When I tell people my dad was in the Korean war, they often say, “You mean Vietnam?” (or even the Gulf War.) And when I tell them that his father fought in WWI they think I’m really confused.
My dad and his dad only talked about war one time. Dad wanted to know if the memories of combat will ever fade. His father told him they will but never completely.
“They (The Marines) can teach you how to kill, but no one can teach how to get over killing.”
Half a century later, when I was growing up, my dad and I talked about those memories a lot. He didn’t really have a choice. I was obsessed with history as a kid (still am) and I had so many questions. Questions about his bad arm. Questions about his medals and the weapons in his study.
He told me some of his funnier stories, like the time he heard movement in a bush while on patrol and emptied and entire magazine from his carbine into the bush, only to have a pheasant fly out unscathed. He talked about the stuff he could talk about.
It was only this year, when we started working together on his memoir, that he talked about the stuff he doesn’t talk about. Those interviews were slow going. Sometimes we’d just do ten or fifteen minutes before it was too much for him. Other times, we’d be out for breakfast and he’d bring up a long-buried experience in graphic detail, talking faster than I could write.
One of the challenges of working on this project, so far, has been balancing the war stories with the rest of his life. He was in Korea for a little less than four months, but that time takes up a huge chunk of what we’ve drafted up to this point. The project started as 300 pages of notes he had taken over the years thinking he might want to write a book someday. About 160 of those pages were about the war.
This would be fine if war had been the only interesting thing he’d done with his life, but dad had an extraordinary post-war career that included working in JFK’s West Wing, serving as vice president of the University of Chicago and then Harvard, serving as chair of the Joyce foundation, running the JFK Library, and spending the first years of “retirement” reporting on AIDS in South Africa–like a kid fresh out of journalism school. His self-effacing explanation for this is “Plenty of people can’t hold down a job…”
In spite of all this, it was a struggle to get the details out of him when it came to his life after the war. It’s as if his war memories are in high definition, and the rest is black and white. He left the war, but the war never left him. It was impossible to draft his life story and compartmentalize the Korea stuff. It returns again and again in the text.
Before the war, he had a middle-management position, importing molasses–where he likely where he would have stayed if it hadn’t been for the things he saw and did in Korea. He devoted the subsequent years–which he never expected to have–doing things that felt worthwhile. He had to. He was living not just for himself, but for the guys who didn’t come home. Guys who would never have to worry about high quality problems like getting bored in a corporate job.
He was sent to Korea in the 5th Replacement Draft, in February 1951, and took part in some of the bloodiest fighting in that war. One Marine Corps general who was there put it like this:
“I have long ago given up telling people what I saw them (the Marines) do on so many occasions. Nobody believes me, nor would I believe anyone else telling the same story of other troops.”
–Maj Gen W.S Brown, USMC
Dad received a Silver Star–for leading a bayonet charge on a heavily defended hill and overrunning an enemy command post–and a Purple Heart, after being shot in the arm. The bullet left him with nerve damage in his elbow that feels something like a constant “funny bone.”
This veteran’s day, he and I went to the Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia. Quantico is where he became a Marine, attending the first ever Special Basic School, which had been created after WWII to give officers more thorough training than they’d had in previous wars.
The Korean war exhibit starts with a history video explaining how the war started and why the U.S got involved. The backstory here is given more attention than in the WWII or War on Terror exhibits. Korea is, after all, “the forgotten war.”
Since the focus is on Marine involvement in the conflict, the largest section of the exhibit is dedicated to the Battle of Chosin (also known as “Frozen Chosin.”) There’s a large refrigerated room containing a life-sized recreation of a Marine fighting position on an icy hillside. It’s not as cold as Chosin must have been, but they’ve done their best to take you out of a climate-controlled museum in Virginia. As we walked through the exhibit, dad remembered out loud about living in those hills (he arrived after Chosin, but it was still winter. Still freezing.)
He remembers a guy getting hit in a situation just like the one that’s been depicted in the exhibit with wax figures.
(PHOTOS BY David Douglas Duncan)
It’s an awkward compliment to the realism and accuracy of the museum that it upsets and overwhelms a combat veteran. One exhibit that stopped dad in his tracks was a recreation of a corpsman treating a badly wounded Marine.
He paused to catch his breath, blinked away tears, and said, “That’s a tough one… The guy’s not going to make it.”
Elsewhere, they have a miniature bugle on display. After reading the description of what it is, dad shook his head and laughed. It was one of the bugles the Chinese used to rally their troops for “human wave” attacks. When the Marines could hear bugles on every hill around them, they knew that they were completely surrounded and that the enemy was closing in. It amused him to see that instrument under glass on American soil.
Composing himself after one the tough moments, he said he liked the way they included the tough stuff. “You can’t put the reality of combat in a museum,” he said, “but at least here they show you the ugly side and it’s not all ‘hoo-rah’ recruitment bullshit.”
In our interviews, I asked him what he’d say to any young person thinking of joining the Marines. He quoted a friend of his who’s a retired Marine Corps General: “They can teach you how kill, but no one can teach you how to get over killing.” That said, he also said he would probably still go if given a do-over.
During his yearlong stay in a Navy hospital, having his arm reconstructed, he asked a buddy, who lost a leg and part of one hand, the same question:
“if you could go back, knowing exactly what would happen to you, would you do it again?”
“Yes.” He said
Something else on display in the museum is the deep and sincere bond between individual Marines. Dad wore his Silver Star lapel pin that day, something people in their world notice immediately. The response was intense.
Walking out, a fireplug of a guy, who looks exactly how you expect a Marine to look, grabbed dad’s good hand with all his might, looked him in the eye, said “Semper Fi, Devil Dog,” and kept walking. A visiting Army Special Operations helicopter pilot wordlessly pressed a challenge coin from his unit into dad’s palm.
By the way dad bantered with the two privates guarding the door, you’d think they were old friends of his. “We really mean all that, ‘Semper Fi’ shit,” he tells me.
In the gift shop, he bought a few more Globe & Anchor bumper stickers for his car. Growing up, our car always had one of these stickers on the back windshield. There is a practical reason for this, besides displaying his membership in the world’s largest fraternity: he says the stickers are handy if you get pulled over because half the State Troopers served in the Marines.
I bought him a mug with a quote printed on it from Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Daniel Daly (no relation) who yelled to his Marines before they charged the Germans at the Battle of Belleaeu Wood in WWI:
“Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?”
The next morning, he read the quote aloud, in a grumpy voice, while his tea was steeping.