by Eddie Ko, 6th Tank, 24th Div., Member 24th IDA (Reproduced with permission from the Graybeards, July-August, 2006, pp. 20-23.)
I feel that the ordinary American GI is the world's greatest hero.
My father was a Christian missionary and my Mother was a teacher. I loved and respected them dearly. Besides the love I had for them, my next greatest love was for Rex, my playful dog.
From the first to the third grade, Rex escorted me to and from school each day in my hometown near Seoul, Korea. At that time, Korea had not been divided into South Korea and North Korea.
Rex was mostly black, with a white patch on his side that was shaped somewhat like Korea. Rex would always be waiting for me when I got out of school each day. Our walk home was comforting to me, for I knew that Rex would take care of me. We would run and play together. So, I never gave it a thought that anything or anyone would hurt my dog.
One day I could not find Rex. I searched everywhere I could think of, but I did not have any luck. My father told me I should not worry. However, I had heard some alarming news that the Japanese soldiers were rounding up all the dogs they could find, because the dogs were beginning to bite and attack people due to loud noises caused by the gun fire and bombs exploding all around.
I knew that Rex would not bite anyone. I tried to cling to some assurance from my father. On one of my days of searching, I was walking along the riverbank when I saw a sight that made me sick to my stomach.
I saw hundreds of dog pelts draped over clotheslines and drying in the sun. I asked a soldier standing near by why the skins were there.
“Dog fur,” he replied. “We're going to turn the pelts into coats and gloves for the Japanese army in Manchuria.” I had to force myself to go farther, for I had to know. Then, across one of the lines, I spotted a black pelt with a white spot shaped like Korea. I could never express to anyone, not even my mother and father, how my heart ached over the loss of my beloved Rex.
I was not only hurt, but I was livid with anger. That night, I could not sleep. All I could think of was the sight I had seen beside the riverbank. I slipped out of bed, took my father's straight-edged razor, and sneaked out of the house. I carefully and quietly raced to the riverbank. I was crying almost uncontrollable. In my rage I slashed every single pelt, rendering them useless. It didn't bring Rex back to me, but I could never let them use Rex's pelt to keep them warm.
The next day, outraged Japanese officials put up wanted posters, offering a reward for the capture of the person or persons who had done this. Afraid I would be identified and caught; I confessed to my father what I had done. The soldiers were going door to door searching for a young boy, about eight to twelve years old, who someone had described as running from the riverbank.
Father did not want the soldiers to find or question me, so he sent me to live with a family in a remote village 100 miles away.
My parents had built a church and a school for the farmers there. I remained there for two years, until the end of World War II. I came back home, thinking everything would be better, and they were-for a while.
I enjoyed school and learning to speak English from passing American missionaries who often spent the night with my family.
The more English I knew, the more I dreamed of one day going to America.
However, in June of 1950, the North Korean Army invaded South Korea, slaughtering thousands of innocent civilians, including doctors, lawyers, missionaries, teachers - and my parents.
I was only thirteen years old and all alone. I moved in with friends for comfort and shelter. I missed my mother and father.
I longed to see and talk with them again, but I knew I would never be able to do this.
Hatred possessed me. I vowed to myself that I would one day see that someone would pay for what they had taken from me.
I joined the Student Volunteer Army. It was an anti-communist group of 12 teenage spies headed by a South Korean officer with close ties to the U.S. military.
After a two-week training course, my first assignment was to find out the enemy troop strength on an island fortress outside the harbor of Inchon. By pretending to be a hungry orphan, I hung around the fort to gather information for the Americans. The fort was one of several small islands that protected the harbor of the South Korean city of Inchon.
I would offer my made-up stories of how I was orphaned and hungry. This would always catch them off guard. I would then follow up with innocent questions:
“How long have you been in the army? Where did you come from? Do you have a family?” When I had gained their attention and friendship, I would go further with my questions and remarks. “Gee, I bet there are over two hundred soldiers on this island.” There are not many of these small islands, maybe 150 total.
Pretending, I timidly pointed to a bunker and asked, “Can I fire one of those machine guns?” The soldier shook his head. “They're not ready yet,” he said. “We still have to bring more of them in and secure them.
Come back in a couple of weeks. Maybe we'll let you look at them and shoot one for fun.” I knew I had to remember all this, for I could not risk writing anything down, but I was learning that the North Koreans had yet to set up their full defenses.
Later, I slipped away and hopped onto a sampan (a flat-bottomed boat) that took me to another island. There I met with South Korean agent, Kim Nam Sun, who was working for the U.S. Navy. I told him what I had been told by the North Koreans. A few days later, I was jarred awake. Running outside my friend's home, I saw an awesome sight in the distance. I recognized firepower being unleashed on North Korea.
More than 300 ships, boats and landing craft were unloading an assault force of several thousand troops who took the unprepared enemy by surprise. I felt good to think that I had done my part. The loud machine guns were sounding out everywhere.
With the information we provided, the U.S. military's surprise attack was carried out in September 1950, in the early days of the Korean War. The Communist-led North Koreans had attacked South Korea, crushing most everything and everyone in their path. Rushing to the aid of the poorly trained and ill-equipped South Koreans, the United States' military, with assistance from the United Nations, leapt into the conflict with ground, naval and air power.
The fighting was fierce and more troops were still needed to drive out the North Koreans. The U.S. forces recaptured Seoul and moved west to meet other U.S. forces landing at Wonson. After Seoul was retaken, I was given passwords to identify myself to the Americans. It might be “Yankee Stadium” or “Marilyn Monroe,” or maybe “Cherokee Indians.” I headed north with another “runner.” However, in a short time, he was killed, along with his parents who were Christian missionaries.
Another rage of anger surged through me. I then decided to work alone. I moved very fast and used techniques that worked for me. I traveled by foot for days, sleeping in barns and covered pits, six feet square and five feet deep, where farmers stored their vegetables.
The weather was cold and snow had begun to fall. In village after village I would tell the North Korean soldiers my tales of woe. Naturally, I would throw in some tears to get sympathy. It worked every time when I told them I was cold and hungry. Aiming his gun at me the soldier growled, “Who are you and what do you want?” “My name is Choon Kyung Ko,” I replied. “My parents were killed last month when our village was under attack, and I am hungry and tired. I have no place to go.
Please, oh please, won't you help me?” Tears were flooding down my cheeks.
I haven't eaten in two days. Please?” The soldier took me over to a nearby tent and gave me some rice and dried fish.
I repeatedly thanked him as I wiped my tears with the back of my hand. I actually wasn't suffering from hunger pains or from heartache. This was all a trick to get into the fort of the enemy - a battalion of the North Korean army. I was only fourteen years old, and I had conned my way inside to carry out a dangerous mission as a spy for the United States Army.
When I was outside a mountain village near a lake known as the Chosin Reservoir, I came across some Chinese soldiers.
One of the North Korean soldiers told me that the Chinese were going to help them crush the Americans. I remarked aloud that I wondered how they could possibly win, for there must be thousands of Marines.
The North Korean soldier replied, “Because there are more than 120,000 Chinese waiting in ambush, and that's ten times as many as the U.S. Marines have. The Americans are about to face their doom.”
I didn't know where the Marines were located, but I knew I must find them quickly and alert them. As I was leaving the camp, a guard stopped me. He took me to the captain's tent. This time they would not believe my story.
The captain ordered one of the other men to take me out and kill me, for he felt I was a spy. My heart was pounding. What could I do now? I truly felt it was over for me.
The guard ordered me to walk ahead of him. He told me not to look back, but to keep on walking. Then I began to hear his gun shots. I knew he was firing the gun at me. I was trembling and walking as fast as I could, but I realized he was firing over my head. He believed my story! He was not going to kill me! I dropped to the cold, wet, snowy ground. I started to cry, but it was too cold for my tears to fall.
I worked my way carefully down the side of the mountain. An American soldier confronted me and he brought me back into a U.S. camp. I told them about the Chinese soldiers I had seen. I informed them of what I had seen, and the comments the North Korean soldier had made to me. At first, they did not believe me. I soon convinced them that I was giving them facts, and that I was a part of them.
Even though it was the dead of winter, I decided to make my way back to Seoul from the Chosin Reservoir. I figured it would take me a month to reach my destination.
I trudged from village to village, begging for food. I barely managed to survive.
At one home, I met an elderly couple that shared a meager meal with me. They had so little for themselves. When I learned that they were anti-communists, I told them some of my story-at least the part about trying to return to South Korea.
“You can help us solve a problem,” said the woman. “We are hiding two wounded American GIs. If the communists find them, they will kill them and us too. You must take them with you until you reach the American lines. That is about one hundred miles away.”
I let them know I could barely take care of myself. I reminded them of my age. I tried to convince them I could not do this, but they insisted and took me to their cellar where the men were hiding.
They introduced themselves as Al and Harry. They were both in their twenties, and were from the New York area. They had explained how they had been captured, but had managed to escape with gun shots to their legs.
“You're our only hope. The only hope we have,” Al told me. I knew I could not abandon them. There was no way to disguise them, so I decided we should hike only at night, and hide during the day. It was slow going, because the soldiers limped badly and their wounds were infected.
To pass the time as we plodded along, I questioned them about life in New York. I heard about the Dodgers, Giants, and Yankees, and even about some of the famous actors and actresses on Broadway. I noticed how talking about their home town seemed to perk Al and Harry up. Their descriptions made my desire even more real and a goal, to see these sights for myself.
Al and Harry grew weaker. The injuries to their legs were becoming more infected each day. Food was difficult for me to find, and often we had to do without. I grew to like Al and Harry, and I knew they appreciated all I was trying to do for them.
We had traveled about a week when we found an abandoned farm near some railroad tracks. There was an empty vegetable pit which would make an excellent place to hide during the day. As night approached, a freight train stopped about 200 yards away from us. A few North Korean soldiers opened the door to one of the freight cars, revealing pallets of cans. I told Al and Harry they were C-rations. It was food that had been meant for the American soldiers.
Al and Harry moaned, and began mumbling, “Food...., food.” I figured that the C-rations must have been stolen from the Marines during the withdrawal. After the North Korean soldiers walked away, I carefully slipped over to the train and opened the door only wide enough for me to slip inside. I filled my back pack with as many cans as it would hold, not knowing what I was getting, for I could not read the English words on the label.
On my way back, one of the guards saw me, and he started shouting and shooting at me. I felt a sharp jolt in my foot, causing me to loose my balance. I fell and my head hit hard against the icy ground. I heard one of the guards yell, “I got him. Don't worry about this one: I got him.” Although my head was hurting, I did not have any other pain. The guard, thinking he had killed me, disappeared into his warm shack with the others.
The bullet had hit the heel of my shoe, but it did not penetrate my foot. I stayed on the ground, and slowly and carefully crawled toward the pit. As I got closer to the guys, I whispered loudly that I had some food for them. I did not receive any response. I jumped into the hole with them, excitedly telling them that we were going to eat well tonight. I lit a match to find them - and then I saw. I knew immediately as I saw them slumped over. I shook them, but then I knew. Oh yes, I knew for sure.
I sat down and cried. I couldn't help myself. I had learned to care for and respect Al and Harry. It was my aim to have gotten the men to the American lines to get some medical treatment and to get warm food for their under-nourished bodies. Al and Harry had made such an important impression upon me. I knew I would never forget those two heroic men. I wanted to see their country.
For the next three weeks I plodded in the snow, wind and cold, thinking about one thing: America, America, America. Finally, I reached a Marine base, where I stayed. I told them I didn't want to be a spy anymore, but I wanted to be an American. My greatest aim and desire was to be an American.
I remained with the 1st Marines, working as a translator in Seoul. I tried to keep busy, but I was lonely. I did not have any family. In 1955, I turned eighteen. Three Marines with whom I had become acquainted while in Korea befriended me.
They got in contact with me, and let me know they were paying for my way to go to the United States, and live out my dreams.
When I arrived in America, I lived with the families of my Marine friends and went to school. My name was difficult for Americans to pronounce, so I changed it to Eddie Ko.
I eventually became an American citizen. I was now living what I had dreamed and longed for.
I was drafted in the U.S. Army and returned to Korea, where I was a liaison for the U.S. I served two years in the Army in Seoul before returning to the United States, where I was given an honorable discharge.
I married and we had two sons. My wife Joanna asked for my help in naming each of our children. I could only think of two names I wanted for my boys to be named, so I decided to name our two boys Al and Harry, after the two fallen GIs. Al is a plastic surgeon and has his practice in Boston, and Harry is a lawyer, practicing in New Jersey. Joanna and I own the Quail Hollow Golf and Country Club in Wesley Chapel, Florida.
I have experienced a miracle, for I was given hope and freedom. It became my obligation to strive to make my life amount to something worthy. A great price was paid for what I am today. Therefore, I wanted to make everything I could out of my life.
I feel peace and a deep sense of acceptance from my American friends. The American military fought for my country. I feel I can never adequately repay that sacrifice, but I know I tried with every fiber of my being to be the best member of the Student Volunteer Army that I could be.
I feel that the ordinary American GI is the world's greatest hero. Some people seem to believe that freedom is free, but if you ask the veterans and their families, they will tell you that FREEDOM IS NOT FREE.
Freedom always extracts a price; 36,576 American soldiers KIA in the Korean War, and 8,407 are still missing!
I'll always hope that fifty years later, the camaraderie that carried me through my most difficult years will remain.
Let's enjoy our friendship now: we should stay a band of brothers. ###
Eddie Ko, 5823 Bowen Daniel Dr, Ste 802 Tampa FL 33616-1474 813-486-4295 6th Tank
Ko, Eddie, 2007, The Taro Leaf, Vol 61(1&2), Winter-Spring, pp 36-38, and 2008, Vol 62(1) Winter, pgs 22-24.