Friday, September 21, 2012

Bierce's Civil War and other reminiscences

I don't know what anyone else's background is here on Historum or how they might be affected by Bierce's war stories, but in my case they have taken an emotional toll. I was a Marine in Korea for the last two battle seasons, and despite my ill-advised attempts to get to the front never experienced actual battle, I did live the life. I experienced the marching, waiting, walking post not knowing whether we would be attacked.

A month before I got to K-8, a North Korean up to no good had been killed outside our compound. The Sergeant of the Guard was a WWII veteran who kept sentries on the alert by sneaking up on the sleepy ones, grabbing them and putting a knife to their throats and whispering, "what if I was a Gook?" [I know that is an offensive word now, but that was the word we had back then.] I developed my own methods for walking post so that would never happen to me. I would move from shadow to shadow and at each one stop and search the surroundings.

We had just one pair of thermal boots for walking post, so the one who walked around the rice paddy at the northern end of our compound got the boots. I took the boots when I could get them and didn't mind being out there. We also had just one Thompson submachine gun; which the northern post got that as well. Much about being in Korea is hazy after all these years, but not that particular post. I could still walk it in a drenching rain when the water topped the paddy's raised enclosures.

Another post I remember included a grove of trees and bushes. To the west of this grove was a little clearing and beyond that was the officer's club. We were contemptuous of the officers because they had to be there for only six months while we had to stay for thirteen. One night the OD (Officer of the Day) came out of the Officer's Club to inspect the posts. As he came toward me with eyes still not adjusted to the night, I called out, "halt, who goes there."

The officer staggered to a stop and said "Officer of the Day." I then demanded, "what's the password," and he couldn't remember it. As he tried, I cranked a round into my M1. He put his hands up in alarm. "wait, wait, I really am. Look at my bars. I have other identification."

I backed into the deeper darkness of the grove without saying anything and watched as he tried and failed to see me. Eventually he staggered back to the Officer's Club.

When the truce was signed I was at K-30, Cheju Island. There was a huge Prisoner of War camp located there and, while this doesn't seem reasonable to me now, we were told that the prisoners were simply released and told to make there way back to the North. Some chose not to and instead hid out on Cheju Mountain. We were told that some soldiers from the nearby Army base went up Cheju hunting for deer and never returned.

Once when we were on full alert I strapped a couple of bandoleers around my chest, put a few grenades in my field jacket and with my M1 climbed one of the Prison Towers. The towers were intended to keep track of the then-empty prison grounds, but they worked as well for looking out toward Cheju Mountain. Nothing happened. We were not attacked, but I was up there well armed on a beautiful day, and it was very good.

H. L. Mencken admired the literary figures who fought through their war, Ambrose Bierce, W. DeForest, and Sidney Lanier. He called Mark Twain, William Dean Howells and Henry James, on the other hand, "draft-dodgers." That sort of thinking still exists, but many hold the idea that they "oppose war" and therefore won't fight or support one. Duty to family, state, country is forgotten and replaced by something else which Mencken would have dismissed as cowardice. One fights or runs, there is no other choice.

I still feel that way, but after I got back to the states and ended up my tour at Camp Pendleton as a Rifle Coach, eventually "senior Rifle Coach" which I was very proud of, I decide that since we weren't going back to war with Korea and since Truman and Eisenhower weren't inclined to go to war with China, I would get out of the Marines and go to college.

But I often wished I'd stayed in. After college I went to work in Aerospace and remained an engineer for 39 years. Toward the end I worked with another former Marine, this one had worked his way up through the ranks and retired as a Captain. He speculated with me about what my career might have been like if I'd stayed in. I got out in 1955 and it wasn't until about 1962 that "observers" and "advisers" were being sent to Vietnam. I was a Buck Sergeant and the one promise I received when being urged to "ship over" was that of a promotion to Staff Sergeant. My friend said that would have been a good thing. Rank was harder to make in the period between 1955 and 1962.

Ambrose Bierce was a misanthrope. Some times I think I'm one as well, but is it a dislike of all mankind or a contempt for half-hearted soldiers who can't remember the password, skulkers, and draft-dodgers -- especially when they preach their draft-dodgerness and skulking as though it were a higher-form of being, one to be sought by everyone not wishing to be considered a "war-monger."

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