Where have you been? I haven’t seen you for a while!
George Borun, 34th Infantry Regiment, Korea 1953-54.
Preface: While reading "The Coldest Winter" by David
Halberstram, I was impressed by the fact that while I was involved
in the Korean War, I knew very little about the plans of the
commanders. As I read the book, I decided to keep notes of what I
remembered and experienced. What follows are these recollections and
comments, whether they are true or correct, who knows.
I received my notice of induction into the army around September 1952. Theoretically, I was not eligible for the draft because I was a student at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). I worked the 12 PM to 8 AM shift at R. Lavin & Sons, as Chief Chemist.
Anyway, I was enrolled in the Air Force ROTC and already non-draft able. I had a brevet Lieutenants commission, in the National Guard from the High School ROTC at Schurz High. One I never exercised.
After I got my notice I contacted the draft board to let them know I was ineligible for draft. They said: "Well, report that to the people where and when you are ordered to report." Needless to say, the reporting facility said to report that fact at the next station, then the next station on down the line. My case fell in the crack. No one could change the induction process. So, I was in the Army.
I was sent to Camp Breckenridge, KY, with the 101st Infantry Division. It was not more than a couple of days before they found out I had been in ROTC and had trained a lot, so I was made field first sergeant.
Three stripes, two rockers.
The reason I was promoted was that they had NO CADRE! Everyone had been sent to Korea and there was no one left that knew about training troops.
I didn't mind too much because I had my own private room, didn't train too much, and had weekend passes. I quit trying to get the draft reversed since I would have to pull only two years duty in the Army, instead of four as an officer in the Air Force.
Everything went great until the squad leaders that reported to me, came up with a problem that undid my happy life.
The commanding officer, a captain, had a scheme for stealing food and taking it to his sisters' restaurant in town. He was in cahoots with the supply mess officer and cook. They loaded the food, milk, pasta, canned goods and so forth in his car trunk, and he took it to town. By "they," I mean he had the recruits do the loading. Dumb!
To replace the stolen rations, we got old "C" rations from WWII, and other junk, which had apparently unlimited draw. We got one carton of milk a day, instead of at every meal.
The men complained and wrote a letter to me stating their grievances; they all signed it. What do I do?
I saw the Division Chaplain, who said "Go ahead and file the complaint, I will back you up."
So, I did, and all hell broke loose. The company commander defended his actions as "taking food to the men in the field." He denied everything. Case dismissed.
I was demoted to recruit and put on KP cleaning grease pits and garbage cans.
As we finished basic, the company commander took me aside and said, "You have screwed up my life and promotion to Major, I will see to it that you are sent to Korea, and I Hope you get killed!"
"You better hope I do, because I will look you up when I get back," I replied. I never did, but why should he sleep well.
I don't know if the disgruntled company commander had the connections to do so, but when I got to Oakland, California, I was called by name from shipping manifests to Okinawa and Japan. The third time I was assigned, I was sent to Korea. Probably, to fulfill the CO's curse.
I was assigned to Charlie Company, the 34th Inf. Regiment, 24th Infantry Division in Korea.
We were flown to I think Taegu, and then loaded into trucks and driven to the front, or at least very close. No instructions, no indication as to where we were on the map. We didn't need to know.
My memory of this time is very hazy. It may be due to my strong desire to forget rather than remember. War is a traumatic thing, especially for a young person. I fully understand PTSD Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Well, maybe not fully, but certainly receptivity in understanding the stress and things like nightmares. It would be difficult for a noncombatant to grasp the concept.
Anyway, on line we were told only that we had Chinese in front of us, Turks on the left, and another American group on the other side.
After a while living in the field like this, a person begins to stink. There is a limit to what you can wash off in a canteen of water. I remember going on patrols forward of our position. Not much to be reported as Yanguu Valley had a river running through it and the Chinese were on one side and we were on the other.
Patrols amounted to looking for breeches in the line, buildups, and river crossings. Our CO had us going on patrol with a 30-caliber air-cooled machine gun and carrying boxes of ammo. You couldn't run with it, or haul the heavy boxes of ammo, or set it up to fire in less than 2-3 minutes.
I think that if you survive your officers in the first few weeks, you stand a good chance to survive.
One day, the company medic and I went down to the river to bathe. Wrong move! We stripped, got wet, and when we got ready to dress, we were apparently spotted by the Chinese, who thought we were a large group of men, and called in the artillery. We were blasted all around. One hit very close to me as I was lying on the ground, and the shrapnel went up like a spray. I was bounced up and was stunned and deafened. We ran low and made it back to our position. I stayed pretty much stunned and deaf with ears ringing, for a few days. Since I had no big holes, I was not evacuated.
Not long after that incident, we were preparing to cross the river and attack the fortified mountain. The Chinese were pretty well dug in, as evidenced by seeing our fighters drop napalm on them to where you could not believe anyone could survive.
But when it was all over the Chinese would come out and shake their blankets out and go back in. We knew that we were not going to have an easy time of it. I was a weapons squad leader. I had a machine gun, two BAR's, a 2.36" rocket launcher, (the small one), and a carbine for myself along with a .45 cal. pistol. (I have read where the new model weapons were issued prior to, and during the Korean War. No way!)
We had all old WWII stuff. Never even saw new weapons much less used them or knew how to use them or take them apart.
Interesting aspect of being on-line is that the Chinese used bugles and whistles to give commands. When they attacked it was "Ta Da! Or tweet tweet." They started doing it at night so that we couldn't sleep. Must say it was effective in un-nerving us.
I had an ex-master sergeant in my squad who had been in combat. He was busted for I'm not sure what, but he drank heavily and used drugs. He knew his way around and I knew he could get all of us through if I listened to him. He stashed ammo everywhere. He buried cans in the forward, rear and fallback positions, so we wouldn't have to run with cans.
So, we were set to go on July 27, 1953, into an all out attack when the word came down that there had been a cease fire. Halleluiah! It fell right on my 21st birthday. What a present!
I don't rightly remember how long we stayed up at the front, but it was a few days, after which we were moved out to take part in the prisoner exchange: "Operation Big Switch."
I still couldn't hear very well with ringing constant in the head. Eventually it subsided only to get louder when there was a sharp noise or gunshot.
Prisoner Guard Training
The Iraq war suggestion of prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib in Baghdad got me thinking about the time I guarded war prisoners. A different war and a different time, yet it appears that not much has changed.
It has been over 50 years since the 24th Infantry was taken off line in Korea, and assigned the task of prisoner exchange. Now, my memory is admittedly a little faulty, but I don't remember being told much more than the fact that we were going to be part of "Operation Big Switch," the Chinese and North Korean POW exchange for our United Nations soldiers.
I was now a genuine prison guard—with zero training and instruction.
The enemy prisoners were taken from the prison Island of Koje-do on landing craft that were converted with chicken wire into one big bunch of cages. The prisoners were herded in and taken to Inchon. Lots of barfing! Guards were posted around the top of the craft to prevent escape.
When the landing craft un-loaded, the prisoners were given time to recover and were then fed. Eventually, they were loaded abroad a train car, here too with wire stretched across the windows.
I was one of two guards per rail car of 60 prisoners. We stood in the aisle, one on each end to stop any prisoners from escaping.
We escorted the POW's to Freedom Village on the cease-fire line. There the prisoners were run through a tent singly, and asked if they wished to be repatriated to their country (North Korea, or China) or to Taiwan (if they were Chinese), or be allowed to stay in South Korea. They chose by going to the left or right exit, without coercion by anyone.
The train went only 10 miles an hour or less so the trip was rather lengthy. My only instruction was "Don't let them escape." We had the standard M-1 rifle and bayonet, and we faced inward to watch the prisoners.
Along the way the prisoners were fed at one of the stations. They got hot noodles or rice with vegetables and meat of some kind. We watched while they ate.
But we had our lunch of cold "C" rations from WWII. No kidding! I don't remember getting a single meal as good as the prisoners received.
As we rumbled through the countryside, the POW's sang patriotic songs with great gusto. We guards had no choice but stay there and listen, day after day, new prisoners, same songs. Soon we were able to join in chorus with them. It was like the Hit Parade. We didn't know what we were singing, but the melody stuck with us.
Then our superiors ordered us to "Make them quit singing!" How were we going to do that? We didn't speak Chinese or Korean. Well, orders are orders so we went into the car and shouted in English: "Stop singing." Needless to say the order was not enforced, at least not by us.
The guards on a couple of the cars were thrown off the moving train. We couldn't have that happen too often, so a couple of shots were fired in the air to calm the passions. It seemed to work. No one got killed.
But our fearless leaders back at our base camp reviewed the incidents, and became worried that if a prisoner were shot or killed during the exchange, the enemy would kill one or more allied prisoners in retaliation. So, you guessed it, they took our bullets away! We had no bullets, just a bayonet to protect ourselves against sixty prisoners. We never told the POW's that we had empty guns and that our commanders didn't trust us to use good judgment!
When the South Korean farmers along the way heard the prisoners singing, they used their "Honey Buckets" of night soil to express their dislike of the old enemy. For the uninitiated, night soil is human waste used to fertilize the crops.
The farmers used long poles with a coffee can on the end to dip into the quite liquid night soil, and then splashed it against our 10-MPH car. The prisoners closed their windows and were spared, but we guards were caught in the open!
Then the prisoners decided that they did not want to arrive at "Freedom Village" dressed in new uniforms, because it would indicate some degree of acceptance of their predicament. So, they stripped down to underwear shorts and threw their uniforms out the train window. The farmers now stopped the spraying and gathered up the clothing. But, some of us guards used wire hooks to scoop up the uniforms and trade them for boiled noodles from food vendors at stations along the way.
I noticed that the prisoners were fat! No propaganda here! They were well fed and healthy. Not like some of the allied exchange prisoners that we saw.
At the Village, we turned the prisoners over to Marines with Chrome plated helmets. We then returned to Inchon for a new batch of prisoners. Not much time for training on how to handle prisoners.
So I guess that little has changed in our military training procedure. Combat troops are moved around and given jobs for which they had no training.
The officers never thought to communicate with the "troops." Why would we need to know where we were and what we were supposed to do? We were dummies-cannon fodder, not gentlemen by act of congress, as they used to say.
I'm going to reserve my judgment on the degree of guilt of the guards at Abu Ghraib until someone tells me how they were trained to handle prisoners.
In truth, we never saw the officers much. Hardly knew their names. They ate separately, slept separately, they never talked to us. We saw them at roll call, that's it.
Our food was terrible. We stole things that would help the hunger. I remember having lots of bullion cubes that we made soup with whatever was available. Onions were very good.
Our cooks were mostly Puerto Rican. "No Sabe" was the watchword if you asked for bigger helpings. Unless you threatened a line server, you ate what he was willing to give you. Once I was in line as they started serving and the soup was poured into my canteen cup. I took a swig, and I spit it out immediately. "What the hell is this?"
Old no sabe said "Eats soup made from Bay leaves, they tol me bay leaves is for soup, so I made soup."
There was no milk, not even the powdered kind. That I really missed.
An Almost Transfer
My second Rest & Recuperation was to Tokyo, where I didn't do much as it was expensive. I walked down the Ginza market and saw the Dai Ichi building the Far Eastern Command HQ.
I also walked around the moat of the Imperial palace and saw the Frank Lloyd Wright Imperial hotel.
I had read in the Stars & Stripes the fact that there was a large medical laboratory. I was curious as to what they were doing and so I went in and had an interesting experience.
I was sent to an office by the receptionist and was met by a captain who listened to my story that I was a Chemist and Spectroscopist in civilian life and was on R&R from Korea. I said I wondered if I could see the lab.
Well, he did not exactly respond to my query. Instead, he said, "Follow me."
So I went with him to an office where he rapped on the door and was told to enter.
There was a one star General seated at the desk, and the Captain asked me to repeat what I had just said to him. So, nervously, I did.
The General leaped from his desk and came around and practically hugged me, saying "Where the hell have you been? I have been looking for someone who understood Chemistry and Spectroscopy to run my lab.”
He asked what I was doing and where, and I told him I was a weapons squad leader in the Infantry. He immediately asked if I would like to come to work for him? I said sure!
So, he had the Captain get all the info on me and he said he was going to put in for an INTER-FECOM transfer. I was pretty happy. Absolute luxury, good food, plus a promotion!
Not to be! Approved everywhere except at the 24th Division Command where the transfer was blocked because, "I was irreplaceable as a weapons squad leader.”
It seemed that the basic training stigma followed me to Korea. If that is so, I pity the organization that would allow that.
When it came time to go home, we camped in tents in some area of Korea that I don't believe we were ever told where. We spent the rest of my enlistment (?) there.
Since I was one of the longest timers in the outfit, I got to rotate out early. No sad goodbyes, no parties or anything. I packed up, got on a truck and never looked back. We were driven to an airfield and flown to Japan and then boarded on a ship and sent to Seattle and then by train to Chicago. On board ship, I volunteered to help the Chaplain, where I ran a class for the dependent children that were stationed in Japan. I got to sleep in my bunk and buck the line for chow. A real good deal!
We were taken to Ft. Sheridan, north of Chicago, given a medical exam, new uniforms (finally) and told to go home. My mother and father drove up and picked me up at the camp.
To sort of sum up my whole military experience, one acquaintance said to me: "Where you been George, I haven't seen you in a while."
5503 Candlelight Dr.
La Jolla, Ca 92037
George Borun, Where have you been? I haven’t
seen you for a while! 2008, The Taro Leaf, Vol.
62(3), pp. 16-19.