... but first you have to get there.
The C-47 four-engine cargo plane had developed engine trouble about forty minutes after take off from Suwon. It was on a special mission, at least it was special to the 100 troopers who were on board. They were on their way to Nara, Japan so that they could start their five-day leave for rest and recuperation, better known to every GI in Korea, as R&R
With the screwed-up engine stopped and its propeller feathered the C-47 used its three remaining engines to head back and then set down, not at Suwon, but Seoul airport which was much bigger and more capable of handling a higher volume of traffic. Since a GI’s R&R did not start until the minute he walked out of the front gate of the R&R Center in Nara, nobody was in a particular sweat over this delay.
A trip interrupted.
This did not mean, however, that the troopers couldn’t make a vociferous stink over this unanticipated pause.. This was just what they were doing inside the Quonset hut they had been herded into which was being used as a reception center. Amid the loudly-grousing din a squatty-looking Army captain walked out to gaze at them across the counter that separated him from the troopers. His disdainful look was like a scythe that turned the group into total silence as it traversed from its lefthand side to its right . He acknowledged the now church-mouse silence with an icy, sarcastic, “Thank you.”
“You’re here for the night.”, he continued. “We’ll get you a meal, after which you will draw blankets. There are cots already set up in the building next door to the mess hall. First thing tomorrow you will return your blankets and then have morning chow in the same place you’ll eat tonight. We’ll get you out of here tomorrow as quick as we can, probably by morning. Any questions?”
For a reason nobody knew, a voice from the middle of the group asked, “Will it be the same plane that we came in on, sir?” A ground swell of heavy-sounding laughter responded to the captain’s answer, “Not if you’re lucky.” He departed as a spiffed up looking corporal wearing starched fatigues stepped up and said, “Okay guys, follow me.”
Reviewing the itinerary
Joe lay on his cot, still in his fatigues but with his boots off . He had covered himself with two GI wool blankets. A third he had rolled up to make a pillow. He was thinking about tomorrow. The R&R routine had been ritualized, you knew just what was coming even though you hadn’t been through it. The guys in your outfit who had been through it had extolled its virtues.
You got off the plane at Nara, Japan and got onto a bus that takes you to the R&R Center. The first thing when you walked in was to take off all of your clothes, everything, socks and underwear included. You held onto your boots which you set aside with your small AWOL bag that contained changes of clean socks and underwear plus your shaving gear all of which you had packed up before you left the Battery.
The clothes you took off you packed into a laundry bag with a draw-string top. Your name went on a tag on top. Everything would be washed and folded and be ready for you when your leave was up.
Next stop was a hot shower with real, that is not GI, soap that really lathered up. You got out of the shower, dried yourself off, then got into a line to draw clean underwear and a class-A, dress uniform; shirt, tie, Ike jacket, wool pants with belt, and a cap, the works. You put your boots on and took off for the mess hall. It was the mess hall that Joe was thinking about.
In a supreme effort to show that R&R was something special a fantasy-meal had been created. A grilled steak, the way you wanted it, french fries, a fresh vegetable and apple pie and ice cream for dessert and reconstituted milk that tasted as good as the real stuff, especially if you hadn’t any in five months. It was a meal that the most begrudging, chronically-bitterly bitching GI wouldn’t acknowledge as unqualified marvelous.
The Holy Season of Lent.
Tonight, mused Joe Rattigan as he was drifting off, was Holy Thursday. Tomorrow, the day this fantasy meal would be served to him would be Good Friday, which was the one, single day that eating meat was absolutely forbidden to the Holy Roller Catholics like him.
Not only would he not be able to eat it, he would be sitting in the middle of guys who would be. No way would the servers not put the steak onto his tray, he would have to sit there with the morsel right under his nose, its succulent aroma drifting up into his face. He’d give it to somebody else, of course, somebody who would give him an askance are-you-nuts look before he swept it into his own tray.
He lay there in some bitterness and frustration. “Who the hell thinks this stuff up?”, he asked himself. He became calm when he remembered that Cardinal Spellman had come to Korea to say Mass for the troops at Bulldozer Bowl, a massive amphitheater that the 7th Division guys had built with bulldozers . No seats. Guys who, with their rifles, just sat down on the ground to look down on the Cardinal who was saying Mass on the altar located at the bottom of the scooped out theater.
After the Mass the Cardinal asked that anyone who was in the New York Archdiocese come down to the altar for a personal blessing. When they got there a group was feverishly writing down their names and home addresses and their parents name.
Joe was the radio section rookie so he was pulling a radio watch that kept him from attending the Mass. He remembered how tears came to his eyes when Jimmy Campisi, a kid from Queens , told him, about a month later that his mother had got a personal hand-written note in ink from the Cardinal. He wrote that he had seen her son and that he looked fine. “He wrote the notes when he was going back on the plane.” Jimmy said.
Joe asked him how many guys were in the group whose addresses had been written down. Rolling his head back and widening his eyes, Jimmy said, “Christ, there musta’ been a hundred!”
No way was he going to eat the steak.
Checking things out.
He was milling round with the other guys in the assembly area after morning chow. He was the only guy from Headquarters Battery that was on R&R, the other four guys from the 8th Field were from the firing batteries so he hadn’t buddied up with anybody. The R&R group was in among a widely diverse group which illustrated beyond a doubt that this was a United Nations war. Everybody was in some variation of fatigue uniform, like a convention of farmers dressed in their overhauls.
He looked over at a group of Brits wearing berets which were tugged down, snug, on their heads. They would yank them right down so that they would be almost touching their eyebrows. Some of them had badges that signified their respective units. Joe had to admit to himself that they looked pretty damned neat. There was a lone Sheik wearing a turban who sported a full, neatly-trimmed beard. He was wearing knee-length shorts and leg wraps that started at his ankles and spiraled up to his knees. He looked ferocious but in a dignified kind of way.
As Joe sauntered about he looked over to see a bunch of Puerto Rican kids who were grouped together. He could see their shoulder patches which showed them to be members of the Third Infantry Division. Some were sitting on wooden crates, others standing behind them , with a few more just sitting on the ground with their legs crossed in front of them. They were singing softly, a bouncy little Latino song.
They sang together perfectly, every word at the exact same time, with their heads all bobbing in time with the rhythm They were all looking straight ahead, gently rocking along with the rhythm of their song. Joe looked at this wistful-looking group and thought to himself , “I’ll bet those guys are singing about home. Anyway, I think that’s what Rancho Grande means.”
Containing the large, milling-about group was a wire fence. Significantly, it was not barbed wire. The keep-out message was little more subtle here. This fencing was about four-feet high, and was configured into a series of heavy-gauge, wire squares which did not allow any way of getting through . It was like something you’d contain cattle with, Joe speculated. It was there of course to isolate the troops from the Korean civilians who, otherwise, would be in the middle of them begging, stealing, or trying to work some kind of a hustle that was sure to end in trouble.
In his meandering, Joe had drifted over so that he was standing with his back to the fence still studying the people in the group. He took out an Old Gold, lighted it up , and blew the smoke out forcefully. Startled, he jumped away from the fence when he realized somebody was behind him on the other side.
Turning around he saw three little Korean girls standing close to the fence. He guessed they were about seven years old, except for the little girl in the middle who looked to be younger. They were holding onto the fence wire looking up at him. Joe, mildly uncomfortable, smiled down at them and said, “Habeseo.” the Korean equivalent of “How are ya’ doing”. They said nothing, they just looked up at him with a strained look.
The little one in the middle dropped her eyes and began fiddling with the fence. They were dressed in the long, white traditional dresses which were very shabby looking. Although it was April it was still pretty chilly, and every once in awhile the little one would shiver.
They would look back and forth at each other making soft, mewling little sounds,. Joe had no idea of what they were saying in those quiet little voices. He did know that there was a sense of expectation here. The little girls were expecting him to do something. He’d have given anything for a candybar but he had absolutely nothing. You couldn’t give them money because for sure someone was watching and would snatch it away from them the minute he left.
Here he was, warmly dressed and with a full stomach and they had nothing. Helpless to a feeling of an unmet obligation, Joe felt absolutely terrible. He held out his hands from his sides in a gesture of frustration, and then dropped them by his sides. He had no idea what to do.
Leaving the scene.
Rescue came in the form of a rasping announcement over the PA system. “Osaka R&R personnel form up in the assembly area.” He looked over at the assembly area to see the troopers quickly moving into form up. He looked back at the girls, forced a smile, and gave them a little wave before he turned to hustle over to the formation.
The same corporal from the night before, checked their names off a list, gave them a “Right face and forward hew.” As he marched over to the bus that would take them to the plane. He looked back to see if the kids were still there. They were gone.
As he walked up the stairway into the bus he said to himself, ruefully, “Well at least I’m not gonna’ feel so bad about the steak.”
Joe Sullivan uses the character Joe Rattigan to write about his experiences in Korea.
August 1, 2013