Korean War

My reserve unit was called up in August, 1950, and we were ordered to report to Camp Pendleton in California. I made my way out there and was absorbed into a training battalion made up of other reserves. Because of my previous service, I was given a leadership position (of sorts), and training, although physically fairly rigorous, was a breeze. We shipped out of San Diego after six weeks or so and I was off on my first ocean voyage—aboard a troop ship. This is not the place to go into sordid details, but because I was a sergeant and because I had the foresight to smuggle several pints of whiskey aboard the ship, I had a fairly easy, comfortable trip over, e.g., by trading the whiskey for choice food items. I was fortunate in not being seasick, and in some ways I enjoyed the experience, doing new and different things, observing pelagic birds way out at sea, seeing the phosphorescent glow of microscopic sea creatures for the first time, and so on. I was curious, sometimes bold, and often sneaky, and I think I managed to visit nearly every part of the ship, including officer’s quarters, during our 14-day voyage.

 

Usmc, gibill

P’burg

 

We landed in Yokohama, Japan, and were transported to Camp Otsu, a training facility whose location I am uncertain of. We were not in Otsu long, but that was my first experience in a foreign country, and I tried to make the most of it. In 1950, Japan was still recovering from the effects of the war. Camp Otsu was fairly primitive, streets outside were at most dimly lighted, and food was plain—but cheap. As many nights as I could, I went outside the camp to a small local restaurant named “Three Sisters,” owned by Achiko, Michiko, and Toshiko—how I remember those names I cannot say, but I am as certain of them as of the name Camp Otsu. At Three Sisters I mostly ate meals consisting of small pieces of beef, some vegetables, and rice. I remember, however, learning to use chopsticks and being truly impressed with the deft way in which the three youngish women could pick up an egg from a basket with chopsticks two-feet long or so and transfer the egg to a table or a pan some distance away. The three sisters had managed to learn some English so that at least elementary conversations were possible. My interest in cross-cultural psychology began there.

In mid-November of 1950, we shipped out of Japan and a couple of days later we disembarked in landing craft at Wonsan in North Korea. We used an abandoned school building as a barrack and stayed there two or three days. While there, we were visited by a small contingent of troops from Ireland. In the evening, as the Irish are wont to do, they broke into song. I will never forget hearing “Rose of Tralee” for the first time, a cappella and beautifully sung, or at least it seemed so at the time. Probably was, the singers being Irish. That was my first contact with a group of people from a European country, and I was entranced. More cross-cultural stimulation.

 

We left Wonsan for Hungnam, farther north, riding in open coal cars in a train of probably 15 cars. It was very cold, and we although we had warm clothing, we had little shelter from the wind—and the soot that sometimes rained down on us. Along the way we passed any number of small villages, farms communities, and so on, where people were gathered along the train track. We were amazed to seem small children sliding on patches of ice in their bare feet. My first real contact with the third world and abject poverty.

We were in our encampment at Hungnam only a fairly short time before the Chinese broke through American (USMC) lines at Hagaru-ri, up near the Yalu River. I missed by one day being sent up there with my security squad. While in Hungnam we made a few security patrols, uneventful but not without interest as there could have been North Korean military stragglers or sympathizers around. In the course of those patrols we learned a bit about Korean culture, or as most of us would have put it then, the way the “gooks” lived. I did not think then, and do not now, that the use of the term “gook” had any particular social meaning other than it was a word one needed to refer to the local people. But one particular day we learned something about Korean funerary practices, including the fact that they liked to bury their dead on hillsides in a sitting position so the dead could “look out” over the villages below. Some of my comrades were filled with derision at such practices, but I could not help thinking that American funerary practices were no less weird. Another lesson in cross-cultural thinking.

During that time, however, I began also to become aware of the extent to which the thinking of my comrades was conditioned by their own experiences and that they could no more change their views, their ways of thinking about the world, about the war, about the Korean people, and so forth than could Koreans simply decide to become American. That glimmer of insight not only stuck with me but has been elaborated over the years of my life and is critical to whatever tolerance I have developed for people different in any respect from me and my kind. I learned in the Marine Corps to get along with all kinds of people, to argue when it was interesting, to refrain when it would have been pointless, and, most of all, to try to respect people for what they were rather than condemn them for what they were not able to be. That capacity has been sorely tested over the years, including a great deal of difficulty in understanding during the time I was in graduate school how people could be Michigan football fans.

Because of the imminent danger of being overwhelmed by Chinese forces, we were evacuated by ship from Hungnam and taken to the port of Pusan in the south and from there to Masan where a base had been established. In the days just before our evacuation and while we were on the ship traveling south, rumors about what was going to happen to us were rife, but one that later proved interesting was that we were to be sent to Indochina to help the beleaguered French forces. Few of us had more than a rudimentary idea of even where Indochina was.

Masan was mostly boring, and I asked to be sent to Taegu a bit north, where front lines were at that time. I never made it, in very large part because, somewhat out of boredom, I asked to have an eye examination and was sent to Pusan, a brutal eight or ten hour truck ride each way, to be fitted for glasses. During the 48 hours I was away, a unit that I would likely have been part of was shipped north. In whatever odd way such things happen, an administration of the Army General Classification Test was scheduled to happen at Masan, and I was one of the Marines more or less ordered to take it. I was not much aware of what was going on, but some time later, I was asked to report to battalion headquarters, where I was informed that I could, if I chose, be returned to the United States for officers candidate training at Quantico Virginia.

It was an offer I could not refuse, and in short order, I was on a plane to Japan and very quickly thereafter on a plane to the United States. I had never been on a large aircraft before. The plane was a standard civilian airliner (not a jet) although lacking any pretty flight attendants. The plane landed at Wake Island for refueling, and as we circled the tiny island, I was struck with wonder about how the plane could find such a small, isolated bit of land in the middle of an enormous ocean. But landing at Wake, an unforgettable part of glorious Marine Corps history, was a treat. And to cap it, there was a bar where we were allowed to buy some sort of a tropical fruit rum drink. I had never had such a concoction.

By the time I arrived at Quantico in early summer of 1951, the Truman administration had been forced by economic circumstances to begin a reduction in force of the military. I, along with other newly arrived officer candidates, was given my choice of an immediate discharge or continuing in OCS. I liked the Marine Corps, for reasons not even now very clear to me, and was pretty gung ho and excited about becoming a platoon leader (whose function, obviously, I did not very well understand). But at about that time, we were moving into barracks, and we were given a mimeographed sheet of instructions about how to stow our gear. I remember, as a virtually eidetic image, seeing that my backpack was to be placed on top of my locker 3/8 inch from the left edge and 3/8 inch from the front edge of the locker. I just do not have the capacity to deal with that kind of detail, eighths of an inch! So, then and there, I decided to accept the discharge option.

By September, I was back at Ohio State, a sort of not-quite senior but with a course overload to make up for it.