By Joseph L. Harman, The Graybeards, Nov.-Dec. 2006, pp. 50-51, 77-79, By permission of Graybeards, and the author.
I knew I was in a different place within seconds. Riot (CS) gas filled the air and ROK army and police units were subduing protestors all over the place.
I’ll start by thanking Korean War vets and the KWVA for giving us (Korea Defense Veterans) a home. It is truly appreciated.
For almost twenty years now I have been silent regarding my service in Korea (1987/1988). When I was stationed in Korea, I would tell my future wife or others back home of firefights along the DMZ, infiltration attempts, soldiers picked off by snipers and riots in the streets, only to be told that there was no word of any of it in the states.
During the first few months after returning from Korea, I attempted to tell others of my experiences in Korea, only to get a blank stare or a look of disbelief. It didn’t take long for me to just quit talking about it with anyone but those who had been there. It was, and still is, a tour of duty no one understands, especially our media, who does not deem this service newsworthy.
Korea defense service remains a unique—but virtually unknown—cold war type of duty. At times this duty goes hot. This article is dedicated to the 1,200 American soldiers who gave their lives in the line of duty from July 1954 to now in North or South Korea. To date, neither their names nor their service have been recognized by any federal memorial.
Although there are many stories, I will only tell a few to give you an idea of what service in the “cease fire” ROK (Republic of Korea) is like. You won’t hear much about bullets flying, because defense service is not about that, even though it happens at times. Defense service is about being ready and continuously demonstrating to the KPA (Korean People’s Army) that the combined American and ROK military are to be feared and are the best military organizations in the world.
If you are ready, the KPA does not mess with you. If you are not ready, KPA activities increase and can become volatile, as has happened on occasion. Volatility feeds on weakness and peace feeds on strength and readiness. The U.S. and ROK military have proven from 1945 to now that they know and understand this, and are to be feared and respected—without equal. Korea Defense veterans are part of this mission, and have never failed to accomplish it.
My Story Begins
My story begins at OCS, Fort Benning, GA, in April 1987, shortly before graduation. I got my branch designation (Armor) after they made the final cut at OCS (we started with 250 candidates and graduated 90 new officers). All the Tankers were called into a room and given a short briefing on the lengthy menu of options:
“If you are single, you will go to Korea…if you are married you will go to Germany. You will attend additional training en-route at Fort Knox before you deploy to Korea. If you are going to Korea, you will train on the M60A3 main battle tank; if Germany, the M1.”
As we exited the briefing room, there were muffled discussions as to why there were no M1s in Korea yet. After all, they were the Army’s new, and by far superior, main battle tank. Twenty some odd years later I would read a book called Tripwire that would offer a possible explanation as to why there were no M1s in Korea during my tour there, and for others that followed.
The short version of Tripwire is that Americans stationed in the ROK were there for the primary purpose of generating casualties, should the KPA attack, which would in turn guarantee that the United States would be committed to the defense of the Republic of Korea. A grim theory, but when you do the math, 40,000 U.S. plus 500,000 ROK troops vs. 8 million (1 million active and 7 million reserves) forwardly deployed KPA troops, it checks out.
The ROK was one of the last duty stations to receive M1s. National Guard units received M1s and the new fire retardant “NOMEX” suits years before the Tankers in the ROK did. Hence, a byproduct of the “Tripwire” theory: why waste good equipment on Area 1 forces (troops north of Seoul). To this day, although I love my county, the “Tripwire” theory haunts me. Maybe it is not true, but arguably the concept appears to be in place today, although we have reduced our military presence in Area 1 and are no longer deployed along the DMZ. At least they have M1s and NOMEX now.
Off To Korea
Within a few months after my training, I was shipped to the ROK in late September of 1987. I was quickly in-processed at a U.S. base somewhere in Seoul. I received multiple briefings, including a force protection briefing about the increased threat level due to student riots all over Seoul.
The Olympics were coming in 1988, and there was much talk of the “reunification” of the peninsula amongst the younger university crowd. Having not been outside the gates of the base during in-processing, I was shocked at what I saw when we exited into the streets of Seoul.
I knew I was in a different place within seconds. Riot (CS) gas filled the air and ROK army and police units were subduing protestors all over the place. Gun shots could be heard, and I saw several instances of ROK soldiers and police either beating protestors or shooting them with water cannons.
The MP at the exit of our bus told us to keep our heads down until we cleared the area. It took about an hour for our bus to slowly negotiate the protestors and mayhem. I slimed myself repeatedly due to the thick CS gas in the air that was being used to bring the riot under control. Honestly, it scared the heck out of me, as I hadn’t heard that anything like this was going on in Korea before I left the U.S.
This was my first introduction to “what goes on here, stays here.” As our bus exited Seoul, and we began traveling through the countryside, I began to calm down a little and wonder what I had gotten myself in to. The smell of human fertilizer coming through the windows distracted me for awhile, and then things became strangely peaceful. Then one soldier, who was obviously on his second or third tour, said “it is a little known fact that we are hear to keep the ROK Army from going north rather than defending the ROK from the North Koreans.”
After seeing the riots I began to see his point. Over time, I learned that there was, and still is, a very strong desire in every Korean’s heart to reunify their peninsula. It is not out of the question for this passion to take hold in the South and drive them to reunify through war.
It was later estimated that KPA Special Forces had a hand in instigating the “reunification” riots, but this was never confirmed, to my knowledge. Confirmation was hard to come by, as KPASpecial Forces were rarely taken alive. It is SOP for them to commit suicide before they are captured, and they were issued the means to do so.
On to the “Turtle Farm”
I arrived at Camp Casey after a long bus ride, and in-processed at the 2ID’s “Turtle Farm” (in-processing center). Camp Casey is located in a town call Tongduchon, or “TDC” for short. It is situated approximately 15 kilometers south of the DMZ. Camp Casey is strategically positioned on highway three (MSR 3), one of three major attack corridors from North Korea to Seoul.
After a day or so of in-processing, I got my assignment to 1st Tank (1-72 Armor Battalion), Iron Brigade, Second Infantry Division. I was sent to the BC’s (Battalion Commander’s) office for my first and only interview. The interview process epitomized how things went in “cease fire” Korea. I went into the BC’s office with five other officers who were tagged for 1st Tank duty. The BC, a Vietnam vet, looked around the room and sized us up quickly.
He said to us, “You are in the most forwardly deployed combat division in the United States Army. We are at the tip of the spear. There are over 1 million communist troops locked and loaded along the DMZ behind 1 million mines, supported by 7 million reservists, 12,000 artillery pieces and rocket systems, 1,600 aircraft and 2,000 forwardly deployed tanks. Most of the weapons systems the KPA has can hit you wherever you are or will sleep for the next twelve months. The enemy has the third largest army in the world and the third largest stockpile of chemical weapons. There is no room for error here. We have no time for people who can’t think for themselves and lead right out of the blocks.”
After his introduction he went around the room and sent two people packing for reasons I was not privy to. One officer was a signal officer who the BC said openly “I have read your file and you will not cut it here…report back to the Turtle Farm…communications are critical here.” The other officer was a new 2nd Lieutenant. I don’t know what was in his file, but he didn’t cut it either. He, too, was sent back to the dreaded Turtle Farm.
Another new 2LT was given a honeymoon period and sent to the S-3 shop for “monitoring” before he would be given a platoon. The BC ended up issuing a publicly rendered assessment for just about everyone. Mine was “you are an OCS grad and you will hit the ground running…that is what I need here…you will take 2nd platoon in A Company (Strike Force)”. Strike Force was temporarily attached to the infantry operating north of the village of Musan on the DMZ. I had wondered where my honeymoon period had gone. For a Tanker, north of Musan was truly the “tip of the spear.”
Next Stop: Camp Howze
Within a day I was transported from Camp Casey to Camp Howze, where they maintained the tank reserve. Camp Howze was just south of Munsan, Camp Gary Owen, the Imjin River and the DMZ. At Camp Howze, my company (the only tank company assigned to that attack corridor) had the mission of providing direct support (attack reserve) to the infantry dug in or patrolling along or in the DMZ north of Munsan and/or the Imjin River.
We still had a sector on the DMZ in the 1980s, which was given up in the early 1990’s. We were the first tank company the KPA would run into if the attacking force chose to take the Musan corridor (MSR 1) as their attack route. I thought briefly to myself, “One company vs.…one million North Koreans.” I expelled the thought from my mind as quickly as it came.
In some instances it is truly counterproductive and dangerous to think too much. Anyway, as a youthful man I thought I had a brass pair, and I figured this was not an issue I couldn’t handle. Later in life I would comprehend the reality of the potential for mass casualties associated with this particular assignment and all duty in Area 1.
DMZ = Intense Duty
My tour at Camp Howze was a quick study in learning how intense DMZ duty could be. This intensity or sense of mission was demonstrated to me repeatedly as I watched other leaders make critical decisions quickly. On the DMZ there was no room or time for error, which was emphasized at all levels by the chain of command.
We were locked and loaded 24/7/365, and had the mission to defend the ROK, and on order, attack the enemy, and on order, attack all the way to the Chinese boarder, if required. I had no choice but to bond with my new tank platoon immediately to accomplish the mission. Those who weren’t with me were “re-assigned.”
My outgoing platoon leaders informed me that my platoon sergeant was a ROAD (retired on active duty) and also hated officers. I could deal with the second. I didn’t get paid to be liked, but not the first.
It didn’t take me long to figure the ROAD out, as his own men complained about him and his lack of mission focus. They didn’t want to die if the balloon went up. Having quickly gained a grasp of the BC’s sense of mission, which was in turn shared by my Company Commander, I fired my platoon sergeant within one week after taking my platoon. Unlike the states, little documentation was required to fire someone on the DMZ (although I had wondered why my predecessor hadn’t already done so). There simply was not enough time to screw around with paperwork. Unfortunately, over the next four months I would go through two more Platoon Sergeants.
I will never forget my time at Camp Howze. Camp Howze had none of the typical amenities associated with stateside duty but it didn’t take long to determine that there was no time for amenities anyway. At Camp Howze we maintained a constant state of readiness. No passes were allowed. At times there were exchanges of gunfire along the DMZ, but no one was hit in our sector.
We deployed frequently in response to various KPA troop movements and activities to position ourselves for possible attack in our area. The KPA moved their troops constantly to keep us thinking…we moved ours to keep them thinking.
During the last week of my duty at Camp Howze one night, on our right flank a few miles east down the DMZ, a ROK soldier was shot out of a guard tower by a KPA sniper. He gave his life for freedom and his country.
Always on the Alert
When we came back from Camp Howze, we got a little time off, as was customary. But, we never strayed out of earshot from the alert sirens—ever!
According to the policy, we had to remain at 90 percent strength at all times. Readiness and strength were tested through an alert system at least twice a month. Passes were completely controlled, and could not be given if they brought the unit below the 90 percent level. This was pretty tough, considering that during most of my tour we only had 75 percent of the slots filled in my platoon. When you’re a tanker that is bad news, as M60A3 tanks require a four man crew.
I quickly learned that “from my position” would be the most common fire command I would give. (The tank commander can fire the tank without a gunner if necessary, and the command is “from my position”). During my twelve-month tour in Korea I took two one-day passes, and never took leave. This was the case for most troops stationed in Area 1.
Shortly after I returned from Camp Howze, two HMMVs were firebombed just south of TDC near Uijeonbu. Fortunately, there were no KIAs. To my knowledge, it was never determined who was responsible for the attack.
Breaking in a “Turtle”
When we returned from Camp Howze, a new troop joined my platoon. One of my fondest memories as a platoon leader was watching my platoon break in this new guy from the “Turtle Farm.”
The first day we put the “Turtle” to work was on a Saturday in the motor pool. In the ROK, you work on Saturdays when you are in garrison as the work week is a standard six-day week, unlike in the states. It became real clear that the “Turtle” was used to a stateside duty schedule.
It was 1700 on Saturday. We had pulled the pack (engine) out of the tank for service and had put it back in. All the ammo was still out of the tank, which we had to road test before we could say it was up. The new guy looked at his watch, which read said 1700, and said, “It’s party time.” My men knew the drill, and they knew where they were. I didn’t have to say anything.
The tank commander of the tank, a man of few words, said to the Turtle, “We are in the ROK. When your tank is down, you work until it is up. When your tank is up, you load the ammo. We don’t stop work until the tank is combat ready and combat loaded.”
Everyone nodded and laughed, but it was also a thing of pride for us, and it kept us together. The entire platoon worked on that tank until about 2200 hours, as it failed the road test twice. We loaded the main gun rounds back into the tank after it passed its road test. The new guy was beginning to get the idea.
Yes, after we completed the mission, we did party—but not until all four of our tanks were combat ready. Remember, in “cease fire” Korea, even when you drink, you are never out of ear shot from the alert sirens— ever! When the sirens go off, you mount up and ride despite your blood alcohol level.
There’s More Sirens Here Than at a Firefighters’ Convention
During my tour in Korea, my unit was alerted approximately thirty times. Sometimes, when we were deployed we didn’t know it was a drill until we were ordered back to Casey. Sometimes our alerts were not drills.
On November 29, 1987, a bomb was exploded on Korean Air Flight 858, killing 115 passengers and crew en-route to Seoul. It was determined that Kim Jong-il (the son of Kim il Sung, the president of North Korea) directed his special forces to bomb the flight. The U.S. Secretary of State determined that “North Korea is a county which has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism” and places North Korea on their list of states that sponsor terrorism.
Sometime in early 1988 I was alerted and deployed to the Imjin River. The Imjin parallels the south side of the DMZ and enters the DMZ in some places. During this time period tensions increased, and several firefights took place along the DMZ. The threat level was elevated. It was apparent that North Korea had little desire to support the ROKs début into the international community as they prepared for the Olympics.
North Korea Will Never Win An Olympic Medal
The KPA increased their activity, to include massing their forces along the DMZ to intimidate us. This action was in direct violation of the armistice agreement, an agreement the KPA has proven repeatedly to have little regard for. In my world, under the cover of darkness, KPA forces laid a minefield in the Imjin River. By the time we got to it, all KPA forces had left, but the minefield remained.
Fortunately, the minefield was discovered by U.S. forces before anyone encountered the mines unexpectedly. My platoon provided watch for the infantry and engineers as they secured and reduced the minefield. The minefield was removed without casualties. My treads had touched the Imjin.
In June of 1988, the head of a North Korean trading company defected to the South. He revealed that North Korean embassies around the world had been ordered to do everything possible to stop other countries from participating in the Seoul Olympics.
During the rest of my tour in the ROK there would be other provocations from the North. We would address all of them, as we have done since 1945, with professionalism and resolve.
In September of 1988, the Republic of Korea hosted the summer Olympics. We held firm on the DMZ and the rest of the southern peninsula. We did our job. The Seoul Olympics went off without any serious incidents of military aggression or terrorism. Peace through strength. To snub their southern brothers the DPRK (Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea) boycotted the Olympics from behind the DMZ. They were joined by one other nation, Cuba.
Away From The ROK
In October 1988 I left the ROK. It is simple enough to say that my tour in the ROK, my first tour of duty, shaped the rest of my twelve-year military career. I was a better soldier when I left the ROK. I never needed to be reminded to have a sense of mission and duty, and I learned to always be ready.
Most of my fellow Korea defense service brothers and I would be hand-picked to be Combat Trainers and sent to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. At the time, Korea was the only place they could find seasoned veterans that had anything close to combat experience, although we never received a dime of combat pay.
We would train our students well, as if they could go to war at any time, a concept burned into our minds. We knew what being on the brink of war was like, and we passed it on to them. In 1990 we would find out how our battle focused training had paid off. Saddam would be buried by the largest and most highly trained mechanized force the world had ever seen. We were ready, and most of us would come home.
Tunnels In Korea
In 1990, U.S. forces discovered a KPA tunnel 26 kilometers NE of Yangku in the Eastern corridor. It was the fourth invasion tunnel discovered since 1974. The tunnel is 145 meters below the surface and over 2,000 meters long. It is determined that the tunnel could move over 30,000 heavily armed troops under the DMZ per hour. It was estimated at that time that over 20 such attack tunnels existed under the DMZ.
During my twelve-month tour in Korea, over 40 Americans gave their lives defending the Republic of Korea and freedom. Since 1954, more than 1,200 U.S. and 2,300 ROK military personnel have given their lives in the line of duty, defending the Republic of Korea. Since 1954 there have been over 40,000 documented “cease fire” violations and hostile acts. At the time of this article, only 117 of these American deaths have been classified by DOD as deaths due to hostile action. Some of us feel differently.
There are no plaques that honor these men, no documentaries, and for most, no combat pay. There continues to be no media coverage. It is as if we were never even there or accomplished anything. As for me, I still hear the sirens from time to time and grab for my mask and rifle that are no longer there.
Sometimes I think, I need to sprint to the motor pool at the base of Dragon Valley and mount up. I will always be proud that we were ready and, as a result, they never came. We achieved peace through strength and readiness and with minimal loss of life. The Republic of Korea is one of the most successful American and Korean accomplishments of in both our collective histories.
Joseph L. Harman, (541) 752-5588 Fax: (541) 752-4689 joeharmancpa[at]comcast.net