Head Man

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It was a roller-coaster war: North Korea invaded South Korea in June of 1950, pouring across the 38th Parallel, smashing the unprepared South Korean forces, and within days occupying all of South Korea except for a small ring around the port of Pusan.

In its first major test the U.N. resolved to resist. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commanding our occupation forces in Japan, reinforced the Pusan perimeter and in September mounted a brilliant amphibious invasion at Inchon. The tide turned, the North Koreans were cleared out of South Korea, and MacArthur in his turn moved north of the 38th Parallel. He ignored Washington’s fears that China might enter the conflict if he pushed too close to the Yalu, and China did come in, falling on divided American forces strung out in pursuit of the North Koreans. We were pushed back, the longest and bitterest winter retreat in our history. MacArthur, ignoring Washington’s efforts to come to terms with the Chinese, seemed to have lost control; he wanted to drop atomic bombs on Chinese cities. In April of 1951 Truman, with full cabinet and Joint Chiefs support, fired him.

In October of 1950 my destroyer, USS John W. Thomason (DD 760), fresh from a Hunter’s Point overhaul, was headed for Korea. We put into Pearl Harbor for a few hours, just long enough to refuel, pick up confidential publications, and exchange movies. An ensign then, I was sent by jeep to the sprawling command-and-Communications center at Makalapa, to turn in expired cipher materials and draw fresh ones. The place was a madhouse, with a level of activity not seen since 1945.

My errands accomplished, I visited one of the heads off a main corridor. I had just unbuttoned my fly when two men in civilian dress barged in. This was unusual; in those days and in that place no one wore civvies. One of them stopped dead and inspected me; the other one quickly stalked down the row of stalls, banging the doors open. The last one was occupied.

“Who’s in there?” he asked me.

“How the hell should / know?” I answered.

“Wise guy,” he growled. Both of them then flanked the door facing inward. I was mystified.

Then the door opened and in walked Harry Truman. He took a urinal a few feet away, looked over, and smiled. I was flabbergasted. After a moment, with my free hand, I saluted. He grinned and nodded. He finished his business, nodded again, and walked out, the civvies falling in behind him.

“You okay?” the skipper asked, seeing I was still shaken. He didn’t believe me when I told him what had happened.

A Navy captain in khakis emerged from the occupied stall, stuffing his shirt into his still-opened trousers.

“What the hell was all that about?” he wanted to know.

“That—that was the President , sir,” I gulped.

What? ” Still holding his trousers up, he waddled to the door and pulled it open. A large gaggle of people was just passing. I recognized Gen. Omar Bradley, Adm. Arthur Radford, and Averell Harriman. They stared at the captain. He stood frozen after they passed, then released the door. Next he turned around and leaned back against it. He was still holding his trousers up.

“I think I need a drink,” he said vaguely.

I had to nudge him away from the door to get out. Still shaken, I got back to the ship. “You okay?” the skipper asked when he saw me. He didn’t believe me when I told him what had happened. “Truman? Here? You’re out of your skull. What the hell would he be doing in Pearl?”

Only two days later, in mid-Pacific, did radio news enlighten us. Truman had been on his way to meet General MacArthur at Wake Island. MacArthur was then at the peak of his post-Inchon glory. Truman had flown halfway around the world to congratulate him and exchange views. The fireworks still lay in the future.