The Coldest War
A Memoir of Korea
By James Brady
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1990 Superchic Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The Korean War, which President Truman called a police action and Averell Harriman "a sour little war," and which today is largely forgotten, began forty years ago, on the morning of Sunday, June 25, 1950, when 90,000 North Korean troops pushed across the 38th Parallel and came south.
Before it ended thirty-seven months later it killed more than 54,000 Americans. In the three years of Korea nearly as many of us died as in the decade of Vietnam. No one will ever know how many Koreans and Chinese we killed.
Korea gave us a brief shelf of history books, no great war novel or film, not a single memorable song, a wonderful combat journal by Martin Russ called "The Last Parallel."
And it gave us "M*A*S*H."
Because it began along an artificial frontier dividing a single nation effectively into Soviet and American zones, a deal cut in part to lure the Russians into attacking the Japanese in 1945, Korea might be thought of as the last campaign of World War II; because of the vague way it ended in 1953, as the opening battle for Vietnam.
Korea was a strange war in a strange land, a war the generals warned we should never fight, a ground war on the Asian mainland against the Chinese. It anointed few heroes, ended MacArthur's career, helped elect Ike. Korea didn't arouse America as the Second World War did, nor did it, as Vietnam would, scar a generation. There are men today lying in VA hospitals who were broken by Korea, but those of us who came home intact pretty much picked up our lives and went back to school or out to look for a job.
They didn't stage any parades, but then neither did people spit at us in the streets.
In some ways, it wasn't a modern war at all, more like Flanders or the Somme or even the Wilderness campaign. There were jets and tanks and warships but you didn't see them very often. Korea was fought mostly by infantrymen with M-l rifles and machine guns and hand grenades and mortars. There was artillery, of course, quite good on both sides. And barbed wire, lots of that, and mines, always the mines. We lived under the ground, in sandbagged bunkers, and stood watch in trenches. Men who fought in France in 1917 would have understood Korea; Lee's and Grant's men would have recognized it.
The war in that first year was a dashing affair, at least until the snow came, a war of movement, tanks and planes, up and down the peninsula, with Seoul fought over and changing hands four times. The armies marched up the land and marched back down again. There was much fervor and martial oratory. MacArthur thought the "boys" might be home for Christmas. When the marines were surrounded up near Manchuria at the "frozen Chosin," General Smith said, "Retreat, hell"; they were advancing in another direction. Col. "Chesty" Puller remarked of the encircling Chinese, "Good, now they can't get away."
By November of 1951 there was no more oratory. The line had stabilized, partly from exhaustion and cold, partly because the truce talks occasionally flickered into promise. The Chinese, a million of them, and what was left of the North Koreans dug in. And we dug in, six American divisions and our UN allies. Two armies stood and faced each other in the hills with another damned winter coming out of Siberia.
That was when I got there, Thanksgiving weekend, 1951.
Most of us hated the war or feared it; a few loved it. No one was neutral on the war. Sergeant Wooten, who had fought in the Pacific, said people shouldn't knock Korea:
"It ain't much but it's the only war we got."
In the second year of the war, with November near wasted, the plane turned east from the sea and crossed over the coast. Before it left Japan someone said there were enemy jets, Migs, out over the water, and I was afraid of the Migs and glad to see land. From the starboard windows you could see real mountains in the north, hunched and white-robed like Dominicans at prayer. I didn't like the look of them. Here near the coast the hills were only hills, no Gothic menace about them, but even on the low hills there was snow. Only in the flat of the valley where the plane would come down was there bare earth, brown and frozen hard. We banked and came in low over the hills. A sort of landing field was marked out, flanked by agricultural terraces reaching gently for the hills, the terraces lined with dull ice in the furrows and the wind chasing little whorls of brown dust. Up and down the valley you could see huts and tents and a few unsuccessful fires giving no apparent heat and little light in the gray morning. Small snowflakes blew past the windows.
Heavy with men and goods, the plane touched down, slowed by a shoving wind, wheels chewing into the earth, powdering and splintering the ground into frozen bits that skidded away in a brown wake. No paved landing strip here. There were some Korean troops in the plane coming back from hospitals, and they started being sick when the plane was still taxiing and had not stopped. Mack Allen thought this was jolly, but I was still whisky-sick from the geisha house and nervous about the Migs and did not think it was at all amusing. When the plane stopped, there was a meditative moment during which nothing moved, a world all gray and brown and cold, no pastel hint of joy or movement, as if we in the plane and those in the huts and tents wanted to consider further before committing ourselves to anything rash or irrevocable.
No flags, no wheeled gangway, no great thing of a welcome. From a dun tent came one small man in a too large overcoat, his hands jammed into pockets, shoulders rounded against the wind, wandering toward the plane. The hatches opened, and men and baggage dropped lumpily to the ground. The small man looked at us, his hands staying in his pockets. I felt the wind for the first time and understood. Still silent he motioned us with a cocked head and a shrugged shoulder toward the straggle of tents and corrugated huts, and without waiting to see if we followed, moved off faster than he had come, away from the plane and out of the wind. I looked around, and we picked up our goods and snaked off the field toward shelter. Behind us the plane was already moving down the strip for takeoff. No one stayed here who had opportunity to get out.
The huts were nothing, but they cut the wind. We went into one and the sergeants into some others. The Koreans drifted away in another direction. There were no signs, only instinct and the military caste system to direct us. I dropped my rucksack on a cot and rolled the seabag underneath. Someone asked what this place was, where we were. No one answered. I was just glad to be there, on the ground, the flight behind me, my stomach settling. Mack Allen looked across the potbellied stove, his flat face opening and happy with its broken nose. Mack was the only cheerful thing I'd seen that morning. He was happy; I was only relieved.
"Well, we got here. We didn't miss it after all." His Virginia voice was alive and I knew he meant it. I was not so sure, but I gave him a nod.
"I'll be back."
Outside the hut there was again the cold and behind it the wind. Korea looked like what I expected and then it didn't. Maybe I didn't know what to expect. The smell was new, for one. I liked to catalogue things, and the smell didn't fit anywhere. Neither did the quiet. There should have been activity but there wasn't. I moved down the line of huts still a little shaky in the wind but with the ground solid under me. There was talk coming from one of the tents, and I leaned inside, got directions, and went on.
The chaplain had a tin hut near the end of the row. I found him poking up a plugged chimney and told him what I wanted. He said sure and put down the bayonet and we walked together into the dim at the end of the hut. I knelt and the chaplain sat on a cot. He was smoking a cigar, but he took it out and set it very carefully on the wood frame of the cot so it would continue to burn but not start a fire. A little smoke rose like incense in the dark of the hut.
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned." I went through the routine. Then I got to where I was going.
"I fornicated once."
"Are you married?"
"No." I would have said adultery if I were married.
"Was the woman?"
"I have no way of knowing. I don't think so."
The priest hitched himself forward on the cot, sneaking a look sideways at his cigar. It was still burning.
"You know, in committing sin with a woman of this type, you are responsible for her act as well as your own."
"Yes, Father." I don't know how he knew what type she was, but this was no time for a theological debate.
"Had you instead given good example, well, one never knows. It might have touched a chord, made her realize her sin, altered her life for the better."
"Yes, Father." I was thinking that if I were into good example I would not have been in a whorehouse, would never have met the girl, my good example the famous philosophical tree falling silent in the forest with no ear to hear.
"Say ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys and say a prayer for me."
"Yes, Father," and I bowed my head to mumble the Act of Contrition. At least the priest was not sanctimonious, just slightly out of touch. Then I caught myself thinking that and knew it wasn't right, not in the spirit of contrition, and I stopped thinking it. I was contrite, I meant it truly, and was glad to have confessed. The sin was a sin, but the act itself fine, and now the slate was wiped and the fear of a guilty death gone. I could go north without worrying about it. We stood up, both of us relieved the cigar was still going. He asked where I was headed and offered a cup of coffee, but I thanked him and went out. He'd picked up the sooty bayonet and was again working at the chimney.
In the cold and the wind walking back down the strip I remembered how that morning began, the day I went to war, an enlisted man coming through at six and shaking me awake. "Plane's ready, Lieutenant. You go out at eight." I woke to a morning long awaited and went into the bathroom. There was an open line of toilets without partitions, but even so I considered trying to be sick, trying to get the booze up. I was not much of a drinker. But then fat Hutchins came in, naked as when I'd last seen him in his obscenity at the house, shouting filth at his girl. Hutchins scratched his big pimpled rump with pleasure, maybe remembering what he'd had the girl do. It decided me to fight down the nausea. I didn't want to vomit with Hutchins watching. As I was leaving the toilets an old Japanese woman came in with a mop and pail to do her chores. I was glad again about not being sick.
There was a spit of snow in the air as we walked across the endless concrete of the air base, past the neatly aligned fighters to our plane. The luggage was heavy and I walked under it with an exaggerated straightness. Mack Allen walked with me, and I wished I'd stayed with Mack and not gone to the house. Mack's opinions were important to me. He could have gotten laid and hadn't. Someone brushed by with a valpack. It was he who said there were Migs out.
"That's great." Now I felt worse than ever and thought how right Mack had been. But the flight was fine except for the sick Koreans. Because of the snow we were routed south instead of going directly to the division in the north. It was at this sideshow field that I found the chaplain.
The hangover was gone and I'd confessed and hadn't been shot down over the Sea of Japan, and with the real business about to start, I tried to get hold of myself. It was Thanksgiving 1951 and I'd just turned twenty-three, and for nearly a year I'd been getting ready to go to war, preparing for this day. For the next hour I walked up and down the empty, windswept little airstrip alone, feeling the wind, shivering in the cold, testing myself against Korea. I was here now and no way out and I'd better begin learning to live with it.
Can you be scared by pictures in a magazine? Ever since November a year ago I'd been afraid, literally, of the Korean winter. It was those David Douglas Duncan photos in Life magazine of marines up in the mountains of North Korea fighting the Chinese and dying in the snow and the cold. It was strange. Since childhood I'd loved winter, the snow, skiing, ice-skating. But the pictures of that first winter up here terrified me. I knew I was coming to Korea to fight, and the way the calendar fell it would be winter. And in some surreal way I associated with those photos in Life, seeing myself dead in the snow, arms and legs frozen straight out, my body tossed up with others like cordwood on the trucks grinding slowly down the narrow roads from the Chosin Reservoir to the Sea. It was like looking into my own coffin.
At Quantico in Virginia, where we trained, men talked endlessly about that first winter, imagining what the cold must have been like. Hard enough fighting a war; in Korea the cold could kill you. At Camp Pendleton, dry, hot and dusty, near desert, the Korean winter remained with us in imagination. It was with us at Pickle Meadows, the cold-weather training camp up near Tahoe where we had two feet of snow in October and the thin air burned our lungs. The training films, at Quantico and Pendleton, were meant to help, to teach us how to survive the cold. They sickened me. There was an especially gruesome film clip in color of a marine's toes being removed on an operating table. The foot looked normal, but the toes, all five, were swollen and black. Frostbite. The surgeon didn't have to cut them off; he simply bent them back and they broke off in his surgical glove, all five toes, bloody at the stump but otherwise black and dead.
Avoid this, the training film advised: keep your feet dry, change your socks, don't get frostbite.
How did you keep your feet dry or change your socks when you were on the march in temperatures below zero, when to fall out at the side of the road was to risk being ambushed or, worse, to fall asleep and be left behind to freeze to death in an Asian ditch? There were other things we heard about that first winter, that march south from the Chosin, how the mortar tubes shrank in the cold so the shells wouldn't fit, how men's skin stuck to metal when bare flesh was exposed and the whole palm of a hand tore away like a bloody glove, how you couldn't pull the pin on a frozen grenade, how men pissed on rifles to thaw them for firing.
Now I was a character in this chill nightmare.
Finally the wind forced me back to the hut. Mack and Hutchins and the rest of them were flaked out on cots, Hutch reading a dirty book but the rest asleep. I actually felt pretty good. I'd confessed, the hangover was forgotten, I'd been in Korea a couple of hours and had forced myself to stay outside in the cold and the wind and hadn't frozen to death.
Or even been shot, I thought, trying to laugh off fear.
It might have taken three or four minutes before I, too, was asleep. It helps to be young.
Men joined the Marine Corps for many reasons: because of John Wayne movies or to keep from being sent to prison or because they were bored or because of the uniform or because they were the kind of men who enjoyed discipline and really wanted to serve. A few sought adventure. 1 joined to avoid the draft.
I was in college in 1947 in New York when they reinstituted the draft after a brief, postwar interlude and we were all going to have to go in for two years. A classmate came back in September of our sophomore year suntanned and raving about something the marines had set up called the Platoon Leaders Class, the PLC. A college boy who spent two summers in the PLC at the Marine Corps Schools in Quantico, Virginia, would be commissioned a second lieutenant in the reserve the day he graduated from college. He would have to attend weekly meetings and go for summer training afterward, but he couldn't be drafted.
I had no desire to spend two years in the army, I thought being an officer sounded better than being an enlisted man, and the Marine Corps had a certain glamour. Others thought the same way, and Pierce Power and several more and I went down to 90 Church Street to sign up. We were sent for physicals, and out of six of us, four failed. We had heart murmurs. I was eighteen and terrified. When you are eighteen and a doctor says there is something wrong with your heart, you have visions of invalidism and sudden death. I was afraid to tell my family and for several days went around in a funk, envying total strangers their good health, until Pierce had the good sense to check with a family doctor and was told heart murmurs in teenagers came with growth and would go away. I'd grown eleven inches in five years, and when I got myself an electrocardiogram, I was fine. There were two sorts of heart murmurs and mine was the benign sort, so I took the EKG back to 90 Church Street and passed. Then the navy dentist flunked me. I had an overbite. My own dentist was apoplectic: "Do they want you to shoot people or bite them?" He filed my front teeth a little and I passed. (Continues...)
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