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A morale-uplifting event during the Korean War . . .

Beginning in October of 1950 I spent 15 months in South Korea during the height of the Korean War, first at Taegu Air Base until it was overrun by the Chinese early in 1951—we retook the airbase a few months later—and then at Kimpo Air Base near Seoul, the capital city of South Korea. Taegu and Kimpo were cold and wet, as was all of South Korea, and facilities lacked few of the comforts to which I had been accustomed.

For several months I slept in a sleeping bag in a tent on a canvas cot with no mattress, I performed my ablutions in the outer shell of my steel helmet and at breakfast, lunch and dinner time I fished cans of food from a 55-gallon drum placed over a flame to heat the water and the contents of the cans. I used the same helmet shell for bathing, shaving and hand washing with water from a two-wheeled water tank trailer in the center of our tent city—at least I did that when there was water in the tank. It usually stood empty for a couple of days before being refilled.

Incidentally, the sleeping bag was a gift from a fellow GI who was rotating to the states. I learned the first night I used it that it was swarming with body lice—crabs—and the next morning I sprayed it liberally with DDT and also liberally sprayed myself with DDT. The spraying burned a bit in various locations and crevices—burned me, not the sleeping bag—but it killed the body lice, critters known as crabs in the vernacular. Crabs were a fact of life in Korea. DDT killed them on contact, but as the DDT dissipated the many-legged little devils again proliferated—the battle between body lice and us was an on-going affair, a give-and-take relationship consisting of them biting and us scratching, with never a truce or peace agreement.

The cans of food came from boxes of C-rations. Rather than issuing us personal boxes every day—each box held three meals—our superiors felt that it was more propitious to remove the cans of food, place them in the drum and have us fish for cans at mealtime. There were days when the only thing I could catch in the barrel was canned pork-and-beans, and to this day I cannot look pork-and-beans in the face without feeling nauseous—I can eat ’em, I just don’t look at ‘em!

I didn’t complain then over our accommodations and the lack of normal niceties, and I’m not complaining now. I knew the troops on the front were sleeping in foxholes and many were dying in battles. Trucks loaded with full body bags were frequent sights as they passed by headed for makeshift morgues to the south. I’m simply setting the stage for an event that helped make up for the pork-and-beans, the helmet for a wash basin and the days and nights we spent on the flight line, maintaining aircraft, loading and launching them toward the front and retrieving them on their return—if they returned—some did not.

The morale-uplifting event was a visit to Taegu Air Base in 1951 by a Hollywood troop that performed on a makeshift stage facing a hillside covered with hundreds of homesick GIs. We were entertained by Bob Hope, Marilyn Maxwell, Jerry Colonna, Errol Flynn and numerous other luminaries and dancers and a real band. For a short few hours we shuffled off the privations of being in a war zone, 12,000 miles away from home, hearth and family.

Errol Flynn was late getting to the show because he walked through tent city and received many invitations from the GIs to stop and have a drink. He was well into his cups when he stumbled onto the stage, and his contributions to the show were minor. Not that we minded, but he sure didn’t project the image I remembered from his swashbuckling movies. Oh, well, it was wartime and we were in a war zone—abuse of alcohol by the GIs was common and late arrivals for duty assignments were numerous among us—we understood and accepted the actor’s fall from grace—his dereliction of duty, so to speak.

I vividly remember a line in Bob Hope’s opening monologue. He said he was told that Korea was a peninsula, a long neck of dirt extending into the ocean. Then he looked out over the crowd and pointed to someone and said Hey, that guy has a long dirty neck, so I guess that makes him a peninsula—in fact, I see a lot of long dirty necks out there. That was about as corny as corny gets, but the hillside erupted with applause and laughter.

In the interests of keeping this posting brief, I’ll promise to post more information about those 15 months I spent defending the United States and democracy in a country still stuck in the 18th century—there were no skyscrapers in the capital city of Seoul, human excrement was still used to fertilize crops, and primitive tools were still used for building and for agriculture. Building scaffolds, for example, consisted of bamboo poles held together by bindings made of hemp—the ropes may have been ripe for smoking purposes, but I don’t know whether anyone tried that. It would have made some of our trials and tribulations a bet easier to endure—not that I would know, mind you, because I have never—oh, forget about it, I don’t want to talk about it any more!

The show was uplifting in many respects. Marilyn Maxwell reminded us of how beautiful a blond-haired white-skinned round-eyed female could be—there was a definite dearth of such in Korea. Bob Hope and Jerry Colonna entertained us with slap-stick comedy, Errol Flynn showed us that Hollywood immortals were human after all and could be bested by that old demon rum, and the band reminded us that live entertainment was far better than the recordings played over the US government radio stations available to us.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

 
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Posted by on May 27, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Lightning, lobsters and babes in the woods . . .

The e-mail that follows was sent by one of my three princesses, the one that lives, loves and works in Virginia. She suggested that I tell the story of a camping trip we took in the summer of 1986, a jaunt that began in northern Virginia and took us through Washington D.C., Maryland, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania and back to Virginia—ten states, eleven counting Virginia, and the District of Columbia, all in just six days. We were really happy to get back home!

This is her e-mail:

Here’s a memory to get you started: Our road trip to Maine….you wanted lobster…I ordered chicken (no surprise there)…she brought us the food, then left. You called her over to ask for the lobster cracker thingies and she said, “That family over there is using them.” We were blown away that they only had one set—-something about “people keep taking them” or something like that. I don’t remember what happened or how long you had to wait, but it put a damper on your “famous Maine lobster” adventure.

Then the night in the tent in the campground…and the lightning and raining and horrendous thunder…seeing shadows of trees through the tent when the flashes occurred….then you whispered, “Where are your arms?” I asked why and you said, “Tuck them in and don’t touch the metal on the bed….JUST IN CASE.” Way to go to scare your kid, pop! This would have been spring or early summer 1985, I think. I’ll check the date on my slides to verify, though.

My daughter touched on the lobster snafu and the night we spent in a non-waterproofed tent while a storm raged around and over us, and one might legitimately say, with one of its components—water—inside the tent with us. At twilight that day we luckily stumbled upon a small state park in Maine with tent grounds, and we pitched our tent under the comforting arms of a giant oak, reasoning that its shade would be welcome the following day. The Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton said it best with the phrase that began his 1830 novel Paul Clifford: It was a dark and stormy night . . .

For us it was not only a dark and stormy night—it was also a very wet night that we spent in our two-person tent, an item we purchased new just before we began our odyssey, along with two aluminum folding cots, two light-weight sleeping bags, a one-burner Coleman camp stove and a Coleman two-mantle lantern, both of which used white gas for power. Using the booklet provided we practiced pitching the tent in the parking lot at our apartment, but decided not to follow the instructions to “waterproof your tent by using the waterproofing tubes included.” Since the skies were clear that day in Arlington, Virginia, we surmised, wrongly of course, that they would remain clear for the duration of our camping trip. They did not remain clear.

Note for campers: Do not—I repeat, do not—pitch a tent of any size under a tree of any size regardless of the weather and regardless of whether the tent is waterproofed. The absolute last place one should be in a storm is under a tree, whether in a tent, a car, a trailer, a wagon or just standing, sitting or lying under a tree. Trees and lighting bolts appear to have a passion for one another—everyone knows, of course, that lightning goes upward from the ground, quite often from a tree, and is met by its counterpart coming down from the clouds. We can pass this gem of knowledge we gleaned on our trip: Weather has an odd way of changing abruptly—in our case it changed so abruptly that we had neither time to relocate our tent, nor time (or the means) to waterproof it.

The massive storm hit around 9:00 p.m. and lasted for an eternity, with brilliant flashes of lightning and rolling thunder, sounds comparable to the sounds made by massive landslides with huge trees snapping like twigs—before the night was over it sounded like Mount Helena blowing its top. Of course my imagination was at high pitch, fueled by something similar to fear—no, not just similar to fear, it was fear. For awhile I feared that I could drown even if the lighting didn’t get me. Not surprisingly, my daughter slept soundly through most of the bedlam, awakening only when I whispered, “Where are your arms?”

At one point during the storm I imagined that I could smell sulfur, an odor associated with lightning strikes—some say brimstone, as in “fire and brimstone.” In 1983 in Arizona it smelled like sulfur. I was in a moving automobile at ground zero near the Arizona/Mexico border when a lighting bolt struck and mangled an aluminum guardrail just a few feet from my front-seat passenger position. Come to think of it, that may not have been sulfur I smelled, but I definitely smelled something!

We survived the ordeal of the storm and emerged from our tent, a bit bedraggled but bound to continue on our great adventure, and as time passed we began to remember that night as a fun time and one of the most memorable moments in our trip.

Prior to finding the state park where we camped that night, we stopped in a couple of travel-trailer parks to see if they allowed tent campers. Neither provided sites for tents, but a woman in the second park mentioned that “a nice family” owned and operated a camp nearby and accepted tent campers. While giving me directions, she included a but, a but as in, “But they only accept family campers.” Thinking perhaps that family size was a factor for admission, I told her there were just two of us. She repeated the provision that, “They only accept families,” with strong emphasis on the word families, and then I realized the reason for her repetition of the sentence. She had a good view of me standing in front of her, of course, and she could clearly see my daughter standing outside near our car.

Note: My daughter was twenty-three years old at the time, and I was rushing toward my fifty-third birthday, an approximate age difference of some thirty years. I said, “Oh, I see,” and turned on my heel and left, my heart and my chest swelling with pride, knowing that she actually believed that I could entice a female non-family member such as the lovely 23-year-old girl standing by my car to embark on an extended camping trip with me. As I pranced out of that office I felt much taller than I did when I entered—had I been capable of doing so, I would have snorted, whisked my tail and whinnied all the way out to the car.

Enough is enough, at least for now. I have been criticized and censured for making my postings too long—evidently some viewers’ truncated attention spans prohibit them from spending very much time reading, especially if there is a dearth of photo images in a posting. I will therefore terminate this posting, a tiny vignette, but representative of the memorable experiences we accumulated over the six-day period, and return at a later date with more details.

I promise.

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2010 in camping, Family, Humor, Travel

 

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Privies, pee-pipes & honey buckets—Kimpo AB, Korea, 1951 . . .

The winter of 1951 in Korea was the same as any winter before and after that year—brutally cold, with snow and howling winds. We lived in tents strategically placed near the flight line, ostensibly so we could respond quickly to alerts but really designed to enable us to, whether on-duty or off-duty, enjoy the sights and sounds of a busy flight line—the ear-splitting sounds of jet engines being tested, day and night, and of jet aircraft taxiing for takeoff or parking after landing, also day and night.

Each tent was equipped with a small JP4-fired (jet fuel) stove which did little to heat our living and sleeping accommodations. We relied on sleeping bags, blankets and multiple layers of clothing, and tended to delay our trips to the privies (outdoor toilets) whenever the need arose—trips were far more delayed and far less frequent at night. I’ll describe our primitive privies in as much detail as I can remember (some 58 years have passed since I used them). Our outdoor toilet facilities were similar in nomenclature and function to indoor accommodations, but remarkably dissimilar in appearance.

First the urinals, used for #1:

This facility accommodated four relief-seekers simultaneously, but was rarely used by more than one person at any one time. It boasted four 6-inch ceramic pipes, placed to form a square and sunk, flared end up and angled outward at approximate crotch level, into a gravel-covered pit. The pit was intended to capture the urine output of some 80 men, both enlisted and commissioned urine (no separation according to rank here). I can only vouch for the upper level of the pit—its construction below the visible gravel level remains a mystery. The urinals were not covered or screened, and were fully exposed to the glances of any passer-by, whether casual or curious. One may be assured that this “privy” was anything but private.

Next the commodes, used for #2:

This structure was a marvel of Korean construction, a dirt-floored building with wooden walls up to waist-level, then screened from there to its wooden roof and it featured a screened door which served both as entry and exit. Inside were six 55-gallon drums, three in a row on each side, sunken to a comfortable sitting-level, their tops cut out and fitted with a cleverly engineered wooden cover, shaped to resemble, and to serve the function of, commode seats. The arrangement of the drums contributed significantly to eye-to-eye conversation between users of the facility (if warranted).

Here I must digress for a moment to discuss Korean farming practices. In 1951 Korean farmers favored the use of human excrement as fertilizer, with amazing results in the size and quantity of produce produced. When the drums neared peak capacity, Korean workers came and poured a flammable liquid into the four end drums (no pun intended) but none into the two center drums, and then lighted the contents of the four drums. Their purpose was to burn off the paper and gases in those drums to prepare their contents to be emptied. When the four fires died down, the workers used long-handled dippers to transfer each drum’s contents to buckets and then to a donkey-drawn rubber-tired cart. From there the drum’s contents would be further processed (that’s an assumption), and the resultant fertilizer sprayed (or bucketed) on growing crops. After the four end-drums were restored to service, the two center drums received the same treatment.

This was a blessing in disguise. Picture this—just imagine one’s self in the privy on a bitterly cold day or night, with four roaring fires in that small enclosure and one’s self seated between two of the fires and two more fires directly opposite. Blissful warmth in bitter cold, and that bliss could be sustained as long as necessary (or at least until the fires died down). To be seated in the #2 privy when the two center drums were burning (seated on one of the non-burning drums, of course) was also pleasant, but considerably less blissful—roughly about half-less.

Oh, and one more thing—we used a GI euphemism to describe the buckets and the cart—they were known as “honey buckets” and “the honey wagon,” respectively.

I’ll get back to you later with more details.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

 
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Posted by on June 2, 2009 in Humor, Military, Travel, wartime

 

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