Cold night in Korea

On February 15, 1955, shortly after I got to K-3 in Pohang-dong, South Korea, the company master sergeant assigned me to thirty days of guard duty. It was not  punishment; guard duty is something every low-ranking Marine is assigned to do. Each day we walked one four-hour daytime shift and one four-hour nighttime shift.

When I reported to the guard company, the quartermaster issued me a huge down-filled parka and a pair of rubber thermal boots, essential gear for the bitter cold of mid-February. The footwear was state of the art in 1955. Each boot was essentially a close-fitting inner rubber boot suspended inside a big, tough outer rubber boot. The air space between the inner and outer boot protected the foot from the cold. We dubbed the enormous boots “Mickey Mouse Boots,” but they were a godsend for those assigned to guard the perimeter of K-3 in the dead of winter. The size and shape of the boots made it clumsy to walk, but they kept our feet so warm that our socks were wringing wet when we took the boots off.

Our quarters were next door to several Quonset huts, which were home to the Korean Marine Corps, KMC for short. I had never heard of the KMC, but it was not long before I learned to respect them as much as I respected the men in my own unit. They shared responsibility for guarding the perimeter of K-3. The standard procedure was to post a U. S. Marine for one segment of the fence and post a KMC Marine for the next segment.

The KMC guards walked the same four-hour shifts that we did, but there were differences: The KMC troops were not on guard duty for a mere thirty days; guarding the perimeter was their permanent assignment. They did not eat as well as we did, nor were they dressed as well; they wore hand-me-down long wool coats and leather boots, U. S. surplus from World War I and the early years of World War II.

The KMC officers were as tough on their troops as any boot camp drill instructor in the U. S. Marine Corps.

One day in my second week on guard duty, I saw the KMC troops in formation outside their Quonset huts. The officers were ordering the men to hold their rifles in both hands above their head, parallel to the ground. The officers then instructed the men to bend backwards as far as they could and hold that position. I first thought they were doing calisthenics, but the officers screamed at them and whacked them across the belly with a rifle. Several of the Marines fell to the ground in pain, but the officers forced them to get back in line. The punishment—painful to watch—went on for ten minutes that must have seemed like hours to the Marines.

That night, when I got to the end of my segment of the perimeter, I saw the KMC Marine who was guarding the next segment. He was approaching, so I waited until he got to where I was and then I offered him a cigarette. The KMC troops loved to meet us because we would give them cigarettes that we could buy for a dollar a carton. It was peanuts to us, but it meant a lot to the impoverished men of the KMC.

We lit up and exchanged knowing looks as we rubbed our hands together and stamped our feet in the bitter cold. His tattered WWI coat and worn-out boots were pathetic, but he managed a smile.

I was determined to learn more about what I had seen that morning, so I said, “Today … KMC.” I leaned over backwards with my rifle over my head, then I simulated a KMC officer whacking men in the belly. At first, my new friend did not get it but after a couple of tries, he suddenly realized what I was asking. It was a challenge, but he managed to explain in broken English what had occurred. In halting Oriental dialect, he said, “Uh … KMC … uh … inspection …  uh … inspection … uh … all fucked-up.”

We shared a hearty laugh. I had found a soul mate, a brother in arms, on the other side of the world.