When I arrived at the 155-Howitzer Artillery Battalion the first thing they told me was that
I'd better get busy building myself some kind of a shelter. They'd been getting a lot of rain and
I'd better make it waterproof. So they handed me a rolled-up pup tent, some tent stakes, and some rope and told me to work fast — because another storm was on its way.
I picked out a spot on the side of a hill near some other tents and looked them over to see how they'd been set up. It was already late in the afternoon and starting to get dark — and I'd never had to do this before. A couple of guys came by and gave me some pointers — but nobody offered to help with any of the work. It was starting to get cold and cloudy, and they wanted to get into their own shelters.
Well, I got the tent erected and dug a trench which would hopefully deflect any water coming down the hill. It was now dark, and you could just feel that it was going to be raining soon. I was not at all sure that I had done a good job, but it would be warm in my sleeping bag, and I really wanted to get in out of the cold damp air. So I climbed in and hoped for the best. I quickly fell asleep.
But I didn't sleep for long. A torrential rain came sweeping through and literally washed me and my "shelter" to the bottom of the hill. I had to scramble to keep from being buried alive in the mud. I grabbed my duffel bag and looked for someplace to get out of the storm. I could see a fairly large tent that had been erected on a raised wooden platform not too far away. It looked as though it might be a sleeping quarters of some kind — and indeed it was.
There were probably two dozen bunks set up in its interior, and the tent appeared to be secure from the rain. When I stuck my head through a loose flap I could see that most of the occupants were asleep — and that there was no leftover bunk available.
"Come on in," somebody said. "But you'll have to sleep on the floor — that is if you can find any room."
Well, there was room — but it was a miserable night. My sleeping bag had been left back in the mud, and all I had was what I was wearing (which was soaked) and whatever was in my duffel bag. My "horse blanket" overcoat was the only thing that saved me that night. And it just barely saved me — I shivered all night long. I was amazed that I didn't catch pneumonia.
I spent the following day cleaning up my gear. Fortunately it was a sunny day, so I was able to clean my sleeping bag and let it hang out to dry, along with most of my clothes. But my troubles weren't over yet. As miserable as my first night was, my second one was worse.
It was the ham we had for dinner. About a dozen of us got sick. But it hit me a lot harder than the others. (I have no idea why — unless it was because I had been weakened from the previous night's nearly freezing to death.) Anyway, the other victims spent a few hours running at both ends, but finally got it out of their systems.
I was sent to a field hospital (right, just like the one in MASH) where I ended up spending two days and nights. Besides the vomiting and diarrhea, my stomach felt like it was full of barbed wire. It was the worst stomach pain I've ever had in my life. They talked about pumping it, but decided that if I just kept taking the medicine, it would run its course, and I would be okay. After the third day, I began to feel a little better.
When I got back to the base camp, I was told that they had squeezed another bunk into that "barracks" tent and that I'd be sleeping there for the next week — after which time our unit would be moving to another location.
In the meantime, what would be my job assignment? I didn't know anything about Howitzers or any other kind of field artillery.
Well, the battery CO didn't know what to do with me either. "So you were a company clerk at Fort Belvoir? Well, we already have a company clerk." But after thinking about if for a minute, he said, "Hey, wait a minute — we need a Battery PX Clerk. The one we have is being rotated back to the states. How would you like that?"
Sounded good to me. In fact it was almost too good to be true. Each battery had its own little PX (post exchange / general store). And being the PX Clerk meant you handled all the snack food and soda pop and various sundries that would be for sale to the troops — including the beer.
Best Job in the Outfit
Well, being in charge of the beer ration literally made me the most popular guy in the battery. In theory, the monthly beer delivery would be one case for every man in the outfit. Well, I was told we always managed to get about a dozen extra cases by padding the personnel numbers — usually by counting native Korean helpers as military personnel.
Naturally the CO and other officers always had first crack at the surplus beer — but anything left over (usually 6 or 8 cases) would be available for me to dole out. Also, there were a few guys who didn't drink beer — so the monthly surplus could be as high as 12 to 18 cases. You can see why everybody wanted to be my friend.
Personally, I've never been much of a beer drinker — but it's easy to imagine why it's popular with a bunch of guys in a battlefield environment, who alternate between being bored to death and trying to stay alive. Even I would have a beer now and then.
How to Keep Beer Cold
When I arrived in early March, the weather was cold — but as we moved toward summer the warmer weather made the beer even more popular. But how do you chill beer out in the field? Nobody likes warm beer (except maybe the English) and refrigerators were not available.
Well, here's what you do: you try to find a fresh — water spring somewhere. Even in the middle of summer, a spring has cold water in it. So you put your cans of beer in a gunny sack, tie the sack with a rope, and submerge it in the spring (and hope nobody steals it).
If you can't find a spring, you try to get on the shady side of a hill or a mountain and dig a hole as deep as you can. If you're lucky you'll hit cold ground water and drop your beer in there. Even if you don't hit water, a deep hole makes a pretty good cooler.
Now you probably know more about cooling beer than you ever really wanted to know.
Army Nicknames Stick
Shortly after I arrived and got settled in, somebody started calling me "Einstein." I don't know who gave me the name — but it stuck. In fact a couple of the officers actually thought it was my real name, because they would address me as "Corporal Einstein."
What I can tell you is that a good percentage of the troops I found myself thrown in with were from the deep south — and a lot of them appeared to have had only a minimal education. Well, there was apparently something about me that gave them the impression I was some kind of an intellectual — so they gave me this nickname.
Most of the Other Guys Didn't Like Me
In some circles this might have been considered a compliment, but with these guys it was strictly a put — down. And when I told them I was a high school drop — out they'd just say, "Yeah, right."
In any case, I could tell that most of these country boys really didn't care for me all that much. Also, the fact that I breezed in there one day and immediately got the cushiest job in the outfit didn't do anything to endear me to them.
But the thing that really clinched my unpopularity was what happened when we moved to our new bivouac area and were all told to "double-up with our best buddy."
My best friend had quickly become
Willie Canada (about whom I've written on another page)
so it was only logical that he and I would be tent-mates.
But to these diehard Jim Crow types, a white guy moving in with a black guy just wasn't done.
In fact, the only thing that really protected me from a lot of harassment was the fact that I had the keys to the beer ration (and the surplus). Not that I flaunted it. In fact, I tried to maintain the myth that there really never was a beer surplus. You see, each man was allotted one case of beer (24 cans) a month — and that's all there was — right?. Of course, the company officers were there whenever the beer arrived, and they got whatever they wanted.
As for the surplus that actually did remain each month — well, you just never quite acknowledged that it existed.
Then toward the end of the month, when the regular ration began to run out — well, maybe you'd acknowledge that there were a few beers left lying around, and then sell it by the can. In fact, what I tried very hard to do was to stretch it out so that everybody had a fair chance of getting a little bit of the surplus each month.
Later on I would hear stories about other PX Clerks who made a tidy little income for themselves by black — marketing not only the surplus beer, but any other kind of a goodies they could get their hands on. I, for instance, was told that I could have done very well at black — marketing French cognac and other hard liquors — had I chosen to do so. Here's why:
I Could Have Gotten Rich in Korea
Down the road from us a French division headquarters had moved in, and we found out that in their PX, hard liquor was a regular staple — but off-limits to anyone except French personnel.
But guess what — we had a soldier of French-Canadian descent in our outfit, who, when pressed, agreed to see if he could pass himself off as a native and buy some of the hard stuff. My job would just be to drive him over to the French PX and get him safely back.
One of the perks of being the PX Clerk was that I could requisition a jeep whenever I wanted to go someplace — as long as it was on "official business" of course.
So I ordered a jeep and drove this young soldier named Jacques down the road to the French encampment. The guys had found some fatigues with no insignias or patches of any kind — so you really couldn't tell where he was from.
Of course this was somewhat hazardous in itself, because not wearing proper insignia was considered "being out of uniform" and subject to disciplinary action. So Jacques wore a properly — marked field jacket over his unmarked fatigues — just to get through our guard post.
Jacques was a very quiet, soft-spoken fellow who really didn't seem all that thrilled to be on this mission. But he had said he would — so he would keep his promise. I tried to make conversation and to get him to teach me a few words in French, but I got the impression he wasn't much of a talker and would just as soon not have to chat. So we made the drive in relative silence.
Driving into the French compound was no problem because, as I had heard, Americans were always welcome — they just couldn't buy booze. We asked directions to the PX, and before we arrived Jacques removed the field jacket. He went in and very easily passed himself off as a French soldier. I also went in and browsed around (but gave no clue that I was with Jacques).
Jacques had no trouble at all buying several assorted bottles of the French joy juice his friends had requested. I met him back at the jeep and we headed back to camp, again — mostly in silence. I had worried that we might be stopped and questioned at the French guard post on the way out, but they just smiled and waved us through. When we got back to camp, the main thing our overjoyed partners in crime wanted to know was — how soon could we do this again?
Well, to me, it had been an interesting adventure — but I wasn't so sure that getting caught at this sort of thing might not lead to some unpleasant consequences — so I wouldn't make a commitment as to when I'd be available again. And Jacques let it be known he wasn't all that interested in doing it again either. For one thing, he wasn't even a drinker.
And, as things turned out, I wouldn't be around long enough to have to deal with the situation, anyway. (More on that shortly.)
MASH Dental Facility
In the meantime I needed to see a dentist. I'd already been in a field hospital — now I'd get to see what a field "dental facility" was like. The problem was that I had a capped front tooth that had been killed in a bicycle accident when I was 14. But the cap wouldn't stay on. It had already loosened up three or four times in the past, and now it was coming totally unglued.
When I got a look at the "dental facility" I could hardly believe what I was seeing. It was in the open air with a makeshift canopy that provided both dentist and patient a little shade. The dentist's "chair" was an old wooden kitchen chair that had been propped up on some large rocks to give it a little elevation. A patient was sitting in it when I arrived, and the army dentist was drilling a tooth.
The drill looked just like the ones I had always seen in a dentist's office, but it what was powering the drill that amazed me. Instead of being run by a gasoline generator (like just about everything else out in the field) the drill was being powered by a Korean teenager who was rapidly working the foot treadle of an old Singer sewing machine, which had somehow been connected to the drill.
Well, seeing this primitive jury-rigged setup didn't give me much confidence in anything the dentist would be doing to me. Nonetheless he removed my cap, cleaned it out, put some kind of glue in it, replaced it, and gave it a tap with a small hammer. And guess what — it never came loose again.
He'd actually done a better job than my civilian dentist, who had used all the latest modern equipment.
Back at camp my CO got the idea that I should learn how to drive some of the various military vehicles we had, in case I should be called upon to make any PX — related deliveries, etc. So I was sent to a three — day driving seminar. That's where I met Morty, a guy who was able to turn dumbness into an art form. I wish I had kept a log of all the unbelievably dumb things he said and did, but now only a couple of them come to mind.
The first day of Driving School found us in a classroom, getting a two — hour lecture on the fundamentals of driving and maintaining military vehicles. Finally the instructor said, "Okay — are there any questions?" Even before the words were out of the instructor's mouth, Morty was on his feet frantically waving his hand. "Yes," said the veteran motor pool officer, with a friendly smile, "What's your question?"
"Do you know when we'll be getting rotated back to the states?" was Morty's anxious question.
The captain just stood there looking at Morty as though he couldn't believe what he'd just heard. Finally he shook his head and said, "All right, does anybody have any questions on what we've been talking about for the last two hours?"
The Dumbest Guy in Korea
Later that day we were taught how to give different types of hand signals. First we were taught the traditional right turn, left turn, and slow down or stop signals given with the left arm while driving.
Then we were taught a bunch of special "convoy signals." These were gestures that the driver of a lead vehicle would use after stopping and getting out and into the road, where he could be seen by all the other drivers. For instance, to signal the other drivers to stop and stay where they were, the lead driver would lean forward with his arms hanging down, and then swing them in a criss-cross pattern (much like an umpire uses to indicate that base runner is safe).
After the lecture came a verbal quiz, where the teacher would point to a student and ask him to demonstrate a particular signal. Pointing to Morty, the instructor asked, "If you're driving a vehicle — any vehicle — what's the proper way to let other drivers know you're about to slow down or stop?"
"Oh, I know," said Morty with a serious look on his face. He immediately jumped to his feet, leaned forward, and started frantically criss-crossing his arms.
Again the instructor looked at him in utter disbelief. Finally he asked, "Would you be out in the road to give this signal, or standing in the back of the truck?"
Morty thought about that for a moment, and then said, "I guess I'd be standing in the back of the truck so they could see me better."
"I see," said the exasperated instructor, trying to keep a straight face. "And would your vehicle be stopped or moving?"
Morty, who by now was aware that everybody else in the room was falling out of their seats laughing, said, "Well, I guess I'd have to stop the truck first."
"I see," said the instructor, who by now had tears rolling down his cheeks. "And this is how you're going to let other people know that you're about to slow down or stop?"
At this point even Morty could figure out that he probably hadn't given the right answer. So he sat down with a chagrined look on his face and said, "I guess I'll have to think about that a little more."
Finally it came time to get behind the wheel and practice what we'd learned. We started with the jeep. There would be three of us plus one instructor on board. The three students would take turns, as we drove on the road, off the road, and through various kinds of rough terrain.
We all held our breath and crossed our fingers when it came time for Morty to take the wheel. After several false starts, he finally got the jeep into high gear and seemed to be doing pretty well. The instructor told him to get off the road and follow a rough path that led into the woods. We were all very nervous.
However, Morty was going slowly and carefully and handling the jeep pretty well. Then the instructor said, "There's a nasty ditch up ahead — but you can manage it if you handle the vehicle properly." As we rounded a bend, the ditch came into view. Morty started to slow down when he saw it, then suddenly hit the accelerator and started heading for the ditch as fast as he could go.
"What are you doing?" yelled the instructor. "Slow down! You're gonna get us killed."
So Morty did hit the brakes — but we were already going so fast that he couldn't keep the jeep from hitting the ditch at a speed that threw two guys completely out of the vehicle and left the rest of us hanging on for dear life. When he finally stopped on the other side, the infuriated instructor yelled, "What's the matter with you? What were you thinking?"
"Well," Morty replied, "I was afraid if I slowed down I'd get stuck in the ditch — so I thought I'd better get over it as fast as I could."
Fortunately, nobody was seriously hurt, but, not surprisingly, that was the last time they ever let Morty get behind the wheel. And, also not surprisingly, he was the only one in the class who didn't get a driving certificate at the end of the course.
Still Didn't Know Why We Were Here
Back at my PX I found myself spending a lot of time wondering about the Korean war in general. I had arrived at a time when there was something of a lull in the fighting. The "peace talks" hadn't started yet, but the real aggressive fighting that had raged for about a year seemed to have quieted down. Neither side was now trying to overrun the other — it was mostly a matter of holding the ground they already had.
So most of the time there wasn't all that much to do. We only rarely had to take cover from incoming artillery shells — and we didn't spend much time worrying about being bombed, because, as near as I could figure, the enemy had no air force. We did see one lonesome Chinese Mig flying overhead one day — but I think the pilot might have just been lost.
The larger question that bothered me was: what were we doing here in the first place? Most of the guys I knew had never even heard of Korea until this war started. And what if North Korea did take over South Korea — how was that a threat to the United States?
The answer, of course, was that in those days the United States and its allies were afraid that the Communists were out to take over the world. The Soviet Communists had taken over Eastern Europe and half of Germany. They had also divided up Korea with the western powers and given "protective custody" of North Korea to the Chinese Communists, who had already taken over Tibet and Mongolia. If the Communists were allowed to take over South Korea, what would be next — Japan? — the Philippines? — Newport Beach? Anyway, that's how they explained it to us.
Getting Excited About a Fire Mission
In any case, there was always a lot of excitement when we'd get a call from the FO (Forward Observer) for a fire mission. 155 Howitzers are capable of sending their rounds long distances over hills and fields — so you'd never actually see what you were shooting at. The FO would normally be dug into a hill overlooking enemy territory, and he would send information via phone or radio back to the FDC (Fire Direction Center) which was a special tent equipped with large maps and all manner of plotting devices.
The FDC would take information from the FO, do their calculations, and pass the information on to the gunnery personnel. It was all a matter of mathematics. The gunnery sergeant would be told to aim his cannon four degrees higher and six degrees to the left, for instance.
So here we'd be, getting all excited because we were now getting to shoot at somebody we couldn't see (and, of course, whom we didn't know). And we'd be elated if we got a report back from the FO saying that it looked as though we had actually killed somebody.
Somehow the irony of a bunch of old men somewhere in Washington and Peking telling a bunch of young kids to go somewhere inside a third country to try to kill each other seemed as stupid to me then as it does now. So while I could appreciate that having a fire mission to perform relieved the monotony of sitting around doing basically nothing, I was just as happy that my job meant I didn't have to be an active participant in the shooting.
But I wasn't to be totally exempt from playing soldier. I was surprised when I was informed that I would have to pull guard duty one night.
Guard Duty? Who, Me?
I was told to report to a remote location alongside a rode leading into our encampment at 0200 hours (2:00 in the morning).
How I subsequently turned a prisoner of war loose and was threatened with a court-martial for doing so is explained on another page.
(read more here...)