Called to Serve: A Historical Novel of the Korean War

Called to Serve: A Historical Novel of the Korean War

by Len Custer


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Monday, January 27
4 New & Used Starting at $11.81


Larry Curtis is broad sided by the call to serve in the "Korean Police Action". Anguished over leaving his young wife, Jean, alone to care for their two-week old daughter, Larry departs to serve his country in the Korean War.

Adjustment from civilian life is traumatic. In the ill-prepared Navy, Larry is assigned to a new crew activating a mothballed amphibious ship. Mechanical failures, training accidents, and tension between the diversified shipmates cause challenges and delays. They finally reach the war just as Chinese Communist troops intervene and the United Nations forces are in full retreat.

In Korean waters the crew experiences a variety of transport and service jobs, interspersed with dangerous combat assignments. Larry and his shipmates struggle with their fears, internal conflicts, and casualties, while maturing into a proud, cohesive, and effective Navy crew.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780595284559
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 10/23/2003
Pages: 292
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.66(d)

Read an Excerpt

Called to Serve

A Historical Novel of the Korean War

By Len Custer

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2003 Len Custer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-595-28455-9



June 25, 1950: North Korean Communist troops invade South Korea with overwhelming forces.

July 5, 1950: U. S. troops fight their first battle against North Korean Communist troops.

July 8, 1950: President Truman appoints General Douglas MacArthur commander of UN forces in Korea.

July 12, 1950: U.S. and South Korean troops are retreating near Taejon, South Korea.

* * *

Jean removed the ordinary, business-size, innocuous envelope from the mailbox with mild curiosity. The slightly dog-eared condition could be explained by its having been forwarded by Larry's folks. Eager to get supper started, she tossed it on the end table. It didn't explode when it landed on the newspaper; how was she to know it enclosed a bombshell message that would shatter their lives. The return address could have supplied a clue.

Weary from attending a college summer-session class, followed by an eight-hour shift pumping gas and greasing cars, Larry opened the door leading to their attic apartment and was greeted by the smell of frying pork chops. His mouth watered and his lean, empty stomach gurgled as he took the steps two at a time.

Honey, I'm home," Larry announced, closing the door and tossing his cap on the couch.

"I'm fixing dinner, sweetheart," his nineteen–year old wife responded. She hadn't met him at the door because the ancient gas stove had a propensity to burn things.

Larry moved to the kitchen door and hesitated, luxuriating in the image of his bride of ten months. God, how he loved her! Even in her eighth month of pregnancy, she made his pulse rate quicken. The child she carried distorted her petite, shapely body, but the firm breasts were very distinguishable. Her healthy complexion radiated and well-brushed auburn hair glistened, even in dim kitchen light.

Jean flashed a bright, toothy smile that brought a sparkle to her eyes, dimpled her cheeks, and warmed the cockles of Larry's heart. There was just enough room in the tiny kitchen for him to step behind her for a gentle hug. Holding her close, he nibbled her left earlobe and kissed the soft nape of her neck. She shivered before turning her head to kiss him while the pork chops continued to fry.

"How's junior been behaving today?" He asked, patting her stomach.

"She must be healthy and anxious to get here, because she's been kicking th' pee-waddin' outta me all day," Jean chuckled.

"Well, if is a little girl, and she looks like her mother, I'll be happy. Boy, those chops smell good. When do we eat?"

"Soon as you get cleaned up. I knew you'd be famished, so I tried to get it ready before you got home."

"You're great, hon! I'll get washed up and changed P-D-Q, because I'm hungry enough to eat a cow—raw." She turned back to the sizzling skillet, and with another tender squeeze at her breast line, Larry moved off toward the bathroom.

"It'll be on the table in ten minutes. Oh, by the way, a letter came for you today—from the Navy," Jean said to his retreating back. "I put it on the end table. Why would the Navy be writing to you?"

"Beats me. If they want me to volunteer for another hitch, they've wasted their time. I'm a family man now. It'll wait until after supper."

The letter was forgotten until the meal was finished and the dishes washed. Larry put a record on the stereo and was reading the paper when Jean noticed it, still unopened.

"This letter from the Navy looks kind of official; why don't you see what they've got to say," she said, handing it to him.

He opened the envelope and removed a single sheet. In seconds, the released emotional bombshell exploded in his mind, the hand clutching the paper dropped to his lap and his head shook slowly.

"What is it?" Jean asked.

It took more seconds for Larry's glazed eyes to focus on her. "I—I can't believe what I just read," he said before returning to a muted, far-away stare.

Jean snatched the sheet from his now-limp hand and read aloud:

Machinist Mate Third Class Lawrence G. Curtis, USNR, Serial # 351-44-56.

You are hereby ordered to report to the recruiting station located in the Portland, Oregon, Main Post Office Building, before 09:00, 18 July 1950, for a physical examination.

Upon being found physically fit for active duty, you will be furnished first available transportation to Pier 91, Naval Station, Seattle, Washington, where you will be outfitted and assigned to a ship or duty station without further delay.

This recall to active duty is for an indefinite period.

(signed) Rear Admiral John P Kincaid,

Commandant, Thirteenth Naval District

Her hand went to her mouth and she sat dumbfounded. Seconds passed before she could comment.

"How—how can that be true? You never told me you were still in the Navy," she said in dismay. "I thought you were discharged in 1947."

Larry shook his head, as if to clear the fog before he responded.

"Tell you the truth, honey, I almost forgot I signed up for a four-year hitch in the reserves when I was discharged from the regular Navy."

"Why in the world did you do that? Didn't you know you'd have family responsibilities someday?" Good question, he thought. Again he shook his head.

"Hone—e—e, for gosh sake, I was single then and had no idea I'd be meeting you. As I recall, they told me I could protect my rating and wouldn't be activated unless there was another declared war. And then there was the possibility that if I lived near an active unit I could make a few extra bucks and advance my rank by attending meetings once a month and taking a two-week training cruise each summer."

"Are you sure you didn't just want to continue playing sailor," she replied in a reproachful tone he'd never heard from her before. "Did you attend any meetings, or go on any cruises?"

"No. I've never been in an organized unit of the ready reserve and never got a dime from them. I have no idea why they want me now. Maybe they need a few of us experienced guys to help train new recruits."

They sat staring at each other in stunned silence.

"What about the baby?" Jean entreated. "If you have to report in seven days, you won't be here when it's born! I—I don't know if I can handle that without you being with me."

Larry shrugged and took her hand. Concern and empathy for his little bride and unborn child knotted his gut, his eyes misted and his voice was husky with anguish when he spoke:

"Maybe you won't have to be alone, sweetheart. I'll request a delay for the reporting date, but I did make a commitment. If they need me, I'll have to go. You know there's no way I'd ever leave you alone if I had a choice."

Jean and Larry slept little that night. They talked until the wee hours about the many problems this momentous threat would bring to their marriage and impending parenthood.

Next morning Larry sent a telegram to the Thirteenth Naval District commandant:

"Sir, the birth of my first child is due within two weeks. I request a delay in the reporting date on my orders so I can be here to support my wife during the birth. Third Class Machinist Mate Lawrence G. Curtis, serial # 351-44-56"

A reply arrived before the end of the day:

"The reporting date on your orders is hereby changed to 09:00 August 18, 1950."

Christy was born two weeks later, after a very difficult delivery that required that Jean and the baby remain in the hospital for eight days. When they returned home, the baby fussed and didn't eat or sleep well. Their pediatrician suggested the infant's normal problems of adjusting to her new environment were exasperated by tensions she sensed in her distraught parents.

With the baby on the way, they had decided that Larry would reduce his college load and keep his full-time job, at least until the baby was old enough for Jean to return to work. Now Larry wanted to retain the job for when he returned from active duty, because they saw some merit to being on the bottom rung of a large corporate ladder.

"That's gonna put us in a helluva bind," his indifferent boss declared when Larry informed him about his call to serve. "You're the only reservist I've heard about being called up; why don't you just find some way of getting out of going?"

"I'm under orders and don't have a choice," Larry heatedly replied. "Besides, it's my duty!"

That didn't seem to precipitate any urgency for his un-sympatric boss to find a replacement. On Monday morning in the following week, Larry brought the matter to a head.

"Look, I told you people I'm under orders from the Navy. I have a family to take care of, and I'm out of here in a couple of days, with or without a replacement."

Two days later, higher authority intervened; Larry was relieved of his duties and left in good standing. But time was running short to relocate his family to his parents' home, three hundred miles away. They had talked it over and agreed the move was best, until they knew something more substantial about the Navy's plans for Larry. Actually, it was Larry's desire, and Jean acquiesced when he told her:

"I don't wanta make a big deal out of it, but I'll feel better if you were near my folks if something were to happen to me."

They found it emotionally stressful to leave their snug apartment. That little walkup was more than their first home together; it was likely where their baby girl was conceived. They laughingly remembered that Jean had reduced the four-pound pot roast she was preparing for their first dinner party to the size and consistency of a hockey puck. There were also fond sentiments for the middle-aged landlords who treated them like members of their family.

When the moment arrived for turning the page on that chapter of their lives, they sat for a reflective moment in their small coupe, parked at the curb, and loaded beyond capacity with their meager belongings. Larry tightened his jaw and stared straight ahead at the street in a failing effort to control frayed emotions. Tears rolled down his cheeks. Jean held her baby to her breast, as she too stared into an unknown future. But she didn't cry.

They drove all night across the Cascade Mountains and the eastern Oregon plains, the baby lying on a pillow Jean held on her lap. As new parents, they feared that if they put her in her basket while they traveled, the fragile little human would break.

Early next morning, they arrived at the farm home of Larry's parents. While grandpa gently bounced the baby on his lap and grandmother fixed them a big farm breakfast, Larry basked in the warmth and security of his childhood. Slowly, like soaking up rays of a rising morning sun after a black, cold night, he regained some self-confidence.

Sitting at his parents' kitchen table, observing the way they doted over the baby, and how relaxed Jean appeared in that setting, he prayed that his wife and daughter would soon feel the same sense of family stability those wonderful people had provided him. He realized with guilt that he was placing his responsibilities on his parents, but what else could he do under circumstances beyond his control?

When time came for Larry to leave, his mother insisted that she and grandpa take care of the baby so he and Jean could be alone to say goodbye. They waited on the closed railroad station's platform for over two hours before the train arrived and screeched to a halt, as if protesting an interruption to pick up the flag-stop passenger. A uniformed trainman swung from a Pullman car that had stopped in a street crossing, a hundred yards short of the station.

"Ya wanta catch this train, get on over here, 'fore we leave without you," the conductor shouted.

Larry and Jean moved as fast as they could on the unstable track ballast, while the conductor waved, urging them to hurry. He allowed them only enough time for a cursory hug and kiss, and Larry was tempted to kick the man's fat ass when he stooped to pick up his step stool.

The railroad man waved his lantern toward the engine, then pushed past Larry into the car's vestibule. The train began moving and quickly picked up speed. Larry moved to the top step, leaned out and blew a kiss to Jean, now fifty yards away, and managed a melancholy wave. She seemed dreadfully forlorn and vulnerable as she returned the wave. In moments, her image faded into the darkness.

That last, fleeting picture of the woman he loved more than life was forever engraved on his heart. Mixed emotions of anger, frustration, and love surged trough Larry. His jaw tightened and he gnashed his teeth in anguish, realizing that he wouldn't be there to help with the new baby. She'd have to handle family affairs alone, for God only knew how long. He struggled to maintain composure when a hard lump rose in his throat and bitter tears welled in his eyes.



August 5, 1950: U.S. and South Korean forces are pushed back to the Naktong River, where they form a small defensive perimeter with Communist troops within forty miles of Pusan.

August 7, 1950: U.S. troops counterattack without success.

August 8, 1950: North Korean forces breach the Naktong River in two places, and the Pusan perimeter is threatened.

* * *

Jean stood beside the empty tracks after the train disappeared into the darkness, immobilized by grief and worry. As the rattle of wheels faded, lightning flashed overhead, thunder rumbled and wind whipped her thin dress against her legs. It sent a shiver up her spine, much like a foreboding omen. Her body shuddered, and for the first time in her young life, she felt completely alone and overwhelmed by events.

It's just not fair for the heartless Navy and that phantom train—with the nasty conductor—to take my husband away! Her mind screamed in resentment.

She had stifled an urge to cry many times during the recent difficult weeks because she felt Larry was suffering enough from this appalling turn of events without having to put up with a hysterical wife. Now, alone in the deserted street, her body shook from pent-up sobs that rose from deep in her soul, and bitter tears flowed down her cheeks.

After several seconds of self-pity, Jean set her pretty jaw and willed herself to stop crying. Soon she regained composure, but her heart felt like a lump of coal as she drove the lonely, dark road to her temporary home with her in-laws. Before she turned into their driveway, she had succeeded in drying the tears, yet she remained in the car until she had her emotions hidden, if not completely under control.

"It's my responsibility to take care of myself and our baby," she resolved, speaking to her ghostly reflection in the dark windshield. "I don't want Larry to feel he has to worry about us. But-but, dear God, how long will he be gone?"

Tears had remained close to the surface, and they almost flowed again. Already she felt a great aching, empty spot in her heart.

* * *

Larry followed the conductor into the vestibule, where the man snatched his ticket and pushed on through the door into a dim Pullman car.

"Move along sharply, young man!" He said over his shoulder in a hoarse whisper.

"You're very lucky we stopped to pick you up. This train's running late."

"It's not my fault your damn train's late. An' you sure as hell didn't do me no favor stopping to pick me up," Larry snapped back. "I'd just as soon I missed this stinking train!"

The conductor glanced back with arched eyebrows. Sensing a smoldering danger in Larry's fiery glare, he didn't reply, and preceded Larry between made-up berths, halting near the center of the swaying car. He glanced at Larry's ticket again and pointed to an upper bunk.

Larry's unblinking, hot eyes made contact with those of the insolent man and bored into them, speaking volumes. The conductor held eye contact with Larry for only a split second before he left.

Damn if I'm going to let that fat civilian push me around, he thought. And then, as the man disappeared, Larry was ashamed of his own behavior. Oh my God, I'm not even back in uniform yet and already I'm acting like a sailor with a chip on his shoulder.

The train rolled north along the Snake River, then turned northwest before laboring up the eastern slope of the Blue Mountains. Larry tossed and turned in the cramped berth, physically and mentally exhausted, but sleep wouldn't come. The clatter of wheels intensified his depression because he considered the rhythmic sound symbolic of the ever-increasing distance between him and his loved ones.

Jumbled emotions swirled in his tortured mind. The foreboding reality of his situation seemed frightfully clear. As a qualified machinist mate third class, with two years of prior service in the regular Navy, he expected to be assigned directly to a combat ship. Most likely he would soon be a participant in the escalating United Nations police action in Korea.

Larry finally pushed that gloomy probability into his subconscious, only to replace it with distressing recollections of the past hectic weeks and concern about his family's welfare. When he succeeded in drifted into a fitful sleep, his much-needed rest was invaded by a terrible, realistic dream.


Excerpted from Called to Serve by Len Custer. Copyright © 2003 Len Custer. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Preface, xiii,
Chapter 1: Orders, 1,
Chapter 2: Portland, 7,
Chapter 3: Seattle, 11,
Chapter 4: New Shipmates, 18,
Chapter 5: She's a Combat Veteran, 27,
Chapter 6: Killed the Ship, 34,
Chapter 7: Romantic Weekend, 44,
Chapter 8: Trials and Tribulations, 56,
Chapter 9: Domestic Mistake, 65,
Chapter 10: Sailing Orders, 71,
Chapter 11: Japan, 76,
Chapter 12: Korea, 80,
Chapter 13: Desperate Evacuation, 85,
Chapter 14: Refugees, 92,
Chapter 15: Discontent and Confusion, 97,
Chapter 16: ROK Troops, 103,
Chapter 17: Mini Invasion, 108,
Chapter 18: Inchon Again, 116,
Chapter 19: Boredom and Stress, 124,
Chapter 20: Patrol Boat Duty, 129,
Chapter 21: Devastation, 140,
Chapter 22: The Mig-15, 145,
Chapter 23: Morale Officers, 157,
Chapter 24: Career Sailor, 167,
Chapter 25: Casualties, 177,
Chapter 26: Rest and Recreation, 184,
Chapter 27: Typhoon, 193,
Chapter 28: Jarvis Confronted, 200,
Chapter 29: Troop Rotation, 206,
Chapter 30: Third Time to Korea, 214,
Chapter 31: Versatile Ship, 220,
Chapter 32: Into Dangerous Waters, 227,
Chapter 33: Devastating News, 233,
Chapter 34: Sub-Group One, 243,
Chapter 35: Last Korean Mission, 248,
Chapter 36: Ironic Justice, 258,
Epilogue, 267,
Afterword, 271,
About the Author, 275,

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews