Friday, December 27, 2019

Man at Work in War

27 July 1950. As war engulfed the Korean peninsula, life nevertheless carried on for beleagured citizens.  People have to eat, right?  Here, a man employs an ingenious water pump to irrigate a rice paddy.  His identity, fate, and politics are unknown.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Christmas Chow

Christmas 1952. Forward air base of the First Marine Air Wing, Korea.  The war in Korea orphaned an awful lot of children.  The Americans helped these kids when they could, if only to share food and provisions.  Here, Marine Corporals Benton Cook, Jr. of Chicago and Mariano Angotti of Des Plaines, Illinois break bread with one of those orphans.  She seems to approve of the Marines' chow.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

The Selfless Trek of Dowell B. Hudson

Photo Courtesy the U.S. Army Center of  Military History
July 26, 1951.  This is 1LT Dowell B. Hudson of Abbeville, Louisiana.  He was age 27 at the time of this picture.  LT Hudson, a member of C Company, 38th Infanry Regiment, was already a veteran of World War II, having enlisted in January 1943.  He is seen resting here in Korea during his trek from Hill 1171 to a medical aid station in the rear.  By this point, Hudson had already walked for six hours with a leg wound. Accepting only the help of a crude walking stick, Hudson refused a stretcher because "others need it worse than I." This injury would incapacitate him until September 3, 1951. He returned to combat only to be wounded again on October 13. He would be hospitalized in Japan again until November 24. He celebrated his 28th birthday during that second convelescence.

Dowell Hudson survived Korea.  He finished his Army career as a Lietenant Colonel. He retired to Abbeville, Lousiana, where he attended St. Theresa Catholic Church.  He died in 2006 and was buried at St. Paul Cemetery.  His wife Irene was interred beside him in 2011.    

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Will YOU Remember Don Webb?

LEFT: From L to R - Jim Christiansen, Don Webb, Pete Pace, Atlanta GA, 1948. 
RIGHT: Don Webb, "Joan," Unknown.  Yokohama, Japan, 1950.

The following was distilled from the 2004 memoir of James Henry Christiansen, as presented on The source material is a frank, candid, and extremely well-written reflection of a young American man's life before, during, and after the Korean War.

Don Webb and Jim Christiansen were best friends from Atlanta, Georgia. The two boys, both tall and lanky, bore a strong resemblence to each other. They would often take advantage of this fact to cause mischief. Don was amiable, friendly, and outgoing. He played tennis and trombone. His girlfriend was the granddaughter of baseball player Rogers Hornsby.

Don and Jim exited high school in 1948. A quick survey of their employment prospects convinced them that military service was the best option. Don expressed initial interest in the navy, but ended up joining the army per Jim's insistance.

The boys joined a cohort of enlistees who embarked from Atlanta to Fort Jackson, South Carolina for basic training. Vocational training followed. Don and Jim opted for radio school at Camp Gordon. There, they learned to type, to send and transmit via Morse Code, and to operate SCR-399 radio. This massive, truck-bound appliance was powered by a 10kW generator towed on a trailer behind it. Radio school training was self-paced; you graduated when you mastered it. Jim Christiansen finished the curriculum in six months. He would part ways with Don Webb, who required another eleven weeks of training before finally attaining the military operations specialty (MOS) code 5740, "radio operator, intermediate speed."  Jim would later surmise that those ten weeks cost Don Webb his life.

Jim Christiansen as assigned to a signal battalion in Japan. He arrived in the late summer of 1949, when the U.S. Army's post-war occupation was in full swing. Don Webb would later arrive in Japan to an assignment with the 16th Recon Company of the 1st Cavalry Division. While Jim and Don failed to meet up in Japan, they kept track of each other's whereabouts. Each boy - they were 19 years old - developed his own circle of friends, including civilian female companionship. 

Then came June 25, 1950 and a brand new war in Korea. The U.S. Army's haphazard and piecemeal deployment placed Don in Korea in July, more than a month before Jim Christiansen's arrival. The exigencies of combat in 1950 forced many rear eschelon troops - including radiomen like Don Webb - to pick up a rifle and function as infantrymen. 

On September 7, 1950, Jim wrangled a pass from his post to visit Don. Jim hitched a ride on a chow truck to Don's position on the Naktong River. This was the front line; North Koreans were on the opposite river bank. All the fighting took place at night. Jim was there long enough to learn first hand from Don and his colleagues that the war was not going well for the Americans. But Don was committed to his job; he was getting paid to fight. Jim's brief visit ended when he departed with the chow truck upon its return to the rear. He vowed to return again three days later, on the 10th.

Frederick Chorney served alongside Don Webb. In his own recollection posted in 2009, Mr. Chorney recalled his friend Don. On September 10, they were part of a movement to take a hill. Advancing under fire, Don and Fred took momentary refuge behind a rock. They paused long enough to simply look at each other while each caught his breath. Don was the first to move on to continue the climb. That was the last that Fred Chorney saw of him.

Jim Christiansen returned to Don's unit as promised on September 10. The men dodged Jim's queries as to Don's whereabouts. No one wanted to tell Jim that his friend was killed in action only a few hours before. Over the decades that followed, Jim had recurring dreams of running into Don to find out that he wasn't killed after all. Over time, as Jim aged to 30, 40, 50 years and more, the Don Webb encountered in his dreams was still a teenager. 

Don Webb was buried in Atlanta exactly one year after he was killed in action.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Harold Hillery: Last of the Lucky Men

Left: Capt. David Bisset of Savannah, Georgia; LT (later CAPT) Harold Hillery (USAF), New York City; and LT Arthur Clarke, Boone, Iowa.
July 20, 1950.  Taejon, Korea.  The city in which the U.S. Army's 24th Infantry Division made its headquarters on this day was becoming systematically overrun by North Korean Forces. PVT Philip Hughes was fully occupied with his part in the combat withdrawal of the 34th Infantry Regiment from its defensive position north of Taejon.  In the city, however, the headquarters was still staffed by men operating with little sleep and poor lines of communication with its field units.  As the day progressed, these men would prepare to abandon their post under the command of Major General William F. Dean

Attached to Dean's headquarters was 28-year-old U.S. Air Force LT Harold A. "Tank" Hillery of the 35th Fighter Interceptor Wing. Rasied in Harlem by a widowed mother, Hillery enlisted in September 1942.  He lucked his way into pilot training with the famed "Tuskegee Airmen" of World War II.  Like so many other officers, Hillery was now fighting his second war in Korea. He did not suspect on that day that he would become a historical footnote.

As with other U.S. military units in Japan, the 35th FIW was rapidly mobilized for wartime activity. Harold Hillery was based with this unit at Yokota Air base on Honshu.  Like so many other officers, Hillery brought his family with him to on-base housing in Japan. In the newly-integrated U.S. Air Force, Harold, his wife Ginny, and two kids would cautiously navigate the social millieu as his squadron's only African-American family.  The advent of war imposed new hardships as the 35th FIW would relocate its base of combat operations to Korea.  Its forward base at Po'hang offered rough accomodations, but greatly reduced the time-in-transit to the war zone.          

On July 20, Hillery complied with his duty rotation by commanding a tactical air control party (TACP) - a handful of U.S. Air Force personnel who functioned on the ground as liaison between combat forces and the USAF's airborne assets. To do this, Hillery swapped his F-51D Mustang for a jeep with a powerful (if somewhat unreliable) two-way air to ground radio.  His role as TACP commander put Hillery in direct contact with the officers on Dean's staff.  As commander of the TASP unit, Hillery oversaw not only the life-line to combat air support assets, but also a channel for General Dean's communication with command levels above the 24th ID. 

The day did not go well for the U.S. Army in Taejon. Enemy blockades and ambushes forced the Americans to dismount their vehicles amidst vicious urban street fighting.  Those who survived the battle took to the hills. Fortunately, neither General Dean nor LT Hillery were killed that day; rather they and many other Americans went missing in action. From there, their fortunes diverged. After three weeks of wandering the countryside by himself, Dean was captured and would spend the rest of the war in captivity.  Hillery, who endured similar wanderings, was one of the lucky Americans to rejoin friendly forces.

By the end of July, "Tank" Hillery was back in the cockpit, conducting dangerous ground strikes on NKPA forces. On August 10, his F-51's engine quit during a mission.  Hillery bailed out, splashing into the Sea of Japan.  Luck accompanied him once again: he was picked by a U.S. Navy submarine which would host him for a few days until the sub made its scheduled berthing in Japan. Luck, however, did not accompany Hillery on this cruise as he ended up losing a lot of money to the sub's poker players.

Harold "Tank" Hillery, one of the last of the lucky men to escape Taejon, would advance to the rank of major before retiring from the Air Force.  He died in 1994 at the age of 72, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Friday, November 22, 2019

General William F. Dean : Hero(?) of Taejon

Major General William F. Dean upon his release from North Korean captivity.

When PVT Philip Hughes deployed to Korea in July 1950, he did so as part of the U.S. Army's 24th Infantry Division, commanded by Major General William F. Dean. 

In many ways, Dean was the right man for the task of commanding the first American Army unit to enter combat since 1945.  After compiling an admirable record as a division commander during World War II, Dean was appointed to the Far East where he played a pivotal role as military governor of South Korea immediately subsequent to Japanese occupation. He had overseen the 24th Division since October 1949. He had combat experience, he was familiar with the country, and his headquarters in Japan were closest to the Korean peninsula.

Tall, lean and athletic, the 50-year-old son of an Illinois dentist eschewed the pomp and circumstance of high rank. Despite having the privilege of using staff cars, Dean was more inclined to walk to his appointments whenever possible. Aides said he was “his own best shoe-shiner.”

Dean has handicapped by the fact that the U.S. Army as a whole was poorly prepared to conduct war in 1950.  The early confidence of Dean's command quickly gave way to the humbling realization that his forces were overmatched by the North Korean forces that it encountered:   

I am convinced that the North Korean Army, the North Korean soldier and the status of training and the quality of his equipment have been underestimated. - Letter from Major General William F. Dean to General Douglas MacArthur, July 8, 1950

By July 20, not yet three weeks since the 24th Division's deployment in Korea, Dean and his headquarters were forced to hold a position in the city of Taejon. Holding this critical rail and logistics hub would buy time for the Army to transport more men and assets across the Pacific. Dean attempted to defend Taejon with forces that were outnumbered and underequipped.

History will recall the defense of Taejon as one of the U.S. Army's most humiliating defeats. Many observers have faulted General Dean for his role in this defeat, but no one can accuse him of shirking his duty. With his acuity already diminished by days of insufficient sleep, General Dean at one point picked up a bazooka and joined a gang of enlisted men to hunt enemy tanks in the narrow streets of Taejon. After his forces were scattered and diminished that fateful day, Dean was became one of the few Americans who escaped the city on foot, seeking refuge in the hills. Separated from his men, Dean roamed the countryside for 36 days before he was eventually captured. He would remain in the hands of the North Koreans for the duration of the war. He was welcomed to New York City in October 1953 with a ticker tape parade.

YouTube screen grab

Of his 1950 wartime experience, Dean said "There were heros in Korea, but I was not one of them."

Friday, November 15, 2019

Eligy for Duane

PVT Duane E. Wilson was the third of nine kids born to Edward Wilson, a carpenter, and his wife Nellie. Born in Mt. Vernon, Illinois in 1928, Duane enlisted in the army in 1946. By 1949, Duane was in Japan with the 25th Infantry Division's 65th Combat Engineering Battalion.

Duane apparently had difficulty adjusting to army life, even in the comfortable billets of occupied Japan. He drifted through a series of duty assignments without finding one at which he could excel. Duane committed a number of minor infractions along the way.  His record compelled a commanding officer to consider a discharge from the service.

Sergeant Major Poon Tom decided to intervene. It was February 1950. Tom, born in China but raised in San Francisco, called Duane into his office at battalion headquarters. Tom found that this six-foot-tall, mild mannered kid did not want to part ways with the army. Duane continued to bounce from one duty to the next.  He became a driver for the bridge-building platoon. Tom, keeping a watchful eye, asked Duane how he was doing.  Duane responded positively. More importantly, Tom got no negative reports from the bridge platoon. Then Duane got a clerk assignment in the Headquarters Service Company.  Duane's company clerk role allowed him to see Tom regularly as Duane delivered morning reports and daily dispositions sheets up to battalion HQ. Tom noted that Duane seemed happy and satisfied with his job.

Then came the Korean War. The 65th CEB was shipped to the war zone along with the 25th ID.  Combat deployments reduce the volume of paperwork, so Duane was reassigned to a position serving as the Colonel's orderly. Duane became disenchanted with this task, and requested a transfer to a line company.

Like so many other U.S. Army infantry units in Korea in 1950, the 25th ID was understrength. By August, this unit struggled to hold its share of the Pusan Perimeter from North Korean encroachment.  At its darkest moments, the division had to call up its rear echelon men - including its combat engineers - to join the ranks of rifle companies. 

On September 12, men from the 65th CEB supported a two-platoon attack formation attempting to take a hill near Saga.  A North Korean machinegun nest raked the flank of the formation.  PVT Duane Wilson was hit multiple times just below the chest. He died instantly.

The next day, M/SGT Poon Tom wrote a letter to the company file that outlined Duane's experience with the 65th CEB.  Many years later, Tom's son Michael came across a copy of that letter in his father's estate documents.  This blog post draws directly from the document that Michael Tom found and shared on     

Friday, November 8, 2019

Howard Odell's Last Dogfight

TOP:  An F-80C Shooting Star from O'Dell's 36th Fighter-Bomber Squadron.
BOTTOM: A Yak-9U of the North Korean Peoples Air Force
Wednesday, July 19, 1950, northern outskirts of Taejon, Korea. U.S. Army PVT Philip Hughes's 34th Infantry Regiment dug in on the slope overlooking the Kapch'on River. Hot but clear weather had prevailed for days. This allowed the small but stealthy North Korean Peoples Air Force to take to the skies.

American military forces were only three weeks into their commitment to the conflict in Korea.  Caught off-guard by the "wrong war at the wrong time in the wrong place," the U.S. Air Force was particularly beset by shortages and mismatches of assets. The Air Force could at least draw upon a deep cadre of pilots with World War II combat experience.

Captain Howard E. Odell was such a pilot. The 30-year-old from Poughkeepsie, New York was a veteran of air combat over China, where he flew a P-40 Warhawk with the 23rd Fighter Group. After returning home, he maintained a reserve commission until rejoining regular service in the late 1940s. The Air Force trained him to transition to the new jet fighters just entering service. Capt. Odell was then billeted in Japan with the 8th Fighter Group's 36th Fighter-Bomber Squadron, which was still adjusting to its new mount, the F-80C Shooting Star.

The USAF's sudden commitment to the war in Korea posed immediate challenges. Like all the early jets, the F-80 was a fuel guzzler. There were no suitable airstrips in Korea during the early weeks of the war, so the F-80s had to operate from bases in Japan. Pilots had to traverse the Sea of Japan before entering the combat zone; this left precious little fuel - and time - to enjoin the fight. This was Odell's situation on July 19, 1950, when he participated in a flight of four F-80s performing combat air patrol over Taejon. Fate placed an equal number of Russian-built North Korean Yak-9U fighters in the same skies that day.

Philip Hughes and the other ground troops had a front line seat for the aerial battle that ensued.  The USAF F-80s had an advantage in speed, but the propeller-driven Yaks had superior turning abilities. In addition, the Yak's cannon armament was more lethal than the F-80s' .50 caliber machine guns.  Pilot skill would be the wildcard in this match up.

The swirling dogfight was quick, but lethal. History records the USAF as the victors, as the four Yaks were blasted out of the sky. But the victory was not without cost. We'll never know the details, but at some point during the fight, a Yak pilot found Howard Odell's F-80 in his gunsight. It took only a couple of hits by the Yak's 20 mm ShVAK cannon to disable his target. Odell fought the crippled aircraft's controls, attempting to take it down for an emergency landing on Taejon's dusty little air strip. The damage proved to be too much; Odell went down with his aircraft about a mile west of the airstrip, behind enemy lines.

Capt. Howard E. Odell's remains were never recovered.  He is recorded as missing-in-action to this day. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Rice Paddies in Korea

U.S. Army Photo
When the Korean War soldier was not scaling hills, he often found himself slogging through rice paddies.  These water-logged flats of land were cultivated by famers assisted by ox-driven plows.  To maximize crop yields, the farmer employed "night soil," that is, human excrement that was dutifully collected and distributed by the bucket-full.  American troops had no choice but to traverse the malodorous muck which often sucked the boots off their feet.  If subjected to enemy fire, troops had no alternative but to drop to the ground and lie prone until the threat was lifted.

It got worse.  Army support logistics were far from reliable during the early weeks of the war. Among the consequences were critical shortages of potable water.  Soldiers' limited access to water during July and August of 1950 coincided with 100-degree temperatures.  Add to this the chaos of battle, and this explains why almost all troops had no choice to drink water from rice paddies.

Disease caused more American casualties than did combat. 

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Don Schmincke: Korean War POW

YouTube screen grab 
Don Schmincke joined the U.S. Army right out of high school.  He grew up in a working class neighborhood on Baltimore's Federal Hill, just a few blocks form the docks of the inner harbor. After basic training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Don reported to a billet with the 19th Infantry Regiment in December 1948.  That posting, at Camp Chuckamunga on Japan's Kyushu Island, gave him about 18 months to enjoy low-risk occupation duty. His paycheck easily afforded him a number of luxuries in nearby Beppu.  The advent of the Korean War changed all of that.

Within days of the North Korean invasion, U.S. Eighth Army headquarters in Yokohama began committing troops to the defense of South Korea in piecemeal fashion.  Because the scale of the North Korean threat was vastly underestimated, the first Army units committed to the war were woefully underprepared. Within days of his arrival in Korea, Don Schmincke, a rifleman, dug in on the banks of the Kum River on July 13, 1950 with the rest of the 19th.  Their mission was to defend the northern approaches to the city of Taejon from North Korean encroachment.  Because they were deployed too thinly, the 19th was quickly overrun.  A few men escaped on foot over hills; many more were killed or captured.  Among those captured was PFC Don Schmincke.

Don would somehow survive 37 months and 14 days in captivity.  Out of the approxiately 700 men captured with him, about 500 survived the march north to prison camps.  Of those, only 285 would live to be repatriated three years later. 

Don's family knew only that he was missing in action as of late September 1950.  They would not receive notice that he was alive and in captivity until December 1951. When interviewed then by the Baltimore Sun, his mother exclaimed, "I'm the happiest woman in Baltimore today, and I thank God in heaven for taking care of my boy (emphasis mine)."

I'll spare you the details here of the prison camp experience, but if you wish, you can see and hear then-Corporal Schmincke describe it in his own words to reporter Bill Downs in a 1953 video clip now on YouTube. (Warning: the opening segment of this clip is not pleasant; jump to 4:08 to see Don's interview at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, DC, shortly after his repatriation).  

Don may still be alive as of the date of this post; I'm not sure.  He would be 88 years old.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Detente in Action

Cho No, an Korean Orphan, beams at the proposition of receiving an apple from Capt. Ray A. Gusti of Mark, Illinois.  In return for the treat, Cho must agree to a bath.  Capt Gusti was a medical officer at a forward U.S. Army Clearing Company. Eight-year-old Cho would later be evacuated on a 315th Air Division combat cargo aircraft to South Korea where he would be placed in an orphan's home.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Fourteen Weeks of Basic Training

U.S. Army Photo
1950. Fort Riley, Kansas.  This platoon of of Army recruits has just completed 14 weeks of basic training.  With the conclusion of basic came three weeks of home leave, then off they went to their respective billet assignments.  A few of these young men might have been lucky enough to draw assignments in the continental U.S. or perhaps in Germany.  Many would proceed to the far east, where they would participate in the hastily assembled defense of South Korea. There, most of them would trade their spiffy garrison caps and Ike jackets for helmets, dungarees, and an M1 rifle. The individual identities and fates of these men are unknown.

Friday, October 4, 2019

T-34: Chariot of Fire

U.S. Army Photo
20 September 1950 near Waegewan, Korea.  Men of the U.S. Army's 5th Cavalry Regiment inspect a disabled North Korean T-34 tank. Manufactured in massive numbers in the Soviet Union, T-34 tanks were fast, heavily armored, and lethal.  The American troops who initially opposed T-34s during the first weeks of the Korean War were terrifyingly unprepared to combat it.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

The Gift of a Lifetime

1954 Lincoln Capri superimposed over VA Form 350

Why would a teenage U.S. Army inductee in 1949 buy life insurance?  This is exactly what 17-year-old Philip Hughes did in November of that year. He accepted the Veterans Administration's standard life insurance policy offered to all new recruits. By signing his name to the VA Form 350, Philip agreed that a premium of $6.15 would be withheld from his $70 gross monthly pay. The policy's redemption value was $10,000. His adoptive mother, Wilhelmina, was the beneficiary.

The U.S. Army instituted the National Service Life Insurance program in 1940, anticipating the onset of what would be World War II. This insurance product would be accepted by millions of men during the ensuing war years.  The same basic insurance deal was offered to post-war enlistees.  Hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries still receive policy payouts to this day.

As fate would have it, PVT Philip Hughes would become engaged as a rifleman in the opening weeks of the Korean War.  While serving in that capacity, he was killed in action on September 12, 1950.

Philip and his younger brother Frank had been adopted by Wilhelmina. She indended for both boys to become priests. Neither boy wished to comply. Philip's resistance precipitated his Army enlistment. His death forced her to reconsider her motherly role. She essentially diverted Philip's life insurance proceeds so that they accrued to Frank's benefit. In short, she was making amends for the family dysfunctions of her own making. This story is shared in The Battle of Turkey Thicket.  

Ten thousand dollars went a long way in the early 1950s. Wilhelmina saw to it that Frank received a car upon his high school graduation.  She encouraged Frank to travel the country on his own - in effect, allowing him to "find" himself.  Frank would criss-cross the U.S. for two years, wearing out two cars while covering all 48 states. He made connections that jump-started his academic career, and his ensuing pursuits as an executive. It all began with the payout of Philip's life insurance policy.     

Friday, September 20, 2019

St Francis Xavier's Triumphant Return

Photo by Carl Mydans
May 1949.  Nagasaki, Japan. The Vatican ensured that a venerated relic - the right forearm of St. Francis Xavier - would be present for a mass celebrating the 400th anniversary of Xavier's arrival in Japan.  Francis Xavier, born in Spain in 1506, was a priest whose vocation led him to evangelize across the far east, including Portuguese Goa, India, Indonesia, and Japan.  Communities of converts - the legacy of Xavier's work - exist to this day in these countries.

The relic employed in the 1949 Mass in Nagasaki was Xavier's mumified arm. This was the arm he used to conduct blessings and baptisms.  Some 60 years after his death, church leaders detached his arm for preservation among other saintly relics archived by the Vatican.

Fast forward to 1949. Most of us know Nagasaki, Japan for its fate in 1945 at the dawn of atomic warfare.  But were it not for that event, Nagasaki may have been noted primarily as a bastion of Catholic faith in an otherwise Buddist society. That the Vatican would take extraordinary measures to transport a venerated relic to the other side of the world demostrates calculated reflection. On one hand, Nagasaki remained largely devastated by the atomic blast of 1945; people were still dying (slowly) from radiation poisoning. But the 400th anniversary of Xavier's missionary work loomed, thus opening a potential gesture for reconciliation.

May 1949.  The St. Francis Xavier relic is physically present for Mass conducted in the ruins of a Nagasaki cathedral. 
Along with Life Magazine's Carl Mydans, the Mass attracted a fair number of curious American military personnel from their occupation billets. Among them was U.S. Arny CPL Lacy Barnett of Alabama.

Not present was PVT Philip Hughes, who at the time was only 16 and had yet to join the Army.  He would not step foot on Japanese shores until May 1950, too late to witness the ceremony in Nagasaki. But he did pass through the city on the way to his billet in Sasebo.  Philip - once an orphan and unsuccessfully groomed by his adoptive parents to be a priest - witnessed in Nagasaki only the devastation of man's propensity for war. He missed the modest attempt at reconciliation offered in Japan by the Catholic Mass on St. Francis Xavier's anniversary.  He missed seeing the sinewy relic of Xavier's arm - withered much like the human remains of victims from the atomic blast. Philip, however, would not be spared the sights attributable to his role as a combatant in the early weeks of the Korean War. It was there that Philip found his mortal destiny. 

Friday, September 13, 2019

Date Night in Japan

Photo by Joseph Jowell from the Doug Price Collection
Sasebo, Japan, 1953 or 54.  I share this image because its time and place largely coincide with the atmosphere encountered by PVT Philip Hughes in May-June 1950 during his brief billet in Sasebo, Japan, immediately prior to the Korean War.  The U.S. occupation facilitated large scale interaction of American servicemen with Japanese civilians.

The humanity captured in a photograph sometimes speaks volumes.

The young man depicted here, dressed appropriately for off-duty leisure, relaxes with a local companion. He was born during the great depression. Odds are that he was not from a wealthy home. He grew up at a time when Americans were quite clannish, preferring to settle in communities with people of kindred ethnicity or nationality.  Yet here he is (caught?) with a Japanese companion, enjoying a smoke while reclining on a tatami mat. Does his facial expression betray some embarrasment?

His companion looks like she could be a bit older. The young woman is on the front line of Japan's economic reconstruction, testing cultural boundaries with this gai-jin (western foreigner). Their pose suggests intimacy, but the facial expressions are devoid of... joy.  Seriousness prevails. Fatigue may be an explanation. The woman's posture as she hovers over companion suggests dominance, or at least a sense of purpose. She is old enough to have survived the horror and deprivations of World War II, up close and personal.  It's very likely that her family was irrevocably affected in some way by the war.  But that was in her past. Her current agenda is more relevant and enduring.

Both individuals have compromised their respective cultural boundaries for more expedient needs. This is a scene that was replicated hundred of thousands of times in Japan during the late 1940s and 50s. It is really not fair to draw a one-size-fits-all conclusion for this couple. Their relationship might have been ephemeral... or maybe not.

Walk through a national cemetery for American servicemen sometime.  Read the tombstones. You will see a lot of Japanese spouses resting with their gai-jin husbands.  Just sayin'.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Road-bound Soldiers of the Korean War

An excerpt from "The Battle of Turkey Thicket."

Philip Hughes and his colleagues scrambled aboard the cargo beds of the regiment’s GMC deuce-and-a-half (2½-ton capacity) trucks. Each truck typically held ten fully-equipped infantrymen, seated on fold-up benches on either side of the cargo bed. In a pinch, with the cargo deck’s gate down, one or two more men could perch on the trailing edge with their legs dangling off the rear. Canvas covers for the cargo beds were removed due to the summer heat.

Noise added to the motoring experience. Like many military vehicles without mufflers, the GMC trucks alternately growled and whined as drivers shifted up through the gears. Passengers had to shout at one another to be heard. A convoy of these vehicles was preceded by its own din.

Despite the improvement efforts of Army engineers, the Korean roads remained narrow and maddeningly choked with civilian refugees on foot. Paved with broken rocks and pulverized by heavy military traffic, the roads coughed up a fine, calcified powder that coated vehicles and the men in them. The trip to Kyongsan could require up to half a day’s driving time.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Happy Birthday, Philip Thomas Hughes

August 31, 2019.  Today is Philip Hughes' eighty-seventh birthday.  Or at least that's how old he would be had he lived this long.  Philip was killed in Korea when his recon patrol was ambushed on September 12, 1950, not two weeks after his 18th birthday.  Philip was one of the first - and one of the youngest - of the American soldiers committed to the Korean War.

His remains were repatriated and interred in Arlington National Cemetery.  A small memorial plaque bearing his name can be found in a Catholic church just a block from the same Delaware beach where he played as a kid.

Happy birthday, Philip.  Peace be with you.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Korean War Brides

It seems counterintuitive, but war inexorably fosters hints of love in its wake. Twentieth century America propagated cross-national (and often trans-racial) marital unions in unprecedented numbers as a result of its many military engagements across the globe.  Korea alone has by one estimate provided over 100,000 brides for American military personnel since 1945.  In most cases, the  partners endured the admonitions of family, institutional authorities, and prevailing societal norms.  Many of these unions testify to the power of love; in others, it may reveal the lengths to which people go to escape desperate circumstances.

While the "war bride" phenomenon was not uniquely American, if figures that America - which by 1950 stood above all other nations in terms of strength and stature - should foster so many of these unions. One consequence was a reckoning forced on the nation's collective conscience.  After all, the America of 1950 had emerged victorious from a global war with fascism, only to renew the struggle with its own shortcomings, notably the inability to reconcile the promise of freedom with equality among its own populace.  It was into this maw of dissonance that Korean War brides attempted to make new homes in the cities, towns, hamlets, and farms of America.

The choice of marriage was often impulsive, driven by the anxieties that come with being young,  lonely, and afraid. American servicemen had to secure a commanding officer's approval to simply apply for a marriage certificate.  The paperwork - stacked an inch and a half thick - was intentionally made demanding for the typical enlisted man.

The volume of Korean brides arriving on American soil posed legal quandries. Anti-miscegenation laws still prevailed in many states.  The demand for dispensation in the form of waivers was the beginning of the end of such laws. But by the time they cleared the hurdles of institutional racism,  these women were at the mercy of their individual circumstances as they settled into their new homes.  Their experiences were mixed; some brides were luckier than others. Divorce, abuse, and abandonment took a tragic toll.  But there were many other women who through perseverence and wit became successful not only as home-makers, but also as business and civic leaders.  All of them can recount their stories with some mixture of tears and laughter.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Ed "Buster" Morrison: The Homecoming

Wed., August 14, 2019. U.S. Army Honor Guard carries the casket of Edward Marshall "Buster" Morrison to a hearse that will transport him to his final resting place in Ashland, Wisconsin.
After an almost 70 year wait, Ed "Buster" Morrison came home to Ashland, Wisconsin on August 14, 2019. As a 19-year-old on occupation duty in Japan, Buster was one of the first U.S. soldiers sent to Korea in July 1950. He deployed with the first platoon of Baker Company, First Battalion, 34th Infantry Regiment of the 24th Infantry Division.
Edward Marshall "Buster" Morrison, 1931-1950.

PVT Morrison was in the same unit as PVT Philip Hughes.  Their first battle - which would also be Buster's last - was at Pyongtaek on July 6.    

Richard C. White, an old Korean War veteran from California, knew Buster. In 1998, Richard left a brief memoir on  He recalled a trio of friends from their relatively care-free occupation duty in Japan.  "We were always together in Sasebo," Richard wrote about himself, Buster, and Billy Lee Barnett from West Virginia. Barnett and White were among the very few men originally deployed by the 34th Regiment to survive the war. 

We can now update Buster's story.  Richard White wrote that Buster was in the foxhole next to him on that hillside east of the road down which North Korean infantry and tanks advanced from Suwon toward Pyongtaek.  Buster "died fighting" and "never showed fear."  The overmatched 34th IR withdrew from the hill, leaving one dead and losing several to captivity by the North Koreans.

The Army retook the position in September 1950. Graves registration teams would recover bodies over the following months. Their discoveries included a mass grave, where remains were probably interred by civilians.  Many of these remains were comingled and unidentifiable.  The unidentified were buried as unknowns in the National Cemetery in Hawaii, known colloquially as the "Punchbowl."

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has since employed advanced forensic techniques to identify the unknown.  And so in April 2018, unknown X-900  was disinterred.  On May 31, 2019 - the traditional date for Memorial Day - X-900 was positively identified as PVT Edward Marshall "Buster" Morrison.

Buster's final interment was set for Saturday, August 17, 2019 at the Mt. Hope Cemetery in Ashland.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Foot Soldiering in Korea

Youtube Screen Grab

Summer 1950. U.S. Army troops on the move in Korea.  Trucks couldn't go every where on the Korean landscape, and they were not always available. All to often, American troops moved toward their objectives on foot.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Harold "Red" Ayres and His Battalion's Stand at Taejon, Korea, 1950

The following is adapted from the published book, The Battle of Turkey Thicket, ISBN-13: 978-0999098325

Only two weeks into its deployment in Korea on July 2, the U.S. Army’s 34th Infantry Regiment bore the initial brunt of resistance to the North Korean invasion of South Korea. The 34th’s responsibility was not to defeat the enemy, but to delay them, buying time for the U.S. Army to deploy additional regiments arriving from Japan. Like the 34th, the new arrivals were also understrength and underprepared for combat. U.S. forces sustained a humiliating series of defeats during its first two weeks in Korea.  Combat losses depleted their ranks. They steadily fell back in a southerly direction. By July 16, the beleaguered American forces in Korea consolidated a defense on the outskirts of Taejon, a gritty transportation hub featuring a large rail yard. 

The overall commander of U.S. ground forces in Korea, General William Dean, organized a line of resistance at the Kum River before the division’s headquarters in the city of Taejon. Dean had no more than three infantry regiments at his disposal. One of these regiments was the 34th. Within the 34th were two battalions. First Battalion had a new commander, installed only hours after the unit’s arrival in Korea. Thirty-one-year old Lieutenant Colonel Harold “Red” Ayres was a Louisianan decorated for his service in Italy during World War II.

Lt. Col. Harold "Red" Ayres, July 1950.

Taejon’s defense would make strategic use of the Kum River as a natural barrier. The river’s course flowed like an inverted horseshoe, from east to west around the north of the city in a large, curving arc, generally offset some ten to 15 miles from the city. At this time of year, the river’s width varied between 300-400 yards, and water levels were generally low.

On July 16, Red Ayres’s battalion took position on the eastern bank of the Kapch’on River, a tributary that flowed north into the Kum. Behind it, there were no other natural barriers of consequence to aid in the defense of Taejon. Ayres’s new responsibility was directly astride the road that crossed the Kapch’on as it approached Taejon from Yusong, to the northwest. This road provided the most suitable access for the NKPA’s dreaded T-34 tanks, the very weapon that the Americans were least prepared to contain.

Ayres’s position was tenuous at best, and the officers under his command were well aware of this. The battalion’s seven hundred men - half of them were really teenagers - were already in poor shape. They were too few to resist the 2,500-strong enemy division, plus tanks, that bore down on them. But with the collapse of the neighboring 19th Regiment, the assignment was to be shouldered entirely by the 34th.

The portion of the front assigned to Ayres’s battalion was too large to be consistently fortified by the number of men available. Accordingly, Ayres positioned his manpower overlooking the bridge that the NKPA’s tanks were certain to cross. There is nothing in the Korean War histories to indicate that U.S. Army engineers attempted to blow up the bridge over the Kapch’on, thus denying North Korean armor the approach to Taejon through Ayres’s position.

Able and Charlie Companies formed the battalion’s front line along the river to Ayres’s left (west) of the bridge crossing. One platoon of Lieutenant Johnsen’s Baker Company continued the line downstream (north and east) of the bridge. Ayres placed reinforcements south of the road, on slightly higher ground, behind this line. These included First Lieutenant Sam Takahara’s headquarters company, to which the balance of Baker Company was adjacent to the south. Immediately behind these was Ayres’s battalion command post. Beyond the 34th’s position, the road to Taejon skirted the city’s airstrip, then proceeded into the city itself.

Depiction of Red Ayres's Battalion deployed in a defensive position on the Kapch'on River, July 20, 1950. 

Colonel Ayres set up his command post immediately behind the first battalion’s line. He had already lost his artillery support when the 63rd Field Artillery Battalion was overrun five days earlier. His infantry would be pitted against an enemy that was not only more numerous, but also reinforced by tanks. Ayres's leadership experience from World War II won him a front-row seat in this conflict, one that quickly became a humiliating, dirty little scrap on behalf of a country for which he had no affinity whatsoever. 

Ayres must have been deeply troubled, but he dared not show it. Doubt is the contagious nemesis of a combat leader. He was given sacrosanct orders to hold the line, regardless of his unit’s capacity to comply. Ayres had just seen his first regimental commander, Jay Lovless, sacked for withdrawing the battalion too quickly from P’yongt’aek on July 6. Then he found out that Lovless’s successor, Col. Martin, lasted all of 24 hours before he was killed at Ch’onan on July 8. The bar had been set for expectations under General Dean’s command.

Red Ayres had a career to protect. But he was preoccupied with thoughts of fulfilling his mission while minimizing the inevitable loss of the boys under his command. His thoughts must have strayed to his wife Elizabeth. Throughout Wednesday, July 19, he watched enemy forces gather a couple miles in front of him on the opposite river bank.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Combat Prayer Service

U.S. Army Photo
Summer 1950. A U.S. Army chaplain conducts an open-air church service for the benefit of Army soldiers on the front lines of the Korean War.  A battle was underway at the same time, as evidenced by smoke in the distance.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Korean Women in the Korean War

ABOVE:  South Korean WACs in drill formation. 
BELOW: North Korean women captured by allied forces in the vicinity of Taegu.
Korean women made a sizable if  sparsely documented role in the Korean War. By 1945, Women in South Korea had made gains in education and were increasingly entering the workforce. The 1948 constitution had given women equality with men. The onset of the Korean War changed the status of women in South Korea. Not only did women who were trained at the Republic of Korea’s army medical field school serve in the Republic of Korea Women’s Army Corp (ROKWAC) as surgeons, nurses, and dentists, they were employed by war industries. As the need for servicewomen increased, more and more Korean women enlisted, and some trained to serve as officers in the ROKWAC. Recruits were given basic military training and then assigned to units as needed. As the war continued, women were given specialized training and were attached to specialized units.

The North Korean Peoples Army employed women for transporting supplies to the front as well as other logistical tasks. Female soldiers served not only in traditional support roles but as frontline troops alongside their male counterparts. North Korean women frequently posed as refugees to infiltrate enemy lines to gather intelligence or to inflict casualties on unsuspecting U.N. forces. In addition, women fought with guerrilla units in the South, engaging in hit-and-run operations as well as sabotage.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Homecoming: James C. Williams

It only took 69 years, but Korean War casualty James C. Williams is finally coming home.  He will be buried in his home town on July 19, 2019.

Read about James' back story in an earlier post.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Vocational Tourism in Occupied Japan

From the Leon Netardus Collection
The first American troops committed to the Korean War were drawn from the ranks of the U.S. Eighth Army in Japan. The Eighth deployed four infantry divisions in Japan at the end of World War II.  Theirs was "occupation duty," which involved nationwide demilitarization while keeping law and order during the reconstruction of Japan's economy and infrastructure. Occupation forces, overwhelmingly American in its constituency, met with virtually no resistance.  The Japanese people were eager to better their post-war fortunes through cooperation.

Leon Netardus, a 1946 high school graduate from Gonzalez, Texas, arrived in Yokohama Bay after a 12-day ocean crossing. He was immediately struck by the contrasts before him. "The devastation was complete," he recalled. "There were burnt out buildings everywhere and massive piles of rubble. But let me say this: During the entire time I was there, I never saw a Japanese citizen show one sign of disrespect for any allied soldier. Not one."

The Eighth Army employed no fewer than 100,000 men for occupation duty through the late 1940s. On one hand, military planners felt this number was necessary to thwart any possible aggression against Japan by nearby Soviet forces. But for practical purposes, the number of U.S. troops committed to the occupation meant that the average soldier was underutilized.  On-base training and education programs filled the gaps, but these men still had plenty of free time.

Tourism became a useful distraction.  The Japanese train system was quickly restored after World War II, providing prompt, reliable service.  Armed now with locally purchased cameras, Americans could easily criss-cross the country to take in the sights.

PVT Philip Hughes began his army career on occupation duty with the 24th Infantry Division on Kyushu, the southernmost of the Japanese islands.  For a few short weeks during the spring of 1950, 17-year old Philip enjoyed the idyllic lifestyle of peacetime occupation.  His tenure there was all too brief, interrupted when the 24th became the first U.S. Army ground unit committed to the Korean War.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Life and Timeline of Corporal Donald Baer

7 MAR 1930.  Donald Lavern Baer is born in Nashville, Michigan to Elizabeth Mary and Vernon Jay Baer, a machinist and U.S. Army veteran of the First World War.

16 MAY 1930. U.S. census enumerator Fred Bugbee visits the Baer household in Maple Grove Township, Barry County Michigan. He records father Vernon, mother Elizabeth, daughters Florence, Rosemary, and Dorthea as well as sons George, Raymond, Clarence, and Donald, whose age is given as one month.

10 JUN 1932.  Donald’s mother, Elizabeth, dies. Vernon subsequently moves his family to the Brainerd, Minnesota area to be close to relatives. Donald and his new little sister Barbara are sent to live on a farm with Grandma and Grandpa Baer. Over the coming years, Donald would pay extended visits to his father in now living in Racine, Wisconsin.

WORLD WAR II.  Donald’s three older brothers all serve in the military.

28 JUN 1948.  Donald enlists in the U.S. Army and travels to Fort Knox, Kentucky for basic training. He is 18 years old.

LATE 1940s.  Donald’s military assignment takes him via Ft. Lawton, Washington to Camp Mower, Kyushu, Japan, to join the U.S. Army’s post-war occupation forces.  Donald is assigned to K Company, 3rd battalion, 34th Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division. K Company’s peacetime garrison duty is to guard the base’s ammo dump.

25 JUN 1950.  The North Korean People’s Army invades South Korea.  American forces in Japan are placed on alert in anticipation of their deployment to Korea.

2 JUL 1950.  Donald is one of 1,981 personnel of the 34th Infantry Regiment who embark for Korea on a chartered Japanese hospital ship, the Takasago Maru. They cross the Tsushima Strait in 15 hours.

5-6 JUL 1950.  Donald’s K Company, with the balance of the 3rd Battalion, is deployed in Ansong, Korea as the eastern branch of a two-prong line of defense against the encroaching North Koreans.  Third battalion is withdrawn to Ch’onan in the south before any enemy engagement took place.

7-8 JUL 1950.  Rapidly moving North Korean forces advance south on Ch’onan after routing the 34th Infantry’s 1st battalion two days earlier.  Donanld’s 3rd battalion is now tasked with holding Ch’onan while 1st Battalion recuperates and refits on the southern outskirts of town. K Company loses at least 19 men killed in action, with many more evacuated with wounds or heat stroke.

12 JUL 1950.  U.S. Army forces in Korea, consisting almost entirely of 24th Division personnel, are withdrawn further south across the Kum River to establish a northern defense perimeter above the city of Taejon.  Too few men covering too much ground leaves sizeable gaps in the perimeter; North Korean forces exploit these to infiltrate and surround isolated American positions.

18-19 JUL 1950.  American forces fall back to tighten their defensive perimeter around Taejon.  Donald and K Company deploy on the airfield immediately north of Taejon.

20 JUL 1950.  During rainy, pre-dawn hours, North Korean tanks and infantry bash through the 1st Battalion’s perimeter. K Company’s airfield position is the next objective on the way to Taejon. K Company loses at least 37 men killed or missing.  Donald would be counted as missing in the coming days. The Defense Department at the end of 1953 declared him and all other missing soldiers as dead. Scant and incomplete records suggest that Donald was taken prisoner by the North Koreans during the clash on 20 Jul 1950.

22 FEB 1951. Five sets of U.S. Army personnel remains are among the many recovered by the 565th Graves Registration Command in the Taejon area. Of these five, one is identified.  The rest are interred in Tanggok, South Korea as unknowns.

1954.  The set of four unknown remains are forwarded to the Army’s mortuary in Kokura, Japan.

3 FEB 1956. Still not identified, a group of 850 Army remains were sent to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific for interment.  Facts would later reveal the Donald Baer’s remains – labeled as “Unknown X-453” - would lie buried with this group for 61 years in grave site 417.

1990s. Donald’s surviving family members begin attending veterans’ reunions for Donald’s unit.  They meet retired Sergeant Major Wayne Parsons, who served with Donald in Korea. Parsons confirms that Donald was killed in combat on 20 Jul 1950.

2001.  Donald’s surviving family members submit DNA samples to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency for identification testing.

2010.  Select documents about unknown Korean War dead at the National Cemetery of the Pacific are declassified.

2015.  DPAA analyst John Zimmerlee informs one of Donald’s surviving sisters that artifacts found near Taejon included a U.S. Army helmet with a 24th Division logo and Donald’s inscribed name.

14 AUG 2017. X-453 is among a number of unknowns disinterred for examination with advanced forensic techniques now available to DPAA technicians.

24 AUG 2017.  DPAA positively identifies X-453 as CPL Donald Baer. Key evidence includes clavicle bones that match Donald’s chest X-ray taken in 1948.

28 SEP 2017.  A DPAA casualty officer notifies Donald’s surviving family of the discovery.

9 NOV 2017.  TSGT Daniel Knautz of the U.S. Air Force escorts the remains of Donald Baer on an American Airlines flight that arrives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin at 3:52 p.m. Donald is SGT Knautz’s great uncle.

11 NOV 2017.  A memorial service for Donald is held at the West Lawn Memorial Chapel in Racine, Wisconsin.  Donald is interred between his father Vernon and older brother George.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Letters from the War

Private Gauchet(?) composing a letter during a lull in Korean War battle.
The U.S. Army ensured an expeditious exchange of mail between war-zone soldiers and their families back home.  Items addressed to a soldier in the field needed to show only his name and divisional APO (Army Post Office) number. It was the Army’s responsibility to track the whereabouts of the recipient's division and route the incoming mail accordingly. After crossing the Pacific Ocean via air transport, sacks of letters and parcels from the continental U.S. trucked to division-level post offices. Here, the sacks were dumped before a service company tent, where clerks sorted them for subsequent distribution to regiment, then company, then platoon. The arrival of mail was truly a random event, thanks to the intricacies of trans-Pacific shipment. At best, it took seven days for a piece of mail to travel between the U.S. and Korea. 

If the division was resting well behind battle lines, mail could be safely announced by a bugle call. Soldiers responded in double-time. They gathered around a corporal who, much like an auctioneer, held up each piece one at a time, barking out the last name of the recipient. When hearing his name, the recipient’s elation could not be overstated. 

Mail from home was more than a piece of paper. A document with familiar handwriting was the soldier’s most tangible connection to all that was safe, comforting, and sane. Photos and local newspaper clippings often accompanied the letters. The soldier dutifully protected these treasured documents by tucking them into his helmet liner, allowing him the joy of retrieving the same letter over and over again.

During his time in Korea, PVT Philip Hughes wrote home repeatedly to his mother. His standard stationary was the air letter, a blue sheet of paper with adhesive tabs that, when folded properly, became its own envelope. When circumstances denied him access to stationary, Philip may have created improvised post cards as other soldiers did, tearing a panel from a C-ration carton. Because he was in a theater of war, Philip had no postage costs. He simply wrote the word “free” on the item in the same space where one would affix a postage stamp.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Kyushu Gypsies

Photo by George Portoukalian

Upon the Korean War's outbreak in 1950, the U.S. Far East Air Force scrambled to assemble air cargo assets to support the Army.  Not least among these assets were aircraft configured for evacuating wounded soldiers from the battle zone. These aircraft took off from the rough, unimproved Korean airstrips, whisking their passengers across the Sea of Japan to the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu. It was here that the U.S. military maintained advanced medical treatment facilities.

The American-built Douglas C-47 Dakota (a.k.a. "Gooney Bird"), by virtue of its numbers available, was the workhorse of this airlift effort.  C-47s from all over Japan were assembled into a provisional squadron: The "Kyushu Gypsies." The name reflected the squadron's initial base of operations located on the southern-most of the Japanese islands.

Here, we see a curiously well-coiffed solder being hoisted aboard a Gooney Bird via stretcher. Depending on the severity of his wounds, he could look forward to treatment and rehabilitation in Japan or, if needed, he could be loaded onto a larger transport plane for additional transit to the continental U.S.