In 1987, a pair of idiotic nineteen year olds pulled guard-duty over four CH-47 and three UH-1 helicopters just on the outskirts of Gwangju Village (now a city), Kyonggi-Do, South Korea. We were new to South Korea. I had been there a little over a month. Mark had been there for three months, but had just transferred down from Cp. Casey in Dongduchon.
Idiots because we were. Mark was a drunk and I was a young Mormon out in the world trying to keep my head and faith above water. That night in particular, the platoon sgt told us to wear special gear to keep our faces from freezing. I did. Mark didn’t. We pulled a twelve hour shift. This was before the days of the jump-toc or before the Chinook battalion I was in knew what to do with a trained combat engineer and technical draftsman. Mark was a complete drunken fool, so between the two of us, we pulled a lot of guard duty. A lot of guard duty.
My post was facing into the wind. Marks was facing away from the wind. The mask I was wearing had a slight electric current running through it like an electric blanket on my face. I wore galoshes over my corcorans and two pair of socks. I had on my thermal underwear, my field jacket & liner, my scarf, gloves, parka & liner and poncho & liner. Mark didn’t. He’s an idiot. We made it through the night. After my shift, I had icicles hanging from the slots in the mask and a thin sheet of ice on my scarf. Mark had ice every where on his face. Icicles from each nostril. Ice in the corners of his eyes. Chapped lips that scared permanently. Mark’s face never lost that perpetual drunk look. Rosy cheeks and forehead.
I’m saying all of this because I just watched one of the best documentaries of my life: Chosin. It interviews the Marine survivors of the Chosin Reservoir Battle from the Korean War. The guys in that battle were wearing less gear than Mark. Of the fifteen thousand involved in that battle, twelve thousand received frostbite related injuries. The other three thousand died. This documentary is very personal, because in the faces of these men you can see where the doctors cut off chunks and sewed the holes up to make masks in the place of faces. One guy only had the palms of his hands. Another had no feet. He said when he finally saw a doctor and they removed his boots and socks after he walked in, his feet fell apart in the office/tent and that his feet looked like plastic bags of crushed ice. They cut his feet off.
The power of this documentary comes from the words of the survivors. From many of them comes the love and admiration for the people of South Korea. See, with Mark and me, we were just getting by. Sure we both liked Korea. I ended up living in Seoul for eight total years. I was in the military to get GI Bill and Mark was there to escape Pennsylvania coal mines. I would have fought the Korean War again. So would Mark. But we only spent one night out in the frozen wind. We never pulled DMZ duty. The only enemies we had were guys from the 801st Engineers (Mark didn’t get along with the battalion cooks either–he didn’t mind getting quarter rations if that meant getting into a good fight every time we were in the Top Hat Club or the Seven Club). We were just a pair of idiots. I would go with him to the clubs to fight on Saturday Nights and he would come with me to church in the morning.