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Korea

This was written in 1988, while I was stationed in Korea during Team Spirit  – an annual war game which simulates an invasion by North Korea.

Weary, my squad reached the top of the hill. As we approached, we noticed the ruins of what was a small concrete building.

The sky was blue, the cool air refreshing our overheated bodies. We collapsed in the shade of a sole remaining wall of the building to catch our breath and perhaps time for a small bite to eat. I placed my rifle against the wall, and unshouldered my burden, a wire-guided anti-tank missile. The missile tube dropped to the ground, the styrofoam ends easily protecting it against the shock of the fall. I questioned the effectiveness of the weapon in comparison to the effort exerted to get it from foxhole to foxhole, and determined, once again that it really wasn’t worth it. Then I kicked it.

I leaned back to look at the sky. The smell of rotting fish, and the human feces the natives called “fertilizer” no longer turned my stomach as it did when I stepped off the C130 Hercules cargo plane in Pusan. I’d worked up quite an appetite packing that damned missile, and full field ruck over the past 5 miles of plodding through rice paddies and scrambling up steep slopes.

A small hole in the wall caught my eye, and as I turned, I noticed several more in a rough line, each about 5 inches apart. There were a few more about, not in such a line, all about the size of a .50 caliber machine- gun round. I realized then that this hill was probably the place where American soldiers like myself, sought refuge from a more dangerous enemy than a nauseating smell. My mind started to wander, thinking about what that battle must have been like, when we were overrun. By children.

“G.I. have candy?” they asked eager-eyed. It was probably the only words they knew of English yet. I opened my ruck, pulled out a half eaten Meal-Ready-To-Eat, since most of them had some kind of sweet treat. Probably to make up for the sawdust and cardboard taste of the dehydrated meal items. We’d tried to trade the ROK’s we ran across for rations. At first they were excited to try something new, and we easily got a decent meal. After a while, they must’ve begun to feel the effects that new diners get after eating an MRE. Constipation. Leading to a pain in the bowels that makes one wonder if he’d been gut-shot.

One of my companions revealed a Hershey bar, which drew all five kids’ attention instantly. They crowded around him, pushing and shoving each other to get the first piece. The bar was devoured in seconds, and they were far from satisfied. I had a package of gum in my pocket, which I started to withdraw when a coin fell out and clinked on the ground. Now such a sound was hardly audible, except to the children who now focused their needs to me.

The first one who arrived, after pushing down two of his smaller peers, snatched up the coin. With expectant eyes, he hesitantly offered to return the coin, extending his arm out only halfway. I made a motion with my hand directing him to keep it, when other hands extended to gain a coin of their own. They had no idea of the value of American coinage. One child got a quarter, another received a dime, then a boy handled a penny, while two others relished their nickels. The poor child getting the dime felt slighted. The smallest coin handed out, yet unknowingly it was the second most valuable. They all fought over the penny, the unique coin of the bunch, until the biggest boy wrested it from one of the smaller kids. He gloated over his worthless prize for a bit, and they began to ask for more. They weren’t satisfied until my pockets had been turned inside out, and slowly left after pestering the rest of the men for any change they had.

This battle over, both sides limped away in one form or another, from either friendly fire or self-inflicted wound.

Our sector had been secured, and we were to dig in while awaiting further orders. As the heavy weapon specialist, I positioned myself in the place giving the best cover, concealment, and field of fire; the ruins of the building. Grudgingly, my covering team unpacked entrenching tools and began to dig into the compressed, rocky ground of the hill. Meanwhile, I positioned a few broken pieces of stone to support the missile, aiming it to a point about 800 meters away, covering the road from imaginary armor columns.

The sun began to set, and our stomachs longed for a warm meal. The evening wind began to chill us, the blue sky darkened, but remained clear. It would be cold tonight, not only because of clear skies, but a cold front was moving in from the north. The North Koreans had that to their advantage tonight. I draped my sleeping bag over my shoulders as I crouched into a corner. Two of my buddies came in with me, and we sneaked a heat tab, and began to warm up some Soju brought to us in our foxholes yesterday by an aged Korean angel.

We’d just finished 3 hours of digging into that rocky ground of the hill yesterday when we noticed a small person carrying a huge plastic beverage tray with a sling behind the neck, like a baseball park hotdog vendor. The little old woman came into view and we gasped in amazement. She must have been over 60 years old, carrying an assortment of pop and other drinks nearly her size, which must’ve weighed over 100 pounds. She packed this over the past 1⁄2 mile we could see her approach, up about a 75 foot elevation. She stopped and carefully knelt down in front of the first foxhole she found. We’d spent the past hour just using the surrounding loose tree and brush debris to conceal our positions, but she saw right through each of them. “Coke, Soju?” she asked.

Our squad leader, who’d come to Korea before said “No Soju for us.”

I asked our interpreter why we couldn’t have Soju. I knew what the answer would be from our squad leader, so I didn’t bother to ask. “It’s very good.” He began. “It is a ‘warm drink’ made from rice.”

“So, it has alcohol in it right?” I replied with a smile.

He nodded, and I told my team we had to get some of this stuff. We each bought a small bottle and quickly stowed it in our rucks. The interpreter directed me not to drink it cold. “It hurts.” He advised. I took it to heart, he’d been very informative about a great many nuances and dangers of Korea that could get one kicked out of a bar, or very much worse.

The heat tab had an invisible flame, so you had to nearly burn yourself to insure it was lit. I held my bottle and most of my body over the heat, utilizing as much of it as possible. Once it was better than lukewarm, I let my buddy have his turn and began to drink. It was very smooth, but could have stood being hotter, as my throat clenched in retaliation. I invited our interpreter over to warm himself inside and out, but he settled for outside. He was a ROK soldier, assigned to us as liaison between ourselves and the natives, who was by the book. Of course, that’s the only way to be in the Korean Army. Backtalk your sergeant in the U.S. Army, and he’ll take your pay. Do the same to a ROK NCO, and you’ll find yourself in prison, or at the least maimed.

Our first day out in the field, we were issued some detonation cord. Just enough to shatter a bridge support, or frag a boobytrap. This day, however, the other team leader thought it’d be fun to wrap it around a tree to do a little field timber-falling. As we all stood around, our interpreter having never seen det cord, watched expressionless while all was made ready. We readied the detonator and all stood back. Our interpreter suddenly realized what we were about to do, and began to shout when the cord was detonated.

The tree must’ve been about 14” in diameter, the largest we could find. The cord exploded, turning that portion of the trunk instantly to sawdust, all the way through. First the top of the tree dropped onto the stump, and slowly toppled to the ground. We were all still recovering from the blast, when we noticed the interpreter sobbing. He explained to us that Koreans value their trees with great passion. At one time, great trees populated Korea. 50 to 100 foot pines could be seen all over the peninsula. When the Japanese occupied Korea in the late 30’s, they not only raped and pillaged the population, but also the landscape. In just a few short years, the Japanese war machine harvested every large tree from the entirety of Korea. In the years since, the largest tree is about 30 feet tall. It may take 200 years for Korea’s forests to recover, and we had just killed one of the first to return. We felt like shit.

“Put that damn fire out!” our sergeant whispered, startling us all. After he’d left, we re-lit the heat tab and continued chatting. The interpreter was smiling now, having forgiven us for the murder of that tree. It is the way of the Koreans, to forgive. If you give a Korean a gift, you will receive one back immediately. They almost never say no, and they don’t read the news until nighttime, so they won’t be burdened by the world’s troubles all day. Make sure that you belch loudly and smack your lips after enjoying a Korean meal, it’s a sign of approval. There is much wisdom in this ancient culture, and land.

Our stomachs started to give away our position, which wasn’t that bad, since there was nobody around to hear the growls. Our lieutenant came up, as we doused the flame once again. He asked how we were doing, and the standard answer, “Outstanding” was issued in reply by all but our newest private who asked when we’d have some chow. He was promptly kicked by one of the more experienced of us when the lieutenant grimaced. He reached down to the landline, and called up the company command post. He must have been hungry too, judging by the way that he grilled the poor enlisted man on the other end. “We’ll have a good breakfast in the morning” the lieutenant responded, and stomped off.

When he was out of earshot, the complaints came hard and fast. I had made a few friends in the upper echelon in the past year or so, and figured I might be able to pull a few strings. Taking one of the privates with me, we headed down to the command post, dodging sentries along the way.

The cooks hadn’t arrived yet, and only the supply trucks with their drivers, and the closed officer’s tent occupied the command post. The tent was lit on the inside, looking warm and inviting as the temperature began to plummet. We sneaked around to the back of one unguarded truck and while the private stood watch, I climbed into the back of the deuce-and-a-half, rummaging around for some food. In the pitch- black darkness I felt out a treasure. I emerged with a t-ration, a large, sealed metal can with fresh food inside. I couldn’t tell what it said, due to the lack of light, so we moved back to our position to find out what our infiltration acquired. We returned to the building ruins, unseen, and dug out a flashlight. ‘Corned Beef Hash’ was all I had to read. It wasn’t steak and potatoes, but it would do. I took out a knife, and stabbed a few holes in the top of the can, stoked up another heat tab, and took turns suspending the huge tin over the flame.

When the tin was too hot to hold anymore, we let it sit so the heat could penetrate the food. While we waited, we struggled with the problem of opening the t-ration without a can opener. The knife seemed the only solution, so once the can sat for ten minutes, my buddy began to clumsily stab, cut, and wedge about half the can open. Of course the food inside was hot on the outside, and nearly frozen on the inside. We stirred it up, so it was lukewarm. Hunger got the better of the desire for hot food and we began to devour the trappings even though it wasn’t fully heated. There was no way for the four of us to polish off the meal, so we re-covered it the best we could and hid it under a pile of rocks. No telling if the promise of a “good breakfast” would come to fulfillment, so we’d keep our bases covered.

The cold became unbearable, we were no longer hungry, but we shivered together. The heat tabs were nearly gone, and we had a few more cold nights to endure, so we resigned to sleep. I took first watch, while everyone else retired to his sleeping bag. There was no need for tents, they don’t offer much in the way of protection from anything but precipitation, so we slept on the open ground. After what seemed an eternity, midnight came and I passed the watch onto a barely sleeping private who protested at the lack of sleep, but finally sat up watching for an enemy that wasn’t even there.

I wriggled into my bag, stripped off all but my T-shirt, underwear and socks, and shivered until the friction warmed the bag up enough to sleep in.

I dreamt of that building, and the event that triggered its bullet holes and ultimate destruction. I envisioned myself with a machine gun, blazing away rounds down that hill to the throngs of North Koreans and Chinese which came running up, wave after wave of soldiers laying down their lives in an effort to deplete my ammunition. I lost count of those shot, left dying, killed outright, as the bullets came flying over and around me, burying themselves deep in the wall behind.

Ammunition was running low, and many men, whose clips were empty, cowered behind the wall, fixing bayonets preparing for the close combat to come. I could see the end of the machine gun belt, I had about 30 rounds left, and withdrew my handgun. As the surging mass came forward, small balls left the building and the warnings of “grenade!” resounded after each throw. I crouched down, avoiding the shrapnel which sprayed everywhere. Between shouts, I popped back up to fire the machine gun into those fortunate enough not to have been blown up or ripped apart by the grenades lobbed by my comrades.

Now we ran short of grenades, and I fired my last round from the machine gun. I picked up the gun and threw it at some approaching enemy, hitting one. The others paused long enough for me to put a bullet in each from my handgun. My comrades rushed out of the building, some falling from enemy fire, others reaching the throng, and engaged in ruthless, bloody, hand-to-hand combat. I jumped from my position with my assistant gunner and rushed the oncoming mass with handgun blazing in one hand, and a knife in the other. My assistant was shot in the face and fell aside as I continued on. I could see the eyes of my enemy as we closed for a clash.

I sat straight up in my sleeping bag, hearing the end, or perhaps the beginning of a scream. The current man on watch came over and asked if I were all right. I assured him I was ok now and laid back down. I didn’t sleep for another hour that night, afraid to catch the dream where it left off.

When the morning came, I stretched in my bag, thought about getting out, and decided against it. After doing that about 5 times, I resigned to get up. It was frigid outside, my nose (the only thing sticking out of my bag) was quite numb. I ducked down and got a hand out to unzip the bag. The zipper was frozen solid with condensation all over it. It took a while, but I defrosted it, and managed to get out. I put my clothes on in the sub-freezing temperature, and collected my gear.

The promise of a warm breakfast had come about, and I enjoyed hot eggs and ham, thinking back to the hash we’d left buried in the ruins of that building. It makes a pretty good offering to those who may have lost their lives on that hill, maybe they can heat that up better than we could.

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