Leaving For Korea

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“Our last day,” Mack Allen said abruptly, interrupting silence, which was odd because Mack talked less than any of us. But it was what we all were thinking. I wished Taffy Sceva was there, but he’d been left behind at Pendleton to take the troopship. Taffy was a ginger-haired first lieutenant, big-shouldered, funny. He was married and might have pulled strings to stay home, but he was going too.

“The Marine Corps is always interrupting my Christmases,” he’d said one night over beers in the officers’ club, quite cheerful about it. “In 1942, American Samoa. In ’43, Bougainville. And 1944 was Guam. We thought that would be cake, but it wasn’t. In 1945, the good news, I was back in the States; the bad news, it was the Hospital for Tropical Diseases, Klamath Falls, Oregon. Now it’ll be Christmas in Korea.”

Taffy ran the fish cannery at Olympia, Washington, and Lou Faust’s wife had gone up there to sit out the war with Sceva’s wife. I wished that Taffy was here now, that we were going over together, that Fd have him to look to when I got there.

Lou was a big, rawboned guy who sold radio time. He had broken a man’s jaw with one punch when we were back at Quantico, and after that people edged around him with a degree of caution.

Mack Allen had been an enlisted man in the war too, fighting on Okinawa and then service up in North China, occupation duty, rounding up Japanese stragglers and shooting bandits, keeping the rail lines open and trying to keep the locals from starving. After that came the Virginia Military Institute and then the Harvard “B” School. Mack was an engineer and couldn’t wait to get to Korea and the division.

Phelps, like me, had never been in combat. We were the babies. But Phelps was a large, smooth young man, arrogant with strength and money. He was hardly a close friend, but I was glad we’d come down here with him to Stanford. You could see, with Coach Taylor and Mathias and the others, how Phelps carried himself, fond of his own opinion. Though he said little now.

“All right you peepul…” The Southern voice cracked through the night. It was neither friendly nor encouraging.

“Brady,” someone called, “share that pitcher a little, will you, like a good fellow?”

“Sure.”

But it was nearly empty, and the girl brought another one, and as she walked away, flat-backed and with hips moving gracefully under a cotton dirndl skirt, we remarked on her look, the tan legs and honeyed hair. November 15, with winter coming, yet the sun was hot even under the trees, dappled by leaves, condensation beading our pitcher.

“A few days from now, a week …,” Mack said.

We all could finish the thought. This would be the second winter of the war, and we all knew what had happened in November exactly a year before, when the Chinese came in and nearly destroyed the division up at Koto-ri and the Chosin Reservoir. As replacement officers we’d read the reports. I remembered what Colonel Litzenberg had written back, warning us: “… men came down to the sick bay suffering from what appeared to be shock. Some of them would come in crying; some were extremely nervous; and the doctors said it was simply the sudden shock of the terrific cold.”

Another officer lectured us at Quantico in Virginia, saying his Marines came off the line “just like zombies … a sort of paralysis … that sets in in extreme cold.”

And these were Marines, the best men MacArthur had that first winter.

Phelps spoke on it for the first time. “Today’s the fifteenth. Last November twelfth Colonel Davis reported it was sixteen below zero Fahrenheit, and with wind.”

The waitress came back then, asking if we wanted another. “My, my, my,” Mack Allen said in admiration, his soft Virginia voice paying courtly tribute.

“Just the check.” Phelps said. “It’s time to go.”

He meant to leave PaIo Alto. But he meant something more than that, and we all knew it.

At six tomorrow morning, if they had found a plane, we would be going to the war, to fight the Chinese and the cold and to lead men into combat. The others seemed ready; I wondered about myself. Suddenly I remembered a story from Freddie Grosse, who lived next door, the art director of a tobacco trade journal and a man who’d fought in World War I, so long ago.

“We were very cocky, and they marched us up into the trenches at night, all very secret, no one was to know. And in the morning, when we looked out over the trenches and through the barbed wire, there was a sign out there, hand-painted, and in perfect English. It was the Germans, welcoming us to the war, and getting our regiment and battalion exactly right, and I thought, ‘Oh—oh, we may be in trouble here …’”

Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, where Mr. Grosse still lived and where I was born and my family was, seemed a long way off, in time and distance.

Funny, Korea, some six thousand miles away, seemed closer.

Phelps had tossed some money on the tray, and now he said, “Come on, it’s time.”

We drove slowly through the vast, lovely college campus in the autumn afternoon, toward the highway north, passing pretty girls and young men carrying books and tennis rackets, past touch football games and track men in sweats loping around an oval, past cyclists and parked convertibles, all the delicious accessories of peacetime America. Then, as Stanford fell behind and we rolled onto the PaIo Alto entrance to the highway, Phelps’s borrowed car leaped powerfully ahead, surging and speeding up.

Hurrying us toward war.