The “Forgotten War” – the cold war conflict between America and a communist China, North and South Korea. Looking back on the Korean War now is particularly pertinent, taking North Korea’s recent (and denied) aggressions towards South Korea. The fact that the Korean War never ended has, I think, caused it to be pushed into the recesses of the US’s history. But remembering is necessary not only to prevent repeating the past, but also to honor those who spent and lost their lives in the conflict.
NYT put together a collection of four veteran’s memories, just short little essays that paint a big picture. Here.
My grandfather, who was a Petty Officer First Class on a Navy destroyer, has shared some of his stories from his time in the war with us over the years. And while he often retells the same stories, we do get new ones. Here are a few bits:
– “When I was sworn into the Navy, there was two things they told me. One was, ‘When someone tells you to do something, do it.’ Two: ‘You no longer live in a democracy – the government owns you.’ So when they asked to see my orders and I gave them to them, they said, ‘Well, here’s your new orders.’”
– On USS A___ (compared to being on a sub): “We spent just about as much time under water as we did on top. The typhoons in the south Chinese sea… ripped K [something] guns clean off the deck…
– “In a storm off Okanowa, we were doing turns for 29 knots (going 29 knots), but we didn’t move because the storm was so strong – the winds. The whole boat went under then out again. There were two destroyers on their sides, on either side of us – they ran out of fuel. They said they got all the people off safe, but we didn’t stick around to find out if it was true.”
– “After the Korean war in ’53, in the Chinese Sea, we were on a mission to a freighter run aground off the coast of China. We couldn’t go in so we sent whaleboats, but we lost one – with 11 men. I was lucky I wasn’t on that one. They found a wooden box, about this big [two by three feet or so], and it looked like a treasure chest. They didn’t want the Chinese to set eyes on what was inside it. To this day, we still don’t know what was in it.”
“We made it back to Taiwan going 1 or 2 knots. We stayed for two days, then went to the Philippines – towed there by two tugboats. We were drydocked for 9 weeks for repairs to the ship. We had liberty every day; all we did really was eat, sleep, and clean – we had to keep the ship spic n’ span. I lost all my presents – 33 mm rifle, good china, silk kimonos – although the wedding rings made it – all to the bottom of the ocean. I lost… $1600 of stuff; I figured I could replace it, but we never went back to Japan. It was supposed to be refunded… I got $16 instead.”
– Were you treated OK [in Japan]? “Uhh, the businesses catered to you because you had the money, but with the people, there was lots of animosity.”
– “The worst thing to see was the 2 atomic bomb sites… there were shadows of the power lines burnt into the cement… you closed your eyes and could feel it.”
– “Back then, you didn’t do bragging rights about seeing what you did [what the US did in the past – bombs, etc.], because you might’ve ended up at the bottom of one of the canals… I saw more in the Navy than I ever would’ve been able to afford as a civilian. 3 trips to Hong Kong, 10 days at a time.”
– (In Hong Kong) “The rickshaw boys there’d take their money to the bank and buy gold money, then store it in leather pouches for a few weeks, one or two weeks, then take it back to the bank, and brush the gold dust out of the pouches… They sold that to the street vendors.”
– (HK) “I saw people that were born on boats and never left – they just never left.”
– (HK) “There were these girls who’d come and clean the boat completely, for no pay, just the privilege of cleaning/taking out your tray/garbage… so you took three times the food you normally would – 3 pieces of pork, a heap of potatoes – when you knew Mama Susie’s girls (the cleaning girls) were there. They’d take your tray and scrape it off into 3 metal bins, one for meat, one for potatoes, one for vegetables – and that was their food. That was their pay, the privilege of taking care of your tray.”
-“We did a lot of stuff we weren’t supposed to, probably.”
– Went to Hawaii 3 times, did the beaches, saw the surfers – “I didn’t do that, really” – went to dinner once with a friend and “flipped out when it was $21, gratuity included.”
(Eating on land wasn’t like on board, when…) “You had to hold down your tray eating, or else it’d slide down four feet and they guy next to you’d BLAaRRGHHhh [get seasick] on it.”
“I may not’ve been the best sailor, but I’m the best storyteller.”
“In those days, all you had to do was put on your navy uniform and stand on the side of the road, not even stick out your thumb or nothing, and someone’d pull over and say, ‘Where to, sailor?’ … The uniform meant a lot more in those days.”
(A note to readers: take the initiative and find out about your grandparents’ lives. My grandfather – the sailor – also has other crazy stories, hitchhiking across the country, working in the coal mines… and my other grandfather is just ridiculous. He’s a physical chemist-geologist and just about everything else. Now that he’s a bit older – late 80s, I believe – he’s developing his own theory of gravity and trying to get all his thoughts organized and ideas written down for the future. So: ASK. You’ll be surprised what you find out. Your grandparents might not have been in wars or helped develop nuclear technology (not that I’m bragging or anything… 😛 ), but I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that they have their own interesting stories to share, and it would delight them for you to take an interest. So ASK.)
As always, The Big Picture put out an excellent article.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur (in the leather jacket).
So to all those who served in The Forgotten War, and to those who are serving in another – thank you.