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On a crowded train from Pusan to Seoul, the brutal rape of a young mother sparks rage on the powder-keg peninsula of Korea, pitting Koreans against Americans and the 8th Army brass against the truth. Eyewitness accounts indicate the culprit was most likely a U.S. serviceman, but by the time Sergeants George Sueno and Ernie Bascom, U.S. Army investigators, are called in, the rapist has disappeared and anti-American fervor in this...
On a crowded train from Pusan to Seoul, the brutal rape of a young mother sparks rage on the powder-keg peninsula of Korea, pitting Koreans against Americans and the 8th Army brass against the truth. Eyewitness accounts indicate the culprit was most likely a U.S. serviceman, but by the time Sergeants George Sueno and Ernie Bascom, U.S. Army investigators, are called in, the rapist has disappeared and anti-American fervor in this proud Asian country is threatening to explode.
George and Ernie search in vain for the culprit, all the while becoming entangled in the web of military apologists who deny that any Americans were involved, and the designs of a beautiful blonde musician who fronts an all-female country western band—a woman who is out to entertain the troops in more ways than one.
Delay causes more tragedy—and this time murder—and sets off a frantic search for a killer that stretches from the sizzling hot Demilitarized Zone to the cold waters of the Yellow Sea and introduces George Sueno and Ernie Bascom to a ruthless Korean homicide investigator known to anyone foolish enough to cross him as Mr. Kill.
Hot metal shrieked as the Blue Train express from Pusan braked its way into the vast yard of Seoul-yok, the downtown Seoul Railroad Station. Someone barked an order.
Two squads of khaki-clad Korean National Policemen fanned out along the cement platform, prowling like shadows through roiling clouds of vapor.
“Whoever this guy is,” Ernie told me, “G.I. or not, he’s about to be introduced to a whole world of butt-kick.”
My name is George Sueño. I’m an investigator for the Criminal Investigation Division of the 8th United States Army in Seoul, Republic of Korea. Myy partner, Ernie Bascom, and I stood with our backs against brick, waiting in this overcast afternoon for the arrival of a train that,
according to railroad authorities, held tragedy. The Blue Train engineer radioed ahead that a female passenger in car number three had been threatened with a knife and raped. She was found by one of the stewardesses cowering in the lavatory, too incoherent to give much information,
but claiming that the perpetrator had been a kocheingi. A big-nose. In other words, a foreigner.
In the early seventies, what with 700,000 fire-breathing Communist soldiers on the far side of the DMZ just thirty miles north of here, there weren’t many tourists in the Republic of Korea. Nor were there many European businessmen,
and only a smattering of diplomats. The foreigners most likely to be using the Blue Train on this Monday morning were Miguks. Americans. And those Americans were most likely to be among the 50,000 or so G.I.s who fell under the jurisdiction of the 8th United States Army.
Therefore, the call had been made by the Korean National Police to us, the agents of 8th Army CID.
Exactly who this guy was, we didn’t know. All we knew for sure was that the crime had been committed sometime after the Blue Train pulled out of Taejon. Between there and here, no stops. The Blue Line takes about four hours and fifty minutes, total, to travel the almost 400 kilometers from Pusan to Seoul, with only two brief layovers,
the first at the East Taegu Station and the second at Taejon.
At each scheduled stop, the train pauses for less than five minutes. After leaving Taejon, whoever perpetrated this crime would’ve had no way to get off the train. Therefore,
we were assuming, as were all these Korean cops, that he was still aboard.
Lieutenant Shin, the officer in charge of the KNP detail, told me that the engineer had further explained that the victim was a young mother with two children in tow. Apparently, she’d left her son and her daughter in their seats while she used the bathroom. That’s where she’d been assaulted. The rapist forced his way into the small bathroom behind her and threatened her with a knife,
slicing the flesh of her throat superficially. The blood and the blade had convinced her to comply with what he demanded. Everything he demanded.
The cops in Lieutenant Shin’s detail already knew that a woman with children had been assaulted by someone they assumed to be an American G.I. They weren’t happy about such a non-Confucian crime being committed in broad daylight in a public place, and they allowed their anger to show when they glared at Ernie and at me, as if we were somehow responsible.
Steam puffed from the sides of the train. With a huge sigh, the big engine shut down. Usually, even before wheels stop rolling, people would already be hopping off metal steps, hurrying to beat the crowd filtering toward the front gate of the main station. Today, eerily, nobody moved. If I hadn’t been able to make out seated silhouettes through the fog-smudged windows, I would’ve thought it was a train full of ghosts.
Lieutenant Shin barked more orders, and two cops took up positions at the ends of each passenger car. Other cops covered the opposite side of the train. Thus surrounded,
all possibility of escape was eliminated.
Behind us, on the overhead ramparts, a crowd gathered,
people waiting for other trains. Some of the civilians murmured loudly about Miguk-nom, base American louts. Somehow they’d gotten wind of what had happened.
Accompanied by Lieutenant Shin, Ernie and I climbed aboard the first passenger car. The head conductor, wearing a high-collared black coat and pillbox hat, was already waiting. He was a craggy-faced man, middle-aged, with his feet planted shoulder-width apart as if from years of pacing up and down rocking central aisles.
“She’s in car three,” he said in Korean. I translated for Ernie. “The children are confused,” he continued. “They know something happened to their mother, something bad, but they don’t know what.”
“Has the perpetrator been identified?” Lieutenant Shin asked.
“No. All she told the stewardess was that he’s a kocheingi.”
He glanced toward Ernie and me. I nodded for him to continue. “She’s in her seat, huddled with her children.
So far, she refuses to move.”
“Take us,” Lieutenant Shin told him.
We followed the conductor down the center aisle. As we did so, row after row of Asian faces turned up to us,
some of them frightened, more of them angry. I heard epithets whispered, a few familiar, a few I’d never heard before.
“Tough crowd,” Ernie mumbled behind me.
As we passed from car to car, Ernie and I checked the bathrooms, just to make sure no one was hiding in them.
No one was. They were small, locked from the inside, and under normal circumstances barely large enough to hold one person.
Finally we entered car three and stopped. A gaggle of grandmothers, clad in traditional Korean dresses, surrounded two of the seats. As we approached, they turned their headsand, one by one, faces soured. Wrinkled eyes evaluated me, finding me in some way disgusting, flashing disapproval—at me, and at the crime that had been perpetrated on this Blue Train from Pusan.
It wasn’t me, I wanted to shout. Although I’ve been falsely accused before, and I know the sick feeling in the gut, I’ve never in my life threatened anyone with a knife—
nor have I raped anyone. I stifled the urge to scream at these women. I’m a cop, not a rapist. Ernie fidgeted behind me. Americans are generally welcome in Korea. It wasn’t often that we faced such hatred, but we were feeling it now—down to our bones.
Lieutenant Shin stepped forward, breaking the silence.
With a rustle of silk, angry grandmothers stepped away.
The victim was a petite woman, five foot two or three,
maybe just slightly over a hundred pounds. She sat huddled with her two children, the boy about four, the girl about six. She wouldn’t look up. Lieutenant Shin spoke to her softly.
“Are you hurt badly?” he asked.
She didn’t answer.
“Can you show me where you’re cut?”
The children stared at us with wide, worried eyes.
When the woman still wouldn’t answer, Lieutenant Shin reached out and touched her arm. Like a startled spider,
she flinched, curling herself into a tiny ball. The children clung more tightly to their mother and started to cry.
That’s when I saw it. Blood. On the side of her neck. The wound hadn’t been completely stanched. The blood trickled slowly down the side of her small neck, staining the round collar of her dress, pooling against bone.
The grandmothers had had enough. They pushed themselves between Lieutenant Shin and the woman,
shooing him away.
He refused to back off. The authority of the elderly in a Confucian society like Korea is great, but not greater than the law. Still, the presence of two kocheingis was making his job more difficult. He motioned with his eyes for Ernie and me to continue on ahead of him toward the rear of the car. We did, passing another surly group of passengers craning their necks to see what was going on.
According to the conductor, the bathroom at the back of the car was where the crime had been committed. A nervous stewardess in a stylish blue skirt, white blouse,
and matching blue cap explained in Korean that more than an hour ago she’d received complaints from other passengers that someone was in the bathroom and wouldn’t come out. The stewardess investigated, pounded on the door, and finally coaxed whoever was inside to open up.
She found the victim crouched on the floor, dress ripped,
blood seeping from a slice on the side of her neck, covering her face with splayed fingers. The stewardess immediately reported the incident to the head conductor. Together they bandaged the wound and, after much coaxing, managed to escort the devastated woman out of the bathroom and down the aisle to her seat.
“Did you see the foreigner?” I asked the stewardess.
She shook her head.
“Did you or the conductor see an American up here in car three?”
“No. And neither did any of the passengers. They’ve been talking among themselves nonstop since this thing happened. Only now, because the police are here, are they quiet.”
The Korean National Police are a mixed blessing. They maintain order, plenty of it. But sometimes they maintain that order at a high price, especially if you’re on the receiving end of a polished wooden nightstick.
“So no one saw a foreigner in car three?” I asked.
The stewardess nodded. I explained what she’d said to Ernie. He pushed open a door, and air rushed into the car.
We both studied the metal walkway leading back toward car four.
“Where are the Americans?” I asked the stewardess.
At the RTO, 8th Army’s Rail Transportation Office,
tickets are issued free to G.I.s on official travel and sold at a discounted rate to those on leave or pass or other forms of unofficial travel. Eighth Army’s policy is to try,
whenever possible, to keep all the Americans in the same passenger car.
The stewardess showed us with her eyes, glancing back at car four.
Lieutenant Shin approached. While the stewardess went over the same ground with him, I crouched and studied the interior of the bathroom. There wasn’t much to be seen. A little splashed water. A low toilet—porcelain embedded in the floor, Korean style, made for squatting; a small sink; and an unraveled roll of paper.
In the center aisle, men in blue smocks were trundling toward us. Stenciled on their chests, in white block hangul
letters, was the word Kyongchal. Police. Keeping his voice low so the female victim couldn’t hear, Lieutenant Shin briefed them. These were the technicians who would be searching the bathroom for traces of blood or semen or hair. I was impressed. So was Ernie. In the Itaewon bar district,
loaded with business girls who catered to American G.I.s, rape wasn’t taken nearly as seriously. As the technicians placed their gear on the floor and squatted down to get to work, one of the them said in Korean, “First the mother of our country, and now this.”
Lieutenant Shin stationed a young cop near the bathroom to make sure that no one interfered with the crime scene or with the technicians.
What we did next was what Ernie’d been aching to do since we arrived at Seoul Station, ever since we’d been subjected to the hatred in the eyes of the masses of Koreans surrounding us: he reached in his pocket and pulled out a shining set of brass knuckles. Slipping them over his fingers,
he clenched his fist, enjoying the fit and the satisfying heft of the finely crafted metal. Satisfied, he nodded. Lieutenant Shin took the lead. Together, we entered car four.
Autumn had fallen quickly in Korea. This was not unusual in itself—seasons change rapidly on the Korean Peninsula—
but it had also fallen early. Gray clouds appeared,
and gloomy winds started to blow. A week and a half ago,
August 15, had been the 29th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from the occupying forces of the Japanese Imperial Army. The Japanese had taken over the country in 1910,
stripping the Korean monarchy and the Korean legislature of any real power, and ruled the entire peninsula as a colony until 1945.
To mark this all-important day, Pak Chung-hee, the former Army colonel and current authoritarian president of South Korea, had given a speech to a packed hall.
Unfortunately, a Japanese national, believed to be in the employ of North Korea, smuggled a gun into the hall and took a few potshots at the president. Pak Chung-hee crouched behind his heavily fortified podium and was not harmed. His security guards, however, pulled their own weapons and returned fire, and for a few mad seconds hot lead zinged all over the auditorium. One of the bullets struck the head of Yuk Young-soo, the wife of the president,
who’d been sitting on the stage only a few feet from her husband. She was rushed to the hospital but declared dead on arrival.
Like most first ladies around the world, Yuk Young-soo was popular, much more popular than her husband. The death of such a vital woman, the mother of three young children, shocked the country, sending it into mourning.
Only hours after she died, the blue skies of summer disappeared with the onset of autumn.
Does a country have a mood? Maybe. Maybe not. We only read our own moods into what we see around us. But if countries do have moods, the mood of the Republic of Korea was surly right now. Surly to the point of tipping over into rage.
As we entered car four, rows of passengers gaped at us.
They were mostly Koreans, but there were a few American faces scattered among them. While Lieutenant Shin and the ranking sergeant in his detail asked for identification and briefly interviewed the Korean nationals, Ernie and I studied the Americans. The faces were confused and concerned,
but nobody bolted for the door.
I pulled out my badge and held it up.
“Good morning, everyone. I’m Agent Sueño. This is Agent Bascom. We’re going to be asking you some questions.
First, I’d like everyone to pull out their identification and their travel orders.”
“What if you don’t have travel orders?” one of the G.I.s asked.
“Then your leave orders will have to do,” Ernie replied.
Every American G.I. had to be able to prove that he had permission to be away from his compound. If he didn’t,
we’d report him to his unit and non-judicial punishment could ensue. This was punishment short of court-martial,
like restriction to the barracks or forfeiture of pay for less than thirty days.
While Ernie stayed inside the car, I took the American passengers outside onto the platform, one by one,
and interviewed them. I wrote down their names, units of assignment, serial numbers, and the issuing headquarters of their temporary duty instructions. G.I.s don’t travel much in Korea, unless they’re under what we call TDY—
temporary duty—orders. There were a total of seven G.I.s in car number four. One was a courier carrying a packet of classified documents. Another was on his way home on emergency leave orders; apparently he had a child back home who was gravely ill. Four of the G.I.s were Signal Corps technicians on their way to do some repair work at the 42nd Long Lines Battalion at Camp Coiner. The last G.I. was an officer under orders to report to 8th Army headquarters for a SOFA Conference, a joint ROK/US Status of Forces Agreement confab.
Nobody was on unauthorized travel. Nobody was absent without leave. At least, that’s the way it seemed so far. The paperwork they showed me could have been forged. It was even possible that their ID cards were phony. Unlikely, but possible. Later today, Ernie and I would be checking out the validity of their stories, but for the moment I was taking what they told me at face value.