Confusion, anxiety upon stop in Korea
Lots of unknowns in service
Editor’s note: Former State University of New York at Fredonia professor and OBSERVER columnist George Sebouhian was preparing to write his life story when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2013. He died three years later, having left behind hundreds of pages of research notes, poems and memoir vignettes. His son, Damian Sebouhian, has taken it upon himself to complete and share his writings through a series of theme-based articles, each of which represents a chapter in the life and times of George Sebouhian, in his own words.
Taegu: where the Chinese Army had been halted in its advance south and east, the turning point of the war.
After debarking from the plane we are shunted around in great confusion, in darkness incredible, not even aboard ship traveling without lights under a clouded sky had it been so dark. We made our stumbling way, reeling, most of us, from the weight of our government issue packed into one duffle bag, through a small village on the edge of the airstrip, heading, we were told, toward some vague destination that would light up efficiently, and securely orient us to time, place and purpose.
Staggering down the village street, with the sharp edge of my brogans digging into my shoulder with every sloshy mud-step, I hear several high-pitched voices — kids — shouting, some running up singly, some in small packs, grabbing at our duffle bags, pulling at our coats, at anything, trying to get our attention.
Suddenly there is a bright jerking, swinging light, commanding us, showing us where to do.
The anti-aircraft guns fire every night. The whole valley skies over with the deep booms that feel so gentle when they come to earth. Light explodes in petal clusters, each emitting fine straight streaks angled upwards.
One night in the ammo dump we see bullet holes in several pylon crates. Curious. The shooting had occurred hours ago, in someone else’s pat; I feel no fear, but wonder, and slowly look around at the hills above us. We smoke during our breaks, sitting on the bombs, sometimes lying on them. One guy shows that he can lift a frag bomb weighing 270 pounds.
People in long loose white garments, papa-sans with black stovepipe hats held in dignified place by strings wound under their jaws, huts of damp wood, dark.
Over away from the town are the farms, many the size of a small American lot, 50 by 100, 100 by 100, nothing larger, and the bent backs of the mama-sans here and there, the children darting around them.
The odor of garlic and honey buckets alternately mingle and compete; the garlic usually pervades the farm towns where everything seems to exude the stuff; but here on the hill the dominant odor is human dung.
The water is calm, or at least it appears so from our position. Not a ripple against the huge cargo ships ringing the outer bay, making a complementary arc to that of the land: land and ships in an immense circle. Smaller boats are taking on cargo which they then bring to shore where fast sweating almost naked workers carry burdens seemingly more than they could possibly weigh themselves, on skinny bony backs; they hurry with quick small steps to a waiting truck. That’s where we go, cresting the hill, heading for the harbor, to load up with the 50-caliber ammo.
One late afternoon after work, walking down a dusty road in Taegu, on impulse, we hop on the back of an Army six-by and ride it to just outside a camp we had never been to before. It is an immense area, apparently some kind of United Nations base, for there are soldiers from a number of different countries. The bar, though, is filled mainly with Americans. Short Korean girls serve French champagne and Danish beer and Canadian whiskey for 15 cents a drink.
Every two hours at the end of the single large room, on a small platform, the girls gather to sing songs — “Sayonara” is popular — and the whole pack assembled raise their raucous din joining the girls in some of the lines. By 2 in the morning we are all drunken friends and drunken enemies; we love the buddies we are with and the friends we have made; we have our arms around each other and spew chorus after chorus into the noise and the smoke and the lights; and we buddies hate those bastards at the table across the way, that table with the big mouth who just wants to bust somebody up — who goes over and pushes right up to him, even grabs him by the lapels? Or is it that he comes over to our table with his buddies? And those four Marines in the corner table looking around, talking to no one, never smiling, never singing, just drinking? And that group of sailors that comes shouting in for about 15 minutes — anyway, later, on the road, when we all curse together the big guy with the big mouth (did we fight them?) and raise more song to the sky and bathe in the delightful blur of the moon on our faces and reject in loud acclaim the whores of the East, we lift ourselves to an ecstasy of buddyhood we had never known before; we lift ourselves, fatigues flapping in the wind, weapons carrier jogging over hard frozen mud ruts, jogging with one guy hanging on the bouncing side vomiting into the streaming air, vomiting, and we watch gleeful and grinning and yelling, and?
Alert. Eleven o’clock at night a call from a general in Seoul. The Chinese are massing for one last push, some time in the morning. Get Japan. How much ammo and bombs do we have on the ships? On the docks? Being unloaded? At each K-site? Get all the rail cars down to Pusan. The hell with the Army; there won’t be any Army if we can’t get those planes up.
Damian Sebouhian, a former OBSERVER staff writer, is a Dunkirk resident.