- Historic Sites
Leaving For Korea
A young man’s journey from Brooklyn to the world, from boyhood to the glimmerings of maturity, from peace to war
February/march 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 1
The Korean War began on a Sunday, June 25. It wasn’t clear for a day or two that we would become involved. Then it became very clear.
A cowboy from Texas, Bobby Ray Something, taught me how to buy and wear jeans, how they had to look and to fit and to fade, distressed and slim. Chuck Brodhead, who played in the University of Michigan marching band (which may have had more members than the entire student body of smaller colleges), taught us all the Michigan fight song, “The Champions,” and drilled us in it over and over. A kid from La Jolla told me about surfing and the sun-bleached rituals of the California beaches and the small coast towns I must promise to visit one day. Bradlee spoke lyrically and without self-consciousness of Harvard Yard and what it meant, those football rallies before the Yale game. And Dick Bowers, who was a Yalie and played tailback, talked of western Pennsylvania, where he had grown up in coalmining towns and where, he assured us solemnly, the football had been harder and meaner and tougher than anything ever experienced in the Ivy League. And Southern boys formed us into ad hoc glee clubs and taught us close harmony, singing late into the Virginia evening the songs of the Old South.
“In the evening / By the moonlight / You can hear the banjos ringin’ …”
Someone else, or several someones, taught me occasionally to shut up. Maybe that was the best lesson of all. That, and how to order a bourbon with branch water or to savor a cool glass of beer on a hot day.
I took mental notes, began to absorb a smattering of social graces, to wonder, at least vaguely, about one day becoming a gentleman. I wasn’t as methodical about it as James Gatz-becoming-Gatsby, but there was a little of that in it too.
“Brooks Brothers is the place,” I was told. “No, J. Press.” “Chipp cuts a better shoulder.” “Give me Fenn-Feinstein.”
I listened. And bought my first blue oxford cloth button-down shirt.
Maybe they learned something as well, all those Yalies and Texans and Harvards. I took Doug Bradlee home with me one weekend to Brooklyn. My brother was away, and Doug slept in his bed, and in the morning my mother gave him breakfast in the kitchen, as she did with all of us (the dining-room table was for dinner!), and I got him a date that Saturday evening with a girl who worked at the phone company, and on Sunday he went to mass with us at the Catholic church even though he was Episcopalian or something, and I showed him the Sheepshead Bay waterfront and he loved that, knowing New England and the lobster boats, and when we took the train back that late afternoon out of Penn Station, Bradlee said that was one of the best weekends he could remember. Ever.
Doug was always polite, but I don’t think he lied.
The Korean War began on a Sunday, June 25. It wasn’t really clear for a day or two that we would become involved. Then it became very clear.
By a fluke the American delegation was able to ram through a veto-proof resolution calling for United Nations forces to stop the North Koreans. The Soviets were boycotting the session, or they could have killed the resolution on the spot. Within a few days the first American soldiers were in action and MacArthur had been named commander of U.N. forces.
By mid-July the first letters had gone out from the Marine Corps. Get ready to be called up for active duty, we were told. But don’t quit your job yet, remain in school, stay put until further word. Get in shape and read your mail.
In 1950 Life magazine was what we had instead of television, and it was Life that brought us the war.
The newspapers were there, certainly, with Marguerite Higgins of the New York Herald Tribune and Drew Middleton of The New York Times and wire-service men reporting almost from the very first. But no one could match Life with those big pages and slick paper and great photographs, especially ones by a man named David Douglas Duncan who had been a Marine during the big war and was now with the Marines in Korea.
The South Korean army, which was called ROKs for “Republic of Korea,” fell apart almost instantly, the way you expected such armies to behave, but the first Americans into the fighting weren’t much better. They were soldiers rushed over from Japan, garrison troops fat and slack from years of occupation duty. They weren’t precisely Caesar’s Tenth Legion, and they were up against a tough little peasant army with lots of mortars and very good artillery. Nevertheless some of them fought, and quite a few of them died, and the thing was a disaster. One of the divisional generals, a man named William Dean, actually ended up fighting as a rifleman when his regiments and battalions disintegrated around him, and he was captured by the North Koreans trying to defend a roadblock like some private dog soldier. Miss Higgins wrote about General Dean, and people clucked and said, “Oh, what a shame, what a gallant man.” Later, Marines I talked to said he should have been court-martialed for getting himself and his outfit into such a sorry state.