Leaving For Korea

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Quantico echoed, empty and lorn.

It wouldn’t stand vacant long, not with new classes coming into the Basic School every month or so now and more men coming back from Korea to help instruct them. The emptiness was only in those of us left behind.

The Marine Corps was eminently sensible about some matters. No man was to be left in Korea a day beyond what was necessary; there was no testing yardstick of machismo or brute endurance. As soon as there was a qualified replacement for an officer or an enlisted man, he could be rotated home. There was no training as valuable as combat, and since Korea was the only shooting war now available, the Corps had no intention of wasting it. Officers and men were shunted in and out as quickly as possible to learn, or perfect, their trade and then to come home to teach it to others. This was good news to those of us who expected shortly to be heading west. There were to be no marathons as during the last war, when a man might spend thirty-six or forty months in the Pacific with no hope of home until war’s end or a bad wound.

So as Mack Allen and Sceva and Faust and others like us took over fresh platoons of new second lieutenants and started to take them through their paces, other men, returning veterans of the fighting in Korea, joined our ranks in the “faculty” of the Basic School. Such men were physically fit, of course. The broken men were parceled out to what is now St. Alban’s Hospital in New York City and to other hospitals around the country. The men who came to work alongside us, whom I regarded with considerable awe, had come through whole. They looked whole, and they acted that way too except late on certain nights at the bar of Waller Hall, when their eyes seemed empty and you might draw certain conclusions.

One of those early May weekends, when Mack was in Richmond or somewhere, I drove up to Washington, as Gunny Arzt and I had so often done, and, having found no mischief, drove back alone and Baptist-proper through the warm afternoon of northern Virginia toward the BOQ and an early dinner.

Then, on that quiet, seeking, restless, empty Sunday I saw the sign. MANASSAS 12 MILES , it said.

I swung the wheel. How grand it would have been to have had Mack Allen with me, a man who knew about Manassas, born in Virginia, educated there, a man whose people had fought at Manassas, or, as we called it, Bull Run.

My people hadn’t fought there. Mack knew Manassas; I’d just read about it.

There were other signs, confusing, and the spring sun sank behind low hills and old trees overhanging the road. I kept going, looking for Manassas, past signs and mile markers and across the narrow runs and through the crossroads hinting of towns somewhere off in the dusk. Perhaps there were historical markers, pointing toward the battlefield, but in the gloom I couldn’t see them, only the occasional lone barn or farmhouse, a white church steeple ghostly, rising, and what seemed to be big farms beyond split-rail fences, and lots of trees, sometimes organized in orchards, row on row, but mostly just stands of wood, thick and mysterious. McClellan had fought here, and Meade and Jeb Stuart and Lee and Hood. Here stood the Army of the Potomac, and toward it came the long gray lines of Southerners, Mack Allen’s people, the brigades of cavalry slouching in their saddles and the regiments of Carolinians and Georgians and Texans and the batteries of guns, rattling and lurching along these same roads. Along here just about every mile and at every crossroads they fought for four years, starting here at Manassas in 1861 and ending here, big set-piece battles and small, nasty skirmishes when a detachment of horse stumbled across a woodcutting party in the dark. I wondered if those men, those long-dead men whose wraiths still marched here in the deep Virginia night, felt about war as I did, drawn to it and fearing it at the same time.

Thoroughly lost, I gave up the search and cut back on the first side road toward the Shirley Highway and Quantico.

Letters and postcards began to arrive in Quantico from the West. From Camp Pendleton, from the embarkation ports of San Diego and San Francisco, from Pacific Ocean points en route, finally from Korea itself and the 1st Marine Division.

Bradlee’s letters were touched with eloquence, and I thought how pleased his Harvard tutors would have been.

“… Had a very interesting talk with Champion as the evening wore on. He’s the man who has three children, two purple hearts, and fought through almost the entire last war. He was a lieutenant on Iwo and Okinawa after coming up through the ranks. Very mild, quiet, slim guy who was a refrigerator repairman in Muskegon, Michigan. He was considering moving and I told him my liking for old timers in New England, the rather reduced but satisfactory scale of living of lobstermen. He likes to work with his hands too.”

This sure sounded like Doug. During Harvard summers he worked on a lobster boat, setting and lifting the big traps. Probably it was good training for another season of football, keeping him lean and tough. But for a man who lived in some comfort, if not luxury, on Pinckney Street in Boston’s Back Bay, the lot of the New England lobsterman had another, more subtle pull. Bradlee really did mean it when he talked of a “reduced but satisfactory” way of life. I’d seen his car with its wooden two-by-fours bridging the rusted-away parts of the floor.

That was Bradlee, of St. Mark’s and Harvard and effete Boston.