Soldierin' On - Welcome to Camp Page South Korea
I got out of the MP Sergeant’s Jeep at Headquarters Company’s Headquarters, grabbed my duffel, shook the sergeant’s hand and headed toward the confusion of double HQs. I knocked on the office door and was called inside. It was snowing, blowing and cold, and before I could get through the door and close it the corporal sitting in the company clerk’s chair yelled, “Shut th’ effin’ door, you moron! It’s already too effin’ cold in here!”
I shut the door and dropped my duffel. Walking toward the corporal I shoved my hand inside my greatcoat and pulled out the envelope that held my orders and records. I looked up and found the corporal, back flat to the wall and hands raised staring at me bug-eyed. “Please don’t shoot m...” His hands dropped. “That’s not a gun.” It was an accusation.
I looked at the papers in my right hand. “No. Doesn’t appear to be.” I dropped the papers on his desk. “I’d like to say hello to the XO.”
“The Lieutenant has no interest in saying hello to you.” He stood away from the wall and picked up my papers. “Medic hunh? OK, that’s the third Quonset on the right. C’mon, let’s go.” He reached over and grabbed a field jacket with a heavy liner and a billed cap. “I’ll show you where it is.”
He stepped around the desk, shrugging into the field jacket (and knocking his cap off and behind him in the process). He got the jacket on, retrieved the cap and yanked open the door. The little corporal grabbed the door, gave it a yank and was nearly decapitated when it was slung open by the wind and carried him smack into the edge of the desk. With a short “Oompf!” the corporal clambered to his feet and said, “C’mere medic, and hold this.” He grabbed the door again. I went over and took it... and discovered I was barely heavy enough for my weight to defeat the wind. We tossed my duffel out onto the snow and fought the door closed. Then we began our trek to my barracks in the third Quonset hut on the right. The wind felt like it was about to blow through my right ear and out my left.
When we arrived at Quonset hut three, on the right, the corporal stopped me before I could open the door. He pointed further down the walkway. “See those guys coming out of that Quonset down there on the left?” I nodded. “That Quonset houses the showers, sinks and toilets. That’s where you’ll start your day tomorrow. Don’t try to make it in your skivvies. The next Quonset is a double. It’s the dining hall and kitchen. Let’s get inside.” He grabbed the door to Quonset hut three, and pulled it open. Even though the wind was blowing away from the door, enough cold air rushed in to elicit cries of displeasure, including one offer to mail the little corporal home, one piece a week for three months if he didn’t shut the damned door.
After telling me when reveille would sound, not to touch the “Cherry Stoves,” small steel oil stoves with tops that got so hot they glowed cherry red, and suggesting I stop by the HQ building after morning formation, the corporal left. Immediately thereafter a young man, well lubricated from an evening of ten-cent shots and five-cent beers in the NCO club, came up to me and announced that I should have nothing to do with him, that he had run from two guys who wanted to fight, he was an abject coward, and would I fight him please so he didn’t have to endure being a coward.
Trying to make him feel better, I told him that there wasn’t a man in the room who wasn’t afraid of something or someone, and that he shouldn’t worry, I had run from fights too. Hah! Some comfort I was... more a target, belike. For the next several months he hounded me to fight until in desperation I finally accepted, but with conditions. We would go to the gym, glove up and have a referee. We’d go three rounds. I suggested he choose his corner seconds so they could talk to the referee at the camp gym. At the end of the week he asked to cancel. I agreed, and he asked me not to tell who begged off. Then he told everybody I’d ducked out. I just said it wasn’t true, and refused to let it become a big deal, but he kept talking. I finally walked up to him while he was telling a couple of guys all about it, picked him up, threw him over my shoulder and took him in and dropped him on his bunk. “Stay there,” I snarled, “until you’re brave enough to tell the truth, or I’ll carry you to the gym, glove you up and beat you into a grease spot on the floor of the ring.”
He looked behind me and said, “It was me, guys. I asked to not have the fight.”
There was laughter and I walked out of the barracks. We did not become friends.
Camp Page was entirely a support station for several roving truck-mounted Honest John missiles, nuclear-capable missiles with a range of about twenty-five miles. Camp Page stood about twenty-five miles from the North/South Korean border. Headquarters company was an amalgam of platoons of medics, truck drivers, mechanics, Military Police (men grabbed at random as they showed up and assigned to the MPs), administration and a couple I’ve no doubt forgotten. Camp Page also housed early Huey style helicopters, a couple of “banana chopper” helicopters and three kinds of fixed-wing aircraft. In addition, there were doctors, the usual cadre of “whatinell does he do?” officers, a couple of guys who wore no insignia (so they wouldn’t be noticed) and insisted that nobody speak to them unless they spoke first, a pretty good ordnance company (there were a lot of small arms and mid-range weapons), a Hawk (antiaircraft/antimissile) missile group, although the only North Korean aircraft we ever saw was Chun Chon Charlie dropping leaflets that said, “IN JULY YOU DIE, GI!” from his little biplane, and the Hawks’ homing instruments couldn’t detect him.
I was assigned to the Camp Dispensary ER, where I functioned pretty much as a surgical nurse and VD destroyer.
What surgery? Well, for some reason every male who had not been circumcised as a baby decided that his sojourn in South Korea could best be commemorated by undergoing said procedure in my ER. Then, of course, there were the children who kept finding large caliber Korean Conflict brass (howitzer and tank turret gun shells), and trying to get the useless part (the explosive powder) out of them so they could sell the brass. Unfortunately, beating the steel and lead bullet end of a 90 or 105 mm shell on a rock to accomplish that often resulted in destruction of the explosive, the shell and parts of the person beating the shell on a rock. Along with one of my three surgeons, I got to do the set-up work for the Seoul hospital, a full scale facility compared to our immobile MASH unit.
On field exercises, I was designated the driver for one of our surgeons. American Army officers in Korea were required to have drivers to match “face” with South Korean officers, all of whom had drivers. I lucked out and drew the surgeon who was the scion of a wealthy family and a dedicated sports car racer. I learned to drift the late-model Jeeps that, because of their independent suspension were speed limited. It would roll over at the first sign of a hard turn at speed... unless you knew how to break the tires loose and drift. I had some real trouble with it at first, and the good doctor was about to stop trying to teach me when I suddenly “got it.” The back end came loose. I turned into it and kept all four wheels driving. We came around the blind turn on that mountain dirt road, and she straightened out like she was on rails... and a clod of dirt came off the front tire and smacked into the doctor’s leg.
“Are you in four-wheel drive?” Something was wrong, I was sure of that.
“Because you’ll wreck it! The wheels all turn at different speeds, and they’ll spin you off this road and right down the mountain. No wonder you kept spinning out every time you tried to drift this thing.” He laughed. “You don’t need four-wheel just because it’s a dirt road. Drop it out.” From then on, a ride to field exercises was an adventure in speed and racing instruction for me.
In early fall, nearly the entire complement of Camp Page headed for a joint exercise with a South Korean Army contingent, both American and South Korean Air Forces, and small contingents of Turkish and a couple of other military representatives. Ahead of the scheduled maneuvers, the doctor and I accompanied several other officers and soldiers to find the perfect campsite. We selected a gravel bar that extended about three hundred yards along the inside of a bend in a small river and was about fifty yards wide. It was bordered by many rice paddies and a couple of very large fields of something with fairly large hairy leaves growing from the ground in tufts. I was the farmer’s kid with some college biology on board. Warning bells should have been going off like a freakin’ bell chorus. But all I thought when I saw the leaves was, “That’s sure not Bok Choy.” As it happened, I was right, but I already knew that. What I didn’t know, well...
A few days later several hundred men, tents, vehicles, a dispensary tent, a full-scale field kitchen and a host of other groups and things encamped on that gravel bar. Almost immediately, things went south. One of the medical personnel, much less familiar with guns than he should have been, decided to fast-draw a Colt forty-five caliber semiautomatic pistol. Neither the pistol nor its holster was made for that and he lost half his right foot. Those forty-fives make one heckuva mess. Later, as I unpacked my supplies I discovered that one of my two-and-a-half gallon carboys of GI gin (Codeine turpinhydrate cough syrup mixed with a goodly load of sugar and thinned with distilled water and medical grade grain alcohol) had cracked and was gone. At a buck an ounce, that was a serious loss.
Eventually the combat troops came back from the day’s field exercises. I scribbled a note to the medic holding down the fort back at Camp Page and sent it back with the day’s courier. Then I sold most of my inventory of GI Gin. More would be here tomorrow. Finally the camp settled down. I jammed a CO2 cartridge into the inflator and blew up my air mattress, climbed into my down-filled mummy bag and slept the sleep of the soon-to-be better off financially. In the morning, reveille ended in the middle, followed by coughing. Somebody screamed “GAS!” and troops went scrambling for gas masks. I had followed instructions. Mine was in my mummy bag with me. I pulled my head inside and, with a little scrambling, twisting and turning I was able to mask up in less than a minute. But I had gotten a whiff, and I knew it wasn’t teargas. I stepped out of the medical tent and headed for the fields where the tufts of leaves grew. I had smelled that odor before, and I knew what they were now. When I got to the edge of the field, I found tufts of leaves lying on the ground in thousands with soil-covered little white disks of tuber attached to them. Not far away I could see Papa-san, Mama-san and all the kids pulling tubers. Papa-san had a machete and whacked the leaves and narrow bottom roots off.
It was a horseradish field, and the air was filled with the stuff of tears, commonly known as lachrymates, the juices of onions, garlic and horseradishes, and it was being gently blown across the military camp. Unbelievably, the family of farmers seemed unfazed by being in the epicenter of the storm of tears. I went back to camp and reported what I’d found. A KATUSA First Sergeant (Korean soldiers who filled personnel slots in the US Army, making up twenty-five to thirty percent of any Army group’s complement) was sent to request a hiatus in the harvest, but was told the entire crop would be ruined if it wasn’t harvested within two days. There was nothing for it. We had to endure. Frantic consultations were had, phone calls were made, new places to be during the day were found, except for... yeah, you knew that was coming, right? Somebody had to stay in the medical tent. I spent the next two days nights in a gas mask, changing the filter every eight hours and being driven to a makeshift field kitchen to eat while one of the other medics stayed at the medical tent.
That was one of a half-dozen field maneuvers I was sent on. I was the general duty medic as well as the ER/surgical nurse. That meant I went on more field trips than anyone else. I thought that one would be the best of the lot. Ha! Sometimes it just doesn’t pay to think.