Tribute to my father

My father died during the course of this research, shortly after it began. He was a true inspiration to me. One of the pieces he wrote after his experience in the Korean War was very moving and beautiful. He never had it published (it was seen as too critical). I publish it here, unedited,  in his memory.


Night Train to Pusan

Thomas R. Flesher

He was one of a long line of G.I.’s that stretched along the muddy street in Inchon, Korea. It had been raining all day and because of the rain it had given him a feeling of satisfaction when he missed all those work-formation calls back at the “repo-depot”. He had said to himself, let all those other saps stand in the rain and gets stuck for work duties.  Besides, if it had been rotation orders he figured he could hear  them without getting out of the sack.

At four o’clock the call had been for rotation orders and he had made it in plenty of time. The rain had stopped. Walking along in loose formation dodging the puddles, it was tough going in the slippery mud, made worse by the duffel bag he had balanced on his head. He said to himself, if the Koreans  can carry these loads on their head, so can I. The rain had given the  straw roofs of the mud huts  a musty odor which blended with the fish smells, toning them down a bit, and it had muted all the sounds of the town so that all he could hear was the sloshing of feet and his own panting. I wonder how far  this damn railroad depot is, he thought. He had hoped to go by ship, so that he could say he had sailed in the Yellow Sea. He thought it was a certainty back at the battalion when the “drop” came down telling them to report to Inchon. Until now, everyone who had gone to Inchon went right by boat to Sasebo in Japan. But not this time.  They were going  by train to Pusan, and he had already been there.  He mused, maybe I can still see the bay, then at least I could say I saw the Yellow Sea.

Up ahead the line had halted so that men at the rear slowed their pace as they filled the gaps in the long line. It gave him a chance to look around, and for the first time he noticed all the little kids along the road.  But then they were always there, saluting and asking for food, “chop chop”. As usual, he had neglected to bring anything to give them and felt sorry about it. A little guilty too. He thought, I could have brought something. But what the hell, these kids in Inchon aren’t bad off, not like that little kid south of Taegu. I’m sure that kid never lived ‘till morning. And we could’ve done more for him.

That had been when he first arrived in Korea at Pusan. He had not yet been assigned to a unit and he, and some others in the same boat, had gotten off the train that was taking them north in Taegu.  They would  await orders in Taegu at the Eighth Army “repo–depot”.  It was bitter cold and they stood close together in small groups waiting for the trucks that would take them from the station to the “repo–depot”. Huddled together, he had not noticed a small boy who had appeared out of the darkness. He heard this faint murmur of “chop chop” (food). Turning, he saw the little boy of five or six, trembling from the bitter December cold. The boy was clad only in a thin shirt and short pants that offered little protection against the cold wind that was sweeping up the long valley. He had nothing to give the boy and he turned to ask the others if they had anything.  They didn’t have any either and the boy was about to leave. But under his insistence that someone must have something, an orange and a few candy bars were produced. He gave them to the little boy who took them in his shivering hands.  Then turning, he disappeared down the tracks into the darkness.  Now, the remembrance of the incident disturbed him.

He had caught up now and let his bag down carefully.   Don’t want to break that whiskey, he said to himself.   He had stopped in front of a high grey wall that resembled those he had seen surrounding schools all over Korea. “Hey I wonder if that’s the orphanage the folks are sending all those packages to.”

When he had first arrived in Korea, he had attended mass near Inchon and there had been a request to ask the people at home to send any old children’s cloths to an orphanage in Inchon, and somehow he had remembered  to slip it into a letter home. His mother had mentioned it around, and it had become kind of parish project sending things over. Now he remembered that the nun who ran the orphanage had written to his folks that she would like to see him.  But every time he got down around Seoul he always ended up having a cold beer in one of the houses behind the PX instead of going down to Inchon. Anyway, he thought, who wanted to see an old nun. Well, it was too late now, he was going home. Still, he took some pleasure in the thought that he, in a small way, had made it possible, letting it serve a little bit for not having brought anything for the kids.

It was around six o’clock and the sun had broken through somewhere out at sea and it made the clouds over the town pink and billowy.  He took a deep breath, and the mingling of Korean smells and the sunset made him a little melancholy. It’s funny he thought, after waiting so long to leave, I think I will actually kind of miss old “Chosen Frozen”. But this was rotation day and the contemplation of breaking out the whiskey he had smuggled in his bag once the train was underway, and sharing it with the guys around him, cheered him up. We’ll have a good time while it lasts, he thought.

Up ahead, there was a G.I.  with one of those swagger sticks, the kind you could buy in any  one of the Korean markets. The G.I. called out to an old philosophical looking man with a long white beard, dressed in the traditional white clothing of a retired farmer. “Hey Papa-san, eti wah (come here).”

As the old man drew near, the G.I. lashed out with the swagger stick. The astounded old man jumped back, the stick narrowly missing his face. A big laugh went up from the soldiers.

Someone shouted, “Hey Papa-san, how much for your daughter, you speak?”

Another. shouted, “I’ll bet the old bastard got a nice wife too. How much for your wife, Papa-san?”

With the stoop of the aged, the old man stood off a few paces, looking bewildered and taking it all in.

Beaconing again to the old man, the G.I. with the swagger stick shouted again, “Hey Papa-san, Eti wah”.  As he again drew near, the G.I. lashed out again. And again the man jumped back. A group of civilians had gathered along the street, their only means of passage blocked by the halted troops. The old man backed away and joined them, still staring, confused at the action of his former attacker. There was more laughter and continued jibes of the troops, now directed at all the civilians.

Further up at the intersection, two Koreans with bicycles, tired of the delay, started forward trying to get through the line of soldiers so as to be on their way.

“Hey, don’t let those Gooks through.” someone shouted, and the troops moved laughingly together blocking their passage. After a few unsuccessful attempts, Koreans with the bicycles retired to the docile group that stood watching with the expressionless eyes of an occupied people.

Then, a school bus approached slowing to a stop because of the blocked road.  This afforded a new target for the G.I. with the swagger stick. As the bus started to slowly move forward, he thrust the swagger stick into each of the open windows where school children sat. But his efforts were in vain as the children ducked successfully as each window took its turn abreast of their assailant. The bus came to a fortuitous halt out of his range.

“That S.O.B,” he thought, “And what the hell are those officers doing standing there like a damn bunch of ninnies taking it all in. It  would take one word from any one of them to put a stop to the whole thing.”   He always hated himself at times like this because he didn’t have the guts to step forward. But, he thought, what the hell can I do besides get laughed at?

He felt the same way that cold night south of Taegu –   What could he do? it was the not knowing that bothered him. The  fear of appearing as some Quixotic character kept him as just another of the long line of uniforms, an exact replica of  the uniform next to him.  Cooling off a bit he thought how many of these guys feel the same way I do  and remain acquiescent partners to the whole thing — at least we don’t shoot them like the Japs and Chinks.  But a few jerks like theses makes us all look bad.

The line resumed movement and he again became a submerged nonentity in a uniform. “That S.O.B with  the swagger stick” he thought, “probably a Southerner.” He liked to put the blame of these things on the Southerners ever since he had trained with the all white Dixie DIvision in the states, even though deep down he knew it wasn’t true. He had seen that it didn’t make much difference from where a person came, it was just that the Southerners were usually more loud-mouthed about it. It made him feel better to shift the blame to Southerners as he quickened his pace to catch up.

He shouted out his name and rank when an officer with the roster called out a number that matched the one scrawled in white chalk on his duffel bag. “Just another damn number, like everything in the Army, you stand in the mud for half an hour, then run like hell to get on a train that will not pull out for another hour.”  He deliberately exaggerated the time element involved to give full vent to his bitterness.  He arrived at his coach panting, and when his turn came, pushed his bag with the whiskey carefully up ahead of him and climbed on.

Once on board, he looked around. Not seeing anyone he instinctively liked, he sat on one of the wooden benches in the corner of the car, carefully pushing the bag under the bench with his feet, so as not to jeopardize the whiskey. He leaned back to catch his breath.

He sat this way, slowly getting his breath back, thinking about the whiskey, a little disappointed at not seeing someone that measured up to the preconceived picture he had had to share the whiskey with. It was to have been a pleasurable occasion, with a feeling of camaraderie, assisted by his whiskey: rotation day. He imagined the humming clack the train made as it  sped south through the evening darkness. Perhaps some singing. He’d read about soldiers in faraway countries, but somehow the actual living it never managed to measure up to the romantic image he had gotten from the literature. His disappointment was lessened by his having experienced the disillusionment many times before, but nevertheless each time it was a disappointment.

Sitting and reflecting thusly, he had been watching with unseeing eyes the activities of his fellow passengers. The car had sliding panel doors, and two or three soldiers had opened them and jumped down on the opposite side of the train and were busily engaged in passing stones up to those on the inside.  They in turn were piling  the stones in the corner.

“That’s enough,” someone shouted. “No, give me some, Sarge. ” Someone else shouted, “Here,up here, I haven’t got any yet”. – “Get your own”.

Now what the hell are they doing, he thought as the scene broke through into his consciousness. But he hadn’t time to pursue it further, for just then a big commotion went up outside and everyone rushed to the other side of the car to see what was going on.  He made a place for himself and looked out. Along the length of the train, heads were poked out of every window and groups of soldiers had pushed out and we’re standing on the steps and along the cinder roadbed. Their attention was directed on a short fat soldier, with high polished boots and pressed fatigues.  He was scuffling with a girl. She was about fourteen with the unmistakable look of the mentally retarded recorded on her face. She was clearly pregnant with her pregnancy causing her thin dress to split, revealing the fact she wore nothing under it.

The fat soldier was mauling her to the accompaniment of the spectator’s cheers. She had learned the usual English cuss-words and was using them freely to everyone’s amusement. During the scuffling, the girl fell, kicking out viciously and voicing her foul vocabulary all the more vehemently. Following the American tradition of siding with the underdog, this display of fighting pluck was met with the cheers of the soldiers. The Korean civilians standing in little groups watched, as they always watched anything  the foreigners did, displayed mixed emotions. The more “sophisticated”, of course, joined in with the foreigners and had a hearty laugh, while their country cousins stood placidly by watching with expressionless eyes, only the mere fact of their presence betraying their curiosity. Just then the train left out a warning whistle and there was the usual scramble of all aboard, thus bringing to an end the festivities.

He had already returned to his seat, when the others scrambled aboard in response to the train whistle. The station was a little elevated above the town and he had been looking out over the shacks. Before the train chugged into motion, he could hear the  seeping sounds the water makes after a rain. The sounds and the odors of the charcoal burners and fish  blended  in the still pink evening air. He thought, supper was being prepared in those huts that had food. He wondered what it would be like to live there, with winter coming on, and how it would be to be cold, bitter cold until nature again turned on the heat in the spring.  How it would be to be hungry and dirty; how it would be to be continuously liberated only to find it made no difference, it was always the same. As  the train chugged into motion, he sat quietly and looked out into the blue gray darkness, watching lights blink on here and there, each light making him feel a little bit more lonely and sad.   And when he saw the stones being thrown into the crowd at the intersection and aimed at windows of those huts fortunate enough to have some little protection against the coming winter, it registered no new emotional sensation. It just helped maintain the one that had been set in motion by the previous scenes. He had really known from the start what the stones were for, but he hated to admit it, hoping right to the last that he was wrong. The only time he was stirred to an overt thought on it was when one of the soldiers expressed astonishment that  some of the children were throwing stones back. Under his voice he said  sarcastically they are probably too young to realize you are their liberators, feeling once again guilty that he didn’t say it out loud.

When the car was dark enough, he reached into his bag and pulled out the whiskey. He poured some of it into his canteen cup and added a little water. The cup was permeated with the mixed tinny taste of the cup, the thousands of black coffee that had proceeded it, and the strong taste of the disinfectant in the water. But underlying it all was the whiskey. He sat, contained only in his own thoughts, not hearing the voices of others or noticing the darkness that had engulfed the car, and waited for the whiskey to take effect.

As he sat drinking the whiskey, and feeling more than hearing the monotonous pounding sound the  train made, he thought of the first time he heard of Korea. He had been sitting in the tavern hang-out having a beer. He was too young, but he would be of age in a few months. Someone had come in and said the reds had bombed Seoul. And where the hell is that he had thought at the time. He remembered his aunt at home, saying what are we sending American boys over there for? They’re nothing but a  bunch of  cruel heathens. He thought of all the cute kids he had seen and of his houseboy, little Pak, who looked after us and kept our tent clean and wondered how he would go about breaking it to them that they were not worth one good American boy. So here he was, a good American boy, as a matter of fact, a whole trainload of good American boys, showing the “gooks”  that the whole lot of them were not worth one good American boy. He remembered too, all the similar scenes he had seen: the soldiers grabbing the wares of the women and children that peddle such things through the train windows, laughing when they cried, real tears or feigned, he never knew. The same scene over and over again only varying in its application as to time and place. He remembered also the beggar kids so black from soot that it was possible to ascribe race or color to them, that made you sick to look at, trembling from the cold, barefoot and dressed in flimsy sacks draped in some fashion over their thin bodies. How he had been remonstrated by a sergeant for giving one some money. “He doesn’t even shine shoes,” he said. He had reflected at the time, that perhaps a kid, of six alone wandering through the ruins, living in chimneys of a bombed out factory probably didn’t have enough sense or business acumen to turn his life into something productive.

On the other hand, he remembered Old Texan, the friendly mailman, as he called himself and how he had a bunch of kids down at Uijongbu that he brought things to when he went to pick up the daily Mail. And there were many other acts of kindness he had witnessed.  The inconsistency of it all was bewildering and saddened him. The whiskey was gone now, and he spread a blanket on the floor and rolled up in it. With the rhythmic pounding the wheels made under him, and the occasional sound of a M–1  shell dropped by the guard that sat watch on the bench over his head,

“Good American boys.” He murmured “good American boys.”

And slept.