When Ann and I left Chapel Hill in August 1952, the Korean War was just a bit over two years old. Many people today tend to forget that it was a United Nations endorsed effort in support of South Korea, and many nations furnished troops to fend off North Korean and Chinese aggressors. Of course, the major contribution of leadership, troops and materiel resources was by the United States. The North Korean army had overrun almost all the south in the summer and early autumn of 1950, but the Allied forces turned the tables with an amphibious landing in the enemy’s rear at Inchon, and then they drove enemy forces north toward the Yalu. At that time, the Chinese entered the war. Beginning in mid-1951, the fighting stabilized along a line just north of the 38th parallel, the original border between the two Koreas. Our government seemed to be more or less content with a stalemate rather than risk a larger and costly land war with China. This was contrary to the “fight to win” policy favored by General MacArthur, a policy that he pushed so hard and recklessly that it led to his dismissal.
The military draft was at full steam, and now that I was out of school I fully expected to be called up almost immediately. As previously mentioned, I had failed to qualify for the officer training programs at UNC because of my poor eyesight. I thought of volunteering for the Army, Navy or Marine Corps, but that would have entailed a three or four-year enlistment rather that the two-year obligation of a draftee, and I wanted to return to civilian life as soon as possible. In these circumstances, I decided to wait for the draft. I contacted my local draft board and told them I was ready. Several weeks later I received my call.
My initial processing was at Fort Jackson, SC, and then I went to Fort Campbell, KY, for my basic training. Our trainers were all professional army types from the 11th Airborne Division. They would be great guys to have beside you in a battle, but without a war to fight they were like fish out of water. Many of them were continually working their way up through the ranks to top sergeant only to be broken to private again for some bar brawl or other infraction. The process would then start all over. Many of them, however, were good instructors. Most had combat experience in World War II and Korea, and they knew what they were talking about.
The whole business was quite a shock to someone like me who had lived a privileged and sheltered existence up until that time. It felt as though I was in prison, and my life was no longer my own. The sergeant major expressed the situation perfectly upon our arrival at Fort Campbell. “You can give your soul to God, but your a** belongs to me.” The sergeant and his accomplices did their best to drive that point home over the following four months. Those who trained us had the comfort of knowing that once we completed basic training it was very unlikely that we would ever see one another again. If we had immediately entered combat alongside some of the more sadistic instructors there would have been high probability of death by “friendly” fire. I didn’t harbor such thoughts myself, but there were a few of my fellow recruits who expressed these sentiments rather strongly.
I adjusted to the situation and did my best to become a good soldier. I learned to fire, disassemble, clean, and reassemble all the basic infantry weapons: the M-1 rifle, the carbine, the BAR, the 45-automatic pistol, the machine gun, and the mortar. (For more information about my experience with the M-1, read my post titled “Maggie’s Drawers” published on July 27, 2018).We also spent a fair amount of time on field exercises, probably the most valuable part of our training. I vividly remember one live ammunition training exercise in which we were going through a muddy field and targets would pop up from time to time behind a tree, a hill, or whatever. We were supposed to fire on these targets as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, it was raining, and the lens of my eyeglasses were soon covered with water and mud. I could hardly see a tree or a hill, much less a target. Fortunately, none of our own men were in front of me or I might have decimated the entire company.
Before entering the Army, it was my firm intention to apply for Officer Candidate School just as soon as I finished basic training. My first few weeks in the Army changed my thinking entirely. I found that there was a six month wait (or longer) for OCS following completion of basic training, and an OCS graduate would have a two-year active duty commitment upon finishing the course. In other words, OCS would mean at least 12 more months in the Army (probably more). In my brief exposure to the military thus far I had learned that SNAFU was not just an adjective but a way of life. I was convinced that the sooner I finished my commitment the happier I would be, and two years as an enlisted man would be better than a year plus as an enlisted man and two years as an officer. Therefore, though I had the opportunity to apply for OCS toward the end of basic training, I decided against it.
Ann managed to come see me in Kentucky for two or three days during Christmas time, and when basic training ended in late January 1953, I had ten days at home. Those were my only times with Ann during my two years in the Army. As I left Fort Campbell I learned that my next stop was to be Korea. I had that wonderful leave at Carolina Beach, and when it ended Ann accompanied me to Rocky Mount, NC, to catch the train to Chicago and points west.
I remember that trip from Chicago to Seattle as if it were yesterday. A group of us travelled together. We were supposed to be in a Pullman sleeper, but we lucked out and were put in a compartment. That meant that we went west in style. It was February, and the Great Northern Railway route took us through parts of Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. I remember some deep drifts of snow along the track in North Dakota, and we went through some impressive mountains. I believe we were on that train two nights and arrived in Seattle sometime on the third day.
With Brother Harold in Seattle
Fort Lewis, Washington, was our immediate destination. Troops were being assembled there to be loaded on ships for the Far East. That process took about ten days, so I was able to spend some time with my brother Harold and his wife Betty at their home in Seattle. They had moved there in 1947 or 1948 after leaving Raleigh, NC.
Sometime in mid or late February some three thousand troops boarded the USNS Marine Serpent for our trip to Japan. We were at sea for about twenty-two days. As the ship left the calm waters of Puget Sound we ran into a storm. There were gale force winds and high seas, and the ship was tossed up and down and sideways. Nearly everyone on the ship got sick. Having experienced small boats in heavy seas at home, I thought I was more or less immune from seasickness, but after seeing many of my fellow passengers throwing up in their trays in the ship’s galley, I began feeling a bit queasy myself — though I never was sick to the point of losing my food. Nevertheless, thousands of nauseated troops on a small ship was a bit overwhelming. You know what they say about sea sickness. The first day you fear that you are going to die. After the second day, you hope you will die. On the third day, you’re afraid you won’t die. Fortunately, we were out of the worst of the storm by the fourth day, and the ocean and three thousand stomachs began settling down.
The Marine Serpent
When we arrived in Japan the first stop for most of us was Camp Drake. At that time, the camp was serving as a transit point for soldiers bound for Korea or other posts. I was given a gun (a M-1 rifle packed in cosmoline) and field equipment and told to prepare myself for shipping out to Korea. They seemed to be in a terrible hurry. To illustrate, we were taken to a firing range to zero our weapons but were given only one bullet each with the instruction that if our first shot hit somewhere in the bull’s eye that was it. It takes three shots to zero a rifle, but they were more concerned with rushing us through. My first shot hit the bull’s eye. As it turned out I never fired that weapon again. A day or so later I was told to turn in all my equipment and report for transport to Camp Schimmelphennig, Japan, location of the Headquarters, 24th Infantry Division.
Camp Schimmelphennig was situated on the outskirts of Sendai in the northern part of Honshu, the largest and most populous of the Japanese home islands. When I arrived, I was assigned to the Adjutant General’s section of the 24th Infantry Division Headquarters. My specific assignment was in the so-called Security Room, the place where incoming and outgoing classified (confidential, secret, and top secret) messages and documents were distributed within division headquarters or dispatched to outlying divisional elements or other military units. Three of us usually worked in the Security Room, one officer and two enlisted men.
When I arrived in Japan, World War II had been over more than seven years. I saw few signs of the devastation that had been visited upon Japan during that great conflict. The country was well on its way toward full recovery, and the economy was booming. Nevertheless, the monetary exchange rate remained very favorable, and American servicemen could live like kings in Japan on their modest military pay. It made very little difference to me since I had arranged to send most of my pay home every month. Ann and I wanted to have a little nest egg when I got out of service. She was helping things along by working at a real estate office in Carolina Beach.
Beginning in April 1953, heavy fighting erupted along the 38th parallel as the Chinese launched a series of attacks against UN positions. Some of our units were overrun. A cousin of my friend and fellow worker in the Security Room was among those killed in the fighting. Since his tour of duty was almost over, my friend received permission to accompany his cousin’s body home. At about the same time the Security Room received secret messages indicating that the 24th Infantry Division would be returning to Korea.
The First Cavalry Division and the 24th Division had been the first American divisions to fight in Korea. They were on occupation duty in Japan when the war broke out in June 1950, and they had been ill prepared for combat. Both units had been seriously outnumbered, outgunned, and almost destroyed in the early battles. The 24th Division commander had been captured, and one of its three regiments, the 34th, had been virtually wiped out. Both divisions had been pulled back to Japan in 1952, but now the 24th was to be sent back to Korea to reinforce our line. I was designated to be part of the Division Headquarters’ Advanced Party, so I and another 10 to 12 soldiers flew out of an air strip on Matsushima, Japan, early in the morning of July 4, 1953. We arrived at our temporary base near Pusan that afternoon, and later that same day we were hit by the remnants of a typhoon. The wind and rain destroyed our squad tent during the night, so we ran to the quonset hut that was serving as temporary division headquarters. The hut was leaking so badly that I slept much of the night under a table to keep the rain out of my face.
Over the next two weeks the rest of division headquarters and other division units arrived in Korea and assembled in various bases around Pusan. On or about the 15th of July another secret message arrived in the Security Room informing us that the 24th Division was to move north and replace the 45th Infantry Division in line at a position just north of the 38th parallel. We were going into action.
Two or three days later I was again part of a 24th Division Headquarters’ Advanced Party. I and my fellow soldiers got into our trucks early in the morning and drove north toward the 38th parallel. We were scheduled to drive about 40 hours, with brief stops for food and fuel, and arrive at our forward positions near midnight on the second day. That first evening we arrived at a camp near Taegu and stopped for chow. As we were being fed we were informed that we were to bed down for the night and head back toward Pusan the next morning. Although we did not know it at the time, it turned out that the Allies, North Koreans, and Chinese Communists had finally agreed on an armistice that very day, thus ending two years of difficult negotiations. Moving the 24th Division into line may have jeopardized the delicate agreement, so our move was cancelled.
For the next several months 24th Division headquarters was based in a former POW camp near Pusan. After that the entire division was relocated to a position north of the 38th parallel near a place called Yangju. The country had been devastated during the war, and there were no civilians in the vicinity of our camp once we moved north. Only in the late summer of 1954, shortly before my leaving Korea, did I see a few farmers move into the area and begin tilling the fields.
I soon discovered that Korea is a land of weather extremes. The summer was as hot as the southern regions of Hades, and the winters were cold enough to freeze the nose off a polar bear. When the severe cold first hit us in late October 1953, we were completely unprepared. We had only our summer sleeping bags, and they were virtually useless. I tried to cover up with anything else I could find, but still I would wake up in the morning with frost on my nose and my legs numb up to my knees. Fortunately, after about six weeks of misery, we received our winter sleeping bags, and life was immediately transformed for the better.
The best thing about my army experience was the camaraderie with my fellow soldiers. The men in 24th Division Headquarters were fine fellows for the most part, and many of them became my friends. If it weren’t for the prolonged separation from loved ones, the time in Korea would not have been bad at all. The worst thing was being so far away from Ann and from my family. Soon after I arrived in Korea, I was informed that Ann was expecting our first child. The notification was a bit late since the first diagnosis had been an infection. Some infection! I was excited, of course, and concerned. I wanted to be home with my wife. We had to settle for letters (almost every day) and a very infrequent phone call. Phone calls back to the United States (via undersea cable) were difficult, expensive, and often entirely unsatisfactory. Sometimes the parties couldn’t even hear each other.
My military duty in Korea finally ended on August 30, 1954 (my birthday), and that day I boarded a ship in Pusan bound for the USA. What a birthday! What joy! Less than three weeks later I was out of the Army and home with my family.