18 January 2011

A Year in Korea

By Kirk Woodward

[Kirk Woodward, who’s contributed various columns to ROT over the time I’ve been publishing it, was, like me, an ROTC cadet in college. I went in the army about a month before he did and while I ended up in army schools for 19 months and then an overseas assignment in West Berlin, Kirk was quickly assigned to duty in South Korea where he was stationed between 1970 and 1971. He sent me a slightly edited version of a memoir he composed based on letters (quoted below in italics) he wrote home during his tour in Korea. If some of this reminds readers of a couple of popular novels (plus a movie and a TV show), you’re not alone. ~Rick]

[I have edited this document and changed one or two names. Unfortunately, young Lt. Woodward treated his later self poorly by refusing to date most letters at all, so a lot of the sequencing here is guesswork. I know, though, that the narrative begins in 1970. –KW]

I flew from Louisville to Seattle, where I saw Mt. Rainier in the distance, to Anchorage, which was cold and dismal and just an airport, and to Tokyo, over so much ocean. . . . I flew that last, long leg on a US Army freight plane with some rather temporary-looking seats in it, a plane built for flying and not much else. I remember my surprise when we were told in Anchorage to board “officers first” and I realized I would be one of the first to get on the plane. I woke up at one point in the middle of the night; the surface below me was absolutely flat and the moon enormous in the sky, like something in a Duanier Rousseau painting, and I realized that the flat surface was the vast ocean – one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen.

We bunked together in Seoul, and at this transitional stop I realized that behind the scenes a sort of lottery was taking place that would determine where we’d be sent. It started to dawn on me that a really, really bad place to be sent would be the DMZ, which at that time, as today, was a cold, barren, dangerous location. Somehow that didn’t happen, and my orders sent me instead to Camp Carroll Depot, about 2/3 down South Korea, at a little town called Waegwan.

CCD was built on the side of a magnificent north-south valley that runs up the middle of Korea, with a big highway in the center of it and rice paddies in a quilt along both sides, and everywhere else in Korea, for that matter. The bachelor officer quarters, four functional brick buildings, looked over the valley. From there you walked down a long winding road down a hill to the main gate of the Depot, past a few huts and several chickens (“I’ve never been this close to a chicken!” a colleague exclaimed one day), about where the Village – bars and houses – began.

Turning left and going in the Depot, the Officers Club was up the road on the left, the USO club on the right, and, further right, the Y-shaped Headquarters building. Stretching out and to the right were several vast repair facilities, storage buildings, and warehouses. It was, I’ve told innumerable people since, a little like being stationed in West Virginia. The US Army had been in Korea so long that everything felt more permanent than not.

I began to get the feel of the place. I wrote home:

Have seen a lot of Korea recently. Went to Taegu last Thursday; it’s about half an hour from here, the third largest city in Korea. Saw a part (a small part) of the market area, namely the area where people sell fabrics. I also visited a place called the Inventory Control Center (ICC), which controls all supply operations in the area, including me. I visited two men named Mr. Brown and Mr. Kagi in the Electronics Section, and they’re both crazy. They would speak in alternating sentences for a while, each one in turn picking up where the other stopped. Then suddenly they’d fly at each other in a wild argument, shouting and interrupting and pulling books off shelves and waving them. Then suddenly they’d resolve the discussion and return to me, alternating sentences. This went on for half an hour and I never did find out what I wanted to know. Mad.

A similar thing had happened to me just before, when I’d gone to the Taegu finance office to get a treasury check made from the money left by an Army civilian recently deceased. The lieutenant in the office was furious. “You can’t get a check here! You don’t have authorization! You don’t have (somebody’s) signature! How do I know who you are? What do you mean coming in like this?” Then, with no transition, “Well, take it over there and get it signed.”

It was a couple of weeks before I was assigned to a job. In fact, it was a couple of weeks before anyone knew I was there, which was fine with me. I was doomed as soon as the colonel learned that I was present, a day I postponed as long as I could. Col. Rolman was a florid man with a beautiful head of hair and absolutely no idea what he was doing. He was a wild man, talky and unpredictable, and as the months went on, he didn’t get better, he got worse. He fired people with abandon, then put them in newer and even more important jobs. My buddy Mike Henkaline and I once had a drink with a couple of officers from another post who felt bad because they’d recently been relieved from their posts. We just laughed – we knew people who’d been relieved three or four times in a week.

Here is a report of a conference told from the point of view of a captain who was there. The colonel was red-faced, pacing up and down. Suddenly he began: “We need a SENSE OF URGENCY on this post!” and pointed to a chart at the top of which was written SENSE OF URGENCY in four-inch letters. The colonel went on like this for some time, and my friend the captain finally tuned him out. Then suddenly the captain heard the colonel ask “Col. Pool?” and Lt. Col. Pool said, “I don’t know, sir.” Then the Colonel asked, “What about you, Captain Rowland?” The captain had no idea what the question was, so he followed Col. Pool’s lead and said, “I don’t know, sir.” The colonel turned to the next man and asked, “Do you think I’m responsible for this lack of urgency?” “No, sir!” the man said snappily, and it began to dawn on my friend that he’d given the wrong answer. . . . God only knows what Col. Pool had been thinking about.

At a meeting one day Col. Rolman announced, “What we need is an arsenal of management tools.” “There’s a closet just down the hall we could use, sir,” Major Roberts replied.

Rolman was truly the Management Beast – he knew there were ways an organization should be managed, and had absolutely no idea what they were. He made arbitrary decisions and stuck to them, for as long as a week sometimes, and then made other decisions that contradicted them. He loved meetings – it was Mike, I believe, who attended a meeting at Headquarters, started to return to his job in his jeep, and was called back before he’d reached his office for another meeting that the Colonel had just decided to hold.

On the other hand, my immediate boss at work, and the ranking officer I thought the most of, was the late Major Joel E. L. Roberts, a minister’s son and the most profane man who ever lived (“Fucking abortion!” he’d say. “Sweet Jesus!”), and the smartest and most capable adult I probably have ever met. I think he had joined the Army just to give himself a challenge. It darned near beat him, but the collision was something to see. He tried his hardest to make us ROTC guys into something; I remember how irritated he got that I waved at an enlisted man I knew, instead of making him salute me. Oh, well.

So I finally got my first job at the Depot, which I described in a letter home:

At present – pardon a ROTC lesson – I am Chief, Supply Branch, Depot Shops Division, Directorate of Maintenance. As the system used to be set up there were six shops, doing different kinds of maintenance work, and each one had its own supply room:

Heavy equipment
Light equipment
Electrical and Communication
Major Assembly

When I arrived, Chief, Depot Shops, my boss, a captain, consolidated all the branch supply units into one Supply Branch under me, adding one more unit to that list of six. But a paper consolidation does not a real consolidation make, so now I am working to create a central ordering system, in our own little building.

A DAC (Department of the Army Civilian) named Crutchfield had always thought there should be one supply office instead of six, and he convinced me, so we found a little second-floor room over a garage and moved desks and chairs, and Koreans, into it. I doubt that I had any idea of the organizational work that would be needed to make this plan succeed, and in any case I didn’t have more than about two weeks to work on it, since I was almost immediately fired, in front of a roomful of glum Koreans. On the plus side, Major Roberts gave me credit, possibly undeserved but I appreciated it, for trying to do the right thing. Later the Depot did, for real, exactly what I had tried to implement.

The nominees for “most fouled up bureaucratic mess you ever saw in the Army” would make a long list. When I arrived at Camp Carroll, for example, I was surprised to see that it had a wall around it, four feet wide, several feet tall, and grey. Not so fast, soldier. That was no wall – well, it was a wall, but an unusual one, because they had to do something with all the fence posts somebody had ordered with the wrong “unit of issue” – maybe you ordered a thousand fence posts with a unit of issue of one, and some guy ordered a thousand, so they got a delivery of a million fence posts. All they could figure to do was ring the depot with them lying on their sides.

The grey that covered them was actually portable helicopter landing pads, designed for use in Vietnam. Unfortunately they were so heavy that they could only be set up by a crane, which meant that an area would have to be secured and developed before the “temporary” landing pads could be set up, making them completely useless. So they found a new purpose covering our wall of fence posts, and a darned fine wall they made, too.

Our Colonel, I may have mentioned, changes personnel constantly – bad on morale, to say the very very least. He also calls meetings at fifteen minutes notice. Sometimes he bawls everybody out. Sometimes he compliments everybody. Some meetings are long, some short. He asks for votes of confidence; and sometimes he makes personnel changes. As we walked into the last meeting, my boss the captain whispered to me, “You’re the new chaplain.” He himself is one of eight Directors of Administration the depot has had since October.

My captain knows a man who worked for the Pentagon and wrote a series of chapters making up a report. As he wrote each one he marked it SECRET. When he finished, they took the whole thing and marked it TOP secret and wouldn’t let him read it, even though he’d written it.

Here are some Col. Rolman stories: he believes in management through meetings and as a result is always calling together three people, an entire directorate, and once or twice the entire depot (in the theater). One time Captain Henkaline got a call to come to HQ immediately with his first sergeant. They arrived to find the colonel’s office, both outer and inner, filled with people. The colonel was yelling on the phone, the sergeant-major was running around finding people. Finally the crowd thinned and the captain and sergeant went in the office. The colonel simply ignored them, didn’t say a word to them, talking to other people, writing notes – not a sign of recognition. After about fifteen minutes of this the captain and sergeant walked out. They waited outside again; other people were involved too, Col. Rice and Sgt. Rouelle; they all waited, and finally they went back inside. “Well, hello! How are you?” Warm greetings from the colonel. Everybody sat down. “Now,” said the colonel, “What’s the subject of this meeting?”

This sort of thing happens fairly often. My major, Major Roberts, was told by his office to return a call from the colonel. “Hello, Robbie,” said Col. Rolman. “What did I want to talk to you about?”

There’s no reason this, and any other wacky Army story, couldn’t be true. We used to say that before we joined the Army, we thought that Catch-22 was fantasy, but that now we knew it was really photographic realism.

For a long time I couldn’t understand why I was given a high rank and a lot of money, while the sergeants, who actually knew stuff and did things, were called “enlisted men” and were basically treated as a different class of people, although many of them were, personally as well as professionally, the aristocrats of the kingdom rather than the lackeys.

Eventually it dawned me that as an officer, and in particular an ROTC officer, I was being paid for one thing: to take the blame if something went wrong, and thus protect the sergeants as they went about their duties. After that realization it all made sense. I had some outstanding sergeants, some ordinary ones, and some curious ones, but I never made the mistake of thinking that I was “better” in any sense than they were.

One time a sergeant allowed me to plan something that didn’t go well, in order to teach me a lesson. I spoke to him afterwards, congratulated him on a clever piece of training, and added that our job wasn’t to train me but to carry out the Army’s missions, and I’d appreciate it if he’d work with me on that aspect of things from now on. We got along well after that.

My favorite sergeant story concerns one of the great ones, a vigorous, completely bald black sergeant with a voice that could shake the roofs. Eventually I was in charge, if that’s the word, of a platoon of about a million men. Since the purpose of the depot was mechanical work rather than drilling and marching around, our platoons were largely administrative structures, but one day the men had messed up and our sergeant formed them up on the pavement and dressed them up one side and down the other, until everyone was shaking.

Then he bellowed, in his largest possible voice, “And now THE LIEUTENANT will talk to you!” I felt like the biggest fool in Asia, especially as I heard myself saying, in a squeaky little voice, “ Okay, men, you heard what the sergeant said. . . .”

Theft was prevalent on the depot. Just before I got there, in a celebrated incident, a quite sophisticated tunnel was discovered connecting the inside of the depot to the outside (beyond the wall of fence posts). I used to wander around the border areas looking for other tunnels, but never found any. A Korean who sold, say, a distributor could feed a family for a good while on the returns from one, and of course the Depot was full of auto parts, so we were an easy mark.

One day a Korean who I will not name even here because of his undoubted wishes, even though he’s probably been dead for ages, came to me in absolute secrecy and told me that three or four Korean women were smuggling parts out of the Depot under their voluminous Korean dresses (heavily layered, colorful, very ceremonial looking). He drew me a little a map to show me the route they took. I passed the information on to Major Roberts, stressing the need for absolute confidentiality, and he took the map. When I told my informant that the map was no longer in my hands, he nearly had a stroke, and begged me to get it back at once. No matter how much I assured him that Major Roberts was as secure as Fort Knox (I suppose I used another metaphor), he would not breathe again until I had returned the map to his hands. (The women were duly caught.)

We were among other things a repair shop; vehicles from Vietnam would be brought in and fixed. Then they would be put out on the back lot, where people would break in and steal parts. When the vehicles were requisitioned for return to Vietnam, they would be inspected, when it would be found that they were missing parts; they would be returned to the repair shop, and often fixed using parts taken from the vehicles in the back lot; then they’d be put on the back lot themselves, where. . . . I wonder if we ever sent any vehicles anywhere.

In general I admired the Koreans very much, and still do. They were smart and scrappy, and they had achieved in about twenty years what we’d achieved over a couple of centuries of the Industrial Revolution, with all the associated problems, of course.

Well, having been fired, I got promoted, more or less, to my job during most of my time at the Depot, and I enjoyed it hugely, and perhaps was even marginally good at it:

Dear Folks,

I now have a new and theoretically most impressive job: I am Chief of Warehousing, which is part of the Storage Division of the Directorate for Supply and Transportation, and am therefore – again theoretically – boss of some 100 people, four large warehouses, two smaller buildings, and umpteen outdoor storage areas – about 50 – filled with vehicles and all sorts of other stuff. (Following my recent demotion, I have now been wildly promoted.)

One remarkable event took place at the Service Club:

. . . my meeting with Gen. Mike Michaelis, the 8th Army commander and hero of the Korean War. I try not to be impressed by rank alone, but it seems me that General M. is genuinely big stuff. I met him at the Service Club, the last stop on a tour he was making as escort officer for the Asst Sect of Defense for something or other (a pleasant man who talked with the depot doctor’s pretty wife the whole time and seemed happy as a clam). Gen M. interested me more. He seems to have lost weight; he has a large head on a thin little body. He walked by himself to the far end of the auditorium. It didn’t feel right to me that everybody was leaving him to himself, so I followed him, and we had the following conversation:

He asked me if the piano worked. I told him I didn’t know but figured it did. I then asked him how the visit was going. Hated to, but there’d been a lot of apprehension. I really was curious. “Fine!” he said. Pause. “He’s been here three times,” he said, referring to the Dep. Sec. Apparently Gen. M. didn’t see himself as the center of attention. Then, looking at the doctor’s wife: “Who’s that girl?” I told him. Pause. “Doctors’ wives are always the best looking girls, for some reason.” I told him she’d just discovered she was pregnant. “Have you started calling her ‘mother’ yet?” he asked and walked on over toward the punchbowl, literally looking her up and down as he went. That was my meeting with Iron Mike Michaelis, one of the most powerful men in Korea.

The Army provided good training for future business experience:

Had a briefing in my office with Col. Rolman yesterday. I left my notes on my desk and went outside to wait for him. While I was there, the office staff, trying to make the room look nice, took my notes and put them in a drawer, so when I came back with the colonel, major, et al, I found I had no briefing notes. Problem solved by going ahead, courageously but very nervous. . . .

Our CCD story for the week concerns the Lt. in the Plans, Training, and Intelligence office in the HQ Building who called his friend at Military Intelligence on the floor below and, trying to begin the conversation with a funny touch, began, “I just got a call: there’s a bomb in the Head Shed.” He intended to continue and explain that he was joking, but he happened to be fooling with the two-line switch for the phone and at that moment he cut himself off. Panicking, he ran downstairs to try and catch the agent, whose line was busy since he, the agent, was calling the adjutant. The adjutant ran into the Depot Commander’s office; fortunately the colonel wasn’t in. He ran to the Deputy CO’s office, but he wasn’t in either. He ran into the hall to pull the fire alarm but thought of one more Lt. Col. he might ask, and while he was going there, the horrified troublemaker finally caught up with him.

I told my boss the Major today that in a sense the people who should be in the Army are people like E-5s with over 15 years in service, since that kind of person most likely would have no place else to go. He nearly threw me out of the office.

That was Major Roberts again, who couldn’t believe what a civilian I was. I still think I had a point, though.

I inherited Mike’s job as Depot Improvement Officer (he’d had it for two weeks) part-time; there is no evidence that I made the depot any better, but I did put out at least two newsletters, which I’m sure were received with the acclaim they deserved. Part of my duty, apparently, was to fight the use of drugs; I was handicapped in this, I suppose, because I didn’t use any and didn’t know anybody who did, but still we devised a plan, which I described as follows:

For present users – bring down the pot-sniffing dog to do a demonstration – we can get you if we want to. (Implied: take advantage of the Amnesty program.)

For potential users – intra-platoon sports.

Speaking of sports, we participated in War Games around this time. The several-day exercise was intended to help gauge our readiness to withstand an attack by North Korea. We wore field gear the whole time and assembled for strategy meetings, but didn’t actually enact, or re-enact, any combat. Memorable event: Col. Rolman, aiming for the Patton effect (the movie was recently out), pointed to a map, illustrating the various places where we would defend the Depot. Unfortunately it was a map of North Korea.

In the end, the North Koreans won. Please read that sentence again. The North Koreans won our own war game. They beat us rather badly, actually. And they weren’t even there.

A new crane was brought on to the railhead Friday, and the Koreans held a little service of propitiation, bowing down before it and later breaking a little bottle of gin over its bumper; which, as everyone noted, makes at least as much sense as the Army safety program.

We became pretty sure that the Koreans made up this ceremony just to add some spice to the day.

Our chaplain refuses to have anything to do with alcohol at all. The other night, I understand, he sat in the club with a group of drinkers who kept buying rounds. Since he was drinking 7-Up, he soon found he had about six 7-Ups in front of him, all opened and waiting. . . .

Major Roberts, my boss and leader and now Deputy Commander although we have a Lt. Col. and a more senior major, told Col. Rolman that the deputy’s chair was too big for him. “No, no, Robbie,” the colonel said, “you have the experience, the drive, the ability. . . .” “I mean the chair, sir. The chair’s too big.” It was a pretty big chair. . . .

Last night the major and I were watching a floor show at the club. Neither of us were wild about it. The major eyed the tambourine player. “If that guy can jump through that hoop,” he said, “I’ll be impressed.”

Eventually, surprisingly, it began to look more and more like I might actually get to go home.

The transition has been smooth as far as my job is concerned, and I’ve spent this week, when I wasn’t in Taegu, telling my successor what I know. Speaking of Taegu, I’ve been spending some shopping time there. The other day I took a Korean taxi to Taegu, driven by one of those typically astonishing Korean taxi drivers over a road which resembles US 60 from the VA line to Charleston, with half the width of the road missing. The driver – half drunk, born with a quarter of his faculties, resolutely refusing to blow his horn when directed to by a sign, as well as at any other time, cursed from childhood by a bad memory which caused each curve in the road to loom up at him as an awful surprise, though he’d driven it fifty times before. Of such is Oriental fatalism born.

One day at lunch in the Officers Club I stood up and said, “Good bye.” “Where are you going?” someone asked. “CONUS,” I replied, and left.

. . . a dream which was dreamed by a friend who is no radical in any sense of the word. In his dream he was in one of five connected dirigibles, flying over a hilly suburb which reminded him of, say, the outskirts of Pittsburg. He was piloting one of the dirigibles. On the side of each craft was a large sign that read: WHAT DO THEY DO. . . THESE AMERICANS?

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