Leaving For Korea

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After a few weeks what was left of the South Koreans and the dribs and drabs MacArthur was sending over had been compressed into a small quadrant of southeastern South Korea up against the sea, behind a river called the Naktong and based on a big port town called Pusan. Pusan was important because our ships could get in there with reinforcements and armor and supplies. If we lost Pusan, the war was over. In Washington some people were starting to talk quietly about withdrawal, remembering Dunkirk.

I was following the fight from Sheepshead Bay and on the subway going to work at Macy’s, reading the papers. Unlike most people on the subway, I had more than a rooting interest. The first Marine units went into combat in August in what was being called the Pusan Perimeter. And Duncan’s photos started appearing every week in Life . The country looked rugged; the Marines looked drained, exhausted; the rice paddies in between the mountains looked hot and wet and perfectly lousy places to die. The photos scared me.

By now the North Koreans had run out of steam and been knocked back from the Naktong, and in September MacArthur pulled out the Marines and ran them around the left flank and landed at Inchon, a brilliant stroke that threatened to cut off the North Koreans from their base.

Then, in October, the war apparently won, MacArthur did a bizarre thing. He split his army and went north, with winter coming and warnings that so too would come the Chinese.

They did, a half-million of them, it was said; they routed the Americans, and MacArthur seemed to panic and started calling out for air strikes north of the Yalu River and, maybe—the newspapers were unclear—for the atomic bomb. The first heavy snow fell in North Korea, and the mercury dropped below zero.

Then my orders arrived. I was to report to Quantico, Virginia, to the Third Special Basic Class (SBC) at the Marine Corps Schools, on January 3,1951. Charges for transportation would be honored. The orders came to my house on Nineteenth Street in Sheepshead Bay, the house where I’d lived for so long, with my mother and my brother, Tom, with Grandma until she died, with Uncle Tom and Aunt Mary, where I’d once lived in the basement when my dad was still there, and where he put up the electric trains every Christmas. Was that how death came calling? In a routinely delivered letter to a little row house in Brooklyn?

My last day of work for Macy’s was the Friday before Christmas. A couple of copywriters took me out to lunch, and afterward we wandered Fifth Avenue, admiring the store windows at Saks and Lord & Taylor and the decorations of Rockefeller Center.

That night there was a college alumni dance, the first since I’d graduated in June and maybe the last I’d ever attend. I took Sheila Collins and wore my new uniform. It was a bit premature since I wasn’t going on active duty until January 3, but it saved me the rental of a tuxedo, and I thought it looked pretty good, and anyway, who was going to complain? The dance was in one of the big New York hotels and a smashing affair, a final chance to see some good friends. Sheila was as ever the liveliest, the funniest, the best girl at the table. Sometime after midnight the dance came to its conclusion, winding down and ending, as all dances did then, always with the same last song: “Good night, sweetheart / Till we meet tomorrow? Good night, sweetheart / Parting’s such a sorrow. …”

And with that corny and rather lovely assumption that we dancers, boys and girls half in love, would now part until tomorrow, would go home to separate beds, the dance ended.

The Marines, again pushed back to the coast, got out of Hungnam on Christmas Eve, the rear guard wading out to the landing barges from the beach through the low surf, and as soon as they were off, four hundred tons of frozen dynamite and hundreds of thousand-pound bombs detonated, destroying the waterfront. Offshore three rocket vessels, seven destroyers, and three cruisers pumped shells into the city. The Chinese would not find much there to comfort them. Between October 26 and mid-December the Marine division lost 604 killed in action, 114 dead of wounds, 192 missing, 3,500 wounded, and another 7,300 nonbattle casualties, mostly frostbite and frozen limbs, many of whom returned after treatment to resume fighting. The division originally numbered about 15,000 men.

Some of this was in the papers, but for security reasons, not all. You didn’t need the statistics when you looked at Duncan’s pictures in Life magazine, the men with icicles hanging from their noses and their hollow, haunted eyes. It turned raw over Christmas and during Christmas week, and I imagined I felt cold more deeply than I ever had before. Nerves. I’d just turned twentytwo in November and felt much younger, wondering if I’d ever see another birthday, another Christmas,

At times like this you focus very narrowly and precisely on yourself.