A Seabee's Story
My Life In The Seabees
From a book by Bob Markey, Sr.
Copyright March 6, 1998. All rights reserved, except that this portion of my book may be sent to any current or former Seabee or Marine and published, if they wish, on their web sites.
Early in January of 1951 I was called to the office of Rod Dorman, BBD&Os personnel manager and a real big shot. He was the firms funeral director as well as casting agent for the many exciting and wonderful jobs at the agency.
This time it was my funeral. Dorman started by telling me that I had made a great impression at the agency and he believed I had a future in advertising. But then he delivered the bad news. As I was one of the next in line for promotion, he thought it fair to inform me that I would remain permanently assigned to the mail room. I was draft bait, he said and with the Korean War raging, the agency could not promote me and begin training me for a responsible job, for in the near future I would be wearing a uniform and in the employ of Uncle Sam.
Very disappointed, I asked the manager for advice. He suggested I consider enlisting in lieu of waiting to be drafted. That way, he said, Id get my service over with and get back to the agency and my career as soon as possible. Im not sure he ever considered the possibility that I would not be returning at all, as would be the fate of thousands of youngsters my age. But in any case, his advice did make sense to me and I gave it serious thought.
That night I told my sad tale to Warren Essner, my best buddy, and he affirmed that at the Ted Bates agency where he worked, they were advising their young employees to enlist too. So we lured our pal Whitey Janes into a pact and the three of us agreed to join the service the following morning. I opted to join The Marines and tried to convince my two buddies. But wiser than I, they were of the opinion that we would all be dead in months if we became Jarheads. The Navy was the place for us, they argued, and as we were anxious to serve together, I agreed that the Navy would be the lucky branch that got three Longhorns at one crack.
Telling mom and dad they were about to be parents of still another son in the service (Buddy was already in The Marines, preparing for assignment to Korea) wasnt easy. Having turned 17 only a few months before, I was not used to presenting my parents with decisions I had already made. But, like Warren and Whitey were doing that same evening, I gathered up whatever resolve I could muster and told the folks I was enlisting the following morning.
My mother to dissuade me. She pleaded all the mother pleas: I was too young, it would be dangerous, my brother was already in the service and one son was enough for our family, they needed me at home, etc.. But I remained firm and finally my dad lost it. "All right, damn it," he yelled, "Ill sign you in and you can go ahead and get yourself killed if thats what you want to do." But I could see that he was visibly shaken. I also had watched dad during World War II, try to excuse his civilian status on a number of occasions. He was one of those caught in the middle during the war. He was 36 years old when the war began and with two kids, was just over the age acceptable for the draft. But he wanted to be in the action, I remember, and was embarrassed as were so many men of this age, to be at home making good money during the fighting, when so many of his friends and his older brother Arthur were serving their country.
So it was decided. The next morning, as we had planned, Warren, Whitey and I left our apartments with thermoses filled with hot coffee and sandwiches, took the subway downtown to the recruiting station and got on the longest line I had ever seen.
It was January 12, 1951, a cold winter day in New York city, when standing outside most of the night was something we would not have done for almost any other reason. But we were there not only because our beginning careers in advertising were put on hold. The Korean conflict was raging. Kids from our neighborhood and youngsters all over America were defending their country in a cold, difficult Southeast Asian combat area and casualties were reported daily in the newspapers we read faithfully. We were kids who were raised in a patriotic environment, only six years out of a major war that had claimed husbands and fathers and brothers and cousins from almost every family. Communism was the deadly enemy in our young lives, and we had no doubt that this war had to be won to keep America free. We knew that there was a better than average chance that we would wind up in combat, be wounded or even killed. But we were willing to go, even eager to get in the action. Not one kid in my neighborhood, as I remember, ever considered evading the draft or protesting the war. It was a just war, we were certain, and if it had to be fought, none of The Longhorns were about to see it fought by others and not by us. Adventure called to us too, no doubt about that. The lure of a uniform, the dream of returning home with a chest full of ribbons and perhaps a medal or two was thrilling to our young egos. So we joined the recruiting line eagerly and were willing to wait all night to enlist, if it were necessary.
There were probably a thousand young men queued up, waiting for their turn to be examined physically and processed for the Navy. Most of us had coffee and sandwiches and enough cigarettes to pass the night. I do not recall any six packs of beer but Id be surprised if some of the kids did not do their share of drinking on line. Open container laws did not exist then, at least not in New York City and, in any event, it would have taken a tough-hearted cop to bother kids drinking on an enlistment line. Everyone in New York was caught up in a war spirit and looked proudly on young men who were volunteering to serve their country.
Finally the sun came up and with the dawn the line began to move. A couple of hours later we finally entered the building and wound up on another huge line that wound around inside corridors of the recruiting station. Finally a petty officer called everyone to silence and announced that no more men could be processed that day. We were bitterly disappointed. The petty officer gave us a ticket that would enable us to come back the following day and be admitted to the front of the line inside the building. But we would still have more hours to wait, for there had to be hundreds of others who were given the special admission passes.
""The hell with The Navy," I told Warren and Whitey, "lets go upstairs and join The Marines!"
They agreed. We werent about to spend another night on line, so we walked away form the Navy and walked up and into the Marine Corps recruiting office.
What a difference! There were no lines, no young men save a handful being processed. A sergeant greeted us as if we were walking into a birthday party and took us straight to a recruiting officer. He walked us through some paper work, then told us we would be given the intelligence test, a physical, and be sworn in.
We looked at one another and knew we were thinking the same thoughts.
"Wed like to go outside for a smoke," Whitey told the officer. He gave his permission and we left quickly, electing to come back in the morning and wait to get into The Navy.
I think it was Whitey, always the leader, who said we were lucky to get out of there. We all had little doubt that the Marines would have rushed us through boot camp and straight to the front. And we knew we would have had an excellence chance of being dead and buried by Christmas. We were eager to go but we werent maniacs and we certainly wanted a chance to live through the service experience. None of us were crazy enough to want to become cannon fodder.
Little did I know then that I would wind up in Korea attached to The Marines anyway, or that I would soon be volunteering for exactly that duty.
In the morning we were back again and this time it wasnt long before we were being processed. But the line outside the building had replenished itself with another thousand young volunteers who had probably decided to join up the night before.
Soon we were sitting for the intelligence test, which was a joke. Someone told us it was impossible to flunk. We had to answer correctly about 11 questions from a total of about 100, and one of them was remembering ones own name. Yet an incredible thing occurred. Whitey flunked the test.
He was not a dull person, even though he did not finish high school, and he was mortified. We figured he had somehow gotten one line off in marking the answer sheet and therefore blew the entire test. But for Whitey, his Navy career ended before it began. He shook our hands, wished us luck and blew the joint. Later he would be drafted and manage to pass the test for The Army where he served for a couple of years, but now it was my buddy Warren and myself, and we continued with the processing.
I only recall two interesting events. One was that an officer called Warren and me to his desk and told us that we had scored higher on the test than about 98 percent of the kids who had taken it that day. "Wed like to send the two of you to officer candidate school," he told us. But we thought being an officer would be like being some kind of sissy, so we nixed the opportunity and told him wed go for the regular boot camp. We may have been smart at test taking but we certainly werent very wise that day.
The other memorable situation was really funny. When we got to the head point of the line where doctors and corpsmen were measuring, taking blood samples and listening to heartbeats, I was dead ahead of Warren. A corpsman measured my chest normally and then told me to take a deep breath and hold it. My ribs jutted out like a skeleton with a flesh color paint job, and everyone on the line laughed. Obviously I was no Charles Atlas. I weighed 130 pounds. Warren had two pounds on me. He was just 18. I would not be eighteen until March 6. We were skinny as rails and looked about 15 years old. "Dont ever do that again," Warren told me later. "You embarrassed the hell out of me!
The deed was done. We were sailors to be. Now we could go home and wait for the Navy to call with our marching orders. And the fun began. The neighborhood threw us a couple of parties and we were excited, proud and feeling like a couple of heroes. But four years lay ahead of us and some very sad days were coming as well as some interesting and valuable experiences.
Warren was ordered to boot camp in a few weeks, ending our hope that we would serve together for our four year enlistment. The Navy waited until March 26th to send my orders. That way they got me for the full four years, for law required that anyone under 18 who enlisted, be mustered out before his or her 21stt birthday. In the Navy they called it a Kiddie Cruise. So Warren went off to boot camp at the Great Lakes Recruitment Center near Chicago. When it was my turn, I was ordered to the training center at Newport, Rhode Island. And Warren and I saw little of each other for the next four years.
Boot Camp was uneventful. I learned how to be a sailor, qualified as a Marksman on the rifle range, and otherwise got along fine. The Navy chow was a shock to a kid who formerly had lived on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and bread and mayonnaise, mixed in with moms home cooking. But I gained weight, added a little muscle and generally got along well. I had messed with the drums for years and had played in a little band in the neighborhood on occasions, so that eased me into the Recruit Center Band, where I had a damn good time.
After thirteen weeks of training, graduation day arrived. Like all the other new sailors, I was all spit and polish, marching in my graduation ceremonies, with proud parents, cousins, aunts and uncles watching proudly in the stands. It was June 25th, 1951. And a beautiful young blonde named Nancy was there too. She was from my old neighborhood and we had fallen in love just before my enlistment. Life was wonderful and I had orders to Submarine School in New London, Connecticut. The marching and music finally ended. I got my handshake and saluted the officers. And my long awaited boot camp leave began. But what I didnt know, as I walked so proudly to my family, was that their tears were not of joy, watching their Bobby graduate. They were all waiting, dreading, to tell me the news they had to tell, knowing that it would crush me as I had never been crushed before, and change my life forever.
After the kisses and hugs and congratulations, my mom put her plan into action.
"Before we leave," she said, and I noticed nothing in her eyes, for I was that excited and happy, "the Chaplain wants to meet you," she said.
"Mom, give me a break," I said. No way did I want to listen to some lecture planned for some religious reason by my mother. "Ive been waiting to get out of here for months," I pleaded. But moms have their way and soon I was entering the Chaplains office.
I took one look at the priests face and knew instantly what it was all about. But I prayed that I was wrong.
"Its my brother, isnt it?" I said, as my heart began filling with emotion I had never felt before.
"Hes not dead, is he Father," I asked, and the poor man had to tell me that Buddy had been killed in action in Korea on June 14th, 12 days before. My family had kept it from me so I would be able to complete my boot training and graduate. It had to be one hell of a couple of weeks for them.
I walked out of that office a zombie. I was determined to keep control. I was a sailor now, not a kid. My family embraced me and everyone cried their eyes out. All I wanted to do was be alone. With Buddy. I wanted to tell him how much I loved him. And I wanted to have a little talk with God and ask him why he had taken my beloved Buddy away from me. And I wanted to get to Korea as soon as I possibly could and blow some Korean or Chinese communist bastards head off. That emotion kept me alive for the next four years and damn near got me killed.
We drove to my Aunt Bettys summer home in nearby Westport Harbor, Massachusetts, only about an hour away. For the entire ride, Nancy held me in her lovely young arms and just loved me, as tears coursed down my face and my heart was torn in pieces time after time.
When we got to Aunt Bettys, I excused myself, walked to the little wooden outhouse in the woods at the rear of the cottage, sat down on the wooden john seat and cried for a half hour. It was the one thing in life I was unable to accept, that my brother, so full of life, so competent, so tough and so capable of handling anything in life, had been blown to bits by a Chinese mortar, only five days after he hit the front lines in Korea. It was unbelievable, unacceptable, and I have great difficulty accepting the horror of it today, 48 years later, as I write this tale.
Memories poured over me, always returning to the last day I saw Buddy alive. He was leaving for California, there to be billeted on a troop ship that would take him and thousands of other young soldiers, sailors and marines, to battle in Korea.
I drove Buddy to the bus he had to catch in midtown Manhattan. We had a half-hour or so to kill and Buddy said, "Lets get a beer."
We walked into one of the hundreds of bars of downtown Manhattan. There were a few drinkers keeping watch. Buddy and I made small talk with lumps in our throats. We talked about football, the guys on the block, mom and dad, our dog Rex... everything but what was on our minds. That we very likely would never see each other again on earth was there, as real as the beers in front of us, cold, glaring, chilling. But neither of us would bring it up. We simply sat there loving each other and praying to God that the horror of horrors would not happen, that Buddy would somehow make it through whatever he had to face in Korea, and come home a hero, medals on his chest, telling lots of war stories that would awe the guys and impress the girls.
He wore his dress blue Marine uniform and looked sharp. But New York ugliness, always waited to rear its head. Some big jerk made a remark about marines. I cant remember what he said, but I recall Buddys reaction. Buddy got up from his bar stool, walked slowly over to the guy and said, "Im sorry, I didnt quite catch that. Did you say something about the Marine Corps?"
I walked slowly over to Buddy who was staring at the guy like you would a rat. His eyes were riveted on the mans face and his hands, hanging easily at his sides, were, I knew from experience, about to flash into the jerks nose. I had no doubt that by the time the wise guy got half the next remark out of his mouth, Buddy would spread his nose over his face and the fight would be over. I was ready to back him up and take care of whichever of his friends wanted a piece of the action. But, as happened so many times before when Buddy stared someone down, the guy realized that this small marine looking into his face was about to clean his clock, so he took the smart way out.
"No, you got it wrong. I didnt say anything about marines," the guy said, back pedaling like the coward he was.
Buddy and I finished our beers and left the joint. He gave me a hug, got on his bus and soon the Greyhound began pulling away. I couldnt get rid of the feeling that I would never see him again. I drove Dads 1947 Pontiac convertible that Buddy loved so much, behind that bus most of the way out of town. I wanted to follow that damn bus forever!
I can still see in my mind Buddy, already striking up a conversation with a passenger, pointing to me out the bus rear window.
I knew what he was telling his fellow rider. "Thats my kid brother Bob. Hes probably going to follow this damn bus all the way to California." I wish I had.
Buddy only lived five days in Korea. It took his body six months to get home. The services didnt break their necks returning dead servicemen in those days. I suppose the raging war had priority over bodies and all the planes and ships were used to ferry over supplies and troops and take the wounded back to stateside hospitals. Whatever the reasons, Buddys body came home six months later, at Christmas time in 1951. And we got to live the whole tragedy over again when he arrived at Connors Funeral Home on Broadway in our neighborhood.
It was a big deal. Buddy was the first in our neighborhood to be killed in action in Korea. Every church, temple, neighborhood club, sent representatives to the wake. The Knights of Columbus came and the American Legion, Jewish War Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, you name it. If it respected the flag, its members came to the wake to honor Buddy, hundreds of them.
A number of other strangers came as well. And a fruitcake or two. One guy about 30 came in. He walked up to the casket, protected by two marine honor guards, and paid his respects. Then he stationed himself in front of the casket and would not leave. My mom and dad approached him and tried to ask if he knew Buddy, but he began to shout, "Get away. Dont come near me." He was really wild.
The poor marines kept a close eye on the nut and would, I expect, have prevented him from touching the body. But clearly they were not authorized to enter into any controversy. I got the funeral home attendant on duty and asked him to remove the man. He said he did not know how he could. The man was becoming more agitated by the minute, rambling about the dead marine being his buddy and how he was at his side when he was killed. Everyone in the crowded room was horrified and my parents and I were particularly upset at the intruders inappropriate actions. So I decided to act.
I went quietly to the casket, in my Navy uniform, and tried to persuade the man to leave. He began getting even more upset. I finally grabbed him by the neck, hauled him away from the casket, pulled him through the crowded room and bounced him out on Broadway like a rubber ball. It was one hell of a scene.
Somehow we survived the very emotional wake and the following morning Buddy had a filled church at Good Shepherd for his funeral mass. Then a long line of cars motored to Pinelawn National Cemetery on Long Island.
Ill never forget all my beloved Longhorns gathered at the grave site, standing at rigid attention as my brothers Marine buddies played taps, and fired three volleys of blanks while his body was lowered into the grave. Warren, Phil Sullivan and I, in our uniforms, saluted Buddy a final good-bye. Then we put or arms around each other and cried.
When Buddy was killed I had orders for submarine school in New London, Connecticut. But without my realizing it, my parents had the chaplain pull papers naming me a "sole surviving son." Because of this status, my sub school orders were canceled and I was assigned to Brooklyn Navy Yard to await the return of my brothers body from Korea.
After the funeral, all I could think of was that I had promised, in a letter to Buddy while he was awaiting shipment overseas, that I would someday meet him in Korea. It preyed on my mind. Also, I wanted very badly to avenge his death. I wanted my piece of Chinese flesh. I wanted to fire my rifle into the face of some slimy bastard, commie soldier, and hope to God he was one of those who had killed Buddy. But first I had to get to Korea and to accomplish this, I had to get rid of that damn sole surviving son designation.
After boot camp leave I reported to the Brooklyn Navy Yard Receiving Station and began my first real days as a sailor. I was given a choice: work as a mess cook, peeling potatoes and washing plates and pansor learn to type and work in the office. It wasnt a hard decision. Soon I was sitting in front of an old typewriter, reading a Navy instruction manual and learning how to punch the keys in a reasonable impersonation of a typist.
Thereafter, my duties consisted of interviewing sailors coming and going to locations and ships and bases all over the world. Most importantly, I began to understand the importance of paper in the armed forces. A piece of paper could deal up an immediate leave, a choice assignment to a good duty station, a promotion, assignment to schooleven a discharge for a number of reasons. Learning to obey orders and to be a competent sailor was one thing, but learning to fill out the right papers that could change your life, was an asset that would serve me very well for the next almost four years.
I went home almost every weekend and when I had duty on a Friday or Saturday, Nancy would travel to Brooklyn and visit with me. My life, though still deeply affected by the loss of my brother, was wonderful. Nancy and I were deeply in love, the way only young and first lovers can be, and we explored every experience of that marvelous and exciting world with great joy. She was certainly the best thing that had happened in my life up to that time.
But my promise to join Buddy in Korea was not forgotten. I spent a lot of time planning ways to get to Korea. Eventually it seemed to be my best chance was to become a Seabee. The Seabees are the Navys Construction battalions and almost always serve on land, either at Naval bases or attached to the Marines. During combat periods, the Seabees followed the Marines into combat zones, building roads, living facilities, bridges, airstrips, whatever was necessary. My goal soon became to get myself transferred to Seabee school in Oxnard, California. But first I had to get rid of that damn sole surviving son designation. If I couldnt, I would never get an assignment to Korea. Probably most of the young men in the nation were trying to find a way to avoid combat in Korea and I was doing my best to get there. Conforming was never my strong suit.
Luckily, I wound up in a serious dispute with a lieutenant commander. A lieutenant commander in the Navy is to a Seaman Apprentice, my rank at the time, as a King is to a person who cleans his bathroom. You didnt pick fights with high ranking officers unless you had an overwhelming desire to spend the rest of your hitch in the brig. But I did just that.
I had conned my way into assignment to the motor pool, where I was learning to be a mechanic, though I had been fooling with cars, engines and all the things that make a car go bump in the night, since I was 13. So I was at least already a backyard mechanic of sorts. But in the motor pool, I learned to repair and service many different vehicles. I enjoyed it a lot.
One Monday morning I was ordered to appear in LCDR Morans office, not a usual experience for the lowest ranking sailor on the base. I asked my superior, Chief Falconeri why Moran wanted to see me.
"Beats the hell out of me," he said, "but lets get up there fast because you are surely in deep trouble."
Even today, I can remember that scene. I stood at attention as the commander reamed me out from stem to stern, with the chief at parade rest at my side, but not saying a damn word. Even chiefs do not speak up to LCDRs unless they are requested to do so.
"Son," the commander said, "You are one of the most miserable bastards I have ever had the misfortune to have in my command. You are a piece of garbage. Im going to be on your ass from this day forward. Ill make a sailor out of you or see that you spend the rest of your cruise doing shit details you cant even imagine."
"Excuse me, commander, I dont know what this is all about. What did I do?" I unwisely interrupted.
"Shut your miserable mouth," he ordered, and proceeded to blast me from one end of the room to the other without explaining anything except that he thought I was the lowest low-life in the United States Navy.
Somewhere in his ravings I got the message that someone in the motor pool had been repairing private automobiles using Uncle Sams equipment and facilities and he was pissed. Someone, apparently, had informed him it was me, but that wasnt true. The only vehicles I had ever worked on at the base, other than military ones, were the skippers new Ford convertible, which I washed regularly as part of my expected duties. But I figured it best not to mention that.
When the commander had finally exhausted his venom and threatened me with every rotten thing that could happen to a sailor, I figured it was my turn to inform him he was dead wrong, had the wrong sailor and owed me a serious apology. But when I asked to speak he told me to shut my mouth and get out of his office. I didnt accept that well at all, but the chief, a good friend, got me out of there fast.
"Chief, it wasnt me," I told him as we walked back to the motor pool. Its damned unfair. Ive got to get him to listen to me." But Falconeri told me to forget it. There was nothing I could do. He was the commander and I was a dumb kid. He said I was lucky he didnt toss me into the mess hall.
But I wouldnt let it drop. I asked for an audience with his highness the commander but he didnt even reply. So I remembered my newly discovered respect for paper work in the Navy and realized that I didnt have to take it. One little paper could get me in front of the Captain and the commanders ass would be grass, I figured. Hey, I was only just turned 18. I still believed in total justice, right makes mightthat sort of kid stuff.
The next day I told the chief I was going to put the commander on report. He laughed and said Seaman apprentices didnt fill out report chits on commanders - it went the other way. But I knew it was possible. At least I could try. I went to the Officer-of-the-Day shack and asked for a report chit.
"Who do you want to put on report?" a yeoman asked.
"Commander Moran," I replied.
He thought that was very funny, announcing to all in the office that a loony-tunes was in the duty shack. But I insisted anyway.
Soon I was standing before an officer who asked me to explain what in hell I was up to. I told him. He told me to come back tomorrow and hed have some decision for me but it sure as hell was not gong to be a report chit on the commander.
Within minute my chief was blasting me, telling me I was going to make it bad on everyone in the motor pool. I had to drop my request to see the Captain, he said.
I told him, "No way! That son-of-a-bitch had no right to accuse me of being out of line and not give me a chance to explain myself. It was to be decided by the Captain and nothing else would suffice. If the Captain refused to see me, I would write to the Commandant of the Navy.
"Lord, Markey, you are a crazy kid," he moaned. But he said, "Let me see what I can do to get you out of this mess."
The answer was fast coming. The commander had heard of the crazy kid who wanted to the him to report him to the Captain. He was outraged, but the chief managed to tell him that I was innocent and according to Naval regulations, I was within my right to file a report. I had him. Now the commanders ass was in the sling.
Soon the commander told the chief he wanted me off the base. "Ill send that son-of-a-bitch to Korea so fast he wont have time to wipe his ass," he told the chief. But the chief told him that was exactly what I wanted. Further, the chief said, I wanted to go to Seabee school for that was an almost certain way to eventually get orders to the war zone.
So the deal was done. The commander signed papers transferring me to Port Hueneme, the huge Seabee base in California, and in days I was kissing Nancy good-bye and heading for the Seabees.
And during the negotiations, I managed to sign papers voluntarily withdrawing my sole surviving son designation. I was on my way to Korea. Or at least getting closer.
I breezed through Construction Mechanic school at Port Hueneme during the next few months. In the meantime, I met a nice girl in Whittier, the hometown of (soon to be) President Richard Nixon, who was according to the locals, not well liked, I guess they knew a lot more about him than the rest of us did in those days. Pretty Lee Nagel helped my tour there become enjoyable, as did my wonderful, adopted uncle Red Adams, actually an old friend of my dads, who owned Sardis Restaurant and Bar on Hollywood and Vine. He had to rename it Cardis after he bought the club and Sardis management reneged on a promise. But everyone used the French pronunciation of the name, Sardis, and thats what it was called for years.
Uncle Red treated me like a son and more. He gave me spending money when I was broke, fed me on weekends when I had leave and even gave me my own set of keys to his new Ford convertible so I could tool up to Whittier and take out the lovely Lee. He was a fine part of my life then. I suppose he figured I was headed for Korea and might not come back, like my brother Buddy. But I loved him a lot and he loved me in return.
Soon, graduation day was arriving and orders for reassignment were to be passed out. I had watched about half the young Seabees who graduated before me get orders to combat in Korea and I wanted to be sure I also received the same orders. So I requested a meeting with the Billet Officer.
He was a young Lieutenant who listened to my fervent plea to be assigned to Korea. "Is there something wrong with you? he asked. "Kids your age are dying there every day. And you want to become another dead Seabee?"
I told him about Buddy being killed months before and I begged him to see that I got orders for Korea. I told him I wouldnt be able to live with myself if I broke my promise to Buddy to be with him in Korea.
"Hes dead. Youre alive. Youve got a mother and father who need you. You dont have the right to ask me to send you to a very likely death. Youre the last son in your family. I wont do it," he said.
But I was a persuasive little guy then, despite my 140 or so pounds on a skinny frame. I talked and talked until he finally broke down.
"Okay you dumb little bastard. If one billet comes in for Korea, youll get it. And I have news for you," he said, mad as hell. "Ive been there and it sucks. When you get there and see your friends die, youll know what a big mistake youve made today. And Ive got more news for you. Unfortunately for me Im going back again. And I hope I see your little ass over there cause when I do Im gong to kick it from Pusan to Seoul."
I almost kissed him. I was finally going to Korea. Id go home for a couple of weeks, make love to Nancy again, then kiss her good-bye and go to Korea and blast some miserable gook to hell. I was joyous!
Stuff happens. It didnt turn out that way at all. For some reason unknown only to the top brass, not a single Seabee in our graduating class was assigned to Korea. My orders were to report to San Francisco after a weeks leave and be transported to Guam, a large island in the Marianas chain in the South Pacific. I was crushed. But there wasnt a damn thing I could do about it. It seemed I was never going to get to Korea. But I knew that I would never give up trying. I made up my mind to paper the Navy to death until they reassigned me to combat duty.
In spite of my depressed state, I enjoyed my leave, which of course, like all leaves, passed by too quickly. Nancy and I spent every moment together, trying not to dwell on the fact that in a few days I would leave for overseas, not to return for at least a year or twoif I returned at all. Before I knew it I was at the airport, kissing her good-bye and boarding a plane to Frisco. As I looked out of the aircraft window at Nancy, crying and waving a sad farewell, I could not help wondering if we would ever be together again. She was sure to meet a lot of great guys at college and my chance of weathering the long separation and finding her waiting in a year or so seemed bleak. It was a really lousy day.
Reporting to Treasure Island Naval base, I found a bunk and tossed my seabag at its foot. Then I reported in, got a liberty chit and went ashore. I decided Id drown myself in scotch and try and forget the lousy fate that awaited me in Guam. I feared that I would vegetate on that damn island until the war in Korea was over. I was one miserable Seabee.
In a week or so I caught a military plane to Guam. As soon as I checked into my new battalion, I found Tom Moak, a tall and lanky Texan who had become my good buddy at Port Hueneme. Tom had graduated about a month before I did and also was sent to Guam. He laughed like hell when he saw me. I told Tom all about rigging my assignment to Korea and how it all turned rotten. "When you see what kind of chickenshit outfit this is, youll really wish you were in Korea," Tom told me. I had no idea how crazy an outfit I had been assigned to. But I began to find out early the next day.
Reveille was blown around 6 a.m. I ate breakfast with Tom and he filled me in. The skipper, Commander John F. Dowd, was crazy, he said. Not just unusual but genuinely insane. "Youll find out. If I told you some of the things this madman is doing here, you would not believe me. But youll probably get a hint of how nuts he is at formation," Moak said.
Dowd ordered the entire battalion to form up for a little talk. "Youll see your new skipper in action your very first day. Good luck, buddy. And remember, keep your mouth shut, no matter what happens or youll be in deeper shit than youve ever known. Give this guy a wide berth, Bob. Hes really bonkers and dangerous as hell," Tom said.
I thought he was exaggerating a bit, giving the new guy a little bullshit to have a little fun. Was I wrong.
Probably 1,500 Seabees were soon sweating in formation, at parade rest, waiting for the skipper to arrive. Soon everyone started mumbling, "Here he comes."
It was incredible. The skipper drove down the broad island road, preceded by a number of Marines in Jeeps. His battalion commander flags were flying from both front bumpers of his staff car. His driver drove like a madman and as his car passed, I saw a number of enlisted men pick up rocks and toss them at the skippers car. His Marine guards were looking frantically from side to side as if they expected someone to assassinate the commander. I later learned that many Seabees had vowed to do just that. I also discovered why Dowd was in fear of his life, and for good reason.
His quarters had Marines posted on all sides, around the clock. I had just joined an outfit with a certified maniac in command. I knew one thing -- I had to get the hell out of there and get to Korea.
Soon Dowd was walking back and forth chewing out the whole battalion. "I know what many of you are thinking. I know what you are planning. But you arent going to get away with it," the wild looking commander said.
He raved on and on, ordering his men to maintain strict discipline, to obey his officers, to stop trying to undermine his command, to stop slacking off and to work like hell. He actually sounded like a man who had too many mortars fired his way, and that turned out to be the case. We were told much later that Dowd had seen a lot of action during World War II and apparently, though the big war had ended about seven years before, he had now become paranoid and needed help desperately.
Unfortunately, a battalion commander in the South Pacific is like a god in his own jurisdiction. And no one could touch him nor order him to a hospital for evaluation. There were more than 1,500 men who knew the commander was out to lunch, his junior officers included. But even the officers were frightened of Dowd and did not dare, at least openly, to either advise him or report him to higher authorities.
Finally the skipper wore down and looked at his men, company after company, filling a large area, every man just wanting the formation to end so they could get to work. But the commander wasnt quite through.
"I defy any man to step forward and tell me whats wrong with this outfit," he shouted. Any one of you. Ask any questions you want. Isnt there a man here who has the guts to speak," he cried.
To my astonishment, a chief petty officer shouted, "Here, sir!" The skipper strode closer to the mans company and said, "speak sailor!"
"I have just one question, Sir!" he hollered. "How the hell do I get a transfer out of this chicken-shit outfit?"
"Seize that man," Dowd shouted, his face so red I thought he would have a stroke. Marines rushed forward and grabbed the hapless chief and took him to the brig. I learned this was not an unusual occasion at all. Due to Dowds relentless pressure and crazy orders to his men, many were at the breaking point and some were getting as crazy as the skipper.
The chief who had yelled out at muster, later drove a jeep under a cable, raising his arms and almost losing them. After a long time in the hospital, he was finally discharged, but it was a tough way to get away from Dowd.
I also remember hearing of another petty officer who poisoned himself because Dowd kept pressuring him without cause, and there were rumors of other suicides.
Soon the skipper decided to down even more. He ordered every Seabee to work 15 hours each day, seven days a week. He closed the "geedunk" stand, where we all looked forward after a hard days labor to grabbing a hamburger and beer or two. That was the end of that. It seemed the commander was going to bring his men to their knees. But it also was quite possible that some Seabee or Marine would kill him before it was all over. Things were that bad.
I met a number of guys who vowed they would kill the skipper if they got a chance. Some of them were just cracking under the commanders pressure and lunatic orders. Others had been treated very badly.
One friend of mine who said he would kill Dowd if an opportunity presented itself, was very bitter. A couple of months before, he been informed by the Red Cross that his mother was dying. The Red Cross notified the skipper and recommended an immediate emergency leave. Dowd wouldnt let him go.
"Your mother isnt that sick and we need every man here. I cant spare you," Dowd told him.
The Red Cross heard my friends pleas but could do nothing. The skipper was adamant. In a week or so, the Red Cross passed on the news. His mom had died. My friend went before the skipper once again with another Red Cross recommendation for emergency leave to attend the funeral. Dowd refused to let him go.
""By the time you get there, shell be buried," Dowd told him. "Theres no need for you to go now."
The Seabee had to be dragged out of the commanders office. He would have strangled him on the spot if it were not for the ever present and vigilant Marines. But they too hated the son-of-a-bitch, crazy or not.
Thats how my first month or two went on Guam, under the command of a maniac and working so hard and so long that I had little time on my hands to worry about Dowd. Besides, I had already started my paper campaign to get transferred to Korea.
I was driving the officers nuts. I actually started the first day I had arrived on Guam. After Dowds diatribe at muster, I received permission to go to the officer of the day shack to make a request. I asked for a request chit and filled out a request to be transferred to combat duty in Korea.
"Didnt you just get here?" an officer asked when he was given my chit.
"Yes sir," I answered.
"Well son, you just take this back and save it and come back in about 16 months and Ill consider it," the lieutenant said. "You have at least a year-and-a-half to serve here before you are likely to go anywhere," he told me, and tried to hand me back the request chit.
"I beg your pardon, sir," I said, "but I believe naval regulations require that any request chit be given consideration and Id like you to consider it." I refused to take the paper from his hand.
Obviously assessing me as a wise guy or moron, the officer smiled and said, "By god, youre right. And he checked denied on the chit and handed it to me. "See me in 16 months," he said with a smile.
I was back in his office in a week. Same request. Same denial. This went on for a month or so. I sort of hoped Dowd would hear of this crazy Seabee who wanted to leave his command. I fantasized him raving, "What? He wants to go to Korea. Send the bastard there," and stamping my request chit approved. But it never happened. As far as I know, Dowd never discovered I was alive.
Our battalion was building dependent housing on Guam as well as doing other construction projects and repairs on the huge base.
We had some funny times too. Dowd had a mascot, a black goat, the traditional mascot of Seabees throughout the world.
One day, Dowds goat wandered into our compound. A couple of Seabees grabbed it, shaved its rear, and a Seabee artist who was quite good was conned into painting a picture of Dowds face on the goats ass.
When Dowd finally saw his countenance looking back at him from his goats behind, he went crazy. All liberty was canceled, our hot water in the heads were turned off, and we were required to work even longer hours. But it was worth it. We were all proud of our caper.
The skipper gave direct orders to every officer, chief and petty officer, and to his Marines, to investigate the incident and turn up the culprit. But there was no way anyone was going to turn the guy in. He was a hero.
We finally were allowed to go on liberty, to Agana, the capital of Guam, not much of a city then, but at least there were bars and women there. Not that that did us much good.
The young women of Guam, as I remember, were devout Catholics and were forbidden to go out with servicemen. That left our 1,500 Seabees loveless and very frustrated. I met one hooker of the reported few in town. She was said to be a hermaphrodite. Seabees who claimed to have partaken of her services swore she had a vaginaand a penis, though a very small and undeveloped one. I wasnt that hard up so I never found out
On one of our first liberties, about 50 Seabees were in a bar in Agana. A waitress was teasing the hell out of us in a skimpy little outfit. She sure looked good. She looked too good for a couple of love-starved Seabees, who were also pretty drunk. They grabbed her and started tearing off all her clothes. The waitress started yelling, the bar owners went nuts, and soon sirens of shore patrol Jeeps were headed our way. A number of Seabees got arrested. Tom Moak and I got the hell out of there before the shore patrol arrived. We also, all of us had our liberties canceled again. And the mood of the battalion grew venomous against our fruitcake skipper.
But good things were about to happen.
A day or so later, a number of new men arrived on base, enlisted men and a few new officers. There was nothing unusual about this except the very first day the men seemed to be all over the place, asking questions about Commander Dowd. We figured they were CID, naval intelligence people. And we were right.
After a few days gathering facts, the intelligence guys proceeded to Dowd's office, handed his Marines papers of authority from an Admiral in Pearl Harbor, and relieved Dowd of his command. He was taken immediately to a waiting aircraft and flown to Pearl. We never saw him again, but we were told he had been suffering from delayed battle fatigue induced mental illness but would be court-martialed, nevertheless, for his offenses and inhuman treatment of the men under his command. Later we heard he had been granted permission to resign his commission and retire, avoiding the court martial. But none of us felt sorry for him. He had made Guam a living hell for all of us.
Everything returned to normal on the island. We built our homes quickly and for a fraction of the cost that the Navy had formerly paid to civilian contractors who, until our battalion were assigned the construction projects in the South Pacific area.
I passed the test for Seaman and soon was learning to be a fairly competent truck and heavy equipment mechanic. But I continued to bug the officers for a transfer to Korea. I kept returning to the administration offices and filling out my request for transfer chits. An officer would take them, stamp them denied, and return them to me on the spot.
A few weeks after Dowd was mustered out, a Seabee engineer, Lt. Julius, called me to his office.
"Ive heard a lot about you," he said, and asked why I wanted so badly to go to Korea.
I told him about my promise to Buddy and he was empathetic. "Ive got a deal for you," he responded.
"I cant promise to get you to Korea soon, but I do promise to do whatever I can to have your orders cut for Korea, if you are willing to volunteer for a special duty assignment."
He told me he had been given command of a special mobile construction detachment with orders to go ashore on a tiny island and build dependent housing there. He said he needed reliable men who were solid workers and knew their jobs. "You have been recommended as a mechanic who knows what hes doing," the lieutenant said. "If you volunteer to go to Kwajalein as part of my detachment, youll be going back to the states in about nine months. If you stay here, youll have about 15 months to serve. Go with me and I promise you your next duty station will be Korea. Its the best I can offer. What do you say?"
"Lieutenant, youve got a deal," I told him, and he shook my hand. Within a few days, I was packing my seabag for the cruise to Kwajalein and saying good-bye to my best friend Tom Moak. I never saw or heard from him again. But he was one hell of a good guy. Its like that in the service. If you havent been there you cant understand. But you get so close to some of your buddies they seem like brothers. Then a piece of paper passes hands, you say farewell, and thats the end of it. You move on and meet new buddies. Relationships dont last long, and even if you meet again years later, there is no longer that special bond that once tied the two of you together. It stayed at the last duty station where your lives were so entwined.
As our ship sailed toward the spit in the Pacific, we crowded the railings, staring in awe at the smallness of it. We had been briefed, of course, and knew that Kwajalein was about a mile-and-a-half long and a half-mile wide, but imagining it and seeing it were different things. Our detachment, probably about 300 carpenters, welders, mechanics, plumbers, heavy equipment operators and general construction men, were excited about our project, but we surely all wondered how in hell we were to survive up to a year on that minuscule rock. If we had then known that our tour would be extended to 18 months, I believe some of us would have tried to swim back to the states.
For the next couple of days, we unloaded cranes, dozers, rollers, trucks and jeeps, supplies of every kind and tools of our trade. We were one "Can Do" outfit and had no doubt that we would build the finest damn houses in the Pacific.
It was quite interesting. Rather than ship concrete and other materials from the states or Pearl Harbor, we were chosen to create our own materials from island coral. We built "crushers" about 20-feet above the ground, then crushed the coral into "pea gravel", mixed it with cement and made our own concrete. Dump trucks would drive under the crusher and the concrete would pour into their turning mixer tanks, soon to gush out of hoppers onto a prepared pad that would be the foundation for our concrete block houses. We also created our own block plant and built the blocks out of our own coral concrete. It worked quite well.
Kwajalein was home to about 10,000 sailors, Marines and Air Force personnel, and a small number of Coast Guardsmen lived on a sister island, Ebeye, a short walk across a live coral and sand bed, which was passable at low tide and fully covered by the ocean as the tide rose.
There were Marshallese natives living on Ebeye, very dark-skinned, rather unattractive people with little if any schooling. They lived as they had for centuries, off the sea, wading into lagoons with hand-made nets to catch the seafood of their life. Their diet was supplemented with coconuts that grew plentifully on trees all over the island.
The Marshallese women were the least fetching I had ever seen, usually quite overweight and dressed in native sarong-like gowns. They had unkempt, black, thick curly hair and large noses above thick lips. "Dont worry about it," a Seabee who was on the island before us said. "They get lighter and prettier every day. I never found that to happen.
The natives, as unattractive as they were, seemed to love the powerful lye soap with which they washed our work uniforms in the island laundry - and they doused themselves with it unsparingly. Imagine a 100-plus degree temperature, no air conditioning, and women exuding strong lye soap odors and youll know why romance was non-existent on Kwajalein. To further defuse whatever young libidos might cause us to chance, it was a court martial offense to be caught even walking across the coral reef that separated the two islands, and few attempted it. The few who did were caught either before they reached Ebeye or on Ebeye Beach, long before they made contact with any native woman. Also, I never heard of a Marshallese woman having an affair with a serviceman, so either they were very moral, or their husbands, brothers and fathers wielded wicked machetes. All I do know is that the many months I spent on "Kwaj" were long and lonely.
Id like to try and relate how it was on Kwajalein, for if you understand Kwaj, youll know how it is for youngsters all over the world, serving their country in the loneliest places God ever created. Youll understand why some kids go crazy and fight each other, even shoot or stab each other. Its a relentless, continuing presence of loneliness and boredom and incredible heat that takes over your psyche, if you let it, and destroys the usual good nature that exists in most kids of seventeen to twenty one, which the majority of us were.
It was always about 100 degrees, the island sitting just six degrees off the equator. And it wasnt just hot - we were doing tough, muscle-work, hauling concrete blocks, hammering nails, sawing wood by hand, driving heavy, hot equipment, working on over-boiling engines and doing all the things you have to do to build houses.
I spent over three years overseas and it was the only place I was at where sweat actually prevented us from working for very long without some respite. We had 55-gallon barrels of water in our work areas and every 10 minutes or so we would have to stop work and stick the upper part of our torsos as far as we could in the warm water that was still cooler than our overheated bodies.
We worked like hell but with pride. Seabees are not like other servicemen. There is a minimum of military discipline and courtesy in Seabee battalions. We did not salute our officers. We were considered, and considered ourselves, a working construction team, and that is just what we were. There were unwritten traditions in the Seabees that transcended usual military obligations. If a kid digging a ditch needed a hand and an officer was passing by, the Seabee would ask for help and the officer would jump in and work alongside the other Seabees. Still, we highly respected our officers, almost of them, and they seemed to deeply respect us as well.
Our skipper, Lt. Julius, was one of the best. He took care of us and we took care of him.
One day a group of Navy officers wives (they sure werent Seabees officers - none of our officers had family with them on the island) complained to the Admiral who ran Kwajalein, that the Seabees were an unkempt bunch, wearing shorts instead of dungarees, going around the work place bare-chested, and embarrassing the gentle women.
The Admiral chewed out Lt. Julius and our skipper gathered us together one morning to tell us about the complaints.
"There are a number of young women who are so tight-assed they are horrified at the sight of you young guys. But I tell you here and now, just do your jobs, wear any damn thing you please while on duty, and as long as you dont walk around with your balls hanging out, the Admiral can go to hell."
As I said, he was some kind of guy.
But life on the island was miserable. We thanked God for the long and hard work hours, for it gave us something to do. When we werent working we tried to spend the time meaningful way. We read books, attempted to learn a language, studied for higher rank, wrote letters home to girls who were probably going out with other guys, and drank beer and gambled. Mostly we drank beer and gambled.
When we werent drinking our hours away or writing home, we swam in the ocean with sharks, barracuda, sting rays and assorted other sea life, who never bothered us at all. In the history of the island, there had never been an instance of anyone being bitten by a shark, though huge ones would often glide by within feet of where we were swimming.
And we climbed trees and picked coconuts. Not on Kwajalein though, for there was hardly a tree left on that island after the Army, Seabees and Marines invaded it and killed 10,000 defending Japanese soldiers sometime in 1944 or 1945. Occasionally we would take a small boat to a neighboring island in the Kwajalein Atoll and climb trees and pick coconuts, sucking the sweet, milky liquid down, chasing it with a cold beer.
But our day-to-day lives were filled with quiet, almost despairing loneliness. We worked our asses off, then tried to stay sane. Realize that most of us were just kids, 18, 19, 20 years old. We had raging genes and brilliant imaginations. We dreamed of love, yearned for it, fantasized about beautiful and willing young women - or about the girl friend or wife we left at home - and we suffered.
Off duty, we rode the island bus round and round the island, hoping to catch a glance of an American officers wife, hanging out her wash or playing with her kids. We anguished for just the sight of a young woman.
When we were tired of riding the bus, we sat in the outdoor and roofless Richardson theater, watching western movies we had seen many times. During the monsoon season, when it poured rain so hard it soaked into our ponchos and wet us to the bone, we sat there, for hours, for there was nothing else to do. That does something to young kids, sears their souls with scars of loneliness that lasts a lifetime.
I wrote to Nancy every day, cheerful letters, usually hiding the dreadful life that I had to live. But its hard to keep love alive with 10,000 miles between the lovers. A letter, solid gold to us, took about a week to reach one of us, two weeks round trip. Often I would write something that made her angry. She would write back in anger and in kind, and two weeks later I would stare at her writing and wonder what in hell she was upset about. I tried not to imagine the young and beautiful Nancy being romanced by all those "draft dodgers" back home that all of us despised. But we were on Kwajalein and they were with the girls we loved. It sucked!
When young men are bored, feeling abandoned, lonely, frustrated and alienated, they often erupt in irregular behavior. Trained to fight against an enemy, to be aggressive and assertive, young warriors far removed from an ongoing war, sometimes get into scrapes just for the hell of it.
A number of them occurred on Kwajalein, none of them very important, but one was interesting.
I probably started it. The toughest Seabee on the island was a 10 year veteran named Joe Gamrak. Gamrak was, at the time, a seaman, though he had worn the "crow" of a senior petty officer a number of times. Like so many career military men who loved to raise hell, Gamrak had been raised in rank a number of times, then reduced to a lower rank due to a brawl or drunken prank that some officer or civilian didnt think was funny.
He was a good-looking guy, about six-two and tough as nails. No one fooled with Gamrak, not the toughest in the battalion. He selected his companions like a god bestowing a blessing of friendship upon a lesser being. And those who were his friends were the envy of the outfit.
I didnt care much for the huge enlisted mens club on the island, crowded and noisy. But there was a Marine club, small and cozy, quite near our Quonset hut. I preferred to drink and hang out there and, as my brother had been a Marine, I was easily accepted.
One night I strolled into the Marine club and found Gamrak, whom I didnt know very well, sitting with a few Seabees I did know. I joined them without an invitation, sitting down next to the venerable and unapproachable Gamrak.
"Hi guys," I said, never imagining there would be a problem with my joining them. And there wasnt. Except for Gamrak.
He looked at me as if I were a roach crawling too close for comfort and said, "Who the hell invited you? Get lost!"
I thought he was kidding and said something dumb.
"I told you to leave," Gamrak said.
I answered something stupid, a bit embarrassed and somewhat annoyed. Gamrak struck like a coral snake. His open hand flayed across my face and almost knocked me off the chair. Everyone laughed, of course. When Gamrak acted, his friends went along.
I rose from my chair, prepared to demand who in hell he thought he was, but was amazed to discover he had returned to whatever tall tale he was spinning and had completely forgotten I was there. It was a mistake on his part.
Since I was a little kid, no one had ever hit me without being hit back, even if he was as huge and as bad as Gamrak. So I hit him a sucker punch and back-handed him damn near off his chair. Chairs skidded as Marines and Seabees made room for Gamrak to wipe the deck with me, and I prepared to belt him with all I had and hope at least it would discourage him from putting me in sick bay for too many weeks.
Gamrak rose slowly from his chair, stood towering over me, and damn near was incoherent. I held my fists ready, waiting for him to make his move. I also correctly assessed his predicament. Here was a skinny kid, ten years his junior, who had hit him a good one and was obviously not backing away, He could do his thing and it wouldnt take much, but there would be no glory to it. All he would do is hurt his rep by tearing up a guy more or less half his size. It was obvious no one had ever done such an audacious thing to him in years.
I just glared at him, hoping the butterflies in my stomach would calm down enough for me to at least put up a decent defense.
After what seemed a minute, Gamrak just looked me in the eye and said, "Leave. Right Now!
I had guts but I had no suicidal tendencies. So I smiledor tried toand sauntered over to the bar and ordered a beer. No one dared talk to me but I could tell there was a lot of undisplayed admiration going on in that bar.
I finished my beer and took a walk back to the barracks.
For the next few days, I could go nowhere on the island without someone stopping me, saying Gamrak was looking for me. I did my best to see that he didnt find me. I figured my mom could use my $10,000 GI insurance payoff, but wasnt anxious to meet up with Gamrak for at least a year.
Fate being what it is, one afternoon I turned a corner and damn near ran into him. I kissed my ass good-bye.
Gamrak said, "I want to talk to you."
I figured those were the last words I would ever hear. He grabbed my arm and took me around a corner. I looked for a brick or board to level the field but there was nothing there but me and the towering Gamrak. He stared me down, then stuck out his hand.
"You little punk," he said, "Youve got more balls than brains. I just want to tell you youre my boy, anyone who messes with you, messes with me!" And he left me there, wide-eyed, and rejoined his buddies.
I began to more seriously believe in Gods providence and his love for dumb creatures.
Needless to say, Gamrak and I became friends and no one on that island ever gave me a bad time. They didnt want to waltz with Gamrak.
A few days later, our detachment went on a beer ride to one of the little islands that were off shore. We boozed and played cards, sang hymns and had a pretty good time. When we boarded the landing craft to return to Kwaj, Gamrak decided to take a dive into the ocean and cool down. Bad move. He chose the side of the boat nearest shore, where the water was about three feet deep. He also broke his neck.
The medics fit him with a neck brace and ordered him to lay off from work for a while. He did. For as long as it took him to drown a six pack. Then he went back to work.
Later in the week, I was in the Marine bar and got into some dumb argument with a Jarhead who was all brawn and no brains. It was dance time, but cooler heads separated us. Still, a number of Marines were frosted and a series of minor incidents and scrapes occurred between Seabees and Marines. We all knew it had to be settled before it would get over.
I cant recall the actual catalyst that started the brawl, but soon there were Seabees and Marines having at one another in the middle of our adjoining compounds. When it broke up, the survivors came back to our compound and told the rest of us that the Marines were asking for it. We were happy to oblige them and soon perhaps a hundred Seabees visited the Marine barracks with mayhem in mind. I went along for the diversion.
We were in a pretty good donnybrook, when I saw Gamrak enter the barracks. I pushed my way to his side and, with others, pleaded with him not to get involved. One shot and he could have been paralyzed for life. You dont duke it out with a broken neck.
But Gamrak just yelled, "Shove one my way!" It sounds fabricated but its true. As a Seabee would grab a Marine and wear him down a bit, he would shove him toward Gamrak and the big guy would send him to sleep with a single punch. It was strictly for the movies.
As sirens split the humid air, we all raced back to our Quonset hut, bruised but happy as hell.
The following Friday night, the Marines issued an invitation to a settlement party and every Seabee sent back his acceptance. It was going to be one hell of a night. And as we outnumbered the entire Marine contingent about three to one, we figured the outcome was never in doubt.
Marines and Seabees were facing each other down, mouthing off, waiting for the first punch to be thrown, when the situation turned bad.
A Marine lieutenant with the IQ of a third grader squealed up in a jeep and ordered us all to disperse. No one moved.
Exasperated, he ordered a number of his Marines to double-time back to their barracks and arm themselves and believe it or not, fix bayonets.
They did. And in minutes, he had faced his men against the pack of Seabees. He again ordering us to leave. Seabees responded with advice as to how he could go fornicate himself and it became a very touchy situation. None of us really saw any sense in staying there, but not one of us were about to back down from this jerk of an officer who would order his men to fix bayonets against fellow servicemen. It was very dumb.
Finally Lt. Julius strode into the fray and faced the Marine lieutenant, asking him what the hell he thought he was doing.
The lieutenant, equal in rank to our skipper, stared him in the eye and told him to disperse his men or he would order his Marines to arrest us.
I was close enough to hear our skippers response.
"Lieutenant, you are about the biggest horses ass Ive seen since I joined the Navy. But Im going to give you a choice. Ill give you 30 seconds to order your men to sheath their weapons and return to their barracks. If you dont, Im going to order my men to step back ten yards and stay peaceful. Then Im going to kick your ass in front of your own men. Make your move!"
The Marine lieutenant swallowed hard, took another look at Julius, and did as he was instructed. That was the end of it and in a day or two, the Marines and Seabees were once again kidding and drinking with one another. But our skipper gained even more respect from his somewhat rowdy bunch of Seabees.
We were on that rock, most of us, for sixteen months. We were promised that our tour would be over in 12 months but the war in Korea and other considerations apparently did us in. Rumors began to pass around the outfit like summer rains. We were all going to Korea...we were leaving for the states before Christmas... we had been reassigned to Pearl Harbor. They never stopped coming - and all of them were without substance. Then someone who worked in the skippers office said we had been extended on Kwaj for another six months. No one believed it. We were doing what was then referred to in the Navy as hardship duty, and it was that and more. They could not keep us there for another half-year, we believed. We were wrong.
Lt. Julius gathered his troops together one morning and announced the dreaded news. We were indeed extended on the island and would remain there for another eighteen months. We all felt betrayed, especially the married guys, and Seabees like myself, who had girls waiting for us to return. We were more than despondent. So we quit work.
No one actually led the rebellion. We simply said, "Screw it," and started slacking off. The skipper ignored our slowdown. He and the other officers spent a lot of time listening to us gripe about how unfair it all was. But they had nothing to say to us to make us feel better. The slowdown dragged on for a week or more and finally Lt. Julius hopped a plane to Pearl and, uninvited, had a word with some Admiral.
The next day he returned to Kwaj, addressed us and said he was unable to get the extension revoked. But he did have some decent news for us. He got the admiral to promise us our choice of duty when our job in Kwajalein was over. We all went back to work, probably more out of boredom and admiration for the skipper than for dedication to duty. The skipper also took me aside soon afterward and told me he had kept his promise. As soon as I finished my tour, I would be headed for Korea. I hoped the war would end soon, for so many young men were dying in Korea. But in another way, I didnt want it to end before I got there.
The six months extended duty time took its toll. A lot of guys who had left wives and girlfriends began to receive the dreaded "Dear John" letters, telling them that their loved one had found someone new and that they would have no one to come home to. For the guys with girl friends, it was tough. But for the husbands, whose wives had finally had too much and could wait no longer for some sort of normal relationship, it was devastating. We all felt bad for our buddies who had spent a year telling us how wonderful their wives were, only to discover that love often cannot sustain the kind of separation that was part of being an overseas serviceman.
Not long after I had arrived on the island, my boss, a second class petty officer, was transferred off the Island. I had expected that another senior petty officer would arrive soon to take over the shop, but I was told there would be no replacement. I was to be the head mechanic, responsible for countless dozers, cranes, rollers, graders, jeeps and trucks and all sorts of small gas and diesel engines that ran lifts, welders, generators and other equipment. I wasnt qualified for the job but that was the Navy way. You learned by reading maintenance books and taking things apart. In a few months I was a pretty darn good mechanic. Having to learn it all the hard way was the best thing that could have happened.
Largest Hydrogen Bomb Explosion
On Feb. 28, 1954, we were witnesses to a significant historic event, though we didnt know it at the time. Most of us were either in the head or walking to and from the showers, when it happened. It was still early morning, probably about 6:30, and not quite light yet, when the damnedest thing occurred. In an instant the sky lit up brighter than a noonday sun, as if someone had turned on a huge overhead light or as if the sun had come out of a huge, black cloud that was hiding its brilliance. It was quite odd and many of us on the way to or from the shower shack, stopped in our tracks and looked skyward. But it was an enigma that caused only a moments interest, though the sky remained oddly bright for some time.
Many minutes later, a low, heavy, roar began and it rumbled on and over our island as if some immense subway train had decided to bore beneath the coral. Now we were really interested. My buddies and I asked each other what the hell was going on, but finally we decided it was some huge storm or typhoon off shore that had screwed up the weather.
We werent even close. It was the largest hydrogen bomb ever dropped in the world and it was detonated on Bikini Atoll, about 150 miles or so from Kwajalein.
All the troops on the island were called to muster at the admirals headquarters, and we were told the news.
We didnt know what a hydrogen bomb was, of course, but it was explained to us that it was many times the power of an atom bomb, and much more deadly than the A-bombs that had been dropped on Japan to end World War II. Actually its code name was Bravo and it was a 15 Mt blast, equal to fifteen million tons of dynamite, if anyone can imagine that.
We were ordered not to write home about the H-bomb or speak of it at all to any transient servicemen who visited the island. It was top secret, and to my knowledge, none of us wrote home about it. We had been warned that if we blabbed about it, a general court martial and federal prison time would be waiting for us, not to mention a dishonorable discharge from the service.
I cant confirm it, for it might have been scuttlebutt passed around to make sure we kept our mouths shut, but we all heard about one serviceman on the island who did write home about it and the next day was removed from the island and not heard from again. But that probably was just Navy scuttlebutt.
Just for the record (with thanks to some of my Seabee buddies who sent me the data) the first deliverable hydrogen bomb (H-bomb) ever was dropped off Enewetak, also in the Marshall Islands, on May 8, 1951. It was equal to 45.5 thousand tons of dynamite, tiny compared to "our" bomb.
In October of 1952, a 10.4 MT bomb was exploded at Enewetak and a 13.5 MT bomb was set off in Bikini Atoll.
Just before the hydrogen bomb explosion, the wind had shifted and radiation-filled clouds had coursed over a nearby island. The native inhabitants were removed by US Navy personnel and were taken to Kwajalein, where they were given Navy underwear, socks and jeans to replace their contaminated clothing, causing a clothing shortage on the island, a bit bothersome for us but nothing compared to the health threats the natives suffered.
Later they were relocated to another island.
We just went back to work waiting for the day we could go home, at least for a couple of weeks until we were transported to our next duty station.
We passed our time, working like hell to build those dependent houses, drinking a lot of beer, and sitting with each other at night, sharing dreams, telling each other about the girls or wives we left at home, and feeling sad as hell. It was probably very much like serving time in prison and about as much fun!
Finally my tour on Kwajalein ended and I was on a ship heading for the states. Our ship docked for a couple of days in Hawaii to replenish supplies and take on fuel and water. We got to enjoy a couple of Cinderella liberties"Be back on the ship by midnight!"
I had been to Hawaii before and knew it would be a nice liberty with lots to drink and good, rich ice cream and cold milk. But I also knew there would be no young women there for us to date. The island had thousands of young sailors, soldiers, marines and airmen stationed and stopping there, so I had no illusions that we would get lucky. It just doesnt happen. Besides, Nancy was now only days away and after eighteen months, I could wait.
One thing we Seabees had on our way home, was lots of money. There wasnt anything much to spend our pay on on Kwaj, so we were loaded.
I buddied around on that liberty with a Seabee named Paradise. He was, pound for pound, the fightingest, fastest and most capable guy with his fists, that I had ever known. So he was a good guy to have at my side if we got into a scrape, which Seabees often did on liberty.
Paradise, for all his worldly acumen, turned out to know nothing at all about girls, especially the working kind whose job it is to fleece love-starved servicemen of their money.
We wound up in some hula joint where wahines were dancing all over the place and selling pictures of themselves with the enlisted men. Paradise paid $5 to have his photo taken with one of them. She was no Princess Diana, but we werent exactly picky at the time.
Next she said shed give him a kiss if he bought a second picture; then a quick feel for a third one, and on it went. I tried to convince him that she was draining him dry with no chance for anything more than photos to take home, but Paradise said, "No way! Were getting laid tonight." The odds were 1,000 to nothing, but he wouldnt listen.
Finally the place closed. The wahine had told him to wait for her outside and she and another of the "dancers" would join us and take us to their apartment. I figured miracles dont often happen and bar dancers rarely tell the truth. But wait we did, outside that joint, for about two hours. I was disgusted. "Theyll show," Paradise said. "Sure, I told him, and when they show up it will be Christmas."
I had guessed correctly that the girls had left via a rear exit for wherever they were going, and had taken all of Paradises dough with them.
In time a car pulled up next to us. We were the only two guys on the street. I glanced at the car and a sailor asked, "What the hell are you looking at?"
"Not much," I told him. I wasnt in a good mood.
"How would you like me to get out of this car and wipe that dumb look off your ugly face?" he challenged, and I told him, "Leap out and give your soul to God because your ass belongs to me."
I knew there were at least two other guys in the rear of the very darkened car, but I figured Paradise could easily take care of any two guys I had ever met, and I sure wasnt worried about the one I had the beef with. So I smiled and figured we would at least have a little fun and have something to brag about when we got back to the ship. It sure wasnt going to be about getting laid so it might just as well be about a fast one-rounder with a few candy-assed sailors.
But bad nights dont get better. They get worse. The sailor in front got out of the car. Then the back door opened and two of the biggest people I had ever seen climbed out as well. They could barely make it through the car door. What they were, it was now obvious and to my great chagrin, were two sumi-wrestlers, Japanese types or Hawaiians who could rip off our arms one at a time and stuff them up our asses. I was one unhappy Seabee.
" Go for it, sucker," the sailor said. The wrestlers just stood there like pillars, their eyes piercing mine with daggers of disdain. They werent even amused.
Neither was I. Even with the best fighter in my outfit, outside of Gamrak, I was about to be murdered.
I glanced over at Paradise and saw he was ready. But his eyes told me, "Dont be an asshole. This isnt suicide night."
"Here I am, tough guy," the sailor said with a sneer. What are you going to do about it?"
I felt like the coward I had suddenly become, but I just looked him in the eye and said, "Forget it."
Thank God he did. The skinny little bastard laughed, got back in his car, waited for the two gorillas to stuff themselves in, and roared off into the night. God still loved me.
"Son-of-a-bitch, those were the two biggest bastards I ever saw," Paradise said. I laughed and said, "Hey Paradise, were you afraid of those two fat Japs?"
"Afraid? I almost crapped my pants. Half our battalion and Gamrak couldnt take those two. You must be the dumbest bastard Ive ever met, picking a loser fight like that," he said.
"Hey, buddy. That wasnt the smartest thing I ever did," I told him, but it sure wasnt as dumb as giving that broad all your dough to buy two hours of boredom and a long wait outside a dark beer joint."
Paradise laughed. "Lets get drunk," he said. And we did.
Back on the ship, we watched flying fish do their thing off our port side and at night sat there, watching phosphorus boil up in the ships wake, always a beautiful sight. And we told each other how wonderful it was going to be to be at home at last.
Our ship docked in San Francisco and soon I was on a TWA four-banger headed for good old New York. When we circled left over Long Island and glided to a stop at Idylwylde, I knew Nancy would be there, beautiful and anxious and warm as a woman could be. She was there, all right. I was the happiest Seabee in the world, and she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
My mom and dad were at the airport as well, so happy to welcome their world-traveling son home. But I couldnt wait to get back to Inwood, spend a decent interval with my folksand then drive off with Nancy to a very long-awaited welcome home.
Finally we were fed, talked out, and my parents agreed that we two young lovers could go out and be alone for a while.
I didnt know that Nancy had arranged a little welcome home party at one of the local Irish bars we used to hang out in. But soon I was in the midst of a bunch of my beloved Longhorns and it was wonderful. For a while.
By this time thirteen guys from my crowd were in the service, but most of them were home and the other guys were all in college. It was a fine reunion. But something weird happened to me.
I was sitting in a booth in a rear room of the bar, in the center seat between Nancy and one of the other girls, when I suddenly got a serious case of claustrophobia or something similar. I started to get anxious, then really uptight and finally I had to get out of there. I excused myself and went out for some air. I cant explain it, but for almost two years I had been isolated with only guys and small talk that was nothing like what I had been experiencing in that bar. It was crowded, noisy and stressful and I would have fought my way out of there in panic if I had had trouble leaving.
Nancy was frightened. All I could tell her is that it was too much too soon and I had to go somewhere quiet. Getting back to civilization was obviously going to take some time.
We drove to Nancys parents apartment. Her folks werent home. Finally we were alone. I kissed her and instead of it being wonderful it was scary. I was still too uptight for romance.
Nancy said, "I think you need a drink" and poured me a stiff one. I tossed it down without hesitation and had a couple more. The liquor did the trick. I took one look at her and almost cried at her beauty. She kissed me softly, then passionately and soon we were making love as if the incredibly long months of separation had not happened. It was marvelous and I thought I would never again be as happy as I was that night.
I had several weeks leave and was back to normal sooner than I thought. It was almost as if I had never left. But the clock kept ticking and soon it was time for me to leave for Korea. The war was over but not really. A truce had been signed but there were still kids getting killed in Korea in small skirmishes with guerrillas on small raiding parties. And we all believed the hostilities would break out in full force again momentarily. It was a very unfinished war.
I could not let my folks know I was going to Korea, not after they had lost Buddy. It would have been too much for them. So I had told them that I had been assigned to Japan.
"Isnt that awfully close to Korea?" my mom asked. I told her my new outfit was strictly an noncombat battalion and that there was no chance of my going to the war area. Of course, I had not told my parents that I had revoked my sole surviving son status.
Nancy knew, and she and I also believed there was a very good chance that I would never come back. But she also respected my commitment to Buddys memory and knew that I had to go. Nevertheless, as we clung to each other in the airport, waiting for my plane to load, it was a heartbreaking experience. To this day, I get sad whenever I am in an airport. I know Ill never get over that feeling.
In Frisco, after a short wait, I boarded an attack transport (troop ship) headed for Hawaii, then Japan. Then it would be a short hop to Korea by military aircraft.
I was now a second class petty officer, a Construction Mechanic Second Class, equal in rank to a staff sergeant in the Marine Corps or Army. My rank was considered by most Seabees to be the best rank in the Navy. As a second class petty officer, we were too high in rank to get scut duty and too low in rank to get very much crap from the officers, who usually dished it out to the chiefs. I was pretty happy about that and wondered how different it would be to be a military supervisor now, instead of a guy who did a lot of the dirty work.
It had been a long and irregular route, but at last I arrived in Korea. Though the fighting had formally stopped, neither side trusted the other worth spit. So as our plane touched down in a neutral zone somewhere in Korea, there were communist Korean soldiers there to count the GIs getting off the plane. As we disembarked, at long last I came face to face with my first communist officer. And if I had a weapon, I very likely would have been tempted to blow him away. He glanced at me and the other guys with disdain, I returned his look with one of pure hatred. All I could think about was this bastard could have been the one who killed Buddy. And I would have been happy to kill him on the spot.
Soon we were on another plane for a short hop to my new base, not far from Seoul, the capital of Korea, and just a few miles from the truce line, where our guys faced theirs every day, sometimes still getting into small shooting incidents where more young kids died on both sides.
My duty station, K-6 air base in Pyongtaek, was home for Marine jet fighters and prop driven aircraft. We Seabees were attached to the Marines of the First Marine Air Wing, Marine Air Group 12, but we had our own Seabee compound and work places. We did most of the construction around the base and my job was to keep our vehicles repaired and serviced. As a senior petty officer, I was placed in charge of the entire mechanic division. I had about 50 or more Seabees reporting indirectly or directly to me and I soon was learning to assume management responsibility. It was wonderful experience for a young man of 21, and what I learned there helped me succeed later in life.
My buddies and I went off base a lot, always armed, of course. There was still a lot of danger in that place. But after Kwajalein, I thought I was in heaven.
There were pretty girls waiting in the rice paddies and little villages around our base and they were business ladies. Two bucks would buy a "short time" and a fin would buy anything you could imagine.
If you were looking for a semi-permanent relationship, you could actually buy a young girl of about 14 or so from her parents, for about $100. The people were very poor and that hundred would buy them a new home, such as it was. I never sank so low as to even consider doing anything like that, but a few of the guys did. It was disgusting.
Our first day in Korea, we were mustered together and told about the place. An officer explained that it was still a combat zone and that though a tentative truce was in effect, it didnt mean much. There was still a lot of shooting going on by diehards on both sides, and communist guerrillas were in the hills and mountains around our base. Occasionally they would come down and try to steal supplies and do in a few GIs. He assured us that when the air raid alarm sounded, we were to take off forthwith to our assigned foxholes and assume it was the real thing.
"There are no drills here in Korea," he said. "And when you hear that siren go off, know that its real and make sure you always have your weapon with you. You are very likely going to need it and if you dont keep your head clear, you are likely to leave this place in a body bag."
Believe me, we were thoroughly impressed.
That very night, a few North Korean or Chinese MIGs made a wide turn and entered our air space and all hell broke loose all over Korea. A jet flying about 450 mph would be miles into our air space in seconds and we always had to assume it was the next round of the war starting. Before we Seabees got to our fox holes, our Marine Saber jets and Panther jets would be roaring off to meet the enemy. And we would sit in our foxholes for a hour or more before the all clear sounded and we could go back to our bunks. This happened almost every night in the beginning. We Seabees didnt get much sleep. But the vets who had been there a while, brought their canteens filled with Old Grandad bourbon, and drank away the minutes. They werent worried at all, but we new guys were scared witless.
All I wanted to do was grab a truck or jeep and drive north to where Buddy had been killed. It was only about 60 or 70 miles from our base. But that would have to wait for the right opportunity. My officers had been made aware that I was itching to avenge my brothers death and they werent about to let me take a trip north, at least not right away. I dont know how they learned of my promise to Buddy, but they knew, I suppose one of my buddies mentioned it and asked them to keep an eye on me so I didnt get myself killed doing something dumb.
Weeks went by and finally I got my chance. My company commander finally said I could go and try to find the place where my brother had died, but he warned me that on the map it appeared that it could be in enemy territory. He got me to promise that if it was, I would not try and go there. "You wont last 60 seconds over that line if you try to cross it, and you damn well may start a firefight that will get a lot of guys killed trying to save your ass," he told me. I promised that I would do nothing stupid. And he let me go with a truck full of Seabees who were being allowed to visit Seoul for the day.
Off we went. I was the senior petty officer in charge and responsible for seeing that my twenty or more Seabees got back to the base safely. Hell, barring an out and out war again, there was no sweat. We were all armed with 30-caliber carbines, pistols and some automatic weapons. I carried an automatic carbine which was, at that time, the fastest firing weapon in the armed forces. It would dish out 30 bullets in a matter of a few seconds and was a formidable weapon indeed.
We drove north on one of the two main north-south roads then in Korea, each of them merely a dusty, dirt road with no paving at all, at least until we got to Seoul.
It took about two hours to travel the 35 miles to that once beautiful city. As soon as we got there, we could see that it was beautiful no longer.
Every main building including the palace had been shot to hell by both sides as the allies or communists retook or lost the city to their enemies. Our planes and ships had decimated that city and either leveled or mostly destroyed every major building.
Much of the havoc was caused by the big 15- and 16-inch guns of battleships like the New Jersey and the Missouri (The Big MO) that, over a period of weeks, had lobbed thousands of its huge shells into the city trying to destroy the main railroad depot. Interestingly enough, that was probably the only thing they didnt hit. When we finally retook the city, it was standing there as operational as ever.
My Seabees took off for parts unknown, looking for what they had come there for: girls, booze, good food and souvenirs. There was plenty of all of that waiting for them.
I drove the six-wheeler north of the city, trying to find a place called both Inji and Inje, where Buddy had caught his mortar round. Using a crude map, I finally came to as close to the place as I could figure. There were no signs around except for a few warning all who passed by that the enemy line was just to the north and that one should attempt to go no further.
I wound up in what seemed to be a fairly deserted spot. Then I came across some American soldiers who were on the line there. A sergeant asked me where I was headed and I told him. He said, "I believe the place you're looking for is about five miles up that road. But if you are thinking about going there, think again. There are about 5,000 enemy gooks up ahead who will see to it that you dont make it," he said.
So, after talking to him for a while, I had to acknowledge to myself that I had come as close as I would ever get to Buddys initial grave. To go further would be just committing suicide and there was nothing at all to gain from that. So I quietly said a prayer, talked to Buddy there for a while, and left.
I had done what I came to do. I had "met" with Buddy in Korea. All promises were kept and I was finally at peace.
I faced north, all by myself and said, "So long, Buddy. I love you!" Then I saluted and drove back to Seoul.
When I got to where I was supposed to pick up the rest of the guys, I was not surprised to see all of them there, drunk as skunks and as happy as hell. They had found everything they had hoped to find in Seoul and were busy regaling each other with true and perhaps not so true tales of adventure and of the great roll in the hay they had enjoyed.
We were about to take off for K-6 when a jeep pulled in front of our truck and blocked our exit. Two Air Force MPs got out and I left my truck to see what they wanted. I was astonished to hear that they were placing us all under arrest. They said we were in a restricted area and would have to follow them back to their headquarters.
I laughed in their faces. I told them that I had a truck full of loaded Seabees, armed to the teeth, and that there was no way we were going anywhere but back to our base. I suggested they back off their jeep and let us pass.
Some of the Seabees obviously heard what was going on and in an instant, there were 20 or more rifles pointed at the fly boys. I was afraid one of them would start shooting and we would all do the rest of our life in a federal prison. It was a tense moment.
"Heres how it is," guys, " I told the MPs. If you dont back that (expletive deleted) jeep out of here, Im going to run your ass over with my six-by. And if you try and stop us, God knows what those guys are going to do to you, but its a sure bet theyre going to shoot your asses off."
They took off in their jeep in a flash. But when we got back to our base, an unhappy Seabee duty officer was waiting for me. An Air Force ranking officer had called him with the complaint. But our officer just laughed when he heard my tale, and told me to forget it.
Our skipper in Korea was a tough bird. We were losing so much in building materials and other gear that it was as if our compound was situated in Times Square.
The Koreans, on our side or the other, would look into our storage compounds and see all the fine lumber and other supplies, then would pay us a visit late at night and walk away with what they could carry, which was a lot.
The Koreans were about the strongest people I ever met. They could carry hundreds of pounds on their A-frame back packs, and walk for miles, even up mountain trails, never seeming to tire.
Our skipper finally had enough. He told us one morning at muster. that any Seabee who shot a thief in our compound or elsewhere in any of our outlying areas, would receive an extra six-day R&R leave in Japan. We got one every three months and we all called it I&I, intercourse and intoxication.
Some of our combat-hardened guys would do anything for an R&R, including blowing some poor little gook (Sorry. The word is offensive today, but thats what we then called them) away without a moments hesitation or blink of conscience.
We had an off-base location at the base of a nearby mountain and a couple of demolition guys there really went to town on that R&R opportunity. They rigged explosive charges on heavy equipment doors so that the charge blew only outward without damaging the vehicle. They could do that! Some poor little Korean would try and steal something in the crane or truck during the night and would be blown to hell. And Seabees would be headed for Japan and great liberty the following day. It was brutal and criminal, but it happened.
One night, my best buddy in Korea, Terry Carroll, a second class mechanic like myself, had guard duty at our compound. I spent an hour or two with him there, smoking cigarettes and talking about Nancy and his wife. We were both armed with carbines.
Terry suddenly grabbed my arm. He pointed toward the tall. barbed-wire fence, about 30 yards from where we were. A Korean was almost over it. We watched him scale that sucker as if it were a picnic table and then he was in our compound, tossing wooden boards and other material over the fence.
"Shit," Terry said. "Ill have to blow the little bastard sway."
"Dont do it, Terry," I said,
"Bob. Ive got to. So do you. Youre the senior ranking petty officer here. Its your ass as well as mine if he gets away with that stuff," Terry said.
Im sure his heart was beating as fast as mine.
"Heres what well do Terry," I told him, thoughts of R&R fading rapidly. "Lets fire a bunch of rounds high over his head and watch the little bastard run for it. Well tell the officers we somehow didnt hit him."
"Yeah," Terry said, and I knew he was relieved. He was a good guy and he certainly wouldnt shoot anyone unless he had no other choice.
We both sent a few rounds over the little gooks head and he climbed that fence like a pit bull was biting at his ass, which was not far from the case. We laughed ourselves silly, but soon our shots had alerted the entire base and sirens were going off like New Years Eve.
When our officers got there, we stuck to our story and no one really questioned it. But I had a feeling that everyone knew we were good shots and could have aced that gook with one round if we wanted to. I was always pleased that we let the guy go. A life is worth more than six days in Japan. But obviously it wasnt to a few of the guys.
Death was a frequent visitor in Korea. GIs were still getting killed once in a while. Koreans were dying every day from cold, illness and other causes. I never got used to it.
One day I had to drive to a neighboring base to scrounge up some vehicle parts. Terry went with me. It was freezing. That was Korea, We sweated all summer and froze all winter.
A few miles from base, Terry said, "Stop. Back up. I think I saw a body."
I backed up the jeep and we saw a Korean mommasan in a small stream. We got out and went to her. She was dead as hell, partially frozen to the water. There was nothing we could do. She was only about 25 or 30, which meant that there were small children waiting for her to come home.
We called the base but they said there was nothing we could do. We notified the Korean Army but when they found out she was dead, they said, "No sweat. Shes dead. No problem. Her family will find her."
We guessed that would be the case, but we still tried to find someone to chop her out of that stream and take her to wherever her family was. We spoke to some Korean passersby, but they too were disinterested.
Another dead woman was nothing to them. As a matter of fact, death was nothing to them at all. They had seen too much of it and had become immune to it.
They were a suffering people for as far back as they could remember and life was important, but only the living counted, not the dead.
Another day, on another trip, we came across a dead baby, lying just off the road. We checked the infant and there was no life left in him. We called Korean and American authorities and went on our way. When we again passed the spot, many hours later, the little dead kid was still lying there, like some piece of garbage. It does something to you.
Weeks later, one of my guys killed a kid while driving one of our trucks. He had been driving like a bat out of hell. It really didnt bother him at alljust another dead gook, he said.
No one at the officer level seemed very interested either. So I did the only thing I could do. It wasnt the first kid he had run over. He had done it before. Im sure he didnt mean it, but a Korean life lost didnt trouble him. A lot of guys were like that. The Koreans, they figured, hated us, both our allies and the enemy Koreans. So they hated them back and lost no sleep over one of them getting killed.
A Korean gentleman named Yo Yo Buk worked for me in the mechanic shop. He swept the place, did odd chores, that sort of thing. Yo Yo was a sweet guy, about 45, but he looked much older. He called me "honcho" which mean boss in Korean. Yo Yo constantly asked me if I wanted coffee. "Kope, honcho?" he would say with a wide smile, about 15 times a day. And no matter how many times I said, "No, Yo Yo, honcho have too much coffee," hed smile and bring me a cup anyway. I became coffee-logged In Korea, for sure.
Yo Yo and his wife lived in Pyongtaek in a little mud-brick hut, like the rest of the villagers. They were nice people. I met Koreans who disliked us. Hell, they disliked anyone who had taken over their country. First it was the Japanese, then the communists from the north, then we Americans. We would tell them that we were there to help them, but to some of them, we were mostly just another aggressor nation, keeping them from farming their rice and raising their vegetables and killing people all over the nation.
I asked a well educated Korean about this once. He said, ""Japanese, Russians, communists, Americans, all same. Come here and take over our land, kill each other, ruin our crops. Same, same."
I suppose from their point of view they were right. They had been occupied by aggressors for decades, even centuries, and still they were occupied.
I tried to tell them about democracy and why we were there. But they usually laughed. Political philosophy was way beyond the understanding of these rural people.
Still, I grew to love them. They were kind, good people, mostly honest and dependable. And if they liked you there was nothing you could do wrong and nothing they would not do for you.
Yo Yo was our favorite. We visited his wife and their new babythey had a lot of kidsand we brought them presents and gave them money. They deeply appreciated all we did for them.
The American GI can be heartless, violent and uncaring when life is threatened. But he is also the kindest, most charitable person in the world, when he gets to know the people of the land in which he serves. We spent a lot of time building orphanages, donating labor, time and material, spending our money on their kids and being good friends. I know some of them will never forget the kindness of the Seabees and Marines who once served in their landeven if they would have preferred that we had never come there.
One day I asked Yo Yo how the baby was doing. Yo Yo said, ""Baby dying."
I was shocked, as were the other guys. We asked him what was wrong with the baby but he just shrugged, ""Babies die all time," was all we could get out of him.
We grabbed a truck, got a corpsman friend to come along, and went to Yo Yos village to see the baby. The little guy looked awful. Our corpsman checked him and found he had a respiratory infection. In American it would be a simple visit to the doctor and a shot, maybe some antibiotic.
In Korea, then, the villagers had no doctors. Most had never been to one. The corpsman gave the kid a shot, left some antibiotics with instructions, and Yo Yos kid got better fast. He was so happy. But not any happier than we were. I could not get over the fact that the baby would have died for the lack of a simple medication. And it was purely an accident that he even mentioned that the boy was sick.
If I hadnt inquired, the baby would have died. "Babies die all time," Yo Yo had said. And now I knew what he meant. Death was a regular visitor and they didnt waste much time worrying about it. They just kept having kids. Some of them lived. Many died. Thats how it was.
A waiter at our Staff NCO club was an obviously well educated young man. One night, as he served our fifteen-cent highballs, we asked him how much schooling he had had. He told us he had graduated from college, and then completed medical school.
"Youre a doctor?" I said, astonished. "Why are you working in this club?"
He told us that he could not make a living as a doctor. "No one in the villages has any money, except the hookers," he explained. He said people gave him a chicken once in a while or some rice or vegetables. But he could not live on that and could not afford to treat people free. He had to eat too. And at our club he made more money than anyone in the surrounding villages. Thats the way it was. And it was a shame.
We had a little Korean boysan who worked in our hut. As we were new in Korea, we didnt know what to pay him for cleaning our weapons and keeping the Quonset hut neat and clean. We decided to give him a dollar a month per man. It came to about $25 bucks a month. It also got us into trouble.
Our skipper told us what we had done. The kid had gone with his first months pay, and he was rich. His parents were astounded as were all others in his village.
A delegation including the mayor of the village and other officials visited our commanding officer and said we had caused them all to lose face to a small child. None of them made anywhere near what the boy was paid. Even a sergeant in the Korean Army only made about 11 dollars a month., the mayor said.
The skipper apologized and told the mayor and others the high pay would cease and it did. From then on we paid him, if I remember correctly, about a dollar a month - total. He was still happy and the village officials saved face. But we felt cheap as hell.
We Seabees got along very well with the Marines, to whom we were attached. Our petty officers ate in the Marine Staff NCO mess and hung out in their Staff NCO club, which was only fair for our outfit had built it in the first place. It was pretty upscale, too, for a combat area club.
Drinks were 25 cents each and two nights a week, they were cheaper. On one night, booze was a dime and another night the drinks were a nickel. For a buck, a guy could get decently smashed.
Drinking was a problem with some of the guys in Korea, but not many. We all drank almost every day and more than was necessary. But in Korea, there was not a whole lot to do that didnt get a serviceman in some kind of trouble.
Josans were always available in the paddies, and I cant say we did not, on occasion, partake of their services. But sometimes a Seabee or Marine would get more than he paid fora case of gonorrhea, perhaps, or syphilis or another exotic venereal disease. There was less of that than one might imagine, and a few shots of penicillin or other medication usually took care of the problem quickly. Still, I was always thankful that I never had the displeasure, after the pleasure. I surely was quite lucky.
The base was a stressful place to serve, however, and a number of guys went out of their minds, literally.
One Marine parboiled one of his buddies. I cant remember what the argument was about, and if I recall correctly, the doer of the deed was drunk. But what he did was pretty gross, even in those times when the unbelievable was commonplace.
He was on the losing end of a long-standing argument with one of his hutmates, and he snapped. When his antagonist lay down on his cot, the Marine grabbed a near-boiling pan of water that was kept on the top of our potbellied stoves, and poured it all over the unsuspecting Marine on his cot. It was pretty horrible and the end of whatever career in the Marines both of the men might have been contemplating.
The boiler went to jail and the burned Marine went to the hospital, where I am certain he remained for years for a series of painful operations and skin grafts.
That sort of thing was not unusual in Korea, especially after the war ended. I got to know a lot of Marines who had been fine combat soldiers. But when the shooting stopped, they were men without a job.
There are guys like that, the sort you want to have in your outfit when there are people nearby who want to kill you. But many of them could not cope with peacetime service, even in our part of the world, where peace was a sometimes and never dependable thing.
One Marine went out and got himself adequately soused. Then he walked back to his Quonset hut and could not open the door. Obviously he was fried. He began yelling at his buddies to unlock the door, which was fairly amusing, for the doors did not have locks, a fact which, in his current position, he could not remember.
Finally he went to a rear door, managed to jerk it open, and headed for his best buddys bunk. He was convinced he had locked him out for the night.
What he should have done was flopped into his bunk and slept it off. What he did was blow the rest of his life. He also blew a fellow Marine to oblivion. He grabbed his M-1 rifle, locked in a round and fired at his sleeping best buddy. He missed, but the round tore into another Marines chest and blew a huge hole coming out the other side. M-1s are powerful weapons.
It was tragic for both shooter and victim, but at least the guy who caught the round died instantly. The drunken shooter had to die slowly for the rest of his life. He was given 30 years in federal prison for that dumb act, and he was 23 years old at the time. Stuff like that happened too frequently in Korea.
When I left Korea, I traveled on the same plane with Marine MPs and the handcuffed shooter I have never seen a sorrier looking person.
My best Buddy Terry Carroll almost got himself killed a couple of times, and both of them would have been acts of suicide.
Terry was a great guy and a nonviolent type. But all of us, in that time and in that place, were capable of killing others without a lot of thought. After all, thats what we had been trained to do and what we were getting paid to do, if the situation arose.
One night Terry paid a short, romantic visit to a Josan in Pyongtaek. He had gotten a little horny and figured it was time to get himself laid. But it wasnt the right time. We had to be back on the base shortly after dark. The rule was to keep us alive. Too many guys walking around the paddies at night caught a bullet from someone who didnt like us, and that could have been the enemy or some of the people we were there to protect and save, for many of them disliked us as much as the communists didand of course, some of them were commies themselves.
When Terry finished his amorous business, it was around midnight, a damned dangerous time to be out there, particularly if alone. Also, Terry had, for some dumb reason, left his carbine in the hut, so he was defenseless.
There was an equal chance that he would be caught by a Marine sentry, or by a South Korean sentry, which was much worse. Either one of the aforementioned had every right to pop a shot at someone who was walking toward them in the dark, for no one had any business being there. Some guys doing guard duty would ask for identification first. Others might fire away at anything moving in the night where nothing was supposed to move.
Terry was caught by a South Korean soldier or Marine, I forget which. The Korean put his piece on Terry and after identifying him as an American Seabee, told him he was going to shoot him anyway. Terry was furious, but finally the sentry said he would let him go if he would give him all the money in his wallet and other valuables Terry had a watch, cigarette lighter, that sort of stuff. Terry gladly traded his money and trinkets for his life and headed back toward the Seabee compound after the Korean waved him by. But then the son-of-a-bitch decided to shoot Terry anyway - or to scare the hell out of him - take your choice.
When Terry got about 25 yards away, the Korean fired at him. Terry ran, dodged, and flew toward our lines, somehow making it back to our hut.
I saw him walk in and realized he was off the wall. He grabbed his carbine and started out the door but I stopped him, asking what in hell was wrong.
Terry told me what the Korean had done and said he was going out to kill himself a gook. I believed him for sure, so I wouldnt let him get past me until some of the anger burned itself out. Finally, I was able to convince him that even if he got through our sentry lines again and managed to live through a firefight with the Korean and his buddies, all it would buy him was a life sentence in federal prison. So we got drunk together instead. A canteen of water and bottle of bourbon became a marvelous tranquilizer.
My next experience trying to save Terrys life was more dangerous.
Terry was my age then, 21, and had left a beautiful young wife back in Arizona. When we had been in Korea about six months, Terrys wife sent him the regulation "Dear John" letter, advising him she had petitioned for a divorce. The grounds were desertion, no less. A lot of girls divorced their overseas husbands on those grounds, though we could never figure out how the lawyers and judges could demonstrate that being ordered overseas in service of your country was desertion. We always figured it was the other way around - not going and staying in the states was desertion (from duty) or something akin to it.
Terry took it harder than anyone Ive ever known and I knew a lot of guys who lost their wives to service out of the country. Absence does make the heart grow fonder, but sometimes for someone else.
Terry tried to get an emergency leave but the service did not send guys home to try and save their marriages. If they did there would be no one left overseas.
I tried to get Terrys mind off brooding about the woman he loved and lost, but could not begin to penetrate his depression. We didnt have shrinks with us in the field then, so there was nothing much I knew to do about it, except let time pass.
But as time passed, Terry began thinking of killing himself.
We were working together then, running the parts section of the motor pool. My division officer had asked me to give up direct supervision of the motor pool and create a parts procurement and disbursement section. I liked the idea, especially since he offered me the opportunity of designing the entire storage and retrieval system. It had to be a simple affair that stored parts of all sizes ranging from a small gasket to a hundred pound transmission for a large six-wheeler. The trick was to design the parts warehouse so that every item could be picked up and loaded on trucks within an hour or less. We had to be able to leave quickly in the event that our base became in danger of being overrun by the enemy, if hostilities began again.
I designed the boxes to hold the parts, organized compartments of many sizes in the boxes, and labeled them from A to Z with a different number for each slot in the boxes. It was quite basic but worked well. It was my baby and Terry was assigned to me as my second in command. We became very close.
Each morning Terry and I would walk to the parts warehouse, carbines slung over our shoulders, hang the weapons on a nearby wall, and begin to sort thousands of parts we had begged, borrowed and traded for at bases all over Korea. We soon became the place to find just about anything and were doing a fine business. We would trade a dozen spark plugs for a carburetor or a Jeep spring for a part for a dozer. We obtained cross-reference parts books and could find a General Motors truck part that was the same as a Ford part in a matter of minutes. It was fun work. Terry and I had a couple of other Seabees working for us and a number of Korean civilians, including Yo Yo Buk.
But after Terrys wife divorced him, he became terribly depressed. Soon he would work quietly, but every few minutes I would find him staring at his carbine that was hung on a nail next to mine. I could read in his eyes the wish to end it all, to grab the rifle, put it up to his face and blow half his head off. It was agonizing for me to have to see his pain but there seemed little I could do.
I tried to talk to him about it, but all I could get out of him was that she was so beautiful, that he loved her so much, and that he had to get out of Korea and back to the states, had to do something. As days passed, I knew that he was trying to decide if it was worthwhile living at all.
One day, after staring at his carbine for minutes, as if in a trance, he seemed to make his decision. He walked over to my desk, put out his hand, and said, "So long, Buddy. Im going home."
"Really," I said. "Well, I hate to tell you this but the Greyhound buses dropped this route a long time ago, and there isnt a rental car in Korea. So I guess youll have to hitchhike the hell out of here and thumb your way across the Pacific. Its going to be a long walk. Maybe youd just better get your ass back to work and wait until your rotation papers come through, cause thats the only way you are going to get home, just like the rest of us.," I told him.
But Terry was beyond humor or advice taking.
"Im leaving, Bob," he said, with a vacant but resolute look in his eye. I knew he meant it.
"What in hell are you going to try and do, Terry?" I asked, getting up from my chair.
"I dont know. Im going to take it step by step. Ill take a jeep or pickup and head for Seoul, then somehow get aboard a ship for the states. Ill make it somehow. I just want your word that you wont report me missing for as long as you can hide it," he said, shaking my hand.
"Terry, for Gods sake, wake up. All youre gong to do is get your ass shot off by some trigger happy Marine when you try and run the gate. You cant get out of here without some kind of order and you sure wont have one. The Jarheads are not gong to let you out the gate. If you run it, theyll shoot the hell out of you. Thats a fact.
"The next fact is that if you do make it, theyll be after your ass like stink on a turd. You wont get far. And if somehow you make it to Seoul, you will never be able to smuggle your ass aboard a ship. Even if you do, theyll find you out the first day. And youll be tossed in the brig. All youll get is a general court-martial and a bad conduct dischargeafter they convict you of desertion. And youll spend the rest of your life in fed prison. Its a dumb idea and I wont let you try it," I said. But it had no effect on him.
Terry grabbed me in a hug and said, "So long. Im out of here. Dont turn me in, please!"
"Terry, listen hard," I told him, praying that he would come to his senses. "If you take one of our vehicles, in five minutes Ill be in the day officers shack, turning you in. You can go to the bank on that. I promise you youll never make it off the base."
He just smiled a sad smile, turned and left. I watched him drive off in a jeep and I double-timed it over to the officers shack. I told my division officer about Terry and told him I feared for his life. I pleaded with him to warn the Marine sentries not to shoot him. I was very worried.
He told me I was a responsible petty officer and not to worry, that he would alert the Marines and have him back in a half-hour or less, hopefully unharmed. All I could do is go back to the shop and wait it out.
But I couldnt. I hopped in a truck and took off for the nearest gate. The Marine guards said they had been looking for him but had not seen him. I drove all over, but there was no trace of Terry anywhere.
In about an hour, he walked into the shop, sat down amid a pile of old parts we had conned at a nearby Air Force base, and began working.
"Terry, you dumb son-of-a-bitch, I was gong nuts worrying about you. Did you so something stupid?" I demanded.
"Nah, I changed my mind. Im okay now," he told me. But his glance soon went back to his carbine and I figured this might be his last day on earth.
I notified the lieutenant by military phone that Terry was back and safe, and asked him if he would let me try and talk him into some sanity. He agreed that I could make one more try. "But if he shows any sign of sinking into a more depressed state, talks of killing himself, of anything else, you call me immediately and well have him picked up and taken to the base hospital," he ordered.
I went back into the shop, grabbed Terry, and told him we were going to knock off for the day. "Were going to the club for a couple of drinks. Then I want to tell you how to win your wife back," I told him.
We walked the quarter-mile to the Staff NCO club and scoffed down a couple of double bourbon and sodas. Then I told Terry of the plan I had been thinking about for weeks.
"Terry, is there any chance you can get over this?" I asked. "Cant you just let time pass and see her when you get out. You only have a few more months here and then youll be home. Maybe the two of you can patch it up and get back together, once youre home."
"No way!" he said. "Shell be married to someone else by that time. I know her. Shell grab the first guy who pays her any attention. And believe me, shes beautiful. Theyll be a lot of guys hitting on her."
"Okay, theres another way," I told him. Theres a good shot you can win her back from right here.
"How could I do that," Terry asked.
"Just leave it to your old buddy," I told him. And the plan was placed in motion.
I told Terry that he had to trust me. He and his wife had once been deeply in love. They had shared many wonderful moments. All he had to do is write to her every single day, telling her that he loved her, and in each letter tell her about some sensitive and loving experience they had shared.
"Make her remember the love you once had. Get her to feel it again, to experience the pleasure, the thrill, the warm occasions that the two of you will never forget. Bring it all back, every lovely moment of your life together. Romance her. Woo her. Love her off via airmail. It will work," I told him. I almost believed it myself, but figured it was mostly A waste of stamps. But if it gave him hope, if it got him out of his depression and kept him from killing himself, it would do the trick. I could get him out of Korea alive, I thought.
"But I cant do that. I cant write like that. You can. I cant," he said.
It was true. Writing was always my thing and I sure as hell was a poet of sorts in Seabee clothing. I could write things to Nancy that put her to sleep with smiles on her face. And the other guys knew it.
On Mothers Day and holidays, I would write my mom and Nancy, turning an emotional phrase or two, and they loved it. Many of the other guys would ask if they could copy my letters and send them to their own moms and girls. And I was happy to let them.
"Youve got to help me," he said. Youve got to write the letters, You can do it, Bob," he said, with the first signs of life coming into his face that I had seen in weeks.
"Okay, Terry," I told him with a hand shake. "Well do it together. Well romance that ex-wife of yours like Romeo did to Juliet. And well sure as hell have her loving your miserable and undeserving ass like fleas love a stray dog," I said, and he yelled, "All right!" and ordered another round of doubles. Then we got very drunk.
As soon as we had chow the next evening and were back in our hut, Terry came over to my cot with pen and paper in hand. "Lets do it!" he said. And my campaign to save Terrys marriage was at the starting gate.
It got me into deep trouble.
Every night Terry would tell me of his most intimate and most precious moments with his former wife, before and after their marriage. Then I would write to her asking her to remember these lovely moments and to think about what she and Terry had and how much they loved one another. Id really lay it on, using every romantic thought I could muster up, hoping to appease her anger at whatever was bothering her, to help take away the loneliness and to rebuild the hopes and dreams that had nurtured their love not long before.
Terry rewrote my letters and mailed them every day to his beloved. But not once for a month, did his ex-wife write back. Terry would begin to become despondent again, but I wouldnt let him. "It will work, Terry." I assured him. "She is reading your letters (my letters?) and we wont stop until she falls in love with you again."
Finally the great moment arrived. At mail call that wondrous day, there was a letter from the love of Terrys life - not a love letter, but a letter, nevertheless. And we rejoiced together after Terry read his letter and then passed it to me.
She had been thoroughly romanced by air mail. It was obvious. And all I could think of is that the words that won her back came from me, not from Terry.
Terry, that is I, kept writing every day, pouring it on. And I came to know every experience they had ever had, as Terry told them to me and I wrote about them to the wayward wife.
Soon she was expressing undying love for Terry. She would write, "Oh, yes, I remember that" or "Yes, Terry, I feel the same way about what we did that day." It was getting weird. And I, like a sheep being led to a shearing place. I began to fall in love with Terrys ex-wife, someone I had never met, but knew as well as any other girl in the world, it seemed, except Nancy.
As she wrote her words of love back to Terry (to me! To me!) I read them with warmth and could hardly wait to write back to her.
Finally, it dawned upon me that I was getting hooked into something I neither wanted nor could handle. I had to get out of the Miles Standish business and get back to my own life, and Nancy.
The next day I told Terry I was finished, that he would from that day forward have to do his own writing. "But I cant. Shell know the difference," he said.
Terry, this is getting sick," I said. "Shes your wife, not mine, and Ill be damned if Ill have anything to do with her any further. Its your ball from now on. Just be damned sure you handle her like a flower petal until you get the hell out of here and get home.
Terry and his love kept writing and eventually they agreed to remarry as soon as he got home. My buddy Terry, was now one of the happiest guys in Korea. Not bad for a guy who only two months before was considering blowing his own head off.
It was not to be the end of my involvement with Terrys wife. But what happened, happened after I left Korea and it was strange. More about that later.
For a time, things got back to normal. Except for one thing. Though I still wrote Nancy every day, her letters did not arrive for a week. Then two weeks. I continued to write, thinking she must not be feeling well or perhaps something had happened to someone in her family. I wasnt particularly worried but damned concerned. I poured the letters out, asking her to please drop me one short note, telling me what was going on. Of course, I considered the possibility that she had met someone special. To be candid, I had expected it. Too many of the guys had been "Dear Johned" by their girls for me to be surprised. But what confused me is why she did not take the time and give me the courtesy of telling me that she was involved with another guy.
One night I went to the Staff NCO club by myself. I refused to join a number of friends, telling them the truth. I had some thinking to do. And I sat by myself trying to figure it out.
It took about three scotches. By process of elimination, I realized why Nancy was not writing and who she was now seeing. It wasnt difficult.
She wasnt sick or her mother would have dropped me a line. She had not been in an accident nor suffered some other emergency, as her mother also would have written about that.
So, as I had feared, I realized it was another guy. But why was she afraid to tell me? There could only be one reason. Because she knew she would hurt me terribly if she told me who he was.
And, I asked myself at that lonely bar, "Who in this world could she be going out with, making love with, whose very name would hurt me so badly?
There was only one choice. My best friend, Warren Essner.
"No!" I told myself at first. "That could never happen!" But the more I considered it, the more sense it made. It was Warren and Nancy, goddamnit! And my heart was brokentwice!
I drank all night until the joint closed, hoping to wash away the hurt, at least for the rest of that miserable day. But the more I drank, the more I thought about it. And it was impossible to get drunk. The emotional stress was so strong it must have burned up the booze as fast as I could toss it down. And all I could think of is that this world was truly a shit hole of a place.
I went through all the emotional crap that tortures a guy whose girl was now in the arms of some other lucky bastard. But in a few days, I knew what I had to do.
I wrote Warren, not Nancy, telling him I knew beyond doubt that he and Nancy were involved (Warren was then home from Cuba, on a long leave, as I can recall). I told him that I understood, that Nancy was so beautiful no one could resist falling in love with her, especially if she had decided to put a full-court press on him. I told him that I was hurt but that it would go away.
I also told him that no girl, not even Nancy, should be able to destroy the friendship we had had since we were little kids. That I still loved him like a brother and wanted him to know he would always be my best friend, no matter what happened between Nancy and me, or between him and Nancy
I was pretty calm about it. But I also realized that if he were there, I would have beaten the hell out of him, or tried to..
It didnt take long. Warren wrote back that it was true. He and Nancy had gone out a few times, but that it was over and both he and Nancy felt like crap about it. They were deeply sorry and knew how much they had hurt me. It had happened accidentally, Warren taking her out to dinner for his old buddy Bob, in Korea. And then nature took its course.
He was kind about it, telling me that nothing much actually happened. And that it was over for good.
I knew the first part was a lie of kindness. I hoped the second part was true. But we would all have to wait until I was home again to see where it would all come out.
Nancy wrote a few times, but it was over. I felt like hell. Then I almost got myself killed.
A Taste of Terror
The night I should have died began quietly, just another boring night in Korea, waiting for the sirens to go off and another dash to the foxholes.
There had been a lot of guerilla activity in the area, thefts of supplies and equipment, that sort of thing. Nothing much to worry us. But the word had come from the skipper to remain alert and be sure we always carried our weapons and extra ammo. We were ordered not to leave the base at night without at least two or three others with us. And we were to relieve Seabees working at facilities in the nearby hills, only with a petty officer in the relief party. So a couple of Seabees came to my hut and asked if I would go along to a nearby installation so they could relieve one of the Seabees who was on guard duty. I would be the required petty officer.
We hopped in a jeep and took off. I welcomed the opportunity, for it was more interesting than sitting around the hut boozing it up or playing poker. By this time I had had my fill of that. So I didnt complain about the trip.
We picked up the guy going off duty and soon were on our way back to base, about five miles away. We were just shooting the breeze, as soldiers do, not about anything important. Then the lights went out in the jeep. The entire electrical system failed and I brought the vehicle to a dead stop. Normally such a malfunction would not be a frightening experience, but we were far from any of our buddies and it was pitch black on the narrow dirt road between two rice paddies.
I was about to get out and see if I could figure out what in hell was wrong with the damn thing, when something moving down the road brought me to a dead stop. The other Seabees had seen the movement too and we sat there as still as we could.
We were stunned to see 50 or more soldiers. They soon discovered us and came to a halt. We realized that they could not be South Koreans. Our allies never roamed about in the late night. And our hearts began to pound as we came to the only conclusion possible. They had to be communist guerillas or North Korean or Chinese soldiers who had crossed the so-called demilitarized zone (DMV) and were out to wreak whatever havoc they could.
My buddies turned to me, as the ranking petty officer, and asked me what we were going to do. I tried to think of an intelligent response but all that came to my mind is that we were about to die. There seemed little doubt about that. Though the four of us were fairly well armed, we couldnt put up much of a fight against a force at least ten times our size. And there were no Seabees or Marines close enough to come to our aid, at least not until we were very dead.
The only thing that came to my mind is that I didnt want to go out without a fight. I also wanted to take as many of them with us as we could if it came to a firefight. So I told my Seabees what we were going to do.
"When they start to move toward us, I want each of you to lock and load as loudly as possible. Then, slowly level your weapon in their faces. For Gods sake, dont fire unless they do. But if they raise their weapons, fire at will."
The guys all nodded. No one said a word that I can recall. I imagine their hearts were pumping like mine and Ill never forget the feeling. My heart was beating so fast and seemingly so loudly, I thought I was having a coronary. I had never before known how incredibly restricting and debilitating raw fear could be.
The troops staring us down paused for a few minutes. We could hear their officers conferring with each other and gesturing our way. Then they began to move toward us.
"Now," I said, and we all sent a round into the chambers of our weapons and slowly lowered our sights on the approaching soldiers. The clatter of our rifles being activated brought the enemy to an immediate halt. Some loud arguing and more gesturing occurred and we waited. We all knew we had little if any chance of survival. If they opened up with mortars or machine guns, we might not even get off a shot. But probably they were only armed, as we were, with light weapons, rifles and pistols, so our point was made.
They undoubtedly came to realize that we were going to put up a fight. They also surely knew that all American troops were armed with the latest weapons. In my case, I could fire 30 rounds off in a few seconds. And that would take out a number of them. So they apparently decided we werent worth it.
We heard more orders shouted, in what sounded at that distance to be Korean. And then, the troops fanned out in two directions, half of them advancing to the right, the rest to the left of us. They walked out of sight and then we could hear them heading in our direction again. It could only have meant one thing: they were either establishing new positions on either side of us and to our rear so that they could tear into us and decimate us in a brief firefight, or they were simply walking around our position and bypassing us without further contact.
Thank God, the latter happened and we neither saw nor heard from them again. We also started breathing again, got our vehicle going, and headed back to base. That was the closest call for all of us and we were not displeased that we never got into a close situation like that again.
But we were all pleased with ourselves. We had looked into the face of death and stared it down. We were terrified but we were also brave. We didnt try and run for it. We stood our ground and met the challenge. We were damn lucky, but we had held our ground in the tradition of all the Seabees who had gone before us. And we were proud of ourselves.
A Civilian Again
Soon my tour in Korea was finally over. It was March, 1955, and I was on my way home, for the last time. I would be discharged in San Francisco, having finished four long years of service. It couldnt come too soon.
I planned to leave for New York immediately after being mustered out. I hoped to patch things up with Nancy, if that were possible. If not, I was still anxious to begin my new life as a civilian. I joined up at 17 and now had just turned 22. It was time to get a life.
My buddy Terry had other ideas, however. He begged me to fly to Phoenix, Arizona, where his ex-wife was living. Terry wanted me to get to know her and tell her how much he loved her and plead with her to wait just a few more months until he would come home from Korea.
I told him, "No way!" I was headed home and would take no detours. But he was so insistent that I finally agreed to do what he asked. That was a big mistake and one that I will never forget.
I caught a troop ship to Frisco and after a weeks sail, we tied up to a dock at Treasure Island Naval Station in San Francisco Bay. A band was playing and there were at least a thousand wives, girl friends and family members waiting alongside the ship for their loved ones, home from war.
I recall looking down at the waving people and searching for someone who might be waiting for me. But I knew there was no one in my family who lived close enough to be there. So it was a lonely experience. I disembarked, carrying my seabag for the last time, was assigned a barracks for the night, and was discharged a day or two later. Finally, I was a civilian again. And it felt great.
I caught a flight to Phoenix, checked into a motel and called Terrys ex-wife. She knew I was coming. We made plans to go out to dinner that evening and I dressed in my uniform, ribbons and all, and caught a cab to her parents home, where she was living.
I asked her what the best restaurant in town was and soon we were headed there. She was lovely, had a great figure, and I was more than a little in love with her. But that would have to remain tightly controlled. After all, she had no idea that it had been my love letters that had made her fall in love with Terry again. And Nancy, waiting in New York, was very much on my mind. I hadnt seen her for over a year.
The restaurant was really posh. We were met at the parking lot entrance by a knight in armor on a decorated steed. He turned his horse 180 degrees and escorted us to a valet parker. It was pretty fancy stuff for this former Seabee.
The joint was expensive but I didnt mind. I had a few thousand dollars saved up and that was a lot of money in 1955.
We had a great meal. I told her all the tales that could be told about Korea and how much Terry loved her. I really piled it on, but it was all true, if slightly embroidered. I left out some of the good times we had with Korean and Japanese hookers and only told her the things that would make her more in love with her former husband than ever before.
But the talk and the night was romantic. I could not believe the beauty of her, the wonderful way she smelled, and the sparkle in her eye. I kept telling myself it was all for Terry and not for me, but it wasnt easy.
She asked me to dance and we danced the rest of the night away. I held her in my arms and she nestled against me. It was really rough. I knew that like me, she was having a tough time remembering that I wasnt her husband returning from war, but his best buddy.
I drove her home in the car her dad had let us use. She snuggled close to me all the way home. I knew I was in deep trouble or would be if I didnt get the hell out of there.
In her driveway, I told her how wonderful the night had been and wished she and Terry a wonderful life. She just looked up at me with eyes that melted my heart and said, "I dont want you to leave. Please stay for a few days. She leaned over and kissed me and it wasnt a kiss of friendship. It was a full-blown, I want you kiss. And I wanted her too, more than I could admit to myself. But never would I do that to Terry. I had to get out of there. I explained that I had a girl waiting for me in New York.
She called a cab for me and I said good-bye to her for the last time and returned to my hotel.
I left on a jet to New York the following morning without further contact with her.
After I got home, I wrote to Terry and told him that we had a nice dinner and that she loved him very much and could not wait for him to come home.
It would be almost a year until I heard back from Terry. He had been discharged a few months after me, went home and remarried the love of his life. It lasted, he told me later, for just several more months. And they divorced again.
He told me he hadnt written to me because I had hurt him so badly. He couldnt believe that I had "shacked up" with his wife, but he said he wanted me to know that he forgave me.
"She was a tramp," he said. "She told me that she had been sleeping with an Air Force guy before I got home, and she went right back to him after we got married again. She also told me that you stayed with her for a few weeks and I guess I cant blame you. She probably encouraged you," Terry told me. "But Ive forgiven you."
I was horrified. I had only kissed her good-bye, and that was her decision, not mine. But she knew the best way to hurt Terry was to make up the tale that she and I had been lovers while he was still in Korea. I denied it all and went through the entire story several times. But I dont think he believed me. And I never saw him again.
Ive been trying to find Terry for years, but havent succeeded yet. I will some day.
I so wish I had never taken that trip to Phoenix to do a good deed that cost me a very strong friendship with Terry. I also promised myself never again to get involved with anothers love life. Its bad business!
Home At Last
As my TWA, four engine propeller driven airliner circled LaGuardia Airport in New York city, I was thrilled. At last I was home, after four long years, this time for good, a civilian again. It was a wonderful exciting feeling.
No one was at the airport to greet me. Nancy knew I was due in but I had told her not to bother meeting me, that I would call her as soon as I got to my parents home in Lake Carmel, in Putnam County, just 52 miles from the city, Mom and dad had bought the small house on a pretty lake with $4,000 of the $10,000 they received from my brothers GI insurance. And they loved it there. I had told Nancy I would come to see her as soon as I could cut loose from the family.
I planned to surprise my mom but a little old lady sitting next to me on the plane had convinced me that wasnt a good idea. She said the excitement could be too much for mom and that I should call her from the airport and tell her I was on my way home. So I did and mom was overjoyed to see at lest one of her sons come home safe from the war.
After a brief visit, I called Nancy and then Warren, who had also been just discharged. We agreed to meet at one of the Irish bars in our old neighborhood and I drove to Nancys apartment and picked her up. We met Warren in the bar and it was a strained meeting at first. I knew that he and Nancy still had strong feelings for one another. It was obvious, though they tried to hide it. But after a couple of drinks we were laughing and reminiscing and it was a good feeling.
Later in the evening, Nancy and I said good-bye to Warren and returned to Nancys place, where we celebrated our love in a beautiful way. We talked about the future and Nancy suggested that we get married. Everything in my being wanted to do just that and I was thrilled that she suggested it. But I wanted to be certain that it was the right thing to do.
I held her in my arms and asked her if she loved me. She said she did, that she had loved me fully for years and that others who may have been in her life were only there because I had been away for such a long time. I was almost convinced, ready to say, "Lets do it!" But there was something I had to know. I was a strong Catholic and believed that marriage would be forever and I had to be convinced that she felt the same way.
"Can you promise me that this is for life?" I asked her.
"I cant promise that," she answered. "All I can promise is that Ill do everything possible to make it work."
"And if it doesnt?" I asked.
"Then well be sensible and honest and get a divorce," she responded, her beautiful blue eyes searching my face, letting me know that as much as she wanted to deny that she had no doubts, they were there.
I held her tight and whispered, "It isnt enough Nancy. Wed better wait until were sure. She didnt answer but held me even tighter. In retrospect, I think she was relieved.
So there were no marriage plans to be made, no future with each other guaranteed. But I still prayed to myself and to God that in the end, our love would be enough to overcome whatever doubts each of us had.
It wasnt. the next time I saw her she was marrying a boat company owner from Orlando. Later I heard that she had had four kids.
Nancy and I?
It was just never to be. It was a young love, destroyed by a war and something to remember but also something to forget as I turned away to find someone else who would share my life and love me forever.Copyright © 1998 Korean War Veterans National Museum and Library
Of Interest to Korean War Veterans
Copyright © 1998 Korean War Veterans National Museum and Library