"The Korean War"
After being fed and allowed to clean up a little, we were back on the train. It was dark when we pulled out, and I remember going through a small village. The train
stopped for a few minutes, and outside along the tracks were two young Korean men arguing. Of course, I couldn't understand a word they were saying. They started to
wrestle, and as the train pulled away they were tumbling down into the grass. I always wondered what the outcome was. The farther north we traveled, the more ravages of
war we saw. Buildings in the towns were all blown up, and bridges that had been bombed and had fallen into the rivers. Along the railroad tracks there were railcars in
the ditches on their sides that had also been bombed. Welcome Home!
However, the Korean civilians went about their daily lives. We could see them working in the rice fields. They did things with oxen pulling their carts and other equipment instead of tractors. They were not very advanced as a nation at that time. They carried heavy loads on their backs, and also they would carry baskets and containers on their heads. All of this seemed so strange to me, as I had never seen anything like this in person, only in the National Geographic magazines.
We were nearing the end of our train ride to the north. We arrived at the rail head sometime in the morning. This was South Korea. Farther up the road was North Korea. We were loaded on trucks for the rest of the trip. It was probably about twenty miles or so. We arrived at a camp site with a sign that said Welcome to the 2nd Engineer Battalion 2nd Division. There were several tents in the area. These were ususally called nine man squad tents, and were about fifteen feet by twenty-five feet. There were tents for headquarters, the mess hall, medical services, repair shops, and the church was also a tent.
Our truck stopped in front of the headquarters tent, and we were each called in for an interview to see where we would fit best in the 2nd Engineers Battalion. I was sent to the section that needed welders, as there were some bridges that were blown up and needed repairing or replacing. After the interview, I was sent down the road to the area I would be assigned. I met the new group. Some would become real good friends, and some would not. Maybe those who were not too friendly had just been there too long. That kind of life can be trying at times. But nevertheless, I met all different kinds of people. The group that I worked with got along real well.
My girlfriend Dolores and I decided that we would get married when my tour of duty was over, and Dolores being of the Catholic faith, asked that I take instructions from a priest while I was in the service and become a Catholic. Being a religious person, this was something I was looking forward to. Luckily, one of the guys I worked with was a Catholic, so he talked to the traveling priest that came to our outfit to say Mass every Sunday. The priest's name was Father Dietz, and he was from Los Angeles. We set up a schedule, and he would stop by our campsite about three nights a week, and we sat in his jeep and talked. I think he came around for four weeks, and then I was ready to be baptized.
Cpl. Bernard Ferak was my godfather. He was from Chicago. After Mass in the chapel tent, the baptismal ceremony was complete. I felt real good about this milestone in my life. I was happy to sit down on my bunk that night and write Dolores a letter telling her the news. Father Dietz told me that these Catholic girls who meet non-Catholic boys really help swell their ranks.
I'm going to take you back to my first day in the company. We loaded our equipment in the trucks, and were to go to the front and work on a bridge. Our campsite was located about five miles from the front lines, or about the same distance from the family farm back home to Hinton, IA. When we got there, we found the bridge we were supposed to work on. It was across a river about the size of the Floyd River in Sioux City, IA. On the opposite side of the river they had a machine running that produced a smoke screen to keep us from view of the enemy. Two of us would go out and work on the bridge for an hour, and then we would change off. There was a large hill that we would go behind and wait for our turn.
There was a big battle going on not too far from where we were, because they were hauling the wounded and those who had lost their lives past us using a temporary pontoon bridge to cross the river. They had jeeps with two stretchers mounted on each side. We were happy when this day was over and we could go back to our campsite.
I'll describe the campsite now, and how we lived from day to day. Korea is a very hilly and sometime mountain type country. Not like the Rocky Mountains but more like the Appalachian and Smokey Mountains in the eastern US. A lot of trees in some areas, but not really thick forests. There were lots of streams and small rivers that ran fast and lots of rocky bottoms, so the streams were very clean and one could see the bottom in most cases. I'm sure in and around the big cities and towns, this was not the case, because of the heavier population.
Our campsite was on a hillside with level areas dug out to set the tents. Our group had four large tents with room for nine bunks (army cots), and a pot-bellied stove in the center. As this was in June, the stove wasn't needed at that time. Mosqito nets were needed, though. We had four poles that fastened on the four corners of the cot, and were about three feet high. Over this we would drape the nets. Without the nets, the mosquitoes would eat you alive by morning. Sometimes at night we would close the flaps on the tents and then get the spray cans of repellent, poke a hole in the bottom and throw three or four in the tent. That usually got rid of a lot of them.
Our drinking water came out of the rivers. There were sections in the army whose job it was to pump the water from the rivers with large gas engine driver pumps, and purify the water. They put a lot of chlorine in it. Then different companies would go there with water trucks or trailers and haul loads of water back to their areas. It took a lot of water to supply the mess halls and the showers, as well as provide drinking water for a large army. Of course, there were many of these water purifying stations set up all across Korea.
Each tent in our section had a container of water, and that was our drinking water. Just dip in with our canteen cup and get a drink. There were portable showers, but in the summer time we would bathe in the rivers. In the winter time, they would try to have hot water in the portable showers, but they were froze up most of the time. Then we would resort to a pan of water heated on the pot-bellied stove and try to clean up that way. Twenty below zero in a tent just wasn't the place to do that. Sometimes we just went without bathing for weeks at a time.
We put cardboard, paper, or anything else we could find on the canvas cots first, then the sleeping bags on top of that. It helped to keep the cold from coming up from underneath. Then you would crawl into the sleeping bag with snow boots, all your clothes on, and also a parka to keep warm. The sleeping bags were filled with duck feathers, and I remember one time a snap on my boot ripped my bag full length as I crawled in. When I got out in the morning, I had feathers all over. I was lucky the supply sergeant had one to replace it with.
Each outfit had its own generator to produce electricity. We didn't use a lot of it, but it was handy to have. The generator was mounted on a two-wheeled trailer, and from there we ran wiring to each of the tents. There were ususally two light bulbs per tent hanging from the tent poles. About darktime, the generator man would go down and start the generator and run it for about three hours. The guy's name was Frank Clipper. He was a real slow talking guy, and never got excited about anything. Once in a while the generator would run out of gas, and everything would go black. We would all yell and holler at Clipper. He would just take his time and amble on down, and after a while we would hear it start back up. Everyone would cheer and then we would be able to finish writing a letter or whatever we were doing.
The tents all had dirt floors, so we would dig a hole under our bunk about two feet square and a foot deep, then line it with wood or whatever we could find, then make a lid for it. In there we would keep what we called a stash. This consisted of things like a can of peanut butter and crackers, and other goodies sent from home like cookies. Then we could have a snack late at night. What one guy didn't have another probably had, so we usually came up with some pretty good grub. My mother sent home-made cookies every once in a while. They usually got here in pretty good shape, but one time they got beat up in shipment so bad they were just crumbs when I opened the package. It didn't matter to me, they still tasted great.
It was nearing Christmas, and we didn't have a tree. We never saw any evergreen trees in Korea, so we didn't know what we were going to do. The mail truck showed up that day, and one of the guys received a package from his mother. He opened it up, and lo and behold, in it was an artificial Christmas tree about two feet tall and completely decorated. All we had to do was set it on a bench, fold out the branches, and we had our Christmas tree. God bless our mothers.
One day I was assigned the duty of delivering a large generator up to the front line. They used it to power large powerful search lights. They would shine them to the north across No Man's Land, and onto the hills where the enemy was. This was done to discourage enemy troop movement during the night. We probably lost some due to mortar fire, but we continued the practice. The implacement was on top of a large hill, and the trail up was very steep. The generator was mounted on a four-wheel trailer, and this was in the box of my truck. I didn't have any chains to tie it down, and I was afraid it would roll out as I started the steep climb. I looked around for something to block the wheels with, and found an abandoned machine gun bunker with lots of sandbags lying around. I stacked them in behind the wheels to keep the machine from rolling out and continued my climb up the hill. Those guys in that outfit were glad to see me as they were in dire need of a generator.
All of their operations were conducted in underground bunkers. They took me down and showed me their quarters and the operating room. It was shored up with timbers and whatever they could find. Not very fancy, but very serviceable. Getting by with what's available and making things work that seem impossible is called GI Inginuity.
Most of the roads we traveled near the front were no more than trails pushed out by a bulldozer. Most were in the valleys and the low country behind hills. There was one spot that was about three miles long that was in a danger zone, as it was possible to be in view of the enemy as we traveled that portion. I crossed that with no problems, but was relieved when I got through it. This was the road I had to use on the way back from delivering the generator.
By now it was early in the morning, and as I rounded a bend in the road, I saw one of our trucks stalled. It was a very cold morning, and the driver was very cold also, as he had been there most of the night. He said he had matches with him, but was afraid to build a bonfire to keep warm with, because he knew how close to the front lines he was. He said he was never so glad to see someone in his life. The road was not used any more than necessary, so he could have had a long wait. I gave him a ride back to our outfit, and as far as I know, his truck is still there.
As for night driving, every vehicle was equipped with what was called cat's eyes. They had the normal headlights, but covering them was a piece of tin with a little narrow slot about a half inch by three inches. This would allow just enough light to pass to see the road and also to see another vehicle if we were to meet one coming towards us. Sometimes it wasn't enough light, because we had two trucks involved in a head-on collision.
The ROK, or Republic of Korea army assigned some of their soldiers to American divisions. We had three assigned to our group. Lee So Yung, Oh Yung Soon and Jo Byuing In. Jo was assigned to work with me, and we became good friends. He would teach me Korean, and I would teach him English. We got so we could communicate real well with each other. However, I doubt if anyone else knew what we were talking about. Korean and English; what a mix.
There was an explosive device that was used at that time called a Bangalore Torpedo. It was a piece of pipe loaded with powder, and when set off, it would explode into several small pieces. Our First Sergeant's name was Pete. One day he found a piece of pipe he wanted to make something out of, so he brought it to the welding section and wanted it cut in half with a cutting torch. The guy he asked told him that he didn't think it was a pipe, that it may be an old torpedo. Sgt. Pete insisted it was OK to torch it, so the guy started the cut. Needless to say, it blew. Luckily it was old and didn't have much powder, so no one got hurt. But from that day on the sarge was known as Bangalore Pete.
One rainy night I was on guard duty. It was dark and raining very hard. My post was in the area where the headquarters, mess tents, and other buildings were located. I could make out in the dark three men coming towards me. I called for the men to halt, then slowly advance and be recognized. The next step was to challenge them with the first half of the password. Guess what? I had forgotten the password, and the three men I had standing in front of me in a rainstorm while I was trying to remember the password were three high-ranking officers. Needless to say, I received a reprimand right there on the spot. One of life's most embarrassing moments.
We had been at this campsite for about six months, and it was time for us to move off front line duty, and go south to a reserve area. This was about twenty-five miles from the line. We would be there for about thirty days, and then return to the front again, but to a different area than where we had been. We would leave all of our tents stand as they were, and the new outfit moving in would use our complex as we left it. And we were told all tents would be set up for us when we arrived at the reserve area. The ones we left had wooden floors that we had made out of old crates. The sides had been well staked down, and had sandbags all around the edges to keep the cold winds out as this was in the winter. When we arrived at the new site, the tents were up, just as they said. But that was all. The winter winds were blowing hard, and the sides of the wall tent were sticking straight out in the wind, and snow was blowing through. What a let-down. This was a new campsite, and we were the first to use it. We were wishing we were back in our old area. We survived the night, and went to work the next morning trying to make it more liveable.
Even in reserve areas there had to be a fox hole for every two men. I remember there was a Puerto Rican guy in our outfit that passed the word around that he would dig fox holes for five dollars. So we hired him to dig ours. It was tough digging, and he probably wished he had charged more.
We spent about a month in this area, and then it was time to move back up on line again. We loaded everything on the trucks, including the large squad tents we lived in, and headed north. You must remember the roads and trails that we were to travel were not well marked, and we were in the middle of a blizzard. Our convoy was headed north, and we had to cross some mountain trails. As luck would have it, we met a convoy of trucks going south. The road was very narrow, and there was barely enough room for two trucks to pass. In the midst of darkness and the blowing snow, one of the south-bound trucks ran a front wheel off the edge of a cliff. Both convoys were stopped. My truck was about ten trucks back from the problem, and we were told to stay with our vehicles. It was very cold, and there weren't any heaters in the trucks. They had canvas cabs. We went in the back of the trucks and sort of burrowed in under all of the bundles of tents and other items we were hauling to keep warm. I never did find out who, or how they, got that truck back on the road, but after about two hours we were moving again.
We finally arrived at what we thought was our new campsite. It was still dark and the snow was still blowing. We decided to wait until daylight to start setting up camp. All of a sudden there was live ammo flying over our heads from both the North Koreans and our own troops. We had come too far north, and were actually in the center of No Man's Land. It didn't take us long to start moving out of there. We finally got where we were supposed to be.
During the trip up in the blizzard, all the food trucks but one got lost and didn't show up for two more days. The one that did make it only had crates of apples in the truck. We lived on frozen apples until the other trucks found us. We set our tents up as quickly as possible, and got our little pot-bellied stoves going. As it warmed up around the stove the ground started to melt. This was in an area that was once farm land. The Koreans used human waste for fertilizer, so when the ground got warm around the stove, the smell coming from the ground was far from pleasant.
One cold night I was on guard duty walking my post. It took me through the area where most of the tents were. As it was such a bitter cold night, they had those little stoves really cranked up. I thought I could smell smoke coming out of one of the tents. I opened the flap door and shined my flashlight in. There was a guy in his his sleeping bag curled up tight around the stove, and his sleeping bag was on fire. I shook him and got him awake and put the fire out. He said that he was so cold he thought he would sleep on the ground closer to the stove, but in his sleep he just kept getting closer to the stove. He was one thankful person. It was a good feeling on my part too, as I had probably saved a life that cold winter night.
Another time I was walking guard at night in an area where the trucks were parked. It seemed as though I could hear footsteps in the trees behind me. I found a truck to stand behind and watched, but I never saw a thing. About the time I convinced myself that it was nothing, I could hear the footsteps again. To this day I still don't know if someone was there, or if my eyes and ears were playing tricks on me. I was glad when that night was over.
The enemy had a small propeller-driven plane that they would fly in after dark and drop bombs on gasoline storage areas. There would be hundreds of barrels of gasoline stored there. There was one about ten miles from where we were. We could see the sky all lit up from the fire after they hit it. The reason they used these small planes for this is that our jets were too fast. The jets would already be past them before they had a chance to shoot them down. They were nicknamed Bed Check Charlies, as they usually came in about ten in the evening.
When there was heavy fighting going on, the sky would be lit up to the north of us, or there would be bright flashes from the big gun implacements. There was also the constant sound of machine guns. The loud rumble and lit up skies sounded and looked like a severe thunderstorm around the midwest.
One time during the summer, the Bob Hope USO Tour was coming over to entertain the troops. Our job was to build the stage for them. We found a clearing in the trees and started construction. We used iron fence posts to build the framework, and then covered it with canvas. It turned out pretty good. It had a covered stage with wings on each side, steps to go up on stage, the whole works. The only problem was that the summer rains came and turned the roads into a quagmire and it was impossible to get the Bob Hope show up there. I often wonder if that stage is still there.
Sometimes I would go to different companies to pick up people to help on critical projects. I remember going to B Company to get a sergeant and bring him back to our outfit. When I got there he invited me into their chow tent for coffee before we left. We spent about twenty minutes there and then we left. As we were driving down the road, a mortar round came in and took the tent out. Luckily it was at a time that no one was in there, and we had just left. There were mortar rounds coming in on the hillsides along our road also, and all of a sudden they just stopped. We were glad of that.
When new trucks, jeeps, tanks and other equipment were shipped to Korea from Japan, they came in to Seoul, which was the capitol of South Korea. They weren't really new, but rebuilt equipment. The army brought a lot of the equipment from the islands that were left from WWII into Japan, and they would go through a disassembly process and any part that was worn out would be replaced. The trucks were then repainted and new tires were mounted on them. They looked and ran like brand new.
We had to go to Seoul to get our allotment. It was probably ten trucks, ten jeeps and ten weapon carriers. They loaded us in the back of trucks and headed south. It hadn't rained for quite some time, and the roads were about a foot deep with dry dust. It just swirled around the tires. These trucks had canvas tops over the boxes where we were riding, and that created a vacuum which in turn sucked dust up into the back of the truck. We could hardly breathe, so we tied handkerchiefs around our faces to keep from breathing the dust. Seoul was about fifty miles south, so we had quite a ride. We finally arrived at our destination and had to wait most of the day before we could start back. We had to line our trucks up out on the street and then wait until everyone was ready to leave.
I was the first truck out, and as I was waiting these Koreans, probably teen-aged kids or young adults, were all over the truck and trying to take money or anything they could from us. They really became irate and mean. I reached behind the seat and got my rifle. They continued hollering obscenities and taunting me, yelling "Go ahead and shoot, GI, you be in more trouble than us!" Anyway, they stayed away from the truck, and we left a few minutes after that.
As we left Seoul and started heading north, we saw a storm coming up. It wasn't long until it started to rain, and it was a torrential downpour all the way back. The road we came down on that was a foot deep in dust suddenly became a quagmire of soupy mud about a foot deep. We plowed mud all the way back. Some of the jeeps didn't have tops, so there were a lot of soaked drivers at the end of the trip. It was a mess, but it sure beat breathing all that dust.
Whenever we went up on line for different projects, we were required to wear flack-jackets, or bullet-proof vests. We checked them out from the supply tent as we didn't need them all the time. And of course the steel pot, or helmet. The steel pot was with us all the time, as was the M-1 Rifle. We lived with our rifles. We carried them everywhere we went, or they always at least within arm's reach. We carried a carbine on guard duty, as they were much lighter than the M-1. The flack-jacket was quite heavy, and was made of several steel plates about four inches square, and sewn in the lining of the jacket.
If a person was up on line for a certain number of days, he could apply for what is called fox hole pay, or hazardous duty pay. I believe that payed an extra forty dollars a month.
As this war was UN (United Nations) sponsored, there were people from many different countries there. At one time we had the Greeks on one side of us and the French on the other side. We also spent time next to the Dutch, Turks and English troops. Of course, the United States had many more troops there. An English sergeant and I worked together for a while. We would take a truck and pick up a load of Korean civilians and then haul them out to do road work. I suppose they got paid something, but never knew for sure.
There was a part of the road we traveled that was in front of the big gun implacements. They were up on the mountainside and fired over the vehicles on the road. It seemed as though they would wait until someone was on the road and then start firing. And believe me, they made a lot of noise. The English sergeant I was with said, in a very English way, "The bloody bastards! I think they do it on purpose!" We were so far north that we could see our jets dropping incendiary bombs on enemy implacemants. We couldn't actually see the implacements, but we could see all the smoke afterwards.
It was nearing Christmas again, and our sergeant rounded up about ten of us, and told us we were going to sing Christmas carols for some newsreel guy that was over here. This was before television was popular, and most of the filmed war news was shown in movie theaters between shows. So we all got in the back of the truck and drove down the road behind some hills, and we all sang Christmas carols. The newsreel guy said this would look good to the people back home. As soon as he was done with us, they trucked us back to our outfit and back to work as usual.
We didn't eat a lot of C-Rations while we were there, but if we were going to be away from our campsite all day we would. We stopped at the supply tent and they would issue them to us. It was a package about the size of a shoe box. Inside was a can of beanie-weenies, a can of spam, or sometimes corned beef and hash. There was also a chocolate bar, some crackers, a pack of cigarettes and maybe some dried food of some kind. These C-Rations were leftover from WWII, so they were already five or six years old. The chocolate bars were usually all white and powdered from age. The canned food was about all that was edible. To heat the cans, we would poke a small hole in the lid to let the steam escape, and then set them on the exhaust manifold of the truck. By the time we got where we were going, the food was warm and ready to be eaten. One guy forgot to poke a hole in his, and when he opened the hood of his truck, he saw the can had exploded and there were beanie-weenies everywhere.
One day we were standing in line to go into the chow tent when we saw two planes coming in. The front one was a Russian Mig, and one of our planes was chasing him. There was a lot of machine gun fire, so we all headed for the fox holes. There were about six guys in the hole we headed for. I was the last one there, so I just laid flat on top of the rest of them. When the planes were gone we all crawled out. Sergeant Stiffarm, who was American Indian, was on the bottom. It just so happened that a day or so before, some GI used that fox hole for a toilet. Sergeant Stiffarm crawled out and was looking at the mess all over his sleeve. He talked kind of slow, and said "Boy, I got the dirty end of that deal!"
I remember one night in our tent, some of the guys were playing cards. I was writing a letter, and others were just visiting, when all of a sudden this guy stood up and started shooting his rifle. Not at anyone in particular, he just shot wildly. We didn't know him, as he had just been assigned to our outfit. He had already been in Korea a long time, so we don't know if being there too long just got to him or what. Anyway the MP's were called and they hauled him away. We never found out what happened to him.
Kenny Price, a star of the TV show Hee-Haw, was in our outfit. Of course this was about twenty years before that show was even thought of. We would go over to their tent and listen to him play and sing. He liked to play Hank Williams songs. He was a lot of fun to be around.
We had large rock-crushing machines that provided material to put on the roads. I remember one time I was hauling, and sitting in a line of trucks to be loaded. I could hear someting rattling on the other side of my truck. I got out and walked around the other side. There were about six or seven old Korean men standing in line. They all had cigarette lighters tied onto a wire, and they were sliding them down into the gas tank to fill them. I didn't get mad at them as I thought it was kind of funny. However, I did have to chase them away.
It was mid-summer of 1953, and rumors were that a cease-fire was near. On July 27, 1953, our commanding officer called us together and informed us that at ten AM, the armistace would be signed and all hostilities would cease. I remember that morning as the big guns were firing more and it sounded like both sides were giving it their all. But at ten AM it all stopped. No more hostilities. A lot of cheers and applause followed, as the war was over. However, our normal duties would continue.
About the first part of September I was notified that my tour of duty was over and I would be going home. A truck would be at our outfit in the morning to pick me up, as well as others in different companies along the way. When the truck came I was ready to go, except for one thing: saying good-bye to my Korean friend, Jo Byung In. We both knew that after nearly two years of working together, that this was the last time we would see each other. We shook hands and wished each other well. I turned and walked to the truck, climbed in, and as the truck drove away we gave each other a final wave, and I was on the first step of a long journey home.