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Frank Eugene Smitha
Columbus, Ohio -
"U.S. involvement in the Korean War was an effort at doing right. We make mistakes, but we have to keep trying to do right. Pacifism is utopian and a withdrawal from international obligations."
- Frank Smitha
My name is Frank Eugene Smitha. I was born December 19, 1933 in Los Angeles, California, a son of Carl Francis and Margaret Barbara Troeller Smitha. I have one sister who is a little more than a year older than me and one brother who is a little more than one year younger. My father was an automobile mechanic for the city of Beverly Hills, California. During World War II, he was a mechanic for Lockheed P38 airplanes, working as a civilian in Belfast, Ireland. My mother worked at Sears and Roebuck during the war.
I was seven years old when World War II broke out in December of 1941. In grade school we marched around to Souza music and saluted the flag with our arms outstretched. I do not recall any other activities regarding the war, but I remember that Japanese gardeners disappeared. Our grade school had a few Chinese boys, one of whom was my friend. A good book that I have found about the home front during World War II is "Days of Sadness, Years of Triumph: The American People 1939-1945" by Geoffrey Perrett, Wisconsin University Press, 1985.
I was a member of the Cub Scouts and I stayed in. I was a good Cub Scout and then a Boy Scout, but not as good a Boy Scout, never having made it past Tenderfoot because of not having done the work required. My troop was filled with rebellious guys like me. One of our troop's sponsors was the actor Glenn Ford. He showed up with his wife once, and the boys made too much of a sensation over her good looks. She never returned. They were a noisy bunch, chasing after Girl Scouts, getting into fights, etc. In short, they did not know how to behave. I did, and felt a little alienated from the others. I had hobnobbed with show people in the Hills of Beverly Hills when I was in the 5th and 6th grade via the family of my best friend, an only child whose family took me in, so to speak, after finding much to their relief that I behaved very well at dinner parties, etcetera. (I suppose my mother had taught me manners. They liked my mother, too, who was unpretentious and had no ambitions about me getting into show business.)
My mother gave in to the scouting thing believing, I suppose, that it would not corrupt me. She held the view common among Jehovah's Witnesses that kids were to learn their faith and accept it voluntarily rather than automatically be taken in at infancy as with the Catholic Church--the church my mother was always criticizing. At seven I openly rejected my mother's beliefs. She had preached how Santa Claus, Christmas, etcetera, were pagan nonsense. I extended it to the angels and the separation of the sheep and goats, all the magic, and Armageddon, about which she spoke. She came to accept my position.
In Scouts we marched around and had sack races and heard some patriotic speeches. The Cub Scout leader lived across the street. His son was my best friend. The scout leader thought himself a writer and wrote patriotic poems on how dastardly the "Japs" were and how we were going to lick them. He was also the local bookie handling bets for people from Beverly Hills. There were often limos in front of his house. When my friend asked him for spending money, his father would pull out a big wad of money and give him a dollar. I was caught playing hooky with the boy. The deputy sheriff who confronted us knew the father, our glorious scout leader and local patriot.
As a Jehovah's Witness, my mother stood on street corners when she was not working her territory--Beverly Hills. Local patriots abused her. My mother told me of patriots in places attacking and spitting on Jehovah's Witnesses because of their lack of patriotism. I became suspicious of patriots. The Jehovah's Witnesses were known to be opposed to saluting the flag, and they were opposed to serving in the military. Those refusing the draft were being sent to prison.
I attended Burbank Senior High School in Burbank. At that time Father was then working for the city of Burbank in maintenance of fire engines and cutting people out of car crashes. I did not graduate from high school. When I was 17 years old, a friend of mine who was also 17, but younger by a few months, wanted to be a Marine aviator. I went with him to the recruiting office just to keep him company. While he filled out papers for the both of us, the recruiter told us that we should both finish high school. It dawned on me that this was a way for me to get out of high school. It was September 19, 1951. A new semester was just starting. I could not stand the idea of more high school, so I went along. I felt that high school teachers looked down their noses at me. For the most part, they were hostile. I felt intimidated. They were down on my younger brother because of me, both of us having the unusual name of Smitha. School bored me. I had failed English in the 7th grade. I was moved back one year in junior high school (grades 7, 8, and 9). I was passed to senior high school without having earned it. Was I stupid? I thought I was academically stupid, but otherwise smart. I was surprised in the ninth grade when I passed some kind of an IQ test in about half the time that others in my class did. I was surprised in the 11th grade when I had perfect scores on my simply high school physics tests without having studied. (I got a C grade at the end of the semester--all A's on the tests, zero on the homework.) Others in the class were surprised, too. They looked back at me with disbelief because I suppose I was considered a dummy.
My mother was opposed to my joining the Marine Corps. My father favored it. His view, I suspect, was that it was a way to straighten me out. The friend I had joined with had twice stolen a car a few months before, and I had been caught riding with him. Both of us were sent to jail until the court gave us probation. A part of my probation was a promise from me that I would make an effort at school--an effort I was not looking forward to in September 1951. I was young and simple-minded, looking forward to escaping the regimentation of high school and joining the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps was impressed by the results of the tests they gave us, and our criminality was considered as a past matter.
In the space of time that I took the papers with my parents signature back to the recruiting office and when I went by bus to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, I was looking forward to meeting the challenge of joining the Marines. I went on jogging hikes up the foothills just behind my home and I worried about my eyesight, thinking that Marines had to have good eyesight, even though I had never had to wear glasses. There is no contradiction here with the regrets I later had on my first day at boot camp at the regimentation. I was immersed in the reality of it then. The two emotions remained side by side--the animal instinct of wanting to be a part of the group. My rebellions years before had no roots in hostility or anger. I was never mad at anyone or the world. I just wanted to be somewhere else doing something different. I wanted to escape. A couple of times in my early teens I had run away from home with the neighbor kid my age from across the street. I had convinced him that we should try to get out of town and become cowboys. My fantasies were about someplace other than Hollywood.
Marine Corps Training
My friend who joined the Corps with me and I traveled from downtown Los Angeles to San Diego by special bus. When we arrived at the base, a couple of drill instructors introduced us to the Marine Corps by screaming at us to get our blankety blanks off the bus. Their animosity was a surprise. I'm not sure, but I do think they used a lot of profanity. They certainly did later. The leading DI was a buck sergeant named Jones. The others were corporals (one was McBernie or something). They were Korean War vets, I would say. With some confidence I can say they were not World War II veterans. That first day of boot camp, I asked myself how I got into what seemed like a three-year sentence.
Boot camp was nine weeks. We learned to march--left flank, right flank, to the rear, etc. We had rifle drill--rifle on the right shoulder, to the left shoulder, present arms, etc. We learned to shoot at the firing range twenty miles or so north of San Diego. Going there by bus and seeing the outside world was great. We saw a lot of films run off a projector. I can't remember what they were about except there were no lectures about the evils of Communism. One film that sticks in my mind was "The Late Company B." It was about how neglecting a little thing can cause disaster. I can't recall any details about the film, but it stuck in the minds of many Marines and I heard it joked about months later. Someone else perhaps remembers it better than I. It might have been in tent camp after boot camp that we saw this film. We also saw a lot of films on venereal disease.
Our days were regimented. I do not remember any free time. Even meals were regimented. We had to sit at attention and wait for the order to start eating. We had to pick up cigarette butts around the camp as part of keeping everything clean and neat. We showered every day in what passed for a free moment. I think lights out was at 10 o'clock. We had to get up every morning at perhaps around six--sometimes four a.m. I remember being awakened once in the wee hours of the morning to scrub the floor. Reason not given. One did not ask for the reason of anything.
Once I was disciplined when we were doing rifle drill. I was a little off in getting the rifle onto my shoulder. I quickly corrected and glanced at the DI (Jones) to see if he saw me. He saw me looking his way rather than looking straight ahead. He came over, lifted me by my collar, choking me at the same time that he asked me to reply to a question. When I finally croaked out the answer, he let me go at once and went back to his work. Another time I was tired of not getting any pancakes at breakfast by being mannerly. After being ordered with others to sit at the table, I forgot to sit at attention. I quickly realized the mistake and went to the attention position. The DI came by with my fork still bobbing on the stack of pancakes. I was ordered to see the DI after breakfast. It was Jones I had a meeting with. He had me do pushups until I could do no more. I could not go up, but I could hold myself from going down. He put his foot under my face and said that if I went down he would bring his foot up into my face. We were frozen in this position for what must have been less than a minute, boring him perhaps. He ordered me on my back and had me raise my heels off the deck. He told me if I allowed my heels to touch the deck, he would stomp me in my stomach. Soon my heels touched down and he stomped me in the stomach, but it was just a love tap. It did not hurt at all. Under his hard demeanor he dismissed me, almost it seemed to me with a little affection.
On another occasion when returning to our Quonset huts, I found the lock off my locker box. I had forgotten to lock it and a DI had taken it. Now I had to go to him to get it back. It was Corporal McBernie. I had to bring my locker box to the DI's office on my head. I was ordered to remove my cap, so I threw the box up a bit and pulled my cap off, buckling at the knees but straightening up after the box came back down onto my head. McBernie put a ring of keys in my mouth and I was supposed to find the right key to the lock. (He must have put the lock back onto the locker box.) After many tries and failures to find the right key, he speeded things up, selecting the key and letting me go, but I had to run double time back to my hut with the locker box still on my head. I had a sore neck for a day or two after that.
At the rifle range we lived in squad tents and we had our stuff in sea bags. I forgot to lock the sea bag and found my stuff on my bunk and the sea bag missing. At the DI's tent again, it was McBernie who was to discipline me. He put the sea bag over my head and ordered me to run back to my tent. In the row between the tents was another platoon in formation. (They had the tents opposite us.) Unable to see, I went through their ranks and got pushed around. On the other side of the formation, I was running to my tent, hearing people from my platoon, still in their tents, trying to help me with shouted instructions. In a minute I was back in my tent and lifted the bag off myself. McBernie stepped into my tent. He expressed surprise that I could get the bag off so quickly without help. He was smiling and was a touch friendly. I do not remember others being disciplined as I was, but some discipline must have taken place. I vaguely recall a couple of guys with buckets over their head smoking cigarettes. I do not recall the platoon ever being disciplined for the mistakes of an individual. Some recruits disappeared, taken out of the platoon without any explanation.
I remember another boot who was punished when he was a runner. A runner was someone from our platoon who was chosen to deliver messages and maybe deliver other things in person or on foot for the day. I never was chosen and don't know anything more about it. I recall a few details about a runner who was downed by the DI. He was an eager recruit who talked a lot and liked to look well. He was a bit of a braggart. He was in the habit of repeatedly boasting about his hometown of Las Vegas, Nevada. That particular day, he approached Jones when Jones was frustrated over the inability to get us to do a complicated marching maneuver. Jones slugged the runner, knocking him to the ground. The runner had approached Jones quickly, but not with any violation of protocol that I could see. After he crashed to the ground, he sprang up looking bewildered and emotionally hurt, but straight and at attention. It seemed to me to have been a moment of displaced aggression on the part of the DI.
I do not remember anything about church while I was in boot camp. I never went, but I do not recall anyone complaining about not being able to go to church. Sundays are a blank for me. Were we able to sleep in on Sunday mornings? I don't remember. I don't recall having any days off. Toward the end of boot camp there was marching competition among the platoons. Our platoon did not win, but Jones told me he thought we had done well. I remember the platoon marching, a band playing the Marine anthem, and the heels hitting the ground with a uniform thump and extra verve. Most, I suspect, were moved by hearing the anthem, including myself. I remember too that we saw a couple of movies and that our spirits were high while we were waiting in ranks outside the camp theater in the evening alongside other platoons. I remember seeing "Singing in the Rain" with Gene Kelley and I remember a film with Jimmy Durante.
At the end of boot camp, the message was passed to the platoon that McBernie had some kind of a family tragedy. A collection was taken up for him in the platoon. There was some sentimentality for the drill instructors and some money was eagerly given (none from me). Later in Korea, perhaps, I heard of other platoons having had the same experience at the end of their boot training--a coincidence of tragedy at the end of training and good-hearted recruits (boots they were called) collecting money for a drill instructor. After boot camp, some from sergeant and above were hot on making money by taking station wagon loads of guys just out of boot camp to Tijuana. Big pitches were made about, "You're not a man until you've been to Tijuana." I recall one staff sergeant in particular who organized regular runs. My point is that there was an interest in money among some of the more seasoned NCOs. I had experienced prison guards in the Los Angeles prison system and was not as offended as some by the drill instructors, nor as sentimental towards them as some others.
Jones was always using vulgarity. One guy--a draftee, I believe, could not march standing straight. His back was bent forward a bit like he was an old man. Jones was always berating him, saying things like, "If I want you to suck your cock, I'll tell you." I remember that in the Los Angeles County Jail, some deputies strutted as if they had an ego problem. One caught me smiling at him and he did not like it. He pushed me around, but I did not feel terribly abused by it. I merely thought him a pompous fool. The deputies played a role, stripping us when we returned from someplace else in the jail, such as the medical ward, throwing our shoes at our feet and criticizing us for moving to avoid the blow. I saw deputies having fun with men who were suffering delusions. They pointed to the floor saying, "Watch out," then laughed when the prisoner jumped from fright. Although I was only sixteen and from a working class family, I thought these men were vulgarians. At seventeen, I was already a bit hardened so consequently I was not terribly impressed by the DIs in the Marine Corps. How did such a rebellious kid survive boot camp? What did Tamerlane do when he was a young man and very proud, believing he was a man of destiny and better than the Mongol force over him? He submitted. I did not see any room for rebellion in boot camp, except to flee. (I think someone did.) I must have seen that fleeing would be a disastrous choice and I believed that if others could take it, I certainly could--and maybe more.
When I left boot camp, I felt that I had accomplished something--endurance, I suppose. I weighed 138 entering boot camp and exited weighing around 158. Perhaps all that whole milk (we could have as much as we wanted) helped me gain a little more than two pounds a week. (It is possible--I gained a pound a day returning from Europe working on a US freighter, unionized with as much food to eat as I wanted.) I remember how in high school people who returned to school after having been in jail or prison were looked up to. They had done something and received a perverted respect as a result. I did feel that I had done something when I graduated from boot camp, and that whatever respect that was due me was other than a perverted respect.
After boot camp I went home for a couple of weeks. I don't remember if I wore my uniform. I don't think so. There was no place to go in my uniform. I might have gone to my father's cabin in the San Bernadino mountains around Big Bear. When leave was over I went back to the same San Diego base to attend voice radio operating school. I went by way of Greyhound bus.
Voice Radio Operating School
At voice radio operating school, we learned the simple basics on how to operate World War II voice radios from buck and staff sergeants. All of our training took place on the base. We practiced radio nets (three persons, for example, each with a radio, communicating with one person who was central to the others). Toward the end of the schooling, we practiced radio communications as it was supposed to be for a military unit on the move.
School was five days a week. We had the weekends to ourselves, including leaving the base. I wandered the streets of San Diego alone a couple of times. It was only a fifth, maybe less, in population than it is now. It was like walking the streets of a small town. I got a Marine Corps tattoo on my right arm--an anchor with a red banner on which were the letters USMC. Weekends that did not include the bus rides or hitchhiking to home to Burbank and the bus ride back might include a trip to Tijuana. The military was not as restricted in Tijuana as it was later. Tijuana's streets were packed with sailors and marines, more of the former than marines. Just inside the US border was a place for VD prevention. One staff sergeant piled Marines into his station wagon for round trips, charging something like $5 per person. If I went to Tijuana, I went alone or with a friend or two. We could drink beer in Tijuana. I could not in San Diego. I turned 18 about halfway through this schooling period (December 1951).
I befriended a classmate from Hawaii, a Polynesian who I took home with me a couple of weekends. He got drunk and on the floor of a neighbor's house said, "Smeetha, I'm going to kill you." He was humored and slept it off and was fine when he was sober. After we left the Marine Corps, I visited him in Honolulu where he was a bouncer at a night club. I helped him in a brawl with white sailors who had created a disturbance and jumped him outside the bar. The sailors did not believe that Hawaii should become a state. With me and my friend were a couple of Asians. When we drove the sailors down the street, they asked me what I, the only white, was doing with the others. My friend was about to marry a Chinese. He was huge but could swim underwater like a dolphin.
At the end of radio school I was promoted to corporal, as were some others who had been in the same class. Strange--only eight weeks out of boot camp. Next was tent camp.
Tent camp was preparation for Korea--the 22nd replacement draft. My radio operating was put behind me during tent camp. I was a fire team leader, impressed by being leader of three others, one of whom was married. War games, rough hiking, heat, terrible thirst to the point of delusion, up hills with all but about eight of the platoon collapsed. (Naturally I was one of the eight or so. So, too, was the wire-like little Jewish boy in my fire team who was not at all gung ho. Big guys collapsed first.) I remember snakes coming out of their holes, responding perhaps to the rhythm of boots hitting the ground. I'd see their heads and behind me hear the crash of a rifle butt. Tent camp was at Pendleton where there was a lot of rain. Marines complained about California. I remember that our platoon leader, a lieutenant, was upset with us once for some reason and for a few days every morning around seven before breakfast, he led us on a run. I was unhappy with him and dogged his heels, trying to push him in reaction to him pushing us.
War games meant staying up all night, sitting in foxholes. One evening during our three or four days of war games, a companion and I ended up on a two-man search-for-the-enemy mission. I don't remember how I was selected, whether I volunteered or suggested it or what. But I do remember I was eager and the more aggressive of the two of us. The night was very dark. We groped our way forward listening, moving along the crest and the spine of hills which was always easier going because of not having to worry about silhouette on the skyline. No one was supposed to smoke, but a few among the "enemy" did. We followed the occasional glow of a cigarette into the midst of the enemy. We must have been only a few yards from where a few of them were sitting in their holes. Then we returned, making it back to our own company at dawn or near dawn. We gave our lieutenant a description of the path we took, ups and down, estimating on his map what hill they were on. The lieutenant was delighted, but wished we had lifted a rifle or something from the "enemy" to prove that we had, indeed, been there. The lieutenant and some other officers approached a referee and called in an artillery strike on the enemy's position. We had given them the right information. Then most of our company moved out for an attack. Our lieutenant was overjoyed. My fellow pooper-snooper and I were given the day off, and rested or snoozed at what I guess was our company headquarters.
For me, it was the most significant accomplishment of my life at that time--although it was just a game. I was, in other words, gung ho about some aspects of what I perceived to be combat. Winning gym class baseball and football games seemed less of an accomplishment than performing successfully for a company of Marines and outwitting another company of Marines. Also, it was a re-confirmation for me. In Hollywood at the end of World War II, we played war games at night in the commercial poinsettia fields about Sunset Boulevard at the border or just inside Beverly Hills. We had a point system based on recognized kills. I learned how to be stealthy and acquired the most points among about ten players. I always thought that I could out perform others, except at school class work. No one could outrace me on a bicycle around a dirt oval.
My cockiness did get me into trouble, however. Back when I was in the Boy Scouts, we had a fight night with the public invited. The first event was wrestling, with me as one of the contestants. I lost. The second event was boxing, with me as one of the contestants. When the crowd saw me come into the ring having just lost the previous event, they moaned. I lost the boxing match, too--knocked out. My opponent told me afterward that I got a couple of good punches in. By the time I was in the Marine Corps, I had no interest in boxing or wrestling, and I still don't. Military tactics and strategy still interest me.
There was some more weapons training, including pop-up targets. We tossed grenades and using our M-1 rifles, lobbed "rifle grenades" at distant targets. I was lucky at guessing what angle to hold my rifle and hit the target. "Good shot!!" said the instructor next to me. I was beginning to think of myself as able. But I stumbled a couple of times, reminding myself that I had to keep mentally alert and have a degree of modesty.
On the weekends while at tent camp, I went hiking alone to improve on being in shape. I got worried about being alone with all those snakes and returned to my tent. (I did not like the trip to and from Burbank, and there was not much at home anyway.) I belonged to King Company (King for K as Able was for A and Baker for B). The master sergeant in charge (Renfro) told us he was going to make us King Company, King Shit. Though practically illiterate and not knowing the word hyperbole, I thought it hyperbolic and just a part of the morale boosting. Tent camp lasted until the end of May. In June we boarded a troop ship in San Diego.
Trip to Korea
The name of the ship was the General Meigs. It was a troop transport belonging to the merchant marine rather than a U.S. Navy ship or U.S. Navy-operated one. Dolphins escorted us away from land. Flying fish scared up by the ship were regular and, to me, interesting. I do not remember the exact date of departure. It was from a dock very close to downtown San Diego. The ship headed for Yokohama, Japan. I was not one of those who got sea sick. I was no stranger to the ocean, having worked on a tuna boat for three weeks or so in the summer of 1950 at age 16 (only three weeks because we were not catching anything).
We were packed in like sardines, five or so on top of one another, no more than twenty inches apart. We had to watch out if we were looking out across the sea, enjoying the view, because usually someone was vomiting down wind. Midway across the Pacific I was eyeing the life boats, wondering if during a dark night I could launch one in secret and head to a South Pacific island and start life anew with beautiful island women and happy people collectively fishing like I had seen on film. But I did not get seriously started planning an escape. It was not dread of going to Korea that motivated the fantasy. It was the desire to go to a South Sea island.
Close to Japan, our ship was overtaken by a typhoon (another word for a hurricane). I do not know the exact date that we ran into the hurricane, but a record I found a few years ago showed that a hurricane crossed in front of Japan between the dates of June 19 and June 25. The hurricane was listed as reaching 75 miles per hour. I recall a comment from somewhere that we were passing through the tail-end of the hurricane. That would place us close to Japan around June 25 or 26, and maybe with wind speeds down to 70 or 65 miles per hour. The name of the hurricane was Dinah.
The typhoon was astonishing. Looking out the port hole one moment was to look up at a huge mountain of water, far above the ship. The next moment I was looking down into a deep, deep valley. The ship was hardly making headway, if it was making any headway at all. Everyone was ordered below deck, of course, but from the toilet area at the bow of the ship (called the head in navy parlance), a few Marines had opened a hatch that led to the main deck. Immediately outside the hatch was some kind of superstructure overhang and a pole supporting it. Other superstructure was around, so that we were boxed in on three sides more or less, and apparently not visible from the helm and officers on duty. A few guys were in front of me as I stepped out on deck to have a look. What I saw was a wall of water headed toward me. I grabbed the pole (six or eight inches in diameter) with all my strength. All my strength was nothing compared to the weight of the water which tore me loose as if I had no strength at all. The water pushed me back to the door and down the steps (my God, I've forgotten what steps are called on board a ship!). The others came down with me...I suppose. At least, I never heard of anyone being missing. One of the guys got himself together, rushed up the (gangway?) and secured the hatch. Exciting. I have more respect now for heavy seas. One of the annoyances on the troop ship was the extremely long line for meals (chow). With the hurricane, only a few of us ate and there was no waiting--a joy.
After a couple of days, maybe three, of hardly moving, we landed at Yokohama. Two of the guys in my fire team decided to give me a Mohawk. My hair thus cut, a lieutenant saw it and decided it was an improper appearance for a Marine to have and had them shave all my hair off.
The ship food was declared unfit to eat and we were allowed to go ashore to get food. I do think we might have been given some money to buy the food. I can't remember. Hordes of Marines walked to the main street. I remember sitting with friends in a restaurant drinking Japanese Asahi beer. The beer was opened for us at the table by a soft-eyed, very gentle, and well-mannered young woman who served us looking us in the eyes as she did so. I was impressed. So civilized. Better than the South Sea Islands.
We were allowed off ship two days in a row. Japan in mid-1952 was still suffering from World War II and economic hardship. After the war, some city people were starving. City dwellers were rushing to farming areas in what was called the "onion existence," peeling off layer after layer of possessions and exchanging them for food. For years Japan's population was kept from starvation by the free food from the United States. It would take time for Japan to develop its industry and exports to create self-sufficiency. When we walked down the street in Yokohama, women were lined up on the sidewalk with the most pleading expressions. One tugged at my sleeve as I walked by.
On our first day of liberty in Japan, after eating (eating is more primary than sex), my friends and I went to some kind of a bath house and got bathed. It was hard to resist such kindness and such attention. The attendants were prostitutes, but most courteous. The second day I went back and found the same woman I had been with the day before. I had been drinking too much--beer and I do not know what else--just another stupid 18-year-old. Back at the same establishment I fell down and my arm went into a large flower pot and got soaked past the elbow. Just before I left the place, my shirt was handed to me, dried and pressed. That was the last I was to see of Japan until 1968.
Communications Unit - 2nd Battalion
After the brief stopover in Japan, we traveled on to Korea. I could smell Korea before I could see the shore. We arrived there in late June or during the first few days of July and got off the ship the same day we arrived. They packed us like sardines into a barge that took us from the troop ship to shore. No danger seemed apparent. I believe we had our sea bags with us, which we left with an official sea bag collector at Inchon. We were sorted into units after dark. We took a ride in a freight car if I'm not mistaken. I can't remember which came first, the train ride or the sorting. What I do remember clearly is marching out of step northward, hearing the thump-thump of war, and seeing reddish flashes on the skyline out of sync with the thumping because sound traveled slower than light. Everyone was silent, just walking toward the war in the dark, separated from people we had known.
I was one of three persons assigned to the communications unit at battalion headquarters, 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment. We were in reserve (two battalions forward, one in reserve, and two regiments forward while one was in reserve). I don't know whether it was battalion or regimental reserve, but I suspect it was battalion reserve. When I got there, I knew no one. There were just two of us entering the squad tent that housed the radio operators. Sand bags walled the tent a couple of feet high. Inside there were folding cots for beds, upon which we put our summer sleeping bags.
I discovered that one of the enlisted men assigned to the communications unit was an instructor from radio school. He was a buck sergeant who had been with us at tent camp. His name was Candeleria or something close to that. We called him Candy for short. He was very rank conscious and not friendly with corporals and under. He was not unfriendly either, just stiff with a continuously frozen expression. Vaguely I recall that a lieutenant made the fourth person arriving at the communications unit.
The first days were spent just sitting around. I don't remember much contact with sergeants. There was no friendly welcome, no orientation, and no really good leadership rallying the morale of the new arrivals and explaining things. By two or three days, maybe more, I had learned that I was to be assigned to Fox Company. The line companies, including Fox, were going out on daily hikes and going up to a secondary line for digging. (A secondary line was not occupied. It was just a line on high ground a couple of miles or so behind the Main Line of Resistance or MLR.) First there was just hanging around the tent, going to chow with mess gear, and after chow dipping mess gear into a big can of hot, soapy water, then into a big can of clear rinse water. After that we went back to the squad tent. The tent for the wire men was next to the tent for the radio operators. Card playing during the day appeared to be common.
On my first day, nobody said anything to me. No welcome. Nothing. The other new man went over toward the front of the tent where the others were sitting around and chatting. He pushed his way into their conversation and chatted like a salesman. I was too proud to do that. While at battalion headquarters during those first weeks in Korea, I always ate alone. I detected some resentment over my being a corporal when most of them were still private first class. Most of them were draftees and spoke derisively about being where they were and said things that suggested they did not like being in the Marine Corps. Their word for the Marine Corps was "the crotch." I learned later that they were older than me by maybe a year or two or three. I was also later told that I was the youngest guy in the 2nd Battalion. The tech sergeants were probably World War II salts. Everybody I had continuous contact with looked down their noses at career enlisted men, which these old salts probably were. Some reservists were around, too. As far as I know (wild speculation), only officers were from World War II.
The one on-going project that I was aware of was standing radio watch in a four-man tent during the day, listening on the radio, and keeping contact with what was called "the pussy patrol." One radio man went out on these patrols to chase civilians out of the area--mainly prostitutes, I suppose. The only Koreans I saw in the area were in uniform. Some were men who looked like they might have been in their forties. They were members of the Korean Service Corps--people who were not soldiers but who performed labor for the Marines. Korean prostitutes did manage to sneak to within walking distance from the base at Division headquarters, but they had to be ready to slip away. There was talk of them and phrases like "mattress-back."
On the second or third day I was assigned radio watch, listening to the patrol. There was nothing to do but listen. But something happened to the radio so I went out and called Candeleria for help. One of the radiomen heard me and mimicked me after I returned to the tent. It was maybe the fourth day of talking to no one that I finally sat down with the group near the front of the tent. I had an impulse to say something positive, but it came out stupid. This was the first war in which black and white troops were integrated. I had had no experience living around blacks. I had no black classmates in grammar school, and at junior high there might have been a couple--total strangers. In the Los Angeles prison system, only a couple of guys were black, and again, I had no contact with them. The contact that was in my mind at the time was in boot camp when four blacks entered our hut and with hostility and stridency lectured us about how we were there and they were not going to take any crap from anyone. Whether they were going from hut to hut, platoon to platoon, I did not know. There were a lot of southern boys around and they were probably addressing their grievance to them, but I was not very aware of what it was like to be black and living in the south, or the crap that black servicemen had gone through during World War II.
At any rate, there in my newly assigned unit in Korea, I was pleased that I did not have any unfriendly blacks that I had to share the tent with, no blacks with a chip on their shoulder, as they say. Among the few lines that I spoke was that I was glad there were no "negroes" in the group. This was met with silence. The one who had mimicked me (I'll call him CC because he was from Colorado and a former cowboy, and also at least part Indian) said it was Mexicans he did not like. "Why?" I asked, confused. I had gone to school with many Mexicans and considered them friends. I had walked home from grammar school every day with a girl named Enriquita. CC spoke of his being Indian. He did not like hearing rodeo pronounced as the Spanish do. I said I thought that most Mexicans were half Indian. Silence. I returned to my cot.
The following day, Louie Lacy (or Lacie) from St. Louis came into the tent. He was the former radioman for Fox Company and was just visiting from somewhere outside of the battalion and on his way someplace. Soon he was going home. He was greeted by the guys at the front of the tent with enthusiasm. And, he was black. After a minute of talking with them, the subject of new guys came up. He sounded bright and friendly, and marched down to me, put his hand out, shook my hand, and said a few things about Fox Company, wishing me well. I was stunned. He was the first gentleman that I had met in Korea. He was a lively, self-confident guy. My stereotype of blacks vanished instantly. He talked for a minute or two more with the other guys and left.
My head was not what it is today. I did not think about marching down to the other end of the tent and proclaiming myself just a young, naive eighteen-year old who was still learning. I never said a word about it. One of the group at the front of the tent was a draftee from Chicago with an elitist manner and bearing. He liked jazz. He was friendly with Lacy, and all the while I was with him in Korea he never said one word to me and always looked at me with disdain. One of his friends was a black who worked at the message center. He was friendly with others, but never the least friendly with me.
I felt good getting out with Fox Company on the treks to the backup line. It was my job to stay next to the company commander. Others were doing their job, digging. I was never a part of that. My job was just to sit by the radio, twiddling my thumbs. Only once did one of the enlisted men in the company approach me. He asked about Louie Lacy, sounding as though he missed him and hoped he would be putting in another appearance with Fox Company. It is strange that I remember so few names of the others that I served with in Korea, but that I remember Louis Lacy so well although I saw him only once and we spoke for only a minute.
After a couple of weeks, Fox Company and some other units traveled south to an island for war games. The temperature was later reported to have been 105F the day that we climbed the hills and ran around in make-believe warfare. I was carrying one of our standard radios--the big radios of World War II--rather than the thin little radios that came later toward the end of the war, and maybe I was packing an extra battery. The company commander paid no attention to my weight handicap as he ran around, taking the radio mike on occasion to make a speech to his superior somewhere. At 105F after hours of running up and down hills, I could not take it anymore and told the company commander (Captain Moody) to slow down or to wait. He obliged, slowing down--but only slightly.
My first friendly contact with a tent mate came when something went wrong with the tent's pet dog. One of the radiomen, Eric, needed someone to help him shoot the dog. Together we walked a few minutes with the dog and dug a hole about fourteen inches deep. The dog became more active when I put it in the hole, trying to get out. I held him down. Eric put his .45 next to the dog's head and close to my head, and fired, driving the dog's head down. For some seconds I could hear nothing.
It was summer and the sides of the tent were rolled up for better ventilation. During the day, wire men and others were involved in poker games. I went to the center of the camp, where a stream flowed, went upstream to the edge of the camp, and started building a dam with sandbags. Soon I had a swimming pool with the water waist high, maybe sixteen feet across. It became popular and refreshing because of the heat. CC was delighted and became friendly. I slipped as I was running to dive in the pool and slid on the mud. CC thought it was terribly funny and shook his head, saying he wondered about me. CC called Asians "slopes." He did not like the shape of their heads. Gooks was the word commonly used to describe the enemy and local people.
I thought one incident that happened before we went up to the front was curious. One of the middle-aged Korean men assigned to our group (a member of the Korean Service Corps called "yobos" by the Marines) was given a tiny paintbrush and some paint and asked to paint the wooden door to the tent. He did it, recognizing the absurdity, and some of the radiomen thought it was a great joke.
To the Front
It may have been around three weeks after I arrived in Korea that it was my battalion's turn to go to the front line. It was raining. I had my radio packed onto a pack board with an extra battery and had wrapped it with a poncho to protect it from the rain. I tested it and it was working fine. I arrived at the captain's tent where the captain and his junior, a first lieutenant, were fussing about getting ready to march to the front. As part of a routine, I tried to send. (I don't know how radio silence fit into this operation. We should not have been sending a lot of messages as a clue that movement was happening.) The radio did not work. I was stunned and tore apart the radio, checking everything. The captain was upset and looked at me with jaundiced eye, although I was not delaying him. With haste I repacked the radio. There was nothing to do then but leave with the captain. I stepped outside the tent and tried to send another radio check and the radio worked fine. Nobody had told me at radio school or elsewhere that a signal might fail inside a wet tent.
We marched to the front in the rain. In a valley one needed to put up the long antenna to receive. I slipped in the mud, falling onto one knee, the antenna striking some others. I got up. The captain noticed I was not next to him and bellowed. He said, "I don't want to have to wait for YOU." His nerves were on edge. I could see that he was more than angry. I disliked him. My first week or two on the front line was miserable. We took our positions without any action from "the enemy." I shared a bunker with two others, one of them a Navy corpsman. Our beds were stretchers on the ground. We had to bend over at a right angle inside the bunker. For a week it rained, with water oozing out of a dirt wall and a river flowing between the stretchers and out the door. After a week of the water and mud, I was becoming annoyed. I know that the rains made some of the bunkers collapse. I heard that a few were killed as a result because some bunkers had heavy timbers as part of the roofing--timbers with sandbags on top.
Some bunkers may have had a slot for looking out of or shooting from, but I do not remember having seen any. The bunkers I recall were a little back from the main trench but connected to it. As I recall, all those on duty facing the enemy were out of the bunkers and in the trench. They must have had terribly long nights just staring into space. I never saw any window of any kind in a bunker. The purpose of the bunker was to offer protection from flying shrapnel. Although I never experienced it, I heard that there was the problem of an incoming round possibly landing by the bunker door and sucking all the air out of the bunker. It might be that a hole of some kind would have eased that problem, in addition to offering a little ventilation. I can't imagine an opening being big enough for much light. No bunker I was in had any opening at all. It was a little like being a gopher.
One evening a couple of Marines came to me to pick up a radio to take with them to the listening post in front of the MLR. Another radio was in the captain's bunker (a bunker one could stand up in, and dryer than mine). Something had happened at the listening post. It might have been something like two in the morning and I was called from my cot. I tried to raise the Marines at the listening post. No response. I asked the Marines on the other end to press the radio switch thing to create a click. Sometimes if the radio was damaged and couldn't transmit, at least a click could be heard. The captain and lieutenant were annoyed with me for doing this and did not like what I was doing. It was apparent that some Marines were shot up at the listening post, but I had given them a good radio--a radio that I had tested and had gone over the simple procedures for using it with them. Why the captain and lieutenant were fussing with me and not busy getting help to the men at the listening post was beyond me. I was calm and deliberate with my remarks, and must have sounded too deliberate, as if I was losing my mind. The next day I was sent back to battalion headquarters. The captain had asked for a replacement. In Marine Corps language, I had been "shit-canned." Returning to headquarters was, for me, a humiliation. But I was glad to be out of the mud.
It was in August that the shit hit the fan for the Marines at the front just after I returned. Reports came of the line companies suffering heavy losses. One night it was my turn to baby-sit the radio in the headquarters bunker, my watch starting at something like midnight. The Chinese were overrunning our positions at the front. The colonel in charge of the battalion was up, nervous and talking with bombast while surrounded by a bevy of junior officers. The lieutenant in charge of communications was there. I listened to the radio and heard Marines sending messages to one another and could hear the thump, thump of rounds going off. I knew that I had nothing really to do. I was there as mere show. If an officer wanted to send a message, he was not going to ask me to send it. He would take the mike and speak himself. If a message came for the colonel, I would simply notify him and hand him the mike. Moreover, he had wire communications with his company commanders. Wire communications were preferred over radio. I was miserable. I wanted to be at the front. The communications lieutenant saw that my eyes were watering. He went into the communications tent and rousted Chicago-distain from his sleeping bag. He matter-of-factly relieved me from my watch, calmly with no trace of rancor. I left the bunker as Chicago-disdain was entering, looking at me with his usual disdain, and looking upset that he had been rousted from bed. Before I made it to my tent, I ran into a wire-man getting ready to go to the front to work alone. I asked if I could go with him and help. He was glad to have me. Someone was going to drive us in a Jeep. A line was out somewhere. Whoopee, I was going to the front!
The wireman thought that tanks had broken a wire or some wires. After a little while working in the dark, the dawn came. Those were days without rain, perhaps one reason for the timing of the Chinese activity. I remember vividly three of us on high ground in the daylight watching incoming artillery. It was hitting high ground a couple of miles away or so. One shell came close enough that a piece of shrapnel came "whirrring" and landed at my feet. I picked it up and it was hot. We decided to leave. I was happy to have learned the simple splicing technique for repairing communication lines, but tired from being up all night. The wireman thanked me. When I approached my tent, a tech sergeant appeared and cussed me out. He was our staff NCO leader in communications who never came around and made himself familiar with his troops. Our lieutenant I recognized. Him I did not. He told me I should go nowhere without his permission.
It was sometime within a month or so after this incident that I went back to the front, with permission, with the wireman and stayed for three days without sleeping--to be described after I describe one more incident with the tech sergeant. One day the wire tent was empty. It was next to our tent and with the flaps of the tents up, I spotted a Thompson submachine gun next to a cot just a few yards from my bunk. I had never seen a Thompson before. I picked it up and looked it over. I pulled the bolt back. The weapons I had trained with did not fire with the bolts back. I aimed the Thompson at the ground with my finger on the trigger. I discovered that the Thompson fires with the forward motion of the bolt. Three rounds went off before I could get my finger off the trigger, the barrel climbing with each shot. The shots shook up people in my tent. Soon the sergeant was there. He probably also did not know that the Thompson fired with the forward motion of the bolt. I just listened as he cursed and said he would bust my ass and wished to be rid of me, but that he was about to be shipped home and did not want to get involved with it. CC was amused by the incident. At least I had enough sense to aim at the ground. From that time on I was the "gunzle." That was his nickname for me, and it stuck with the other radiomen as well.
My brain has blanked out much of my memory of the three days on line without sleep. With the same wireman, I was in no man's land tracing a wire. There was no moon. It was pitch black. We managed to make it back through our lines without getting shot by our own troops. It was slow going and at the right moment, I spoke up. The Marine in the trench in front of me was agitated, but relieved. During those three days I saw tanks racing to the front. I saw a dead Chinese in his padded clothing, lying beside the road. After three nights without sleep, back at my tent in battalion headquarters it was difficult getting to sleep. Then waking up was a drag.
Between August and September I saw wounded being put aboard helicopters. That was the saddest sight for me. I talked with others at battalion headquarters about what they saw and experienced. They spoke of tanks heading to the MLR, their turrets open until they were near the front line, when they had to close the hatch to protect themselves from the rocks being thrown by Marines. It seems that the tank men liked to see a little action. They would pull up to the line and fire at the enemy and the ground troops did not like it, believing it was unnecessary and attracted fire from the Chinese.
One day the radiomen in my tent found Disdain-Chicago crying. He had one friend--an intellectual--that he had been hanging out with who drove around in a Jeep for message center. He was wounded in the arm by a mortar or artillery shell and was evacuated. The wounded man was being sent away, back to the rear, to a hospital, and Disdain-Chicago was going to be without his friend. Disdain-Chicago's grief surprised me. Now it was his turn to say something stupid--something like, "It's always the good guys that get hit." Those of us who had not gotten hit were just trash, I suppose. Anyway, I was touched by Disdain-Chicago's crying as he sat on his bunk, and I told him I was sorry. He did not answer. I now wonder whether the damage to the arm was minor enough that the arm was saved. It probably was. And I am wondering how much Disdain-Chicago was crying because he was going to be alone with us and without his good friend. In this period, we radiomen took turns sitting in a hole at night just outside battalion headquarters on guard duty, watching for infiltrators that never came who could have sneaked by us if they had not stumbled into our hole. Or maybe we were there to listen for the rumble of approaching enemy tanks.
I was sent back as a radioman to another company, Easy Company. Its captain's name was something like Mohk. He was a man who appeared very alert and involved, very energetic, intelligent, and with his nerves in order. I did not spend a lot of time around him. He was always busy. I did hear him comment that Marines in his unit had been shot up so badly that the medics were taking them out in buckets and yet saving them--modern emergency care apparently having improved.
Easy (E) Company was already on line when I arrived. I felt welcomed and had my own small bunker next to the captain's--one that did not have a river of water running down the middle of it, although the rains had come again. I could almost stand up--if not actually stand--in it, too. After a few days of rain, the mortar shells that the Chinese lobbed into the company headquarters area just disappeared into the mud, with a little smoke rising from the mud.
When it was time for us to be going off line, we put our gear onto vehicles called ducks and were planning to march out. However, the rains came especially heavy and we stayed instead for two more weeks because the rains had made the road impassable. The duck which had my gear slid off the road, I was told. We had no mess gear and food was low. Captain Mohk was agitated because the morale was low. He said something like he wished he had brandy to ration. It was boring staying in my bunker for two weeks with nothing to read, no chance to shower, and little to eat. I was glad to finally get back to battalion again. I had to scrounge up new mess gear. I can't remember what all I lost in my bag--about two cubic feet of stuff.
New people came into our unit. The 24th replacement draft came perhaps two months after mine--the 22nd replacement draft. In it was Williams from Beaumont, Texas, with whom I was to be friends at Pendleton and at the base in Hawaii after we both returned to the States. We called him Willie. They had a surplus of radio operators so volunteers were asked to join a line company as a rifleman. I thought about it and declined. Living in bunkers and in trenches that I had often seen filled partially with water was not for me. A recent arrival, a Latino who was well-mannered to the point of being almost nerdy, volunteered and regretted it. Willie was chosen for patrol across the MLR and I accompanied him to the front line, appreciating his calm. I don't remember whether he was going as a rifleman or as a radio operator. I believe it might have been as a rifleman. I don't remember him fussing with any radio. (New radios were making their appearance, much thinner and lighter than the old World War II radios.)
It was a war without movement. The MLR remained more or less stationary while peace talks took place nearby, just across the MLR a little to the west, where a search light shined into the sky (when exactly this search light began, I do not recall. It might have been in 1953). At any rate, we were aware of talk of peace. The 1952 presidential elections were coming up. That's when Eisenhower promised to go to Korea. The important thing as I saw it was that things remain calm, that we stay on the defensive until a settlement was reached, and that people not get killed just for a little show and glory for some newly arrived battalion commander or whoever wanted to make a name for himself.
When our battalion was at the front, battalion headquarters was within a couple of miles of the MLR. That was where I did a lot of hunting--near the front. One time a rocket launcher tossed some rockets at the Chinese from just behind battalion headquarters, startling us and scaring some. I don't know whether my estimation of the distance to the MLR or the range of rocket launchers is rocket. Neither do I know how far back the entire battalion went when it went into reserve or how far back the entire regiment went when it went into reserve. The farthest back that I remember was at the Imjin River. When the entire battalion went into reserve, it was clustered together at one camp and the rifle squads lived in tents as we did. Rarely did battalion headquarters receive incoming when on line, and never when it was in reserve. Did the enemy know where our reserve camps were? I think so. They had no spy plane photography, but they had spies on the ground, or so I was told. When Williams returned to Pendleton after the war, he reported to me that the two Korean radiomen I worked with had been taken away and shot as spies. That was when I was a voice radio operator. I picked up enemy broadcasts for them to listen to.
When the battalion was at the front, someone sat in foxholes at night on guard duty at battalion headquarters. An individual could have easily infiltrated or passed through the area. It would not have been difficult for one man to get through the front line. One man getting through, followed by another a few minutes later, and another a few minutes after that and then gathering for a group attack on battalion headquarters, however, was not likely to happen or worth the trouble. It was best for the enemy to just lob some mortars at us. News of any major enemy troop penetration of the front line would have been communicated to battalion immediately. So what, we wondered, were we doing on guard duty in foxholes on the perimeter of battalion headquarters? Again, at that time in Korea the war was fairly stationary and nothing like the war in Vietnam where the enemy was all around. When the battalion was in reserve, as well as I can remember we did not stand guard duty and there were no Korean civilians around. But back in division there was a guard walking about and civilians around beyond barbed wire. My impression was that these guards tended to get overly excited, and when I was at division one shot the wrong person. I think it was the shooting of another Marine. If I remember correctly, there was talk of taking ammo away from these guards.
I remember being back in reserve again as Christmas was approaching. We went to a movie ("Retreat Hell"), watching while inside our winter sleeping bags in order to stay warm. The ending of the movie, with the gung ho speech by the young hero (did he volunteer for another tour of duty in Korea?) annoyed those watching. One of the radiomen who had been with the group before I arrived was especially annoyed. He was Jigstock from Detroit. Around this time he received a sweater from home and he defiantly wore the sweater everywhere, refusing to take it off.
We had beer rations and cigarette rations. I thought smoking was stupid and gave my cigarettes away. Our drinking party got a little wild. One of the old timers expressed annoyance with the guy who came with me to the group. He was the talking one, and he complained that he never shut up. I entertained the troops with my fire-eating trick. I filled my mouth with lighter fluid, held a cigarette lighter at arm's length in front of my face, and blew--throwing flame at least fifteen feet.
Around the first of the year a sergeant came and told me I was being shipped back to regiment. There was no explanation, but I don't believe it had anything to do with the flame throwing. He just said, "Pack your things." I hated regimental headquarters. The guy I had gone out pooping and snooping with at tent camp was there, and friendly. I ran into my Hawaiian friend sometime around then. The place was packed with radiomen, seemingly too many radiomen. And they were loud--as if concerned about their manhood. We saw another movie, or part of one. I had diarrhea and had to scamper across a packed audience to the outhouse. The outhouse was pleasant if timed right because they lit the timbers afire every day beneath the seat, which warmed the wood. I don't know what happened to the buck sergeant that arrived with us in the 22nd replacement draft--Candeleria. He never put in an appearance in our tent. I do no recall seeing him after our first couple of weeks there.
Two late-comers to my unit were chess players. One introduced me to chess. He beat me. I beat him. The other was a young man named King. I could never beat him. He said I never would and said he was going into nuclear physics when he got out of the Marines. I heard that the swimming pool I had built had been condemned by a Marine officer in charge of health (perhaps he was the same guy that made us drink that terrible tasting chlorinated water from the white lister bags). Anyway, to pass the time I built another swimming pool and King helped me. I'm having trouble remembering whether it was in the 1st or 2nd Battalion that I knew King. Considering the weather when I was building the second pool, I assume it was the 2nd Battalion.
Dog, Easy, and Fox were the three companies in the 2nd Battalion. Dog Company was selected to make an assault on a hill and got shot up doing it. It was just done for show--showing the Chinese perhaps, because after taking the hill they returned, abandoning what they had taken. Some people around me were grumbling about it. I never thought about whether or not Korea was a country worth fighting for. I just assumed that we were doing the right thing. I never heard anything ideological from anybody and never had an ideological thought about the war.
While in reserve, we kept clean by bathing in shower units that were mostly in a tent with wooden slats for a floor. After the shower we chose dungarees from a stack of clothing. Dungarees had different ranks inked on them, and some privates liked to find sergeant jackets. All liked the most faded dungarees. Shaving was done from our helmets. We shaved every day in reserve--at least I did. Beards were not allowed. At the front with the rifle companies, I do not remember having the opportunity to go to a shower unit. We just got stinky. There were shower units near the front behind the company command post. I heard of those units being hit with mortar fire. (The company command post was a short walking distance from the MLR.) When I was on line, it was raining all the time. I was constantly wet. Whether we had hot water for showering at the front, I do not remember. I remember hot water showers somewhere, because it was a real pleasure.
For meals, hash or what they called "shit on the shingle" was common. We had mashed potatoes. Canned peas. Bug juice (Kool-Aid). There must not have been much fresh milk because I was on a routine of mixing canned milk with water and sugar, thinking it was health food. Back at division, I saw some Koreans squatting in an open space, having dinner. I gave them some of our food and tried tasting theirs. They thought it was fun. The food they were eating was a tasteless jelly-like substance that was pale green in color. I don't think I tried kimchee. I missed the stateside food meatloaf most of all. Later at U.C. Berkeley, I met and married a graduate student from Korea and never got around to eating Korean food. She was from a wealthy Korean family and looked down her nose at my liking for meat loaf. She said it was food for the poor.
The occasional humorous things happened. My slipping in the mud as I ran to dive into my swimming hole comes to mind. So does an incident in the chaplain's tent when there was an accidental discharge of a weapon and the chaplain (an overweight man and not very Marine Corps in appearance) fainted. There were also some strange incidents, too, like the guy I knew as Sieg, chugalugging half a bottle of Seagram's Seven and turning pale. That must have been toward the end of my tour after the Marine Division had been replaced by the Army.
I received mail regularly. My mother wrote to me every couple of weeks or so. She sent me clippings from the local newspaper about what we were doing in Korea. I passed them around for a laugh. One report I remember had us living in pre-fabricated bunkers. Mother's letters talked about all the troubles from home--petty things. I asked her to stop it. I am sorry now that I did so. She also sent me fruitcake close to Christmas. I also received some canned food like canned apricots and maybe got some cookies. I don't remember anything coming in bad condition. I got one letter from my father. None from my brother. I got one from a former acquaintance named Lenine from Touluca Lake, a ritzy neighborhood near Warner Brothers and Burbank, and I got one from Bobby Hubbard's girlfriend (or former girlfriend). The latter sent me a picture. Neither letter was romantic. One of the guys at Second Battalion (the guy who shot the dog) saw her picture, wrote to her, and became involved with her after Korea. At Second Battalion, Colorado-Cowboy-Indian had advertised for pen pals and was getting stacks of mail from girls. Thirteen year olds were sending locks of their hair. Other girls were being very forward. He got too many letters for him to handle so he passed them around. I don't remember anything more about these letters. I read some. CC was friendly with me then (and buddy-buddy back at Pendleton).
The actress Debbie Reynolds was from Burbank. She attended the rival high school of the two high schools in Burbank. She arrived in Korea and I heard that she intended to visit all servicemen there from Burbank. She never got up to where I was. I wonder if the hooting and hollering at any attractive woman (as the Boy Scouts did in front of Glenn Ford's wife) scared her away. She cut short her visit. I never saw an American woman in Korea, not even Maggie Higgins, the woman journalist who was making a name for herself and having a tough time of it because she was not accepted as a reporter by some people in high command.
For entertainment in my "leisure" time, I drank beer when it was available. I only smoked cigarettes a short time in Korea, and that was to keep my nose from freezing. I never gambled. I was good at poker, but bored by it. I did not like sitting in the tent playing cards. That was something for staff NCOs.
I spoke earlier about meeting the first black Marine I had seen since arriving in Korea. I remember one other incident that involved a black Marine. It must have been near Christmas time. I was sitting in a foxhole on the perimeter of battalion headquarters (must have been when the battalion was on line). Sharing the hole with me was a black guy. He was polite, reasonably friendly, and quiet. About three other Marines dropped by. They sounded Southern. Maybe they brought me a package. At any rate, I had a package from home (not likely that I would take it to the hole with me). I always had a handy little 1/2-1 inch can opener for C-rations with me. I opened the can and passed it and my one spoon to the three guys, one at a time. None of the three passed the can and the spoon to the black. They left. Immediately I passed the can to the black. He looked relieved and smiled. I felt guilty for not having passed it to him earlier.
Telegraphy School & After
Someone came around to the radiomen and gave us a test. It was a test being given in a variety of units. A couple days later someone came and told me to pack my bags again. I had been selected for telegraphy school back at division headquarters. I was to take eight weeks of training to turn me into a telegrapher. I already knew the role of telegraphy at the battalion level--the sending in code (scrambled letters in groups of five), passing information such as casualty reports from battalion level back to regiment. I don't remember the dates that I attended this school. It had to be during winter, although I don't remember it being especially cold. Vaguely I recall that it was something like 75 miles south of the MLR. Korean civilians were around, coming up to the barbed wire perimeter and selling liquor--many, if not most of the salespersons teenage girls.
Our instructors were anything from corporal to staff sergeant. Whoever they were, they were friendly and relaxed and had no swagger, strut, or pretended toughness. I learned how to send and receive dots and dashes. It was eight hours a day of trying to keep up with dots and dashes, slowly increasing the speed. We must have been listening to a recording. I don't remember an instructor going to the trouble to do the sending himself. There were about six of us in the class. They were guys like me, no higher in rank than corporal.
We had liberty, but we spent it just walking around on the road since there were no busses. Otherwise we stayed in our tent, read, wrote letters, gabbed, etc. On Sunday I went off base with the other students. I saw Brits driving around in their trucks and Korean civilians walking about. A picturesque village of about six houses was within walking distance, smoke coming from the houses, the civilians with expressions surprisingly serene. I was told that prostitutes were around, but none had dared to try to sell themselves at the barbed wire perimeter alongside the others selling things. The Korean military police were around with their shining helmets and their little carbine rifles, and they were apparently under orders to keep the area around the base clear of prostitutes. The area was rural. Next to the base were rice paddies. I heard talk of Marines who were called "rice paddy daddies."
After successfully completing this training, requiring sending and receiving code at least at eighteen words per minute, I was sent back to the line battalions--to the First Battalion rather than the Second Battalion. It had to be sometime in March because in March of 1953 the First Battalion was on line and getting hit. That is what was reported after the war by Martin Russ, who arrived in Korea in late 1952 or early 1953 and wrote a book about Korea that was published around 1958. (I checked what books the Ohio University library had on Korea. They had Russ' book and about a hundred others, but none that outlined the events concerning the units I served with or helped me remember anything about my experiences in Korea.) Russ was on the front line. I was not. But I still want to describe some things as I remember them.
Once at First Battalion, my duty was to send telegraphic messages. I can remember our lieutenant coming in to the radio bunker and watching with respect as I worked sending and receiving messages. It was a good feeling being able to do something that others could not. My lieutenant's respect and friendly manner did not impair his ability to lead. It enhanced my respect for him, and I would have fought harder for him because of it.
Soon I was given the midnight to six in the morning watch. Coming off watch I went to the chow area and ordered as much for breakfast as I wanted. I ate six eggs for breakfast, got my rifle, and went hunting. Once in a great while I ate with someone and heard stories about what was happening at the front. The news one day was that a lieutenant had been killed by his own men (fragged). The story was that his men hated him. Among other things, he was hoarding the fruit cocktail--the most valued can among the C-rations.
At first I hunted pheasant, scaring up the birds and trying to down them with automatic fire with a carbine. When there were not birds flying up, I practiced shooting at the partially broken ceramic pots that lay around the flattened houses in the area--thatched roof houses by then without walls. When it snowed I tried tracking a deer, this time carrying my M-1 rifle. I followed it all day knowing it was not far in front of me, thinking what a hero I'd be to bring back a deer to the cooks. Suddenly while I was walking up a gully near the peak of a hill, the deer dashed before me. I got off three shots, but the deer kept going. The only creature I hit was a pheasant, on the wing, with my M-1. Feathers floated down, but the bird kept flying. One time while hunting I came upon a mine field, clearly marked with barbed wire tightly strung about a foot off the ground and little red metal triangles hanging from the wire. It was a barrier about ten feet wide. I forget how I did it, but I got around the barrier. Later I was hurrying down a narrow gully, a path of about three feet of clearing with the earth rising steeply on both sides. Suddenly right in front of me was a thin wire about chest high strung across the path. I had been moving quickly, but stopped dead and crawled under the wire. It was a booby trap. So much for my hunting experiences.
I can remember, too, what a bitter cold came and that for a week or so we radiomen had to walk guard duty around the perimeter of the base in addition to our regular duties. I had on my parka with the fur around the face that was common in Korea then. We wore "Mickey Mouse" boots--black rubber-like boots with spaces for insulation that made our feet look big. They were perfectly warm, but smelly from lack of air. This period of time in Korea was the only time I smoked. I blew smoke out of my nose to keep it from freezing.
When things warmed up a little, we had one of our practices--a make believe that wire communications were out. Only radio communications were allowed during this game. The buck sergeant in charge of radio communications at regiment violated the game rule and called the tech sergeant in charge of communications at the 1st Battalion, complaining that we at 1st Battalion were breaking the rules by sending telegraph messages with a bug--a device that sent dots automatically and faster than sending dots one by one. I was the one doing the sending. The person who was in charge of communications under the tech sergeant was Corporal Rosales (from Nogales, Arizona). Rosales was the best friend I had in Korea. We tossed the football. One time we had a contest to see who would fall if we ran full blast into each other. It almost knocked me out. Neither of us fell. (Aren't men weird?) He was in charge of radio communications at the designation of His Lordship, the tech sergeant who, with someone else managing communications, could rule in splendor and leisure from his little tent and play cards or daydream--whatever it was he did.
The tech sergeant was another stranger. He was someone who stayed in his tent all the time and who had a supply of booze which he nursed from time to time, I imagine. The tech sergeant called Rosales to his tent. Rosales told him that he was with me all during the communications between me and regiment and that I was not using a bug. The tech sergeant was the kind of a person that one would not want on a jury if one was innocent. He did not ask me any questions. He ignored Rosales' testimony. The buck sergeant at regiment appeared to have been closer to the tech sergeant than he was Rosales. If the buck sergeant said I was using a bug, I was using a bug. It may have seemed that anyone just out of radio school could not sound as I sounded without a bug, so I was to be punished. I had to dig a drainage ditch around the tent of the tech sergeant.
While digging I was cursing. To myself--aloud, I called the sergeant stupid and a drunkard. He did not come out of his tent, but a few hours later Rosales told me that the tech sergeant was taking from me the R&R that I was due to have in a week or so. As a result, unlike others in Korea, I never went on R&R to Japan. I did not care. I thought of all the money I would save by not going to Japan. Besides, despite all the tales about how wonderful Japanese prostitutes were in protecting their clients as they went about town, I was little interested in going about town with a prostitute. I already knew from my stop off in Japan on the way to Korea that the Japanese people, despite their politeness, were hostile toward prostitution and that for the woman, it was shameful. A couple of days later we marched from our area to another camp. We carried a lot of gear on our backs. The tech sergeant fell in behind me and shouted for me to buckle my helmet strap. I did with a certain amount of boredom. If he thought he was going to harass me for falling behind, he was mistaken. I knew that with ease I could keep up. I heard nothing more from him.
Around May our regiment must have been in reserve, for we were not far from Seoul. About five of us hid under a tarp in the back of an open truck that was heading to Seoul to pick up something. Where we got out in Seoul there were few civilians. We looked for and found a photographer. Prostitutes began following us and two followed us into the shop. They had put a ridiculous amount of white powder on their faces--maybe thinking that it would make them more attractive to whites. A couple of the men with us were married. At any rate, we were interested in having a picture taken rather than the women, and they disappeared. For lighting the photographer (an elderly gentleman) used one of those old fashioned things that one put powder in, held up, and ignited.
After the photograph, I broke off for a minute to buy some candles at a stand of some kind. (We used candles for lighting our tents.) After I purchased the candles I was soon surrounded by an army of kids that had suddenly appeared. A couple of army MPs rushed the kids, swatting them in the buttocks. Kids seeing them coming scattered as if they had gone through this many times before. Returning with the others and climbing back on the truck for the return to our base, I noticed that some of the candles I had put in my back pocket had been stolen.
Sometime later the entire Marine division was replaced by army units. I remember them arriving at our base. They appeared to have much more equipment than we did. Then it came time for the 22nd replacement draft to go back home. I don't remember much about my last hours with the unit, but I vaguely recall promising to keep in touch with a couple of people. I'm sure I did with Rosales. I was happy to be returning to the States. There was no mix with sadness. We who were leaving went by truck to an area where we stayed for a couple of days. It must have been near Inchon. There seemed to be fewer than there had been when we arrived. One in particular was missing--a friend from tent camp days from Georgia by the name of Tate. He had been killed, I was told.
A new replacement draft arrived and was debarking from trucks, jumping off the trucks with their sea bags. Men from my draft lined the fence (chain link if I remember correctly) and watched. Among them there was a lot of gloating and shouting at the new men. One of the replacements stumbled as he got off the truck, to the great joy of some from my draft. It was the old primitive "we are better than you guys" thing, and it disgusted me. One of the guys hanging around me and others with me was a rifleman who spoke of how he had killed a "yobo" (a member of the Korean service corps) who had been carrying one end of a stretcher with his buddy on it, when ducking incoming as they were returning to the MLR. Another primitive, I thought. Most of those around me did not impress me as being primitive, but as we were getting on trucks for the ride to Inchon harbor, one was overjoyed and shouted something about now that he had served in Korea, the people of (somewhere in the South) could never be able to say anything against the Martins (or was it the McCoys) anymore. Another primitive! Our time of judgment was not over just because we had served in Korea.
For me personally, the hardest thing about being in Korea had been the waiting, the boredom, and the rain. I can sum up my Korean War experience in one word: misery. On board a Navy ship (rather than a merchant ship) for the return home, that night lights were out on board. At a high altitude, combat was taking place between aircraft. Apparently some MIGs had come south and were chased back north. Silly business by those from the north. The war was now about over. It must have been around early June that we made the journey home. In July official signing that ended the war would take place.
The mood on the ship going home was quiet. I hung out with no one that I knew very well. There was no really bad weather. I was not seasick, although some others no doubt were. The ship made a straight shot back to the States. If we stopped in Honolulu, it must have been offshore for I do not remember any liberty there. The trip home lasted a couple of weeks. When we crossed under the Golden Gate bridge, it was exciting. Everyone had an interview with a master sergeant, who asked a few questions that I cannot remember specifically. After a long wait we disembarked without sea bags at a flat island base inside San Francisco Bay--Treasure Island. We walked past some girls handing out cookies. I took a cookie or two (I like cookies), and then we went to barracks on Treasure Island.
During my first 24 hours back home, I did nothing other than stay on the base. Some others went to San Francisco, taking the trolley car that then crossed the Bay Bridge and stopped next to Treasure Island. I was not interested in bar hopping or strutting down streets. As soon as they gave us our leave papers (after three days, I guess), I took the Greyhound bus home to Burbank. My parents were not too excited about my return. They were not much into displaying emotion other than, "Oh, hi there." No hugs. Nothing. That does not mean that they were not feeling a lot of emotion. I too displayed no emotion, although I might have said it was good to be back.
Some guys went a little wild after returning from war, but I really didn't. In my early teens I was interested in auto racing and attended the midget auto races at Gilmore Race Track where Johnny Parsons, Billy Vukovich, Sam Hanks, and other big names raced. I had wanted to be a race driver and with my MG, which was exceptionally good at taking corners, I tested myself. I did not do a lot of speeding, but coming down from the mountains on curvy roads I always tried to be as efficient as possible without putting myself in great danger. Other than driving, I was quite tame. No fights. Not a lot of beer drinking. No bars. (I was nineteen when I came back from Korea and twenty when I was released from the Marine Corps.) No cruising in cars with the boys. I did not know any women to chase after. I had some neighborhood guy friends and on weekends or leave I went to Big Bear in the San Bernadino Mountains where my father had a cabin I had helped him build. I can remember going up there alone on one of my leaves. I stayed there for a couple of weeks or so with a stack of books from the library. After three days of nothing but the sound of the breeze going through the pines, the nerves calmed down. It was like a sedative. But on the weekend my brother and the neighborhood guys showed up full of noise. I did not mind the company, but it was kind of a shock to my system.
It was the beginning of my bookworm days. In a few years I would be with friends, men and women, my brother, and the same old gang at a house, reading my book in the corner, enjoying everyone's company, making a comment once in a while, and I heard something like this: "If you don't put that book down, you're not going home with me." I hated that kind of threat and was defiant and went home as usual with my brother. That's not being wild in one sense anyway.
I felt ignorant in those days. I had missed the 1952 elections. I had not listened to news much before the Marine Corps and none while in the Marine Corps before I went to Korea. In late 1953 (I surmise), I was scolded by one neighborhood buddy because I had never heard of Senator Joe McCarthy. I embarrassed some friends by pronouncing the word "affluent" with the accent on the "flu." I was most sensitive about being thought stupid, but I was also very curious and found reading history and some other books a great pleasure.
After a short time at Camp Pendleton, I was transferred to Hawaii. On the LST going from Pendleton to Hawaii, I played a game of chess with a tech sergeant who was an old salt from World War II. He was athletic looking and looked bright. He won the game and was all around friendly. In the conversation, he said something about never having shot anyone to kill--always to wound. Like everyone else, I suppose, tech sergeants came in differing qualities.
I was in a recon unit in Hawaii, participating in a lot of war games with the Navy. We often just went out on practice radio nets, sitting in a Jeep on the base and a deserted beach on the far end of the Kaneohe peninsula. Usually it was just busy work. I was bored. I learned to swim. I did a lot of spear fishing and became confident in the water with swim fins and face mask, then I taught myself to swim without them. There was a pool on the base (Kaneyoe on Oahu) that we used all the time. Then I had to go to remedial swimming. Guys I knew couldn't understand it. They thought I was pulling strings just to get in some swimming. A first lieutenant who was an "educational officer" asked me to take a GED exam, and I did. I gather from talking with him after the results that he was not a career Marine. He said something about it being best for me to get out of the Marine Corps.
When we returned to San Diego (sometime in April), we were greeted by cheering folks and a sign stating, "Well done." Back at Pendleton again for my final months in the Corps, I received a lot of respect. There were more radio operating practice networks. It must have been voice because I don't recall using code. There were more war games with the Navy practicing a big landing on the beach at Del Mar by Pendleton. It was the only time I actually accomplished something on the radio. We were headed for the wrong beach. I had been told which beach we were supposed to be heading toward. After my message, the boats turned. I was happy.
After a hot day of war games, I was put on duty as the life guard when the troops were given some time off at the beach. I was made a rifle instructor for a while after having qualified expert (210 score was sharp shooter and 220 or above was expert). I was selected for the rifle team for base competition. I fired 236. The coach was excited. On the day of competition, I did 100 pushups while waiting for my turn. I thought it would pump me up and improve my chances. It did the opposite. I was rushed in getting up to the firing position, and with my arms tired all my shots went a little low. The winner was a captain who shot something close to 236. Nothing higher. I would like to have won. I still regret the pushups, wondering whether my numbers were right. Expert was either 120 or 220.
At this point in my stint in the Marine Corps, I was getting cocky. I did not want to stand "junk on the bunk" inspection and put my mattress in my locker, making it look like I did not exist. Tashian was the officer who accompanied a bigwig officer on the inspection one day. Afterward he scolded me mildly. He told me that if I could not (or had some reason for not wanting to) stand inspection, I should have told him.
I had a British MG roadster that I used for trips from home to the base. I liked to drive around the base taking curves fast. One time I hit pea gravel, went down an embankment, and took out some barbed wire fencing. I needed to repair the front of the car. On another occasion I went around a corner too fast. The car was almost on its side. To keep from flipping I had to steer into the right, which took me down an embankment again. There was no barbed wire fence this time, but I found myself on the golf course and drove across the course looking for a road while officers were looking on.
They finally busted me for lying to the duty NCO. One Friday some guys recently out of boot camp were assigned to our unit to clean our squad bay. Some new lieutenant inspected their work and declared that all in our squad bay would have no liberty. I had been planning on driving home. Our squad bay was for radio operators. I went to the duty NCO and told him that I was from wire so I got my pass. An officer saw me pulling away in my sports car and ran after me. I heard him call out to me, but I pretended I was too far away. (It was a friendly officer.) Monday I was busted by the company commander--a captain. (To my surprise, when I left the Marine Corps after being busted from Corporal to Private back at Pendleton, I received a Good Conduct citation, ribbon and bar.)
I became friends with a Marine named Donald Ritchie from Missouri while I was at Pendleton. He stayed in California after he got out and we shared an apartment in the Los Angeles area for a while. We stayed good friends, but lost contact. He was in Korea the same time as I, but I did not know him then. He was promoted to sergeant after he went from radio operating to a combat unit. He did not like radio. He was outraged at a tech sergeant who told him, "Ritchie, I don't think you're going to make it here." On line his platoon was shot up out in no man's land. The lieutenant was dazed. Everyone was dumbfounded but Don (as he described it) and he saw that the only logical thing to do was to return to the MLR. He led the group back, got a promotion, and I think maybe a bronze star. He said he killed someone once. In Korea he suddenly came face to face with a Chinese about twenty yards away. It was a matter of who had mind enough to do what had to be done. Both were startled, but Ritchie was fast in getting his shot off. I remember that Don was an ardent segregationist who never expressed hatred of blacks. He got along with them.
While in the Corps, I heard negative references to blacks as "night fighters" and comments about their incompetence in combat. I had a black lieutenant just before leaving the Marine Corps. As a matter of fact, he was one of the two men in the car that gave me a ride off the base the day I was released and going home for good. There was nothing haughty about him. I suspect there was some alienation between him and a lot of his fellow officers. He was inclined to be more friendly with enlisted men. That was common among other officers. Another lieutenant who was friendly with me was in a similar situation. He was looked down upon by some of his fellow officers. His name was Tashian. He was a great baseball player, but did not have the manner of some of the other officers. I can recall at mess time seeing the officer of the day strutting around with a scowl on his face and hitting his knee occasionally with his swagger stick. I thought the swagger stick thing a bit pompous.
In my radio unit at Pendleton, anyone wanting to re-enlist would have been ridiculed. There was a lot of negativity about the Corps. Our best wireman (put in charge of wire laying games but overseen by a sergeant) was a great climber of poles. He allowed himself to be reduced to buck private. In Hawaii, where we were stationed for a few months, he disobeyed an order not to wear Levi jeans on liberty. He did not give a damn. He, too, was a Korean War vet. All of us were to be interviewed before we were released to inactive duty. In facing a master sergeant asking me whether I was interested in re-enlisting, I said no, but did so softly, not wanting to sound negative about the service that he was dedicating his life to. One of my neighboring friends in the squad bay where we lived read the report. (Apparently he worked in the office.) He ridiculed me in a friendly way, not understanding that I was soft for the sake of the sergeant rather than being vaguely interested in re-enlisting.
My last week or two in the Corps I was in the squad bay one day when a new buck sergeant I did not know was bossing around some who had recently arrived from boot camp. I barked at the sergeant, who took it meekly and seemed in shock because he was not used to being talked back to. It was another instance of someone dumb with a little bit of authority who did not know how to communicate--someone who barked orders but was ambiguous and blamed the one he was shouting at for not understanding him. I must also have scolded the sergeant for being ill-mannered and for communicating with pomposity. (Pompous was a big word for me in those days.)
I was discharged from the Marine Corps on September 18, 1954. While in the Marine Corps, I had changed where I was living every two months or so, and for a while in civilian life I became restless after a couple of months in a new location. I went to work at menial jobs. I buried people at Forest Lawn in Los Angeles, bottled bubble bath, and made coat hangers. I worked at the Van Nuys Fischer Body auto plant. I drove a Yellow Cab out of the Beverly Hills garage while living in Santa Monica. I went to junior college. I traveled to Europe. I went to U.C.L.A. I spent eight years at U.C. Berkeley working on campus running copy machines, sitting in on lectures, and writing independently. I eventually became a technical writer, living in Palo Alto. I took early retirement at age 62 in order to write full time. My website http://www.fsmitha.com/ now gets thousands of hits each month. The site is used by high school teachers and various schools, including schools in Australia and by online libraries, including the Discovery Channel.
In 1973 I married a woman from Korea who was getting her Ph.D. at U.C. Berkeley. We had no children. I went back to Korea with my wife in 1975 or 1976. I'd like to go back again if there is a group veterans visit marking the 50th anniversary of the opening of the world. I would also not mind contact with "Rosie" Rosales, "Willie" Williams of East Texas, or Louis Lacey who was from St. Louis, Missouri.
Through the years, nobody ever asked me about Korea. My wife was not interested in my experiences in Korea and I was not interested in talking about them. The only person who was impressed by my being a Korean War veteran that I was aware of was Jerry Rubin, who led the movement against the war in Vietnam. In Junior College in 1955, my English instructor called me in for an interview. He wondered why I did not behave like the others my age. I was unaware that I behaved differently. I suppose that I was not as silly or quite as adolescent in my behavior as the others at the school. When I told him that I had been in the Marine Corps and in Korea, it ended the conversation.
I think the United States should have sent troops to Korea when war broke out. It was a mistake for the United States and the Soviet Union to agree to take responsibility for disarming the Japanese troops in Japan at the end of World War II. They should have let Koreans take care of their own business. South Korea was eager to invade the North and was being restrained by the United States. No such restraint was visited upon the Communist regime in the North. The debate over who was responsible for the outbreak of the war is unimportant to me. The North could have merely stood on the defensive, but did not. They attacked. Their troops went south "to liberate" the rest of their country from the "imperialist powers." As such, despite the mistakes of the past, I think that it was right for the United Nations to stand against the North's invasion.
The people in the United States were accustomed to fighting a war to complete victory--to unconditional surrender. Truman was unpopular in his policy of fighting a war with a definite but limited goal. It was an appropriate approach in the postwar world, in my view. I believe Truman was right and MacArthur was wrong in their differences on the war. I do not know enough about the present circumstances to have an opinion on whether South Korean forces are strong enough to defend without the presence of U.S. troops. Perhaps our presence at least demonstrates our commitment to the South's defense. I know little about the particulars of our government's efforts to try to locate and return our Missing in Action personnel, but as far as I know the U.S. government has tried to do right by the families of men who were lost in Korea.
I think the Korean War has been called the "forgotten war" so often that it is no longer forgotten. It has been in the news lately because of the Associated Press stories about a massacre that was supposed to have happened during the war at a place called Nogun-ri. I believe that it was a case of an unwise army commander overreacting to the fact that among the Korean civilians were those who might be agents of the North. Unwise military commanders are nothing new. Mistakes have been made in just about every war. Mistakes were made in World War II that have not been well publicized. The war in Korea and Vietnam were a little more complex than World War II, making mistakes more likely.
I do not expect American youth going to war to be experts in politics, war being an extension in politics. Generally America does right. I have doubts about U.S. involvement in World War I, but I have respect for the U.S. servicemen who fought in that war. No war is perfect. I have respect for the Union forces who overran my relatives in Tennessee, burning all the court house that contained my family's records, my great great grandfather, who captained a boat on the Cumberland River, disappearing. I have respect for the men who went to Vietnam, although I believe that the war was a mistake. World War II veterans are welcome to all the attention that they can get and I do not feel under appreciated because they get it. U.S. involvement in the Korean War was an effort at doing right. We make mistakes, but we have to keep trying to do right. Pacifism is utopian and a withdrawal from international obligations.
I do not think it is true that "Once a Marine, always a Marine." Saying it is true would be too general a statement. People, including Marines, are too diverse. Many Marines during the Korean War, moreover, were drafted and negative about the Marine Corps when they left the service. For me, this subject raises the question, "What is a Marine?" I dislike great, sweeping abstractions. If the common element in being a Marine is a sense of duty or obligation, I wonder whether this is an element that does not fade in people who have served in the Marine Corps. Maybe in general it does not fade. I do not know.