I was smart, very lazy and thought I knew it all. Typical asshole teenager.
I was really looking very hard for job and finding nothing. The year 1948 was marked by a depression. I attempted to follow my father's footsteps by joining the Merchant Marine. Dumb idea as the number of seamen had swelled during the war and there was little shipping left. But I wanted desperately to go to sea, so each morning I went to the hiring hall, waiting for a ship. I found out much later that I wasn't 'in the system' and could still be sitting there because I didn't pay the 'right' people. Mom and I had numerous conflicts about the fact that I wasn't working and could not find a job.
Mom likes to say that she packed my bags and left then outside the door in the hallway. That has more than a grain of truth. Her claim is that she packed my bags and left them outside the door. That part's untrue but, she kicked me out, that's for sure. I had decided since I could not find the job I would join the U.S. Army.
I had joined the National Guard in June of 1948, mainly for the four days pay per month, I enjoyed 'playing soldier' one night a week and then two weeks a year at camp. I entered the Army on the 18th April 1949. Basic training was for four months at Fort Ord, California. After basic training I was assigned to the Ordnance School at Aberdeen , Maryland. The battery of tests had shown an aptitude for Auto Repair and I was assigned to that school at Aberdeen. After arriving at auto repair school, I explained that I had some experience at watch repair and asked to talk to the instructors at that school. I walked into the watch repair school and talked to the Sergeant in charge. I explained the training I had taken and that I had done watch repair in the past. He gave me a 21 jewel Hamilton, railroad grade pocket watch. This was kind'a like the Cadillac of watches. He said that it was broken and go fix it. I found the problem, and I asked him were the lathe was so that I could make a new balance wheel shaft (I had been trained in apprentice school), he explained that we only only repaired watches, we didn't make them. He gave me the parts that I asked for. I put in the new balance wheel shaft and new main spring, then re-timed (adjusted) the watch and gave it back to him. I told him that one of the bearing jewels was cracked and should be replaced in the future. He looked over my work, then looked me over, and said that I had just past the final exam for the class! I didn't have to take the course but instead became an instructor. I spent the rest of 1949 teaching at the Ordnance School in the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Maryland.
In early 1950 now 18 years old, I was reassigned it to Fort George G. Meade, Virginia, about 30 miles from Washington D.C.. Here I joined the Second Army, 5th Battalion, 27th Light Ordnance Company. This Light Ordnance Company consisted of watch repairmen, optical instrument repair men, small arms repairmen, and automobile mechanics. Fort George G. Meade is only 30 miles from Washington D.C. and every weekend was spent visiting the historical sites and locations around town. I was lucky enough to spend a whole week visiting the Smithsonian Institution and the Nation Academy of Science. I was in 'seventh-heaven'.
In June I received a three-week leave. I hitched a ride on an Air Force B-25 back to Travis AFB near San Francisco and my family. I wanted to be home on my brother Ray's 17th birthday in late June. I had only been home a few days when I received a telegram saying to return immediately as our outfit was being deployed to Japan!
Upon returning I found that my gear had already been packed by my buddies. The next day we were loaded on trains. The whole Second Army was headed for Japan. We rode three days and nights cross-country on the train. The route was via the northern Rockies to Fort Lewis, Washington, on the Pacific Coast. Ironically, I could have gotten to Fort Lewis much easier from SF than returning across the country and then back again. We spent six days at Fort Lewis, waiting for the other elements to drive cross country with our equipment. Lots of rumors were flying about as to why the big rush to get us to Japan. While most of us thought that Japan would be a great assignment we had no idea of the rush. Most of us thought that it was the typical army way..hurry up and wait. Little did we know what tomorrow held!
We were scheduled to leave for Japan on the 27th of June. On the 26th of June 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. On the 27th the UN declared sanctions against North Korea. History has held that this was a 'sneak' attack, but someone knew something because we were on our way a week earlier. So much for our Japan duty, everybody scrambled to figure out were the hell Korea was.
My first sea journey, something that I had dreamed about, was the 19 days from Fort Lewis Washington USA to Sasabeo, Japan. I was seasick almost the whole way! Rumors were rife about what our task would be in Japan, although most of us knew we would go straight on to Korea. The 17th day at sea you could actually smell Japan even though we had several hundred miles still to travel. At that time the Japanese (and the Koreans) were using the human effluent for fertilizer on their fields. That smell was detectable 500 miles at sea. We spent a single day in Sasabeo without even being allowed ashore. So much for Japan duty. We loaded more units who had flown to Japan. More people on an already overloaded ship. We arrived in Korea on July 18th less than a month after the action had started.
According to my service record I spent 1 year, 7 months and 27 days on active duty in Korea. What follows is information from my memory, letters that I written home to Mom, and references from several books. Both 'The Forgotten War' and the 'Korean War' were useful for exact dates. My letters to Mom talked about things happening, but I seldom mentioned specific dates . It wasn't until last year (2000) while cleaning out Mom's house that I came across my old Korean letters. She had saved them for almost fifty years! Had they been typewritten, instead of by hand, I would have 'scanned' them into the computer as I did the sailing letters. Here I have to pick out bits and pieces. In general most of the letters were complains about the army, Korea and the weather!
During the first three weeks after arriving in Korea we were sent to the front near the town of Teagu. I had never fired my weapon except in training and I was immediately placed with a large number of other new recruits, we dug in and were told to 'hold the line' regardless. Some how I was selected as the BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) man. The BAR is like a machine gun capable of firing very rapidly. Trigger happy as we were we shot at anything that moved across the 'line'. After a week or so of living in foxholes and pulling night patrols across the 'line', we became 'old vets', and regaled the newer recruits with war stories. It was about the end of July that we were under a night mortar attack when I got 'wounded'. I put wounded in quotes because the wound was only 3 inch piece of shrapnel in my right buttocks! I had been caught out in the open when the shells started dropping and my only protection was to try and crawl under a dead horse! I couldn't get all of me under, hence the butt shot. I thought that they would send me home, instead they pulled it out, took a bunch of stitches, powered me with sulfa, shot me with penicillin and sent me back to the unit. Officially my records show a Purple Heart citation. So at least it was official, even though it was superficial.
There were thousands of Korean refugees all heading south and it became difficult to decide which were refugees and which were soldiers in civilian clothes. We had South Koreans assigned to screen for soldiers and weapons. There was a lot of infiltration and often we were attacked from the rear.
The Air Force was providing coverage at this time and they made a lot of mistakes. We soon were hiding from our own bombs and napalm. Why we didn't get killed, I'll never know. I did suffer a severe concussion from a near miss, and was sent back for two days observation at a field hospital. All I could remember was the planes starting a bomb run and the next thing I knew it was two days later and I was being checked out of the field hospital. Before I could rejoin my unit, the Marines had landed in Pusan. They relieved us and we returned to Pusan. I was now an 'old vet' having spent a month at the front! Firing my BAR at all that moved!
In Pusan we were put to work 'arming' 105 and 155 mm artillery shells. We off-loaded boxed ammunition from the ships. Then we armed the shells by screwing in live fuses. Once fused the shells were loaded into railroad boxcars for the trip north to the front. We continued loading ammunition through the month of August. During this time I had located a railroad boxcar full of cases of beer. I told my commanding officer and with his blessing we 'liberated' the beer. We saved all the empty cans, reloaded then back into the beer cases and returned the boxcar to the same siding before the next morning. I justified the 'liberation' with the rational that it was headed for the black market anyhow. I would have loved to see the faces of whoever the beer was assigned to, when they found all empties!
In September there was a massive breakout and we started North. By mid-September we had passed the area that I had help defended the month before. We were headed north on the MSR (main supply route) back to the South Korean capital of Seoul. The Marines had landed at Inchon Harbor. They drove the North Koreans back east into Seoul. We joined forces and by Oct we had pushed the North Koreans past the 38th parallel heading North.
The North Koreans were in full flight, having hammered for three months at the brick wall around Pusan, they were spent. They had overrun their supply lines, lost their good Russian tanks to our air power, lost an estimated 50,000 men, and were a beaten army.
We took the North Korean capital of Pyongyang in mid-Oct. Rumor was that the Chinese volunteers were about to cross the Yalu River and fight along side of the North Koreans. Mac Arthur was talking about dropping the atom bomb on China if they entered the war. Truman met him on Wake island and told him to 'shut-up', which he didn't do. This led to his eventual firing the following April.
One of the letters back home to Mom says that on October the 27th 1950 I stood on the south bank of the Yalu River and could see China across the water. Four days later the Chinese 'volunteers' crossed the river in large numbers and we started retreating south. Within days it was known as the 'Big Bug out'. By 3 November the army and the Marine units were in full retreat. My group of four repair vehicles were stopped a road junction by a Marine MP and told to take the left fork. That road lead east to the Chosin reservoir. The MP said that left was the only 'open' road and they were saving people with a sea evacuation at Hangnum. I ignored his orders. Instead (thank god) I ordered our vehicles to turn right onto the main supply route (MSR). The MSR headed south, which was directly away from the Chinese. To me that was the preferred direction. Within a half-hour we're under mortar attack and I lost three men and three of the four trucks before we found a way around. A few days later we were back in Pyongyang and rejoined our unit. All of the units in and around Pyongyang launched a counter-attack, which failed. We were again retreating south on the MSR. The Chinese 'owned' the land and we 'held' the roads. So long as we could speed south the Chinese couldn't catch us. I remember that Thanksgiving dinner was as promised, air dropped near the front. Turkey, with all the trimmings. But it was served cold, in a muddy ditch along-side the road, mud up to our knees. No tables, or plates just your mess kit, and sitting on a muddy bank. Did I mention that it was pretty muddy?.
During the first week of December we were again in full retreat heading south. Mid-December found us back in Seoul where we occupied the same university dormitory as on our rush north three months ago. I had been here for six months, and had been in the fighting the whole time.
In mid-December Truman declared a national state of emergency and ordered a one year involuntary extension to all enlistment durations. That meant, like it or not, I was in until April 1953. Damn, I could send the whole time here.
Christmas was bleak that year and extremely cold. As a California boy I had never felt cold like this. Mom's Christmas package was delivered and a loaf of San Francisco sourdough bread was hollowed out and inside was a bottle of whiskey. My entire squad enjoyed both the bread and whiskey. There was no liquor in Korea because some group in the U.S. had lobbied to keep us all free of 'demon rum'. We can die, but we can't have a drink!
January 1, 1951 the Chinese started another offense that drove us out of Seoul. We were again in 'bug-out' mode. By mid-January we were on the Kum River north of the village of Teajon, a hundred miles south of Seoul. I got a Red Cross message that my father was to be in Pusan Harbor on or about the 16 of January. The company commander gave me an order (permission) to drive to Pusan and 'pick up supplies' and by the way 'take a week and see your old man'. A real nice Captain, that guy.
My birthday, January the 20th, was celebrated with my father in Pusan. Somehow I had survived nineteen years of life and as a present my father rented the entire house of ill-repute! Yes, a whole whore house for my old man and me. The two of us had the choice of eight different girls. I can't remember much of the night as I had been drinking liquor that Dad had brought from the ship. I'm sure I had great 20th birthday party. I just don't remember much of it. Even had I remembered all, I certainly couldn't relate it to this mixed audience.
Dad had 'green backs' (real American dollars) instead of military script. Military script was used so that the Koreans could not acquire 'real' U.S. money. The military script was used as legal tender in Korea but not the states. I traded Dad's green backs on the black-market at 3 to 1. His three hundred dollars became 900 dollars script. I took the script to the Military Post Office and wrote a money order for nine hundred dollars to my father. My father then took the money order back to a ship and cashed it in for 900 dollars green back. We again ran in exchange and turned the 900 dollars in the 2700 dollars. At that point I got cold feet and dad and I divided the money 50-50. I took my script to the Military Post Office and wrote a money order, which I mailed to Mom to deposit for me. What a great night and nice birthday present!
During March fierce fighting broke the North Korea/Chinese lines and we again the headed North. Both sides made the same mistake, over running the supply lines and not having the supplies to fight a war. In my letter to Mom I told her one of the highlights of March was that a field shower unit had finally caught up with us. First time since Christmas I had a hot shower and new clothes. While in Teajon I visited a mass grave of over 2200 people, mostly men, in an open pit. They had been gunned down with their hands and feet tied. I took pictures, but after development I threw them away. No one could understand. The smell of 2200 rotting bodies is something you'll never forget. To this day I don't know if they were killed by North Koreans/Chinese or South Koreans/ROK . The civilians suffer in a war much more than the soldiers who have at least food, clothes and shelter.
In April MacArthur is fired. Almost to a man the GI's were glad, even though back home there was a lot of criticism. We were glad because he still wanted to send us across the Yalu River into China. He still advocated atomic weapons. Also, he had defied a direct order from Truman, (to shut up) in the Army you don't disobey orders. Period.
In early June we started north again and had retaken Seoul and were north of the magic latitude 38. We pushed further north and won the 'golden triangle'. We were at a point that we could again take large sections of North Korea. Both sides had decided that this wouldn't work and had declared a cease fire. The cease-fire talks had began in on July 10 at Keasong.
On July 18 at I had been in Korea for one-year and was due to be rotated home at the end of the month. Instead of rotating home they added a six month period of foreign service. Instead of going home, I got one week R&R (rest and recuperation) in Tokyo Japan. For sixty dollars you got a room, a girl, and food for week. I don't think I ever got out of bed during the week. I learned the pleasures of; a warm bed, warm food, a warm bath, warm sake, a warm body and a full night's sleep. These are listed in in no real order, they were all equal at that time.
Since the cease-fire had happened we were living the good life. Little to do and we had some creature comforts at last.
A British Army Ordnance Company set up their camp near ours. Every night I would go next door and play chess. The stakes were, loser supply the beer, since they got a nightly beer ration (and we still got none) I had to play damn hard. I met and made many friends and maintained contact for several years after the war. Bernie confided that he had let a game or two 'go' because he knew I couldn't pay off. I organized a soccer match between the yanks and the limeys. Actually it was a laughing match, not a soccer match, as we really couldn't play soccer. However the 'brits' supplied the beer, so all was well. Later we found that they couldn't play our 'football' either.
During this time I contacted a watch supply company in San Francisco and brought two hundred watches, with the name SPENCER on the dial. I offered the best deal in Korea, if you had a watch with the name SPENCER on the dial I would fix it free of charge any time you brought it to me. I sold the watches for 20 dollars apiece making 8 dollars per watch. The money was sent home for Mom to deposit for me.
The winter was over and although the summer was more humid that I liked, the days were spent mostly in idle activities. I would borrow the shotgun and bring home pheasants for the barbecue, sometimes it was the small deer that were plentiful. If no game was to be had then off to the village to barter for a pig or a small goat. We were still on C rations and the additional protein was welcome.
I contracted both malaria and amoebic dysentery about the same time, and before they had it under control I had dropped from about 170 to less that 100 pounds. I thought sure (first) that I would die, (second) they would ship me back to the states before I died and (third) if they get me back and then fix me, I'm out of here. I spent a week on a hospital ship in Pusan before they whipped the bug. Although to this day (2001), I sometimes get a reoccurrence.
Thanksgiving 1951 was all that last year was not. We had a fantastic meal. Turkey with all the trimmings. Someone had 'liberated' California wine and there was plenty of beer. It was again getting cold, and this California Kid wasn't looking forward to another winter here. I had been here a year and four or five months and I wanted out.
Within a week or so we got the word .. WE WERE GOING HOME! By mid-December we were in Sasabeo (has it been a year and a half!). They gave us steaks, and real milk and (fantastic) french fries. Believe it or not all the ICE CREAM you could eat. I smothered everything in real butter, it was so good.
We left Japan on the 18th of Dec, I had been in Korea 1 year and 5 months. The troopship was really overloaded, it was make for 1500 and we were double that. The only way to handle that many was with six tier bunks, and sleeping two shifts. I was seasick and going below was a nightmare. The trip home was almost a month (for a two week trip), we dodged storms and even sat in the lee of Dutch Harbor Alaska for two days of shelter. It seemed that we did more north and south to dodge storms than east and west. The ship ran out of fresh food and we were back on C rations, and a canteen of water a day. No showers and 3000 sweaty bodies made going below a nightmare. I spent much time on deck, as cold as it was in the middle of the Pacific. As we neared San Francisco, and it got warmer, I finally went below to get my gear and found that everything I owned had been stolen.
We reached San Francisco on the 15th of Jan 1952. Just five days before my 21st birthday! We passed under the Golden Gate Bridge in thick fog and rain. As we sailed under I threw a hand full of coins overboard. The guy next to me asked why I did that and I replied to appease the 'war gods' so I'm never have to do this again. Before I knew it the word spread and everyone was emptying their pockets to the gods. I was the only one on deck that didn't have rain gear (in fact no gear just my clothes with one month use). I didn't expect it but, there on the dock, at Fort Mason was my entire family. Mom, dad, brother and all my cousins. They saw that I was soaked and threw an umbrella up to me. The next morning my picture was on the front page of the Chronicle, the only GI of thousands with an umbrella.
Now Korea was behind me, I was almost twenty one, a sargent first class with a few months to go in the Army, and ready to pick up life where I left off almost four year ago. I was (still) smart, no longer lazy, well disciplined, had specific plans for my life, old for my age, and dumb enough to think that I knew it all...