The northern outreaches of Korea were an abstraction on my own and very personal, daily canvas. They were almost all surreal days for me.
At age nineteen, my only self-recognizable skills were those that had been God-gifted to me as an athlete. It had never occurred to me that reading and seeing were all part of the form that would ultimately play the leading role for all my life. I guess at age nineteen, the number of items on my personal lists of life, though not yet discernable, would have read and resembled the girth of a telephone book of a fairly large town.
You don’t have to be a boy of nineteen in order for wars of any kind to not make sense. Not liking war was the single strongest bonding point for American troops – without exception. Age had nothing to do with it. Boys of eighteen as well as the oldest of the seasoned veterans of many worldwide encounters had the same chapter and verse in common; to a man, we hated it.
Moms and Dads, whose dream was to send their boys and girls into harm’s way, were nonexistent. It was a given; fear was the order of the day. Every element of life for a soldier, young or old, was a constant retort that reached to new heights requiring more than any preparations allowed for.
And, with fear came an ever-present enjoinment and numbness along with simultaneous exaggerations of my senses. Alterations to sight and sound often inexplicably distorted. The heat and humidity of July were an unforeseen luxury when compared to the grotesqueness of everything else surrounding us.
I remember how we stood around one day, soaked to the skin though it hadn’t been raining. It was before the days of heat or cold weather indexes. Our motor pool humidity thermometer registered 100 percent humidity along with a 108-degree temperature reading. Just when a guy is as scared as he thinks it’s possible to get, along comes an incident blunting out fear and replacing it with a new distraction. This time we rebounded, becoming one, as a conversation of how miserable we were took the place of fear, if only for a momentary respite.
Big Joe, from “The Windy” (that would be Chicago), came upon a small detachment of us as we desperately involved ourselves with digging in to get as far beneath the earth’s surface as quickly as we could. For those of you who don’t understand the term “digging in,” simply stated it means attempting to save our asses from being blown off.
Big Joe stuck that Chicago-smiling head down into our hole and said, “This fucking stinks, don’t it?”
We all began laughing hysterically.
I guess it was one of those times when in order to understand the humor of the moment you would’ve had to have been there. Laughing beats crying for sure; it certainly beats the hell out of fear, if only as a small diversion.
It didn’t last long.
I felt the sick eerie feeling return in short order, once again being announced by the merciless man-made tirades of inhumanity.
Three days later, Monday, July 27, 1953 at 9 PM, restoration of somewhat normal bodily functions began to return; the Korean War had been suspended. Some called it a police action. Who cares what they called it. Pain and suffering will always be pain and suffering, not a laughing matter.
480,000 U.S. troops fought in the Korean War: 36,940 killed, 103,000 wounded, 8,142 MIA, and 3,746 POW.
Today, I choose to remember other things. Things that do fall into the category of what American boys and girls are trained for. What I recall are the happenings, the product of pride and pure-to-the-core Americanism.
Let’s get to my personal admissions before scribing a further retrospective of a little boy and the country, which along with him has raised itself from the ashes of a war-torn society.
Following one of the coldest winters on record, we celebrated the 1954 New Year in traditional Army outpost fashion. The Army airlifted everything imaginable to make our New Year’s dinner far more than merely palatable. It was one of those famous all-you-can-eat affairs.
By now, I had been moved from 38 miles north of the 38th parallel to the capital city of South Korea – Seoul. I was assigned to an engineer company, spending days and often nights repairing the Korean infrastructure.
One marvelous spring morning I was excited over a new directive, which was summarily read to us by our rather nasty company commander. It was official word from Eighth Army Headquarters.
“To all personnel serving in the Far East Command, we will be forming baseball teams from the officers and men of the Korean Theater of operations. Teams will be chosen from those serving any and all battalions and at Division levels.”
Our company commander immediately made his personal announcement stating that no one under his command would be allowed to try out for the group baseball team. In my mind, I instantly uttered the words, “eat me,” along with a few other gems I had gleaned during my life’s travels to date.
At the time, my daily work assignment was that of a 10-ton bridge truck driver. If you don’t know anything about trucks, just trust me. It’s one big truck.
I knew if I showed up for the tryouts, I’d most likely run into a few other Southern Californians. I wasn’t disappointed. Service sports teams were a form of professional sports. At the time, our South Korean teams were the equivalent of a class “A” or “AA” league.
I was able to pull my huge truck onto the parade grounds where the tryouts were being held and, in short order some really good feelings once again stirred my emotions. There were more than a few guys from Los Angeles taking part. At first glance I recognized this was a formidable group to deal with.
The tryouts lasted about two weeks. The soldier picked to be the team’s starting catcher was a kid I had played ball against in high school. He made it a point to fill our team manager in with regards to my exploits as a baseball player and, low and behold, the next thing you know I was being called into our despicable company commander’s office.
I stood there at attention as he read me the riot act for disobeying his orders by trying out for the baseball team. He made it very clear he would be dealing with me when the season was over and I was ordered to come back to his company command. It was difficult for me to stand before him and not laugh in his face. I don’t know how I kept from doing so.
Now, it was really like the old days. When a guy makes any service team, preferential treatment is the order of the day. The bottom line was the government was paying me to play baseball.
I loved every minute of it.
The Army engineers made constructing baseball diamonds a top priority. It was the order of the day from Eighth Army Headquarters. Our team was assigned to an empty dormitory at one of the campuses of the University Of Seoul – South Korea’s finest educational facility. Life became quite pleasant.
When we played our games there seemed to be hordes of children hanging out. In our own limited way, we were rock stars. Koreans in general were great baseball fans. They knew and understood the game.
Exactly how 8 year-old Kim Choo came to us escapes my memory. He appeared one day out of nowhere. He was this unbelievable, cute little boy. Ragtag would be putting it mildly. His clothing barely covered his little body.
Kim Choo looked at us as if we were Gods. I’ll always remember his first day with us. We were on our way back from our second workout of the day. It was early spring and the team was doing two-a-days, in an attempt to round into shape for our season opener that was just around the corner. When we arrived back at the dorm, there he was, waiting for us huddled up against the side of the building.
My friend Bob was an instant ringleader. In nothing flat, the little boy was being taken care of by his own personal team of 20 guys not that much older than he was.
That night, Kim Choo slept in his own cot at the end of the dorm. The next morning, he joined his new adopted family being served in an Army mess hall. The little guy was a human beam of ecstatic light. Every one of us to the man enjoyed the sight of this little boy’s newfound welfare. What we were up to was against all rules and regulations. That is not to say the higher ups didn’t know about our adoptee. Our officers in charge, along with our lead sergeants, were all in on playing the game. The fact is our group commander, a full colonel, had been a baseball player at West Point. It was the colonel’s doing which got all of us into such fine digs at the University dorm.
The next morning Bob began collecting money for the Kim Choo Fund. In short order, word got out that our division baseball team had adopted a Korean orphan. The money began to pour in. Nothing travels faster than word of mouth spread by American soldiers. Overnight Kim Choo went from ragtag to well dressed, including a tailored, matching baseball uniform. He traveled with us as our very proud batboy.
Quickly, Kim Choo was able to communicate with us in his own version of broken English. A Korean professor at the University recommended we get Kim Choo into the grade school the faculty had set up for their own children. It was a private school and had to be paid for. It was no problem a kid with all those Fathers taking care of him. At first, Kim Choo resisted going to school but after a while, he enjoyed how the other kids loved having a real live batboy as a fellow student.
The last time I saw Kim Choo was in the winter of 1954. He had come to visit with me at my new assignment as the head of an engineer supply point. My ex-company commander never did get to get even with me. The West Point Colonel found out (from me) what the mean company commander was planning and saw to it that I had as good a job as the Army had to offer.
As for Kim Choo, I never saw his face again. We had all continued to look in on his welfare for quite some time. The excess money turned out to be enough to get him all the way through high school and well into college.
That was 58 years ago. Today, the then little Kim Choo would be 67 years of age. It was a proud moment for all of us. I’m sure somewhere out there other soldiers have given some thought from time to time about our little batboy. But you know what… if it wasn’t us and a little boy named Kim Choo, it was many other American men and women who would have proved representatives of our country and what we’re really all about.
It is reported the South Korean people have prospered as a capitalistic society. Their hospitals, factories, schools, and yes, even their baseball teams are something to behold. I somehow think a mature man named Kim Choo has had a great deal to do with it.
Seoul City Stadium: That’s da harv, circa 1953.
There were 30,000 Korean baseball enthusiasts in attendance.
A day I will always cherish.
Rarely an Epilogue
And now a secret: rarely do I write an epilogue. Choosing to look at what has actually transpired isn’t particularly difficult for me. Like in accounting as a business practice – it is what it is – no more, no less. But when it comes to the unknown, that’s a different mindset requirement as far as I’m concerned.
The little boy known to me only as Kim Choo was an integral performer in my life, as my life transformed itself. From boy to man, from fear to happiness, from uncertainty to at least a modicum of belief in the future, this little boy helped to dissuade cynicism from taking hold.
While I do have great curiosity regarding how he turned out as a man, I take solace in the fact we few American soldiers offered this little guy a helping hand for one reason only: joy. Complete and unabridged.
To a man, none of us had an ultimate goal or the slightest thrust of self-service. There wasn’t a politician amongst us when it came to Kim Choo. I doubt if many of us knew what an ulterior motive was. The bottom line quite simply was a little kid looking up to some bigger kids.
If I were able to write what I pray happened for Kim Choo, the epilogue would be short and meaningful, and with my personal ulterior motive.
Perhaps, he turned out to be the man and contributing citizen I know he was capable of becoming.