Leaving For Korea

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“Smear some more gook on my back, will you, honey? I’m getting burned.”

“Sure.”

It was intimate but all pretty innocent, these weekend living conditions being what they were, so many men to a room, sharing beds, sleeping on couches or stretched out between two chairs, on the floor, occasionally on a blanket in the tub. There was a great deal of necking, little more serious, though certainly some of us tried. I was twenty-two and a virgin still and making regrettably little progress in becoming anything else. And for all the large talk, I don’t believe I was unique.

Before we left Pendleton for the division, I did two last things. One was to seek out a priest at a small parish in Oceanside and go to confession in his office in the rectory one evening (all those necking parties at Laguna!). The other was to buy a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson military and police special with a four-inch barrel and fifty rounds of ammunition.

Then, a few days before we were to go down to San Diego and board ship, new orders were cut. Mack Allen and I and a few others were to fly over.

Trying to sound enthusiastic, I said something about being lucky, that we were going to get there before it was over. We weren’t going to miss the war after all.

Mack, who had already attended one war, nodded slowly. “There’s no rush, Jim. They’re not goin’ to run out of Chinamen. They got plenty.”

That night some of us who’d been together right from the very first at Quantico got together for a last drink at the O Club.

“Bourbon and branch water,” I ordered.

Mack smiled in delight. “Well, well, well, so you finally learned what a gentleman drinks.”

“Yes, sir.”

Sceva and Faust were there, and Bob Phelps, the big football player from Stanford, and others.

“Hell, you guys flying over are the lucky ones. Do you know what sort of chicken shit they run in on you aboard ship? Inspections every hour on the hour, queuing up for food, for movies, for showers. You line up to get seasick .”

Some officers had been flown over earlier, late in 1950 and earlier in 1951, and one man knew the drill.

“You fly out of San Francisco …”

“Not Dago?”

“No, they use Navy planes, the military equivalent of the DC-6. And you land at Hawaii and lots of other places on the way. So take along some swim shorts and suntan stuff. Maybe a sport shirt. And khakis …”

“Khakis? We’re going to Korea. It’s November, and there’s snow.”

“I tell you, Hawaii, Kwajalein, Guam. You’ll want khakis. It’s still the South Pacific.”

I was confused. “I thought you always flew the Great Circle route. Why wouldn’t we go north, via Alaska, the Aleutians, Japan?”

“Maybe they got MiGs up there, out of Siberia,” someone said. Gloom descended on choir practice. MiGs were Soviet fighter planes that the North Koreans and the Chinese flew, fast, competent, deadly. An old Navy DC-6 wouldn’t have a prayer with MiGs.

We talked late that night, making our good-byes without ever saying them. In a week, maybe ten days, some of us would be there in Korea, in the snow and the cold and the mountains, holding commands in the division. It was entirely possible, though not likely, one or more of us might be dead. The rest, the majority, ten days from now would be less than halfway across.

“It doesn’t matter which way we go,” said Taffy Sceva. “We’ll all be together again before Christmas.”

People began to drift away after that, emptying glasses and exchanging handshakes. It looked pretty casual. Let the doggies, the Army, have the drama. We were the professionals.

Outside the officers’ club I walked back to the barracks, enjoying the clear, starry sky, the familiar chill of Southern California when the sun went down, thinking about what Taffy said. Christmas. I hadn’t thought about Christmas. Hadn’t thought about my birthday, only two days away now. November 15, the day we were to fly out, or so the orders said, and the orders never lied, did they?

I wished I had said a proper goodbye to my mother. I hadn’t really. She hated the war so, and the Corps, I didn’t want to upset her, so I kept it relaxed, maybe too much so. Maybe we should have hugged and cried together. It’s hard to know what to do, what is right and proper, when you have never gone to war before, when it is your first time.

Two mornings later we flew up to San Francisco, and the plane wasn’t ready, and we had a day to waste, a birthday to enjoy, and Bob Phelps took us down to Stanford.

We drove north from Palo Alto toward San Francisco, Phelps at the wheel, in the fading November light, no one talking much, most of us thinking, I guess, about this being our last day in America. I know that was what I was thinking.