I’d been doing some background on our negotiations with North Korea, comparing South Korea from the Vietnam War era to today. I just started a series at my political blog.
I was part of a corps-level exercise near the DMZ. It was in October, ’74, beginning two days after my youngest son was born in Zama, Japan. I picked up my mother at Haneda in Tokyo, took her to our quarters, kissed my wife, new baby and older son, then grabbed my gear, and went to catch the bus to Yokota AFB and a waiting C-130.
I was gone a month.
I was a JAG captain with no business in a war exercise. But my new colonel sent me in his place since he hated the idea an Army cot in a bunker. Harvard man. Not even is own private shower. Our command post bunker was near Uijeongbu, near the DMZ. Since there were no law issues in the war game plan my 3-star’s aide tapped me on the shoulder, said I was the Corps G-5, handed me an FM, and told me I’d be handling all the refugee problems along the MSR’s (Main Supply Routes) from the various battle areas. There weren’t many problems but the General, the G-1 and the wargame raters back in Hawaii gave me good marks. Go figure.
I was part of the General’s personal staff, even subbing as his Deputy-ADC, when he became shorthanded to handle visiting dignitaries at the nearby airfield. I even coined a phrase in that job, not being familiar with standard military radio lingo. The ADC had gone out to the airfield to pick up a NATO VIP, and called in to tell me to relay to the General they were on their way. I replied “Adios, over.” By the time we left Korea virtually every officer above the rank of major was saying that back to me.
I’m saving a story about my “run in” with the Commander in Chief of UN Forces in Korea, a 4-star named Richard Stilwell. He gave a speech to a small group in Tokyo which I attended, and it was best “love of duty and country speech I ever heard. But earlier, in the cocktail session, I cornered him and complained about the lack of easy access for troops to Legal Assistance in 8th Army Compound in Seoul. I sort of briefed him about how important that is to morale and welfare. A real chain-of-command breach of protocol, for which I paid dearly later, still, a couple of gin and tonics can do that to a short-timer captain with no career to protect, so I felt I might as well give it a try. Gen Stilwell was very forbearing, heard me out, before my general’s wife sort of drug me off to the other side of the room.
As I said, a helluva speech.
Nearly a year later, when Stilwell visited our Corps bunker near Uijeongbu, all our General’s staff, six colonels and me, stood in a circle and our General introduced us one by one. When he came around to me, he told Stilwell, “and this is my Judge, Captain Bushmills.” I shook his hand, and he said, “Guess I took care of that little problem for you at 8th Army, Captain.”
“Yessir you did”, sez I and the colonels all did double-takes, but as I said, there’s another story there for later.
My general just smiled.
The General and I played several games of chess, never finished even one since he was always being called back to the TOC or to a meet-and-greet visiting dignitaries. He was a famous commander in the Korean War and a lot of allied officers wanted to meet him because they’d read about him the Fehrenbach’s “This Kind of War”. His aide, who followed him around like a hound dog, said the stress was overbearing at times. I got to shake a lot of very important hands.
But my best memory is that I can say I’ve gotten to play chess on an over-turned footlocker with loaded .45’s laid at our side. Not sure why the general did that, but every time he sat down he’d pull out his Army Colt and lay it down, and I’d follow suite. I always wanted to be able to do something like that.
Being a lawyer and he a former tank commander, he liked to tease me about my lack of battlefield knowledge. He’d ask me “What’s a FEBA?” and I’d scratch my chin and offer up, “Far East Broadcast Association?”, and he’d chuckle. I don’t think he ever knew I was originally commissioned in the Infantry.
(After he retired he was part of the Panama Canal Treaty Commission which you history buffs can enjoy, which William Buckley and then Governor Ronald Reagan debated on PBS in 1978. which I saw live.)
My other thrill, in fact this is trip that piqued my interest in prostitution. (I’ll tell of that visit later.) But before we came to Korea for that Corps exercise I was already the liaison with the Korean Businesswoman’s Association there in Uijeongbu. They oversaw all the bar girls and brothels in the area, quite an operation, and I made an advance team visit there a month earlier. Tough duty.
My General told me (with a glint in his eye) that “some women have the ability to turn boys into men, but we don’t want any of our senior officers being turned back into boys.”
All that said, I never considered myself as having any special insights as to the geo-political nature of the Koreas at the ripe old age of 28.
I still tipped my cap to politicos who covered the political side of those sorts of doings in part because they were older and more experienced than me. But by the time I started to share my experiences, I found the situation reversed. By 2009 no one was interested in life at the front lines, whether Abilene, Nizhni Novgorod, Plovdiv or Seoul…
….or old enough to know to ask.
Or in anything that had happened anywhere in the world before the 1980s. I found myself among a class of experts who had to go to Wikipedia to find out who Monica Lewinsky is.
Still that was where I learned a lot about Korea compared to the combined knowledge of our political betters today.
Back to Korea, I also learned a lot of background just by being on the ground. I had read TR Fehrenbach’s “This Kind of War” when I was in law school, and his background study on the rise of the Inmun Gun (North Korean military) from the 1940s is still a classic study. I visited Seoul several times, and it was usually under martial law. Many streets were still unpaved, with open privies and that constant smell of a kimchi-belch, which at any given moment, millions of Koreans were belching.
I stayed in the Naija (Army NCO) Hotel sometimes, which backed up to a police barracks where they practiced riot control for martial law. A Vietnam combat veteran I traveled with pointed out the looks on their faces and the kinds of blows they intended to administer to their own people. My buddy pointed out that not-killing them was not a major concern. On the streets in the university section I watched as black vans would suddenly pull over, jerk some kid out of a group of young people with hair that was a little too long, hold him down, and cut it right there on the spot.
My friend had served with elements of the ROK Tiger Division in Vietnam and said they were the most feared unit in Vietnam.
During those corps exercises, I also got to witness firsthand that Korean flair for meaness, for there were KATUSA’s (Korean soldiers attached to the US Army) in our compound. A Katusa sergeant was chewing out a soldier, who just stood at attention, as a 1st Division major and I walked by. Apparently the soldier gave his sergeant some back-lip, and the Katusa sergeant suddenly decked him, and as the soldier curled up in a bunch, began kicking him. I looked at the major and said, “Maybe we’d better step in?” Maj replied, “No, we’d better go” then wheeled and walked away. “If you’d have intervened he had the authority to shoot you. No really, look it up. When it comes to trigger-finger anger, I’ve never seen anyone to match Koreans.”
That 45 years ago.
South Korea always had top-down problems, even into the 90s-early 2000’s, as many of their factories, when they moved operations to even more profitable labor markets in SE Asia, they ran into trouble with host countries because of the way their management teams abused workers.
That was just 25 years ago.
Since South Korea is also a very religious country, with all sorts of versions of Christianity, as can be found in every part of America where there is a nearby military post, that kind of abuse probably exemplifies the management class, and will probably die out as they continue to grow.
But it exemplifies to a tee what we know about the regime in North Korea, and explains a lot about the cross-currents going on inside the front office there.
Just keep watching VassarBushmills.com for more insights. Our problem here are the smart-assed kids who think they know a thing or two without ever having seen or done a thing or two.
Veterans have and need to project that knowledge more forcefully.