history

Feeding the Dinosaurs

... Middle School students honor veterans' service with
breakfast and a Memorial Day program.

by Joe Sullivan

For me it would be the third time. The sixth through the eighth graders at
the Melrose Middle School were hosting a program to recognize and thank Melrose
veterans for their service. It started with a generous breakfast that the
students served to their invited guests. The servers were the students themselves
who spooned out the eggs, bacon, fruit, pancakes and other tasty items to each
veteran as he moved down the line holding out his plate. A new experience for
the young servers but a highly familiar one to the vets. This was the method used
to serve almost every one of their meals when they were in the service. The chow line.

The students probably had never seen so many grey-haired people collected in one
place at the same time. Not all were grey haired though. The Vietnam War Veterans
were still young enough to be spared the mark of an old guy. Some of the vets wore
clothing representing their branch of service. For most of them it was things like
visored ball caps that displayed the names of their organization or the wars they
had been in. “Viet Nam Vet”, “Korean War Vet,” or the Navy guys whose caps
displayed a gold silhouette of the kind of ship they had served on. Some vets didn’t
wear any identifying stuff, except for the small pins in their lapels.

The vets were eating their breakfast in a hallway just in front of the entrance of the
assembly hall. Each vet had been escorted to the hallway by a young middle schooler
who had greeted him at the front door. The young lady who escorted me was clearly
nervous, doing her best to be a hostess. I did my best to ease her tension with small
talk about how nice everything was. It worked, I think, I got a very sweet, relieved
smile when wegot to the food area where we parted.

Not everybody was able to walk up the stairs to the entrance. Some vets even had
walkers. Handling them was clearly outside the experience of a middle schooler. But
there were five, maybe six, guys from the local VFW Norman Prince Post who were
dressed in Sun tan uniforms and wearing blue caps who were there to help. The
banter that went on between them and the old vet they were assisting clearly erased
any embarrassment for this person they were helping.

An uncomfortable situation.

I’ve been out of the Army since December 1953 but something always made me
uncomfortable about calling myself a veteran. Like a whole lot of guys my age I ended
up in Korea in October 1952. I was in the 8th Field Artillery battalion that was part
of the 25th Infantry Division. Our direct responsibility was to support the 27th
Infantry Regiment whose nickname was the Wolfhounds.

The Wolfhounds were the infantry unit that held the so-called “Pusan Perimeter” at the
beginning of the war when the North Koreans were trying to drive them into the sea
at South Korea’s most southern city. Doing so would mean all Korea would be in
the hands of North Korea. In a stunning action the Wolfhounds moved from one area
where the North Koreans were threatening to break through, stop them, and then race
to another area within the perimeter to face the same situation. The Wolfhounds held
the perimeter by doing this again and again.  Time Magazine called them the “Fire
Brigade”.

The 8th Field must have been with the Wolfhounds, but I wasn’t. I was back home
reading about the Wolf Hounds and wondering when I was going to be drafted.

You want cold, GI?

In December 1952 the temperature in Kumwah, North Korea was 34 below zero. I was
living, however, in a bunker whose sand bagged walls and ceiling were 10-feet thick.
Although insulation from the cold wasn’t the purpose of this thickness it was an
additional benefit. With a little potbellied stove in the middle of the bunker we
were warm as toast. We even had a wooden floor which meant that we could walk
around in our stocking feet. The wood came from the most plentiful source of lumber
in Korea, the empty wooden boxes which had held the artillery shells for 105 howitzers.

Our clothing was terrific. Special recognition goes to our boots. Modelled after
thermos bottles, there were two rubber linings, one inside the other, inside each
boot. The linings were separated by little pieces of rubber which created an
insulating dead air space. The construction meant the boots were enormous. They were
immediately referred to as “Mikey Mouse Boots” because that’s whose feet they looked like.

I never heard a mention of Trench Foot after these boots were introduced. There has
got to be a special place in heaven for the guy who invented those boots. If there
isn’t then God doesn’t know what the hell is going on.

It occurred to me many times how different my situation in Kumwah was than the one
the troopers faced in December 1950 when they had fought their way through to the
Yalu river that separates Korea from Manchuria. Those soldiers were in summer
uniforms and the Yalu was much farther north  than Kumwah and even colder. It
wasn’t just the weather they had to worry about when the Chinese came into the
war by releasing a massive attack to drive them out of their positions.

At the same time it was sub-zero cold, too, that was facing the Marines in the
Chosin Reservoir where they were facing a huge Chinese force that was seeking to
annihilate them They had to fight their way through mountainous terrain
suffering heavy casualties before they reached the port of Hungnam where they
were evacuated by ship.

A few things to consider.

It’s not that my stay in Korea was uneventful, I know what it is to be shot at,
to lie in a hole while artillery rounds whistled over my head, and know that
I’m walking around today because an incoming artillery round that landed 20
feet behind me didn’t detonate.

But those experiences in no way compared with what the Pusan Perimeter, Yalu River,
and Chosin Reservoir troopers went through. A high school pal of mine, Al Trainor,
received the Silver Star a decoration for gallantry in action.

To me those are the guys who were the Veterans. Given that I had done so much less,
if those guys were the Veterans then what the hell was I?

An underground veteran.

When I got out of the Army I never joined any Veterans groups. I always sent them
money when they asked but I never went to any meetings or participated in any
veteran activities. Wearing hats that identified me as a veteran made me very
uncomfortable. I would participate in conversations about the Korea stuff but that
was the extent of identifying myself as a veteran.

It was like that for 63 years. In May 2014 I got a letter from Tom Brow, principal
of Melrose Middle School inviting me to an upcoming Memorial Day event in which
the students would be honoring veterans. I think what made me want to go was that
the program was to be presented by the kids.

I have never been disappointed in any of the three assemblies I’ve attended. The
sincerity of the students in their presentations is heartwarming. They sing patriotic
songs, recite patriotic addresses and are delivered with a purposefulness that
shows they have practiced.

There’s something I don’t pick up on until the second time I go. It’s the songs.
They’re the same ones I sang when I sat in a student assembly at Lincoln Junior High
School in 1942 for a rally to buy War bonds and Stamps. We sang the Field Artillery
song, the Marines Hymn, Anchors Aweigh, the Army Air Corps song. They’re like
Christmas Carols for wartime.

Out from under.

The assemblies have relieved me of my veteran’s guilt. I’ve participated in a number
of veterans projects. The wonderful trip that took the Korean vets to Washington to
see our Korean Memorial. I participated, too in the dedication of the Korean Memorial
at the knoll.
 
Today I’m with the veterans who are seated sit up on the Middle School stage. Each
veteran’s name is read out along with the war he was in. By the time the recitation
gets to the end it occurs to me that each of us belongs to a group. The group who were
in World War II, the group who were in the Korean war and so on.

In Korea, communications between the American GIs and the Koreans depended on
combining Korean words and English words to produce a thought that both groups
would understand. For example, the Korean word “skosh” (o as in cold) when
combined with the English word “more” would produce a term that each group
recognizes.“More skosh, GI.” translated into, “In a little while, soldier.”

I think of the groups and how we are divided by time. Each veteran group is a
species and eventually will be gone when all of its members have passed on. The
group will become extinct like the dinosaurs are.

The Korean War group’s members are all in their eighties by now. I think to myself,
are we the dinosaurs now or when we’re extinct? Whichever, I wonder when it will be?

I think I know.

More skosh, GI.      
 

                 

June 3, 2016


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