... the ongoing educational development of Joe Rattigan at the University of North Korea.
Peeking out from its camouflage, one of the 8th Field Artillery Battalion's 105mm Howitzers manifests its nasty prescence in Panmunjom, Korea. May 1953.
He had been at it about a week, give or take. A new job. Good benefits, among which were that you sat down all the time, and that you were inside. A larger than normal well built bunker was where he would set up shop. It was only early November and the winter gear hadn’t been issued yet so who knew how miserably cold things would be? Being inside was definitely a plus.
There were downsides, too. Mostly the hours; eight on, eight off, seven days a week. Also add, filling in for the guy who worked the other eight while he was having his meals. Even so, Joe Rattigan considered his new job a real deal.
What he liked best was where he was; Fire Direction. It was where everything worthwhile was taking place. Every round that the howitzers fired was done so under the control of the troopers who worked in the Fire Direction Center. That’s the group he’d be with now. They were in the Field Artillery, and there was an excitement in knowing you’d be part of the reason for the group’s existence, firing the guns.
His new job was to be the radio operator. The observers or spotters called in their fire missions over the radio. Joe Rattigan was the intermediary between the observers and the guys who worked on the firing charts; where they plotted the missions and calculated the adjustments. They’d phone this information back to the gunners who’d use it to crank up their howitzers to the correct elevation and deflection. After the gunners had loaded and fired, the communication stream went into reverse; gunners to plotters, plotters to Rattigan, and Rattigan to the observer.
Talking the Talk
There were no Harvard degrees necessary for this process but there was a definite protocol and Joe Rattigan was obliged to learn it. It included a language adjustment, there were no A,B,C’s; every letter was replaced by a phonetic, Able, Baker, Charlie and so forth. And as far as numbers go there were some adjustments there, too. The numbers “niner” or “one zero” replaced nine and ten. Gone were terms like “twelve hundred”, instead it was “one, two hundred.” Even yes and no were replaced. With ,“That is affirmative,” or, “that is negative.” And never, ever say the word “repeat”. To hear something a second time the request must be “say again”, and if you were answering a request to say something a second time you preceded it with, “I say again.”
Picking up the lingo was not too hard since everyone had incorporated it into ordinary conversation. When Rattigan first heard this language used conversationally he thought he was being hazed. It took awhile to realize that this is the way the Fire Direction guys talked all the time.
Learning at the hands of experts.
Fish Deseo who was turning out to be Joe’s close pal, sat alongside him to show him the ropes. Fish, who would work the alternate shifts always called Joe “Moiphy.” It wasn’t long before everyone did the same. Once Moiphy was trained he and Fish would be the alternating Fire Direction radio operators. Fish always used the correct protocols and language but it was conducted in pure Brooklyn. “Foist a tree onna’ way.” would be confirmed by the spotter along with an audible chuckle.
His new job brought an apprehension .. How he would feel when he was involved in shooting at another person? When they’d fire at trucks he knew that someone had to be driving the truck but the reference was always to the vehicle. “One enemy vehicle destroyed,” he’d write down in the log after the mission was finished. He was uneasy, he never had given in to the realization that what he was doing involved a live person.
That changed when a spotter plane called in a mission targeting a guy leading an ox pulling a cart. Joe could not figure how this ox guy got to be where he was. Maybe he was a farmer, or something, but what the hell was he doing walking around in front of our line? He knew that they would have to shoot at him just because of where he was.
Joe began to watch everybody else to see how they’d react to shooting at human quarry. He saw that everyone was indifferent and kept on with the routine of adjusting the fire. Rattigan was doing his job, too, but he was wondering how the guy with the ox felt. He’s out there minding his own business when all of a sudden artillery rounds start dropping all around him. Joe realized he was feeling very apprehensive about this situation and trying to anticipate how he’d feel when it was over.
Something happens, a reprieve. The spotter radios back that the guy has run away from the ox and cart or has found a hole to dive into, or something, but at any rate the spotter can no longer see him. Joe softly exhales with relief when the spotter says the target is now the ox and cart. After two more adjustments the spotter calls to “fire for effect” which means the next two rounds will be all over the ox and cart. The spotter burlesques his next response, “The ox is staggering, he’s falling, he’s down, he‘s down! Target destroyed, secondary damage observed.” Everybody in Fire Direction is laughing. Joe is laughing but with a deep sense of relief.
Accurate and without prejudice.
Part of Joe’s job is recording the missions on a log, a sheet of paper on a clip board. He turns to Bonebag Armfield who is a plotter and sitting diagonally across from him. With the clip board in one hand and a ball point pen in the other he raises them up in a helpless gesture and says, “What do I write down?” Bonebag gives his shoulders a quick shrug and says, “One enemy vehicle destroyed.”
Looking back incredulously Rattigan says, “Vehicle?”
Undeterred, Bonebag says, “Had wheels dinn’it?” Rattigan shrugs and makes the entry. Looking back at Bonebag he says in a quiet voice, “I’m glad the guy got away.”
Bonebag closes his eyes and screws up his face like he had swallowed something bitter. He slowly shakes his head side to side, a gesture that he accompanies with a soft little laugh. Still squinting he asks in a mildly sarcastic tone, “You know what an infiltrator is, Murphy?
Even a rookie like him would know this so he answered with a mild irritation. “Yah, it’s when Joe Chink slips a guy through our lines to look around. Then he slips back and tells them what he saw.”
“Like where we are now, for instance?” Bonebag asks leaning forward toward Murphy.
“We didn’t know whether the Ox guy, was an infiltrator,” Joe said uncomfortable with this consideration he hadn’t thought of before and was trying to dodge.
“That’s why we tried to nail his ass,” Bonebag said with a finality.
“I suppose,“ Joe said softly in surrender. There was an irrefutable logic to it. If you do know the guy is not an infiltrator you don’t shoot at him. If you don’t know, you do. Plain and simple. Bonebag’s lecture had made him understand the reason. For Joe, more importantly, it provided a justification of sorts. It was the brutality of it that made it difficult for him to accept. But this difficulty would slowly wither away.
About a month later it occurs to Joe Rattigan that he has no compunctions about shooting at anybody. He ponders as to what had happened that made him change. He couldn’t remember.
Joe Rattigan is a character Joe Sullivan uses to describe his experiences in Korea.
May 2, 2014