KOREA: A CHRISTMAS MEMORY FROM 1950
In 1950, the war in Korea had just started. My buddy Bill and I had finished our graduation requirements at the Minnesota School of Business. Neither of us had any immediate employment opportunities, but Bill had two uncles in the Seattle area, and he was sure they would welcome a visit.
So we pooled our resources, said our goodbyes to our families in Little Falls, MN, and took off for the west in my 1947 Plymouth coupe. We drove nonstop to Bremerton, the home of Bill’s Uncle Joe. A pleasant week or two passed, and money was getting low. Then we saw a notice that the U.S. Merchant Marine was hiring, and we applied.
Soon thereafter we were on a train ride to San Francisco, where we were assigned to a troopship, the Marine Adder. In a short while 200 crew members, a dozen or so Navy Corpsmen, and 3000 troops were on our way to Japan. It was an eventful trip. No sooner had we passed the Golden Gate than most of the men on the ship were seasick. The Adder, just out of WWII mothballing, broke down north of Hawaii. We spent several days without power (and with overwhelmed plumbing) in the sun and heat. With power finally restored, we got to Japan where the troops were unloaded and the Adder went into more repair.
After several days in Japan, we returned to Seattle, and spent time for another troop load. In November we sailed again to Japan with another 3000 soldiers.
We had expected a return to the U.S. Instead we were bound for Korea. The Chinese had entered the war and coalition troops were in retreat.
In a couple of days we were anchored a few miles off the Korean coast near Inchon. The ship rumor mill informed us that we were waiting to evacuate retreating troops. Also that we were being paid double salary, because we were in the war zone, within easy reach, across the China sea, of the Chinese air force.
So we waited, hearing little substantial information. Day became night became day. We had anchored about December 15. On Christmas Day 1950, we were still there. A day or so later we were watching the Inchon coast as huge explosions of fuel and ammunition rocked the ship. They were being blown up to prevent the North Korean and Chinese forces from seizing them.
That night, in darkness, all lights on the ship off, we moved south slowly. After an hour or so, a sailor on watch heard cries from the darkness. The captain had two large lifeboats lowered. Awhile later the boats returned with 40 or so wet and frightened South Koreans, trying to flee the oncoming battle. These included families with small children.
Cold and bewildered, our new passengers were taken to an inside room. Someone suggested they needed dry clothes. We all went to our cabins and found stuff to give them.
We sailed south, leaving our Korean refugees in Pusan, on the south end of Korea. Then we were off to Japan to refuel, and home to Seattle.
In Seattle I was greeted with a draft notice. I had to return to Little Falls, with every prospect of seeing Korea again, this time on land.
I heard of a program which, if I enlisted in the regular army for three years and could pass a test, would assign me to Army Language School in Monterey, CA.
I made the choice, I passed the test, and found myself in a line in Monterey, considering my language choices. Korean? (I’d seen Korea recently.) Chinese? (Obviously not.) Czech? A fellow recruit in line behind me said to a friend, “Do you know Czech has twenty-seven cases?”—I had no idea what a case was, but twenty-seven sounded like entirely too many. That left Persian—Farsi—which I learned to speak and write fluently.
As a student for one year and a worker in the Persian Department for 18 months, I fought the Korean war in Monterey.
There is a curious addendum to my story of Christmas off the coast of Korea, watching things blow up and refugees rescued. In 2010, when my wife and I were spending Christmas with our daughter’s family in Davidson, NC, we were guests at a party given by a member of the faculty of Davidson College, where Shireen teaches. Another faculty guest was Kyo Koo, a Korean-born teacher. He was accompanied by an older Korean woman and a small child.
This was his mother, he said, visiting Davidson to help his wife, who had just given birth, and see her grandchildren, like the one she was tending. I was struck by meeting three generations of this family which had apparently survived and prospered after that war, and mentioned that, 60 years before, I had been anchored off the Korean coast. He passed this information on to his mother, who clearly spoke little or no English. She responded with surprise and excitement, and, as he translated, we learned that his mother had then been eight years old and had, with her family, fled Seoul. She remembered having no proper shoes, wearing clumps of grass tied to her feet. She remembered walking down a frozen river. A brother of hers had not survived.
Some of this, it was clear, her son Kyo had never heard before. In a warm room full of friendly people eating cookies and drinking mulled wine, his mother and I met. We had been maybe thirty miles apart on that very different Christmas, when I was a young man and she was a child.
It’s now sixty years since I was on that ship. There have been other wars since; there are still refugees. (My instructors at Army Language School were mostly political refugees from Iran.) But if the world is still a dangerous place, and 2020 a tough year for many of us, human kindness and hopefulness endures. As I say, “Khoda Hafez”—goodbye in Persian—I wish you also the best joys of the season.
- Below is a link to information found on the vessel my dad served on-
-A black and white picture from an old photo album, taken of the fuel and ammo dumps my dad recalls being blown up-
-Here are a couple of pictures found on a search for images of the ADDER- in the second photograph which was labled by Google images as "troops departing on the USNS Adder" you can see the vessel name on the life rafts to the left in the image.
Below is a picture of the Adder after being converted to a cargo ship (per Wikapedia, sold to civilian use and converted to a cargo ship in 1968) named Transcolorado-