My Father’s Pivot Point: Korea 1947

My late father went in the Army on February 20, 1946 at Fort Devens, Massachusetts and then onto basic training at Camp Crower in Missouri. World War II had ended with the Japanese surrendering on September 2, 1945 and the Korean War didn’t start until June 25, 1950. This means that when my father ended up in Korea in 1947, he was there during a tumultuous time. The Japanese were gone, and the United States military were there as military oversight. My father at the age of 22 was in a foreign land, that spoke a foreign language during uncertain times.

Korean man

In 1947, my father was about halfway through his bachelor’s degree. He had two semesters at Colby College and one summer semester at the University of Minnesota.

From my father’s personal history:

I volunteered for duty overseas. Signing up in the regular army to be sure I got out in 18 months, I awaited assignment to culture laden Europe where most GI’s went. What a shock when I was shipped to Fort Stoneman in California on the Sacramento River, near San Francisco. I was shipped out as a radio repairman to Korea – I didn’t even get stationed in Japan!

So, there was my father on his way across the Pacific on a life defining journey:

Authority

From my father’s personal history:

With hundreds of men confined to foc’siles in bunks stacked 5 high, the trip across the Pacific became a nightmare when a 3-day storm made most troops seasick. Not allowed on deck for air, the mess halls had no one to man them, latrines were stopped up by vomit and the stench become overwhelming as men threw up and relieved themselves in their bunks. I was OK till someone 4 bunks above vomited on me—then I heaved too. During all this, officers kicked us out of their way to get by and I learned to hate arbitrary authority—military law could put us behind bars if we hit back.

This scene is horrendous. The disarray. The lack of humanity. The impact on my father was a life led with levelheaded fairness. In the multitude of comments from his past students from his 30 plus years of teaching history was that he was fair. Grades were earned. Rules around discipline were clear on the first day of his class. He was never one to abuse authority and he used it judiciously.

Korea in town.JPG

Respect

As my father wrote:

We rode a train down the Peninsula to Ch’ongju, a mountainous area between Seoul and Pusan. We broke up wooden seats and started fires in the passageway – to prevent frostbite from bitter winds whistling through broken out windows. Seeing young Korean boys with a single shirt, shorts and rubber shoes without socks staring at us from railroad stops along the way, left me incredulous. I, near a fire, with heavy army boots, two sets of socks, a hat and helmet liner, was damn near freezing to death, so how in hell could those kids survive?!? I hoped we’d never have to fight such people. Though we had better weapons it was clear their survivability and toughness were far superior to ours.

When my father ever spoke about his life challenges, he never brought this experience up. When he spoke of life not being fair, his experience in Korea did come up. He never forgot the cold and those kids. Even though his experience was one small step above those kids, his respect for them was immense.

Curiosity

My father wrote:

One day, befriending our houseboy with a pack of matches, he took me far back into the mountains to visit his grandfather’s village. Kids and most adults had never seen an American before. Sitting in his grandfather’s hut amidst male villagers, I saw women peeking from another room for their first wide-eyed stare at a real man from the West. Politely declining pipes of opium, I passed around chicklets and showed photos of my family in response – pointed to a worn newspaper blowup of N.Y.C. skyscrapers on their wall and telling them through my houseboy interpreter I had lived near there. They laughed, shaking their heads, insisting it was just artistic imagination and that there was no such city like that.

My father was not a news reporter, he wasn’t working on behalf of the army, he did this all on his own. He ventured out to find out what was out “there”. I find this to be amazing. For the price of a pack of matches, he sought out a new perspective. In the many condolences I received from his past students, the over arching theme is that he made history come alive. He marched around classrooms with a pointer as a rifle and made the students feel like they were there. This curiosity. This wanderlust. I don’t believe it started in Korea but it certainly opened the door.

Korea street with ladies.JPG

Shift       

My father always famously said that he went to Korea a liberal and came back a conservative. As he wrote:

My 7 months’ allowed me to contrast our America with poorer lands in a way unobtainable from books, converting me from a liberal critic of our way of life to a defender of American society thereafter. The poverty imposed upon Koreans by 50 years of Japanese conquest was grim. Men and women squatted and defecated anywhere outdoors even in the river they got their cooking and drinking water from. A pungent stench of human excrement overpowered us wherever we went, reminding GI’s of missing sanitation, a lack of paved roads, bridges, safe drinking water, electricity and unheated houses in sub-zero weather. I pondered how Koreans could be happy in a land stripped of forests for fuel, widespread malnutrition, open body sores, universal disease and general mistreatment by local police and authorities.

It also shifted his trajectory of his career and future studies. He sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge with the Army and decided to finish his interrupted Sophomore year at Berkeley. He studied Intro to Government, Foreign Policies and U. S. History (he proudly received two B’s and an A). This lit the fuse to his 34-year career teaching and demonstrating history.

Korean Woman

This piece was prompted by finding the pictures attached from my father’s photos.  I am fortunate that he left behind his legacy in written and photographic form. But isn’t that his way. The great historian leaving his thoughts and personal evidence for me to have a better understanding of this great pivot point of his life. I asked him in his last few months if he had any regrets. The only one was not getting a PhD. The rest is all a life full of adventure, stories told and sharing his experiences. His students and his children are the fortunate and enriched receivers. We got to live it with him.

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