CPO, is rewarded with a field commission. As befitting a proper host, he invited me to have a drink with him. He appeared confused, for he could not reconcile the cherubic-faced young man with the green tarnish of the gold braid. "What are you drinking, Doctor?" And I was floored. I had been suckled on milk in my early years and had a glass of sweet sacramental wine on the Jewish holidays. This was the extent of my imbibing of hard liquor. My bewilderment, hesitation, and inability to make a choice (for the bar did not stock Manischewitz Kosher Concord wine) prompted this old sea dog to rescue me and to indoctrinate me into the manly pursuit of drinking. "Bourbon, Doctor. Bourbon and soda. That's what we in the Navy drink." I received my baptism that evening, and for all my days after when asked as to what do I drink--"Bourbon. Bourbon and soda, thank you."
The first official act that is incumbent upon an officer arriving at a new station is to meet the base commander. Dressed now in my new Brooks Bros. uniform with shiny braid, hat neatly tucked under my left arm, I was ushered into the Admiral's office, snapped to attention and gave the "old man" simply a terrific salute--and the Admiral exploded. In the Army one salutes a superior officer even under cover. Not so in the Navy. "Aren't you young doctors taught anything in Field Medical School?" What school? What training? I just don't get it. It seems that no one is ever interested in providing me with the basic training. I guess they must think that I am some kind of military wunderkind.
Life fell into a routine at the dental clinic. The senior officer was a Navy captain who was minimally concerned with the running of this large clinic. All responsibility for the dental operation rested with the Executive Officer, a man ill-suited to inspire loyalty or cooperation from the junior doctors. He was a martinet with regard to his underlings, and a toady--a sycophant, when in the company of the Captain. He was my nemesis. However, he did have a hard time. Despite the doctor's insignias of rank, our professional status made us independent of the military aspect. All of us felt equal to the Exec, particularly in matters of dentistry, and in reality we felt superior to him. These jgs were hot shots, the top of the class from the best dental schools. The Exec had his work cut out for him.
Weekend in a Sub
Often after work I went into town to the harbor where the ships lay at anchor. San Diego was a major naval base, and there was much to see. At dockside, a large repair vessel was anchored with three submarines nestled against its side like a shoat with her suckling piglets. I stood there watching the activities aboard one of the subs when its skipper noticed me and invited me aboard. After a short conversation, he asked if I would like to join the sub crew for a weekend training cruise. Never before or since was an affirmative answer delivered with such speed.
Since I was free on the weekend, I did not have to get permission from my Exec. But he sure as hell was angry when he learnt of my submarine adventure. The Captain was delighted to hear of my cruise, and that quieted the Exec--but I was gathering the first of many "demerits" by my resistance to his overbearing and intrusive manner.
Submarines at all times run at full war alert. We left the harbor, cruising on the placid surface of San Diego Bay--I substituting for a member of the port watch so as to keep the correct number of men in the conning tower. With decks awash, the sub, now in the open Pacific waters, rolled and pitched like a rodeo steer as it has no steadying keel. After about thirty minutes of this ridiculous instability, my stomach was moving in rhythm to the waves and my previous meals were about to assert themselves in protest. Abruptly the skipper told me to go below. As I descended the ladder, the klaxon horn roared and the boat began to dive. Hurtling down past me, over me, and on top of me came the watch crew, with the skipper literally falling through the hatch, closing the steel lid to this tomb of a boat as the foaming waters of the Pacific swallowed us all. These guys were not playing games--this was for real.
The sub leveled off at 100 feet, and I mean leveled off. This three thousand ton vessel (non-nuclear, diesel, snorkel-equipped) can actually be trimmed by water ballast to an exact depth, to the exact foot, to be re-trimmed twenty minutes later as the total weight is increased by the simple absorption of a few gallons of water in the exposed wooden decking. With electric motors driving the boat an unimpressive three knots (maximum speed is about seven knots for about thirty minutes), the platform was so stable that I ate a hearty dinner in the tiny mess within ten minutes after the crash dive. The mess served as the officers' dining area, lounge, library, meeting room, etc.--all being accommodated in an area of about 10'x8'. Space was at a minimum and was utilized to the maximum.
Being a guest, I was permitted to use the auxiliary periscope for viewing the surface ships involved in the exercise of tracking and figuratively destroying the sub. Raising the sub to 58 feet allows the periscope to project just above the waves yet evade detection, hopefully. The optics in the scope are so precise one can see anything and everything within viewing distance. I used the scope at one time when a crash dive was ordered. Depressing the lens to the minimum distance enabled me to see the waters engulf our sub as it sunk beneath the waves. I remained transfixed by the eerie view, finally realizing that we were the ones being "sunk," submerged in the Pacific deep. At that moment I became utterly convinced that submarine duty was for fishes or madmen.
After a few hours touring the sub while it played cat and mouse with its pursuers on the surface, I became bored and returned to the control area to play "skipper" with the scope. Turning my cap backwards so that the brim did not interfere with my viewing, locking my arms around the horizontal handles in true Hollywood fashion, I rode the rising periscope tube upward to the surface when I was rudely knocked aside as the skipper hit the "down" button and lowered the scope. He dressed me down with such vehemence that I surely thought I would be jettisoned at the first opportunity. Raising the periscope during an exercise without signaling the surface could result in a collision with a ship above and possible disaster, not to mention the negative effect on the skipper's naval future. I was forgiven for my act of stupidity and the cruise was successfully completed without further interference by the dental corps. I imagine, however, that no submarine goes to sea nowadays with a "green" dentist aboard, unless he's bound and chained.
(For one to think that this was the end of my naval adventures--they would be sorely mistaken. I had acquired an aptitude for serendipitous experiences.)
Reviewing the Fleet
One beautiful afternoon found me again in the harbor area. At the naval landing, an Admiral's barge was approaching, flying a pennant with two stars, and the Admiral in all his glory seated in the stern. It was a stunning sight. Gleaming brass fittings, tasseled white canvas, polished mahogany and teak decking, and flags whipping in the sea breeze. The Admiral disembarked and as he passed me, I saluted. He addressed me after returning my snappy salute (remember, I was an Army veteran), and asked if I was going to the Naval Air Station on North Island in the Bay. I first replied in the negative, but immediately thought better of it and said yes. The barge was instructed to return the doctor to the island immediately. Picture this, if you will--a Lieutenant jg seated in the stern of the Admiral's barge, and with the connivance of the crew, whose faces were a picture of innocence but inwardly bursting with laughter, began the trip across the Bay with a detour through the Fleet, down the column of ships. The deception would have been minimal if the Admiral's flag had been lowered as I had requested through clenched teeth, but the crew would have none of this. This was going to be a Grand Tour, and so it was. Coming abreast of each ship, be it a destroyer, supply ship, cruiser or tender, required the proper salute according to rank. And I, in the barge flying two stars, outranked them all. Each ship in turn saluted the barge. Bosuns piped all hands on deck; men scurried to the rail, discarding their mops, brushes, and other working paraphernalia as they ran, to stand at attention as I cruised past. Down one line of warships and up the other, we managed to spread confusion and bewilderment throughout the fleet. Moving at top speed to North Island, I leapt to the dock before the barge had a chance to tie up--and disappeared into the surroundings. I had boarded the barge at 5'6" and I left slinking off as fast as I could at what I hoped would appear as an inconspicuous 2'6" (?). I do not believe any dental officer ever had the opportunity before or since to review the fleet.
If the previous incident appears the stuff of fiction, to which I dissent most vigorously, and in spite of the passage of time as I enter my dotage, I remember one more unusual episode as this jg wandered through the environs of the Navy. Spending one afternoon with a fellow officer and his wife, I noted that a Canadian naval squadron was in port for a visit. Always game for some new adventure, I suggested that we go aboard the Corvette berthed at dockside. My friend demurred, and so I went to seek permission to board the vessel for a visit. We were Navy men, albeit Dental Officers, and these Canadians should be hospitable. And besides, their deck guns did not appear loaded. Striding down the dock to the gangway, I passed working parties of men under the supervision of their Chief Petty Officers--grizzled veterans with huge drooping mustaches. In true Canadian/British fashion, they saluted me as I passed with such fervor and gymnastic agility that could only be the result of thirty or forty years at sea. With only about four months of service under my mustache--I mean my belt, my salutes were but pitiful responses, but I did manage to appear in control. Reaching the gangway, I placed my right foot--or perhaps it was my left foot, on the ascending ramp and all hell broke loose. Oh Lord, here we go again. A foreign officer boarding a naval ship of another nation is piped aboard the ship according to his rank. I was not aware of this protocol, but it dawned upon me as soon as I took the second step. The deck above was in turmoil, men racing to the gangway to stand at attention while others in the process of swabbing down the decks were hiding their mops and buckets in the gun enclosures. I reached the deck at almost the same instant as the Officer of the Day, he perspiring with the exertion of running from below decks to the quarterdeck, and I sweating with the assumption of an impending explosion when "they" realize they were greeting a lowly jg, DENTIST. Facing the stern I saluted the Canadian flag, and then turned and saluted the OD, while two sideboys saluted and the Bosun piped me aboard. Nowhere in the naval regulations of any country throughout the world is there written conventions as to honors given to a Lieutenant jg. The President or the Queen rates a 21-gun salute and eight sideboys, but for me, well I am from Brooklyn, and I should rate at least, a curtsy.
Now on deck and casting all caution to the wind, I excused myself and asked permission to visit the ship. I was politely told that the ship was not open as yet to visitors, but the OD would be happy to give me a quick tour around the main deck. We accomplished this perfunctory exercise with speed and cold politeness, and I left the ship with the Bosun's piping sending me on my way. This incident was a well-kept secret of all the junior officers at the Naval Training Center, my good buddies, for within a few days an order came down from the Base Commander that no officer from our base will accept an invitation to visit the Canadian squadron. The Canadian Admiral committed an unforgivable error of omission of not inviting our Commanding Officer to a cocktail party for all the flag officers in the San Diego region. I wonder how many years in the brig I could have earned if the account of my early visit had leaked to the "old man."
Days turned into weeks as I became more self-confident as a dental officer and as a "mature" individual. Being the junior officer at the clinic, I was given the heavy responsibility for maintaining the coffee mess--to keep the coffee pot always at the ready. Napoleon had said that an Army traveled on its stomach. He could have added that the Navy floated on its coffee. I tried, I really tried, but I only drank the vile brew having little idea as to its origin. One day I set up the coffee pot, leaving it on the heating element to be miraculously transformed into a potable brew. Being involved with a patient, I completely forgot the coffee and the following occurred: from coffee to concentrate, from liquid to a gummy residue, from a dark brown tarry substance to a violent explosion as the whole damn apparatus blew up with a roar. I lost the job and earned another "demerit" in the Exec's book.
Oh, how he tried. That poor Exec would not be thwarted. He demonstrated the proper wearing of the uniform, the proper way to salute, and the proper conduct expected of an officer, on or off duty. We dentists watched incredulously as the Exec went through his routine. His persistence paid off, I think, but did fall short of a complete transformation. I found myself, one day, at the most distant area of the base, and I had a long walk back to the BOQ. Hailing a Navy messenger on a motorized scooter, I requested a lift, which he gallantly provided--on the handlebars. The trip back to quarters would have been uneventful except that we did run into the Exec. The next morning, prominently displayed on the officer's bulletin board, was the new Order of the Day. "No officer is permitted to ride on the handlebars of any vehicle, on base or off." The men had no inkling of the rationale of this order, but chalk up one more "demerit" in my column.
There was another time when I was only an innocent party to a fiasco, but it reinforced the Exec's deprecatory opinion of this officer. Routinely the dental clinic was inspected by the commanding officer. Trailed by the Exec and CPO, the Captain visited each dental office, using a white gloved hand to inspect for dirt or improper instrument care. This was an important procedure, and it kept the dental officers and staff on their toes. We were good, and he intended to keep it that way. All was in order--and then he arrived at my office. I and my assistants were prepared, or so I thought. The office was inspected in a thorough fashion and the Captain appeared satisfied. Before leaving he went to the boiling water sterilizer to check for cleanliness and lime deposits. He raised the gleaming stainless steel lid and noted three eggs sitting there being hardboiled in the tank. We had just given a cook a dental prophylaxis and he so kindly rewarded us for our fine care by presenting us with a few eggs. An additional reward of four weeks restriction to base was earned by my men. As an officer I received a scathing look from the Exec. But the Captain moved on, grinning as he went. The next few days I noticed that the Exec seemed to be getting prematurely gray.
In the interim period between graduation from Dental School and receiving my Navy commission, I had earned my New York and New Jersey State licenses to practice dentistry. Now residing in San Diego, it seemed a propitious time to try and get a California license, a most sought after privilege. I made the proper applications, had my books sent from Brooklyn, and began a serious regimen of study for the forthcoming tests. Daily I could be found, after working hours, studying in the BOQ lounge, my books and papers all about me, somewhat oblivious to the exotic and indecorous surroundings. My unusual activity finally attracted the notice of a senior commander, a destroyer skipper. He was fascinated with my earnestness and my goal. These quarters were more conducive for carousing than for study, but I had paid my fees and nothing was going to thwart my efforts--so I thought.
A few weeks before the examinations were to take place in Sacramento, I applied for two weeks leave. Under ordinary circumstances this request would have received fraternal consideration from a fellow professional, but this was the Executive Officer. "Leave Denied." The excuse given was that I didn't have enough months in service to have accumulated two weeks leave. Those fatuous "demerits" spreading tumor-like in his mind had done me in.
Devastated by the news, I returned to my duties and tried to regain my happy demeanor. A few days later, while lounging at the BOQ, I met the destroyer skipper. He was senior in rank and also in age, and he took a fatherly interest in my studies. When he learnt of the denial of my leave request, he blew his proverbial top. He was an imposing character and he fumed most impressively. He knew with absolute certainty that advance leave could be granted to any officer, and he volunteered to present my case before the Exec. (That would have been some confrontation.) I would not have someone other than myself plead my case, and since I had been apprised of the naval regulations with regard to advance leave, I again formally requested two weeks. This time the request was denied with a "cease and desist" addendum. We had locked horns and the jg yielded to the Exec--but not for long.
Unhappy for the moment and frustrated, it seemed a good time to seek other pastures to roam, other seas to sail--and so I put in a request for "sea duty." Wording the request with all the civility and humbleness I could muster, I submitted my papers to the Warrant Officer for the Exec's signature. Two weeks passed and silence appeared to be the order of the day with respect to my application. Confronting the Warrant, I demanded that my papers be forwarded immediately--and immediately I received a curt reply--"Disapproved."
On board all naval warships there are departments of organization such as Gunnery, Engineering, Personnel, Medical, etc. The Navy Dental Corps, uncomfortable with an inferior position in the Medical Department, persuaded the Navy to free us from the domination of the Medics and we had become a separate department within the Navy and aboard ship. It was this fact that the Exec used to deny me sea duty. He could not countenance the possibility of this young and inexperienced dental officer, namely me, to be the head of a department on a warship. I must admit to some trepidation as to this possibility, but I had already been down in a submarine and rode the admiral's barge in a Fleet review. Hell, not even the Exec had accomplished such feats of seamanship. "Disapproved" became a brick wall against which I was bloodying my head. (Ah, the reader should not fret. The best is yet to come....)
Before the bleeding had time to stop, I received orders to ship out to the Fleet Marine Force, Guam. The actual address of my new duty station was truly impressive and I used this appellation with childlike pride, for it read thusly:
(Can't you hear the Marine Corps Hymn playing softly in the background?)
Again, some explanation is required as to how the Marines now lay claim to this veteran of the Army and the Navy. (If this keeps up, I'll be flying bombers for the Air Force before I reach my thirtieth birthday.) The Corps is composed entirely of fighting men (and now women). Everyone has undergone vigorous training of mind and body. In the most dire straits, when whole units have been decimated they can be reinforced with cooks, typists, motor pool mechanics, etc. These replacements can and do fight with an effectiveness that can stun the enemy and turn the Army's Brass green--with envy. The Corps does need non-combatant personnel and this is where I come into the picture. Physicians, dentists, chaplains, and corpsman are transferred to the Marines from the Navy to minister to the "gyrenes" and perhaps to become infected with the "gung ho" spirit that pervades this magnificent fighting outfit.
My orders were unusual. In true military vernacular, the likes of which required interpretation from the Personnel Officer, I was to fly to Guam as soon as practical, as soon as possible. Why the speed? There must have been a dental emergency somewhere in the Pacific and I was needed post-haste. Little did I realize at that time that the speed of my departure was a result of the Exec's intervention on my behalf.
Arriving in San Francisco by plane, I waited anxiously for the next flight to the far Pacific. Again my guardian angel was near and the flight to Guam resulted in yet another chapter in my life. Here we go again....
I was fortunate to board the largest and last flying boat in the U.S. arsenal of planes. It was humongous, slow, and had the configuration of a fat lady minus her girdle. The famed Pan American Clippers would be dwarfed by this whale of the air. The cabin was divided into an upper and lower deck, with the enlisted men assigned to the lower. But as soon as we were airborne, all passengers aboard wandered about at will as we laboriously ground our way, for twelve hours, to Hawaii.
We left the Navy dock and cruised slowly to the far end of San Francisco Bay. With engines roaring, we raced down the length of the Bay in a futile attempt to become airborne. We were unsuccessful and so we turned about and began our cruise once again to the end of the Bay. This "fat baby" needed all the water distance available for take-off. Full power to the engines while the plane was held stationary resulted in horrendous noise, and then off we went. Down the Bay we roared, scaring the hell out of every gull and sea bird for miles around, churning the water into a frothy bow wave worthy of a destroyer at flank speed. But alas, we still were in contact with the fishes instead of the birds. The third try proved as unsuccessful as the first two attempts. If they had asked me I would have suggested a night in San Francisco for a well earned rest--but I wasn't consulted.
All flying boats, and especially one of this size, cannot take off in smooth seas. They require a small chop so that the plane's hull can literally bounce up a bit, to now ride on a small so-called step on the hull, allowing the rushing air to pass under the hull and produce the necessary lift for these ungainly monsters. The weather would not cooperate and we were grounded. Whoops, I mean waterlogged.
Now the U.S. Navy does not take defeat lightly. We tied up at the dock and soon mechanics were swarming all over the plane. Somehow or other these people are taking my orders too seriously. The phrase "as soon as possible" shouldn't preclude the possibility of a short shore leave, but they meant business. Six Jato units, small rockets, were attached under the wings of the plane for a rocket assisted take-off. We'll either become airborne or those rockets will pull the wings and feathers off this big bird.
Once again we were afloat at the end of the Bay. Suddenly, to the harrowing roar of the straining engines were added the howls of six Jato units screaming in unison. The plane's cabin filled with billows of white smoke and we took off down the Bay--straight to Hell, I thought. Defying all the principles of aerodynamics, this monster boat with wings soared lazily into the sky and we were on the way to Hula land.
For twelve hours we droned on at 160 knots until we finally reached the Hawaiian Islands. Except for the interminable noise and boredom of a long flight, the trip was enjoyable. As opposed to being packed in like sardines on an ordinary plane, this was more like traveling by train. There was room for all to move about with ease. The only detail missing on this flight was the absence of pretty stewardesses. We had Navy men instead, efficient, but lacking in esthetic appeal. Landing outside the harbor at Honolulu, we then cruised on the surface of the Pacific for about three miles to our anchorage. Try this with a Boeing 747. (Could this final segment of the journey qualify as sea duty?) I believe that this trip was one of the last flights of this obsolete flying boat. I had nothing to do with its demise.
One night in Hawaii and then off I flew toward my destination on Guam. This time I was on a proper plane, wings, engines and wheels. Of course, if we didn't make it to the next landfall I would rue the day that I made fun of the "flying bath tub." After two hours of uneventful flight we began to descend, approaching within thirty feet of the wave tops. I thought that this was a strange way to fly to Guam since not a damn bit of land was in sight, but one has to give credit to these Navy pilots. We were approaching Johnson Island, a spit in the Pacific Ocean. (If you would check on a world map, this island southwest of Hawaii is the size of a pin point and I would be exaggerating a bit.) We were now at twenty-five feet and just about to bounce off the coral reef when we landed, hitting the island target at its first ten feet--and then the fun began.
With brakes squealing and with the smell of burning rubber, we raced to the other end of this minuscule island. (Where the hell was the FAA when they constructed this "bowling alley" of a runway?) Slowing imperceptibly, we reached the end of the runway and the plane made a screeching turn; the starboard wing literally arching over the water as we continued to careen back down the runway. Fortunately, the laws of physics began to take hold and the frictional resistance of the tires and brakes slowed us to a halt before we had a chance to exit the island whence we came.
Ah, Johnson Island, an atoll in the Pacific, home of the Gooney birds, an airfield and an atomic testing facility. The birds were here first and their claim to this territory should have been honored. Being a birder at this present date, I can identify the Gooney with a modicum of certainty as a Black-footed Albatross, a proud and lordly bird, outranking all. If ever a human had to be reduced in importance, put in his proper place, see the Gooney. This bird is oblivious to man's presence. It looks straight through and past you. It doesn't give a damn for one's stripes or gold insignia. This bird defecates on all with equanimity. It is an equal opportunity defecator.
Stretching our legs, refueling and consorting with the "birds" took about one hour, and then we were instructed to board the plane. This was not Kennedy International Airport. The island personnel took close to thirty minutes shooing away the Goonies who were strutting and promenading on the runway. Those birds of independent minds who rebuffed all efforts of peaceful persuasion were unceremoniously seized by the neck and hauled off the tarmac by truck. This time all passengers were experienced with regard to the landing on Johnson, and so with many Hail Marys and one Shema Yisrael we rose from the coral runway with ease, and continued our trip to the "sauna" of the Pacific, Kwajelain Island.
Disembarking at Kwajelain is an experience that one would wish to avoid. It was so hot, so humid, so buggy I thought I had arrived in Miami Beach in the summer. We were to remain the night, so I checked into the BOQ and went to the bar. Its unusual how radically changed I had become since joining the navy. Previous to this, in civilian life, I had never spent any time in a bar, pub, saloon, tavern, gin mill, speakeasy, or public house. Now the first place I visit is the bar. Obviously, you all know just what I ordered--"Bourbon and Soda, thank you."
Joining a group of Marine officers, I listened intently as they recounted tales that would seem to anyone as pure fiction, except that these men were China Marines, the very last of a dying breed. For years the U.S. had kept a presence in Tsing-tao, China, inheriting a former German enclave on the mainland after the defeat of Germany in World War I. It was a throwback to the years of European imperialism until the ascendancy of the Communists. Now it was all over. The Marine contingent was told to leave immediately and this anachronistic event was consigned to the back pages of history. But the memories and stories of this "occupation" would linger on for decades. The China Marines lived a life not seen since the demise of the feudal system in the Middle Ages. Every man from officer to private had his own coolie to pamper him and to serve him. There were women and young girls to do their bidding. They made their own laws and the U.S. dollar could buy anything. The most excessive misuse of the position of subjugator was the purchase of young female children who were raised and educated by a nurse, paid for by an older Marine, to be his faithful consort upon his retirement from the Corps. There were reports of some such retirees in Shanghai, but all contacts were lost after the expulsion of the China Marines. I would have liked to have tasted some of this forbidden fruit, but I was too late. Besides, what would I have done with servants, women, etc. That night I slept fitfully, dreaming the dreams of a sultan or pasha--until awakened for the final leg of my journey to Guam.
Fourteen hundred miles northwest of Kwajalein lies the island of Guam, my new home, courtesy of the United States Marine Corps. I reported to the personnel office at regimental headquarters, presented my orders, and noted the quizzical expression on the yeoman's face. "We don't have transfer orders for a Lieutenant jg Silver. There must be some mistake." There must be a joke here, but I wasn't laughing. I apparently was transferred in such haste that I traveled on some other officer's orders and literally arrived in Guam before my specific orders were transmitted. It finally dawned on me that this was my former Exec's final retaliation--deportation.
United States Marine Corps
The U.S. Marine Corps is an unusual and unique fighting force. Putting aside one's abhorrence to war and violence, the need for this elite service during threatening times is obvious. There are two kinds of Marines--one who hates the Corps with a vengeance, and the other who is completely convinced that "it" is the finest military outfit on the face of the earth. Reading further along will make it very clear into what category I fit. (I will make mention of one exception, another sort of former Marine, who stands alone, and in my humble opinion, is a miscreant, a blot on the honor of the Corps. I refer to "Ollie" North--I personally repudiate him, denying him the honor that accrues to a member of the Corps.)
The men and women entering the Corps are all volunteers. They come from diverse backgrounds and have all manner of education. They are young and impressionable. This latter quality of mind is used most effectively during the training of a Marine. Boot camp training reduces the individual to a common denominator by commonality of dress, shaven heads, harsh training, and shared misery. With infinite patience and attention to the future requirements, these raw malleable recruits were gradually turning into Marines. Despite some highly publicized errors of judgment that can always surface when dealing with thousands of troops, the leadership quality of the Marine officer is second to none, period. As an educated civilian, transposed into a military milieu in all three services, I could stand apart, figuratively, and view the caliber and leadership qualities of these officers. I enjoyed their camaraderie in peace time, in military exercises that I denigrated as worthy of the Boy Scouts (how wrong I was). Later I joined them in successful attacks against the North Koreans as we drove the enemy back toward the Yalu River. I was with them on the repeated rescue missions to reverse the constant losses suffered by MacArthur's poorly trained "veteran" troops to prevent the Army from being driven into the China Sea. Finally, I was with them totally at the Chosin Reservoir, to add another chapter of heroism and brilliance to the history of the Corps.
An overwhelming majority of Marine officers were superbly trained, well educated, and possessed a high degree of self confidence and motivation--and they could inspire their troops by example. Their job is made easier by the unbelievable esprit de corps engendered throughout the training period and beyond. After boot camp the newly created Marine literally views himself in the mirror and sees the finest fighting man in the world. This subjective self analysis is the result of Marine Corps training, and I challenge any other American military group to match it. The United States derives the maximum desired military result when it invests and supports the Corps. The citizens of this country should realize the debt owed to these men who will be there when needed--at a moment's notice.
There is no such rank as Lieutenant jg in the Marines. I donned the Marine insignia and wore the silver bar of a Lieutenant. Tropical wear was light khaki and was similar to the naval uniform, but for any military exercises I wore the typical fatigues. I worked in a fully-equipped dental clinic housed in a Quonset hut. We serviced all Marine personnel and their dependents.
All bachelor officers lived in Quonsets, four to a "hut". The term hut is misleading, for these were very spacious quarters divided into two separate areas. We had a "living room" area of about 24'x18', separate bedrooms, and shared a bathroom also set to the size of the Quonset, which translates to a bathroom the size of a pool hall. One more room was shared in which we stored all our military equipment and excess baggage. It was the "hot" room, heated by many large wattage bulbs to reduce the humidity and to keep the mildew and jungle rot from destroying all things not made of armor plate. Only our steel helmets proved impervious to the ravages of the pervasive fungus. We also had in our hut a most unusual refrigerator that was as efficient in keeping food cold as the best in the States. It ran on kerosene. A burning wick beneath the refrigerant coils, obeying the laws of thermodynamics, kept frigid the interior of the box. I was now capable enough not to blow up the apparatus. (I also could make coffee like a pro.)
Typical Tropical Island
This was a typical tropical island. Midday heat dictated tropical working hours, and so we began the day at eight in the morning and quit at two. We had enough leisure time to pursue any avocation we desired, but we soon fell prey to tropical lassitude. All those admirable ideas of study and self improvement were soon drowned in a glass of cool beer or in a chilled drink of the best liquor available. One physician, a brilliant internist, upon reporting to the outfit took one look at all us sluggards and made the rash announcement that he would never stoop to such indolence. So within two weeks on Guam he was conducting "sick call" from his bed instead of at the medical clinic. "The best laid plans of mice and men" oft undergo transmutation in the tropics.
The Marine base on Guam was a military outpost. Leisure facilities were at a minimum, thus demonstrating to Congressional overseers that the Corps can field a reinforced regiment at a cost far lower than any Army outfit. This was fine for our competitive reputation, but we didn't relish the Spartan life in such tranquil surroundings. By late afternoon each day the bachelor officers retired to the "Officer's Club," a large Quonset that served as a bar and mess hall. Standing against one wall of the club were three "infernal machines" of no known military use, but they could reduce the strongest of men to frustrated mumbling paupers. These three damn slot machines managed to gobble up so much of our pay that the club could dispense twelve-year-old Scotch for 25 cents a shot--with chaser. Most of the doctors, being worldly and from the big cities, would have before-dinner aperitifs, cocktails, etc., and after dinner we would sip our brandies and liqueurs. As for Bourbon, that was reserved for serious drinking after the rites of dinner were completed.
There was a Headquarters group of Marines on Guam, apart from the 5th Regiment, with a real live General in command. A bachelor living by himself, and an inveterate smoker in bed, he managed to burn his mattress so often that special requisitions were needed to keep him in bedding. Every time a new mattress was delivered to the General's quarters we would explode with laughter, adding another checkmark to the list we kept of his arsonous behavior. However, we didn't laugh in his presence, or even acknowledge his pyro-techniques.
The General was a good friend of mine. This relationship between a doctor and a flag officer was acceptable, whereas the amity between a General and a Marine 1st Lieutenant would be out of place. After dinner one night at the club, the General and I began feeding the slot machines. One has to remember that the officers owned these machines and they were adjusted to pay out handsomely. But as any who trifled with these innocuous machines knows, they are voracious and unpredictable. For four hours we played side by side, with conversation limited to simple maledictions aimed at the spinning wheels. I was exhausted, but not the General--and remember who he was. He lost speedily and continuously. I played deliberately and as slowly as I was able in order to husband my dwindling resources. Finally at 2 a.m. the General accepted defeat. He deliberately turned the three slot machines around to face the wall, bade me good night, and stalked off to his smoldering mattress. He did not relent. He sentenced those slot machines to seven days inaction.
Dogs and Cats
Guam was populated by not only troops, civilian workers and natives, but also by a strange variety of cats and dogs. The dogs, in the main, were beyond description. Every Marine outfit had at least one or two canines smuggled onto the island to be added to the population. Darwinian theories were inoperative here as inbreeding created monstrosities and absurdities. Looking about one could see any combination of dog: tall dogs with short legs, short dogs with long legs, hairless dogs with bushy tails, hirsute canines with long naked tails--evolution and genetics had run amok. One Colonel, desiring to protect his pure-bred pet Boxer, had his Marine orderly exercise the dog, with the poor animal wearing a tight diaper similar to a chastity belt. We never found out if this maneuver was successful in preventing dog-rate, but there is somewhere a Marine orderly who remains grimly silent on the subject.
Cats fell into a different category. I often wondered whether we had a cat for a pet or did Rosie, our cat, have us officers as her personal servants and escorts. Rosie kept the Quonset free of all rodents. She grew fat and sleek as a result of her successful maraudings, and our quarters were completely rat-free. As a gesture of our appreciation for her abilities and presence, we managed to purchase whole milk, the likes of which did not exist on Guam, but was flown in from Japan on rare occasions--for the civilians. No powdered milk for Rosie. Her most successful raids were generally accomplished at night when we were all asleep. Prowling between the double walls of our "hut" she tracked and caught any foolish rat that may not have gotten the word. (There is always someone who isn't aware of the "word.") Rosie administered the coup de grace and then proceeded to exit the space 'tween the walls by way of the ceiling space. Not wishing to take the full leap down to the floor for fear of bruising her dainty but deadly paws, she would leap from the top of the wall onto my sleeping form in the bed. Picture yourself being awakened from a deep sleep, from perhaps a dream involving some voluptuous and compliant female, suddenly facing a black cat with luminescent eyes sitting on your chest. With a roar, a combination of fright and anger, I would jump out of bed, stark naked, seize a broom which I kept nearby for just such occasions, and would begin to chase this feline devil all over the place. Bloody murder was my intent. The next evening after dinner, I would have some of the fellow officers over for bridge and beer, or poker and pretzels, and this arrogant, incorrigible, and insolent cat would leap onto the card table, plump herself down in the very center of the action, preening and purring while we dealt the cards around her supine body. A few nights later, Rosie was on the prowl again--and my broom was always ready. (But how does one recover the "dream"?)
Weeks blended into months on the island. As I had done previously in San Diego, I took to wandering and exploring. I took off one day, heading toward the beach perhaps a mile or two away, straight through the jungle. One couldn't get lost as you always ended up on the Pacific shore. Military debris--evidence of World War II battles, was strewn about in the boondocks. Coconut palms were everywhere and the fallen nuts were there for the taking. I attempted to open a coconut, having a sharp bayonet as a tool. What I really needed was some high explosives. All my college education was for naught; I simply could not open the damn nut. Ah, it must have been rotten inside (courtesy of Aesop). Moving through the jungle, I saw another coconut lying on the ground with a green shoot rising through a split in the husk. I was fascinated because I realized that this was how the palm tree emerged. I turned the nut over and saw the root growing down into the earth--and felt a stinging all over my body. The area was crawling with red, biting ants. I reached the Pacific shore in record time and continued on into the sea. Apparently red ants are not amphibious, and so I survived the attack. But I've come to the conclusion that coconuts are dangerous objects to be avoided.
Every other evening on Guam the bachelor officers were invited to a cocktail party. I believe that the officers' wives wanted to salt their parties with a bachelor or two to break the monotonous pattern. I, being one of the unattached, accepted so many invitations that there was a danger of my becoming an inebriate. However, after a drink or two I regaled the guests with stories of Brooklyn and my Jewish upbringing. This being the Marine Corps, the Jewish complement was minimal and remained inconspicuous by choice, for reasons that were in existence in society in those days. However, I was unique and well-liked, and the feeling was mutual. This was the time of Israel's War for Independence and these military men were astounded and impressed by the incredible victories of the infant Jewish State. I had become the expert on the Arab-Israeli conflict and I propagandized for all I was worth. The Israelis made it easy for me.
Sometimes, accompanied by other young Marine officers, I visited the Navy clubs on the island. We were all dressed alike in our khaki uniforms and Marine insignia, except for me. I opted to wear a black tie, which is a part of the naval uniform, and that always perplexed the Marines. "Why the black tie?" I replied that I was in mourning for being in the Fleet Marines. If not for our mutual friendship, I'm sure these prime examples of American manhood would have taken me apart limb from limb.
A Wedding to Remember
While on the topic of uniforms, one fine day we all were invited to a wedding. One of the young officers, unable to bear the "singles" life on the island, persuaded his fiancée to join him in marriage on Guam. Everything was settled in advance and they were to exchange vows at the Air Force Chapel at the air base. The Marine chapel was a large tent and had aligned wooden benches as pews. This was inappropriate for a joyful event, and so off we went "into the wild blue yonder" (what a ridiculous and pathetic choice of words). Now we had an occasion to really put on the "dog." Away went our fatigues, khakis, heavy boots, and battle gear, and out from who knows where came our dress uniforms. The Marines were resplendent in their white tunics, white shoes, and gold buttons--their white hats with appliquéd motif, polished black brims with gold leaves for the higher ranks, multi-colored battle decorations, and, of course, polished swords. One may snicker and laugh at this magnificent display, but the airmen on the base stood agape at the spectacle. As for me, my time had come. No sword or gold leaves on my hat, but I wore a high necked tunic of white, polished gold buttons and black shoulder boards with gold stripes. I also managed to sport some ribbons from my passive duty during World War II. Female hearts were all aflutter as we left the base for the wedding. Concerned that we would never reach the Air Force Chapel without ruining our pristine raiment, we draped each and every one of us in white sheets as we rode our jeeps down the dusty roads of Guam. I hope that those who watched us ride by in our sheets did not misconstrue our motifs. Beneath an allee of upraised crossed swords, we married these two young people in a manner they would not soon forget. Somehow or other there never was a wedding like this in our synagogue in Brooklyn. Too bad!
As I think back now almost forty years later, I was gradually being transformed into a Marine. Intellectually, the whole idea of the military was alien to my upbringing, but outwardly I began to fit into the mold of a Marine officer. I looked the part. I stood erect, proud, and self-confident. I sported a short brush-cut hair style, a beautiful tropical tan, and I was accepted by all as one who honored the Corps. In short, I was "gung-ho." It felt good to be a member of this elite outfit. Those of us who sincerely tried to fit in received the respect and protection of these fighting men. We were always made cognizant of the fact that we were mutually dependent upon each other for our lives, especially in war time.
Maneuvers on Pagan
The time finally arrived when the military aspect of my duty had come to the fore. Maneuvers were slated to be held on an uninhabited island in the Mariana. The Battalion Leading Team V was to land on Pagan Island and take possession. This island was completely devoid of any warm-blooded mammals, so this maneuver should be easier than the invasion of Grenada. All the regimental dentists were married and thus avoided this action since Lieutenant Silver, a bachelor and veteran of the Great War, was available. I grumbled and groaned as was expected. I really didn't mind the assignment and the chance for something new, but this was peace time and what is the need for such military posturing.
This exercise required that I use some of my past "military experience." I was to be the assistant medical officer, as dental procedures were not included in the assault protocol. But I didn't even know how to make up my pack and bedding roll. I called upon the 2nd Lieutenants to help me through the intricacies of packing. (These guys were junior to me and so they refrained from laughter, but I believe one suffered a hernia trying to keep from busting out.) The Marines made a pack so perfect, so tight, and so neat, whereas my efforts usually resulted in a swollen sausage perched on my back. No matter. I was ready for action.
For days we loaded the attack transport with all the gear necessary for an amphibious assault. Small landing craft were stacked on the deck, one on top of the other like pots in a small kitchen cabinet, to off load the troops. There was also a LST in our battle group carrying tanks, vehicles, and heavy artillery. This was a complete assemblage, independent and efficient. The maneuver, as I learnt later from my discussions with the commanding colonel, was not to train the troops but to train the officers in the methods of loading and unloading an assault force. It was an exercise in logistics and priorities. (Such lessons served us well in Korea under actual combat conditions.) One of the Marines, a very able officer, was in charge of the loading of the ship. Can you imagine this vigorous man becoming sea sick while on board the vessel--as it lay alongside the dock? That poor Lieutenant was the butt of everyone's jokes, but he struggled valiantly to complete his assigned job. His complexion became progressively bilious, greener each passing day, until we took pity on him and concocted some medical diagnosis that allowed him to crawl into his bed to die in peace.
The day finally arrived when the troops were to embark. I soon learnt to my amazement that Marines do not board a ship like normal folk by using a gangway. We climb aboard using cargo nets hanging over the sides of the vessel. Burdened with full field pack and medical gear, I clambered up the ropes, clutching the lines for dear life, as my pack was intent on pulling me backward into the sea. All hands watched as I wrestled for the first time in my life with this diabolic swinging net. I finally reached the safety of the deck with a little help from those troops who were below and following me. Their exposed rifles, nudging my rear end, managed to prod me onward and upward. This was the first of fourteen times climbing the nets onto or off Navy transports. (I believe that my honeymoon cruise years later was the first occasion whereby I abandoned the simian method of boarding and accompanied my new bride, walking up the gangplank upright, like Homo Sapiens.)
It was a beautiful trip through the Pacific waters. Even the troops, packed below decks like sardines, sleeping in bunks stacked five high, seemed to enjoy the novelty and adventure of the day. We cruised past Saipan and Tinian, sites of bloody battles with the Japanese, finally seeing Pagan Island in the distance. We had arrived and now I would begin to become a Marine in earnest. Landing craft were swung over the side to circle and await the troops. Finally the word was passed and down the nets we went (#2)--into the pitching LCVPs. Each loaded craft moved away from the ship and formed ranks or rather waves of assault boats. All waves had to circle and wait, circle and wait, until we all were properly sickened by diesel fumes and rolling seas. At long last the signal was sent and the first wave of landing craft began the race to the beach. We were accompanied by a Navy destroyer, which ostensibly was to provide cover for us as we moved in to the shore but all it really succeeded in doing was to create more turbulence and noise--and scared the hell out of us.
The landing was not too bad; no one was seriously injured except for those troops who had the bad luck to step off into deep water, wearing at least sixty pounds of gear and a resultant sheepish grin. I should mention at this time that these Marines do not act in silence. Their language is peppered with one colorful adjective, starting with F, modifying every spoken noun. This word is so pervasive in their speech that it has lost all meaning and soon becomes acceptable and part of the vernacular. The landing that day engendered the most colorful use of profanity I had ever heard.
My medical unit assembled on the beach to await the unloading of our heavy equipment, a truck and jeep ambulances. I took this opportunity to absent myself, hiding in an abandoned, rusting Japanese truck lying just above the high water mark. I had my camera with me and I was able to photograph all the following waves of troops as the LCVPs rammed themselves up onto the beach. The approaching LST was a terrifying sight to behold. Still in relatively deep water, the bow doors slowly opened, the ramp was extended, and out from the deep bowels of this leviathan roared tanks and trucks hauling heavy artillery pieces. They rose up out of the sea like monsters of the deep, engines thundering in protest, as they struggled to gain the dry land. I took my pictures and got the hell out of there, off the beach to join my men. This was a little too realistic for me.
Pagan was a volcanic island dominated by a dormant cone that sloped gradually to the sea. It resembled Iwo Jima, the notorious battle field where so many heroic Marines died. This island was bypassed, thank God, for the slopes were honeycombed with fortified caves and trenches. Binocular views of the fortifications and their significance was a chilling reminder of past battles. To have attacked here would have resulted in a blood bath. Now, however, the island was ours for the taking. I brought my men and equipment to the area assigned for the medical facility and called in a tank-dozer. With three or four passes into the surrounding jungle, this behemoth ripped out a clearing for us to set up our tent. Wow! I felt so powerful being able to give orders for such destruction. In actuality, our job was completed except to treat any Marine who could be injured in the landing and in the maneuvers of the ensuing days. I relaxed in the sun and planned my next exploratory moves.
The following day, after breakfasting on battle field rations (which I still enjoyed), I had my driver and jeep readied. The Marine driver was armed and I carried my carbine. There was always the possibility of a Japanese soldier still hiding on these islands (who didn't get the word), waiting for the return of the Imperial forces. I carried a weapon only because the Colonel demanded that everyone be armed at all times. However, I do believe this was the only instance when my CO had taken leave of his senses, when he included me in this order. He was never aware of the degree of proficiency I possessed with regard to weaponry, but a veteran of the Army and Navy!! The carbine was a miserable, defective weapon that could jam just by looking at it, and in my hands, the 5th Marines were in jeopardy. I unloaded the chamber of any rounds of ammunition, placed the carbine on the floor of the jeep, and away we rode--through the jungle, past the designated front lines to the volcano.
The jeep, a marvelous means of transport through the boondocks, managed to push through the underbrush until we reached an old Japanese camp. We rummaged through all the debris, oblivious to the possibility of a lurking cast-a-way, taking pictures of anything of value. We did find some unopened bottles of Sake, which we both agreed did not age well in the tropics. Vinegar would have been preferable to drink. We needed something, anything, to offset that miserable taste. My driver, an old Pacific hand, took an axe to a small palm tree growing nearby. I, being against needless destruction, objected to the hacking of the little palm, until he gave me a thin slice of the young tree trunk and voila--hearts of palm. Survival, deluxe.
Driving further on enabled me to photograph the abandoned fortified caves and trenches. We had now gone far enough and so we returned to the Marine lines without anyone aware of our exploratory expedition. I spent the remaining time on the island doing what I was supposed to do, that is, tend to the scrapes and bruises of the troops. Finally it was time to load up and go home.
It took much longer to reload the LST and ships, as we lacked a loading dock. The sequence of reloading the heavy equipment and armor was an essential part of the exercise. Finally everything was aboard and properly stowed, and now it was the time for the Marines to board. The landing craft were heavily laden with troops but were unable to pull themselves off the beach, a problem for the Navy to solve. Roaring straight to the beach, naval motor boats turned sharply to now run parallel to the shore, creating a huge wave that lifted the landing craft free of the clutches of the beach sand, and off we came. All craft rendezvoused at the stern of the transport and just as I expected, there were the invidious cargo nets hanging down from the sides of the pitching vessel. This was to be #3 and I did not think that I would survive, but experience and gung-ho spirit carried me upward to safety. If anyone thinks that this climb was a piece of cake, think again. With full field pack and an additional medical case, I had to leap from a sea tossed tiny landing craft, catch hold of the vertical lines of that damn net, and hope that my arms did not dislocate as I worked myself upwards. No one was laughing this time, for we were all struggling to make it to the deck safely. Falling now would put one into the sea with tremendous added weight--to drown at best, to be crushed against the hull by the heaving LCVP--at the worst.
Now homeward bound, we all rested for the journey back to Guam. The food aboard was normal fare, far superior to the field rations we ate on the island. At night most of the officers played bridge or hearts in the officers' lounge. While playing bridge someone is always the "dummy," one who yields the play to his partner and is but a spectator. On those occasions when I was the "dummy," I would take advantage of the small kitchen facility in the lounge and make up an entire loaf of toasted white bread. As I had mentioned before, in my deprived youth white gluey bread was not to be had at my house, but now I was free of such parental guidance and good nutritional sense. With the intensity of a gourmet chef I toasted slice after slice, slathering butter on each piece with abandon. I returned to the bridge table with a mound of toast--and a sharp knife to ward off the other officers who mistakenly thought that I had any consideration for their hunger. I was in Heaven and each night at sea I was able to repeat this culinary strategem. I cannot recall if I had ever won at bridge, but toast is toast--and the card scores came in second. To this very day I still enjoy my white toast, however by the slice, not by the loaf.
Return to Humdrum
Back on Guam, life returned to a normal humdrum pace. (I almost forgot, however, to keep the count up to date; we disembarked from the transport in the harbor, down the cargo nets (#4) onto the dock, leaving the gangplank to be used by timid Navy personnel.) Life was pleasant and uneventful. Afternoon, after work, we all gathered at the club to begin the PM ritual of gentlemanly drinking before dinner. Beer or an aperitif was the order of the day, and we usually threw dice to see who would have to pay the check. A major loss at dice would result in a deficit of $1 to $1.50 to one's finances. We never drank alone at our bar. There were always some three-inch, brightly-colored lushes crawling on or about the liquor bottles. The ubiquitous gecko lizards loved the sweet, honeyed or minty residues on the bar glasses or bottles. We would encourage the little drunks by intentionally spilling some Creme de Menthe on the bar and watching them slurp the sweet liquid with their long tongues. These sticky-footed bar denizens were always present when the drinking lamp was lit--and before they were "lit" also.
After dinner one evening, the junior officers were sitting around discussing various topics of interest to we macho males. The subjects ran the gamut from women to--women. A few tables away the Colonel and his staff were going over the report of our past maneuver which was to be sent to Marine Corps Headquarters at the Pentagon. We overheard the Colonel bemoaning the fact that the official Marine photographer had failed to get sufficient photos of the assault. Now goaded by the slightly tipsy lieutenants who had seen my pictures of Pagan, I approached the Brass and excused myself for interrupting their informal meeting. Being the doctor gave me a certain immunity from the Colonel's wrath, and he inquired rather testily as to what I wanted. "Colonel," I said, "How would you like to see some pictures of Pagan Island?" I had taken six rolls of 36 exposures, accumulating more than 200 pictures. I handed the package of photographs to the Colonel, who began thumbing through the pack with ever-widening eyes. "Where in hell did you get these shots," he remarked, as he noted scenes taken beyond the front lines, deep into the island's interior. "Never mind," he said, as he looked at me and sighed. Those pictures were made a part of the official record and I never saw them again--nor did the Colonel ever volunteer any information as to the whereabouts of my property. I took the obvious hint and never brought up the subject of my missing photos. Semper Fidelis (always faithful).
On a few occasions, my companions and I drove to other military installations on the island to inspect their liquor supply. We would start off at our club, having a bit of something to tide us over for the long thirsty trip we were about to undertake. (Guam was only about twenty miles at its longest dimension.) Approaching the guard post manned by armed Marines, we cruised through the barrier heedless of the challenges directed at us. I, fearful of my young life and desirous of living many more years, shouted at my friend who was at the wheel driving to halt and show our identification. With a screech and a grinding reverse of gears, he backed the jeep down to the post, noting that both guards had leveled M1 rifles at our vulnerable bodies. Completely sober now, we displayed our passes and reassured the guards that we were only doctors, not infiltrators. With a crisp salute, one of the guards remarked in a slow southern drawl, "Sir, we just about shot you, Sir." My Lord, but this is a dangerous pastime, drinking and driving.
Time passed slowly the next few months and then, according to my karma, the "shit hit the fan." The weather reports had a typhoon on course to Guam. The closer it approached, the more dangerous it became, and immediate measures were instigated. The base went into full alert as our facilities were really of a temporary nature and could hardly withstand a major blow. All Quonsets were tied down with cables anchored to the ground. All flag poles and all high scaling walls were lowered or reinforced, and fuel storage tanks were drained wherever possible. We appeared prepared for the very Hammers of Hell. The troops were now in battle gear, issued field rations, and assigned to deep ammunition bunkers to wait out the storm. My place, as a doctor, was with the troops in the bunkers.
Many officers married and living in the housing area some distance from the bunkers were still preparing their families for the storm when it struck with a fury not seen in decades. I, however, and a large body of Marines were safely ensconced in a huge bunker with doors securely chained to prevent them from being torn off by the raging winds. With me were the troops and a large cadre of non-commissioned officers--sergeants, gunnery sergeants, and top sergeants with enough hash marks (denoting years of service) and stripes to run from wrist to shoulder. I, of course, displayed a one-inch silver bar and was the only officer with the troops. An impossible situation had occurred--with me in command? Technically the doctor has no command position, as he is not a line officer. I would really be under the direction of the senior sergeant in battle conditions, but NCOs avoid and shun all final responsibility when confronted with a one-inch silver bar. Their excuse is always, "Sir, we don't get paid for it."
The wind and rain continued unabated. The bunker was taking on water to the extent that we had about one foot of black oily liquid swirling about our feet. Everyone made the best of a temporary situation, broke out the rations and dined on basic K (not Special K), while profanity swirled about like the incoming waters. It was evening now and the sergeants and I gathered together as a group of seniors, apart from the troops. Every one of these veterans (gee, I almost forgot, I was one too) was at least ten years older than I, and some had sons my age. We were seated on water cans and ration boxes. The latter would become so waterlogged that every once in awhile one found himself dumped unceremoniously into the flood. I sat high and dry as befitting my rank.
As medical officer, I carried a few cases of medicinal alcohol as protection against "snake bites" and for various and sundry other emergencies. Seeing that the cartons of medicine were coming apart as they lay soaking in the water, I declared an immediate emergency. I was overwhelmed by the foresight shown by the quartermaster in charge of medical supplies, for we did not have just alcohol, we had individual bottles of--you guessed it, Bourbon, 100 proof. Needless to say, my ranking at that instant rose to heights unattainable before. All through the night, oblivious to the raging typhoon and the rising waters, we seniors sipped our Bourbon neat, until we all were warm and pickled. At one time or other during the night, some sergeant would slowly slide off his perch to lie smiling in the dark waters below. Being the officer, nothing like that happened to me. I sat rigidly upright, surveying all of my retinue--stiff, soaked, and soused.
There was one interruption during the night when the radio crackled with a message from Regimental HQ from somewhere out in the storm. After being shown the receiving and transmission buttons, never before having used a military radio, I answered the incoming inquiries. Identifying myself at Lieutenant Silver, I then received a request for the company commander. With perverse glee I radioed the fact that I was in command as the sole officer aboard. A long period of silence followed. I assumed that someone had dropped the mike or perhaps forgot which button to push for transmission. Eventually a senior regimental major came on line and queried me as to the status of the men. I replied in the positive and signed off with a flourishing "over and out." Consternation must have reigned at HQ--for Lieutenant Silver was in charge. In truth, everything was copasetic, and all Marines in my care were happy and mellow.
By the next morning the typhoon had passed and we emerged none the worse for wear. I lined up the troops in a column of twos and marched a few hundred of "my" men back to the base. The scene was indescribable. The devastation was complete. All structures had the roofs peeled off despite the cabling attempts. The Quonsets, normally perched on pilings, had shifted off these supports and had collapsed. Water and drain pipes were rammed through the floors of the buildings, and in the case of the medical and dental clinics, all the equipment had their connections violently torn out--they were destroyed. Palm trees either were felled by the wind to add to the destruction, or stood like stripped toothpicks, bare and forlorn. Low lying areas where trucks and tanks were assembled had been inundated by inrushing tides of salt water. Little could be salvaged. The Fleet Marine Base, Guam, no longer existed.
For those who had served in the Armed Forces in the past, the following description would have a familiar ring. The destructive force of the typhoon had violently torn open all the supply storage buildings to reveal those supplies denied to us by the perverse, tyrannical Supply Sergeants. Like pack rats, they had hoarded miles of linoleum floor covering, tons of toilet paper, bright new appliances, etc., revealed now for all to see. Lying helter-skelter over the muddy landscape, all was lost.
The powers that be in the Pentagon, seeing an opportunity to save money and at the same time to minimize the influence of the Marine presence in the Pacific, ordered the 5th Regimental et al home to Pendleton, California. Our lives on Guam had been so ravaged by nature that this news was welcomed by all and we prepared to abandon the base.
Sea Voyage Home
Loading the transports now was quite easy, as we had lost much equipment. There was a feeling of euphoria as we marched out of camp towards the harbor. At the exact moment of our departure leaving this area of destruction, naval engineers were erecting telephone poles and stringing phone lines--into the vacated camp? We were leaving, yet finally we were getting a modern telephone system installed. Madness, simply madness. Someone will be able to talk to the rats if only they would be capable of interpreting rodent squeaking.
The sea voyage home began as usual with the climbing of the cargo nets (#5). Once aboard we sailed the broad Pacific eastward toward San Diego. Our ship had just returned from transporting Army troops involved in a major Caribbean training exercise, and the Captain was thoroughly disgusted with the conduct of the GIs. This trip, with Marines aboard, was another story. All troops were turned out, equipped with chipping hammers, paint, and brushes, to turn this grungy vessel into a shiny Navy ship--and it was. Other leisure time was filled with masses of men exercising on deck under the scrutiny of the NCOs. We were coming home as Marines and everyone would know it.
My evenings were similar to those previously reported on at sea. I still kept the toaster glowing and enjoyed my nightly orgy of toast. I did detect a feeling of pride and respect directed toward me as the episode of "my" troops during the typhoon made the rounds. The Colonel would greet me most cordially. Hell, I was becoming one of his best officers. Adding to my reputation, I received permission of the ship's captain to reactivate the dental office. As there is no assigned dental officer on the ship during times of peace, there was a need for dental care for the ship's company--and my Marines. The stagnant heat and the rolling of the ship both combined to make the simplest dental procedure difficult at best. I operated in just under-shorts and a harness to keep me cool and in contact with the dental apparatus. All aboard knew that I was in action and they kept me busy throughout the trip. I was invited up to the Captain's cabin for a drink and his personal thanks. My Colonel was present and I basked in my new status. I believe that, as of this moment, I was accepted wholeheartedly as a Marine officer. The kid from Brooklyn had arrived.
One day out from San Diego, all officers were gathered in the briefing room for last minute orders for debarking and moving troops to Camp Pendleton, home of the 1st Marine Division. Everything appeared to be in order; the troops would be in Class B uniforms. (I'm not sure now if that was the classification ordered, but....) "Any questions?" There appeared to be universal understanding of the orders, except for Lieutenant Silver. "Excuse me, Colonel, just what is a Class B uniform?" Despite the peals of laughter, the Colonel realized that I was not being facetious or humorous and so he asked a captain to clue me in as to the arcane uniform descriptions. His opinion of me, bolstered by my previous responsible actions, remained high and positive, but he must have had the patience of Job.
The ship swung slowly into position as we approached the dock. A Marine band was playing and families of the troops were gathered behind barriers, anxious to greet their sons and husbands. To get a better view of our docking, I went up to the command deck and stood with my colonel and the skipper. The troops were lining up on deck according to companies and platoons. The medical platoon, my responsibility, appeared on deck and included one individual who defied description. I had personally kept him under wraps to save him from being tossed overboard with the garbage, for he was the epitome of "grunge". He was the most unmilitary misfit ever assigned to the Corps. He was fat and sloppy, his shirts and trousers were too large and never ironed (perhaps, never washed), boots were untied, and he used a piece of rope to keep his pants up under his protrusive gut. Today, with the modern youth, he might have been considered a fashion plate, but when the Colonel looked down on the deck and saw this apparition, this sloven, this escapee from the hold, he threw up his hands in defeat and implored me to keep this one hidden until all the men disembarked. A few strong words with my CPO and our nemesis was hustled out of sight.
The ship was slow in berthing and the rail was lined with a thousand men anxious to get to camp and shore leave, but first was a forty-mile ride to Camp Pendleton. All officers were to accompany their troops except, of course, Lieutenant Silver and his doctor buddy. My partner in crime, Doctor Riley, knew a Navy nurse at the Naval Hospital in San Diego who was privy to the date of our ship's arrival. She, being most cooperative, had her yellow convertible driven onto the dock for our personal use. I asked the Colonel to please look down there on the dock to view our transportation. The old man was intrigued with our machinations and artlessness, and after being reassured that our men were being properly led by the CPOs, he granted us permission to leave the ship. Over the rail and down the rope net we went to the accompaniment of the hoots and howls of the troops. We were first off and they enjoyed the sight of our struggling descent (#6). When we approached the yellow convertible, slinging our packs and duffles into the back seat with nonchalance worthy of Hollywood stars, the ship erupted. Ah, those doctors. How the hell did those bastards accomplish this while being on Guam? C'est la guerre.
We drove slowly north to Camp Pendleton, stopping once to get a cool drink. We made quite a stir, being in helmet liners, fatigues, and side arms--and ordering two glasses of milk. These Marines were pansies, after all. However, the troops, soon to go on their first stateside leave in many a month, would shortly dispel any notion of softness. They had to make up for many months of deprivation--but being in the Corps there was protocol to follow. I had neglected to mention the fact that all Marines aboard ship were ordered to get their hair cut to regulation. They would only receive the coveted leave if they passed a rigid inspection, and the sergeants were exacting in their duty. A few of my corpsman, attempting to circumvent the order for a tonsorial clipping and intent on keeping their abundant locks, were sorely distressed when denied permission to leave the base. I intervened on their behalf, but my pleading fell on deaf ears and these men were confined to base until they could find someone to rid them of their hirsute adornment. In plain words, they had to get a proper Marine haircut, or else.
My First Car
Now based at Camp Pendleton, all bachelor officers could live "on the beach." Riley and I were offered an apartment for rent by General Erskine, the base commander. We had never met the General, but it was offered to us because we were doctors and the assumption was that we would be responsible tenants. Contrary to such assumptions, we intended to raise hell, to taste all the forbidden fruit that California could offer. We did get an apartment "on the beach" about twenty miles from the Camp, and it was directly on the beach. In stormy weather the salt spray beat on the windows or soaked the furnishings if we neglected to secure the place. It was heaven to me, an apartment of my own. We went swimming before going on duty; we swam at all hours of the day and night. We entertained the Navy nurses and caroused as often as our physical stamina would allow. We were having the time of our lives, but for me, there was a real problem. I did not know how to drive and I did not own a car. I was handicapped in the pursuance of my social activities. There was only one solution to this frustrating situation--and so I went home to Brooklyn on two weeks leave.
At the Naval Air Station, San Diego, I made inquiries for a flight to the East Coast. One plane was leaving for Washington DC, the private conveyance of a Vice Admiral. There was space aboard if I would make myself available for take-off at any time the Admiral so desired. The Admiral's aide specifically told me that the plane would leave at a moment's notice and would wait for no one. A free flight so close to home was ideal and I hung around at the beck and call of the Admiral. The weather was miserable and all airports were closed, so we waited.
Vice Admirals are not like you and me. They have rank and they use it even when confronted with God's unaccommodating weather. After an hour of inaction and with no break in the weather, the Admiral boarded the plane--and we followed like sheep to the slaughter. There were no other planes flying so that, in truth, it was not so rash an act. We rose through the soup and broke out into sunshine, flying to Palm Springs. The plane was fitted out as an executive transport--soft leather chairs, sofas, and a private cabin for the Admiral. This was some way to travel, but why Palm Springs? His Highness, the Admiral, was a victim of a prostate disorder, and he was only comfortable for short hops. So we hopped across the United States for two and a half days.
Our next stop after California was Arizona and then Dallas, Texas. The plane's captain radioed the Air Force Base, Dallas; we were coming in that evening for dinner and a night's lodging. Landing on time, we juniors disembarked as a fleet of Air Force jeeps arrived to convey us to the Officer's Club. The Admiral's aide stood waiting, for no one moves until the old man makes the first ambulatory gesture. Nothing or no one stirred. The Air Force officers were bewildered and uncomfortable in the face of this three-star Majesty. Growling under his breath, the Admiral conveyed his displeasure with the Air Force protocol--and away went his aide in the nearest jeep. Within ten minutes a long black limousine pulled up to the plane and the Admiral went off to dinner, followed by the rest of his entourage in the plebeian jeeps.
The Saturday night dance was in progress at the Club. The Admiral took precedent over all. Tables were set up for dinner and we all dined well under the baleful glances of the Air Force personnel. They were overwhelmed as this Admiral was so senior that he even had his own dental officer in attendance, namely me. I had a wonderful evening, never explaining to the inquisitive natives just who we were or what we were doing in Dallas. The next morning we were off again, this time landing at Naval installations where the proper protocol was always in evidence. After two days of this unique traveling experience, we landed in Washington DC, and I took leave of the Admiral. He wished me well as I left for Brooklyn and home.
"Home is where the heart is." Truly said, for my family lived in a four-room flat for four adults and one twelve-year-old sister--accommodations that were barely adequate, to risk overstatement, but the family was loving and supportive at all times. I had returned to the bosom of my loved ones, but I was not the young man who left a "lifetime" ago. My own quarters in California was more spacious and attractive than this tenement flat. I had broken the bonds of parental responsibility and I enjoyed the new-found freedom. My parents were aware of the change and they were pleased with the status of their son. They were most impressed with this Marine officer standing in for the boy who had left Brooklyn.
I had a long talk with my father, telling him of my new duty station at Camp Pendleton, and made mention of the miles distance between my quarters and the base. I told him that I would need a car and he replied, "Of course." He could see my apparent hesitation and he asked if there was a problem. "Do you have enough money?" I assured him that I had more than enough saved but, "How does one spend so much money all at once?" Never having had spent anything like this huge sum, I was paralyzed with apprehension, needing the reassurance of my father. Receiving his approbation, I was off to the paradise that is reserved for American youth--in a new car of one's own.
A neighborhood friend had married a young woman from New Jersey. (Gosh, he was a brave man. He crossed "the bridge" to find a wife.) His father-in-law, a successful businessman, had dealings with an auto dealer in New Jersey, and he could get me the car, a Chevy coupe, in a few days. Now mind you, I had never driven a car before. I tried once while sitting in a jeep, putting the vehicle in reverse and managing to plow into a loading platform. But I don't consider this an instructive driving experience; it was more destructive in nature. I took an hour driving lesson on a Monday, another hour on the following Wednesday, and then took the driving test two days later on Friday morning. I passed the test, receiving my license--certainly not because of my driving skill, but due more to the patriotic fervor of the examiner. However, I do believe that he went home immediately after the test to recuperate, or perhaps to church, for absolution.
Before purchasing my car, I had to see Mr. Sel, my friend's father-in-law. I arrived at his home in New Jersey and was warmly greeted by the family. I was introduced to them all, but for one daughter. Coming down the staircase I saw this beautiful young woman with a radiant smile and wearing an angora sweater, that left me speechless for the moment. Since I am rarely speechless, this was a most unique occasion. I was taken aback when I learnt that Lynne (such a beautiful name) was spoken for, soon to be married. I mumbled something to the effect that I wished there was another eligible daughter in the family, but I had struck out. It is now more than forty years later and I still can see that young woman descending the stairs and leaving an indelible impression on my mind and heart. (Dear reader, have faith. We shall meet the beautiful Lynne again in the future.)
I got my car that Friday in the afternoon, and began driving to Brooklyn, a distance that grew more and more alarming by the mile. Did you know that the George Washington bridge sways back and forth like a hammock in the breeze? It certainly couldn't have been my trembling that confused me--but I finally got home with one beautiful car--but not the beauteous damsel.
The next morning was a day of trial. My father, having once owned a car, thought that he would be a judge of my driving talent. We all loved that man, but he never learnt how to master the simple art of comfortably driving an automobile. He would sit upright, rigid, with eyes glued to the road, oblivious to all conversation, while he steered the vehicle toward its destination. At times he would smile, look about, and take his eyes off the road--and succeed in mowing down three or four roadway markers. With a sheepish grin he would regain the road and resume his fixed stare, looking neither to the right nor to the left until we would miss our exit because he didn't notice the overhead sign. Oh well, he was the only "driver" in the family.
Together my father and I drove into the heart of Manhattan. He thought that if I could maneuver the car in such traffic, then I could master any driving emergency that might arise. In this case, I believe he was right, but he was putting his life on the line--in the sweating hands of his son. Well, he loved me and I did not intend to orphan myself. Jerking ahead, halting at times, and stalling quite often, I finally began to move this infernal machine through traffic. With a four-speed gear shift, this was not a simple chore, but I soon became more confident as I managed to miss all other cars, no matter how close they came. A few hours later we returned to Brooklyn unscratched and unharmed. I had successfully escaped the "Labyrinth" of Manhattan and had slain the Traffic "Minotaur". Look out World, here I come.
Now having about four hours of driving experience under my belt, it was time to take my leave of Brooklyn, family, and friends. I polished the car, loaded it with my gear (Mother provided plenty of food in case there would be famine in the land), and took off across the continent, west to California.
Like in the fairy tales, with seven league boots I drove my car, my first lovely car. It was difficult at first, but I soon got into the rhythm of the road. I had always dreamt of having wheels, with music surrounding me, and perhaps a blonde sitting there beside me. My goal was set and I drove west, hoping to bring this dream into reality. Slowly, yet inexorably, the miles added up and I found myself in the Ozark mountains of Arkansas. Dulled and benumbed by many hours at the wheel, I failed to see and avoid a fallen rock in the road. So I hit the damn thing and ripped the tire off the wheel. There I was, in the heart of the Ozarks "hillbilly" country, when along came a battered pick-up truck with four young men meeting the description just stated. The truck stopped and out staggered four tattered men, jettisoning their beer cans in defiance of any recycling laws. At that moment I could see myself ransoming my car for my life.
Those four disreputable hillbillies had only one thing on their beer befuddled minds--to help this Navy guy change his tire. Hitching up their overalls and with a lot of confusion and staggering about, they managed to change the tire without maiming themselves or sending my car over the edge of the mountain. The job completed, I offered them a few dollars for their efforts, but they refused to take any payment. They piled back into their pick-up, circa 1935, and careened down the road. I stood there for awhile, waiting to hear the crash that I thought was imminent. I escaped--and they escaped, safely. Altruism, and maybe patriotic fervor, was alive and well in the mountains of Appalachia.
Traveling on, I reached the vast stretch of Texas with a great sense of confidence. I raced a long freight train for miles, sounding the car horn in response to the train whistle. Finally tiring of the constant speed, I slowed down as the train sped away, the engineer waving goodbye and signaling with a last blast of his whistle. I was a kid with a car at twenty-two, and life was a dream come true.
According to the indicators on my map, California was just where the A.A.A. said it should be. I had driven 3,000 miles and was within one day's journey from home base when I received the shock of my life. We were three cars traveling down a two-lane road when the first car signaled a left turn. The second car in the line, a large Cadillac, began to pass on the right when the woman ahead changed her mind and turned right. With a roar the Cadillac pulled right off the road into the ditch, and I coming on fast swung left to avoid a collision with car #1. I turned so hard that I actually hit her car with my right rear bumper, and ended up in the corn field on the left side of the road. I just could not believe what had happened. Five days and 3,000 miles, and now this. The woman driver apologized for her indecision and drove away leaving us, one in the ditch and one in the corn field, to ponder our fate. After about fifteen minutes we both recovered our composure and I pulled out of the field to complete my journey to Camp Pendleton. Obviously there must be a better way to harvest corn.
Work at the dental clinic became quite routine. The senior officers were professionals and we all got along well together. I was happy being in the Marines--I had many friends. However, there is a drawback to having only male companions, so I embarked upon a policy of womanizing. I dated the nurses at the Naval Hospital, San Diego, and was soon a regular non-patient visitor to the hospital. The nurses were all young and enjoyed going out with the doctors, especially me. I became so well known amongst the newly commissioned nurses that one day I received an invitation to meet with the hospital's chief nurse. This Commander told me in no uncertain terms that if I wished to date her nurses I would have to bring them back to quarters at a proper hour, ready to assume their duties. I replied, "Yes Mother," saluted, and left a smiling and long suffering chief nurse. I continued seeing her girls and I did try and get them home before sunrise. One late night I was halted by the civilian guard at the hospital gate who recognized this habitual visitor. "Doctor," he said, "Do you mind if I ask you a question?" "Sure, why not." He was a mature man and I thought that he might be seeking some professional advice, but all he said was, "Doctor, don't you think that you are burning the candle at both ends?"
One Saturday night at a singles bar in San Diego, I met a woman who took a strong interest in me. She was no raving beauty, but she was fun to be with, and we spent the night together. The next morning, alone in my apartment on the beach, I received a phone call from her inviting me to a cocktail party at General Erskine's Santa Margherita Ranch. I was absolutely floored, not only for the invitation, but at the prospect of escorting her to the General's party. She was very persistent; I declined most emphatically. She became furious and hung up. A few weeks later there was a big shindig at the Officer's Club, with John Wayne the guest of honor. Wayne was a hero to the Corps, for many of his pictures gave flattering accounts of the Marines. But also he would bring to the Club an assortment of Hollywood starlets who, I might add, were more welcome to the young officers than Big John himself. I met a very strikingly handsome and mature woman at the bar who looked me in the eye and said, "I know you. You're Dr. Silver." I had never before met this woman, but she continued, "General Erskine and I were waiting for you. You failed to show at our cocktail party." Gulp. One does not turn down a General's invite, but how in hell did that night's pickup know the big E. I stammered out some sort of apology and tried to beat a hasty retreat, but big Momma had another request of me. Mrs. Erskine had a marriageable daughter and she expressed a desire for her to meet an eligible doctor. (And I thought only Jewish mothers were on the prowl for doctors.) I promised to see what I could do in the way of a professional man, and I escaped to join the others milling about the Hollywood guests. I did propose a fellow dentist as sacrificial lamb for the General's daughter, but nothing came of it. I never again received an invitation to the Santa Margherita ranch for cocktails.
The weeks passed and I was accumulating mileage by dint of heavy dating. I visited every Marine and Navy officer's club from the Mexican border north to Los Angeles. I also managed to extend my knowledge of good food and fine California wine. I was becoming a sophisticated young man far from the prosaic life of Brooklyn. Could I ever return to my home again?
The date was the 23rd of June 1950. The 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton was slated to parade on the 25th in full dress uniform to give the civilians and the press a chance to see where their money goes, and to foster patriotic good will. Out came our dress blues and gold stripes, while the Marines were going to appear in blue with red stripes. We polished and scrubbed our brass and shoes 'till they gleamed. (Dark glasses would be necessary for one to review the troops.) It was going to be a beautiful picnic when--on Sunday, at dawn, June 25th, the North Koreans invaded the South. It took a very short time for the news to affect the Marine Corps.
At 1 p.m. that same Sunday, the 1st Marine Division paraded in review at Camp Pendleton, in full battle gear. All troops carried rifles and full field packs (gone were the ceremonial swords and finery), artillery and armored battalions in line. Overnight we converted from a peaceful parade to a demonstration of Marine readiness. The cameramen had a field day and the Marine Corps had its image fortified. It was a public relations coup. As for me, I felt strangely exhilarated being caught up in the frenzy of preparation. I never gave a thought to the possibility of war, but more specifically of me being involved in warfare. It really was absurd. I never received any formal training. I was determined now to inform the President, or "to whom it may concern," that I was unprepared to go into battle, but I was too late. President Truman, oblivious to my problem and unconcerned, committed the U.S. to defend South Korea from the Communist invasion, and I was in the Marine Corps.
Changes came now thick and fast. Every day we received instructions as to our equipment and material needs. However, the medical group was in turmoil and in disarray. If it must be told, the ranking medical officer, a very senior Naval Captain, was a lush. He was a figurehead incapable of any direct action apart from draining a liquor bottle. The doctors had him committed more than a few times to the hospital for any diagnosis except alcoholism. He was a joker who could be tolerated during times of peace, but now we were rightly terrified that he was in command.
Three days later, from Washington came Navy Captain Hering, the man who wrote the manual on the medical aspects of amphibious warfare. Doctor Hering immediately replaced our old commanding medical officer and took charge with a vengeance. We were informed that if we did not know something, or if we were confused by some orders, "Ask. Speak up." We needed a massive injection of medical equipment and gear just to bring us up to the level required by the Table of Operations--and Hering was the man to accomplish this. Each day at noon a transport plane would arrive from the medical storage depots in San Francisco loaded with our requirements. Each evening we would put in our requisitions to be delivered the next day. We were all impressed. This is how the Marines operated when the situation called for action.
The first days of the war proved disastrous for the South Koreans. The North Koreans, with Russian arms and equipment, cut through the ROK (Republic of Korea) forces with ease. The American advisory group stationed in Korea had a poor opinion of the ROKs. Their assessment of the South Korean troops was one of denigration; "they" failed to properly use the weapons that the U.S. had provided and displayed a lack of commitment for the battle. These Army experts would later regret their derogatory reports of the ROK troops when faced with the ineptitude and un-preparedness of MacArthur's troops.
Of course, the Supreme Commander in Tokyo had all the answers, but few facts. The following quote is attributed to this brilliant, prescient General: "It is certain that the South Koreans badly need an injection of ordered American strength.... Give me two American divisions and I can hold Korea." I believe that the Generalissimo spent too much time with the Geishas in Japan or perhaps his corncob pipe had something else in it besides good Virginia tobacco. In lofty isolation in Japan, the General sent in green, poorly-trained, ill-equipped occupation troops to stop the onslaught. With weapons that were no match for the Russian tanks, our men died needlessly--sacrificed by the self-infatuation and arrogance of their commander in the safe haven of Japan. General Walker, in command of the troops in Korea, was well aware that his troops would not fight. From soft billets in Japan, they had no stomach for the bloody battles. Panic in the face of the determined enemy had created a potential disaster. It was time for trained troops. It was time for the Marines to go into action.
As the American and ROK troops were forced into a smaller and more defensible perimeter near Pusan, the line began to hold the enemy for a few days. The 1st Marine Division in California sent a reinforced battalion to back up the Army and plug up the holes in the defense line. Twice the Marines were called in at the Naktong bulge, at first to throw back the North Koreans, and to repeat the rescue action a second time when the Army's defenses collapsed once again under pressure.
I will digress for one moment to give the reader some idea of the Marine reputation. I had a close relationship with Colonel Murray, the 5th Regiment commander. He was my mentor and protector. As a military man, his knowledge and leadership was second to none. He inspired all who knew him and transmitted his confidence to his troops. I admired him most for those human qualities he displayed at all times, even in the heat of battle.
A unique and peculiar situation existed in the regiment during the first weeks of engagement. The Marines went into battle wearing leggings, the kind one laces up somewhat like elongated "spats" worn by men of fashion during the Twenties. This piece of foot gear was a holdover from World War II and evolved from the puttees of World War I; they were a pain in the butt to properly wear and we all detested them. I broached the subject of this ridiculous accouterment as only a doctor could in the face of the ranking officer, and was told to stop right there. As the Colonel explained, "When the North Koreans see troops facing them wearing leggings, they immediately recognize the Marines and we now have a psychological advantage." Whether this was true or not, the fact is, we routed the enemy whenever we met. (Within one month's time the "leggings" were retired, perhaps because our laces seemed to vanish mysteriously despite all our effort.)
Mad Man Murphy
July 1950, and finally the 1st Marine Division received orders to embark for Japan in preparation for the Inchon invasion of Korea. We ordinary mortals were not yet privy to this grand scheme of MacArthur's, but we were ready for anything. Here I was with my first new car, now to be abandoned. I thought of possibly shooting it in the engine like "Old Paint", but thought better of it. I brought the car to a dealer who had previously offered me $1800 (the original purchase price), but now aware of the Marines imminent departure he offered $1200. I told him politely to go to Hell and drove off fuming. A few blocks further on I saw: "Mad Man Murphy, Your Friendly Used Car Dealer." I drove into the lot--ready to do battle. "How much for the car? Net cash in my hand, now." Murphy stood there chewing on a large unlit cigar (I just couldn't have made up this scenario) and said, "How much do you want?" "$1800, as promised by the other dealer." "Okay", he grunted.
With absolute disbelieve I followed "Mad Man" Murphy, this honorable gentleman, up a flight of stairs to his office. There he had his secretary make out a check for $1800 exactly. With the money in my hot hand, I now had the nerve to ask this wonderful Murphy how he could give me this check without examining the car. "You drove the car in, didn't you?" This man was too good to be true--but it was so. With check in hand I went over to the first dealer, a legitimate enterprise, and waved the check in his face. It felt good.
At this particular time I was assigned to the medical battalion of the 1st Division. Some dentists were assigned to the actual regimental commands and therefore would be in areas of actual combat. In Jewish, this situation could be described as a predicament where Mir ken geharged veren--translated, "One could get killed." However, this English translation is just a simple declarative statement, whereas the Yiddish connotation conveys the shocking realization that, "My God, this is for real, someone can die here!" Realizing the seriousness of the situation, one dental officer married and with children, assigned to the 5th Regiment, came completely unglued. The poor fellow could not, or would not, accept his position. We all sympathized with him, but this was his assignment--or so we thought.
Volunteer for 5th Regiment
A few days later I was summoned to the office of the commanding dental officer. Standing about were all the high brass, Commanders and Captains, all with serious expressions. I knew that I had done nothing to warrant this attention, but this was war time and maybe I was to be hanged for parking in the Captain's space. A jg Lieutenant in the presence of all this brass had to denote something important--and then it hit me like a bolt of lightning. As the skipper began to speak, I interrupted him most decisively. "Sir, I would like to volunteer for the 5th Regiment." The "old man", with tears in his eyes, came around to the front of his desk, put his arms about me, and sincerely thanked me. I had relieved him of the onerous duty of ordering me to replace the assigned, but incapacitated, dental officer of the 5th. I had impressed the hell out of the brass and made a powerful friend of the skipper.
The time had come again for me to climb the cargo net (#7), now with all the proper gear and no substituting of equipment with lightweight pillows, up the side of the ship for transit to Japan. This time it was not maneuvers, and my former experiences in the Corps would have to serve as a substitute for the training I never had. Just to restate the preposterous and absurd fact.... In the Army, in the Navy, and now in the Marine Corps, and not a day of formalized training. It seemed to me that the Pentagon was taking a mighty big risk. Could they have had so much confidence in my Brooklyn genealogy?
The trip across the Pacific was a delight. Each evening I could be found in the wardroom, producing mounds of delicious toast; my technique was faultless. The nights were beautiful, stars so numerous and so close, the moon's bright path, like molten silver streaming across miles of dark sea, the flying fish illuminated in the moonlight and in the phosphorescent ship's wake. War seemed so distant and unreal. In the Sea of Japan we could see a volcanic island in the darkness erupting great balls of fiery lava. We lined the rail marveling at Nature's fury. With no previous experience in war, I could not imagine Man emulating this explosive and violent phenomenon. I was soon to learn the truth.
Delights of Japan
We disembarked in Japan, clambered down the ropes (#8), and assembled on the pier. Japanese dockworkers gathered to watch our arrival. Somehow or other a Marine had managed to hide a small dog in his gear, a brutish bowlegged bulldog with protruding fangs, red-rimmed eyes, drooling jaws, and a thick rope halter around his neck to hold this delightful puppy in tow. One sight of this canine monster cleared the docks of all Japanese. Would this work with the North Koreans?
The division was encamped at Otsu, a small Japanese town, to await the decision from the high command for a grand amphibious assault at Inchon, Korea. There was an apparent clash of opinions as to the feasibility of such an operation because of the bizarre nature of the port of Inchon. However, at this particular time we were not concerned with the impending operation. We were overjoyed to be in Japan; we intended to take full advantage of our new and exotic surroundings. The Japanese were still the defeated enemy and MacArthur was unequivocally qualified as the emperor's replacement. The obsequious Japanese made us welcome.
Shore leave in town was the immediate goal of every Marine. Until they were confronted with the Army troops, all went well. However, like lit matches in contact with gasoline, these meetings usually resulted in a free-for-all between the exuberant Marines and the sullen G.I.s. Night after night the casualties piled up, and in order to prevent the decimation of the Army units, the commanding district officer banned all leave for the Marines. After being cooped up aboard ship for more than ten days on the Pacific passage, these young men were not too cooperative with the new restrictions to base. One night while enjoying the hospitality of the town, I watched as a group of MPs and our Shore Patrol, apparently alerted to the presence of Marines in a private home enjoying the favors of the women, burst in to arrest the miscreants. Suddenly the paper walls of the house burst open, exploding outward as Marines, naked as the day they were born, fled through the night pursued by the military police. We made every effort to maintain some semblance of discipline, but Otsu had been captured by our young Marines and would never be the same again.
To assume that the enlisted men were having all the fun in Japan would be a gross misjudgment of the situation. One day, under the guidance of local Japanese officials, the Marine officers engineered a party, unique and unconventional, a delight for the male sex. The summer palace of a Japanese prince was rented for twenty-four hours. This jewel of a residence on the shores of Lake Biwa was surrounded by gardens and waterfalls. The oriental scenic beauty was spectacular, but I must confess that we were less impressed with the natural beauty than with the female guest list.
To assure authenticity and the best provender available, we invited the police chief, the #1 Sake manufacturer (accompanied by his finest product), the best local restauranteur and hotelier, and various local manufacturers, names suggested by the chief. To add entertainment and spice to the evening, we hired eight Geishas and a number of "sleeping girls", the latter to arrive after the meal and the departure of the Geishas.
Magnificently arrayed in silken kimonos, hair piled high in traditional style, facial features outlined in muted color against alabaster skin, the Geishas created an atmosphere of tranquility and gentility. They prepared the food at each table, served small porcelain cups of warmed Sake, and played the samisen (a Japanese three-string lyre) without uttering or understanding one word of English. We had been forewarned most explicitly that these women were to be treated with utmost respect and physical contact was to be avoided at all costs. We were all perfect gentlemen until the effects of numerous cups of fine Sake began to take their toll. We and the Japanese gentlemen were unable to converse in our native languages, but we soon found that we all knew a smattering of French and that language became the lingua franca that bridged the gap--that and the copious flow of Sake. Large quantities of rice wine overcome obvious obstacles to friendship.
The meal now ended, the Geishas retired and the Europeanized "sleeping girls" were introduced to all. These young girls, all curves and giggles, paired off with each officer, displaying little modesty or inhibitions. The atmosphere was one of sensual fun and frolic and would, if desired, end with a sleeping companion. In retrospect, such a party could not take place in the U.S. without the appearance of vulgarity or degenerating into an orgy. The male, however, in Japanese society was the dominant sex--and we enjoyed every minute of our gender.
I had a ball; I still smile with the memory of that night long ago. Remembering a Japanese custom, I decided to take a bath, of course accompanied by my female companion. It was embarrassing at first, being soaped down while nude by a pretty woman, but "when in Rome" one must follow the local custom--and with complete cooperation I followed it most avidly. After soaping and rinsing outside the tub, I submerged in the hot water, floating in a sea of tranquility, relishing my enviable status of the moment. Time passed without notice until I was rudely brought to attention by the other officers clamoring to use the bath. I had no intention of yielding, of retreating from this voluptuous state until the insistent voice of the senior officer present made his wishes known. Now thoroughly cooked and chastened, we, "me and my gal," beat a hasty retreat. Ah, what a night!
Morning came too soon and we had to depart from this palace of pleasure. It was time now to return to reality and prepare ourselves for the impending mayhem. I could very well understand why the Army occupation troops in Japan were completely unfit for battle. A few months of such duty and I would not be able to defeat a troop of Brownies.
Days passed and still no orders from the High Command. Our troops were put through their paces from dawn to dusk, and in the darkness of night they continued their maneuvers. The officers had suppressed their usual jocularity to convey the seriousness of the training. They could not, however, maintain their sober demeanor when some Marines inadvertently fell into the farmers' "honey pits" in the darkness. This was too much to ask of a Marine, to receive his battlefield "baptism" in a fecal soup. Ah, C'est la guerre!
Finally Hq made up their collective minds. MacArthur's grand scheme to bypass the North Koreans engaged at the Pusan Perimeter and land up the west coast at Inchon was put into operation. After many weeks of acrimonious debate, MacArthur managed to convince the Naval and Marine Commanders that the "operation" was feasible--by using the 1st Marine Division. (Where the hell was his vaunted Army?) Now committed, the Corps perceived a supreme opportunity to add to its reputation and to thwart the usual Congressional efforts to emasculate the USMC.
The harbor and port at Inchon presented an almost insolvable problem. Thirty-two foot tides combined with fierce currents, small island channels, and a quagmire of mud, made the amphibious assault an exercise for potential disaster. The large landing ship tanks, LSTs, carrying the heavy equipment would have to go in on the high tide, unload under enemy guns, and be off the beach in three hours. The first assault troops would have to scale a high rocky sea wall to attain a beachhead, all the while under enemy fire. Finally, the time of the high tide on the designated day of the assault would necessitate a landing at about 5 p.m., leaving but two hours of daylight for the main assault.
All was in readiness and the Division moved to the Japanese port of Kobe for departure to Inchon, Korea. To add to the tension and underlying distrust in MacArthur's "grand scheme", a typhoon struck the Japanese islands and rolled the Korean straits with winds of 125 mph. We watched in amazement as small landing craft were put over the side of the moored transport, engines racing to hold and steady the mother ship against the dock by nudging against her side like a fleet of tugs. A bulky aircraft carrier, buffeted by the high winds, began to drift out of the channel, threatening to crush any ship in its wayward path. More landing craft, Japanese tugs and any damn thing afloat, were drafted for the task of restraining this leviathan of a vessel. They apparently were successful, for we were able to board the transports the following day. Hopefully the engines of the landing craft, misused during the typhoon emergency, were not burned out as they were essential for the amphibious assault at Inchon.
We boarded an ocean liner, the President Jackson, pressed into service due to the lack of an adequate number of available naval transports. This was the height of luxury. Officers were given staterooms on the upper decks, with bathrooms and windows with a view. The bathrooms proved a necessity, whereas the large glass windows seemed to invite danger. It was an unusual voyage, lacking only a bar, dance band, and female companionship. One could not anticipate the impending danger while living in a first class cabin and dining in luxurious surroundings. It did not take too long before disabusement became evident. Live ammunition, weapons, including bayonets, were issued to the troops--and to all doctors. They must have been kidding. I could not answer for those doctors who had field medical training, but as for me, untrained and inquisitive, this action could sink the ship.
Our specific arms were carbines which, if fired in the automatic mode, would jam at the most inopportune moment. I guess that we really were not expected to use them, for they were completely undependable. Upon opening our crated weapons, we immediately became aware that these carbines were encased, or rather embedded, in Cosmoline. This material, used as an embalmment, was simply grease with a capital G, and would contaminate anyone or anything within six feet of it. The troops cleaned their newly acquired rifles by sitting on the decks and laboriously removing the Cosmoline with gasoline soaked rags. I and my cabin mates thought this method was too crude and too labor intensive, so we utilized our knowledge of chemistry and came up with a hot solution. (I can now disclose our degreasing method since the statute of limitations has long since passed.) We solved the problem in a manner that could earn a man twenty years in the brig, but--we were doctors. All our grease encrusted carbines were placed tenderly in our bathtub to be submerged in hot water. Wow, did that work wonders. We now had sparkling clean carbines, but the ship's plumbing would never be the same again, as the Cosmoline would surely defy Liquid Plumber et al.
With absolutely no previous experience with guns (I had never joined the NR), I prevailed upon my Marine companions to demonstrate and instruct me in the dismantling and the assembling of my carbine. Before long I attained some proficiency and finally I could put the damn weapon together without having the embarrassment of a few small parts left over. Now assembled, and with a double magazine of ammo, I could have invaded the island of Grenada single handed. I managed not to shoot anyone, but there were a few incidents when rifle fire erupted in the troops quarters by accident. Fortunately we had only a few minor casualties, but many embarrassed faces.
All the dental and medical officers were temporarily attached to a medical battalion until stability would be attained on the beachhead before final assignments would be issued. I received a "choice" position to be with an advanced surgical team to land after the first assault wave. Luckily for me, one of many foul-ups negated this early landing and I remained aboard ship to assist in the surgical treatment of the first wounded of the battle.
September 14th and the armada was in position for the assault the next day. Naval bombardment and carrier planes bombing and rocketing their targets made those lovely picture windows on the President Jackson something less than desirable. We abandoned our cabins and sought safer shelter elsewhere on the ship. One pre-assault practice which I could never understand or enjoy was the serving of steak and eggs, when available, before the battle. I love eggs, and I love steak, but eating under tension and then having to digest this combination while crouching in a pitching and rolling landing craft is ridiculous. But it was a tradition that I could very well up-chuck.
The first attack on the enemy positions began at about 6 a.m. on the 15th. The 5th Marines had to neutralize the island of Wolmi-do, a small fortified thorn that commanded the harbor entrance. Their task was made simpler by the previous incessant bombardment by ships and planes, and the difficult assault was successful beyond expectations. There now was a hiatus of almost eight hours as the main attack had to await the next high tide. Aboard the Jackson we all were elated with the successful completion of the initial assault, but the euphoria was soon tempered by the arrival of landing craft with severely wounded men aboard.
The sick bay on our ship was in reality a small, well-equipped hospital. For those men who suffered severe wounds, surgical intervention was the necessary treatment. Bullet wounds were relatively simple, whereas the shrapnel trauma was frightful. Torn metal fragments, twisted and ripped into razor-sharp shapes by explosive forces, created indescribable havoc. The simple penetration of such a scrap of metal caused so much internal damage that on one occasion I stood six hours assisting the surgeons before they called it quits--to resume the operation the next morning. More than once I unthinkingly picked up a piece of shrapnel with my gloved hand, immediately receiving a deep cut through the glove. One must be aware at this time that these were unusual patients. They cried, bled, and died--but twenty-four hours previously they were healthy in the prime of life. Gradually the madness and the human tragedy began to penetrate my consciousness--and it will be my job to send such innocents into the maelstrom of battle. (God forgive me for what I was to do.)
I can now look back in time remembering those incidents when we labored so hard, so long, to undo the ravages of war, to repair the maniacal mayhem that our technology created. If only we could have avoided that particular day, those particular young men would be whole and undamaged. But we cannot undo what had transpired; we cannot rewrite history.
Bowels of Korea
Late afternoon of the 15th, as the tide rushed in LSTs rammed themselves onto the beaches and the bulk of the Division was now ashore at Inchon. The attack was a success, demonstrating the unique ability of the Corps, supported by the Navy, to overcome extraordinary unforeseen obstacles. We landed the next day when all the area was secured to set up a medical facility ashore. The harbor was a scene of apparent mass confusion. LSTs, like beached whales, were lying canted on their sides, small boats were mired in the mud, every craft was high and dry with the main fleet of transports and warships at least a half mile in the distance. It looked as if someone had pulled the plug out of the tub and stranded us all. If the sight of all our boats stuck in the mud was startling, then the stench of the port's sewage and the drying mud made one blink in disbelief. (Brooklyn's Gowanus canal has its ardent supporters as being the most redolent of waterways, but Inchon's noxious effluence was in a class by itself--it was the bowels of Korea.)
Now ashore, we were billeted in an old factory. We set our bedrolls on the filthy grimy floor amid huge rusting hulks of machinery. The medical setup was in an old loft nearby, where emergency surgery was performed on those wounded who could not safely be moved to the hospital ship offshore or evacuated to Japan. I received one day a most unenviable lesson in surgery when I was ordered to assist this SOB senior surgeon doing an amputation. Dental school never prepared me for such "butchery", but I could not avoid the Commander's demand.
As I remember it now in disbelief, this young Marine, not yet out of his teens, was hit by a mortar shell. He received most of the blast between his legs; he was still alive and conscious. On a bare wooden pallet, the surgeon anesthetized him by spinal injection as I awaited his instructions. Because there was a meager supply of sterile material, the surgeon ordered me to begin debridement of the wounded site which was contaminated and would not require sterile handling. I cut through the torn uniform to reveal the traumatized area. With the surgeon pointing at specific sites, I removed the destroyed tissues until the "healthy" areas were revealed. My job now completed, the surgeon brusquely shoved me aside and went to work. He was an unfeeling bastard, but maybe such demeanor sustained his sanity in the face of such dreadful horror. I moved to the head of the table to try and comfort the patient who remained conscious throughout his surgical ordeal. "Doc," he asked, "Is it true that the government will get me a special car so I can drive--even if you cut off my legs?"
For three nights we remained in our posh surroundings on the factory floor. A few NCOs started a poker game and invited the doctors to join in and contribute our bloated salaries for their benefit. They had heard that this one doctor, a Mormon, had been quite a card player in medical school, and the challenge was extended. Reluctantly, this non-gambling, refined physician agreed to play just this one time, as it was against his religious principles. Amid the rusty machines, using a packing crate as a table, lit by candles set with sheet copper reflectors, the game commenced. Within three hours the NCOs, all of them, were tapped out as our devout Mormon won everything but their socks. The next evening the NCOs pleaded and cajoled, appealing to his sense of fairness for one more chance to even the score. By the end of the second night, the doctor had managed to relieve the sergeants of all their monies and their socks--and elicited a promise that they would stop now; there would be no more opportunities for them to regain their cash. When it comes to gambling, there are a few principles that can withstand the urge. The NCOs cried, pleaded, implored, and entreated. They spoke of fair play and the proper protocol of the poker game. Their persistence even persuaded all of us who acted as onlookers and kibitzers. That third night, using borrowed funds from the men in the ranks, the NCOs were wiped out for the third and last time. The Mormon Church undoubtedly received its tithe, and the NCOs received a most painful poker lesson.
There was a war going on and at last my involvement became more specific. I was ordered to join the 5th Marines at the front as regimental dentist, aka the assistant medical officer. This was my former outfit on Guam and I was going home. The Regiment was battling its way north to Seoul, and I found Hq on the outskirts of Kimpo airport, ensconced in a deep bunker. I entered a darkened chamber lit by a few candles and addressed no one in particular that I, Lieutenant Silver, was reporting for duty. With a whoop and a holler, many Marine officers recognized me with a "High-Ho Silver, welcome aboard." I was grinning from ear to ear, for I felt truly at home. These were my men and I was here to help them if needed--and they were here to protect me as I, most assuredly, would have need.
I was ushered into the next room by one of the captains and was introduced to the regimental commander, Lt. Col. Ray Murray. He had been apprised of my coming and he was certainly cognizant of my previous duty with the Fleet Marines. I felt certain that some officer had given him a personal assessment of the "dentist", for his welcome seemed most convivial. Such was the beginning of a unique and sincere relationship between this exemplification of a military leader and a young dentist from the streets of Brooklyn.
Leaving the bunker, I sought out the medical facility--an old warehouse structure long since abandoned to the rats and vermin, in a state of total neglect. There I met Lt. Commander Chet Lessenden, regimental medical office, a fine doctor and a great person. Immediately upon realizing that I was the assistant medical officer, Chet said, "Great, it's all yours, good night" and he prepared to get some well-earned sack time. "Wait a minute," I cried, "I don't have the slightest idea of what's going on and...." "If you get into trouble, just call me--but if you do, I'll kill you"--and off he went.
The next few hours the corpsmen and I tended to the wounded. Most of our work consisted of bandaging wounds, removing superficial shrapnel, splinting broken bones, etc. The difficult cases required stabilization to staunch bleeding and prevent irreversible shock. We conducted triage and evacuated by whatever means available those needing massive intervention to save their lives. We were efficient and nothing seemed to interrupt our ministrations--but that would be an erroneous impression. Many times I stood there in complete frustration, unable to provide the means to save the life of one of these "children." They were so young, and now I was so old.
Chet taught me many things, and I thought that I might even use such knowledge someday in my private practice. For example, when examining the wounded, sniff well for the aroma of phosphorus. The enemy's shells and grenades often contained white phosphorus, and its residue on the skin would leave vicious burns. The phosphorus contamination of an open wound would present a particular problem. Pulling a blanket over the patient and myself, I could see the faint glow of the burning chemical in the dark. A solution of permanganate daubed over the affected area would neutralize the phosphorus. This simple procedure was so effective and it made me feel almost as relieved as the victim. However, I must confess now, in my forty years of dental practice I have never had an occasion to paint my civilian patients with purple permanganate solution. Too bad. I did it so well.
There was one time when my newly acquired medical experience would, I hope, prove to be useless in my future practice. An elderly Korean woman was brought to me, carried on a litter of tree limbs, by her family. She had been hit in the shoulder by a shrapnel fragment a week before, suffering an extensive wound. Sometimes when not too busy, we did some humanitarian work for the civilians, especially for the children and the old folks. I removed the cotton covering her injured shoulder to reveal another covering of leaves. Gingerly I continued to expose the wound site and--the huge laceration was alive with maggots. Beautiful white maggots, devouring, as their wont, all the damaged and necrotic tissue, leaving a clean and healthy area of healing tissue. The corpsmen in attendance now scattered, but Lessenden and I, though a bit squeamish, examined this medical anomaly with great interest. We both knew that during the First World War, maggot therapy was utilized in many severe cases to debride and clean wounds. To see the inadvertent use of these fly larvae in wound therapy was fascinating, but would any of my dental patients appreciate this arcane treatment?
Being the dentist and having some expertise in the region of the head and jaws put me in the unenviable position of being responsible for any wounds from the neck up. Realistically, however, there was little to be done for severe head wounds, and so it was my job to do anything at all for the unfortunate few. Lord, if I only had the power of healing, or maybe the power of death, for I was the attendant for these destroyed humans. I watched over these boys, no more, no less.
Blood plasma, the treatment of choice, was unavailable to us because of non-existent refrigeration. We did have bottles of plasma and solutions of large molecules (I cannot remember the name of this material) to infuse the patients as treatment for shock and blood loss. I had never placed an intra-venous line before and I asked one of my petty officers to demonstrate. He refused me with a petty and mean-spirited remark that he didn't get paid as a doctor and it wasn't his responsibility. I retorted with some choice expletives and proceeded to place the intravenous tube. From that time forth I hardly ever missed a vein--nor forgot that corpsman.
On the Move
The regiment was on the move now toward the capital of Seoul. Each night the staff would gather to receive the orders for the next day--battalion and company commanders, department heads such as Lieutenant Silver, the regimental dentist. Every officer had combat experience and years of training. I had neither, but a college education and a strong motivation to contribute, being in the company of such men. After Colonel Murray outlined the battle orders and the logistics involved, he then queried each officer in turn as to problems that affected their commands. He never missed an opportunity to quiz me as to numbers and types of casualties. The Colonel could ascertain from the type of wounds the kinds of weaponry the enemy was using. His scope of knowledge encompassed everything involved in the military milieu.
After the initial morning assault, we were required to evacuate the severely wounded during an allotted time span when we would take precedence over the re-supply trucks, block the road with our ambulances, and actually halt in the battle. This was a very necessary and dangerous procedure, but it was an integral part of the Colonel's battle plan of the day. Problems arose by the fact that for the first four months in action the regiment had but a handful of ambulances. I had two jeep ambulances and a supply truck that could serve in a pinch. I complained one day of the inadequate transportation available and so, on that particular day, the colonel managed to provide an amphibious duck for our use. This most cumbersome vehicle, more at home in the water than on land, was loaded with our wounded, awaiting the word to move. The initial fury of the battle slackened and we were now in motion, moving down a one-lane dirt road while tanks and trucks carrying shells and other vital ammunition waited for our passage. How did the Murray know that we would need such a large capacity vehicle that bloody morning?
Of the three regimental commanders in the 1st Division, Colonel Murray was junior to Colonels Puller and Litzenberg. He was the epitome of a military man--and more. He had a commanding presence; his visage was craggy and rough hewn, perhaps best described as Lincolnesque. It is quite obvious that I loved this man. My very life was in his hands and I considered it a priority of mine to keep him healthy. His every decision affected thousands of troops; he was responsible and responsive.
My personal conversations with the colonel usually embraced subjects far afield from the military and it was obvious to me that his intelligence extended beyond regimental boundaries. His grasp of history and economics and the effect of a war on the lives of the citizenry was illuminating. His knowledge of military medicine kept me always on my toes. To his everlasting credit, this man considered the fate of the non-combatant Korean natives as we moved through their villages, cautioning us to be aware of their rice paddies and dwellings to avoid needless destruction. He introduced his presence into everything that could affect his troops. He was a man of courage and restraint; a man of stability and resolution. He was possessed with a deep sense of moral sensibility. I was proud to know him and to serve under him.
This day I remember well. General Douglas MacArthur, flushed with "his" victory at Inchon, was coming to pay us a visit. He was well aware of the 5th Marines. With sirens wailing, a cortege of heavily-armed jeeps roared down the road to the hovel which served as regimental Hq. The Marines, including my corpsmen, were lined alongside the road in no particular fashion, except that when the General's jeep appeared, these fighting men deliberately turned their backs to the Commander-in-Chief. I honestly believe that MacArthur did not see anything amiss through his dark sunglasses. He was somewhere up there among the gods.
At regimental Hq, MacArthur greeted the regimental staff (including me), said a few inconsequential words to Colonel Murray, turned and selected a Silver Star medal that one of his aides kept among the many others in a leather briefcase, and pinned it to the colonel's blouse. With that "chore" accomplished, MacArthur strode out and left. In front of all present, Lt. Colonel Murray, commander of the 5th Marine Regiment, removed the medal, placed it on the desk, opened the top drawer, and with a quick motion of his hand, swept the Silver Star out of sight. A silent but eloquent gesture of contempt.
Pressing on to the capital the regiment moved decisively, with the North Koreans unable to stem our advance. We had only to cross the Han River to put us in position to take Seoul. We encountered little effective opposition up to this point. At this time my position in the attack column was to the rear. Lessenden, the senior doctor, was forward so that there would always be a medical officer at various points in the column. I joined a group of four Amtracs that were taking us across the river. These ungainly amphibious vehicles, propelled by tank treads, were the result of some engineer's nightmare. They were extremely dangerous in the water, threatening to swamp with the slightest wave. On land they were a poor substitute for an armored vehicle--but they were all ours. Being the only officer in the Amtrac, I stood staring ahead, up front, afraid to move a muscle for fear of tipping the damn machine. Finally reaching the far shore, the Amtrac crawled out of the water like some prehistoric beast with me riding in the saddle. Damn it, I'm even petrified to ride a horse, but this behemoth was a cinch--now that it was out of the river and onto dry land.
We moved down the road, grinding and clanking and making a terrible racket. We were a fearful sight and when entering a small village the natives gave us a wide berth. Within the village the road made a ninety degree turn which required our Amtracs, similar to a tank, to stop one tread and continue driving with the other tread, causing the machine to swivel on the spot and accomplish the turning maneuver. Unfortunately, this huge monstrous machine, swinging wide, touched the corner of a house on the turn and demolished the peasant's home. I was in a state of shock, realizing for the first time and in such proximity just how destructive we could be to this centuries-old Korean community. The collapse of the house was cause for laughter among the troops, but heeding the colonel's cautionary remarks, I put an end to their amusement and we were more careful in the future. I dismounted and stood in the road, directing the rest of the Amtracs around the turn and out of the village.
We were lost. It was early evening, getting dark, and we were unable to make radio contact with the rest of the column. One dental officer and four heavily-armored Amtrac--this was some combination, surely never anticipated in the Marine battle plans. I ordered the tracs to park for the night and we drove single file through a dike into a rice field. The machines were parked spaced out, with the Marines in foxholes between each. Every 'trac had a heavy and light machine gun, giving us a total of eight major weapons, not counting the armed Marines. We could have put up a good defense if necessary, but I prayed that this night would prove peaceful.
We divided the night into two-hour intervals, and I chose the 12 to 2 watch. I and a young Marine manned the machine guns. He had the thirty caliber and I, due to my seniority, opted for the fifty caliber ordnance-- but how does one operate this massive weapon? "It's simple, Doc. Just throw the bolt once and when you throw it the second time it's armed and you're in business." It really seemed a simple task, but have you ever tried to arm a machine gun this size? It requires strong muscles, in the arms--not in the head. At midnight I relieved the first watch and took over the defense of my charges. I threw the bolt once, half arming the damn gun, and spent the night alert to every noise and movement. Finding sleep impossible, I remained with the machine gun at the ready through the rest of the night, keeping up a steady stream of conversation with the Marines on watch, managing to keep their interest piqued and their senses alert. It is obvious that I love to talk, and the time passed rapidly.
The first shafts of dawn's light penetrated the darkness. We were aware now of shadowy shapes and heard men approaching. A rush of adrenaline had me quivering in dreaded anticipation, but not immobile. All machine gunners were now ready. I threw the bolt for the second time, readying the cumbersome but deadly weapon to fire on the approaching target. We were fortunate, for the shadowy figures were Korean prisoners being herded to the rear by their Marine captors. They passed single file under our guns--and I, dripping with perspiration, heaved an audible sigh of relief. I leaned against the steel sides of the Amtrac to steady myself on rubbery legs. In the future my weapon, or rather my instrument of choice, would be a dental drill--fearful to some, but capable of a positive and constructive result. I hope that my patients will feel the same.
I left the tankers that morning after having located the main column not too far up the line. I bid them all goodbye, but they wanted to thank me for just being there with them throughout the night. My new friends gave me a heavy, warm, tanker's coverall a bit too large for my small frame, but I loved the gesture and I kept that present even after returning to the States. (My young son always wanted to wear this coverall and so one winter when he was about eight years of age, he went out in the snow wearing his father's tank suit--proud as any eight-year old could be, innocent of the implications of this article of clothing.)
Fighting for Seoul
The fighting for Seoul took on major proportions as the North Koreans decided to stand and make us pay dearly for every mile, every inch. Battalions of the 5th were in action every day and the casualties mounted. Frontal assaults by Marine units, though decried by Army Brass, were effective by each day's end and resulted, as far as we were concerned, with fewer casualties in the long run. One Marine company, though suffering horrendous casualties, took their targeted position with a final bayonet charge. I will admit to an overwhelming feeling of pride for my outfit--what damn fools we humans are.
We were faced one day with a grievously-injured Marine. There was little hope for survival unless we could get him back to a major medical facility far behind the lines. A helicopter flew in carrying General Smith, commanding general of the 1st Division, for a face-to-face conference with Colonel Murray. Chet Lessenden, a doctor somewhat indifferent to any military protocol in the face of a medical emergency, had me approach the General and ask for the use of his helicopter. The commanding general refused to release the "bird" because the wounded Marine would have to have someone with him holding the IV bottle and tubes. The stretcher, unable to fit into this tiny helicopter, was positioned crosswise with the patient's head and feet extending out the windows of both sides. This two-star Marine General was jammed into the rear space, holding the serum bottle with one hand and steadying the stretcher with the other. Incidents like these create and foster the spirit of the U.S. Marines.
Seoul fell after being assaulted on three sides by the Marines and the Army. The Marines, supported by tanks, flamethrowers, and Corsair fighters flown from the carriers off shore, entered the city on 25 September, eleven days after the landing at Inchon. Less than two weeks had elapsed. I would have sworn it was two months.
Fighting continued for a few days more as the Marines mopped up the last remnants of resistance. We received reports that the city was now in our hands--so Chet Lessenden and I thought to make a "medical" survey of the captured city. "Madmen" like us are protected by some Higher Being, for we drove our jeep into Seoul through the rubble and destruction. We saw no troops, no evidence of Marines, and providentially, no enemy soldiers. However, we did see a group of Korean urchins smiling and waving at us. Chet, ever mindful of his medical specialty, jumped from the jeep, gathered the children about us, and proceeded to examine their heads for evidence of pathogens. After a few minutes I remarked that this was a helluva time to practice his profession and, "Let's get the hell out of here." I truly believe that we entered Seoul before it was actually declared safe and in our hands. We, however, were in the hands of God.
Chester M. Lessenden, Jr., M.D., regimental surgeon, 5th Marines, my boss and my friend. Here was a man who declined to be confined to any fixed protocol or convention. His purpose was to tend the wounded under any circumstances or conditions. He performed admirably and deserved the gratitude of the multitudes he treated, yet he never received a commendation for his heroic and humane service. (An oversight such as this was unconscionable; we should have had MacArthur here to pull out a medal from his ditty bag.)
Chet, tall and lanky, towered over me. We complemented each other and respected each other. I found that most extraordinary and pleasing. for there always existed competitive discord between physician and dentist. Being Chet's assistant suited me fine and I was appreciated. There was, however, another obvious physical difference between us. The doctor sported a splendid moustache, a Dali-esque magnificence; two upcurled tendrils, waxed and trimmed to a point, a picture of symmetry and frustration. To maintain this adornment, to keep its length from drooping and assuming an oriental look, Chet had to use the only thing available--soap. Oh how he struggled--and twirled. He was having a difficult time until a new batch of corpsmen were assigned to the regiment.
Among the new men were many who had served in the Second World War and who had experienced military life in the field. One such man, a Jewish screen writer from Hollywood recalled to duty despite his protestations, arrived in Korea carrying those "necessities" known to be uniquely important in a war zone. He reported to me for his assignment and during our brief conversation asked if he could give the doctor a present. This was highly unusual and I would have put him in his place immediately, until I saw the gift. This man asked me for permission to proffer a tin of Pinaud Mustache Wax to our superior officer. Lessenden was ecstatic and paraded about, glowing and preening like a peacock. His mustache now expertly shaped to two stiff, tapered, needle-like points--a masterpiece of labial adornment. So much for the simple pleasures of life.
The new corpsmen received their assignments to each battalion and company aid station directly on the front lines. I admonished them, directed them, pleaded with them, not to be angels of mercy. Calls for aid during fire fights were to be held in memory, to be acted upon immediately after the firing dies down or ceases. In this way we can gather in our wounded without adding a corpsman to the casualty list. Few corpsmen listened to the advice of a now veteran doctor; they were assigned at 8 a.m. to the front and returned at 2 p.m., wounded and dying for an impetuous act of mercy. I write now with tears in my eyes, for I sent these young and foolish men into Hell.
The regimental aid station was located in a bombed-out school. There was a surgical team operating in one large room, a poor excuse for an operating theater. On many occasions when a helicopter would land in the courtyard outside, the turning rotors would throw up clouds of dust which contaminated the operating site by way of the nonexistent windows. We would, when hearing the incoming chopper, throw ourselves over the patient to try and block the dust from settling onto the open wounds. Sterility was an impossible task and so we used the available antibiotics liberally. It was at this time an apparent stray artillery shell landed in the center of our compound, wounding our Exec officer severely enough as to require his evacuation. We did not dislike this officer, but he was a poor second to Colonel Murray, and we all were thankful that the colonel was spared.
Becoming now more adept at the handling of patients and more knowledgeable as to the means of survival, I decided to carry my own supply of medicine--for selfish purposes. In the military, almost all therapeutics come in pill form, most importantly, the antibiotics. I had a plastic sac, more like a sausage tube, filled with all that one might need if one were to suffer a wound somewhere distant from help. I carried this tube with me always, and used it at times for other than personal purposes.
There was a time after the Han River crossing when the regiment Hq and the troops were ahead of our supply trucks. For one day we did not have any medical supplies available. As usual, we would make do while awaiting our one truck and jeep ambulances, all crammed with the needed medical supplies. Lessenden, knowing of my personal medical "sausage", asked me to see the colonel. Murray was suffering from an ear infection and would not seek treatment for such a simple ailment. Here was a chance for this Lieutenant to give the high command an order. With great pleasure and empathy for the suffering colonel, I gave him some of my personal antibiotics and saw to it that he complied with my medical advice, medication and rest. The colonel thanked me, smiled at me, swallowed his pills, and gently kicked me in the rear out of the tent. I felt like a million bucks.
Appointment with Destiny
It was late September and the North Koreans were being routed in most sectors. MacArthur, in Japan, was triumphant by his own perception and gave orders for the Marine Division to be deployed to the east coast of Korea. We were to re-embark at Inchon and sail around the Korean peninsula to land at Wonsan. The Eighth Army would be on the west and the X Corps, consisting primarily of the 1st Marines, would be positioned on the east. The situation would now be that MacArthur alone would have command of the troops in the field, coordinating the east and west through Hq in Japan. The divided commanders in the field, those in direct contact with the fighting situation, would have to report to Japan and to defer to the wishes of the insufferable General. Leadership of this quality, by a megalomaniacal military leader, in disregard of all advice from his senior contemporaries and directives from Washington, and intent on demonstrating his supreme and unparalleled military prescience, was the ingredient for disaster.
The time had arrived for the Marines to move to the coast for shipment to Wonsan for our "appointment with destiny." Returning to Inchon, the springboard for our victorious assault on the North Koreans, we marched down the road loaded with our gear and supplies. We were a motley crew of victors, bursting with pride and bravado. We were the greatest, but the grungiest. We never had showers, clean clothes, or any of the luxuries available to the Army troops, for this was the fighting Marines.
Coming down the road to replace us as we left was a single column of army troops. I believe they were called the Wolfhounds. We lined the side of the narrow road going south, whereas they moved through us on the road going north. We stopped and gaped at this extraordinary sight. In clean, pressed uniforms and shiny boots, they rode jeeps into the battle zone. Officers sat rigid in the front seats, their gold or silver insignia proclaiming to all their imposing rank. In the rear seat rode a trooper manning a machine gun mounted high over the officers' heads to avoid blowing their brains out if they had to fire the weapon. To cap off this ludicrous parade of stupidity and exposure, and apparently to attempt to foster an esprit de corps, they all sported yellow scarves about their necks. Wolfhounds they were, but dead dogs they would be.
Aboard the ships at Inchon, we left with no lingering feelings of loss except for the material we had to leave on the docks. There were piles of gear, souvenirs, trucks, jeeps, weapons, clothing, and if memory does not fail me, even a tank. The Marines are the world's best scroungers. Anything not screwed down or guarded by a company of army MPs is fair game to our troops. They steal, oops, I mean liberate, anything that might have some value for us, but the time of reckoning comes with the shipboard loading. Nothing is allowed except that which is listed in the organizational tables of each command. That tank--where the hell did we get that one? One fact must be emphasized at this time. Taking, scrounging, or stealing anything from a fellow Marine would bring immediate and severe punishment. We were to feel secure and comfortable in the company of Marines.
Leisurely we sailed around the tip of Korea on our way to Wonsan. Again, my Karma intervened to spice up the trip with novel and unforeseen incidents. A typhoon in the Sea of Japan put the whole fleet at risk. Mountainous waves pounded the ship, bouncing us about like a rowboat in a storm. Watching the escort vessels, destroyers and corvettes trying to maintain headway against the wind and waves made me thankful for the size and solidity of our transport. At times those small vessels actually were overwhelmed by the towering waves and disappeared from view, only to reappear a moment later, shaking off tons of foaming water. The fleet was completely dispersed during the typhoon, to reassemble after the great blow passed.
My troops, having the luck of the draw, were berthed in the lowest level deep in the hold against the steel plates of the hull. During the typhoon, the ship would rear up onto the oncoming waves and then slam down into the troughs, jarring and jolting the men--the hold resounding with horrendous metallic clangs. The men were petrified, expecting the hull to burst at any moment. Their fear was palpable and I shared their apprehension. With permission from the skipper, I brought my men up from their assigned purgatory to rest in the corridors and spaces of the ship. I tried to avoid going down into that abyss unless absolutely necessary.
The passing of the typhoon and the reassembling of the fleet still did not get us into Wonsan. The harbor had been mined and had to be cleared of these impediments before we could enter. I frankly appreciated this concern for the ships, for leaving it up to the Marines, we would have swum ashore to make the assault. For more than a week the fleet yo-yoed up and down the coast while minesweepers tried to sweep a clear passage into the harbor. Our transport was cleaned and painted again and again by the troops. Aerobic exercises were unheard of at that time, but I am sure the Marines invented some. Nobody sat around and examined their navels.
One examination aboard ship did, however, cause concern. A corpsmen was confined to sick bay with an apparent case of chicken pox. Lessenden, a dermatologist by training, did not like the appearance and progress of the disease. One had to be cognizant of the fact that our men were exposed to diseases that flourished in the isolated and ravaged areas of the Orient. The available prostitutes were an enticing attraction for the men despite the fact that their appearance could stop a quartz watch or turn milk sour at a glance. I interviewed the patient, whom I knew quite well, and he swore on anything that could be considered sacred that he had received a successful vaccination before the outfit had shipped out from the States. Lessenden was adamant; small pox was on his mind. He isolated the patient and had all physicians aboard ship re-examine the man. There was no question in the minds of all the doctors--except Chet.
Despite the fact that he was junior to some of the medical officers, Lessenden informed the Fleet Commanders and apprised them of his concern. The very next day, all physicians in the fleet were ferried over to our ship by small craft, helicopter, or breeches buoy to examine our wayward patient. None agreed with my boss. The fact was, however, that none of the physicians had ever seen a case of smallpox. Lessenden would not jeopardize the troops with the possibility of a missed diagnosis, and so the entire fleet personnel were re-vaccinated while en-route to Wonsan. All the while our corpsman was isolated in sickbay, Chet took daily biopsies of his lesions. A constant stream of specimens was sent to the Institute of Pathology in Washington, DC, but I must admit that to this day I am not certain that a definitive diagnosis was ever made. The corpsman eventually recovered, but was specifically warned not to have hot soup for he would leak out all over the place--from all those biopsy punctures.
Still at sea, now in calm weather, the fleet steamed back and forth while the General steamed--awaiting the word that the mines in Wonsan harbor were cleared. I was at ease, especially in the evening, as I resumed my position at the toaster. This time though, I shared some of my production with a few Korean Army officers who were aboard. They liked toast even better than I, if that was possible. They slathered butter over each slice and then covered it all with a heavy blanket of sugar. Ugh, as a dentist, this was dental suicide. They were in heaven while Uncle Sam was their "sugar daddy."
Finally after about nine days at sea, the Navy managed to sweep a narrow path through the Wonsan minefield for our transports to approach the landing beaches. Because of the lost time at sea, the operation fell so far behind schedule that it became ludicrous for the Marines to indulge in a full scale amphibious landing. The Army's success in pushing the North Koreans northward towards the 38th Parallel made the entire landing operation moot, superfluous. This fact was apparent to all the field commanders of the X Corps, including the Marine brass, but in Japan, in splendid isolation, MacArthur schemed and planned his invasion of North Korea.
Lined up in a row like ducklings, our ships entered the harbor single file, passing under the sixteen -inch guns of the battleship Missouri. This was some sight--a twentieth century military action with a "dinosaur" present as a ?? What we could have used were a couple of minesweepers to be effective, not some damn iron gun platform that served as a excuse for an Admiral's billet. We came ashore, wading through the water onto the beach, to be greeted by a banner that read, "Welcome Bob Hope." It was humiliating and degrading for these splendid troops to be used in such a cavalier fashion. MacArthur would soon receive the boot from his civilian boss, to receive his just reward as a pompous ass. He who "walked on water" would now have to swim with the ordinary fish.
There evolved a plan now to finally destroy the enemy and secure the entire Korean peninsula south from Pusan and north to the Yalu River. MacArthur, completely disregarding the political realities vis-a-vis the Chinese Communists, acting in contravention to the directives of the President and of the U.N., and solely responsible for the ensuing debacle, put forth the strategic orders. Walker's Eighth Army would move north of the 38th Parallel up the west coast; Almond's Tenth Corps up the east coast, and the Marine division would hold the mountainous region in the center--to act as an anvil against which the enemy would be pounded and destroyed.
This entire plan had to assume that the Chinese Communist regime would not intervene in the rescue of their client state, the North Koreans. More to the point, the arrogance of MacArthur blinded him to the possibility of a Chinese invasion and the reality of a trained and fanatic Chinese Army. The West had always denigrated the ability of the non-Caucasians to fight hard for their beliefs; their training and motivation had always been suspect. But for a man of such vaunted intellect and military prowess to fail so miserably in assessing the Chinese situation was deplorable. As the strutting cock MacArthur crowed that he would clear North Korea of the enemy in ten days, Chinese troops were crossing the Yalu on pontoon bridges erected to replace those stationary ones we had bombed and destroyed. He would eat crow, whereas the troops would eat--bullets.
The 5th Regiment was now in action. From the beaches at Wonsan we moved north toward the mountains. Resistance was sporadic, but at times fierce. I believed that the enemy sensed that they were being forced into a trap and that their backs were against the wall. We destroyed their defenses time after time.
The presence of refugees posed a moral problem that had to be subordinated to the military reality. Streams of Koreans were fleeing to havens in the South, plodding the same road that we were now taking. The Marines do not allow refugees ever to pass through their lines. From bitter experience, men have died from an exploding grenade or rifle shot emanating from the packed ranks of the fleeing natives. These burdened people, before reaching the head of the column, would be forced off the road to move into the field to continue their trek southward.
We were not callous or oblivious to the plight of the native population. As I have stated before, Colonel Murray was a man of honor and high morals. One incident that I shall describe will more than convince the reader of the truth and depth of the latter description. One afternoon after the day's objective was attained and there was a lull in the action, I was sitting by the side of the road resting for a moment when the Colonel's jeep roared up. "What the hell happened here, Silver?" I was at a loss as to the meaning of the Colonel's query. We had just passed through a small village--now completely destroyed. "Was there a fire fight, any enemy resistance?" I replied in the negative. I was not aware of any action. The fact was that there was no fighting, but the village was devastated.
When in action the Marines put out luminescent plastic panels at our front lines so as to delineate our troop positions and aid the aircraft giving ground support. Anything beyond the panels could be assumed to be enemy territory. Marine aircraft flying off the carriers in the Sea of Japan were overhead on station that day, with full bomb loads and no target. Bomb-laden aircraft cannot land back on the carriers, so they must dump their explosive loads into the sea. At $10,000 a bomb, perhaps the young flyers were trying to save the U.S. some money that day, and so they bombed the village just beyond our delineating panels in enemy territory.
Murray was enraged. The more he looked at the useless devastation, the angrier he got. To think that we had destroyed lives and property of generations of hard working peasants in a flash, with no redeeming reason or justification. The Colonel would not accept this. From that time forth, in the most explicit wording, orders were given that no aircraft would choose a target unless specifically under the direction of the Marine ground controllers. The 5th Regiment would not, in the future, be guilty of such barbarism.
With the best of intentions, there were times when military events inflicted grievous consequences on the uninvolved civilians. Troops were alerted as to the devastating effect a carelessly dropped grenade created when picked up and used as a toy by the Korean children. The sight of a shattered arm or the limp body of a child blasted by a live grenade became a recurring nightmare to we medics who responded to this mutilation. Where was it written that children should bear the consequences of man's madness?
Each evening when the troops were at ease or sleeping, there were Marines on the perimeter guarding us against surprise attack or enemy infiltration. The ROK police went out to the villages and warned all civilians to remain in their homes, not to approach our guard posts at the peril of their lives. Heedless to the warning, three Koreans under the influence staggered into the prohibited zone, were challenged by the Marine guard, and one was fatally shot when he failed to respond to the sentry's demand for identification. The dead civilian was brought to me, but the young Marine's accurate shot had pierced his heart. I spent that evening comforting and consoling the young Marine, this man/child who had done his duty in so efficient and applicable a manner. Failure to have acted decisively could have put us all in jeopardy. I praised him for doing his duty, for killing this man. Thinking of this incident these many years later, I begin to question my sanity. I wonder if the "boy" recovered.
Not a Pretty Sight
Time spent in the Korean theater of operations had begun to affect our men. We were becoming brutalized, and the thin veneer of civilization that distinguished us from the enemy and from the peasant mentality began to wear off. We had no opportunity to bathe or change clothes. The troops had to contend with the dust of creation, while we medics wore the dirt and the dried blood of the wounded. The skin of our hands was cracked, sore, and begrimed, defying all efforts to be cleansed. Our faces were adorned with various stages of bearded growth, like moss on a rock. We were not a pretty sight, and we didn't seem to care. In truth, we were a sorry sight, but we still were a damn fine fighting machine.
Chet Lessenden had a different idea when viewing the corpsmen. He demanded that we all shave at least twice a week so as to present a more appealing appearance when hovering above a wounded Marine patient. A clean shaven medic would hopefully engender feelings of security and perhaps sanctuary from the perils of the battlefield. What a poor substitute for the warmth and femininity that a nurse could provide--but we shave. We growled and moaned, scraping at our beards, taking off more bark than hair. Using ice cold water and whatever soap we had, we cursed the head honcho, and removed the beards.
A fundamental point of information should be added at this time with regard to the shaving procedure. We all used our steel helmets as a cold water bucket. Any Marine who would dare to use his helmet as a cooking pot, heating water or rations over a flame, would be subject to severe reprimand or even summary courts martial. The helmet, heated over an open flame, would soon lose its tempered hardness and could be more easily penetrated by a bullet or a shrapnel fragment.
This heavy and cumbersome steel armor was the bane of my existence. By the end of the day my neck muscles ached in agony. I would remove the helmet when working, only to spend an inordinate amount of time later trying to find the damn pot. Amazing that such a heavy and distinctive object could wander off and disappear so easily. (I believe that it had wheels.) I did, however, receive a strong reminder as to the value of the helmet. Before treating the wounded, we usually relieved them of all their gear, helmet and rifle included. This young Marine, suffering from a painful abdominal wound, insisted on retaining his helmet. "No way, fellow, give it up." He clung so tightly to his steel "property" that I knew there must be some explanation. I was aghast when I examined the helmet. An enemy round had hit and penetrated the metal, skidded up and over the plastic liner, and tore out a fist-sized hole in the back. Aside from his critical belly wound, the man had one hell of a headache. It was a shocking demonstration of the helmet's value. I wore mine now with more dedication (but I removed the wheels).
On occasion, medical supplies ran low and had to be restocked from the rear supply area. I had permission to take a jeep and scare up some necessary medical stores from the nearest available facility, which this time was a destroyer lying off shore. This naval vessel was supplying electric power as well as security for Hq in the coastal town. It was dusk when I reached the beach; the town and ship were lit up like Times Square. Apparently these folks have more than enough fuel and electricity to burn. It was strange to see such illumination in a war zone. Something was radically wrong with this situation, but realization did not penetrate as yet.
I boarded the destroyer, presented my list of required medical supplies, and was invited to wait in the officers ward until my order was filled. The ship's executive officer, my equivalent in rank, excused himself, explaining that he could not invite me for dinner as such invites could only be extended to senior officers. I was welcomed to have coffee while waiting.
Standing at the buffet drinking hot coffee, I was dumbfounded and bewildered by what transpired. Dinner was being served on white linen tablecloths with linen napkins and a full setting of polished flatware. Just what one did with knives, forks, and spoons I couldn't honestly say. The officers were in pressed khaki and ties, and had clean hands. With eyes averted, they enjoyed the dinner while I stood nearby drinking coffee. Could they have been revulsed by this filthy, scummy apparition, redolent of God knows what?
Who were these privileged officers? What country, whose Navy? Are they here for the Korean War or for some naval review--a spectacle of pomp and pageantry? Something is radically wrong with this picture. They relax in clean comfort--my boys, we, are covered with the gore of battle. They are warm and sleep in clean beds--we are fighting, and some are dying in the mud. They dine on decent food--we exist on cold, rudimentary, and basic fare. My God, where is the equality? Where is the fairness? Where is the justice? It finally dawns on me. This is Life. Nothing is really equal. One does his duty as his conscience dictates and.... I returned to my friends on the battle line, to do my duty, for myself and for them. Thus, I learnt the most authentic and important verity of my life. I never forgot this lesson.
Day by day now, the cold of winter extended its grip over all of us. One morning I crawled out of my pup tent, shook the frost off my sleeping bag, and donned the warm, voluminous tank pants I had received as a gift from the friendly tankers. I strode down the hill, passing the troops now awake, and someone hollered loudly, the cry resounding off the valley walls. "Hey pants, where ya going with that, Doc?" So little respect for the new senior grade Lieutenant, now ranked as a Captain in the Marines. Somewhere in Washington "they" found my name and promoted me to Lieutenant Morton I. Silver, USNR. No longer the jg. Wow! Look out world.
I smile now thinking of that promotion. I can't remember just when I actually donned the double silver bars indicative of my newly acquired status, but I immediately inked in an additional bar on my fatigue cap so that all who had ten-power binocular vision might recognize the imposing rank of this dental officer. This was the sum total of the conspicuousness of my rank.
Wearing the same fatigues that were issued to the troops, having the exact gear that they carried but displaying two thin black lines on my soiled cap, just where was the officer? I certainly was less than an imposing figure, being just 5'7" tall and of slight build, but a few years older than the young Marines and many years junior to the NCOs. During those personal conversations I was privileged to have with Colonel Murray, I asked him for some explanation as to why the troops responded to my "orders" or directions. Murray laughed and replied with utmost sincerity and affection. "Doctor," he said. "It's command presence. If you act decisively and deliberately--and with confidence like an officer, they will follow you and respect you. It is as simple as that."
We moved north into the mountain valleys of North Korea. Now subjected to the Siberian wind chills, we wore all the clothing we possessed. The men found it difficult to fight with the added burden of heavy parkas and Arctic footwear. The down sleeping bag was the most essential possession, and all else was dispensable. To lose one's down sleeping bag without a replacement available would be tantamount to a death sentence by freezing. The weather situation had become a grim factor exacerbating the medical condition of our wounded. I was thankful that there were few fire fights as the regiment ground onward north to the Chosin reservoir.
Downed by Tooties
If we only could have had rations that were more suitable for the frigid conditions, we would not have suffered so badly. High calorie foods, easily heated, would have been appreciated. Instead, we dined on World War II C-rations that congealed and froze hard into a glutinous mess. When a fire was available we heated water in a fifty-gallon oil drum, threw in cans of rations, and took pot luck as to what we retrieved from the boiling water. The now warmed and edible food, with a canteen cup of scalding coffee, was a treat to be enjoyed within three to five minutes before all became chilled and inedible. When a fire was not available for fear of attracting enemy shells, we ate the jelly, sugar, and candy that was a part of the ration. This craving for quick energy calories created problems a bit more consequential than dental caries.
One time the regiment passed an artillery unit setting up alongside the road. These men travel with heavy trucks needed to haul their 155mm artillery pieces. They also have room to carry A-rations, a more complete and diverse meal. We bartered and scrounged for boxes of candy, namely Tootsie Rolls. We drooled in anticipation for the taste thrill of our childhood. It was a cruel joke on us. The Tootsies were rock hard and you had to keep them in your mouth for too long a time before deriving any taste. The impatient troops chomped on these dark brown delights, delicious in memory, and fractured teeth by the dozens. The dental problem soon became obvious to me and all Tootsie Rolls were declared verboten.
I examined one machine gunner who was in extreme pain, suffering from two split molars. The surgical problem was beyond the scope of a dental officer in the field and so I evacuated him. That evening when the staff assembled for the next day's order for battle, I was quizzed by the colonel. As I had stated before, he studied all the daily casualty figures. He required a valid explanation why I had sent down a machine gunner. The colonel made it very clear to me that he was not challenging my discretionary action, but he emphasized the fact that our asses were at risk when a veteran gunner has to be replaced by a new man. I stood by my decision, for the patient was in such excruciating pain he would rather shoot himself for relief than fire at the enemy.
No Respite from the Cold
Despite all the heavy clothing, the onset of nightfall was a time of tribulation, an ordeal. All fires had to be put out and we would bed down on the frozen ground. We were near to a farm and the corpsmen found some oxen slumbering in a ramshackle lean-to. Apparently some of the men were raised in farm communities, for they were delighted to be able to lie next to these huge beasts and take advantage of their body heat. Forget it. In Brooklyn one could warm themselves next to a radiator or, at worst, an open stove. But lying next to these big dumb brutes--its meshugah (it's madness with a capital M). If they rolled over during the night, I, instead of them, would be hamburger. With straw as insulation, I placed my sleeping bag outside and slept safely on the cold ground--to dream of beef steak and fries.
There was little relief from the cold. My emergency dental kit had cans of local anesthetic to be used for dental surgery, but those carpules were more valuable for simple medical needs. Suturing of minor lacerations with anesthetic was a luxury and I carried the carpules on my person at all times. There was a problem, however, that was solved in an unusual fashion. The carpules, glass tubes of anesthetic in the original packages, all froze and burst. We took a new supply and placed rows of tubes on two-inch adhesive bandage, taping them to our bellies, to be un-taped later when needed. Our body heat kept the carpules from freezing when stored this way, but we delivered them in pain as the adhesive was stripped off. Corpsmen and I were the bearers of the anesthetic, but we sacrificed our body hair in patches.
By the second week in November the Marine division had now fought its way into the mountains of North Korea. The Army troops on the east and west coasts were chasing the North Koreans to the Chinese border. Flushed with their apparent success, MacArthur was oblivious to the impending threat of a Chinese invasion. He directed operations from his warm and comfortable office in Japan, while the Marine's General Smith became more alarmed at the intolerable situation facing his regiments.
The Chosin Reservoir
On a single, tortuous mountain road seventy miles away from our supply dumps, battalions situated ten miles or so apart, and in no way mutually supporting, there was more than enough grounds for concern. GHq in Japan discounted the reports of Chinese troops, deeming them inaccurate and exaggerated. Besides, these Chinese were untrained volunteers from Manchuria and would prove no match for the U.S. troops, and at most there were only 30,000 of them.... Where in Hell did they get this information? They should have asked me.
Winter arrived with a vengeance. Temperatures plummeted to zero or below. The frigid winds from Manchuria ate into our flesh and froze any parts of our anatomy exposed for a few moments. We tried to erect warm-up tents, but were frustrated by the rock-hard frozen ground. Wooden tent pegs were useless, so at times we would use bayonets, driven in about one to two inches, as anchors. This particular night, a jeep hauling a small trailer pulled up to the medical tent. There were two wounded Marines lying together in the trailer, frozen to the metal sides by their own extravasated blood, unable to move. We chopped our boys free from their icy trap. At the same moment, two Marines, under orders from the regimental intelligence officer, brought in three Chinese prisoners--for treatment? Turning away from my two frozen and dying patients, I could have killed the two prisoners without a moment's hesitation, but I was instructed to make a show of treating the Chinese to make them comfortable, and thus more amenable for interrogation.
Our intelligence officer, a minister's son who lived in China for most of his youth, found no difficulty in getting the prisoners to talk. They gave such detailed information regarding the numbers of Chinese divisions in position confronting us that it appeared that we were being deceived. If only that were the case. MacArthur in Japan and General Almond of the Tenth Corps both disregarded the deluge of intelligence reports telling of masses of Chinese troops moving against the Marine division. When disaster finally struck, GHQ was in a state of shock and confusion; they were unable to act decisively. MacArthur's stupidity and imprudence had finally managed to put all of his troops in jeopardy.
The Marines, under the direct command of General Smith, took matters into their own hands and performed brilliantly and efficiently on their own. The three regimental commanders, Puller, Litzenberg, and Murray, acted in concert, an effort unheard of in the past. Joint orders and strategy were promulgated on the battle field without the intervention of the armchair strategists in Japan. With extreme pride I can say that I witnessed these military professionals in action. Their concerted strategy and concomitant concern for the troops under their command served to extricate us from an entrapment, the likes of which had never before threatened a full division of U.S. Marines. Without one iota of reservation, I owe them my life.
It was the 25th or 26th of November when the 5th Marines swung east of the Chosin Reservoir to the small hamlet of Yudam-ni. We had marched through the bitter cold from the coastal plains at Hungnam through the now abandoned or destroyed villages of Hamhung, Sudong, Koto-ri, Hagaru-ri, and finally to meet our destiny at Yudam-ni, located on a plateau five thousand feet in the mountains. It was snowing lightly and we were tired.
The 5th and 7th Regiments paused and regrouped at Yudam-ni. We were slated to begin our attack north to join the Army on the border at the Yalu River, but dire reports were coming in that indicated something or other "had hit the fan." The Chinese were coming in--in force. The Eighth Army reeled under the unanticipated blow and cracked. Training and discipline, at best meager and uninspired, disappeared in the heat of battle. The same occurred with the ROK troops and the Tenth Corps. Those poor and miserable G.I.s followed their inept officers and fled, abandoning their personal weapons, their artillery, food and clothing supplies, and to their everlasting shame and dishonor--their wounded. Some of these men escaped to our positions and were interrogated by our officers. They whimpered; they were overwhelmed and could do nothing. We felt sorry for the poor bastards, but when the Army doctor disclosed the fact that they had fled, abandoning their wounded to the mercy of the Chinese, Murray cursed and threw them out.... Who are we to judge such men? How will we act in such a predicament?
Maelstrom of War
The military situation had now disintegrated. From the Yalu River on the east and west, protecting our flanks, the Army was now fleeing to the south. The 1st Marines, consisting of almost 15,000 men, were pitted against ten divisions of Chinese troops--about 120,000 men intent on annihilating us. We were exposed and isolated to the enemy onslaught and to the frigidity of the Korean weather. (I had intended to insert a humorous observation at this point, but in retrospect there would be no time for humor for many a day.)
Casualties were beginning to pile up, the wounded and the frozen. The wounded we stabilized and held, if serous. The frostbite cases we treated with innocuous and inadequate methods. These men were out on the ridges exposed to wind chills that were beyond measuring, and no way to get relief. We used Vaseline gauze to cover their ears, noses, and fingers; my heart went out to them as we sent them back to their frigid hell. Finally, overwhelmed with the increasing number of casualties, it became necessary to evacuate some of our wounded. We sent one ambulance loaded with wounded men down the road, fourteen miles to the comparative safety (?) at Hagaru-ri.
It took but thirty minutes when the ambulance returned. The driver, a young and naive Marine, grinned as he explained that the road was completely blocked by the Chinese and that we were cut off to the south. I immediately reported this "delightful" news to the colonel and returned to the ambulance. The vehicle had been hit by dozens of bullets; the frozen wounded now lay among the cold dead.
All that day the Chinese were probing our positions. We knew that come nightfall we would undergo a major assault. I, formerly an uninvolved spectator of the pitiable violence of my Brooklyn neighborhood, was now to undergo my initiation into the maelstrom of war, a time of fear and death.
I was not alone. I stood among squads, platoons, companies, and battalions of Marines. We comprised a living body, a wall of determined, interdependent troops who would not yield an inch unless wounded or dead--and we had no intention of dying in this refrigerated hell at Yudam-ni. We were ordered to make ready every man, with no exception, to repulse the Chinese hordes. We could actually see the Chinese as they snaked down the mountain passes like army ants moving inexorably in our direction. To the bitter cold of the weather was added the chilling sight of the oncoming enemy.
The unwelcome darkness fell upon us like a lethal cloud. Normally troops would prepare shelters, dugouts, foxholes, or trenches for a defensive position, but not here. The frozen turf defied and shattered entrenching tools, leaving us no choice but to seek a protective position in ditches, behind rocks, or more often just lying prone on the icy earth. I lay on the ground, peering into the darkness, losing all sense of feeling in my benumbed fingers. How would I ever add to the defense? How could I defend my life?
All during the night the Chinese surged over us, human waves of men in cotton padded uniforms and thin rubber sandals, managing to make one fanatical charge after another before their courage and fear gave way to cold and exhaustion. They had passed through us and beyond us, now milling about, uncertain and frightened. We answered their uncertainty with directed fire that ended their misery forever. In the darkness I could not see the dreadful results of our response.
It is interesting to note the manner of success of this action. Highly disciplined troops maintained their positions despite being overrun by enemy hordes, and then responded with accuracy and efficiency to deliver crushing blows. To be able to act despite the frigid conditions was incredible. All through the night squads of men, heeding the NCO's whispered orders, moved deliberately from one side of the road to the other to keep moving and warm and to frustrate the enemy mortars that might have been sighted in on their positions. In the darkness, the men answered the call. I barely moved.
Dawn, the blessed light of dawn, revealed the night's carnage. We suffered many casualties, but the problem of frostbite was the predominant concern. The minds and limbs of the men were affected to such a degree that it took Herculean efforts for them to fight the continuing battles. Help now came from the skies. Through the low overcast came the Marine Corsairs, the old, faithful, prop-driven workhorses of the Marine Air Corps. Coming in as low as possible, mindful of the colored panels that marked our positions, they began their grisly work. Under the command of the Forward Air Controllers, their personal buddies assigned to us on the ground, they made continuous runs, rocketing, bombing and strafing the pockets of Chinese. On occasion they feinted, flying dummy attacks until the enemy soldiers misjudged the situation and held their ground, to be obliterated with the next sortie.
To die is death by whatever means, but there was one method that struck terror in the hearts of all. Like an avenging angel, the Corsair flying perhaps 30 feet above us unloads a metal canister that falls slowly end over end toward the targeted humans crouched in ambush alongside the road. Great gouts of flame erupt, leap skyward piercing the black billowing smoke, as the Napalm incinerates the foe. I duck down to avoid the hot blast of air and smoke as it rolls over us all. I find it difficult to breathe; I cannot avoid looking. Nothing remains but the blackened earth and ashes, the residue of a human presence. I am at a loss for words; I do not wish to rationalize or justify these actions; I remain silent.
We are going to pull out. All unnecessary material was to be destroyed. We would now survive on daily air-drops for ammunition, food, and fuel. We would leave the Chinese nothing but burning and blasted supplies. Rear guard companies were in position as the long column of trucks and jeeps assembled. Doctors and corpsmen were interspersed down the length of the column to be in position for maximum medical aid. Every vehicle carried casualties--in the truck body and cabs and lashed onto the hoods and fenders. The men were in agony, but they were leaving Yudam-ni with their regiments.
Most of us did not realize how bad it was. Our next destination, Hagaru-ri, was under fierce and constant attack and those defenders could not offer us any assistance. Further down the tortuous mountain road was Koto-ri, defended by the Puller's 1st Marine Regiment. They had a decent airfield and it had to be held at all costs. Hagaru-ri and Koto-ri, our lives depended on their viability. It was a simple matter of life or death.
On the morning of December 1, we began the breakout from Yudam-ni. The 5th and 7th Regiments began to grind forward, attacking the surrounding Chinese. All who were ambulatory, walked. All who could fight, fought. I was pretty much on my own now, moving up and down my segment of the column, doing my job as best as I was able. With one corpsman at my side, we attended to the wounded and left the fighting to the Marines.
The column crawled at a snail's pace. The forward units would engage the Chinese foe, smash them for the moment. and we would move ahead caterpillar-like for a few hundred yards. After a few such engagements, those in the vanguard would be replaced by another company to repeat the attacks over and over again. The waiting and the increasing apprehension was erosive and debilitating, requiring constant sensibility and mindfulness on the part of the officers. They were in their glory; they did not fail us; this is what they were trained for; they were magnificent.
The narrow road down the mountain created unanticipated difficulties. All our vehicles were in danger of skidding on the steep, snow-covered "highway" to Hagaru-ri. The colonel had two tanks, paired specifically, interspersed throughout the column length. If a truck broke down or was disabled by enemy action, a tank could push it over the side, thus enabling the convoy of trucks to proceed. Why a pair of tanks? Nothing would move a thirty-ton steel monster if it were disabled--except another massive thirty-tonner.
We tramped slowly down the mountain road. I noted that there were six or nine huge water pipes, conduits from the Chosin Reservoir, arching acutely downward to a generating plant located on the valley floor far below. I told my corpsman that if we were to be overwhelmed by the Chinese, I was going to go over the side of the mountain and try to follow the conduits down. (If I would have escaped being killed on the road, my chances of surviving the precipitous descent by conduit would be miraculous--but I was determined not to languish as a POW.)
Late afternoon and we had progressed only a few miles. It was obvious that we were going to spend a frigid God-awful night on the road. We were going to need some divine intervention to survive the night, and I was getting so tired. My corpsman and I noticed a young Marine half lying in the roadside ditch. His head, his face was a mass of blood. The corpsman looked at me as if to say, "What's the use, he's finished, let's move on." The column moved up and I sent my assistant forward as I knelt in the snow besides the abandoned youngster. Everyone passing by had just turned away to avoid looking at the bloody mess, a reminder of our own vulnerability and possible future. I could not blame them. It appeared so useless--but he was so young, so fragile, so frightened, and so alone. No one should have to die like this....
Through the bloody froth, he spoke to me. "Am I going to die, doc?" I could do nothing to reassure him, so I began wiping the blood off his face, disregarding the massive clots and bloody effusion covering his head and torso. I began to see the frightened face more clearly when I noticed a facial wound piercing his cheek through and through. His mouth was filled with blood, and as he spoke fresh blood would gush forth over me and add to his terror. I grabbed a wad of gauze, opened his mouth, and plugged the opening, stopping the arterial flood. This was a cinch and I shouted with happiness. The boy thought that I had gone mad until he was able to understand the reason for my elation.... "You're not going to die. You're not going to die." Patched up, he went down the road to Hagaru-ri looking like a bloody apparition with a baseball in his mouth.
I crawled up and out of the ditch and joined the convoy of trucks still inching along the road. We were making so little headway and our morale was being tested to the limit. Soon the cold murkiness of the day was replaced by the frigid blanket of night. No longer under the protective umbrella of our planes, we were alone. Light snow was falling, downy white snow. So inviting to the exhausted troops--to lie down and sleep in its soft embrace and never to awake to the reality of our terrible predicament. It was quiet; it was bitter cold. It was Hell on earth.
The darkness was shattered, split open, as star shells lit up the road--slowly falling from the skies, exposing us to the enemy, now intent on delivering the final blow. Marine troops jolted from their numbed lethargy reacted like robots, their reflexive actions driving back the Chinese, answering each attack with a demolishing counter-attack--and stillness returned to the mountains. Like a grim reaper I moved through my sector, gathering up the wounded, aiding those who required attention, and for the moment, no longer feeling the cold.
The column had stopped. Up ahead the 3rd Battalion, 5th was struggling to clear the road, but it would take time. We stood among the trucks and waited. Behind each vehicle, the exhaust pipe had been bent at a right angle upwards. This peculiar configuration was done to enable the vehicles to ford shallow streams and avoid stalling out by having the exhaust pipe project above the water. We took turns holding on to the contoured exhaust pipes, warming our frozen hands on the engine's exhaust heat. When our gloves began to smolder, it was time to release the pipe and let the next man move in--and we stood there while the night hours crawled on.
Something had to be done or we might go mad. I had written of it before, that I have a penchant for talking, and so I began a desperate recitation. Standing in the frigid darkness in the frozen mountains of Korea among men hungry for food and warmth, I spoke of dining at the best restaurants in New York. I told of my culinary experiences, my likes and dislikes; I regaled them with my pseudo-sophisticated taste for escargot, truffles, wild boar, etc. I went on and on until my brain went dry, but they wanted more. We put together meals that would warm the innards of a corpse. We argued the delights of wine and brandies--and the time passed. The convoy began to move on to Hagaru-ri. The 3rd Battalion had burst through the roadblock after three bloody attempts.
Fourteen Long Miles
Shuffling and dragging their exhausted bodies, the men of the 5th and the 7th Regiments began streaming into the place called Hagaru-ri. Word spread among the defenders of the town that the 5th and 7th Regiments were coming in. They lined the road and watched in silence as the rifle companies, the walking wounded, even the medics, slowly plodded in to Hagaru-ri, heads held high, undefeated and proud as hell. It was December 4th when the last of the men from Yudam-ni entered the perimeter at Hagaru. Fourteen miles in four days--with our men, our equipment, our casualties, and some of our dead.
There was nothing there but a few wooden shelters and the Marines. Joining with Lessenden, we set up a medical facility and warming tents, for now we were inundated with not tens, but hundreds of wounded and frostbitten troops. (I found out later that we had almost 1,500 casualties.) We had casualties in the wooden shack, on the ground in the front, and lying in the field behind. I lay them down in their sleeping bags on the frozen, snow-covered ground. I swear, there were literally hundreds of our men lying there.
I had not lain down or slept for more than thirty hours, but there were so few able-bodied men. The casualties had to be fed something, anything. They had to have water, sustenance, and some semblance of care. We were aided by the chaplains. Fifty-gallon drums were set up over fires; water was boiled constantly. Gathering up all the food cans in sight, we tossed them into the boiling water to thaw and soften. Now minus the identifying labels but perhaps edible, it was potluck for all.
For those men who were barely ambulatory, we fed them each individually. I walked among them as if in a dream; I walked in the field of casualties. Disbelief began to pierce my dulled consciousness. This is an impossible situation; there is no way we can get these men out.
All through the dark night I took care of my men. I would redress their wounds and bring them food and water; I would answer their unanswerable questions, but I was there and that seemed sufficient. By dawn's light Lessenden took one look at his zombie-like assistant medical officer and ordered him to get some sleep. I think that I slept quite well on the hard, unyielding ground after 48 hours of duty.
Some of our worst casualties were flown out of Hagaru. The engineers had hacked out a small landing strip and two engine C47s were coming in under Chinese artillery fire. I think that I saw a four-engine plane come in once and, if true, it would have been a miracle or mirage. That air strip was so minimal and crude that I wouldn't have trusted a landing with a Piper Cub. We needed some method of determining who among the frostbitten would be evacuated, so Dr. Chet Lessenden, with two frozen feet, served as the example for all. If you appeared worse than the doctor, off you flew to safety. Two doctors each stood at the head of a line of casualties, choosing those who would fly out and those who would remain behind to fight for their lives. I have read reports that more than a thousand casualties were flown out of Hagaru-ri in two days. I have no reason to disbelieve this figure, but I had hundreds of men lying in the field waiting.
(A moment of reflection now, for it must be obvious to the reader that I do not speak of my physical condition, except for fatigue and exhaustion. Somewhere along the line, my European forebears existed and survived for centuries in conditions of poverty, adversity, and indescribable hardship. Perhaps I had inherited some genetic survivability. I lived unharmed and untouched by the bloodiest of battles and the cold, icy grip of the Korean winter--but none of my European family were as fortunate as I. They all died in the Nazi Holocaust. The family tree was uprooted and destroyed.)
Silver, He's Yours
We remained in Hagaru-ri for three days regrouping and resting. General Smith flew in and out as if he was a daily commuter, but with a mission. We had to move on, to continue to Koto-ri some eleven miles distant. In typical Marine fashion, everything not absolutely essential was destroyed, burnt, blown up, or used up. The word was passed that the artillery would be firing all night into the surrounding mountains. It was very dramatic and not really effective, but it was a "son et lumiere" show the likes of which no tourist attraction could emulate. The artillery men of the 11th Marines let go with all their big guns, firing howitzers, 105s and 155s. Nature took a beating that night, and hopefully we scared the hell out of the Chinese massed in the hills above us. The next morning all the artillery was destroyed with thermite bombs; we would not be threatened by the Chinese using our weaponry (except for those guns captured from the fleeing Army troops).
I went to see Colonel Murray in the morning after the "big shoot." The wounded knew that we were preparing to leave to resume the attack to the rear, and they feared the worst. It was impossible to carry this extraordinary number of casualties to safety. Murray looked at me and said, "Tell the men, if we can't bring them all out, we will not leave." This time I was scared. The man was mad, but I loved him.
Murray knew, and I did not realize it, that we now had artillery trucks for the wounded. No longer needed to haul the big guns and the heavy ammunition, they would provide the means for bringing the wounded out. Now I had something positive to tell the men, and we began our preparations for the evacuation.
We recruited anyone with any remaining reserve of strength to help us. The frozen and the wounded men could barely move. We had to lift them and carry them from the field to raise them up into the trucks. We struggled, the corpsmen struggled, the chaplains struggled, and we loaded the men like cordwood into the transports. Huddled together in frozen misery and pain, they didn't complain. I think they sensed that we all were but one moment from collapse.
A huge column was forming for the move to Koto-ri. Planes overhead pounded the ridges and anything that moved. The 5th would bring up the rear, and as you know, it was my outfit. I was standing by waiting for God knows what when some officer came by with what God knows I didn't need, a wounded Chinese prisoner. "He's all yours, Doc." I was infuriated to be burdened with a prisoner at this time. The colonel passed by and I foolishly stopped him and told him in no uncertain terms that I won't take the prisoner. I got his reply this time, right between the eyes. "Silver, he's yours," and he stalked off.
This hapless, miserable, unlucky prisoner lay on the ground, his face contorted with pain and fear. I looked at him closely and I felt some compassion. He was far from home, mortally wounded, and in the enemy camp. Could anyone write a worse scenario for his future? He had been shot in the legs perhaps the day before, and both his lower limbs were frozen solid, petrified like rock. When I touched his extremities, I could not believe that human tissue could freeze so hard. In this state, the poor man would not survive the night. I opened my parka, my jacket, and my shirt to get at the morphine syrettes taped to my skin. I unbuttoned his filthy quilted uniform and began to inject him with morphine. I gave him one, two, eight, perhaps ten syrettes. A smile of relief was on his face as the pain eased. I covered him with a blanket and left him there on the frozen earth to dream of Paradise and to sleep forever. I think of him now and then with a twinge of remorse.
Trek to Koto-ri
The trucks were loaded; all vehicles were laden with the wounded and frostbitten casualties. Men were draped and even tied to the hoods, fenders, and the tops of the cabs. Those men within the trucks fared a bit better, for they were jammed in so close that their mutual body warmth would be shared by all. For those men exposed to the elements and unable to move, I was not sure that they could survive.
Now formed and in position, the long column began the trek to Koto-ri. The battalions of the 5th Regiment were deployed at our rear and were smashing the Chinese attempts to disrupt and overwhelm the exodus. On the ridges, exposed to the icy blasts of the winter winds, men were fighting in conditions beyond belief. The only factor in our favor was that the enemy was subjected to the same abominable conditions--and they were not Marines.
Daylight was waning, we had moved but yards, and we had miles to go. Alongside the road some men had managed to light a fire with wood scraps and gasoline. I joined them to stand around this pitiful source of heat until the word was passed to douse all fires. I could not, I would not leave the fiery embers. I stepped into the glowing ashes and stood motionless as the heat penetrated my boots. I was overcome by a delicious sensation of long-forgotten warmth. I reveled in the remaining heat until the frigid temperature brought me back to reality.
How was I to know or recognize the consequences of my rash and imprudent attempt to warm myself. Our boots were always coated with frost on the inside due to the cold effect on our perspiration. Now thoroughly melted after my foolhardy stand in the hot embers, the melt water coalesced into sharp, icy projections. I could barely walk--I was in agony, but there was no other choice. I hobbled into line, joining my comrades, and waited for the night's terror.
It seemed to be a repeat of a few days ago. We move so slowly, but now we are under constant attack. We have the planes during the day, but the night is murderous. I stood that night near the colonel's jeep and Murray beckoned to me. He put two grenades in my hands and said nothing. I tried to return the "presents," but he turned away. If there ever was a gesture that denoted a dangerous situation, this was it. To give live grenades to the regimental dental officer seemed to me an act of desperation, but really Murray meant it for my self-preservation.
Small units of Chinese managed to sneak past the troops defending our flanks. They were able to mount each time only one concerted attack on the column, throwing concussion grenades and firing wildly into our line. The truck drivers, the staff officers, the support troops, the fly boys on the ground, the armed wounded, all trained Marines, even the doctors, stood fast and fought off the assault. We fought together; we fought for our lives; we would not yield; we survived.
The last described action had me moving about, crouching, kneeling, and running for defensive positions. The fight was over now and I became aware of my feet. I could no longer stand and I could no longer walk. The colonel saw my predicament and put me in the back of his jeep. I crawled into a small space between two massive radio transmitters--and wept with frustration and pain. I had reached the end of my stamina. I wanted to go home.
I wallowed in self pity for perhaps thirty minutes. Something had to be done, and so I began the task of removing my boots. With frozen fingers I tore at the unyielding laces. Unable to untie them, I cut them with my bayonet. I finally removed the boots for the first time in perhaps a week. I smashed the shoes repeatedly against the metal sides of the jeep to break up the ice--and to relieve my anger and frustration. I think those officers nearby thought that I had finally gone mad.
U.S. issued boots are made of good stuff, certainly better than the thin rubber sandals worn by the Chinese soldiers. Now free of ice, I struggled to get them to fit over my swollen feet. Eventually I succeeded in getting them on. I used some communication wire to replace the laces. (To remove the boots the next time, I would have to use pliers.) From here on in it wasn't too bad. I accumulated a layer of frost soon after, and I was able to walk and perform my duties as before.
Would this night never end? Men were walking on benumbed feet, falling asleep, and then just collapsing in the snow. We shouted, cajoled, threatened and brought them back--to continue the march toward Koto-ri. The troops in the forward point were destroying the roadblocks only to be confronted with another perhaps a quarter mile down the road. Each fight resulted in more casualties for our men. As for the enemy, they suffered massive losses, but I, personally, didn't give a damn. We treated our wounded and then heaved those severely injured into the already overburdened trucks. There was a serendipitous and unforeseen side to the abominable weather. The intense cold reduced the usual massive hemorrhage of blood from deep wounds. Thus, with minimal treatment we stabilized casualties until such time we would have the luxury of a complete medical facility. We could do no more and the men understood.
The casualties had not had anything to eat since we left Hagaru-ri about fifteen hours past. There was an intact farmhouse near the road and we went into action. The chaplain soon had a fire roaring in the area of the house that served as a kitchen. The living area of a typical Korean house is at least three or four feet above the kitchen level, and the heat of the cooking fire below is directed through a large channel under the floor of the living area. This radian-heated floor was a gift from the gods and was totally unexpected, but appreciated. Every casualty able to move was brought into the farm house to lie on the floor and enjoy a period of warmth. The room was soon filled to capacity and beyond. After thirty minutes of bliss, we sent the men back to their places in the trucks and brought others in to replace them. During this time the chaplain and corpsmen were heating the canned food in a cauldron of boiling water. We took the heated cans and went from truck to truck down the column of waiting vehicles, tossing the cans into the darkness, to be retrieved by the wounded men within. Those in the frigid interior would open the cans and feed the men who were unable to move. No one was missed--they all were fed somehow, with something. The involved wounded displayed the best attributes of humanity.
Water was needed and so I sent one of my men out with two jerry cans to be filled at a nearby stream. In the darkness and through deep snow he found the stream--but returned with empty cans. I was furious and wouldn't wait for an excuse. I grabbed the cans and went for the much-needed water. I found the stream and knelt down to break the ice film. Dipping the cold metal can into the glacial water resulted in a flash freeze--nothing flowed now. I was stupefied. I struggled, I tore at the ice, my gloves now frozen into an icy mass, but no water. I returned to the farmhouse confused and a bit chastened. We made water by heating vast amounts of snow. I realized later the cause of this frustrating problem. Water freezes at 32 degrees, and a flowing stream at a bit lower temperature. However, there is the phenomenon of super-cooled water that is liquid much below the freezing point, but with the introduction of the metal can into the stream, it reverts immediately to the normal state--and freezes solid in a flash. The temperature was now more than twenty degrees below zero.
Dawn's light revealed a terrible sight. Men were barely able to stand, no less fight. We had more wounded due to the night's action. We treated the men; some had feathers in their open wounds. Despite all our orders and pleading, these men on the perimeter, unable to remain exposed to the raw and biting cold, crawled into their sleeping sacs while on duty, fell asleep, and were shot through the down-filled bag. We said nothing, no criticism, no reproach. For those who were dead, it was too late; for those now fighting to survive their wounds, they had been pushed beyond human endurance.
It has often been said that "there are no atheists in the trenches." I cannot vouch for this broad statement, but I do know that during the darkness of the night, when fear of the enemy was replaced by the agony and distress of the bitter cold, when exhaustion sapped our strength, we prayed to some Almighty and Omnipotent Being for deliverance and relief. In the light of day we prayed for the mists to lift, for the planes to appear and wreak vengeance on our tormentors. Each man, in his own way, perhaps gently or perhaps with curses, called on his Maker for help.
The column moved onward. Colonel Puller's 1st Regiment was attacking the Chinese north of Koto-ri, the 7th was blasting a path for us to proceed south, and the 5th was protecting the rear from the regrouped Chinese armies. Groups of riflemen, leapfrogging each other, kept pressing forward, and the column crawled on down the road. As each roadblock was breached, the trucks and jeeps surged forward. We were going to Koto-ri.
I was walking now near the end of the line of trucks, my head and shoulders bent over by the heavy weight of my parka filled with medical supplies. I stared down, hardly conscious of my surroundings, looking no further than a few steps ahead when I became aware that something was wrong. We were passing a truck that had slid off the icy road and now lay on its side down in the field alongside the road. I glanced at the accident and hobbled on another twenty feet or so, and stopped. The convoy of trucks was slowly moving on through as dusk began to fall. No one stopped. All were oblivious to the tragic mishap; all were intent on reaching the safety of the Koto-ri perimeter before nightfall.
My God! I wished that I had not seen this problem--but I could not shirk the responsibility. The colonel had always said to me, "You're the officer, do it." And I was the only officer present. Insolently, the non-coms would say, "You're the Doc, you get paid for it, not us." ... I limped back, slid off the road into the field, and labored through the deep snow to check out the overturned truck. I was horrified to see and hear the wounded. They were a jumbled mass of men and "gear". A Marine was underneath the truck, pinned there, unable to move, his helmet holding the massive weight of the truck from crushing him. I stood there in absolute panic--but no one seemed concerned. Now I was angry. I was boiling mad and I tore up the embankment onto the road. I was no longer responsive to my pains and exhaustion. I stopped the damn convoy.
A grizzled sergeant ran up to me as I roared out orders. "What the hell are you doing?" he shouted, and then he realized that this 5'7" bundle of fury was an officer and meant business. I ordered men down to the truck to extricate the wounded. Some men were entangled in explosive primer cord which was gingerly removed and discarded. Others were covered with some caustic powder--I believe it was a chlorine compound used for water sterilization. They were suffering chemical burns. I dragged these men one by one to a nearby mountain stream and washed the chemicals from their eyes and faces. I began piling up casualties alongside the road down in the snow-covered field--and the column of trucks was waiting--and the sound of chattering machine guns was becoming more apparent--and I did not give a damn.
The first truck waiting to proceed had the answer to my prayers. It was equipped with a winch and cable mounted in front. I had the driver turn his truck left about three-quarters the width of the roadway until the tow rope would be properly aligned for greatest leverage. This was accomplished--and the road was now completely blocked. Men were shouting, fearful of being stranded beyond the protection of the troops of Koto-ri. The rear guard was fighting within sight, up the road. I defied them all. I was in charge.
With the aid of the sergeant, I uncoiled the rope and pulled it down to the overturned vehicle, attaching the tow to its side. I crawled under the truck, told the entrapped man what we are going to do--and they started the winch. The truck shivered and groaned. Up on the road the hauling truck began to slide on the ice. I don't know how the sergeant stabilized the truck, but he did it somehow. If he had failed, the two of us beneath the truck would have been crushed. I felt the entrapped man's helmet shift a bit and then it simply rolled free. I yanked and pulled, I dragged and schlepped him (a euphoric phrase), and out we came from under that trap.
It was not over yet. I released the column and with great relief the convoy continued on its way to a safe haven in Koto-ri--leaving me with about twenty wounded men lying there in the snow. I was joined by a corpsman who aided me in checking the men. Some now had fractures and facial burns in addition to their original wounds. Using wooden slats or boards from the truck as splints, we bound the fractured arm to the body, or in the case of leg breaks, we joined both legs together with a board for stability. They were now rigid, bound, and mummified.
It finally became obvious to us that we might be left behind as few were aware that we were stranded besides the road. I would not leave my charges, nor would the corpsman. The sounds of gunfire crackled nearby. I went up on the road and signaled to a group of trucks barreling down, intent on getting the hell out of the area. My luck continued, for Lt. Commander Griffin, the Protestant Chaplain, was aboard one truck. Skidding to a halt, the Chaplain moved quickly and got all available men to begin lifting my casualties into two trucks, now overflowing with men. There was no more room--so we made more room. Koto-ri was only about two miles distant, and we had run out of time.
I had completed my task and I now suffered a massive letdown. No more orders, problem resolved, duty discharged, I started to wander aimlessly down the road in the direction of the disappearing trucks. In the darkness, in a fog of confusion and exhaustion, bent over nearly double by the inability of my neck and back muscles to support my weight, I was grabbed from behind by a Marine whose truck had almost crushed me in its headlong rush to safety. He looked at me and gently said, "C'mon Doc, we're going home." My uniformed savior hoisted me onto the truck bumper, jamming me between the protruding headlight and the engine grille, and I rode semi-conscious on my chariot to the promised land. This might have been the last truck to finally make it into Koto-ri.
I hardly remember passing through the outer perimeter of Koto-ri. The 1st Regiment watched silently as we entered the safety of their lines. They were solidly entrenched in their positions, having used massive explosive charges to blast out their defensive sites. They were prepared to welcome us; they were also prepared to savage the pursuing enemy.
The small town was jammed with Marines and supplies. I found the medical tent and entered, to find it completely filled with sleeping forms. There wasn't one spare inch of space--and then I saw a clear mounded area in the far corner. There I plopped, falling into a deep sleep without removing one bit of clothing. I awoke the next day to confront an amazed group of my comrades. They were pleased to see me alive, but they were not quite sure that I had retained all of my marbles. The night before they had cleared the tent and grounds of any rocks and piled them in the corner of the tent. Who in his right mind would sleep on a pile of rocks? It wasn't Beautyrest, but I did sleep like a babe in arms.
All three regiments of the 1st Marine Division were now concentrated in Koto-ri. There were about 12,000 Marines. Within the perimeter were also 2000 U.S. Army and South Korean troops. Having had no contact with the latter two groups, I can make no comments concerning them. However, we were honored with the presence of a group of almost 125 British Royal Marine Commandos, survivors of Task Force Drysdale. And therein lies a story of unmatched heroism and bravery.
Under the command of Lt. Colonel Douglas S. Drysdale, 235 British Royal Marines Commandos, magnificent fighting men, with an esprit de corps that surpassed even that of our Marines, had requested permission to join the entrapped 5th and 7th Regiments at Hagaru-ri. It was a matter of urgency to reinforce the troops at Hagaru-ri, and contrary to the usual circumstances whereby no outsiders are welcomed into the Marine units, this request was immediately accepted. Lt. Colonel Drysdale left Koto-ri with his 235 men and two companies of U.S. troops--one Marine and one Army. Going north to join us in the Hagaru trap, they were ambushed by massive numbers of Chinese. The attack was ferocious and the column was decimated. All through the night British and U.S. Marines fought a losing battle. They received little aid from the U.S. Army company in the rear; they had decided that the enemy was too strong and so they retired back to Koto-ri. Drysdale lost almost half his men; he was wounded by shrapnel and their doctor was killed. I met them in Koto-ri. Approximately 100 British troops, survivors of that ill-fated mission, would march proudly beside us to the sea.
Casualties were being flown out on a steady stream of planes. I watched in disbelief as each arriving aircraft brought in fresh Marines before departing on their missions of mercy. Most of these new arrivals had recovered from previous wounds and were now required to join us on our "stroll" down the mountains to the sea. This situation simply astonished me. I could not understand or accept the placing of these men in jeopardy once again.
Now well-supplied, and well-fed with hot food, it was time to leave. We destroyed everything that we could not carry and loaded the convoy of trucks, now numbering more than a thousand. We had tanks and artillery--and even ambulances. I was told that those vehicles with big red crosses on the side were for the casualties. Strange, I never had them before when we were overwhelmed with hundreds of wounded men. Will wonders never cease?
Mountains of unused equipment and unneeded supplies were being destroyed. I scrounged about, picking up anything that I thought I might need, for now I had the luxury of free space in some ambulances. The Britishers rescued some new boots consigned to the fire and draped them about their necks. Those were fine American boots, too good to be discarded. And so we left Koto-ri. Before we left, however, we had one more unhappy task to complete. Because it was necessary to leave room for the inevitable casualties, we could not take our dead. High explosive charges gouged a deep trench in the rock-hard earth; we buried our brave companions in the lonely mountains of Korea.... I seem to weep too easily now.
The convoy was under incessant attack. Fortunately, our overhead shield of planes was in action. Blasting and burning the surrounding ridges gave us some respite from direct attack. My ears ached with the concussion of the bombs. My eyes smarted from the heat and smoke of the napalm. But we were moving at a snail's pace. Roadblocks were everywhere. The enemy was determined to prevent our escape. We had heard a rumor that a bridge was blown over the Funchilin gorge and that the road was now impassable--or should I say, impossible to traverse. So we waited.
Calls were heard down the line, "Baker Company move up." From the clusters of men huddled together and indistinguishable as to rank or unit, the Marines of B Company detached themselves, groaning and cursing as they moved to the point to replace the exhausted men who had just freed the road of another Chinese blockade. The disciplined behavior of the troops was a constant source of amazement--active and involved leadership was the obvious answer.
The replacement of the bridge over the gorge at Funchilin was accomplished with materiel dropped by the Air Force and put in place by the Marine engineers under the guns of the Chinese. It was a brilliant engineering feat, but all I could remember was that the column moved gingerly over that section of the road.
It was still light when I and an accompanying group of Marines became aware that we were being targeted by machine gun fire. Puffs of snow all around us, pftt..pftt. "Damn it, get down, get off the road." I rolled off the crest of the road into the ditch on the far side--into deep snow. This was just what we needed now. I crouched and crawled for about five minutes until my muscles and brain both agreed...we are not going to take this shit any longer, and I got back on the road and the hell with the bullets. "Heroic" actions like this usually end up tragically, but I was beyond caring. I guess the good Lord did care.
Roaring out of the sky came two Marine Corsairs tracking those Chinese machine guns. One moment we were the targets--the next moment the crest of the hill had disappeared in a huge explosive blast. The two planes made a wide circle and came roaring overhead, wagging their wings to let us know that they were with us.
The huge convoy moved in fits and starts. By nightfall we were still descending the mile-high mountain plateau--and then we stopped. Men were singing in the dark. I couldn't believe my ears--and what the hell were they singing? "Why are we wyting, why are we wyting?" To be sure, it was the Royal Marines, loaded with all their gear plus a pair of U.S. boots about their necks, standing and freezing in the abysmal cold, wailing and singing--"Why are we wy(ai)ting." In amazement we watched and laughed. I could not recall the last time we had laughed. These elite British troops were impatient and freezing, yet they would not accept any transportation and so they waited, and marched, and fought with us until we reached the end of our travail.
Walking alongside the truck caravan, I noticed a young Marine alone and in obvious distress. He appeared so sad; his dirt smudged face bore evidence of tears--and he stank. One of many, he was racked with diarrhea, the result of a bare minimum diet of jelly, sugar, candy, and some crackers. Unable to wash or obtain a change of clothes, he was a pariah--ostracized by his fellow Marines. I grabbed this unfortunate boy and pulled him into the deep ditch off the road. I had him strip down in the sub zero weather and with rolls of clean, pristine, white gauze, I proceeded to cleanse him as best I could before he turned blue. I fashioned a thick, pad-like diaper for him to wear and sent him on his way. He waddled off down the road, armed and ready to do battle. I could see a glimmer of a smile beginning to transform his countenance. For this action I awarded myself one "brownie" point.
One more night of fending off the attempted infiltration of Chinese troops. We had a feeling that the enemy had lost his stomach for a concerted assault. They had suffered astronomical losses. Their dead lay about us by the score. But we did not come out of this unscathed. We were carrying more casualties now, but in comparative comfort. Some of the ambulances even had heaters that worked and I could use my ungloved hands and fingers to apply bandages in these "cracker boxes."
The next day I had a problem that bedeviled me for hours. The consequences weighed heavily on my mind. I could not influence the ultimate outcome. I found this Marine lying by the side of the road. For a moment I thought that he was asleep, but he could not be roused. A cursory look revealed no injury and I was baffled by his apparent death. His lack of response bespoke of death, but I was only the assistant medical officer, a dentist. I would not make that final irrevocable judgment of death. I put his lifeless body in an ambulance, re-examined him more thoroughly with the same result as before. He had suffered no apparent injuries. Wrapping him in warm blankets, I watched over him, checking him periodically, to no avail. I carried the body of this youth for miles until a concerned M.D. came by to relieve me of the responsibility--and he made the final diagnosis.... Damn it. He was too young to die. He had not yet lived.
(I often wonder about this viral pandemic that has infected and contaminated the human race since the dawn of time. Older men fall prey to this insidious virus; their mind and brains are ravaged and yet they suffer little lasting effects--yet young men, far distant from their elders, suffer and die of this malady--War.)
The first units of the 1st Marine Division sighted the port of Hungnam on the 11th of December. A total of 78 miles traveled from the northern hamlet of Yudam-ni down the mountains to Hungnam. Two weeks of indescribable torment and horror was coming to an end. The port was crammed with ships of all descriptions: naval vessels from a lumbering battleship to fast destroyers, huge landing ships to small landing craft, attack transports, cargo ships, refrigerator ships, and chartered commercial vessels. This vast armada was here to greet us and to rescue us. I was impressed.
A tent city had been erected on the beach to receive us. Heated tents were everywhere, but in particular, there were the field kitchens. Long queues formed in front of the mess tents; the exhausted men stood patiently waiting for the promised hot meal--served on a plate. They stood there, unwashed and unshaven, their parkas torn and stained, gaunt men bearing their rifles like bodily appendages that could not be cast aside. I stood in line with these men, my companions.
We were in no hurry, but we were so tired. I stood shifting from one foot to the other so as to keep stimulated and awake when down the line came the mess sergeant striding purposefully toward me. Taking me by the arm, he silently walked me past all the waiting men, into the kitchen area where a table and chair was set up for the doctor--for me. Deaf to my feeble protestations, the staff sat me down among the field stoves and served me steak, potatoes, and I can't remember what else. They provided me with all the utensils such as a knife, a fork, and a spoon. As I ate, I tried to hide my blackened and cracked hands; I was such a sorry example of a doctor and Marine officer. They didn't care a whit. I was of the 5th Regiment and I was their doctor.
Blessed sleep on a soft cot in a warm tent. I could have added these to the earthly pleasures set forth by the poet Omar Khayyam. I awoke invigorated and curious as to what the day would bring. We would be off the beach, boarding a transport by the afternoon according to the orders of the day. The medical unit assembled and we made ready to depart. Standing there on the beach, I was approached by the Chief Petty Officer (or the British equivalent) for the Royal Marines. He was acting as the stand-in for their doctor who was killed during the ill-fated rescue attempt of Task Force Drysdale. He asked me if I would examine his men. "Something is wrong with their feet, Sir, and they won't seek attention." Well, dentists have been known to wander far afield from their specialty, so here I go again...let me at those Commandos.
I stood tall, all 5 feet 7 inches, in front of twenty or more of the most dedicated and effective fighting men on this earth. They were all selected volunteers and they towered over me. They smiled benevolently as they stood rigidly at attention--until I ordered them to remove their boots. They had marched up the road to Koto-ri and down again to Hungnam. There was nothing wrong with them--but they grudgingly obeyed. They took off their heavy boots; they peeled off socks soiled and stiffened by dried blood. I stood aghast at the sight of their swollen and blistered feet, frozen feet, blackened gangrenous toes, and not a word of complaint. This was just plain madness and I advised immediate hospitalization for all. What the enemy had failed to accomplish, I managed to do--I deactivated this entire group of Royal British Commandos.
On the USS Randall
We came off the beach in landing craft, to be ferried to the waiting transports. Our ship was the USS Randall, an ocean liner lying off shore. To board this vessel we came alongside the ship about six feet below a large loading port. Navy men hanging from the yawning port extended helping hands and literally pulled the troops onto the ship. (I recommend this method over the cargo net approach.) The ship accommodated the entire 5th Regiment of more than 2000 men.
We were now all faced with a serious dilemma. We could eat; we could shower; we could sleep. The ship's captain announced that the mess hall would feed anyone on a twenty-four hour basis. I strolled down to the dining hall and sampled everything offered. Fresh fruit and juices disappeared by the gross and gallon. Pancakes, eggs, sausages was on everyone's menu. One Marine was cradling a large 1/2 gallon can of bacon in his arms to save in case the dream bubble would burst. We laughed at him while gorging ourselves until weariness overtook hunger.
This was the first night in many weeks that I slept buck naked in a bed with sheets. I had piled all my clothes in the corner to mingle with those of the other officers sharing the cabin. We were to discard all that we wore and would receive complete new outfits the next day. (In the corner, that dirty pile of uniforms would not relax into an amorphous mess, but stood at attention throughout the night.) I rose early and went to shower. Using soap and hot water with pleasurable abandon, I attempted to regain my Caucasoid appearance. I examined myself and found no apparent areas of frost bite; I had come through the ordeal physically unscathed, but it would be some time before my hands would appear clean. Unlike Lady Macbeth, the dried blood would wash away, but nothing but time could erode the embedded and impregnated grime.
As the ship sailed southward, we relaxed and resumed the normal amenities of life. For more than two months no one had been paid and so everyone, officers and enlisted men, received ten dollars credit to be used in the ship's store. Cigarettes and candy were purchased by the cartons--but I never smoked and dentists desist from gorging on candy. But that ten dollars was burning a hole in my new uniform.... I bought a pipe and a can of aromatic tobacco. Standing by the ship's rail with a pipe in my face, I looked the picture of a sophisticated officer. For two days I struggled to keep that infernal pipe lit, using all the matches and curses available, until finally I surrendered and consigned it to the ocean deep. I had lost my chance to be the suave, urbane, and fashionable young man. I was, as I always would be, just an ordinary guy from Brooklyn.
While still aboard our floating palace, the colonel showed us a sheaf of dispatches received from all the U.N. commands. The gist of these messages could be summed up by that received from the British Admiralty, "To the 1st Marine Division, Well Done." We received the Presidential Unit Citation from President Truman.
Camped at Masan
The Regiment was now located in the south at Masan. We were to rest, regroup and refit. We were needed to continue the war; we were essential to the strength of the Tenth Corps. Our camp was alive with activity, but something was definitely amiss. I had never seen this before or heard of it, but the morale of the Marine troops appeared to be splintering. Released and relieved from the constant tension of battle, they now assumed a less than heroic role. There were instances of thievery among the men. Bloody fights broke out over trivial and assumed affronts. The colonel became livid with rage when apprised of the stealing. At the staff meeting he actually proposed that the sentries shoot anyone caught in the act of stealing. This suggestion was not carried out, but these Marine officers knew how to address the problem--and the solution was patently simple. They introduced the troops to basic training once more, with a vengeance.
Crisp uniforms, short hair-cuts, and shined boots distinguished the drilling Marines. The air crackled with non-com's orders; I had to learn how to return salutes once again. I must admit it--it worked. The curbs and constraints of discipline re-established the homogeneity, the unity, the stability, and the efficiency of the units. The 5th would be ready when called.
There was something else of a trivial nature that was the cause of grumbling and controversy. The great minds at the Pentagon thought to rectify an obvious error of omission. All army infantrymen in action wore a distinguishing insignia, the combat infantryman's badge, entitling the wearer to a munificent bonus of six dollars a month for hazardous service. With the intense publicity engendered by the Marines spectacular success against the Chinese armies at the Chosin, this distinction of the "infantryman's badge" was offered to the 1st Division--and was promptly turned down by General Smith. "If my men are not worth more than $6 a month, they can keep their damn medals." He didn't consult with the troops--I know that many would have swallowed their pride and accepted the sib bucks a month.
At one staff meeting which I did not attend, Colonel Murray was entertaining a reporter from the Chicago Daily News, Keyes Beech. This "pain in the butt" complained that the Marines just didn't cooperate; there must be some war story for publication. Murray, a man of few words, sat in silence until some Major offered up the story of the regimental dental officer and the rescue of the men by the road to Koto-ri. Beech got his story and the colonel, recognizing the involvement of his young friend, Lieutenant Silver, ordered the Major to write him up for the Navy Cross. I became aware of this meeting when the Major sought me out and good-naturedly berated me for creating an insuperable problem for him. A proposal for the Navy Cross required twenty-six typewritten copies to be forwarded through the Navy chain of command to Washington. A field outfit such as the 5th had one typewriter and one clerk to prepare all the necessary daily reports required by Hq. Who could be bothered with such nonsense as a medal for Lieutenant Silver? Ten days later, when the colonel had not yet received the papers for signature, he gave a direct order, and the next day he signed twenty-six copies. The Major was not happy with me.
We finally received mail after a hiatus of almost two months. Mail delivery was not the first priority for us in the mountains of the North. This contact with home, with loved ones, brought forth normal feelings too long submerged by the intensity of battle. I also now realized that I had resumed dreaming of beautiful, nubile, and compliant women. I must have been in dire straits, since I had not thought of desirable women for perhaps four weeks. I do not believe I had ever experienced such a prolonged lapse since puberty. Some letters from Navy nurses revived and restored the erotic workings of my mind.
For the second time the capital of South Korea had fallen. Army and ROK troops were falling back to the Pusan perimeter when we received orders to rejoin the battle. General Ridgeway was now the field commander in Korea, a welcome change from the fiascos of the past.
Army morale was at its lowest. Ridgeway was painfully aware that his Army troops were incapable of facing the attacking Chinese armies. The Army's dependence on the ROK forces was misguided and delusionary. To his credit, Ridgeway dealt with the reality of the situation. He must have been aware of the reports sent back to the British Chiefs of Staff by General Leslie Mansergh. A summary of the conclusions about the problems of the U.S. Army by this high ranking Britisher was an indictment that I could have written without benefit of military training: "a) training on the wrong lines b) bad staff organization c) low quality infantry d) disinterest in the war in general e) weak and inexperienced commanders at all levels." Further indictments centered on the lack of discipline and motivation of U.S. troops. "Their tactics were non-existent and their fire power could be described as prophylactic--everyone firing into the blue yonder." But General Mansergh expressed his respect and admiration for the performance of the United States Marine Corps.
Marine General Smith and General Ridgeway were in agreement. With feelings of mutual respect and confidence, they discussed in conference the new strategy which would abrogate the evacuation plan of MacArthur's toady, Ned Almond. Basic orders went out to the Army commanders with regard to the instigation of intensive training, the use of weapons, the proper and effective use of all firepower, the implementation of aggressive tactics, and the proscription for the abandonment or needless damage of any equipment or weaponry. To the Army's everlasting shame, and as a result of the ineptitude and arrogance of MacArthur, the necessity for such fundamental orders was obvious.
No longer under the command of General Almond and his Tenth Corps, now a part of the Eighth Army, the 1st Marine Division began moving up to support the center of the U.N. line established below Seoul. It was in January when we began moving north. As usual the weather was miserable, cold, and wet. Resistance was sporadic and I welcomed the periods of inaction. We did have to cope with thousands of refugees on the road again. It was never pleasant driving the columns of fleeing humanity off the road. We would not tolerate the infiltration of unknown civilians within our midst.
We now replaced the Army 2nd Division on the line and daily moved forward with minor opposition. I sometimes wonder whether the Chinese deliberately bypassed the Marine Regiments and chose to engage the other troops. I know that I was a terror--but this was ridiculous.
We always had the superior air cover provided by Marine aircraft. To see Air Force jets zooming through the sky to make one or two ineffectual high speed runs, and then compare them with the low level surgical attacks of the lumbering Marine Corsairs, was a comforting sight and a ludicrous comparison. Two to four aircraft, coordinating their attacks, would wipe out most of the enemy leaving the rest in disarray, to be eliminated by the ground troops. I must confess; it was a satisfying sight since I was not involved with enemy casualties. This rationalization would keep me sane and divorced from the horror.
I received a message one day that a hospital ship was offshore, not too distant from our area of action. I knew a nurse aboard the ship and so, with permission, I took off and drove to the beach. I could see the fleet anchored in the bay and perhaps that dark shape was the hospital ship. To send a personal message in a war zone was verboten but--this dentist would try anything. On the shore, working under the glare of floodlights, was the archetypical beachmaster. An inspiring brute of a Naval officer, sporting a handlebar mustache and wielding a baton. He was directing the loading and unloading of supplies and casualties; he was dispatching boats with the flair of an orchestral conductor.
"Doctor, don't bother me, besides it's not allowed." I persisted, appealing to his sense of romance and chivalry. Using a signal lamp he directed a message toward the hospital ship. The entire fleet read the message. "Is Nurse Riley aboard?" After a long wait a negative answer was received. I was about to leave when the beachmaster called me back. The Mount McKinley, command ship of the fleet, began beaming the message, "Nurse Riley is in Japan, aboard the Repose." Now that everyone was involved in my romantic inquiry, the fleet commander included, I got the hell out of there as soon as possible. Nurse Riley must have been quite popular; out there in the bay, people were keeping tabs on her.
Even my colonel wanted to know the result of my trip to the beach. News of a possible assignation was highly stimulating in the drab and weary atmosphere of the war. I did not have the heart or the hubris to titillate my friends with embellishments, but neither did I volunteer the entire truth.
Time was passing and the buildup of the U.S. troops, including the Marines, was beginning to affect my position. Enough physicians had arrived to make it obvious to me that I would be replaced, no longer to be the regimental dentist, aka the assistant medical officer. The thought of doing dentistry at a rear area while my regiment was engaged in fighting did not sit well with me. I had also served with the Fleet Marines for almost eighteen months. It seemed like a good time for me to seek a transfer. I sent my request through channels to the Navy Dental Department in Washington, asking for a billet in the States. I enclosed a map with Brooklyn, New York, encircled in red, making it quite obvious that I would appreciate duty close to home, if at all possible. (I have no idea where I obtained the map, or where I got the nerve to make such a specific request, but I'm certain that the possibility of a battle field decoration did play a role in such effrontery.)
I received orders for assignment to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, just ten minutes from home. I was beset with feelings of joy and sadness. The thought of returning home to my family was so appealing, but the prospect of leaving my companions with whom I shared the hazards of warfare, was devastating. But I knew that it was time to leave.
It was a warm March day and I was sitting on a rock beside the road resting. The troops were taking a ten-minute break before moving forward, and all was peaceful for the moment. Colonel Murray came by and sat down with me. I showed him my orders and asked him jokingly if he would like to trade with me. He looked at me most sincerely and said, "Silver, this is my only chance to lead troops in battle--this is what I have been trained for--the opportunity will not present itself again." He wished me good luck and moved on. I never saw my colonel again.
Carrying a large duffle bag crammed with all my belongings, I left Korea on a flight to Japan. (Over the Sea of Japan I looked down and saw a hospital ship steaming towards west for the port of Pusan.) I was temporarily assigned to a Naval hospital outside Tokyo while awaiting a flight home. Apparently the hospital staff was informed that I was coming, for on arrival there was a reception line of all the officers--medical, dental, and nurses. The Chief Medical Officer escorted me down the line, introducing me to the entire staff. I was a bit overwhelmed and felt ill at ease in the presence of all these clean and neat people. But who has been spreading the word of my prospective award?
The personnel office informed me that my flight orders were ready to be signed. This was "it"--but I was not ready. I had seen a listing of ships deployed in Pusan harbor and the hospital ship Repose was now stationed there. In a fit of absolute lunacy and impetuosity, I took my papers from the yeoman and left the office, telling him to forget that he had ever seen me. I made arrangements to travel across Japan by train to the west coast to Kobe. From Kobe I flew out on a mail plane to Pusan, Korea, to visit Nurse Riley.
Casual visitors are not welcomed aboard a naval vessel, but I did not consider myself in such an informal category. I boarded the ship and sought out Lieutenant Riley. Our meeting in the nurses' mess created something of a commotion and a good deal of excitement. I was surrounded by pretty nurses just eager to meet me--but I managed to cope with the menacing threat.
I remained aboard the Repose for two heavenly days, eating with the nurses and sleeping on one of the wards, until a ranking medical officer finally gave me the word. I was putting the girls at risk of disciplinary action by my unauthorized presence and so I became persona non grata. I left Korea for the very last time, flying to Japan with the mail sacks. The personnel clerk greeted me with a decided sigh of relief, accepted my orders for the second time, and put me on the very next flight leaving Japan for the States.
The trip home was direct and uneventful. Like a homing pigeon, I made no unnecessary stops or any side trips. However, on the flight across the Pacific, I spent time in conversation with Army and Navy officers also being rotated home. I being in Marine "greens", they were curious and questioned me about a Marine private aboard, traveling alone, who was being sent Stateside. This youngster (he hadn't even begun to shave), had acquired three Purple Hearts and was automatically entitled to be relieved of any further hazardous duty. Those officers were astounded. "Three Purple Hearts and he still is a private?" I shrugged my shoulders and replied that it was all in the line of duty. They all shook their heads in disbelief. You would have to be in the Corps to understand this.
Springtime in Brooklyn at home with one's family is the stuff of dreams. For months there was so little correspondence between us that my presence relieved those unspoken fears that bedevil all parents. I was glad to be home. I took off my Marine uniform, removed the insignia to save and remind me of my past, and donned my Navy blues. My tour with the illustrious and revered 5th Regiment, 1st Marine Division, U.S. Marine Corps had come to an end.
Somewhere in Washington the mills were grinding slowly, amending the Colonel's recommendation for the awarding of the Navy Cross to a non-combatant. According to the "Geneva Conventions" doctors are prohibited from combat and therefore cannot earn a medal for "Conspicuous Gallantry in Action." A compromise was apparently reached, and with less publicity, I received the Silver Star for "Gallantry in Action," an eponymous award more befitting this young man from Brooklyn.
Epilogue - The Chosin Reservoir
Forty-four years have elapsed since the battle of the Chosin Reservoir, and those who fought there and survived are now beginning to pass on into history. It remains incumbent upon us, we who are still here, to maintain the memory of those men who fought and died in what historians have described as the most savage battle of modern warfare.
Fifteen thousand ground troops, mainly men of the 1st Marine Division, took the brunt of the attack. 120,000 Chinese, approximately ten divisions, were intent on destroying the U.S. Marines. They had successfully routed the Eighth Army on the western flank and mauled the remainder of the Tenth Army Corps on the east. Army troops fled in disarray, abandoning their equipment and their wounded. The defeat of the Army was so complete that there were no viable fighting units available to come to the aid of the Marines--there were no troops to divert or to relieve the unremitting pressure of the thousands of trained and fanatic Chinese. MacArthur and his brilliant strategy had entrapped us. The imperious general, disregarding intelligence reports of a Chinese invasion, had managed to put an entire Marine division in jeopardy. In sub zero weather, high in the mountains near the border with China, the Marines were alone, no relief forces available, and only one narrow road, the exit to safety.
There were 15,000 casualties, more than 3,000 killed and 6,000 wounded, plus thousands of men suffering from frostbite. The enemy suffered an estimated 43,000 casualties, including 28,000 killed and 15,000 wounded. History will record this battle, "this attack to the rear", as un-paralleled in U.S. military history, an epic of great valor and fortitude.
I take the liberty, and with utmost sincerity, to paraphrase and transpose a select portion of Shakespeare's Henry V's speech to his men before the battle of Agincourt on St. Crispin's day against an overwhelming French force.
I had returned from Korea after having traveled a military trail that began when I was eighteen years old, as a draftee in the Army, as a Lt. jg in the Navy, as a "Captain" in the Marine Corps, and finally to end my military career at twenty-five as a decorated Navy dental officer.
In all three services I had tried my best to fulfill my obligations despite the unbelievable fact that I never had a moment of military training. I underwent experiences that I assume will never be equaled by a dentist.... No dental officer will ever review the Fleet or receive the salutes of the ships of the line--unless, of course, he attains the position of President.
I had begun as a quiet, inexperienced, and unassuming young man--to be converted by time and trials to emerge as a self-confident, highly-motivated individual. At twenty-five I felt it was time to prepare for civilian life. Despite the passage of years and many pages of this memoir, I did meet the beautiful Lynne once again. (You remember--she was the beauty in the pink angora sweater.) She was free now of all romantic commitments and when we met, the sparks flew. Within six months we were married and today, forty-three years later, my heart skips a beat when I see her. We walk hand in hand, so acutely attuned to each other for these many years, that we can converse in silence. She says that she still loves her "warrior" from Brooklyn.