Friday, July 27, 2018

This is Your Korean War

A U.S. Army forward aid station in Korea, July 1950. Photo Courtesy of Mr. Lacy C. Barnett

You are a teenage American boy in 1950.  The U.S. Army welcomed you to its ranks after releasing so many World War II veterans.  Officially, the Army enlists boys as young as seventeen, but a few kids are even younger than that, thanks to recruiters’ lax scrutiny.  Someone had to staff overseas military commitments in the face of a growing Cold War.  The Army looked like a good deal when you enlisted as a high-school dropout seeking escape from a remote coal mining hamlet or a grimy industrial city.  You found a rather cushy billet in Japan, where you enjoyed three hots and a cot – and your dollar went a long way in the local economy.

But at the end of June, word came that Russian-equipped North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel to invade U.S.-backed South Korea.  Almost overnight, America would have to demonstrate its resolve with a true military commitment.  You’re with the 34th Infantry Regiment on Japan’s Kyushu Island, closest to the Korean Peninsula.  So you are the among the first troops to go. The Army prepares you as best it can with weapons, equipment, and food drawn from storage warehouses crammed with leftovers from World War II.  You are issued a rifle with a tag affixed to it that reads “Combat Unserviceable.” 


You quickly find that Korea is inhospitable in many ways. Before you even meet the enemy, you contend with climate extremes, insects, malodorous rice paddies, and those hills… one steep and scrubby hill after another. The highest hills must be scaled to deny them from the enemy. That enemy is no push-over. He is physically conditioned to dash up these slopes.  You and your colleagues are not. You rely on trucks for mobility and supplies. Many enemy formations advance on foot. Others drive Russian tanks. They work together to outflank, divide, and encircle you, pressing attacks on your units that are cut off.  You have tanks, but they are too late, too few, and no match for those of the enemy.

You are outnumbered from day-one. Your leadership – all the way up to General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, know this. While it’s not explicitly stated, the job of the first Americans sent to Korea is not to defeat the enemy, but merely to slow him down until reinforcements can be shipped over from the States.  So you hold a hill or a crossroads as long as you can, pulling back only as your encirclement is imminent.  It’s a thankless task, one for which there is little or no direction in the Army manuals. We call it “bugging out.” It is a routine that some clever truck drivers have memorialized in a song, “Bug-Out Boogie.”  The dark humor of its lyrics is a bulwark against the madness that engulfs you. 

You really want to go back to Japan.  Or just get out of Korea. 

The last thing you want is to become immobilized on the front line as the enemy is bearing down on your position.  Even before you were wounded, you were exhausted. Your head throbbed from heat stroke. Your bowels were knotted by dysentery that you contracted by drinking water from the rice paddies, because dammit – it was the only water available.  Now you are immobilized on a stretcher. You smoke a cigarette, in part because the smoke wards away flies that want to crawl up your nostrils.

You anticipate only the next step in your deliverance. A hospital? To the Japanese girlfriend you left in Sasebo? Or maybe even… home.  If you are lucky, the boys from your squad hoist you to an aid station just behind the line. There, a combat doctor stabilizes your wounds so that corpsmen can stack you and four or five other guys in a Dodge ambulance that rumbles back to the nearest Korean rail depot.  Hopefully, you would not have to wait too long to be loaded on one of those old wooden train coaches that will lurch southward between the hills on its way to the port of Pusan – the filthy city that has now become the beloved exit from Korea and all its attendant nightmares. 

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