In memory of all who did not miss the Forgotten War and died, were wounded, became prisoners of war and fought in terrible conditions.
A few days ago, I saw the headline: 60th Anniversary of Korean War Armistice. I thought that it had all happened much further back. But I was wrong.
In December 1952, I finished sixteen weeks of infantry basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey. There, with other draftees and young men who volunteered to serve their country, I learned the rudiments of the skills with which I was assured I could protect myself and cause harm to the enemy. The Korean War had been raging for over two years so that there was no doubt who that enemy was. Whatever we felt about our prospects, as young soldiers have probably done since the invention of war, we hid our fears behind our smart uniforms and newly acquired military bearing.
In 1952, the procedures following basic training seem now to be haphazard. But obviously they worked. Most of us were told at Fort Dix that we were going to the Far East. To get us on our way, we were handed travel orders and our own personnel folder, known as the ‘201’ file. The army then relied on paper 201 files for assignments and other actions. The only unusual aspect at that time was that we carried our own personnel files with us We were ordered not to lose the documents and to hand them over at our next military post.
Thus. after Christmas leave, I arrived at Camp Stoneman, outside San Francisco. There I was immediately directed inside a large building. Behind a long counter, army clerks yelled at us to toss our 201 files onto the mass of brown folders which reared behind them. I watched as my 201 landed on top then slid down the slope to the latter’s temporary angle of repose (a nice term I learned in one of my careers). That was it. I had followed orders, done my duty, and delivered my short army life history. And presumably the 201 would be perused, analysed and as a result, my fate decided upon. (Later, I met another draftee wandering around Stoneman who had managed to ‘lose’ his 201 file. With any luck, he admitted with a grin, he would not have enough time left in his 24 month tour of duty to be shipped overseas.)
After a few days, we boarded a troopship, the MSTS General Gordon, bound for Yokohama and two weeks later found ourselves at Camp Drake, Tokyo. Drake, like Stoneman, was a “repo-depot,” a center for processing the flow of soldiers to and from Korea and other points in the Far East Command. There we were easily recognized as raw recruits by the returning battle-worn Korean veterans on their way home. And many took great pleasure in regaling us with grim stories and warnings of what lay ahead for us in ‘Frozen Chosen.’ As I recall our reactions, we untried warriors pretty much just listened. There was no talk among us of the future. But inside, I am sure most were terrified. Those in charge at Camp Drake seemed to understand this. Because we were kept busy washing huge pots in huge mess halls or cleaning barracks while we awaited our fate. There was no sign of our 201 files anywhere. Maybe they all got lost en route from Camp Stoneman, I thought hopefully.
Periodically, we would be ordered out in formation to listen to the names of fellow soldiers read off to report for shipping out to Korea. Was there relief or increased anxiety when we were passed over and the formation dismissed? I suspect the latter. We drifted back to the barracks or made our way to the PX, awaiting the command to gather again in the company area.
That did not happen until the following day when we fell in, in probably militarily incorrect ranks – after all, we were close to becoming veterans in our own right – we were losing the basic-training-inspired awe of the First Sergeant. We waited for the seeming inevitable.
“OK, listen up. The following men are on local orders.”
Then my name and several hundred others were shouted out by the NCO in charge. A buzz went around the area. “What’s “local orders?” What does it mean?
Then we were dumbfounded to learn that “local orders” meant we were not after all going to Korea. Instead we were staying in Japan, assigned to the First Cavalry Division stationed on Hokkaido. That unit had been brought off the line after almost two years of hard fighting and needed replacements to build up its reserve strength.
Within a couple of days we were on a troop train heading to northern Honshu for a ferry ride and our final destination, Camp Crawford, outside Sapporo. En route, I had my last glimpse of my 201 file. During the long journey, in a very efficient process, First Cavalry Division staff went through the train interviewing each of us, referring to our 201 files as they went. Then they gave us our assignments.
Over the years since those events, I have often reflected on the moment when I tossed my 201 file over that counter in Camp Stoneman. What if I had thrown it to the left or right? What if I had arrived there ten minutes later? Then I might have been sent on a different troopship, one going direct to Korea.
While in Japan I had contact with only one of the many of my Fort Dix buddies who undoubtedly ended up in Korea. He was an army photographer. He never saw action. But in 1953, he sent me a letter he got from another of our basic training recruits who was serving on the front line. I have held on to it as a reminder of what might have been. And also as a testament to a brave young man facing danger yet sensitive enough to discern the tragedy of war for both sides in the conflict. Read the letter for yourself.