Features

Following Yonder Star

... December 25, 1952, Kumwah, North Korea

by Joe Sullivan

Murphy sat on a small, bench-like stool with his back up against the bunker wall. The two sets of radios he operated were double stacked and against the left bunker wall next to him. Located in the corner, he was directly behind a small fold-up table that had a terrain map pinned down to its top.

Touching it, and to its right, was a much larger table over which sprawled the white, parchment-like firing charts. These were actually simplified maps used to pinpoint the location of a target by the guys who worked the charts.  

This bigger table was about eight-foot long and three-foot, or so, deep. Behind one of its long sides, and like Murphy with their backs to the wall, sat Bonebag Armfield, Smitty, and Turk Effertz. Each wore a telephone headset and a chest piece which they used to talk  directly to the 8th Field’s three firing batteries. They looked like old-fashioned switchboard operators.

Directly opposite on the other side of the table, and leaning over it, was Joe Himmellsburger, a tall, stocky, kid from Nebraska who was the chief of this crew. Behind him, and slightly to one side stood the firing officer who oversaw and initiated every fire mission when an observer called in a target. Once a forward observer, most of the time airborne, radioed in that he had cited a target, this crew would go to work.
    
Most days they would be fairly busy, routinely directing the fire of the howitzer crews, relaying the up or down, left or right, adjustments to the gunners until they hit the target.

But today was not one of those usually busy days, today was different. Today was very, very, different. Today was Christmas Day, December 25, 1952.

From the time that Murphy got up that morning and crunched his way in the dark and bitter cold over the hard-packed snow trail that led to the Fire Control bunker he had one thought on his mind. “Will we fire the guns today?” If somebody called in a mission he would do his job. “But how will I feel if we shoot at somebody on Christmas Day?” Of course, Christmas didn’t mean zip to Joe Chink, so if he started something, for sure, we would have to whack him back. Even so, the thought made him very uneasy.

Once in the bunker he stacked his rifle, yanked off his mittens, took off his steel pot and pile cap, stripped off his scarf, and then peeled off his parka and his pile jacket. This left him with his wool sweater, his wool shirt, his battle pants which he was wearing over his wool pants, and underneath it all, his thermal long underwear. The rubber insulated boots that he had on were so bulky and wide that, when they were issued, they had been immediately named Mickey Mouse Boots by the troopers.

All in all, except for a few minor variations here and there, he was outfitted just like the other ten guys who were there with him. The bunker they were in had walls and a ceiling that had been packed with sandbags until they were about ten feet thick. Although it was not the intent, the sandbags provided a great insulation. With the small, pot-bellied stove roaring in the middle of the bunker the troopers were not quite toasty warm. But, for sure, there were a hell of a lot worse places to be today in North Korea.

The Fire Direction crew had been on since midnight and were a little groggy but everybody responded when Murphy said, “Merry Christmas.” Fish Desio, who Murphy was relieving, had been on even longer. He had taken over for Murphy at 22 hundred hours on Christmas Eve and here Murphy was at 6 to start all over again. He smiled at Fish, shook his hand, gave him a gentle little slap on the face and said, “Bona Natalie, Wop.”

Laughing, Fish returned a nudging soft punch to Murphy’s belly and said, referring to Murphy's stab at speaking in Italian, “Not bad, Harp. Same ‘ta you!” He continued, “I’ll be back around 'wunna’ clock so you can get da’ dinnah.” “Thanks, pal," Murphy said. "It’s gonna be the works, soup to nuts. Make sure you leave me some.” And then a little more seriously, “Better get some sleep.” As he was hauling on his clothes Fish wearily said, “No sweat, GI, on bote’ deals.”

Murphy went over and took his seat in the corner. He looked at the log the radio operator was supposed to maintain to keep track of the fire missions. The log showed the Time of Mission, Target, and Results. The sheet was blank. This was not unusual. Most of the time nothing much happened between midnight and 06:00. How it was going to look later on today was what was on Murphy’s mind.

He radioed Divarty for a commo check to make sure they were in contact. It was “Loud and Clear,” and “I hear you the same.” which meant things were okay. He sat back and looked around.

Something that surprised him very much was that Joe Himmellsburger had placed a very small radio on one side of the firing charts, a piece of field wire attached to the radio snaked down to a dry battery under the table. Putting anything on the firing charts that wasn’t supposed to be there could get the offender ripped by the firing officer, especially if it was Captain Lannen. Up to now nobody had said anything.

Joe H had tuned the radio to music playing very softly. He was leaning over  working on the charts, head down near the radio. He was the only one who could hear clearly. Murphy leaned over to hear what he was listening to, it was Christmas Carols. An announcer came on to say, “Merry Christmas, from Armed Forces Radio in Osaka-Nagoya.”

“Hey Joe,” Murphy said. When Himmellsburger looked over Murphy gestured with his thumb and said, “Turn it up a skosh.” Joe hesitated but then increased the volume. Now it was barely loud enough for the Turk, Bonebag and Smitty to hear. They stopped talking.

Lieutenant  Cox, the firing officer who was standing behind Joe said, “A little louder wouldn’t kill anybody.” Joe made it louder and they all listened. Smitty hummed along with some of the carols. Everybody else was very quiet.

One of the troopers was definitely not celebrating Christmas. Dick Auerbach, the Intelligence guy had received a gag gift from one of his pals he had worked with in New York. It was a necktie. He wore the tie and had pulled it out over his sweater so that it hung out down to his waist. Walking over to the guys around the firing charts he held up the tie and deadpanned, “Don’t say I’m not participating.” They howled.

The levity stopped when Captain Lannen came into the bunker. He doffed his outer clothing, stamped the snow off his boots and rubbed his hands together briskly to warm them up. A career soldier, he was about fifty years old. There was a definite age gap between him and the troops including Lieutenant Cox who were, for the most part, in their early twenties. He was aloof, demanding and talked very deliberately. Screw up and he’d rip you. To a man the troopers loved him.

He was not wearing a GI sweater over his woolen shirt but, under it, he wore a bright red, bulky, turtle neck sweater that came tight up under his chin. Murphy couldn’t have been more surprised if he had shown up in a tuxedo. He couldn’t decide if the captain was being festive for the Holiday or whether he was using the occasion to wear the signature color of the Field Artillery.

Everybody was waiting to see what he was going to say about Joe H’s radio. He walked over to the table, said good morning to Lieutenant Cox and wished everybody a Merry Christmas. Everybody answered at once with a “Same to you, Sir” or something like it.

He never even looked at the radio. You could almost hear the exhale from the troopers. He went back and talked to Auerbach about some business.

The day moved slowly on. Nothing was happening, that is, they hadn’t even fired a round. It was a heavily overcast day so the guys who gave them the most business, the observers in the spotter planes, weren’t even up.

To Murphy’s recollection they hadn’t even registered the base piece. This was  the first order of business every day in which a single howitzer would fire at a known registration point. Doing so would allow the plotters to determine what variations must be made from the day before to the elevations and deflection, changes sure to be caused by the changing atmosphere.

So far nothing. There were other signs, too. Auerbach had not received any instructions for H and I (Harassing and Interdicting) fire which was usually scheduled for two or three o’clock in the morning. Things were quiet. “So far, so good.”, thought Murphy.

The Fish had come over to relieve Murphy so he could share in the Christmas Dinner. It was absolutely fantastic, roast turkey, with giblet gravy, stuffing, real mashed potatoes, boiled onions, squash, yams for the Southern guys, cranberry sauce, apple pie, mince pie, ice cream and mixed nuts. The cooks, furiously busy, looked triumphant. God knows how they did it.

Murphy went back to work in the quiet, music-filled atmosphere and soft conversation of the Fire Control Bunker. He agreed to give Fish an extra hour for filling in for his extended dinner break. At fifteen hundred, right on time, the Fish showed up. He unbundled his outer clothing and walked over to Murphy sitting at the radios. Fish was vigorously rubbing his hands together. “Bunnil’ up Moiph, s’goddam freezin’ out dair.”

He then said, “What’s goin’ on?”

Murphy passed him the clip board with the log. No entries. It was blank. “Nuttin?” Fish said looking up from the chart into Murphy’s face.

Murphy gave a little shrug and said, “It’s Christmas.”

“Ahh.” Fish responded, “Peace on ’oith.”

Joe Himmelsburger, who had been listening to their exchange, looked over at them and said, with a wan smile, “Yeah, today anyway.”

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Author's note: All characters in this story are real but, with the exception of Fish Desio, I have not seen or heard from any one of them since we left Korea. Dick Auerbach went on to great accomplishment. Back when the TV broadcast rights for National Football League games were shared by ABC, CBS, and NBC, Dick was the director of the NBC broadcasts. When the credits were run after a game, the last name you'd would see was "Dick Auerbach, Director". I knew ya when, Auerbach.

A hope I have is that at least one of the guys who was in that bunker on Christmas Day 1952 will, during some Google noodling, discover the story and that it provides the same wry, nostalgic moment for him the way that it always does for me. Joe Sullivan   

     
December 7, 2012




Copyright © Massachusetts Institute of Technology 1998. All rights reserved.


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